The NBA’s Space Race
Yakkin’ about how the NBA salary cap destroys parity over at The Classical.
Yakkin’ about how the NBA salary cap destroys parity over at The Classical.
I debated whether to write about Kobe’s dunk, and I just saw Emma Carmichael’s writeup on Deadspin, so I’ll try to be brief. Kobe killed it last night. I don’t typically like him, but last night he was Full Kobe.
The entire arena was behind him, every time he hit or missed a shot. Brooklyn “fans” are just happy to have basketball, and basketball with Kobe is better than basketball without it. There were a lot of Lakers fans. They chanted “M-V-P!” all game. This must happen in every arena Kobe goes to, in some form.
Midway through the third quarter, Kobe crossed over Gerald Wallace, for whom I am told he harbors a long-standing distaste, and hit a jumper, and I jumped out of my seat with thousands of others.
From that point on, every time he got the ball, he was trying to further humiliate Wallace. He took Jordanesque fallaway 25-footers and just missed most of them and blew by Crash, as I am told he is known, at least twice. The game stayed close, and with three minutes left, Kobe pulled Wallace out to half court and I said, out loud, “This isn’t good for Gerald Wallace.” It wasn’t. The Nets expected a pass, not, as Carmichael wrote, young Kobe and a violent dunk. That’s what we got.
I’m 35, just a tick older than Kobe, and my friend Ravi, a lifelong Kobe fan taking in his first Kobe experience, is 34. As a journalist and writer, my career is still beginning. Kobe’s career is not yet in its twilight, but we know it’s coming. I never believed in him before, but he changed my impression in an instant. That dunk was more impressive than his older ones because he had no legs — it was pure practicality. It was 80-80, and it wasn’t just two points. It was: You’re NOT winning this game, and the Nets didn’t. It was a perfect expression of basketball genius, a moment, in the volume business of regular season sports, that changes everything you ever believed.
The Celtics are toast. Let’s acknowledge that straight off. It is not a question of whether they will go down, but whether or not they will go down fighting. These Celtics have always gone down fighting. When fans cite Rajon Rondo’s outsized statistics in nationally televised games — as of last April, the most recent time for which I could painfully easily find stats, 14 of his 18 career triple-doubles had come in the postseason — I take comfort in the fact all postseason games are nationally televised. That will not be enough this year.
The Bruins, we’ll see. Hockey is bred for one-season phenomena (not surprisingly, the opposite of how it should be bred), and they had their moment two years ago.
The Red Sox have their defining season, for this iteration. What they have going for them: Cherington is de facto a good general manager, they are totally unburdened from expectations, and they still have some great players… even if “some” is just two. What they have going against them: They’re not great, which has a way of wearing on people.
The next real big game for Boston sports fans is next year’s Patriots opener. We have floated back to Earth. The whiplash will catch some people, but whatever. We now have eight months to figure out if the Patriots can do it again — eight months to focus on the Patriots, and the amazing favor they’ve done us. Eight months to follow nonsense stories about Welker. (He will re-sign.) Eight months to wonder if Brady will still have it. (He will.) Eight months to wonder whether Rob Gronkowski is permanently off-and-on injured, and whether the how the dice-roll defense will acquit itself.
Here’s the problem: In the NFL, that’s a sad road, because eventually, you’re going to lose. If you’re a fan of all but about eight teams — that is, 75 percent of the league — it’s a daily reality. In college, it’s different. In college, Alabama can stay Alabama from year to year, mastering the churn. In the NFL, the Patriots can only do so much, and they have done so much that expecting them to do it again is both wholly selfish and altogether correct. Because fuck’em, right?
Right. But here we are and there ain’t no frontier. We’re getting to the mountains. When it stops rolling, who will still give a crap?
A better question, of course: Should you?
Should you care about what a bunch of people you’ve never met do inside a TV set? Should you pay criminally insane prices for licensed goods with your favorite team’s logo on it? Should you spend hours on the Internet, dousing the Web with your thoughts and feelings? Should you skip that Sunday appointment?
The answer to these questions is no, you shouldn’t, and it is self-evidently true that it is. But it’s the wrong question. The real question is: Knowing that it’s wrong, why do we do it anyway? What is it that makes sports irresistible? I don’t know the answer, but I haven’t given up looking for it, nor have I quit trying to figure out why I care. And if you’re tuning in tonight, or whenever, you probably feel the same way, though maybe not to the same degree. But I know this: In eight months, you’ll be glued to your TV set for the first game that mattered for awhile. You won’t stop to think why. You’ll just know that it does. When it’s game time, it’s all about the game.
There might not be too much to look forward to until September, but we’ll always have that, and in that, we’ll have a Rondo pass, a blown Rivera save that’ll make it all worth it. They’ll never get a trophy for it, but hey, you never got one at all.
I wrote about them for the New York Observer (dot com).
The Coronation of LeBron James has been relatively quiet. In retrospect, none of what happened between the Celtics and Heat, or even the Heat and Thunder will be thought of window dressing to James’ ascension to the throne. When he does, the iceberg will break, and LeBron James will get better, and that’s all we’ll care about. See: Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal and Peyton Manning and John Elway. That’s the scary part. We forgot that James has time to learn. He has tried, and he has learned, and there’s nothing more to learn. We won’t really remember the rest. It’ll still be history. It just won’t be the history. The history starts now, because the Heat lose to discipline. It’s why they lost to the Mavs, and why the Celtics give them such a hard time, and why the Spurs would have been a total nightmare, if the playoffs had taken place two weeks earlier. They beat chaos, which is why they beat Derrick Rose.
It is not just the baggage of Seattle that weighs the Thunder down. The baggage of Seattle actually provides cover for its stalker act with Westbrook and Durant. James Harden is just a fascinatingly fascinating player and dude of distinction. And how a guy named Scott Brooks who looks and acts exactly a hockey coach is a basketball coach. And how Nate Robinson played there, and the tiny chaos remains.
The Heat pretty obviously had problems last year figuring out the Wade/James dynamic, and it was a major source of problems. Age has taken care of that. Dwyane Wade is now the Heat’s No. 2 player by any measurement, except “jersey number by golf score” or “even rhymes with tree.” That was probably really it, and the problem was solved in Game Six. There’s no going back, and there’s nowhere to go but up.
Image via the amazing Coachie Ballgames
Part of my job now involves watching and reading an irresponsible amount of sports commentary, most of it recently having to do with the New Orleans Saints or LeBron James. Everyone agrees that LeBron James plays wonderful basketball until a certain point. To use a cross-sport analogy, LeBron basically refuses to be his own closer. Deadspin’s Sean Newell exhaustively listed the reasons that this is okay, but he wrote one thing that will be, at some point, proven demonstrably false: “If Lebron took the shot and made it, LeBron and the Heat would have done exactly what is expected: beat the Jazz in March.” No. The sports-watching world is waiting for LeBron to shoot. If he takes a last-second shot and he makes it, it will not hesitate to congratulate itself for remaking James in its own image, even if it’s only one game and one shot, and one he’s taken before, albeit under different circumstances.
While Newell and even Jon Barry, whose argument Newell briskly escorts to the woodshed, both say that LeBron’s pass to Udonis Haslem against the Jazz was the “right basketball play,” I think they’re overstating what they know. I love statistics and I pray at their altar, but what we don’t know far outstrips that which we do. Is a surprise Udonis Haslem 15-foot open shot a better percentage play than a LeBron isolation play after LeBron has drilled miraculous shot after miraculous shot? I have no way of knowing. I don’t like that people think they know the answer. I think the source of my confusion is: context.
Context is why the same meal on fine china tastes better than on paper plates, and why better-looking people get paid better than worse-paid ones to provide exactly the same service. It is powerful and deceiving, and it is real. To go back to the baseball analogy, the Red Sox’ closer-by-committee didn’t work because the pitchers were crappy, but the generally accepted theory is that it didn’t work because pitchers wanted to know their roles. If you’re willing to admit that that sort of uncertainly had at least some effect on their performance—and I encourage you to imagine yourself at work, battling uncertainty, and compare that to your most productive times—then you’re granting that context provides an unknown. If Michael Wilbon was to be believed on PTI today, Magic Johnson told him that other players on the Heat are likely looking to James to take that shot, and that they see his passing it up as something akin to Josh Beckett removing himself to let Dice-K face the last batter when Beckett has 18 strikeouts. If context has some effect, then it’s almost certainly playing a role here, both in the short term and long term.
If you grant all that, and you believe in the numbers… well, if you’re willing to discount a regular season game as just a regular season game, isn’t it in LeBron’s best interests to kill this storyline? Process is important, as the Sloan Conference hammered at last weekend. So is realism. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The potential shitshow of this continuing nonsense is not worth one regular-season loss, even if it’s nonsense. I’m confident enough in my math to say that. We’re at that point. We don’t often get there. If LeBron takes the last shot the next time he has the chance, he will feed the monkey enough to shift the ball enough toward his amazing play that, if the stress is wearing on him at all, it’ll free him up to be even better.
Shoot the ball, buddy. It’s like sushi. You might love it if you try it.
Rather than Twitter my thoughts one by one, here are the remainder of them:
The holdover from the Jordan era, which pretty much wafts at every level of the NBA experience, is that a single, singular player leads a team to a championship, and that amongst a group of elite players, only so many of them have “what it takes” to get there. You can choose to believe this narrative if you’d like, but it’s a flimsy one, because once someone’s won it, it crumbles. Kobe couldn’t win by himself, and then he did. Look elsewhere in sports, and you can see it folding on itself (as you’ll see the next time Kobe loses in the playoffs): Phil Mickelson couldn’t win the big one, then he did, then he choked again, then he won again. Peyton Manning couldn’t win, then he could, then he choked.
I think what people are angry about with LeBron is that we’re not going to get to see if he has that, I don’t know, “it” that may or may not even exist in the first place. That’s a presumption in and of itself, but let’s just say it’s true: If the Heat win the title with relatively equal contributions from Wade and Bron, does that tarnish LeBron’s legacy? The answer, today, seems to be yes. LeBron seems to either not care or to have taken people at face value when they said he needed to win a championship to be a complete player, or something, when they really meant he needed to lead a team to a championship. Having played for a Team USA—on which he wasn’t the top draw, Kobe was—that was roundly lauded, you can see how he’d come to this conclusion. Why would people praise his ability to play with superstar then, and tear it down now? (He might be asking himself.)
Another thing about Team USA: So many stories about how watching Kobe brought LeBron’s work habits to another level. Maybe this is something where LeBron thinks he can get better just by being around Wade. Kobe himself has admitted that he’s basically stolen every move in his arsenal, an aggregation service along the lines of, jeez, fivethirtyeight.com. Maybe LeBron needs to see things up close to duplicate and surpass them, and got a whiff of it at the Olympics. I don’t know. I’m just saying.
He’s certainly read the tea leaves wrong about what was expected of him, as evidenced by the audible vacuum that hit the Greenwich, CT Boys & Girls Club last night, when he awkwardly spoke the words “South Beach” as his destination. (Seriously?) He honestly thought we just wanted him to win one, when we actually wanted so much more. What did we want? Something we hadn’t seen before, something transcendent. This was something we hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t transcendent. Our new fear is that it won’t be transcendent even if he wins it all. That’s a disappointment, sure, but LeBron probably won’t feel like it’s a disappointment when he’s holding the trophy. In 20 years, maybe he’ll wonder “What if?” But it doesn’t matter if he knew he had that mythological extra oomph in 20 years; he’s searching for it now, frantically looking for it on the beach like a lost key. The thing is, we told him the key was there, even if it might not exist, and even if he thinks it’s the bottom of that trophy we’ll tell him nope. you don’t have it. Unlike many people, I have no problem feeling a little bit sorry for the guy and also rooting heartily against him, and that’s just what I plan to do (and root for Cleveland to absolutely pound him, somehow). The idea of this team winning the title sickens me to the point that I would root for Kobe against them. I wanted transcendence as much as anybody, and I find the idea of Wade and LeBron playing together categorically unfair. But you know what? It’s totally fucking fair. I’m being deprived of a negative, something that I only imagined existing: LeBron flying through the air, delivering the team on which he was Top Dog to a title, averaging 35 PPG in the Finals with 10 and 10. Now even if that happens we’ll think it’s silly. What a joke.
LeBron James is 25 years old. Twenty five-year-olds can make stupid decisions, and even they can be aware that these decisions may, in fact, be stupid. LeBron seemed to know something was up with his pawing desire to go to Miami. For all the talk of his being a “committee of one,” it seems like there was really a committee of five or six, and at the top was not LeBron, but Gloria James. It was both heartbreaking and totally reassuring that LeBron said his decision finally came down to his mom’s approval. It was heartbreaking because you know there was a last line of defense to talk him out of it, but it was reassuring because it reinforced true loyalty in a scenario where loyalty was being imposed upon LeBron—not at all unconvincingly—left and right. Even Gloria James had to know that her son’s best chance to win a title was with Chicago, and that his chance to write the best story was in Cleveland. But her son effectively asked her if she would be okay with him forgoing both those scenarios to play with his friends in Miami, because it would make him the happiest, and she said yes. Maybe playing in Cleveland so long expanded his vision of what needed to do that he thought playing in Miami would strap blinders on him in a way playing in Chicago wouldn’t have done; maybe he does crave the spotlight, but needs some time off. I don’t know. All I know is that Gloria James trusted in her son’s ability to work these things out for himself. What can I say to that?
Did LeBron “betray” Cleveland? Well, if he “quit” on the team in four of games of the NBA playoffs, as Dan Gilbert suggested in his acidic open letter on Cavs.com, then yes. But let’s not forget than his ending up in Cleveland was the result of a roll of the ping-pong balls anyway. It made a great story because it seemed like it was preordained, but nothing is preordained—that’s hacky sportswriter bullshit that’s no different, spiritually, from the filler for hundreds of stories on James that were written last week. At the same time, he did come to Cleveland, and he is from Akron, and it was a great story while it lasted. And now this.
I think it’s worth remembering that an unhappy Allen Iverson was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Clippers the year before the 76ers made the finals; an unhappy Kobe was nearly traded to the Bulls the year before the Lakers made the Finals; and an unhappy Paul Pierce was almost shipped out of Boston the year before the Celtics won their 17th title. The reports on Kobe, specifically, came so fast and furious it seemed like the next time you refereshed he’d be out of L.A. None of these things happened, but the groundwork was there. If they had been free agents, there’s no question they would have bolted. Cavs fans could say that they didn’t exactly provide the pressure-cooker environment of Philadelphia or Boston, or the dysfunctional one of L.A.; I’m not sure I would believe them. Check out the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s cover this morning. You might not be able to read it, but the arrow pointing to his hand says “7 years in Cleveland. No rings”:
I thought it wasn’t about rings in Cleveland? I thought it was about his hometown. I thought it wasn’t 7 years, but 25. And I thought it was about the promise of bringing a title that lingered despite the Cavs’ “failures” to win it all in the last few seasons. I mean, if you’re going to be so blatant about admitting you were using James as a tool toward your own deliverance, you’re pretty far into the muck.
I can’t really blame the Plain Dealer for playing populist, however; it’s just a shame that there were never really any real adults in this situation. LeBron didn’t act like one; Dan Gilbert didn’t act like one; ESPN’s commentators were almost, to a person, eating shit in the sandbox. LeBron is the most hated man in basketball today, but if you’ve got the energy to get mad at LeBron you should already be 10 times angrier at the NBA for its very often brutally inconsistent, self-aggrandizing, borderline unwatchable product. LeBron James isn’t the system, he’s a product of it, and now he’s going to play with Dwyane Wade in Miami. That’s totally ridiculous and throws everything David Stern has done for the one superstar, one team ethos right back in his face. If it doesn’t get thrown back in LeBron’s face when D-Leaguers are missing wide-open layups on the break, why will we criticize him? He obviously doesn’t care. We do. What I’d most like to see is compelling, fair basketball. If I can’t have that, this will have to do.
* Yes, this is a tweet from last night.
Remember when he accepted the head coaching job for the Orlando Magic and came back to Florida within days?
Remember when Billy Beane agreed to become general manager of the Boston Red Sox and came back to Oakland within days?
I’m starting to get the sense that LeBron might, in fact, announce that he’s joining a team other than the Cavaliers tonight. My sense based on nothing but rumor and innuendo and “implications” that Chris Broussard apparently reported out and turned into a story sometime between when I went to sleep at 1:30 and woke up at 7:30, but I get the feeling nonetheless.
What I won’t believe, until the contract is signed, is that LeBron is playing with a team other than the Cavaliers. The self-imposed Thursday deadline isn’t doing him any favors if he hasn’t already made up his mind—why force yourself to make the biggest decision of your life before you’re ready?—and if he has made up his mind, and made it up at the same time he pitched Decision idea to ESPN, it seems to me that it would point him back to Cleveland. I’m not going to read anything into Bronathan’s decision to have this whole thing go down in Greenwich, CT, other than to say that if he wanted to come off as a stuffy asshole, he succeeded.
But all that will be a footnote to history, the same way Ali/Liston II pops up in every discussion of Lewiston, Maine. The real news will be where LeBronny plays basketball. It’s easy to say you’re going to leave home, but it’s harder to do it. I’ll believe LeBron’s gone when I see it.