Archive for September, 2009

Let the Talking Begin

So with media day a couple of days ago, we saw the Raptors doing all kinds of things like posing for photos, doing interviews, all the kinds of things that have nothing to do with playing basketball, but things you are obliged to do before the season starts. It was interesting to hear Chris Bosh talk about this season, because if there was ever a guy who sounded guardedly optimistic, it was Bosh.

Some of the things that I liked about Bosh’s interviews the other day were things that we actually criticize him for. He said that he wasn’t going to come out and make any predictions, which some people point to as the usual Chris Bosh not wanting to step up and be a leader. But realistically, I have just about had enough of predictions and I sure as hell don’t want to hear any more guarantees. There have only been two guarantees in sports that I think mean anything. 1. Joe Namath’s guarantee, just because it hadn’t been done on that scale before he did it and then he went out and delivered as an undergod. 2. Mark Messier with the Rangers, just because to do that in a sport like hockey, where one guy cannot typically dominate the game and deliver all by himself, shows the kind of leadership he had…in a huge market…with all eyes on him. So I’m okay with Bosh avoiding any of that garbage, because he doesn’t need any added pressure on him.

I also liked that Bosh talked about not saying that the Raptors were going to go out and TRY to do things, but that they were going to DO them. Taking the wise words of Yoda, Bosh is realizing that “there is no try.” After going through a season like last year’s, Bosh knows you can try all you want, but until you start “doing”, then it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to get yourself in the right mindset about what you are going to do before you get out there on the floor. It’s sort of like before a guy descends down a ski hill in a Super G or before a bobsledder gets ready to plunge down the track. You see them going through the course in their heads, seeing the turns in their minds before heading out there. While we don’t want to see Bosh go all Marbury on us (because I used to support that dude, but now I’m convinced he’s nuts), I like the fact that he is working on his mental game too.

The last thing that I liked about Bosh on media day was that he was talking about hard work. When he said that you always think you work hard until you see somebody else working harder, he hit the nail right on the head. He was referencing seeing Kobe work out after having just won a championship. I can’t believe it took him this long to realize it, but in order to get to that next level, in order to dominate people in your craft, you have to put in serious work. Not just head to the gym for shootaround and do some sprints, you have to do serious workouts to the point where you think you can’t do any more…and when you get to that point, you do some more. I think back to what my dad told me a long time ago when I was heading off to college to play baseball. He said that sometimes you’re going to come up against guys who just have more talent than you, but there’s absolutely no excuse for not working harder than them and then beating them. Kind of the same thing here. Now that Bosh is tuned in, will all of his work pay off? I guess we will see.

Beam This Up Sterny

I’ve been wondering where the game is going, looking into the future. I think we all saw the curtain going down on the hip-hop culture that infused the game upon MJ’s arrival, once he entered the Hall of Fame with his gangsta speech not too long ago. The hems on the shorts have gone downdowndown and the noise went upupup, and even though guys like Stockton, who entered the place of honor himself, still played the same game, the package expected from fans forever changed.

But now there is no Jordan to accompany all the noise anymore, not a Stockton to provide the counterpoint. And the stars of today need to be placed within a game experience that matches today’s sensibilities. The league has attempted to personalize the experience by allowing viewers at home to hear the ramblings of coaches in the huddle and in the locker room. That has not provided much of an injection of excitement for me. Hearing Stan Van’s screeching howl as he blurts out obvious points of emphasis, brings something new to the overall presentation, but I’m not sure I want it. I think it’s time for all the noise to go down a notch, especially when it comes to the canned plea for everyone to clap their hands. Some subtlety in the audio department would be welcome over some stretches - something along the lines of the organ at MSG say. And then let’s look at where the whole package really needs attention. Not the audio, but the visuals.

About a year ago I watched transfixed as a choreographed mass of bodies moved across an enormous LED screen in the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games. Over the last couple of weeks the new stadium in Dallas has been presented as something of a gem, with the ginormous screen being the biggest selling point. It’s becoming pretty clear to me that the way forward for the NBA is to play upon a big LED screen.

I can’t think of another sport, outside of maybe tennis, that is going to be able to take advantage of such a technologically advanced playing surface. I’m picturing an overall effect not too different from what we see today, with simply a digitized image of today’s courts beneath a sheet of soft plexiglass. The Celtics could actually go back to a digitized version of the old parquet floor of the “Gahhdins”. But superimposed upon the regular surface, could be any number of stats, visuals, and effects to suit the flow of the game. I think it is possible that such an advance could actually prove to focus the attention of viewers on the bigger picture of the game, where they have for so long been spoonfed the zinger highlights while otherwise distracted by a circus atmosphere with a beat you can dance to. And if people haven’t been distracted by the noise of the music and the announcer and the young people throwing t-shirts into the middle of your seating section, then they simply can’t pull themselves away from their own little, hand-held screens.

What could pull people away from the allure of their own little gizmos better than one big explosion of a gizmo? Make the thing touch sensitive. Place chips in each jersey or wrist band, and a chip in the ball, and let the technology determine two and three-point shots, whether the ball was released in time at the end of the clock, and whether a defender’s feet were outside the semicircle on a charge call. Getting the picture? It’s all about the picture. Present a player’s shot chart all along the way. Use the half of the court that isn’t in use at any particular time for an infinite number of purposes (yes including advertising). Keep all the fun stuff happening right there in that little rectangle. Frame it all right there and let our eyes collectively feast upon it.

Of course it could make people see the whole thing as they would a video game. But I’m resigned to losing a good deal of the human aspects of all sports for all time to come anyways. We are becoming more like machines every day. At least this way we can all be tuned into the same wavelength again for a short period of time. There was a time when technology played a very small role in sport. In a race, time would be measured to the closest tenth and then hundredth of a second, and an actual tie was entirely possible. There were things called dead heats, where neither the measure of time or the human eye could claim a winner. The official in charge of determining whether or not the competition went beyond human limits in terms of it’s closeness, performed an act that tied us all together within our human limitations. Now we leave it to machines entirely. My human eye would have called that one gold medal race of Phelps’ a dead heat. He was behind at the very last moment, and appeared to just match his opponent at the latest possible chance. It’s entirely possible that his opponent actually touched his computer-sensitive pad ahead of Phelps by some ridiculous sliver of a fraction of time, but Phelps approached with greater force and ended up applying the necessary push to activate the pad before the man next to him. It was an insult to the eye, and a diminishing what is human in gamesmanship. But that is where we are going nonetheless. If we were to have our athletes performing upon our collective screen, while putting our individual cell phones and blackberries away, then we might yet make something of our diminished roles. At least we would be present again without needing to be treated like trained seals and agitated monkeys. And maybe we would see the game in a way that suited the times while connecting to a past history that predates the slam dunk competition, when the art of the thing was all about the movements of five on five.

The $50 Million Dollar Man Andrea Bargnani

2008/09: 15.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 31.5 MPG
Career: 12.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 26.9 MPG
2009/10 Salary: $6,527,490
Contract Status: Signed through 2014/15

Claim to Fame: Eats downtown pasta during the day, makes other team eat downtown threes at night.

As if the expectations that come with being the first overall pick weren’t enough, he’s now a $50+ million dollar man. With great money comes great responsibility (yes, that’s a knock off from the “power” line). Whether or not he’s ready to take that next step is entirely up to him as he, along with Chris Bosh, is now surrounded with enough talent to contend.

Strengths:

You can’t talk about Bargnani without talking about his shooting ability for a big man. It’s why he was taken first overall and it’s why he was given a five-year extension this summer. His ability to hit the long range jumper brings defenders outside the paint and is key to the Raptors offense as it allows Bosh to set up down-low when they are on the court at the same time.

His mobility for a big man cannot be understated as while it is his shooting that brings defenders outside of their comfort zone, it’s his mobility that keeps them on their toes. If he wasn’t as mobile as he is for a big man they’d just be able to get up in his face. But, because he possesses these two strengths they are always on their toes trying to anticipate his move.

A strength that goes unnoticed is his ability to think the game a couple seconds faster than other players. Remember that pass he made to Chris Bosh in a January 5th, 2007 game against the Atlanta Hawks? If Bosh had managed to dunk it, it would’ve made every highlight reel in North America (could not find a clip). It’s his basketball IQ that separates him from other big men, and it’s one of those rare skills that cannot be taught, either you got it or you don’t.

Weaknesses:

He’s not a bad rebounder, and now that I said that I know I’m going to get killed for it on every social network out there, but it’s something he can still work on for sure. Look, at the end of the day, you’re not going to count on him to be a double-double player in his career. Yes, he has the height and the mobility, but it’s not his game. He improved his traffic rebounding in his third season, but he stills plays too far away from the basket to be counted upon getting rebounds in the “dirty areas” on the court.

Over the course of his third season in the NBA he seemed to understand what constituted as a foul and what was a “play on.” I’m glad of this fact, maybe now he can explain it to the rest of us …or at least me. It’s definitely something he improved after the interim-hiring of Jay Triano, so it’s probably the fact that Triano allowed him to play through foul trouble that really helped him out. This season he needs to work on cutting down on the fouls that there is no need to commit: the hand checks and over the backs. If he can work on that, it’ll only help him as it means he can stay on the court longer.

Andrea Bargnani

2009/10 Expectations:

18 PPG, 6 RPG, 34 MPG
He’s been compared to Dirk Nowitzki in the past due to his potential, the fact that he’s an international player and because they play a similar game. This should be the season where he gets compared to Dirk Nowitzki because of his skill level and maturity as an NBA player.

By giving Bargnani a $50+ million extension, the Raptors believe that they have locked up a core piece of their future for the long-term. It’s clear that this is Bosh’s team for at least one more season, beyond that no one knows. He’s just a core piece now, this time next season he may be looked to as the franchise.

This is part one of a five part series analyzing the Raptors starters and bench players. Follow Gagan Gandhi on Twitter (@gagangandhi) and join his group on Facebook. He writes for RealGM.com and can be reached at: gaganhoops@gmail.com with any comments, concerns or requests.

Ready to Explode

Now that a hush has fallen upon the off-season, I’ve been thinking about what actually transpired. There are only three guys returning from the line-up they had at this time last year. To some folks that qualifies as “blowing it up”. But I’m not so sure. I think the overall philosophy, make-up, and expectations for growth that we all had in mind for that 47-win team a few seasons back, finally came into play after being put in something of a holding pattern.

Look at all the elements. After winning the Atlantic and losing to the Nets in the first round, it was clear that the team needed another scoring threat on the wings to compliment Bosh, they needed somebody who could bring some of the smart, tough, veteran experience they lost with Garbajosa’s injury, and they needed to improve defensively. Look at the moves they made this season, and it would appear that there is a chance to meet all those objectives.

The 47-win team did have Anthony Parker as a fairly reliable scoring threat to compliment Bosh. But the consistency dropped off against the stronger teams in the league. That helps to explain why that team was so good against teams below them in the standings, but hard to figure out once they met stronger competition. Parker had to work harder on the defensive end in those games against stronger opponents. And when he expended all his energy on the defensive end, he usually didn’t have much left over to be that second or third scorer. His energy level also could not be sustained through a full schedule. He had slow starts, and went into two post-seasons a bit worn out and diminished in his abilities. He still would have been great as a guy off the bench this season, but it was more important to actually make sure that this team could get that solid second option on the wings. And now we have Mr. Turkoglu, who has proven very durable, and if not an enormous second scoring threat overall, he has always been there at the end of games where Parker and others most notably faded. So in terms of consistency, that is going to be just what this team has been looking for since way back.

And Hedo also brings a lot of the intelligence and intangibles that Garbajosa brought. I mentioned that the overall philosophy remains intact from that time, and I would point directly to the desire for constant ball movement. That is something that Jorge played a big role in getting firmly implemented, allowing the dependence on Bosh to be less burdensome, and it is something that guys like Carlos Delfino and Jason Kapono failed to carry over successfully. That won’t be the case with Hedo. Sure there will be times when it appears that he’s just chucking it, but you could say the same about Garbajosa. What it comes down to is that both Hedo and Jorge know what a good shot is and what a bad shot is, but they are able to bring a level of aggressive play to bear upon the game as well. Whereas Delfino brought the aggression without any idea what a good or bad shot was, and Kapono brought a great sense of what a good shot was without any ability to be be consistently aggressive. And making the right play most of the time, without hesitation, is something that rubs off positively in the same way that doing too much and forcing shots at the first sign of trouble, or hesitating and turning down plays that are there for the taking, effects a team negatively. Now if Belinelli, Jack, DeRozan and Wright can in any way add to that heady and aggressive style of play, without needing to be constantly urged on or held back like Kapono and Delfino respectively, then the team really adds to what they had in place before.

The same thing goes for the defensive side of the game. At this time last year, my hopes for the season were pinned on one of Adams, Solomon, Moon or Graham becoming something of a defensive specialist. I think I’m being much less wishful now when I look at what all the role guys should be able to do in that respect now. The main cogs have talked about defense as a primary concern throughout the off-season. And when Jarrett Jack failed to mention defense at his introductory presser, it was great to see Bosh show up and state right off, that Jack was going to be a big help as a leader and talker on defense. The 47-win team was able to get stops, and they were able to convert defense to offense to some degree. Their biggest failings came late in games, particularly against strong teams. When they absolutely had to get a stop, they just couldn’t be counted on to do so. Their primary mindset was to win with offense. And the mindset did change but the overall situation had not been fixed. In fact, where the team did manage to succeed defensively, they failed to converted it to any offense since then, and had simply become a team all too easy to gameplan against. There was never the pressure applied to opposing teams that opposing teams applied to Bosh and Calderon, and there was just no need for teams to apply pressure anywhere else. That left a small margin for error, and too many nights where good individual results could not translate into team victories.

So I feel that they’ve gotten back on track and will be an improvement over that 47-win team that I loved. Triano was there before as a big contributor to the idea of ball movement and recognizing the need to improve on defense, and he is here now with the means to put it all together in terms of the personnel. The franchise brought in Rasho back then, with the intent of having Bargnani confidently play ahead of him eventually, and that is what we look at today. They had been able to capitalize on having two starting calibre point guards throughout the marathon of an NBA season, and now with Jack they are able to benefit from that again. Will there be enough familiarity to make it all work? Well, Rasho has played with the three returning cogs as well as with Jack and Hedo. Jack has also played alongside Bosh. Belinelli and Bargnani are very familiar with each other. If they can all share the same mindframe, then they have a good chance of making all the change work very much as a means of building upon the team from ‘06-’07. That’s where improved leadership from a guy like Bosh can prove to be another measure of what was needed in terms of developing further back then.

So let me suggest that this is no blowup. Metaphorically it lies closer to how De Palma’s Blow Out was a remake of Antonioni’s Blowup. The film with Travolta in the lead part owed much to the film that preceded it. One was layered upon the other. In fact I would say that the past two seasons have been much closer to the sort of post-modern themes of both films, involving the inability to fully trust what you see and hear. Hopefully looking closer and closer at this team as assembled now, we might see revealed the true makings of the kinds of masterpieces that the cinema saw in decades past with a couple of notable Italians at the helm. The fear does certainly remain, of eventually seeing the team metaphorically represented by the bombs that pockmarked Travolta’s career. I really need to keep myself from thinking about that too much though, if for no other reason than it makes me realize that I’ve followed Travolta’s career way too closely. I watched Kotter before entering high school myself. I actually still possess his hit single Let Her In (which was the kind of glorious off-key ballad so predominant at the time, and which Auto-Tune has left us forever yearning for again). Aside from those terrible vehicles where he provided the voice for a talking baby, I’ve damn near seen everything else he’s ever done. This is a bit of a frightening realization that illustrates to me once again why I should just stay away from metaphor. But let me end by saying that I’m anticipating De Palma’s fireworks scene set in Philadelphia on the fourth of July, or the three-way from the earlier Antonioni work to fit my mood this time around. If not, then I’ll just have to turn to Blow as the prevailing metaphorical device.

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