Archive for May, 2010

J. Edgar Who For What For?

So far we have seen the heralded Free Agent class of 2010 fail to create any real excitement outside of the talk about whether they will stay put or go elsewhere. There has been a whole lot of underachieving, disappointment, and failure. At this point the only guys with any measure of success would be Amare Stoudemire and Ray Allen, and Amare has looked awful in his current matchup, while Ray Ray’s mother has probably garnered more looks than he has.

And I don’t blame the players. Not as individuals anyways. It’s the league. And I suppose since it’s a player’s league, then you can blame the players as a group. What happened to the ability to assemble a core of truly great players who go on to allow a certain mastery of the game to be distilled right down to the role players at the end of the bench? Forget about matching up two or three All-Stars (something which in itself happens infrequently). How about allowing us to see two or three future Hall of Famers on the court together? In their prime? And then stick some more All-Stars alongside them for good measure.

OK – so maybe I was spoiled by the Celtics and Lakers and Sixers of old. But I can look at teams that followed in the wake of those golden years, and still see a good deal of depth, in terms of aspiring to that greatness that came before them, that simply isn’t matched today. Expansion and the CBA have made building a great team less likely than seeing a team hindered by bad contracts. Too much money comes to too many players before they have truly earned it. That alone changes the dynamics of how a player develops, and how a GM makes decisions. Of course the NBA is about the business as well as the game. But the way things stand, the business of basketball undermines the game itself, to the point where I think it might actually become unprofitable.

And I’m not sure that is where the attention will be focused if a lockout happens. This is a league that has become too obsessed with talented individuals, and not enough with greatness. There is a big difference. There is no lack of talent in this league. There is not enough of the intangibles, of the will to fight through difficulties, of accepting blame and growing from it. That stuff can be supplied by players that do not fit the Michael Jordan mold of “superstar” player. Just look at Rajon Rondo. The more that this guy plays in big games and faces bigger tests, the more greatness we see from a kid that never had any kind of star tag applied to him for the longest time. Now he’s a guy that mirrored a lot of what Lebron was able to do in the last series. He’s a guy that illustrates such a smart awareness of how to impact the game every second he is on the floor, whether it’s knowing where the heads of the refs are at, which teammates need to get some confidence built up, or exactly what needs to be done defensively. He personifies getting the most out of himself and his team. That’s greatness. And I suspect a lot of it came from some of the greatness that surrounds him. The Big Three’s greatest achievement might be the creation of a truly great player in Rondo.

Greatness begets greatness in ways that talent can never beget talent. The prior incarnation of the Detroit Pistons is always referred to as a team lacking a single superstar. Why are they not seen as a collection of players that overcame a certain lack of supreme talent through the greatness that they instilled in each other? If that is not the model that this league looks to, then it does so at its own peril. Finding singularly great talent has been a means of selling out arenas over the last decade or so. But greatness has not been extracted from that business formula. The game needs colliding waves of greatness, and instead relies on showcasing islands of talent while seas of mediocrity roll along those shores.

The inability of all the current free agent stars to grow greatness in this game, is more an indictment of the state of the league, than of those individual players. They’ve all been asked to be Jack Bauer, but the casts around them has more closely resembled Agent Cooper’s. And now they are supposedly looking to hook up like various Scully and Mulders. Have they had talent around them? Yes – without a doubt. But the talent has not been well-tested, entirely proven in its mettle, nor shown to be capable of rising to the greatness that could further the greatness that lies within the Lebrons and Dirks and Wades and Boshes. It’s something that needs to spread across whole teams to some extent. Maybe the pairing up that could go on with this class of free agents will allow that to happen more than it has recently. I just wonder if there will be the correct point of emphasis – to make sure some of the greatness works its way down to the eighth or ninth man of the rotation.

I suspect much will get made of who is Scully and who is Mulder in the matching that might occur – that the emphasis will be entirely misplaced on stuff that does not matter to the game as a competitive engagement. I fear that the trend of mental weakness, non-accountability, and whole teams shrinking in the face of adversity will grow more than any trend toward expanding greatness. In other words, fewer competitive games when we need to see them the most. How long are fans going to settle for the empty myth of a Jack Bauer getting the job done in an instant, before realizing that there must be a demand for a league-wide culture, requiring a real longview that aspires to games that are larger than life, far above and beyond the call of superstars to fill highlight reels? This fan is pleading for the game to be put ahead of the business side of the league. The business end of the NBA will take care of itself as long as the game is tended to: the reverse is not true, unless talent that need not prove its greatness, or even have that opportunity, is enough for us all to identify ourselves as fans of the game, instead of just fans of a bunch of various personalities that are not asked to aspire to much more than just being personalities. If a bespectacled Dwight Howard playing his own goofy version of Clark Kent while interviewing himself about his “Superman” persona is enough to make up for the heartless asses that showed up on the court wearing Magic jerseys, then I will be proven wrong.

beat down

It might just be me trying to ease the pain of the Raptors failing so badly, but for something like the third season running, the last two for certain, the playoffs are a stunning bore. Are 30+ and 40+ point differentials the new 20 point winning margins? Is losing by 18 or 20 a good sign that your team is at least hanging around with a chance to come back up until the last half of the fourth quarter?

No. I don’t buy it. I actually see Toronto not being that far off from what we’ve seen in terms of quality play in the playoffs. If the bar is set at being able to provide the odd competitive matchup, then I think the Raptors can clear it. That doesn’t reflect on my homerism as much as it reflects on the sad state of the NBA. I’ll admit I can be prone to foolish homerism. And I won’t apologize for it. Right now I have to be foolishly hopeful just to keep from making it a daily practice to set up my Raptor mascot wind-up toy on the railing of my balcony, and shoot it down with a stream of urine. But it’s not about that. I do love basketball as I remember it being showcased in the post-season, with or without O Canada being sung by Robin Thicke or some such deadbeat celeb with loose ties to the great white wonder that is us. So where is the showcase?

Or should I ask how competitive playoff games went the way of the original raptors? There are the injuries, clearly. Having an NBA team that is healthy in the playoffs is like having an NHL team with a hot goalie in the playoffs. The regular season kills off way too many of the games stars. The league is going to have to address that somehow. The NFL needed to do so, and they did. And as much as it sucks to see one of those fat dudes get killed on roughing penalties for breathing on the quarterback, the fat dudes just don’t count in comparison (go ahead and argue that they aren’t playing football anymore, but they weren’t really playing much of anything in the XFL and that was all about the fat dudes).

But it’s way more than the injuries. It’s the way teams are put together. A solid team should be able to continue to compete through injuries to big name players. Sort of like the Milwaukee Bucks, but to the point of being able to beat an embarrassing collection of players like the Atlanta Hawks for an entire series. Show me some teams, like the Bucks, that make heart matter, and throw in some verifiably great talent on top of that, and I think the NBA suddenly has something it can showcase. Instead it has individual stars, often alone among surrounding role players, sometimes paired up with some other serious talent, but all too often without the kind of foresight and vision that would make it work. So many teams added big names to their rosters with so little success. Remember when every team in the league fired their coach every seven months or so until they all figured out that the constant change was having more of a negative effect than a positive impact? Now it would seem that the shuffling is going on with the player personnel. So much of it comes from the same place as with the coaching crisis. Theres the hope for some sort of magic to occur. But what happens? S.O’Neal looks far too much like J.Oneal did in a Raptors jersey. You can’t question their heart or desire and they proved to be surprisingly effective at times. But they don’t fill the large role that is in their own heads nor a lesser role that is in mind when it comes to getting more out of the other four guys on the court. And it just doesn’t add up to a showcase.

Then there is the way that the league has become guard dominant due to rule changes. That gets us all through the regular season reasonably entertained. It makes a team like the Atlanta Hawks look impressive in spite of the fact that they are a collective embarrassment of heartless, dumb-ass athletes. But get into the playoffs and suffer the kinds of constant defensive breakdowns we know all to well here in Toronto, due to the opposing guards just playing downhill every possession, and the game itself gets ugly. Even Milwaukee’s limited success had as much to do with their point guards penetrating easily and guys on the perimeter knocking down threes, as it did with their heart. It’s becoming a heartless game. If Dwight Howard hoists the championship trophy upon one massive shoulder, and the Finals MVP trophy on the other massive shoulder, then we will have officially entered the heartless era of the NBA. Of course it won’t quite happen that way, because rule changes have allowed a guy like Jameer Nelson to become Finals MVP material, so if the Magic win it all that is how it will likely go down. Jameer has a ton of heart so maybe I’ll be able to console myself to that fact, but still, his MVP win will not be about his heart as much as it will be about smartly exploiting the path of least resistance. Teams cannot defend the perimeter and the paint. It wasn’t just a Raptor enigma – they were just a particularly bad example. The result is that there is a great deal of freedom at the point of attack where anyone can pretend to be like Mike without needing to assert their will to anything of the same extent to get some of the same results. And that does not tend to equate to competitive battles. With that in mind, it could be VC as Finals MVP. Lord knows, he can take the path of least resistance like no one else. What kind of a beat down for the league would that be?

Paper Tigers

There are some uncanny parallels and connections between the Dallas Mavericks and the Toronto Raptors. Both teams began the decade with old coaches that could both look forward to accumulating more wins and more losses than anyone else. They would both soon after go with motivational coaches with southern drawls, not long removed from their playing days, and with coach of the year honors not being enough to keep them employed long thereafter. The two franchises have front office guys that are revered, maybe a little too highly, by their fanbase. The face of each franchise is a power forward more renowned for their finesse than their actual power games.

And both teams have underachieved terribly, with Dallas making history by exclusively losing to an 8th seed, and exclusively losing to a 7th seed, since the inception of 7-game series in the first round. On paper they always fool you into thinking they can really get it done. This season, with the addition of Haywood and Butler, they looked better than ever on paper, but the story was the same. Fundamentally, this team comes from a starting point of not being built for playoff success. They have improved on defense since the days of Don Nelson, without a doubt. But the role definition still begins and ends primarily on the offensive side of the court.

Watching the Mavs-Spurs series, there was a comment made by Doug Collins at one point when the teams went to their benches. He looked at the players on the court for the Spurs and said something about how they were going to have to count on Parker and Jefferson to carry the load of the offense. And that struck a fairly obvious note of how differently the Spurs and Mavs have always been constructed. The Spurs have guys in roles not requiring offensive prowess, but always being capable of doing something to help those two or three guys who are going to carry the load, do so more effectively. And there are no trade-offs in terms of always having the best team defense they can possibly put out there – again it’s where the roles are defined to begin with. Tony Parker started to get exposed on defense as the the team aged a little, said goodbye to Bruce Bowen, and had to try to incorporate Richard Jefferson, who was taking a while to figure out his role on the team himself. On top of all that, Parker had injury problems through the year and maybe wasn’t the same player that won the Finals MVP a few years ago. Enter George Hill, whose defense allowed some room for error with Jefferson, and allowed Parker to take on a new role off the bench that ensured the best overall team defense while still making use of his offensive abilities. He made the sacrifice, as Manu had before him, and as all the role players on the team do. A team built upon such interconnecting roles and the concept of sacrifice will overcome a lot of obstacles and succeed. That’s not what you see with the Mavericks or Raptors.

Not that Avery Johnson and Sam Mitchell didn’t come close to getting their teams more in line with the Spurs model. But neither of those guys could count on support from above, where looking at stats and building a team based on an abundance of offensive weapons trumped the need for proper role definition and making sacrifices.

Now if Dallas fails in the playoffs, with a former MVP alongside a bevy of verifiable star players, not to mention a point guard that will at least get some consideration by hall of fame voters; it’s not hard to see how the Raptors would just plain struggle. Toronto has had to make up for the lack of star power, by running and looking for early offense rather than create a lot in halfcourt sets. That plan alone lead to all kinds of problems with floor balance and turnovers and horrible transition defense. It was a case of looking to get the most out of their collective offense at the cost of defensive integrity. Even as a guy like Reggie Evans was acquired, Bryan Colangelo couldn’t help but tout how much he felt we would all see how good he could be scoring the ball. Jay Triano began the season talking about the importance of defense, and quickly found himself selling the “exciting” brand of basketball they planned on showcasing. This whole franchise is more of a sales job than a basketball team. Plain and simple.

It goes deep into the culture. Just like with Dallas, the players are sold on how they will be made happy, with great facilities, coaching that supports more than it criticizes or requires internal competition, and a style of play that allows everyone to look towards scoring as a point of emphasis that overshadows the emergence of the kinds of intangibles that might not show up in the stat sheets, but that allow for success all the same. Triano thought the proper cultural notes to strike centered around looking at a picture of the championship trophy and having everyone “see it, believe it, and achieve it”. I was sold Jay! And your players clearly were as well! What could have gone wrong? I can’t wait until you come back next season and try the same thing again. If I could just make one little suggestion? How about stressing “see the ball, see your man, compete or take a seat”?

That would be a start. If that kind of culture doesn’t take precedence, then this team can spend and add more stars around Bosh to entice him to stay, or they can look to rebuild with a bunch of new pieces, but they will still have the same ceiling as the Mavericks. They will still underachieve. Remember all the flak Babcock took when he suggested his team might not look all that great on paper? Well now we have a GM that constantly tells us how good his teams are on paper. He’s promised to get the team to reflect what he sees as being capable of 50 wins on paper. But even if he sees it, believes it, and achieves it, his 50 win team will merely disappoint in the playoffs, unless he somehow fundamentally alters how he sees the game and sells his team. He’ll just be offering another Paper Tiger that folds too easily.