May 29, 2009

No Conspiracy Here!

The age-old story of playoff fandom revolves around bellyaching about the officials. The NBA, more than any other professional sport, has been littered with "conspiracy theories," theories propagated by the fans of losing teams from smaller markets. These theories have been fueled by the reigning supremacy of large-market franchises from Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. To small-market fans, how else would large-market teams from a salary cap sport sustain success while small-market teams have remained on the greatness-doormat roller coaster? The theories were further validated by the Donaghy scandal and the microscope placed on officials in recent years.

As a Laker fan, maybe I'm naive or biased. After all, the Lakers seem to be the center of most of these theories. In fact, I don't recall a big Lakers win that wasn't tainted by cries of conspiracy or biased officiating in the fan universe. Nevertheless, I'm downright annoyed by NBA fans and their conspiracy theories.

Without a doubt, NBA execs would love to see a Lebron-Kobe Finals matchup. Ratings would soar, and revenues would follow suit. Pitting the two best (and most marketable) players in a head-to-head matchup on the biggest stage would be fail-proof from a business standpoint. Everyone from Shanghai to Chattanooga would be tuning in to that matchup, and the NBA undoubtedly understands this. However, has anyone considered the possibility that the teams with the two best players in the universe have the best chance of winning?

If the outcomes of NBA games were truly influenced by Monty McCutcheon, Joey Crawford, and Dick Bavetta (as instructed by David Stern), the NBA would be more concerned with extending series. I'd think the best way to maximize revenue (and overall viewership) would be to add games. The NBA figured this out a long time ago when the season was extended to 82 games. So why, from this perspective, would the NBA and its officials allow the Cavaliers to breeze through first- and second-round sweeps? Why would the refs allow Kobe & Company to deliver a knock-out punch in Denver (even after all of George Karl's whining) and thereby eliminate a game seven in L.A.? Either the NBA is run by idiotic businessmen, or there is no conspiracy theory this season. I choose to believe the latter.

The Lakers came out and dominated Game Six. Needless to say, Officials are virtually incapable of directing a 27-point blowout, but let me list some of the facts. The Lakers shot 57% from the floor, 56% from three, and 100% from the line in game six. The Nuggets? 44%, 42%, and 80%, respectively. Absent shrinkening the circumference of the Nuggets' rims, the referees couldn't be blamed for these discrepancies. Maybe they affected the game through their whistles? I think not. Free throw attempts: Nuggets - 25, Lakers - 24.

Nugget fans, coaches, and players were enraged by the "horrendous" officiating in game five. Watching the game (even as a Laker fan), I thought these claims were unfounded and borderline paranoid. Just to do my due dilligence, I checked the box score on this one as well. The Lakers shot 49% in that game compared to the Nuggets' 39%. At a critical juncture in the second half, the Nuggets missed something like 16 of 17 shots. Again, the officials probably weren't to blame for that collapse. The Lakers shot 35 free throws to the Nuggets' 30. Not a huge discrepancy. Despite these tangible facts, the fans were still in an uproar and conspiracy theories were flowing.

Maybe kissing up to the refs would've been a better approach

If the Cavs make the NBA Finals, it won't be because the NBA "played God." It will be because the Magic (and every other team in the NBA for that matter) cannot defend Lebron James with any success. It will be because the Cavs put together an improbable comeback and put behind them three heartbreaking losses that could've gone either way. It will be because we have all witnessed the (soon-to-be) best player of this generation single-handedly leading an undermanned group of role players to an NBA Finals. It will not be because the NBA has subscribed to the doctrine of predestination and monkeyed with the outcome of games in order to boost ratings.

So let's all sit back and enjoy the greatness of Kobe & Lebron. Let's all enjoy the greatness of the 2009 NBA playoffs and the historically unparalleled skill level of today's players. Let's take the outcome of games at face value. After all, in the vast majority of cases, the best team wins.

May 14, 2009

Player Profile: J.R. Smith

Over the past few months, I've been especially intrigued by the skillsets and personalities of complementary players on playoff teams. More so than the stars, I've spent some time analyzing the games and court behavior of players like J.R. Smith, Luis Scola, Derek Fisher, and Courtney Lee. This inspired me to log my thoughts and observations, and in the coming days I will be profiling individual players that caught my eye. My first profile will focus on J.R. Smith.

J.R. Smith is often thought of as a one-dimensional player. For the casual fan, J.R. comes off the bench and provides instant offense for the second unit a la Dennis Johnson. This impression is not without reason: in the playoffs (entering game 5 against the Mavs), J.R. was #14 among all players in field goal attempts per 48 minutes. He is higher on that list than Yao, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, and Dwight Howard, to name a few. The "microwave" reputation was not earned exclusively from his 20 three-point attempts against Sacramento this year or his volume shooting in the 2009 playoffs. The reputation was accumulated over the past three seasons, and its connotation is partly positive and partly negative.

Prior to the trade for Billups, I had developed an opinion of Smith. In short, I thought that he was selfish & lazy, that his god-given talents were minimalized by his unwillingness to play defense or take responsibility for his performance on the court. Magnified during their early playoff exits, he appeared to have bought into Iverson's pouty brand of basketball and anti-professionalism. Energy was spent on the offensive end and in skirmishes, rarely spent on other facets of the game. Passing was an afterthought, and head-hanging was a trademark when he was excluded from the offense or pulled from the game. His defensive philosophy had playground-style undertones, focused on reaching-in rather than keeping his body between the basket and the man. Excitement rarely ensued as a result of team success unless his scoring average had been padded in the process. Understandably, George Karl's doghouse was a vantage point J.R. was accustomed to heading into the summer of '08.

Pre-Billups J.R.

Then it clicked. On a timeline similar to Denver's transformation as a team, J.R. transformed his approach to the game (at least from my perspective). The transformation of J.R. Smith was subtle in its parts and profound in its entirety. Much of this transformation can be attributed to the influence of a true leader in Chauncey Billups, but it can also be attributed to the apparent maturation of J.R. Smith as a man.

5 games into the 2008-09 season, the Nuggets decided that they were going to play defense. This decision coincided with the arrival of Billups and the departure of Iverson. About 20 games later, J.R. Smith decided that he would embrace his role on the team. He also realized that if he played defense and passed to open teammates, his minutes would increase. The Denver Nuggets realized that as J.R.'s minutes increased, the team improved.

Don't get me wrong, J.R. Smith's role with the Denver Nuggets has not changed dramatically. He still comes off the bench, drops his warmups, and shoots a three in one motion. When he gets his swagger going (which doesn't take much), he'll fire from anywhere. Anywhere. While the ancillary aspects of his game have improved, they are still that: ancillary. Smith is a shoot-first, shoot-second type of guy. But to call Smith a one-dimensional player is to discount his development, to discount his skillset.

Over the past year, Smith turned into a good teammate. Watch a Nuggs game, and he's the first one to meet Chauncey or Carmelo for a chest bump at a timeout. This is coming from the J.R. who pouted his way to the bench last year. Smith displayed flashes of point guard and stretches of lockdown defender. By "flashes of point guard," I mean to say he's got silky handles in the open floor or the congested paint and is a pretty crafty passer. By "lockdown defender," I'm referring to his defensive assignments shifting from the Wally Sczerbiaks to the Dwyane Wades (when Dahntay Jones isn't in the game). J.R.'s athleticism is off the charts. What I like most, though, is that he plays like he's on fire even when his shot's off; make or miss, the defense has to account for that. His game is John Starks circa '93, but his skillset is Ray Allen circa '99.

All statistical measures aside, J.R. Smith's style of play is aesthetically pleasing. Not so much for the casual fan -- more so for the NBA junkie. This is probably his greatest contribution to the game at this stage of his career. The casual fan sees another athletic specimen, the dime-a-dozen shooting guard. The NBA junkie appreciates the details. The fluidity with which he catches & releases, the purity with which his shot breaches nylon, the skip in his step after consecutive baskets, the playground scowl that's been refined and institutionalized. Basketball is a team sport, but the individualism is what makes this game so beautiful.

These next few years is where J.R. will cement himself as a premier sixth man or blossom into a bona fide star. He's got all the tools -- the athleticism, vision, stroke, and brashness -- to be elite. However, only the most special of players, those possessing the skills, work ethic, and borderline obsessiveness, harness their abilities to enter the upper echelon of the league. Time will tell if the maturation process will continue, if his psyche will allow him reach his full potential as a basketball player. I'll be watching.

May 11, 2009

Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs! Playoffs?

This year's NBA playoffs have taught us a number of things:

1) This is NOT your father's NBA.

In fact, this ain't even your sister's WNBA.

It's a shame these refs weren't around for the early stages of Enron, because their whistle-blowing would have saved public investors millions. A tongue flap gets a T, a hip check gets a flagrant-1, and an "Artest" on the back of a jersey gets a flagrant-2. The extraneous whistles and penalties have been so rampant this postseason that even Rajon Rondo has been painted as a thug.

I have yet to watch a game without at least one technical foul and one flagrant foul. In fact, most games have had ejections and been surrounded by league investigations. In years past, playoff refereeing has been heavily scrutinized; but mainly by losing fans who are attempting to blame their teams' shortcomings on inconsistent whistles or home cooking. This type of bellyaching has taken a backseat in 2009 as inconsistency has not been the problem. 2009 playoff referees have been consistently temperamental and borderline paranoid. It's as if the hangover from "the brawl" in the Palace has hit stage 4. "Playoff fouls" are a distant memory, and uncontested layups are the new black. Kevin McHale just rolled over in his lottery grave.

2) Rajon Rondo is good.

Just 11 months ago, the Celtics were said to have won an NBA Championship in spite of Rondo. Fisher was a roaming double-team while Rondo was left free to operate. While he made the Lakers pay on occasion, Rajon mostly looked like a deer in the headlights, like a teenage boy afraid to swoop for the goodnight kiss with Dad in the window.

Now we've got this terror, this unbridled mess of chaos and beauty. His foot quickness is in an elite class with the Parkers & Harris', and his hand quickness is rivaled only by CP3. Only Ason Kidd is a better rebounder from the point guard spot. His athleticism is criminally underrated (see this), and he has to be the lankiest 6-footer to ever suit up in Celtics green. His decision-making is remarkable considering the speed with which he plays the game; his assist-to-turnover ratio is a filthy 4:1 in the playoffs.

To truly understand his coming-of-age, one need only look at his playoff averages thus far: 18 ppg, 10.5 apg, 9.5 rpg, and 2.5 spg. On a team with three future hall-of-famers (albeit only 2 are playing), Rondo has been the most valuable player. He has been the glue holding together this fragile team that is clawing and scratching to stay alive. Not bad for a 23-year-old.

3) Ron Artest is even crazier than we had imagined.

Any man willing to throw punches at tipsy fans (in the stands, nonetheless) probably has a chemical imbalance. Ron once flirted with premature retirement to pursue a rap career. He has faced charges of domestic abuse and his jekyll & hyde personality creates priceless soundbites with every interview. Before the 2009 playoffs, however, we haven't gotten this level of coverage, this level of observation.

Artest started off this playoffs manning budding star Brandon Roy and called him "the best player I've played against"... outside of some guy named "Mike" from Queensbridge that went to jail at the age of 15, naturally. When asked by Craig Sager, Artest didn't back down from his asessment when asked if Roy was better than Lebron or Kobe (and you wonder why Kobe has taken this series' battle so seriously?). Artest capped the interview by calling Charles Barkley "a bit overrated."

In the second round, Artest got thrown out of consecutive games (although the second toss-out was a complete joke). His interview after game two was another seesaw battle between sanity and insanity. Ron nonchalantly made the transition from his team's clean play to the kid who was stabbed to death by a leg of the scorers table. Just when you thought things couldn't get any more random...

In my opinion, Ron's lunacy is what makes him so lovable. With the micro-policing of playoff referees, he adds spice and keeps fans on the edge of their seats. I used to think he was a hard-nosed player with bull-like strength (years with the Bulls). Then I thought he was merely a harmless self-promoter who idolized Dennis Rodman (note his promotional shoe campaign in the '04 All-Star Game). Finally, I thought he was in the midst of an identity crisis (failed pursuit of a rap career). Now, I think he's a combination of all of the above. Above all, he's entertaining and gives his team a better chance to win.

4) The NBA, where repetitive ad campaigns happen.

I've always thought of the NBA as the most innovative & progressive league in professional sports. From international expansion, to the NBA Cares campaign, to the "Green" campaign, the NBA has been a step ahead of its counterparts with regards to pop culture and globalization. While that opinion hasn't changed, I've been turned off by the "Where Amazing Happens" campaign. Last year it was new and interesting; this year, it's exhaustive and annoying.

My wife makes nightly alternative plans to avoid sitting through NBA playoff games with me. She has been quite successful in her elusiveness, but failed to plan appropriately the other night. In the waning moments of Game 3 between the Mavs & Nuggets, I caught her humming along to the piano bit in a "Where Amazing Happens" commercial. If the NBA is trying to create brand recognition, I suppose it's working. "The NBA: Where Dried Up Advertising Budgets Happens." How amazing is a slow motion layup by Jason Kidd?

2009 Free Agents

With the much-anticipated summer of 2010 still more than a year away, I did a little research on who would be available this summer. Below are my picks for the top five UNRESTRICTED free agents (in no particular order):

The positives - We all know what B.G. can do: score. And he does it well. Unlike many big-time scorers, however, Gordon seems to save it for when it matters most. Ever since he came into the league, he has been amongst the leaders in fourth quarter scoring, and he didn't disappoint in this year's playoffs. B.G. dropped 40-plus in a back-and-forth game two against the Celtics. His fourth quarter heroics were dwarfed by Ray Allen's game-winning three, but they weren't overlooked by people like myself. Dude's a gamer.

The negatives - We have also come to know B.G.'s shortcomings. At 6'3", you'd like him to be more of a distributor (3.0 APG for his career). Although he's stout for his height, he isn't exactly a lockdown defender and can be taken advantage of in the post by bigger guards. In reality, outside of scoring, Gordon doesn't do much to fill up a box score.

The good fits - Utah, Phoenix, Chicago, any bad team where he can shoot 20+ times per game.
I think Gordon's game is better suited for the open court style of play that the West offers. Utah is going to lose a lot of scoring if Boozer packs his bags, and Gordon's defensive shortcomings could be masked by the physicality of Deron Williams. In Phoenix, B.G. could continue in his shoot-first ways with Nash dishing the rock, and Gentry's commitment to NO defense would be ideal for this volume shooter. Chicago grew up in the playoffs (despite the narrow loss), but they need to continue to surround the unselfish Derrick Rose with shooters. With Hinrich's departure probable, keeping Gordon could be a priority for Management. I don't think I need to explain why B.G. would flourish for a subpar team.

Has B.G. had enough in Chi-Town?

The positives - Miller brings all the intangibles you want out of your point guard: leadership, poise, unselfishness. He's pretty physical for his size and a good passer. He's an accurate foul shooter in late-game situations and has been durable throughout his career. He's always amongst the league leaders in steals and rebounds well for a point guard (4.5 RPG in 08-09).

The negatives - Miller turned 33 this spring. He probably doesn't make much sense for a rebuilding team, as his window of peak play is behind him. He also has a hard time keeping up with younger, quicker point guards (e.g. Rondo, Paul, Parker, Harris). For a point guard, he is a dreadful three point shooter (28% in 08-09). As such, any team looking to pick him up needs to be equipped with shooters to surround him with.

The good fits - Portland, LA Lakers.
Miller would complement Portland's young guns perfectly and would provide veteran experience that the team is currently lacking. With Rudy Fernandez and the impending return of Martell Webster, the Blazers have the shooters in place that Miller needs. Miller could create more off the dribble than D-Fish, which would take some pressure off Kobe. I don't think the Lakers would be concerned with Miller's age, as they have the pieces in place to compete for NBA Championships NOW.

- CARLOS BOOZER (Player Option, but does anyone doubt he will take it?)
The positives - Boozer is a tireless offensive rebounder and a proven scorer. He has a good work ethic and is a pretty heady player (courtesy of Coach K). Boozer's ability to hit the 18-footer with regularity causes matchup nightmares, and his quickness enables him to defend the pick-and-roll.

The negatives - C.B. has a tough time guarding taller players and doesn't block many shots for a power forward. He has been somewhat injury-prone in his short career. Clearly, the Jazz see him as expendible as they have all but turned over the keys to Paul Millsap.

The good fits - New Jersey, Atlanta.
New Jersey has its center of the future in Brook Lopez (sigh), but they lack consistent play from the power forward position. If Carter is shipped, Boozer and Harris would be a good scoring tandem. In Atlanta, Boozer would enable Josh Smith to play more minutes at his natural position (small forward), Horford could slide to Center, and Zaza Pachulia could slide down the bench. Although Horford is a decent scorer, it is not his natural strength. Boozer would take some pressure off Joe Johnson and Horford could focus on being a beast at the defensive end and on the boards.

The positives - Sheed can stretch the defense with his three-point shooting. He's also a very underrated defender and a decent rebounder. When he is focused, there is only one player in the league who can stop him from scoring from the mid-post (Garnett). Plus, he will put fans in the seats with his childish antics.

The negatives - Often times, I wonder if Sheed even cares. He is one of the most gifted players in the league, but seems content to stand on the three-point line most of the time. His antics, while they draw headlines (good or bad), can be a huge distraction. Even though he has great touch from the floor, his free throw shooting has been suspect at times.

The good fits - San Antonio, Dallas, Golden State.
San Antonio's window is closing quickly, but Sheed would fit in nicely with what they try to do at the defensive end. His ability to stretch the defense would give Duncan more room to operate in the post. Dallas is one- or two- pieces away from being great, and Sheed could be just the lift they need. Just make sure he isn't rooming with Josh Howard on road trips. Don Nelson has shown the ability to harness the energy of hot-headed players (see Stephen Jackson). In Golden State, Sheed could play the uptempo style and fire 5-7 threes per game without getting benched.

The positives - Odom possesses the rare combination of size, athleticism, and court vision that GM's drool over. He probably has the best handles of any 6'10 player in the league, and is one of the better rebounders in the game. Odom can create matchup nightmares when he is playing at the three spot, towering over his defenders. L.O. has a great touch around the basket.

The negatives - At times, Odom disappears on the court. The rap sheet says that he takes plays off, which I can't necessarily argue with. Odom is a mediocre (at best) outside shooter, and his free throw shooting is especially a problem late in games. When playing the three spot, he can create congestion on the court as he is best suited around the paint. His point guard mentality can lead to careless turnovers at times.

The good fits - Cleveland, Houston.
L.O. would flourish playing alongside King James. He is a significant upgrade from Varejao/B. Wallace at the offensive end, and would add the athleticism that the Cavs need (outside of James, of course). Odom does well in situations where he plays the second- (or third) fiddle on offense. Houston is another team that needs to get more athletic. They already have guards who can knock down the three and power forwards who can step out and hit jumpers. If Artest leaves this summer, Houston will need a versatile player like Odom at both ends of the floor.

Didn't make my list: Mike Bibby (yawn), Ason Kidd (too old), Allen Iverson (cancerous), Antonio McDyess (too old), Ron Artest (too crazy), Shawn Marion (I think he'll stay in TOR), Al Harrington (unimpressed), Jermaine O'Neal (too injury-prone)

Manny struck out, who's next?

The last twelve months have been a circus. Hence, my contributions to the blogosphere have been, shall we say, lacking. So to my four regular readers, I apologize. Now that I've gotten that off my plate, let's get back to talking sports.

Manny, Manny, Manny... why hast thou disappointed me? I thought that if there was one natural, one "clean," player in the game, it would be Senor Ramirez. Maybe I had my blue-tinted sunglasses (er, blinders) on. Maybe I just truly believed he didn't give a you-know-what. Whatever the case, the news of his foul play came as a bit of a shock at my house.

MLB's axe has come down hard on some of the big boys now. The once-towering redwoods that were the legacies of Manny, A-Rod, Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens (to name a few) have been compromised. Bud Selig & Co. came a swingin' and chopped them down to pitiful stumps. Okay, okay... enough with the Paul Bunyan-type metaphors. You get my point.

Now that the list of marque names on baseball's (and the hall of fame's) black list is growing, one has to wonder who will be next. For the most part, the sacred Mitchell documents have been kept under wraps. The remaining names on "the list" are still a secret, which comes as no surprise to me. Releasing those names would be bad for business. Imagine the repercussions if one of Selig's golden boys (e.g. Jeter, Pujols, Rivera) became a known con. MLB's already non-existent marketing would be toast. MLB's already tarnished reputation would take another hit.

Quite frankly, I don't care who's on the list. Baseball purists may argue that full disclosure is the only way for baseball to overcome these issues. There may be some truth to that, but I'm still not convinced that it would solve the problems. To me, the damage has already been done. Anyone with half a brain knows that everyone, or close to everyone, was using some type of performance-enhancing substance during the "Steroid Era." With that in mind, what good would come from letting the proverbial cat out of the bag at this point? What good would come from knowing that the top 10 home run hitters in 2002 were all juiced?

If anyone would benefit from this type of disclosure, it would be Bonds, McGwire, Manny, and the rest of the bunch. The more names that get dropped, the better for their legacies and chances at getting into the Hall of Fame. The HOF committee can blackball a handful of known offenders, but would it really turn away an entire era of players? Highly doubtful.

Any thoughts? What's baseball's next play?