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Essay: The NBA All-Star Game Re-Cap of Re-Caps

February 21, 2011 Leave a comment

About 20 minutes before the opening tip to last night’s All-Star game, the beautiful Maria Menounos held an interview wth Diddy on TNT’s Magenta Carpet. After a few moments of captivating conversation involving which team Diddy roots for—he was born and raised in New York City, but owns “houses” in L.A., so his heart’s all torn up—the rapper/actor/producer/printer-of-money made a public gaffe by saying he wished Blake Griffin was playing in the night’s game. Griffin, of course, was selected weeks ago as a reserve and ended up scoring eight points in 15 crowd pleasing minutes. The fact that Diddy, who was either sitting courtside or damn near it on Saturday night, didn’t know Blake Griffin, the talk of the weekend, was playing in the actual All-Star game reaffirmed how little of an attraction it is compared to the entire “weekend” as an entity.  Last night’s exhibition wasn’t the best All-Star game of all time and it wasn’t the worst, but once again it sat in the background.

What ended up elevating the night was the duel-until-their-holsters-were-empty performances by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the two best players in the world. As the typical All-Star game goes in the first few quarter, both teams were crazy focused on putting on a show and entertaining what turned out to be a whole bunch of people. By the end, when LeBron got angry and discovered despite the fact it was an All-Star game he was still a man among boys, things got a little more competitive, but it wasn’t a memorable back and forth battle. Kevin Durant made sure of that.

Apart from Chris Bosh’s put back, Kobe’s baseline 180, LeBron’s vicious end to end tomahawk, Blake Griffin’s sidespin give and go alley-oop with Deron Williams, and Kobe, once again, sneaking a two handed stuff by LeBron, the game’s dunks weren’t anything special. Some players kept deferring while others couldn’t wait to shoot. But nobody in the latter category could dare hold a flame to Mr. Bryant, who while crowded by four (FOUR) Eastern All-Stars on one possession still managed to get a shot up*. (He drew a foul). It seemed like a majority of guys needed at least a quarter of play under their belts to find their rhythm and feel comfortable. Some guys settled down to open up their bag of tricks—Ray Allen air balled a three-pointer for the first time in 17 years, but followed it up with this ridiculous move later on—while others just couldn’t get it together. Namely Dwight Howard, who looked disinterested; Carmelo Anthony, who looked tired; Rajon Rondo, who played like someone was chasing him (not a compliment); Al Horford, who looked overmatched; and Dwyane Wade, who posted a plus/minus of -15, badly rolled his ankle, and was drunk.

MVP Observation:

If the game hadn’t been played in Los Angeles, no voters had access to a box score, and Kevin Durant twisted his ankle midway through the fourth quarter, a serious dark horse for MVP would have been Chris Paul. With his name’s sudden disappearance from “league’s best point guard” discussion, nobody came into the game with more of a chip on their shoulder than him, and it certainly showed. Paul dictated the All-Star game’s pace and tempo in a retro dominant way, much like Jason Kidd used to do. He broke down Rondo and Rose on several occasions—blowing by the two young guns like it was nothing—stole the ball five times, and hit shots when he was open. With his performance, Chris Paul reminded everyone who the league’s best point guard truly is, and when you factor in what he’s working with (rookie head coach, uncertain future, slew of below average teammates besides David West) all with two unhealthy ankles? It’s astonishing his name doesn’t come up in league-wide MVP debates more often.

Random But Interesting Facts:

Rondo had the second most assists in the game (eight), which is shocking when you consider how poorly he played.

Kevin Garnett was the only player to log less than 10 minutes of action. Probably a coincidence.

Amare Stoudemire grabbed three defensive rebounds in 28 minutes of play. In 11 minutes, Kevin Love had four.

The Western Conference sported three 7-footers: Dirk, Duncan, and Gasol. None of them technically centers.

In almost 11 less minutes of action, Deron Williams had the same amount of assists (seven) as Chris Paul.

The game’s only lead change came on a Carmelo Anthony lay-up just three minutes into the first quarter.

Under The Cover Observations:

LaMarcus Aldridge might be a better overall basketball player than Kevin Love right now, but he can’t change the game’s momentum with the flick of his wrists. Not knocking Aldridge, because only one player can do this, but Kevin Love’s ability to throw a Tom Brady outlet pass should make him a prerequisite lock for the next six All-Star games. Let’s briefly walk through his end of the first half bomb to Chris Paul, aka the game’s most overlooked stroke of genius.  With 1.4 seconds left on the clock and Love set to inbound from the baseline, he two hand overhead lobbed a beautifully placed ball into the hands of a running Chris Paul right at the opposite free throw line. The pass is an incredible one not because of its silly distance or pin point accuracy, but when it happened; its context. I know it’s an All-Star game and nobody plays defense in All-Star games, but to throw a pass over Rajon Rondo, one of the game’s best ball hawks, when he should be expecting the long outlet, is very, very impressive. Love had three or four passes like this in the game, but none more impressive than the buzzer beater to end the first half. 

Slightly less impessive was LeBron’s decision to have Chris Bosh turn the game’s most important three ball into a misguided scud missile, passing up a wide open shot for himself in the process.

The Halftime Show:

Nothing much to say about the Halftime Show, except it was 6785142 times better than the Super Bowl’s and made every man who chose to watch it with his wife/girlfriend feel incredibly uncomfortable. The NBA would be foolish not to include an annual Rihanna performance into the “Guaranteed Invitation For Kevin Love’s Outlet Pass” contract.

This also dropped over the weekend…

*This quote from Stoudemire, capturing the Black Mamba in a nutshell: “You could tell he started out from the start, he wanted to get the MVP…He was not passing the ball, at all. But that’s Kobe.”

Essay: The Curse of Potential

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

“As long as people believed in him, McGinnis could do almost anything but, as time went by, people stopped believing in him and began believing in his potential. And that was impossible to live up to.”


In 1975, a 24-year-old ABA superstar named George McGinnis averaged 30 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists a game; he’d go on to share league MVP honors with Julius Erving. McGinnis wasn’t the best player in professional basketball, but you only needed one hand to count the few who were better.

The next three years of his career were spent in the NBA, on some moderately successful, and aesthetically pleasing, Philadelphia teams. His second season as a 76er, with Dr. J aboard as a teammate, McGinnis made his only NBA finals appearance, staking a two game lead on Bill Walton’s Trailblazers before crumbling in six. That season, statistically, McGinnis was just as integral a piece to one of the league’s most talented teams as Erving. The two both averaged around 20 points a game (with McGinnis taking a couple more shots) and four assists, but McGinnis was the better rebounder, grabbing 11.5 a night to Erving’s 8.5. Both players were 26-years-old.

The season before the Finals loss, things were set up for George to be Philadelphia basketball. It was his team, like Kareem had the Lakers, Cowens had the Celtics, and Walt Frazier had New York. As detailed in a superb SI profile, it was right around this time that McGinnis looked to be a lock for the Hall of Fame. He carved defenders up with ease and made opposing game plans useless. But after Dr. J came aboard, skepticism began to creep in between McGinnis’ ears. Erving went on to become the face of Philadelphia, and after a disappointing Eastern Conference loss to Washington one year later, McGinnis was shipped to Denver. His career would never recover.

A lot of people have myriad opinions as to why McGinnis fell from the sky. They range from lazy work habits and smoking cigarettes during games to Blazer great Maurice Lucas saying, “George wouldn’t hurt a fly, but he got moved around the league a lot and then it began to crop up that George maybe wasn’t as good as he was made out to be…if you’re George McGinnis and you’ve heard this a bunch of times, you might believe it.”

What McGinnis really suffered from, though, was the mental dilemma of expectation.  Too much weight on one man’s shoulders, too much burden.  1976 was his year to change the Sixers’ culture. Their general manager, Pat Williams, thought McGinnis would carry his team just as he had done for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers.  Instead, he had a poor playoff performance resulting in a first round exit.  The result, just five years later, at the age of 31, was a man who psyched himself out of basketball. Here’s an excerpt from Sports Illustrated:

It’s obvious that the Pacers don’t believe in McGinnis—not this McGinnis—and earlier this season they tried to persuade him to retire. McGinnis says he thought about retiring for a while, then decided that he didn’t want to go out with his head down, not at close to $500,000 a season. “I still feel I can make a contribution,” he says, “but it’s tough for me to have a normal game now. They expect so much.” Pacer Coach Jack McKinney concedes he may have given up on McGinnis too quickly when he got off to a poor start this season. “He doesn’t have that ability that used to make him so awesome,” McKinney says. “Some of the things he could do when he got his 30 points a night aren’t there anymore, but he compensates in some pretty nice ways. I didn’t give him enough encouragement. A good player doesn’t go sour at once without a loss of confidence.”

To say he didn’t pan out in a Sebastian Telfair kind of way would be both unfair and untrue, but George was supposed to be one of the greats; his highlights were supposed to be sealed in a vault somewhere; his name was supposed to be regularly dropped on national telecasts where color commentators would laugh and admonish their play-by-play partners for casually comparing George McGinnis to the players of modern day. But, alas, he never accomplished what he was born to do. His skills were left on the table and his abilities were squandered—like a 1970′s version of Shawn Kemp.

When discussing the league’s all-time great physical marvels, seldom does McGinnis’ name get picked from the hat. For a three year period he was as awesome a player as basketball has ever had, with a rare talent to effortlessly dominate the court. If Kobe is Michael, Durant is McAdoo with a higher ceiling, and Lebron is an Erving/Magic hybrid, then Blake Griffin would be George McGinnis. Griffin has already created more highlights than the average career can hold.  He’s double-teamed on a regular basis—there are, maybe, five players in the league who can guard him one on one—and tends to shred opposing front lines nightly. (He gets to the free throw line more often than everybody but LeBron and Dwight Howard.) Only 21, Griffin has quite the future ahead of him. Or so one should expect. Another player currently shoveling cement into a brilliant foundation is Kevin Love. Love has 51 double doubles right now, the highest pre-All-Star break total in league history. At the age of 22, he’s far and away the league’s premier rebounder. What these two share, along with youth, amazing consistency, and eye popping talent, are great expectations. The morning after Kevin Love’s double-double streak breaks, someone somewhere will ask what’s wrong with him. Should Love tally back to back seven rebound performances? Consider him washed up. For the rest of his 20s, if Love doesn’t lead the league in rebounding it’ll be the height of disappointment.  The same can be said about Kevin Durant (and his scoring), Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose (for their unparalleled floor leadership), and a number of other young superstars ready to grab the flame. To predict one, or all, of them to someday be inducted into Springfield isn’t completely insane. Based on the remarkable consistency they’re displaying so far, it’s entirely possible. Then again, that’s what they said about Mr. McGinnis.

Essay: More All-Star Reinforcements!

January 28, 2011 1 comment

If you saw last night’s special on TNT, you witnessed an all-time intense All-Star debate between Kenny Smith and Chris Webber.  The subject, more or less, was this:  Much like the annual MVP debate—what specific criteria makes one player more valuable than another—it seems people are having a difficult time describing what constitutes an All-Star.  Smith is on the side of rewarding good players who contribute on winning teams, while Webber and Charles Barkley believe All-Star games are made to showcase the best players, and the best way to gauge that is by looking at individual statistics. Neither side is right nor wrong. All-Star invitations should be made on a case by case, player by player basis; when you surround an argument with hypothetical points you’re going to run in circles more times than not.  ”Does Lamar Odom deserve to make the team because he’s the third best player on a championship contender?” is a debatable question. “Would Odom lead the league in double doubles if he played for a losing team like Minnesota?” is not.  Yes, it’s true that players on poor teams have more opportunities to dabble with impressive statistics than those who compete within the framework of teamwork and sacrifice, but as goes the case by case, player by player motto, just look at Kevin Love’s numbers! You’d have to be crazy not to vote for him. I’m talking John Malkovich “In the Line of Fire” crazy.  It just seems incomprehensible how someone who dominates one of the most important aspects of his sport can’t be an All-Star. Now without further ado, here’s who I believe are the Western Conference All-Star reserves.

First Guard: Manu Ginobili. At 39-7, the Spurs have not only paced the entire league through their first 46 games, but their rejuvenated, up tempo offensive philosophy (up to third in offensive rating from last season’s ninth) has been the biggest surprise. And the number one reason for it is a healthy Manu Ginobili.  He leads the team in points (18.7), three pointers (just over two a game—he also leads the league in attempts with 280), free throw attempts (just under six), and steals (just under two). If there were a section in the Hall of Fame devoted to the craftiest players in league history, Ginobili’s bust would greet visitors at the door.  The way he maneuvers into the lane with such ease is almost cheating, like a caged mouse who somehow got his hands on the maze’s blueprint.  Ginobili is a perfect example of a player whose stats could be borderline astronomical if he were a dim light on a crummy team, but instead he understands the importance of the extra pass. After all this time, and all the mileage on his thought to be busted ankles, Manu Ginobili is averaging more minutes per game than he ever has in his career. That’s why he’s worthy.

Second Guard: Deron Williams. Utah is falling apart. It’s clear, it’s obvious, it’s sad.  A recent article by John Hollinger cites their point guard as being far from why. Williams is slowly becoming one of those players who fans take for granted, yet right now he’s on pace to average career highs in points, minutes played, and shots taken. Thanks to Al Jefferson’s fitting into Utah’s offense like Keith Olbermann at a Tea Party rally, Williams has had more responsibility placed on his shoulders than ever before. (He’s led his team in scoring just once in his career, two years ago when Carlos Boozer only played in 37 games due to injury; this year will be the second.)  Or, to make an open and shut case, you can just say Williams is averaging 22 points and nine assists per game.

First Forward: Dirk Nowitzki. Before he had that awkward leg injury, Dirk was the hands down leading MVP candidate—the team is 28-8 in games he’s played in.  Nowitzki is a high volume jump shooter who is shooting a ridiculous 51 percent from the field, which happens to be a career best. I’ve never been a huge Nowitzki fan, but I will admit his career has either been transcendental or one in a billion.  Those are both meant as compliments. I don’t know what else to say except he’s been an All-Star every season since 2002, and right now he’s shooting as well as ever.

Second Forward: Kevin Love. We covered him a little bit at the top. For whatever reason he’s one of the most controversial All-Star choices in recent memory.  No offense to NBA fans across the country, but how on earth did Luis Scola get more votes than this guy? He leads the NBA in offensive, defensive, and total rebounds (15.7 per game!).  He’s averaging 45 percent from beyond the arc while making exactly three a game. He’s had eight games with 20 or more rebounds and 29 of his 45 starts have resulted in at least 15.  He already has 40 double doubles and is a 20 point per game scorer.  Yes, his team has 10 wins but no, Love isn’t to blame—he’s fourth in the entire league in win shares, which estimates the number of wins contributed by a player.  I’ve been a little back and forth on this over the past several weeks, but as of now my opinion is etched in cement: If Love isn’t an All-Star, nobody is.

Center: Pau Gasol. He’s placed here despite being listed as a forward on the ballot because every other option at center (besides maybe Nene) is a complete and utter joke. At the age of 30 and in his prime, Gasol is having a typical season for him: 19 points, 11 boards, two blocks.  And with a 33-13 record and league leading offensive rating, so are the Lakers. Gasol is second in the league in win shares; he leads L.A. in blocks per game, minutes (37), and rebounds.  With the incredible options we have at the forward position out west this year, Gasol fitting in at center will help assuage a few of the arguments.

First Wild Card: Blake Griffin. If you had to say, as a casual basketball fan, who the most exciting player in the NBA was, a highlight reel of Blake Griffin elevating over the New York Knicks in an earth shattering 44 point performance would pop into your head. Hands down, man down. Griffin is averaging 23 points (on 52 percent shooting) and 13 rebounds a night, while registering a jaw dropping 392 free throw attempts through the first 45 games of his career. That’s more than LeBron and Wade. The league didn’t have time to put Griffin on their radar; from day one they were in his bomb shelter. As long as he stays healthy, the guaranteed Rookie of the Year will see the All-Star game his entire career.

Second Wild Card: Monta Ellis. Without a doubt the most vexing choice I’ve made so far, but hear it out.  Monta Ellis has played over 40 minutes 29 times this season (he leads the league in minutes), and in his 45 starts—with more bumps and bruises than the average prolific scorer—he’s posted at least 20 points 35 times.  If being an All-Star is all about individual success, how can a case be made against Ellis? He’s tied with LeBron James at 25.8 points per game for third in the league (more than Dwyane Wade), he’s made 32 more shots than Kobe Bryant, and he’s third in steals while defending a bigger two guard each and every night.  On top of all these numbers, the 6’3″ Ellis is one of the most effortless scorers in the league. He gets into the lane with an uncanny ease—he attempts five shots at the rim per game, tied for second among shooting guards—and to top it all off, Ellis is really fun to watch. Doesn’t that count for something?

Essay: The Griffin/Love Debate

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Along with exclusive soirees, memorable pre-game introductions, and no defense, each year the all-star weekend coincides with a serious snub (or two). It happens in every sport, but in the NBA, where only 12 players on each side can make it, a misplaced coaches vote is all the more glaring. Sometimes it seems like an individual player is having an anomaly of a statistical season yet he’s left off the squad due to poor team performance.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good of a first half you had, as the game’s participants usually shift in traditional cycles, like some sort of premier fraternity—if your name wasn’t Kevin or Tim right around the turn of the century and you were a forward playing in the West, chances are you had an annual three day vacation.

This year, in the Western Conference, a terrible snub is brewing at the forward position. Five forwards should make the team. Four are as good as in: Carmelo Anthony (unless he’s dealt to the East), Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, and Pau Gasol.  The fifth spot will come down to three double double machines and a supremely athletic swingman: Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Love.  Randolph and Gay are two shiny spots on a stuck-in-mud Memphis franchise, but the two more intriguing players are Griffin and Love.

They’re both young (a combined age of 43 with just three seasons between the two), extremely gifted, clear cut franchise players, but their styles are contrasting to the point of philosophical difference.  And so the question is presented: If you were a general manager and had to pick either Blake Griffin or Kevin Love to be on your roster for the foreseeable future, who would it be? Who is the easier player to construct around, the rarer building block, the key to victory?

What these two players symbolize, on a larger scale, is a clash between the unanswerable, see-saw, which-would-you-rather basketball question: Do you prefer fundamentals or athleticism?  Do you enjoy having your jaw hit the floor after witnessing a thunderous throw down from the hand of one behemoth on the head of another, or are you simply content with doling out polite golf claps in response to a solid box out? Thank Dr. Naismith, for a left handed lay-up and a 360 degree, between the legs slam are both of the same value.

Here, we as basketball fans are lucky enough to have two living breathing vessels to serve each side of the debate. In the corner of brute athletic ability: Blake Griffin. For undeniable rudimentary dominance: Kevin Love.

First up is Blake Griffin. (21.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists per game.) The name alone rips through T-shirts like a bulging muscle. When his team has possession, he virtually owns the paint, which is something that hasn’t been said about a non-center rookie since Charles Barkley. Not even at his first all-star break, the current that is Blake Griffin is already sloshing waves onto the league’s shore and more than a few opponents aren’t happy about it. There have been several instances, most recently with Lamar Odom and Mario Chalmers, where opposing players simply have no answer for his brute style. And how can you blame them? He plays the game with the recklessness of a sky diving adonis and through 39 games already wears the crown of “Most Exciting Player” on his skull. The hype surrounding his participation in the Dunk Contest is so unprecedented, it currently stands as front runner for most-talked-about-event of the weekend—something that hasn’t been said since Vince Carter. If you were to pick the top 10 plays of the 2011 season, at least five of them would involve Blake Griffin.

The former Sooner averages 4.3 made baskets at the rim per game, which is more than Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard, and the rest of the NBA, and is at the front of the line on his own team when it comes to shot attempts (despite shooting a poor 33 percent when he’s 10-23 feet from the basket). But he’s working on that, and once he crafts his jumper into something more accurate than a wearisome 15 foot bank shot, things will officially get horrific. He’s recorded something like 768 consecutive double doubles, is a dominant, respected, possibly feared presence, and happens to be 21-years-old.  Check and mate.

Now, moving onto Kevin Love. (21.2 points, 15.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game.) Meet the 22-year-old greatest rebounder of his generation. At a generous listing of 6’10”, Love leads the NBA in offensive and defensive rebounds, both overall and per game.  Much like Griffin, he plays the game with a ferocious, almost animalistic method, but what he excels in won’t be a consistent find on Sportscenter’s top 10; the half court chest pass to spark a fast break or the one handed offensive rebound.  Where he puts his body when a shot goes up is more often than not the right spot, which is an integral ability all great rebounders must possess.

Basically, Kevin Love is the new Mr. Fundamental.  There’s no flash to his game, but he plods through night after night with a double double to his credit and a sheepish looking opposing front line wondering what storm just flew through the gym. The word “dominance” is frequently used when talking about the league’s best players—Dwight Howard’s protection of his rim, Rajon Rondo’s wizardry on a fast break, Kevin Durant’s ability to make contested jump shots look easier than depositing quarters in a meter—but nobody is more dominant at their craft than Love when a basketball clunks off a rim.  With his rear end on an opposing big man and his mind adjusting to the shooter’s tendencies (through study, Love knows the different ball flights a certain player has on his shot), Kevin grabs balls like they’re falling to him in a phone booth. He also, as a power forward, shoots 44 percent from behind the arc, attempting three three-pointers per game. Add it all up and you’ve got the definition of “one of a kind”.

To debate who is the better player is extremely difficult.  So is debating who has the brighter future (both are limitless).  Both players currently compete for losing teams that are built for the future, evening the score in the all-star debate, but for my money I’d select Love for this year’s all-star game and Griffin if I were playing general manager.  At the end of the day, Love will likely never be a crunch time scorer.  In order for his teams to find success, he’ll have to be a second, or even third, scoring option.  Blake Griffin is that go-to player today.  Imagining how insanely commanding he’ll be in two or three years makes my head hurt.

 

Categories: Essays Tags: ,
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