Tag Archives: michael jordan

My Finals Memory: Michael Jordan’s Team Wins His Third Ring

I think we all knew it was coming. I know no one thought it’d come like that.

Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals was my second live professional basketball game, a ridiculously generous birthday gift from both a family friend and my Phoenix Suns, who were kind enough to make their way to the championship round the same year that my sports fanaticism was ripe for the picking. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I didn’t end up a bandwagon Bulls fan. My first game was also against Michael Jordan and company; Basketball Reference says Jordan scored 40 on that November night, but all I can remember is being so alarmed by the ease with which he did, well, everything, that I lost my handcrafted sign that I’d smuggled into the third-to-last row of seats in America West Arena on my way out after the game. The idea that my poster board and markers could counteract that seemed silly, even at seven.

When every path offers least resistance, your opponents — and their fans — get very few moments of excitement. Clinging to that two point lead with 14 seconds left was one of those precious fleeting instances, in the way that playing with a downed live wire will make you feel alive for half a second. Once again perched in the crow’s nest high above the action, it was impossible not to feel the sparks flying from the generator clad in red and black, adorned with his 23 Theses on the reformation of your heart into a palpitating mess of terror.

I mean, he’d already done it on the previous possession. With 43 seconds left, Michael Jordan grabbed a rebound off of a Kevin Johnson miss; 5 seconds later, he was at the other rim, trimming a four point Phoenix lead in half. When Chicago got the subsequent stop and prepared to inbound for that fateful John Paxson 3, it seemed inevitable that Jordan would do something. And he did — he took the inbound pass, and he dribbled to halfcourt.

Then, he passed. And he faded to above the three point line, not really part of one the most crucial play in my seven-month old passion. Scottie Pippen drove into the lane, dished to Horace Grant, who found Paxson … and Jordan’s contribution was simply the most emphatic celebration.* The greatest player on the planet in my new favorite thing had, with the game on the line, trusted in his teammates to take him to the promised land.

*Check out the almost proto-modern movement of the ball from the Bulls on the play. Today, the player in Grant’s position would be spaced out further along the baseline, or even in the corner, depending on the set and the personnel. But the path of the ball is almost exactly the same: dribble penetration (by a small forward with guard-like quickness and handles, no less) leads to a collapsed defense and a pass to a sort of basketball pivot table. Grant has the opportunity to take a shot if it’s open or swing it to the next open shooter. Truly, all that’s different is the defense’s inability to station a defender in the lane prior to the drive (given current zone defense rules) and Grant’s spacing.

And it worked, twice! Because even after that Paxson three, the game wasn’t over; Phoenix had the ball with 3.9 seconds remaining. Kevin Johnson inbounded the ball to Oliver Miller, who flipped it back to KJ and set a clearly illegal screen on Jordan as he trailed behind Johnson. That left Horace Grant to contain the dynamic point guard, but Grant overcommitted and, for another electric second, it seemed the Suns might force Game 7, which would be at home again, and they’d shown they could take these Bulls to their limit, take the best that Jordan had to offer and …

But Grant recovered. KJ’s shot ended up going backwards; the man in the goggles had swatted that flicker of hope into the offseason. Jordan once again celebrated more jubilantly than anyone; given all the personal turmoil, it seems clear why he was so happy to get that third ring. Yet all I can remember is imagining that he was just that happy that his teammates had won the game.

It was a perfect first love, replete with loss and lessons. The Suns — my team — had lost on the brightest stage, but not to the best player in the world. They lost to the best team in the world. And that made all the difference.

Image by paloetic via Flickr

My Finals Memory: Flu Game Flashbacks

What I remember most is the soothing stench of Ozark lake water, the familiar feel of mildewed shag carpet between the tips of my toes and fingers, and sitting so close to the television that I could easily make out its pixels. Does that make it any less significant?

I was eight and Michael Jordan was sick. My grandfather was rooting for Utah; he loved John Stockton, and as to be contrary I pulled for the Bulls as much as I pushed for the Jazz. And as anyone born between 1988 and 1992 will tell you, the Jordan maelstrom was inescapable. We weren’t born Chicago fans but we might as well have been. There was just no other choice.

Game 5 was never in doubt. That’s not true, of course; the Bulls barely survived to regain control of the series. But my naïveté knew late-game Jordan heroics were inevitable. And that’s actually the only specific game sequence I know I remember. MJ hits the dagger jumper over the top of Stockton, staggers to the bench in Scottie’s arms and my mighty Bulls win.

The Flu Game isn’t my earliest NBA memory or even my fondest. But what it’s not doesn’t matter half as much as what it is – the first time I understood I was watching history. So don’t ask about Pippen’s shooting struggles, Chicago’s fourth quarter comeback or Ostertag’s surprising double-double. I’d be lying if I even tried to answer.

But that smell, that touch, that sight and that feeling I vividly recall. And I remember, too, knowing I’d still remember it all almost twenty summers later.

Patience, Frustration, and the Whole Crazy Thing

Kevin Durant is frustrated.

He’s frustrated with putting in MVP effort and finishing runner-up. He’s undoubtedly frustrated with the absence of Russell Westbrook—although there is nothing anyone can do about bringing him back. He even seems frustrated with his own public perception, evidenced by Nike’s “KD is Not Nice” campaign conflicting with the long-held public view of an ideal humble superstar.

Through Durant’s six years in the league, we have seen him rise through the NBA. In year one, he was Rookie of the Year. In year two, he continued to grow his game and his confidence. In years three through five, he evolved into an All-Star and lead the league in scoring. This season, despite putting up a 50-40-90, he still finished second to LeBron James in the MVP voting.

In each year his Thunder reached the playoffs, they have won an additional playoff round, and each team to whom they’ve lost has gone on to be the eventual NBA champion—until this season. The Thunder were dismissed in the Conference Semifinals after Westbrook’s injury left them shorthanded. Thus, Durant had to settle for an honorable mention yet again.

It may seem odd for a 24-year old player in his sixth year to feel so frustrated with such a long career ahead of him, but he has had everything come to him so quickly—except for the ultimate goal of a championship. Having to hear about those close to him accomplishing this feat while he is left longing has to be difficult. You can almost see it on his face that basketball doesn’t seem as much fun as it used to for him. But this type of adversity is a required trial of all great players.

As it turns out, becoming an NBA champion is really, really difficult. Basketball abilities and accolades have likely always come easy and often for Durant, but that’s not enough to get your team over a championship hump. It’s not easy, nor should it be, and that’s why takes many great players several years to reach that peak. He should ask LeBron, his summer workout partner, about the patience required to get there.

By now, we know the LeBron James story, but there is a lot Durant could take away from James’s journey. Granted, LeBron came into the league with more hype, but each player was also well-liked and even hit similar career milestones like Rookie of the Year and earning their first All-Star berths in the third years. Furthermore, LeBron was well-liked publicly—much like Durant has been up to this point. But as James would later learn, much of that hinged on expectation on him being able to deliver a championship on a timetable the fans saw fit. He lost in the Finals to the Spurs in ’07, but he was excused by the world at large. After all, it was his first time in the Finals, and he didn’t have enough help. Then, we saw the MVPs add pressure on LeBron to deliver, the mentally-checking-out against the Celtics series in ’10, and then the loss to the Mavs in ’11. Finally, in ’12 he was able to say he was a champion and did so on his own time.

LeBron didn’t win his first championship in the same year of his career Michael Jordan and neither did Jordan win his first in the same year Magic Johnson won his first. No, the story Kevin Durant is writing is his own, and unfortunately much of what it takes to win a championship is out of his control.

Yes, there are more things required than Durant’s elite skillset or physical tools to win a championship at this level. I hate to say it, but you need luck, especially in the form of health. Losing Westbrook killed the Thunder in the playoffs. Without him, the Grizzlies were able to send multiple defenders at Durant to shut him down. He no longer had a teammate to keep the defense honest or who was more than ready to shoulder some of the offensive load. For once, Durant’s elite mid-range game and athleticism were not enough to overcome the defensive scheming of the Grizzlies, and I’m sure that was as surprising to us as it was to him.

For the first time, Durant was learning what it was like to have to do it all on your own and not have your God-given ability alone be enough. To a player that’s always had his skills be the only requirement for success this isn’t easy to deal with. LeBron learned that he couldn’t do it alone, just like Jordan couldn’t do it without Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, and Magic would have struggled to do it without the Kareems or Michael Coopers. The good news for Durant? He doesn’t have to wait for his team to find that help. He knows he will have Westbrook back next year to try again.

Durant is young, talented, and successful. Like anyone in any other profession under similar circumstances who feels like they are at the brink of achieving something great, it’s hard to wait for that to happen, and that’s where frustration can set in. For Durant, he’s dreamed about winning MVPs and championships, but has only had to settle for stories from his Team USA teammates. But he’ll get there. He may not have gotten there this year, but when he does it will be in a way all his own, on a timeline all his own, and accomplished unlike anyone else before him. The fact that Durant hasn’t been able to bring these purported dreams to fruition may be frustrating, but his patience will be rewarded eventually.

The Best Laid Plans

Not even the most well thought-out, meticulously detailed design is immune to the extraordinary inconvenience that is reality. Rarely, if ever, does a plan work out exactly the way it was organized. However, just because a plan doesn’t develop to the letter doesn’t mean it was a failure. The end result may be exactly what we envisioned; better, even.

LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet. That is not a starting point for a debate; it is a statement of fact. James treated us to a historic season, one filled with multiple broken team and personal records, plenty of highlights, and more than a handful of moments of pure disbelief. Any statistic one could possibly pick from this season, from his PER of 31 to his ridiculously efficient 27 points per game with a 64% true shooting percentage is astounding. His fourth MVP was a foregone conclusion mid-season. None of this is surprising. LeBron winning multiple MVPs was all part of the plan, his and ours, ever since he entered the league ten years ago. How he got to this moment, however, was not.

Originally–and foolishly–the plan was for LeBron James to not only be the best player in the world, but also the next Michael Jordan. He wore number 23 in reverence, or perhaps imitation, of His Airness. Every milestone James surpassed was put in direct comparison with that of Jordan’s lofty career; so too was his every failure. When LeBron won his first MVP during the 2008-09—his fifth season—the comparison/back-handed compliment of Jordan winning it in his fourth season nearly wrote itself.

The “LeBron as Jordan 2.0” blueprint first showed miscalculations when LeBron left Cleveland for Miami, apparently a heinous crime, and one that Jordan, both we and he said, would have never committed. The plan was for LeBron to win multiple MVPs and multiple NBA championships in one city, just as Jordan had done. But he’d deviated from this (our) plan, and the PR nightmare that ensued tainted James in the eyes of many. Yet the plan LeBron deviated from was our implied one, that of him being the next Jordan in addition to being the best player, rather than the stated one, which had no MJ caveat.

To become the best and realize his potential, LeBron had to leave Cleveland. He may have elevated the play of every one around him, but none of those players could elevate his play. Further, he needed to not be the ball-dominant force that, while spectacular, was also predictable, and not waste his ethereal talents and unsurpassed vision on the likes of Boobie Gibson. LeBron needed to be surrounded by greater talent if he in turn was to become greater.  It also helped that Spoelstra, amidst a season-plus of turmoil, was allowed to keep his job and mold James into something that would maximize his talents and those of the players surrounding him. Now, James is back in the good graces of the public following a run that saw him win his first title and ascend to hyper-efficient, positionless greatness.

Deviating from the original plan was LeBron’s choice. But what happens when the option to follow or stray from a plan is taken out of ones hands?

Golden State traded for Andrew Bogut in hopes that his unique blend of defensive dominance and offensive creativity in the post would be the perfect complements to Curry and company.  A terrific plan, no doubt, but not one without its flaws. First and foremost among those flaws: Bogut’s injury history.  While his horrific elbow injury is the most memorable, Bogut had several other nagging and recurring health issues that prevented him from playing a full 82 games since his rookie year in 2005. The Warriors of course knew of these injuries, yet nevertheless chose to roll the dice, and at first, it seemed as if they rolled snake eyes.

Bogut didn’t play at all after the trade deadline in 2012, and only played in 32 games this season. Yet even that number is misleading, as Bogut didn’t play in more than six games in any one month until April. The Bogut that did appear in those games was often a step too slow, and looked far away from being even remotely healthy, averaging only 6 points and eight rebounds a game in 28 minutes per game. That he was playing was a positive sign, yet not positive enough to where it was conceivable that Bogut would make a significant impact in the playoffs.

Then the playoffs started, and the plan that appeared doomed not a few months ago now looked to be back on track. Bogut wasn’t quite back to his old self, but certainly approached that level. It was a Bogut that we hadn’t seen in some time, and clearly, nor had Denver. Bogut’s surgery early in the season turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Denver wasn’t able to properly scout and prepare for Bogut since the sample size was so small and, in a way, tainted. His numbers in the series against the Nuggets may not be astounding (8.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.3 blocks in 27.7 minutes per game), but his impact in that series is undeniable, exemplified by his terrific 14-point, 21-rebound, 4-block performance in the deciding game six.

Plans, even the best of them, will often fall victim to the many trappings of life. Sometimes, that means a slight delay, while other times the plan falls apart altogether. Regardless of what happens to the plan, it’s always important to remember the objective for which you were planning. Tonight, LeBron James and Andrew Bogut take the court, aiding their teams in pursuit of the NBA championship. One got to this stage by deviating from the plan, the other, by waiting it out while injuries momentarily derailed it. Neither, however, ever lost sight of the original goal.

Bigger Than Life

Photo by clappstar on Flickr

Photo by clappstar on Flickr

Right now, there’s an endlessly repeating GIF of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist detonating a small thermonuclear device over the peaceful town of Greg Monroe in one of my browser tabs. I recommend you go watch it run through a couple times. I’ll wait.

Done? Good. Here’s the beauty of a GIF: you can save it, open it up in Photoshop, and then look at each individual frame. After careful study, I’ve determined that the entire key to this dunk is contained in two frames.

MKG_dunk_prevframe

In this frame, Kidd-Gilchrist is caught in a swirl of motion blur that blends him into the background: the ball is a hazy orange dot; the “CATS” logo on his chest is just a random collection of vertical lines; his front foot is still close enough to the ground that he might be shooting a hook shot. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Then there’s the very next frame.

MKG_dunk

The dunk has crystallized. Even though he is in full flight at this moment, you can see the lines on the basketball. The aforementioned logo has come into focus. Kidd-Gilchrist stands out from the background, frozen in that instant with his arm still slightly cocked, thrumming with murderous intent. His jersey looks extra white.

I’m pointing to this as a way to say that great dunks are not strictly physical acts carried out in three-dimensional space before disappearing into an unrediscoverable past. They are not simply performed, but witnessed, recorded, replayed, ingrained in our memories. They are spontaneously generated, but not out of the void, not from nothingness. They instead occur where the ley lines of practice, talent, chance, the known and the unknown converge to create something larger than life.

In this way, they are less part of a game and more akin to musical improvisation.

The big lie about the great improvisers is that they are music’s intrepid explorers, blazing trails into the tonal wilds. In reality, they’re more like the Night’s Watch, standing guard at edges of the known world. The overwhelming mass of improvisations from blues to jazz to rock to freestyle rap are composed of repurposed and rebuilt fragments. Rarely is someone out there on stage doing something they’ve genuinely never done before for the simple reason that it’s hard to tell what’s going to work before you’ve tried it.

This is not a knock on improvisors: music, like any language, is not not only about expression but about reception. Every speaker needs a listener, every player needs an audience. Understanding can only grow from common ground, from a shared vocabulary. Let’s put it this way: the riffs, the licks, the whole tone diminished scale, the understanding of chords voiced in fourths—they’re not the end products of creativity but instead the tools that take you nine-tenths of the way there.

So the improviser begins with a set of tools that together form an approach. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, for example, builds his solos almost entirely from the melody of the piece he’s improvising on. He alludes to it, darts around it—cracks jokes, even—as he teases out the line and finds new ways through it. Coltrane, by way of contrast, was more concerned with the possibilities locked within the chords of a song, frequently abandoning attachment to the initial melody quickly in favor of scaling the extensions and implied modes of the progression.

In either case, they’re building a scaffolding out of what they have at hand towards something beyond their reach. Many nights, they don’t make it. Most of them, even. On a few, they do. But on a lot of them, even if they’re still comfortably within the boundaries of their known world, they manage to push the audience to someplace new, to some new height or understanding.

But here’s the twist: it actually matter little in terms of the end product whether they’re genuinely innovating or simply ably generating the excitement that goes along with the thrill of the new. At the apex of an improvisation, when the gravity of the thing takes on a life of its own and everything around you, the listener, starts sparking and spitting, what you’re witnessing is sleight of hand. It’s not absolute creativity, but rather the collision of talent, practice, chance, the known and the unknown.

When it bears up under repeated listening, when it keeps revealing itself in new ways, a truly great improvised solo becomes a kind of vivisection, a study in how the human mind adapts, reacts and explores using the tools it has at hand.

In this way, it’s not so different from a great slam dunk.

How much of Michael Jordan’s free throw line dunk is contained in his extended tongue? How much in the way he draws the ball back for an instant before extending for the slam? How much of Vince Carter’s reverse 360 windmill is in the long, loping strides he takes to the basket, in the way he bounces when he lands, spinning a half-circle in the opposite direction as if the dunk had overwound him? How much in the yell he gives? When he caught Tracy McGrady’s bounced pass and put it between his legs, he landed and pointed skywards like he was drawing a bow before walking away, scissoring his hands in front of him and mouthing to the camera that it was over. It absolutely was.

People bemoan the missed attempts at the dunk contest, but the majesty of Carter’s between-the-legs alley-oop started to build with his first false start. Sure, if it had taken him five tries, it would have sucked the air out of the room, but once it became apparent that something awesome was about to happen, the anticipation was palpable. Look at Jason Kidd’s face as he awaits it:

Kidd

Look at Steve Francis, who was a competitor in the dunk contest that year:

Francis

That’s the look of an already-defeated man.

These tiny things, these little, texture-giving things are not just for dunk contest dunks. How much of Shawn Kemp’s dunk on Alton Lister is in the finger guns? How much of Blake Griffin’s comprehensive remodeling of Kendrick Perkins is in the way Griffin hits Perkins then keeps going up and up until he somehow turns at the apex and delivers?

In-game dunks and dunk contest dunks are two different kinds of animals. The former erupts from the framework of the game, distorting everything around it while still only showing up as two points in the box score. The latter occur within a space custom-made for them, which is part of the problem, but I’m here to say that the problem doesn’t lay with: a failure of imagination; a lack of preparation; too many props; not enough props; the limits of physics; the format; the fact that stars are loathe to compete these days; the insistence on pushing marketing opportunities such as All-Star Weekend branded balls that have a different feel than the regulation NBA balls—a move which may have doomed James White this year.

No. The main failure of dunk contests rests with our own inability to accept the sleight of hand, to understand that great dunks don’t transcend the limits of physics but toy with them in a way that make us believe. We place value on the novel, on the never-seen-before, and it sends dunkers down paths that lead to failed dunks and gimmickry, rather than focusing on the performance itself.

For my money, the very first dunk of this year’s slam dunk contest was the best one, an alley-oop off the side of the backboard to Gerald Green:

He nailed it on the first try, almost nonchalantly, yet it contained that explosion of force that separates the genuinely nasty dunks from the merely competent. In real time, you can tell there’s something more than meets the eye, but it’s only when you see it through the lens of the NBA’s Phantom Camera that it truly blooms:

Green brings the ball down ridiculously far, plus holds it there for longer than seems possible as he reaches the peak of his jump but keeps traveling laterally through the air. Just as he starts to descend, he snaps the ball back up, which further extends our perception of his vertical. And the ball spins slowly backward after grazing the bottom of the backboard as the net flips.

Yes, the Phantom Camera exaggerates everything about this dunk. But when you speed it back up, it’s all still in there, uncoiling with blinding speed. And that’s what’s so particularly thrilling about this dunk. Not that we’d never seen it before or that it had a great prop or that it had no prop.

Like a great improvisation, it was something created in a flash out of the performer’s toolbox, but hardly unplanned. When you slow it way down, you can see the craft, and marvel at how quickly and assuredly it all came together. When you speed it back up, it regains its force and power. I’d take a dunk contest composed completely of dunks like this over one replete with multiple failed attempts and a garage full of stuff to jump over.

Dunks live and die in a moment, but the best ones are born out of a confluence of circumstance and design that transcends our idea of physical limitations. Dunks don’t care if they beat the buzzer (they rarely do); they don’t care if it’s the first quarter or the fourth quarter, if it’s preseason or the playoffs or the dunk contest. Dunks need to be understood on their own terms and when they are, that’s when they become bigger than life.

#NBArank and Michael Jordan’s Wizards Comeback

Photo by mikecogh on Flickr.

I was one of the voters for ESPN’s just-wrapped #NBArank project, but I had almost no emotional investment in the results as they played out. My formative years as a music writer made me wary of getting too attached to the outcome of any list, even one I helped create. The discussion the project spawned, mainly on Twitter, could be broken up into two types: analysis of the process and reaction to the results. The former is infinitely interesting and worthwhile, and has the ability to expose telling differences in how people evaluate players. The latter is no different than caring about the Grammys.

Still, though, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the reaction from both sides when Kobe Bryant landed sixth on the list. While it’s hardly groundbreaking to point out that Kobe is the most polarizing player in modern NBA history, occasions like #NBArank only make exceptionally clear the divide between his detractors and defenders. Of the 500 players on this list, none have accomplished as much as he has over the course of his career (only the 27th-ranked Tim Duncan comes close). However, just as uncontroversial is the fact that he is not the caliber of player he was in 2006. There are strong cases to be made that, at the very least, the three players ranked directly behind Bryant (Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook) are more valuable in 2012.

I rated Kobe an 8 out of 10 on my ballot. The only players I gave 10s were LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, with the Love/Westbrook tier getting 9s. Honestly, I probably should have rated Kobe a 7, as a 34-year-old coming off a season in which his efficiency decreased in nearly every shooting category even as he posted the second-highest usage rate of his career. The bump up to 8 was probably some subconscious, highly regrettable #CountThaRingzzz-ing on my part. I can’t have been the only voter who did this. Kobe was ranked higher than he probably should have been because of his importance, influence, and career accomplishments. Which led me to wonder this:

Had #NBArank been conducted in 2002, following the first season of Michael Jordan’s ill-advised comeback as a Washington Wizard, where would he have placed?

Jordan played only 60 games that season, missing time due to various injuries. He didn’t play in enough games to qualify for most statistical leaderboards, but his 22.9 points per game would have ranked ninth, behind Dirk Nowitzki and ahead of Karl Malone. He shot an underwhelming 41.6 percent from the field, by some distance the worst shooting performance of his career. On a terrible Wizards team, he posted a usage rate of 36 while ranking 17th in the league in PER. By almost any metric, it was the worst season he had ever had. Yet I can’t help but speculate that, had a project like #NBArank existed at the time, a lot of voters would have seen the name “Jordan, Michael” on the form and been unable to justify giving the greatest player of all time anything below a 10, even at that far-from-memorable phase in his career. I would probably have been among them, even though I should know better.

Michael Leahy summed up the perception of Jordan following that offseason perfectly in his terrific 2004 book When Nothing Else Matters, which chronicled MJ’s two seasons with the Wizards:

Like an aging Hollywood leading man who acknowledges the inevitable and segues from being an action hero to a venerable character actor, Jordan had already become a niche player—cast in that least flamboyant of basketball roles, the jump shooter. There was no markedly diminished stature in this: He would forever have top billing on a marquee. Only there would be no opportunities left to be swashbuckling and dunk down the throats of seven-footers. There would be far fewer chances to be heroic, for being a jump shooter is a finicky thing. Once in a while his touch would be very good, even great. But on most nights, it would be just so-so, and on a few nights very bad—which mirrored a mortal’s life and is the way it goes for even highly skilled jump shooters. There would be the pedestrian cant to describe it—good numbers, solid output, valued performance and pride, to go along with a certain All-Star selection for a cherished legend. Certainly, he would not embarrass himself if he came back [for a second season]. Even working under his new limitations, he would remain one of the best 20 to 25 players in the league, someone capable of abusing a highly touted youngster once in a while and holding his own against all but the game’s greatest. He just would be nothing close to the player remembered.

Kobe Bryant is a considerably better player today than Jordan was during his Washington stint, but the latter part of his career is seeing him make many of the same adjustments. He’s shooting more jumpers now, attacking the rim with less frequency than he did a few years ago. His defense, once excellent, has declined noticeably in recent years. But he still has those games, like his stretch of four consecutive 40-point performances this January, in which it’s impossible not to think of the Kobe of 2006. It’s those moments which justify his spot on #NBArank, and it’s not hard to imagine the flashes of the old greatness doing the same for Jordan. The top of a 2001-02 #NBArank list would rightfully be occupied by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, and of those, only Shaq would have likely had the star power at the time to edge out an aging MJ who was still the biggest name in the league.

All of this is assuming that conducting the survey in 2002 would have meant no Twitter or blogs to power the reaction, and statistical analysis that wasn’t nearly as evolved or prevalent as it is today. What would be even more fascinating would be an alternate universe in which a 10-years-younger Jordan had the exact same career with the Bulls as he did, winning the same number of championships with Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, setting the same records, winning the same MVP awards, achieving the same stature as the consensus greatest player ever to play the game. In this scenario, his dominance began in the mid-1990s, ended around 2008, and the first season of his comeback with the Wizards would have just ended. With today’s methods of statistical analysis showing more plainly than ever that Jordan wasn’t close to the best player in the league, would a top-five finish in #NBArank have garnered a similar reaction to last week’s Kobe fallout?

Yes and no. I wrote several months ago that a large part of the reason why Kobe is both so ardently defended and scrutinized is his status as an icon with the most loathed but successful franchise in basketball, the de facto New York Yankees of the NBA. A lot of that seems to be in play with the reaction to Kobe’s rank. Every time an article is published breaking down his less-than-stellar crunch-time numbers, his fans come out in full force with accusations of anti-Laker bias in the media. We saw a lot of that on Wednesday, with tweet after tweet on the #NBArank hashtag accusing ESPN of purposely keeping him out of the top five because of some greater agenda, which is pretty absurd. On the other side, Kobe’s placement above players like Love and Westbrook prompted more outrage in the blogging community than anything else on the list.

Even though part of why the reaction to Kobe’s placement was so strong was because of the sheer amount of social-media platforms that exist for his fans to make their voices heard, I don’t think the backlash to #NBArank overrating the Wizards-era Jordan would be at this level. Part of this is because Jordan’s image was amazingly well-managed and he was always more beloved even than Kobe. But Jordan’s name was also synonymous with greatness on the basketball court in a way that no other player’s was before or likely will ever be. Which would make it harder for the same bloggers who disagreed with Kobe’s rating to vote MJ down in the first place.

Dream A Little Dream

Photo by MorBCN on Flickr

The airing of NBA TV’s Dream Team documentary brought on about the expected amount of bullshit and vapors when it came to what a modern day Dream Team might look like and what their chances would be against the historic Dream Team from 1992. It’s understandable, seeing as how the Dream Team really did seem like a real life Justice League, a gathering of superheros pooling their powers. What if they did it again, but with Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade and anyone else you’d want to include who’s playing right now? And you can look at their individual play styles or the way they fit on their current team or even the way they played for the United States in the last Olympics and make some conjectures about speed or defense. You can make some assertions about who could beat whom. But you’d be completely full of it and for a very different reason than when comic book fans geek out about who would win between the Avengers and the Justice League. See, those superheros don’t exist, so it’s pure conjecture, whereas the 1992 Dream Team was a thing that happened. And what the film does a great job of hammering home is that their successes were not simply based on the math of adding up their talents. They owe that success at least as much to the team they became as they do to who they were when they were recruited for the team.

It can be easy in talking about the Dream Team to lose sight of the fact that these were actual, fallible human beings moving through space and time, although if you need a harsh reminder, some of the fashion choices on display in the documentary will do the trick. But early on, we learn the reasons why Isiah Thomas was left off the team headed to Barcelona, and it wasn’t because anyone thought he wasn’t good enough. It was his contentious relationship with Jordan and Pippen, with Pippen even go so far as to say, “I despised the way he played the game.” When people play this game of coming up with dream lineups, they don’t have to consider things like rivalries or interpersonal dynamics—all their choices are predicated on skills or stats. But very early on, the ‘92 Dream Team started to become the team they were because of who was not on the team.

Or consider the intense and multi-layered dynamic between Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, a topic the documentary explores beautifully. Three years his senior but with five more years in the league, Johnson was set on showing Jordan that this was still his league. That intra-team struggle was part of what made them a team, even if it didn’t come to light at the time. These players weren’t just stat sheets or rings or highlight reels; they were people with pride and jealousy and anger. And each of them was a different place in his career: Johnson had just been forced to retire from the game due to testing HIV positive; Bird was on the decline with back trouble; Jordan was ascendant, having just come off the second of his first three consecutive championships. As they went toe to toe in practice, it became clear to Johnson (and Larry Bird) that the torch was being passed. Does that same kind of dynamic exist in the same way today? Bryant has been quoted as saying he’s never had a rival in the manner of Magic and Bird. James left his hometown team to join forces with two other stars. (By the way, I found it interesting that in talking about why he decided to play in the Olympics, Jordan said, “Representing my country was a big thing, but I think the biggest motivation for me was: now I get to spend time with some of the guys I compete against all the time.” Actually coming together with other stars in the manner of the Heat was perhaps unthinkable for Jordan, but it seems that perhaps the impulse towards similar camaraderie wasn’t completely foreign to him.) James’ supposed lack of killer instinct is popular news fodder; what makes us think the personal dynamics of a team of superstars today could work as well as those of the Dream Team?

But again, I’m not here to prove a point about a made-up team of superstars. We tend to overlook the fact that a team should be more than the sum of its parts as we scrabble to assemble dream squads. Chuck Daly threw the Dream Team out against a team of the best college players and then refused to do very much to win the game in order to give the stars a cold shower about playing together. Interestingly, the documentary makes the point that the problem in the game wasn’t that players were being ballhogs, but rather that they were giving it up too much. The great achievement of the Dream Team wasn’t in getting eleven Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner!) to be on a team together; it was getting them to be a team together.

Speculation is fun. It has its place. I mean, without speculation, sports would just be grown men playing games, right? But the Dream Team documentary should serve as a reminder that the players out there are more than chips, more than action figures, more than icons. They’re people who can do something more extraordinary than any superhero in our heads: they can harness their egos, their pride, their competitiveness and their talent to become more than a fantasy. They can become a team.

History Tells Us, There Are No Guarantees In Lockout Seasons

 

Via Flickr - Irargerich

It was a truncated lockout season in the NBA. A lockout season where an upstart was trying to knock off a favorite.  A favorite with a platoon of prominent players that had not yet graced digits with that most coveted of rewards, a championship ring. I speak of course of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. Or do I?

There are parallels to be drawn. The 1999 lockout season featured a pair of teams crossing the compressed finish line tied for the best record in the NBA, and as we speak the Heat and Thunder each stand atop their respective conferences, tied for tops in the league at 25-7. But the favorites I refer to are the ’99 Utah Jazz and upstart-at-the-time San Antonio Spurs who had recently lucked out against all odds and landed a future all-timer in Tim Duncan whom they could throw at current best-power-forward-of-all-time Karl Malone.

At that time the Spurs and Jazz were unfortunately not only in the same conference, but also in the now defunct-due-to-realignment Midwest Division. Utah had run headlong into his magnificent Airness, Michael Jordan, the pair of previous Finals, but MJ had now retired (again), leaving an open lane for the John Stockton and Karl Malone-led Jazz to roll right to the Larry O’Brien hoop trophy unabated.

Despite attempting to replicate the recipe of the last NBA champs not named the Chicago Bulls to a degree, the Houston Rockets, the Spurs’ “power centers” Tim Duncan and 1994-95 MVP David Robinson had been unable to supplant the Jazz’s mighty trio of Malone, Stockton, and Jeff Hornacek, getting blasted out of the West playoffs the year before 4-1 by Utah. The Jazz were heavily favored to go all the way this time after reaching the conference finals five of the last seven years and the Finals for two straight, losing one of the late-spring series to MJ and Co. by a total point differential of only four points.

But it was not to be.

As it happens, these two powerhouses wouldn’t even get the chance to clash on the court in the accelerated ’99 playoffs as the Jazz would plow through most of the regular season only to run out of gas near end.

The Jazz finished a [tied-for] league-best 37-13 in 1999 but limped to a 5-5 finish over the last 10 games before struggling, by their mighty standards, in the playoffs. A middling Sacramento team took Utah the distance in the first round, and the Blazers eliminated the Jazz in six games in the second round.

 -Zach Lowe, The Point Forward

I remember that Portland series vividly, even though it happened more than a decade ago. The Jazz won game 1 at home by 10. But then lost game 2, by 3 points. Arvydas Sabonis was a huge man who devoured the paint. Isaiah Rider scored 27 points in that game, and Rasheed Wallace had three blocks and three steals. Worst of all Brian Grant went to the line more than Karl Malone did – and even finished the game with the same number of points…the Blazers broke the Jazz’ serve, and then were beat in Game 3 by 10 points. The Blazers went to the line endlessly in that game – 50 times. Utah also turned the ball over 16 times, and shot (as a team) only 38.9 fg%.

-AllThatJazzBasketball, SLCDunk

The Jazz weren’t just aging; they were ancient, and considering what happened to them after 1999 (and what happened to the Kings, too), perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised they struggled against Sacramento and Portland — a team went 35-15, by the way. Utah’s three best players (Karl Malone, Jeff Horancek and John Stockton) were 36, 36 and 37, respectively, by the end of July 1999, and the roster did not feature a single young player worthy of starting in the NBA.

-Zach Lowe, The Point Forward

Just how “ancient” were those Jazz that were so burnt out and beat down by the time they reached the postseason that they made abundant uncharacteristic mistakes and missed shots? Through the 1999 NBA season, the Big 3 of Malone, Stockton, and Hornacek had played a combined 108,786 NBA minutes (minutes being a more accurate measure of wear and tear than actual age). And the former were legendarily durable and conditioned in a mythical way only less than a handful of players in the league’s annals can lay claim to even approaching.

These present Spurs can boast no such thing, and taking into account a kind estimate of Manu Ginobili’s seven years of professional service prior the Spurs at 1,500 minutes per-season, San Antonio’s Big 3 will have played something very near to 95,497 minutes by season’s end.

In other words, they’re ripe for the picking and supplanting by, oh, I don’t know, the OKC Thunder.

Who may just turn around and run into this era’s version of the ’90s Bulls, the Miami Heat.

Potentially over and over again.

___

A couple of fun nuggets uncovered in the course of researching this piece:

• The current Spurs are through 32 games and on an eleven-game win streak. Beginning at game 30 of the 1999 lockout-shortened season the Utah Jazz ripped off a win streak too — of eleven games

• Through 32 games of the ’99 season the Jazz were 26-6. Through 32 games of the current season the best record is held by the Miami Heat and OKC Thunder at 25-7

• In ’99, a younger Spurs started the season somewhat slower through 32 games, but still a very warm 22-10. However, they would finish the regular season 13-1 beating the now-stumbling Jazz twice, holding them to a mere 78 and 69 points, and demolish everything they ran into in the playoffs sweeping both the Los Angeles Lakers and aforementioned Portland Trail Blazers en route to a 15-2 postseason record for a combined 28-3 finish to their initial title run that culminated in a steamrolling of the unlikely upstart New York Knicks

Jeremy Lin anyone?

Funny how history can be so cyclical.

___

“Failure can prepare you for success.”

-Avery Johnson

If you’ve noticed any other parallels let me know, I’d love to hear about ‘em.

Stinkface Chronicles: Griffin and the Greats

"Where'd you learn to dunk? Finishing school?" via imaginaryyear.com

With the exception of Kobe Bryant’s three-game 40-point run — his middle finger to Father Time — Ricky Rubio going all “Pistolero” on the NBA and The Jeremy Lin Experience (Have you ever really been experienced?), this truncated NBA season hasn’t provided a the range of exquisite flavors an 82-game season does.

As opposed to the grind of a full season (which I don’t mind because it allows players, teams and story lines to develop), this lockout-truncated season has been more meat grinder. It has been more about what’s missing. First, it was the league itself. Now, it’s the players’ health. By the end, it may be their sanity because squeezing 66 games into just under 130 days is plain crazy.

That’s not to say there haven’t been sublime NBA moments this season. Considering these are The Stinkface Chronicles, you’ll note that I take note of those that have been above the rim. Here are the five I’ve enjoyed most so far.

DeAndre Jordan on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, Dec. 19, 2011

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gDMERiw9Vs

This one happened during the preseason in December, which just goes to show you how weird this season has been. But this flush on the Lakers’ formidable frontline not only provided a glimpse into the denizens of Lob City (ironic, though it was a bounce pass off a pick-and-roll) but also harkened back to another preseason perpetration of Staples-on-Staples crime and the first entry in The Stinkface Chronicles. The Clippers’ bench — and Lakers haters — took great glee in this one, though Lakers’ fans could counter that the Clips should have been whistled for a technical foul for having 12 men on the court after Jordan’s flush.

4. Vince Carter on Emeka Okafor, Jan. 7, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efxVcT7GpDk

It’s vintage Vince, the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history and it’s beautiful. Also, that’s the fastest Brendan Haywood has moved in quite some time, even with Delonte West riding shotgun.

3. Dwyane Wade on Landry Fields, Jan. 27, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEsQm3cxw2A

Wade shows Fields the ball, loops it around Fields’ noggin and then slams said ball on said noggin’. Euro-steppin’.

2. LeBron James on/over John Lucas III, Jan. 29, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvjjEtjwKHE

Here’s a little bit of trivia for you: who was the announcer when Vince Carter unleashed “Le Dunk du Morte“? On the US broadcast, it was Mike Breen, who had a similar reaction to Bron’s dunk as Doug Collins’ did to Vince’s. Breen chuckles a little like Santa Claus — “Hohohoho” — as he should because these two dunks were the best gifts any dunk connoisseur could receive. (An aside, when I saw LeBron’s slam, all I could think of was Collins’ “he jumped over his heeeeaaad” commentary.)

1. Blake Griffin on Kendrick Perkins, Jan. 30, 2012

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w_Vy0lDk_A

I rate this slightly ahead of LeBron’s dunk because Lucas didn’t see it coming while Perkins knew full well what he was getting into. Perkins’ act of engagement (and aiding his rise by graciously providing his chest as a step stool) helped make this the dunk* of the season … thus far. So, we thank you, Kendrick.

As for Griffin’s full-fledged assault on Perkins’ puss, we can’t call it the greatest dunk of all-time. That belongs to Vince in 2000. I’ll also argue it doesn’t belong in the Top 10* on two points: One, it had a precedent, specifically Griffin’s throwdown on Timofey Mozgov in the 2010-11 season; and, two: neither were technically dunks as Griffin threw both into the rim instead of grabbing the rim. While I won’t be too much of a Grinch to give the plays their due, I can’t put either into the greatest of all time because of it. What follows is a list of my favorite all-time dunks in an NBA game. Make it yours, because, really, you can’t go wrong when you reference them.

FAVORITE IN-GAME DUNKS OF ALL-TIME (PRE-2011-12 EDITION)

Amar’e Stoudemire on Michael Olowokandi

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mbLdZlQC1U&feature=fvst

This dunk is the genesis of The Stinkface Chronicles. We thank thee, Amar’e and you as well, Starbury. Your expression speaks volumes. (For more Amar’e, check out a similar destruction of Anthony Tolliver.)

Dwyane Wade on Kendrick Perkins

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cYau7gba5Y

Now, this is a dunk on Kendrick Perkins.

John Starks on Michael Jordan*

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCTfxOrX4k8

OK, it technically wasn’t on Jordan, but he was in the picture and I just wanted to remind everyone about that.

Dominique Wilkins on Larry Bird

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ngtWdgOz0o

Bird looks like he was shot out of the sky.

Baron Davis on Andrei Kirilenko

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYpwjB0IzoU

Isn’t it amazing what Baron Davis can do when he’s in shape and interested?

Tom Chambers on Mark Jackson

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7T_Wg5ilo8

This dunk has the Chris Webber seal of approval.

Shawn Kemp on the Knicks

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVm6USjXAzk

While most people will give Kemp props for his destruction of Alton Lister, I prefer this one because of the degree of difficulty. A double-pump reverse on two defenders? Get the hell outta here /NewYorkvoice. (It’s No. 3 in this compilation which includes classics such as Chris Gatling giving the Reignman his props and Kemp putting a knee into Bill Laimbeer’s onions.)

Julius Erving on Michael Cooper

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCT9QyqhkBU

From the cradle to the crowd rising, like the crest of a wave, as Dr. J skims across the Spectrum floor to Chick Hearn’s call of the cradle (“Way … he rocks the baby to sleep…”) to Michael Cooper going into the fetal position to Beard Dude, everything about this is cool.

Vince Carter on Alonzo Mourning

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcU66xdeGck

Carter, the greatest in-game dunker in NBA history, (I need to trademark that), has more than his share of show-stoppers, but Carter goes chest-to-chest with Zo, one of the more feared shotblockers in NBA history, and destroys him. I had this saved on my DVR for more than two years. I wish I still had it.

Michael Jordan on Patrick Ewing

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R015PScpTM

Oh, no, Jordan’s trapped in the corner by two Knicks. Wait, no he isn’t. But, oh no, there’s no way he’s going to the make it to the hoop. Ewing is there to block it … Never mind. A seven-foot obstacle is no impediment. After Jordan stares down Ewing, you can hear Cliff Livingston go, “Wooohoohoo!” as he mock sprints from the scene of the crime. Or, later in the highlight, Walt “Clyde” Frazier noted that Jordan was gyratin’ and vibratin’ and manages to get a Diet Pepsi commercial all in one comment.

This one play may encapsulate Michael Jordan’s gifts better than any play in his career: the improvisation, the athleticism, the competitiveness. Of all the great dunks in Jordan’s career, this one rises above the rest.

It’s A Numbers Thing

Photo courtesy of therapup.net

Artest told Yahoo! Sports he plans to wear No. 70 next season, but the NBA has rules that prevent players from switching their uniform number from year to year. The deadline for a player to change his number is in early March to have it go into effect for the next season and once a number is changed, it has to be worn for five seasons with that team before a player is allowed to change it (unless he is traded to a new team or leaves as a free agent).

Artest wore No. 37 after signing on as a free agent with the Lakers in 2009-10 and did switch to No. 15 last season. It’s not clear what he had to do to accomplish that.

The uniform rule does not come with any stipulations for a name change, however.

If there is a request or circumstance that calls for a number change within the five-year period is approved, it may come with a cost of some kind, according to a league source.

via Los Angeles Lakers’ Ron Artest’s name now officially Metta World Peace – ESPN Los Angeles.

Look, I can’t say I care too much that Ron Artest is changing his name to Metta World Peace. As amusing as it’ll be to see “World Peace” on the back of a dude’s jersey during actual NBA games, I probably won’t start calling him that. Unlike Chad Johnson, who introduced the “Ocho Cinco” nickname informally a couple of years before making it official, Artest is expecting the entire sports world to start calling him by a new, esoteric name over a decade into a career that hasn’t exactly been low-profile.

No, what interested me most from Dave McMenamin’s report on Artest’s name change was the explanation of the process for jersey-number changes, something I’ve always wondered about and been fascinated by. Why does the NBA make players wear the same number for five years? Is it just so they don’t have to print new jerseys to sell? Major League Baseball doesn’t seem to have any rules about this whatsoever. When the Giants acquired Carlos Beltran at this year’s trading deadline, manager Bruce Bochy switched his number from 15 to 16 so that his new power hitter could keep the number he had worn for six years with the Mets. They made the decision at Beltran’s introductory press conference, and both his and Bochy’s new uniforms were ready for the game that night. Considering the NBA’s willingness to bend this rule for its stars (more on LeBron James and Mario Chalmers in a minute), its very existence seems somewhat archaic and unnecessary.

This got me thinking about other noteworthy number changes in recent NBA history, and the reasoning behind them.
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