Monday, June 29, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
A blockbuster trade sending Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland is being finalized. This is just too ticklish. There are so many story lines and subplots and egos and things to prove and legacies and careers hanging in the balance that it would take an entire book to hash them all out.
But I'm going to try and cover some of this filled story.
First of all I don't think this trade carries as much value for Cleveland as it does in star power.
Shaq changes the way the Cleveland offense is going to work. Remember, this offense won 66 games last year, so this is a risk they are taking. Shaq clogs up the middle in ways that LeBron has never had to deal with, and will slow down the offense in a big way. He also doesn't bring the outside shooting and spacing that Z brought at center.
He does bring good things on offense as well, like someone the Cavs can run it through other than LeBron, an offensive rebounding presence, and a markedly missing low-post option. LeBron doesn't have a good post game yet, and their best option last year against the Magic in the playoffs was Delonte West.
Butttt, Shaq is 37 years old. He is entering a contract year, but he has been carrying around a huge amount of weight for a lot of NBA years. He is known to have a lax work ethic and only plays well when motivated. The good thing here is that he might have enough motivation to be effective, but at this point his body may not be able to respond in ways it has in the past.
Shaq is an attention whore, and both him and LeBron are alpha dogs. What happens when two alpha dogs try to co-exist on the same team? Just ask Kobe and Shaq. It was a marriage built by success, and their bond broke apart once the success started fading.
If the Cavs don't do well, or don't do as well as last year, look for problems to come up between the alpha dogs. If they do well, all should remain well on this front unless they lose unexpectedly in the playoffs. Then Shaq is a free agent, LeBron is a free agent, and blame will have to be put somewhere. This story will not end well for Cleveland fans who are pinning all their hopes on getting LeBron back at any cost.
Let's face one simple fact. This was a desperation move by Danny Ferry, the Cleveland GM.
Shaq was dominant for a long time and he is one of the greatest centers ever. He had a short good stint on Phoenix when he was motivated to prove he could still do his thing, but he can't sustain that ability for much longer. This is similar to the move the Lakers made to get Pau Gasol for Kobe, but the difference is that Pau is young and has a bright future, and has no problem playing second fiddle. Shaq doesn't share any of those traits.
Danny Ferry had to give LeBron a reason to believe that Cleveland can give him what he wants not only in terms of love and money, but in terms of a supporting cast. Last year they called off the move before the trade deadline thinking their team was good enough as is. They were wrong. LeBron was obviously upset.
They needed to get him help for this year, and instead of getting Tyson Chandler who they were avidly pursuing and could have had, they went the safer route of getting Shaq who only has one year left on his contract, leaving cap room for the 2010 free agent sweepstakes.
That is fine, but the problem with that thinking is that it assumes LeBron is coming back in 2010. And he might only come back if he has a trusted sidekick already in place this year. Shaq won't be that guy who will be his sidekick long-term.
If the Cavs had gotten Chandler, a young, athletic, big, and they did well, LeBron would have a much easier time staying in a settled, long-term situation than starting over some place else. The problem for the Cavs is that they have basically leveled the playing field, as every other team coveting him is also looking to start fresh with him and whoever he wants.
The obvious counter to this is that the Cavs need to keep it open to make sure they can pursue a big free agent to convince LeBron to stay in Cleveland. If Chandler doesn't work out, they are stuck with his contract and much less room to pursue someone else for LeBron.
Both ways are risky and scary situations for Cleveland fans, but with this move they are basically just using Shaq for one year to get back to the same position they were just in, a year from now.
This seems intelligent, but if I were Ferry I would have used the fact that I have an advantage in the LeBron sweepstakes in that I have him on my team right now. I would have gotten some big that was younger, and less risky than Shaq. I wouldn't have just settled for staying even and waiting for next summer.
But, hey, I'm not a GM of an NBA team so that's just my two pennies worth.
Moving on now to the more fun stuff. The underlying subplots for a bunch of key characters. The stuff that doesn't really pertain to actual basketball:
This could turn out one of three ways.
1) The Cavs don't do as well as they need to for this trade to be a success, and the Lakers do well. Shaq will look like extra baggage for the second time. Kobe will be spared all the comparisons and probable unfavorable media news cycles. He will gain another notch up on LBJ and Shaq. He was way behind Shaq before this fourth championship, just moved up to right behind even, and this would put him past Shaq. This would also move him further ahead of LeBron.
2) The Cavs win the championship or do well and the Lakers don't. This would be semi-bad news for Kobe. Shaq would move ahead of him and would become the Great Deliverer of championship rings. LeBron would enter the discussion with his first ring, but would probably still be a little under Shaq's shadow, so that would still have to be played out a little bit more.
3) Both teams do equally well or equally badly. If they both do badly, Kobe won't be able to ride last year's championship and will take heat, and the Cavs trade would be a failure. If both do well then Kobe is par per expectations and adds to his legacy of consistency, and the Cavs trade is a success and both LeBron and Shaq look good.
For Dwayne Wade...
1) If LeBron can't win with Shaq, he'll have a leg up on LeBron (even though that sounds weird, I know). Shaq is obviously older now than he was with the Heat, but still, this story would play out like "Dwayne could do it but LeBron couldn't, he got his help and still came up short." All the usual nonsense.
2) If LeBron does win a ring, he'll solidify his ranking above Wade and start challenging Kobe in terms of legacy and championships.
For LeBron James...
1) If he doesn't win, then he should take the blame. I don't know if he will because he is the face of the NBA and a media darling (imagine how much flak Kobe would have taken if he pulled a no-handshake stunt), but he should take it.
In '07, he was young and the team wasn't very good, so making the Finals was more than enough. In '08 they lost to the eventual champions and again expectations weren't that high. In '09 it was the FIRST time in LeBron's career that he underachieved. All through high school and the NBA he had overachieved and surpasses expectations.
In a sense we saw him fail for the first time in relation to expectations when he didn't shake Dwight's hand. This would be a failure and a tough one, so he must exceed whatever expectations the team has, which is probably at least making the Finals.
2) If he does win, he'll become another one in the class of Wade and Kobe who have won with Shaq. It will be his first ring so his legacy will begin, but Shaq's shadow will still be pretty strong (my guess). Regardless, it'll be his Finals MVP and his ring, and he'll have all the media attention from Kobe/Wade and whoever else, and for the first time for the ultimate reason.
He wants to prove a lot of people wrong. He thinks he can still do it. He wants to win another.
1) If he does win, he'll cement his legacy and would have brought rings to the three best wingmen in the game. He'll be able to boast about how he could deliver rings and teach people how to win and carry teams and blah blah. I'm sure he'll have a lot to say about it. The good thing is that Wade got Finals MVP and LeBron probably would as well, so he wouldn't talk as much as we know he can.
2) If he doesn't win, and HE doesn't play well, he'll take the blame for not delivering for LeBron and his career is basically over.
3) If he doesn't win, and he does play well, he could continue on possibly with LeBron in Cleveland or elsewhere if they don't re-sign him. As long as he isn't the clear-cut reason they don't win he'll be able to maneuver his way into playing longer.
As we can clearly see, a lot of things are on the line for a lot of big-name people. I'd say the most is on the line for Shaq, then LeBron, then Kobe, then Dwayne. Shaq needs to prove he belongs. LeBron has a lot to prove and redeem, but he is still very young and could be starting a new career someplace next year.
Kobe has only recently severed ties with Shaq, but all the talk about their partnership in LA will live on through the LeBron/Shaq partnership and the Kobe/LeBron comparisons. I can't wait to see the puppet commercials on this.
Dwayne is mostly out of the picture because he has gone through injuries and his team badly needs help, but if the Heat can threaten in the East next year, this could get a lot more fun.
Stan Van Gundy would probably take extra pleasure in beating the Cavs in the playoffs again with the guy who called him the "Master of Panic." But that is an if and mostly a caption story.
It is still so ironic and weird to me that the same nutty, talkative, great big man is going to get to play with Kobe, Wade, and LeBron. They will be at similar points in all their three careers and he is going to have such an insight into the debate between the three. He is scarily going to be the most qualified person to speak on the Kobe vs. LeBron vs. Wade debate.
He could compare them in so many ways and create enemies as well as friends. No matter what they might say, you know Kobe and Wade rolled their eyes when they heard about this trade happening, solely because of what they'll have to put up with just knowing the Big Fella and his new situation. He always finds a way to put himself in the discussion. And here's just another example.
Will the Cavs be better for it in 2009-2010? I don't think so, and even if they are it will be marginal all else being equal. Regardless of what analysts will break down and project nobody will really know until the preseason in October and the first few months of the season.
Until then, let's just wait and see how many story lines we can pluck out of this thing.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Two of the major pieces to this championship run, namely Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, are unrestricted free agents, but both have said that they want to come back to LA, and Odom will probably give the Lakers a hometown discount because he doesn't want to leave LA at this point in his career.
The Lakers are already on the books for about $74 million, which is already $3 million above the 2008-2009 salary cap, which is expected to decrease next year with the economic downturn.
This means that unless Mitch Kupchak can work some magic and decrease the Lakers' payroll, every dollar they pay Odom and Ariza will actually represent two dollars, with the extra dollar going to the league to be redistributed to teams under the salary cap.
Bringing back Odom and Ariza could prove to carry a hefty bill, and some people have proposed the idea of Kobe taking a pay cut to allow the team to sign both back while not exorbitantly exceeding the salary cap.
Now I don't think it is fair to ask Kobe to limit his earning potential significantly so the team can win a championship. It doesn't mean that he doesn't care about winning enough, it just means that he's not willing to stake his and his family's financial future on it. Winning always brings more fame and money, but there's always a risk in professional sports. You have to make the most money whenever you can, that's just the way the business works.
I realize Kobe is already immensely rich and after this championship will likely reign in endorsement after endorsement, but by this logic shouldn't players who are somewhat "riding" Kobe to championships also sacrifice. What about Vujacic who made $5 million this year without earning it? What about Bynum? Gasol?
I don't think all the weight can fall on one guy because everyone perceives his desire to win as so great that he should be willing to pay for it. If it were a collective effort by the team for the benefit of success that is fair, but asking one guy to shoulder the bill for 11 other players is asking a little more than just being a leader.
I know other pros have taken pay cuts before, and Kobe could take a small one like others have, but it likely won't do much in helping sign two relatively costly players back to the roster.
There are many other ways the Lakers can figure out to free up space, but there are two reasonable and fair ways I could see this playing out in terms of Kobe's contribution to the salary cap problem:
1) Kobe opts out of his current contract to sign a new contract for about five years, which he might already do, but he backloads the contract so that the major money in the contract comes in the later years. This might allow the Lakers to keep Ariza and Odom and stay closer to the salary cap in the short-run, and will get Kobe in his money he would get anyway, except in about five years when the Lakers will be rebuilding anyway. This could hamper their performance in the seasons four or five years out, where Kobe's salary would hamper their potential to pay players, but could prove successful for championships within the next three years.
This option is unlikely because teams are a business after all, and are unlikely to mortgage away a few years of their franchise for success now.
2) Kobe takes a pay cut in return for part ownership of the Los Angeles Lakers. I know this sounds ludicrous, but hear me out. Kobe could get part of the team for free in exchange for a pay cut, or for a discounted price. This seems highly unlikely, but Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner, has made it a habit of keeping around great Laker players who want to stick around, almost as if the franchise were a family.
Jerry West was the GM for the team and brought Shaq and Kobe together. Mitch Kupchak, another ex-Laker, is the current general manager. Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all ex-Laker players, are assistant coaches. Magic Johnson is a part owner of the team.
Unlike other franchises who don't keep around their greats who want to be involved in NBA management, like Jordan with the Bobcats instead of the Bulls, Larry with the Pacers instead of the Celtics, McHale with the Timberwolves instead of the Celtics, and Isiah with the Knicks instead of the Pistons, the Lakers like to keep give options to their ex-players who have desires to be NBA executives or coaches.
Now I know Buss nearly traded Kobe after his demands two years ago, but in all fairness, they were "rebuilding" instead of building for a championship around Kobe, which was his major gripe as he was promised a championship-contending team. Kobe didn't want to waste his prime on a non-championship contender. Of course Kobe could and should have handled that much better, but hey, in the end it did all work out and culminated in a championship in 2009.
If the two could put the past behind them, which I think they have after Kobe sat down with Buss in Europe in the summer of 2007, this idea might not seem so far-fetched. Buss assured Kobe they would get him some help, but was also close to trading the star because he didn't like dealing with divas who took private things public. Kupchak traded for Gasol in February 2008, right before the trade deadline, and the Lakers have since been to the Finals twice, with one championship in hand.
Kobe is now happy with his supporting cast, and Buss is happy he put up with and kept on to his brilliant star.
Odom and Ariza would both be happy to be re-signed under either of these scenarios where they wouldn't have to take massive paycuts, otherwise Buss would have to be willing to spend some serious money to keep this team together. One good thing is that all teams are struggling during this economic downturn and can't spend as much as usual, so the market price for free agents is lower than normal.
When you think about playoff and championship success and how much revenue it brings in for a team, the Lakers made about $48 million on its 12 home playoff games in 2009. This doesn't include championship apparel sales and a lot of other revenue items, but just using that number, if the Lakers were to re-sign Odom and Ariza at market value, they'd spend a third to a half of that on league luxury taxes.
The business comparison would have to be between how well the team would do and make if only one of the players were re-signed, versus if both were re-signed. If the amount of extra money the team can expect to make with getting both back eclipses the cost of one of those players, I'd say bring both back.
But again, a championship brings in huge amounts of money from all sorts of places, so looking at this years bottom line it might seem worthwhile to bring both back, but a semi-successful playoff run with just ticket revenue wouldn't seem as worthwhile.
A lot of it is guessing and hoping, because nobody will know until next May or June whether any decision was right or not.
The Lakers could remove a lot of the associated cost risk with going above the luxury tax if Buss is ready to trust part of his sacred franchise with Kobe, and that could and would provide a boost to Lakers' championship hopes in 2010 and the rest of Kobe's prime.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I can go anywhere in the world and get caught up in whatever the local sports world is tuned into. Whether it be cricket, badminton, tennis, golf, soccer, rowing, you name it. Nothing will stop a true sports fan from getting involved and engaged, from forming bridges and alliance, from constructing emotional ties and rivalries and biases. Nothing. It's truly amazing.
For instance, I would have probably not followed the 20/20 World Cup featuring Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the Final would it not have been for my cousins and uncles that love to follow cricket. The Confederations Cup would have been meaningless to me if I didn't happen to be in a country that lives for soccer (football here, and in the rest of the world). The huge Tiger fans in my family have me pulling for him to win his 15th major championship at Bethpage Black.
It'd be interesting to see a world map with regional graphs of what sports carry the most weight. You'd probably see American football fade outside the shores of the US, baseball would be strong in certain parts of Asia and of course the Americas. Soccer would be strong almost everywhere in the world, and basketball would be strongest in the North American and European markets, although Asia has a growing basketball craze as we witnessed in Beijing last summer.
A lot of "American" sports like baseball, football, and basketball, are becoming more and more popular outside the United States, with the exception of football (which hasn't really caught on). America has also been importing sports like cricket and soccer but they haven't become major yet.
Some sports are carried by their international matchups, and some are carried by a local organization. The NBA is huge in the US and the rest of the world, arguably bigger than international basketball. The same is true with the MLB and obviously football. Those organizations tend to carry more weight than their international counterparts like the Olympics.
Cricket, since it doesn't have one dominant large market like the aforementioned three sports do, is largely an international game. Soccer is huge both on the international circuit and on the club and local levels. Individual sports like golf and tennis don't have local leagues but rely on international tournaments for their expression.
I read some interesting material on how cricket satisfies a lot of what the US market looks for in a sport, but for some reason it hasn't caught on yet. I can see why the appeal of test cricket (a five-day match with a high likelihood of ending in a draw) would be low but one-day cricket is high-scoring, exciting, involves forms of batting, pitching (bowling) and catching, and always comes down to the final moments.
One likely reason is that the US will not follow a sport in which it is not dominant or very competitive in. The US has only recently arrived on the world soccer stage (at least the mens' team) so the following in the US is limited. Cricket is another sport with large international appeal, but since the US isn't competitive as of now, it would be hard to form even a US local league to start the sports' growth.
Basketball has taken off in countries like China, Argentina, and Spain due to international players making it into the NBA, and their countries doing well in international tournaments. One of these two causes are necessary for a sport that isn't already local to start growing.
Cricket is far behind soccer on both of these fronts. The two causes actually tend to come hand-in-hand, where individual talent can lead to international success. Ginobili did it with Argentina in Olympic basketball, Yao popularized basketball in China, and Spanish NBA players marketed the game there. So what the US needs for cricket to grow is some grassroots movements with some local stars to grab on to. I believe that the US market would love this game, if marketed and grown the right way.
Magic is up there as a scoring point guard, but fans of him obviously don't have a problem with Kobe (same franchise), and he played a different game than Jordan so the comparisons never seemed necessary and were tempered, even though they were contemporaries. I didn't live through that day and age when Magic and Jordan were the two top dogs in the league, so I don't really have a feel for that rivalry, but it hasn't really carried on as far as I know into today.
LeBron is a combination of Jordan and Magic in my opinion, and there's never been anyone like him, so it's hard to compare. Oscar Robertson would be a good choice, but he played in a completely different era and the generations don't mix.
Kobe and Jordan are so similar that it begs for comparison. LeBron and Kobe are "rival" contemporaries so that begs for comparison, especially because fans are forced to be fanatics on the fringe as I described in my previous "Basketball Anti-Christs" Post.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Now, why do Jordan fans seem to hate Kobe Bryant?
Why do Kobe fans seem to hate LeBron James?
. . .
I've followed Kobe Bryant from the beginning of his career to this point. I watched Jordan win six championships as a small boy in Malaysia and was a huge fan, as the Finals were the only games I got to watch (on tape delay, as the games were on when I was in school). I respect and love both of them as competitors and basketball players.
Both have their shortcomings off the court, and on. One is an addicted gambler and one an admitted adulterer. Both are selfish, narcissistic, competitive maniacs on the court, demanding too much of their teammates.
Why is it that the loyal Jordan followers can't seem to find a place in their hearts for Kobe Bryant? Kobe, the guy who never got the benefit of the doubt Jordan got. They guy that never got the media to look the other way. Why?
I'll tell you why. Part of loving a player like Jordan is embracing his image as the best. Everyone wanted to "Be Like Mike", but nobody actually could be. That was the whole point. If people could be Mike, Mike would be irrelevant.
Fast forward to 2000. Jordan is done with the prime of his career. All those fans are still caught up in his mystique. They are still busy hyping him up to a Christ-like warrior that could never lose. Now comes along Kobe Bryant, the apparent heir to the throne. Kobe wins a ring with Shaq. Is he the next Jordan?
No way in hell. Jordan wouldn't be Jordan, and the love for him wouldn't be the same, if somebody else could just come along and be like him. Could it? Some tried. They really did. But Kobe was too introverted, unlike Jordan. He stayed away from the media, unlike Jumpman 23. He played second fiddle to Shaq's dominance and antics and could never be the leader Mike was.
So they gravitated away from him. Whatever Kobe was, they were the opposite. Fans didn't take to him. In turn Kobe was forced further inward, a vicious cycle punctuated by his off-the-court legal battle in 2004, Shaq leaving LA, and his demands for a trade in 2007.
Jordan fans feel as if even allowing someone else into the same conversation as him is blasphemy; it is an attack on Jordan's image, his very being. It's ridiculous to even think it.
Fine. Kobe isn't Michael Jordan. He probably never will be. But he is Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bryant. Kobe. Bryant. A once-in-a-generation player. At least respect that?
No. Respect isn't forthcoming for the guy who thinks he could be Jordan, even though he's never actually said that. No, they're going to treat him with scorn. He can't win on his own. He's selfish. He can't win without Shaq. And then when he does, he can't win without Phil or Derek. Couldn't have done it without Gasol. When someone gets too close, Jordan loyalists have to do everything in their power to push him away. To defend their messiah.
Fast forward to 2009. LeBron James has taken the MVP title from Kobe. He has elevated his game to a new level. His game is unselfish, his personality likeable, his image branded. He's a nice guy, and he shares the same lethal combination of ridiculous skill and burning competitive drive (see not shaking Dwight's hand) that is impossible to replicate and few are endowed with (aka Jordan and Kobe).
Why do Kobe loyalists HAVE to hate LeBron James? For the same reason most Jordan fans have to push Kobe away. Part of being a Kobe fan has evolved to believing he is the BEST. Maybe not the best ever, but definitely the best in the game right now. He's the Black Mamba, after all. If that isn't true, part of being a Kobe fan is lost. Putting LeBron in the discussion or saying he is better is an attack on the core of Kobe fanhood.
So what happens? Kobe loyalists have to push LeBron as far away as possible. They take joy in the Spurs' succinct sweep of the Cavs in 2007, but Kobe was still the man back then. They revel when Pierce outclutches LeBron in Game Seven in 2008, but Kobe's Lakers lose in 6 to the same team, and LeBron has to be put back down where he belongs. They celebrate the Magic taking down the King in six games in 2009, and call him out for not shaking the Magic's hands when in their heart of hearts they know Kobe Bryant is capable of exactly the same thing.
And to me, this is ridiculous. Three talents. Three supreme talents. Some of the most amazing combinations of size, talent, drive, skill, work ethic, physique, and circumstance. But Jordan fans, by definition, can't like Kobe. Kobe fans must, in turn, reject LeBron's success.
Loving someone that is the best in turn becomes love OF the component "best". Without that component, the love is somehow less.
I'd ask all Jordan fans to sit down for a minute and think about Kobe. He is basically the same demanding, competitive, selfish, ballhog, obsessed player that Jordan was. HE IS THE SAME. There's no two ways about it. Where's the love?
Kobe fans: LeBron doesn't even play the same position as Kobe and has a different game. But it is beautiful to watch. It is beautiful. LeBron can do certain things better than Kobe can, and the opposite is obviously true. There's no reason you can't appreciate both. He's just pushing himself to be the best he can be, a trait that you admire in Kobe. You want Kobe to take down whoever stands in his path, so why can't you respect that in LBJ?
You don't HAVE to hate the other guy. Kobe isn't Jordan. He doesn't even want to be Jordan. LeBron doesn't want to take away from Kobe. They are all friends. They all respect each other. If they do, why can't you?
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
In this recent championship run, Kobe Bryant seemed to be talking to a teammate about something or the other almost any time he was out on the court during stoppages. On the bench he would give advice and guidance to players that probably weren't even going to play meaningful minutes.
But, those are all evident things. People still question his teammate-ness and think it may be forced, contrived, or just a marriage in order to achieve success.
In being objective, let's allow for a moment that this could have all been a front; his transformation, coaching, guidance, and seeming likability. I'll admit that Kobe lacked a lot in terms of being a teammate when he first came into the league. He was selfish, introverted, above it all, and immature. He has matured over the years to become more instrumental in his teammate's success.
Aside from everything else, I think we can look to three people to affirm or deny Kobe's transformation as a teammate.
1) Lamar Odom
Lamar has openly stated he wants to come back to LA, and will even take less money for a role. He loves the city and loves playing for this team. He's completely happy in his current arrangement, the staple of which is Kobe Bryant. Lamar throughout the 2009 playoffs had praise for Kobe, both for his dedication, his ability to play long minutes, and how great a player he is. None of it look forced. When the media asked Odom about his severe back injury he suffered, Odom said Kobe has played hurt for two years.
If Kobe isn't a good teammate NOW, do you really think Odom would offer to take less money just to play by his side? I doubt he's riding Kobe for the wins and championships. He genuinely enjoys Kobe's game, admires his greatness, and likes complementing his play.
2) Pau Gasol
Gasol has been asked many times about how it is to be Kobe's sidekick. He was afraid at first after being traded from Memphis in the 07-08 season, and admitted that he was anxious to see how it would be. Even Shannon Brown has said that playing with Kobe is nothing like what people think it is. Gasol has hammered home that Kobe's focus, dedication, and work ethic rubs off on all his teammates. Gasol says he has become a better player, more dedicated, stronger, tougher, and more focused on winning because of Kobe. Kobe's drive has been transferred to Gasol, who was even up at 3am when Kobe sent him pump-up texts through the playoffs.
Gasol is Kobe's No. 2 guy on the Lakers, and he seems completely happy to continue to get better and feed off Kobe's competitive drive. He loves it.
3) Trevor Ariza
A player who just made a HUGE name for himself in the 2009 playoffs and is now a free agent, recently announced he wants to come back to LA. Obviously he wants a pay raise and he surely deserves it. He's only 24 and has proved his worth to a championship team. He's made huge strides in his shooting and defense. You know who he credits with this? None other than Kobe Bryant. Kobe gave him guidance, tips, and even a video to work on his shooting and get better. Ariza talks about how Kobe had taken him under his wing and treated his guidance almost like a Bible.
He had taken 61 threes in his entire career before coming to the Lakers. He took 65 threes in the 2009 playoffs. He made 47% of them. He graciously gave Kobe part of the credit.
Now, people will still say it is just a marriage to win, that Kobe will inherently never be liked as a person or a teammate. While all of that is fine, we forget sometimes that these players are also normal people. They go to work everyday like everyone does, and want to enjoy their workplace. If people don't like their workplace they don't perform as well, and would leave if they got equal or better offers elsewhere.
Now, if Odom didn't like playing with Kobe, wouldn't he leave for more money? If Ariza didn't, wouldn't he want to leave now on a high as a free agent and make loads of money elsewhere? If Kobe's guidance and drive wasn't helping them, how come both of them have made such huge strides in their individual games?
Maybe they are just putting up with him because they know they have a good chance of getting rings with him. Maybe. But Odom could monetarily discount himself in a similar fashion and probably make it onto a number of other contenders if he wanted to, as many would be happy to get the versatile forward at a bargain. Ariza could probably get onto another West contender looking for a tenacious, long, defender to guard the likes of Kobe Bryant. He could ship himself out east to deal with the likes of Wade and LeBron. But he doesn't want to leave after just one year with Kobe.
You don't have to like Kobe as a person, and don't have to like all the things he's done as a teammate. But we should give him credit for the good things he has done as a teammate.
(references: Lakers.com, ESPN.com)
Monday, June 15, 2009
The Minneapolis championships are irrelevant to me just like the Russell championships should be to Celtics fans. The league was too small then to compare to today's competition and grueling playoff process (the chances of winning today are so much smaller just based on the luck and probability you need). Those are too long ago to be considered in my historical mindframe, and that's fine with me. The Lakers have enough history in the last 3 decades (9 championships) to last me a lifetime as a Lakers fan (although I hope it doesn't have to).
Putting all that aside, I want to take a closer look at what it means to win an NBA championship.
Really. What does it mean? Analysts would have you believe that one man can and does win one on his own. History would have you believe that legacies live and die with championships.
All of that is fun and probably the best rubric we have for ranking and comparing greatness where in all honesty the margins are so tiny, but it is still very flawed.
TEAMS win championships. Players don't. Sure, I'm glad that Kobe won his 4th, his 1st without Shaq, and his 1st Finals MVP. But do you think all of that happens without Ariza hitting nearly 50% from 3's in the playoffs? Does it happen without Lamar owning the boards in the Finals? Does it happen without the Pau trade/gift from Memphis? Does it happen without Fisher's 3's in Game 4? Without Ariza's steals in the Denver series? Without Pau's toughness maturation? No. Sure, Kobe elevated his game and got his teammates involved, but he already hit that maturation point last year. It just didn't happen for him. His teammates didn't step up as much and he didn't excel individually as much.
Sometimes stars can win without playing well, and sometimes they win only BECAUSE they play well. Either way, hundreds of other things have to go right for a great player to be fortunate enough to win a championship. Things like other players, who they happen to face, the bounce of the ball, and so much more.
Jordan had Pippen. Shaq had Kobe. Magic had Kareem. Duncan had Robinson/Parker/Ginobili. Don't forget Horry, Fisher, Fox, Kukoc, Kerr, Longley. Rodman, Byron, Cooper, Elliot, and so many others. You take LeBron's 2009 Playoff performance and put the Gasol of now on his team, and he makes it to the NBA Finals.
It's no coincidence that veterans like Fisher talk about how getting to this level is such a fortunate event. It doesn't happen for everyone. In fact it doesn't happen for most.
Greats like Barkley, Miller, and Ewing never had the help to get one. Or maybe they just weren't good enough. They might have been able to squeeze one if they were as good as MJ, but definitely not more than that without more help. We leave them out of the discussion of the greatest players ever, and out of the top 10, because they don't have championships.
Does that seem fair?
Coincidence defines so much. It has become "natural" for sports fans to assign greatness to individual singular talents, because we think that one player should and can "will" the team to victory. One man can't control the actions of others, even someone as powerful as the President of the United States. What makes us think that MJ or Kobe or Shaq or Miller or Barkley or Duncan are any different?
Sure some players can push and motivate and steer harder and better than others, but SO MUCH is left up to coincidence, chance, and luck.
I hate that it takes a championship without Shaq for Kobe to get the monkey off his back. While I'm not complaining, so much has to go right for Kobe to get it. He doesn't get it without Gasol. Greats need help. Some get lucky, some don't.
It frustrates me that the media assigns so much of the credit to Kobe. With this performance last year, the Lakers don't win the championship against Boston. So hypothetically, Kobe could do nothing different, but in one situation goes home with 2 trophies and the world's acclaim, in another he goes home with enemy confetti falling on his head and tears falling from his eyes.
At the end of the day eras are different, competition is different, stats are different, but a ring stays constant so we like to use it as a barometer in numbers in professional sports.
But defining individual players by team performances doesn't make any sense to me. Ranking teams against each other using championships makes sense. Lakers in '01 or the 72-10 Bulls?
For players we should use their individual statistics and performance, both tangible and intangible aspects. We can also add some of how much they improve and push their teammates to the mix, but the buck should stop there. Using TEAM championships to bolster or bring down an individual player seems too archaic for a day and age so advanced.
A revolution in statistics that I believe has started and will soon move into full gear will help in that aspect. But then again the game shouldn't be reduced to Hollinger-blindlike numbers. How can we strike a balance?
The model we have now is one that places too much importance on the binary- championship or not? If so, then how many? In what time span? I think we can transition to one that balances individual performance with individual acclaim, and team performance to team acclaim.
Otherwise, greats that never win will be left in an unfair whirlwind of dust, and others will ride ahead on the shoulders of role players that delivered time and time again for their legacies.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
For Michael Jordan it is the "greatest of all-time". He was the best in the game when he was playing, and retained the all-time aspect when he retired, and has since kept it.
For Jerry West it is "Mr. Clutch" or "The Logo", and for Bill Russell it was "Most Dominant" when he was playing, and "Winning-est Center Of All-Time" after he was done.
For Shaq he was considered the "Most Dominant Player" in his prime, and "The Big Aristotle", one of many self-coined nicknames that will live on with his legacy.
Kobe Bryant, in creating his image and brand, had his people come up with "The Black Mamba" to describe his snake-like killer instinct personality.
Recently the vague title of "best closer in the game" has been bestowed upon the Black Mamba. It seems like this season, both regular and playoffs, every time Bryant is mentioned, there’s also a plug for how good of a closer he is. It is reaching a point of absurdity, as almost every article or talking head out there says it like they’re getting paid to do it with every mention of Bryant.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that Kobe Bryant is the best closer in the game. I also believe he is the best player right now. But it’s interesting that it has become basketball fact in such a short span of time. Not one major writer or talking head has disputed this "fact", and it’s very rare that you see an entire community of fans and media agree on something in professional sports.
I haven’t seen one media member question this title. It would probably be impossible to trace the beginnings of the spread of this well-accepted title, but the acceptance stems from the fact that most people want the ball in his hands at the end of a game.
But Kobe has been the best player in the NBA for a few years before this, so how come he only recently became synonymous with this "best closer" title?
I have a theory for why:
For the past three or so years most people recognized Kobe Bryant as the premier player in the NBA. He didn’t win the MVP award until the last of those years (2008), but poll upon poll in the last few years has shown that coaches, players, and general managers alike would take Kobe Bryant over any other player if starting a team. Those same polls also indicate that if there was one current player they wanted taking the last shot of a game, it was Mr. Bryant.
With the introduction of LeBron James this year as the new de facto "face" of the NBA, it is harder and harder for people to maintain that Bryant is almost unanimously the best player. In fact, most would select James for that title.
It used to go without saying that he was the best period, and the best at the end of games (closing). But now, there is a divide between those titles, with most people giving James the" best player" title, and Bryant the "best closer" title.
However the distinction is not so clear-cut. Many Kobe loyalists and analysts still believe that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA. They cite his more refined game as an advantage over James, and his more established career as a backbone that James has yet to earn.
That is why you hear Bryant referred to as the best closer by the ABC commentators, ESPN talking heads, sports writers, and radio broadcasters. While the "best player" title is in dispute, the media have found another less controversial hyped-up title, which is seemingly important and weighty, to grant Bryant.
The odd thing is, I've never heard of this title existing on its own, it's usually just synonymous with the best player or the most dominant player. The title has been invented for Kobe Bryant, who presents a unique case now that LeBron has elevated his game.
The reasoning makes sense. Bryant is too good of a player to not have a title to go everywhere his name does. All great players before him have had titles to go with every mention of their name. Kobe now has his. It used to be simply the best, but now he’ll have to settle for best closer.
When he retires, he will recede back into the Black Mamba shell, just like all the greats before him who pass on their playing-day titles to the next generation. He has already passed on the "best player" title to LeBron in most people's eyes, and in a few years will probably relinquish the "best closer" title to somebody else.
But for now, he is Kobe Bryant AKA the Black Mamba. The best closer in the world.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
In game 2 he got blocked from behind by Hedo Turkoglu and gave Lee an opportunity for Orlando to win the game. He also passed on a wide open Ariza and Odom. He did get touch-fouled on the way up by Lewis if you watch replays, but that's a tough call for refs to make.
In game 3, he lost the ball to Pietrus with 28 seconds left trying to split a double team while down by 2. Ironically, this was almost the exact same way he lost the ball at the end of Game 2 in the Denver series , which eventually led to a jump ball the Lakers fumbled (including the JR Smith jump ball violation no-call). Kobe shouldn't be so risky at the end of games trying to split double teams if defenders are able to poke the ball away.
There are also many clutch plays he has made in the last minute, some of which are: The pass to Gasol for the And 1 in Game 2 in OT, the step back jumpers he hit in both regulation and OT (I believe one in each), and free throws down the stretch in both the first home games.
This is a short post just to balance the bias here. Kobe is good in the clutch, but he isn't perfect and can and should do better in the games to come. Turnovers in the clutch are one of the worst outcomes possible, because it denies even the worst of opportunities a chance. Getting blocked and having the ball stolen are much worse than getting off even a bad shot that doesn't go in.
J.A. Adande of ESPN wrote a good article about Kobe's recent "closing" efforts.
Kobe has earned this title of "best closer in the game", largely because people can't say "best player in the game" anymore like they have for the last 3 years when LeBron just won the MVP and most people think he is better than Kobe. While Kobe has stepped up for the most part this entire postseason in the clutch, the Finals are where clutch legends are made. Kobe needs to prove that he deserves the title of best closer, which he hasn't done so in the past two games.
Interesting, but it includes 04-07. And we all know the things Kobe tried to do in those years, especially at the end of games. Also, those stats don't account for the TS%, because some people may be taking more 3's than others, and some might be driving more often.
Simmons conveniently uses the 25% stat on game-winning shots for his clutch shooting....but we all know that it completely depends on what guidelines you are using. The reason why people pick Kobe is that he is the best in the game at creating his own shot and getting ridiculous shots off with a decent chance of making them, which is sometimes what you need with only a few ticks on the clock.
Also doesn't this: http://www.82games.com/0809/
prove Simmons is just being selective? He's 45.7% in the clutch (last five minutes of a game) in a more broad, applicable definition, which is close to his regular shooting % anyway. When you account for some of the ridiculous heaves he makes, the percentage goes way up.
A further Kobe clutch exploration:
Right at the top of +/- with LBJ:
And he's 92% in the clutch from FT's and 40% from 3's. That 92% is ridiculous as the only relevant players ahead of him (stars that take more than a couple) are Nash and Allen, two of the best free throw shooters this game has seen.
(this site defines clutch as last 5 minutes of game, neither team ahead by 5 points).
I was reluctant with praise after Game 1 for the kid because I didn't get caught up in the 25-point win and wanted to dig deeper on the defense played on Howard. I gave as much credit as most of the media gave Bynum after Game 1 in terms of presence and patrolling the paint, just in more tempered terms, while recognizing that Pau had more to do with Howard's difficulties (2 offensive fouls). You didn't mention the things that Pau did and chose to defend Bynum when I wasn't attacking him, rather just downplaying his success which I thought was going overboard.
My analysis after Game 1 was that the media needs to relax about Howard's 1 field goal, because his game wasn't THAT bad when you looked at it closer. And in turn, the praise for Bynum reduces as we realize Howard did a little better than the media was portraying. That isn't reluctant, it's just prudent. To not get carried away with praise when he was the majority of the reason Howard got 16 free throws. Sure he played good D some plays, but he fouled a lot as well (which is what he is supposed to do).
He didn't earn that 12 and 15 stat line for Howard on his own at all, and I would argue he contributed to the 12 points from Game 1 more than either Gasol or Odom, because he committed more of the shooting fouls proportionally to the time he played Howard versus the other two.
In a per-minute analysis or a per-touch analysis for Howard, I will bet you that Odom and Gasol would fare better in points allowed, rebounds allowed, and fouls given to Howard in Game One and ridiculously so in Game Two.
He needs to make Howard work harder for his boards when he is on the court.
My criticism after Game 2 should be brutal. So should yours. 16 minutes, 5 points, 5 fouls, 1 rebound, 2-5. For a 7 footer who is due to earn 60+ million? I don't even have to say anything. The STAT LINE itself is brutal.
Excuses like youth, injury, and needing time to develop are bogus. If he wants to make demands through the media and criticize the most winningest coach of all-time, he should only do so if he is ready. If he isn't ready because of whatever reason, he should "just shut up".
Sunday, June 7, 2009
Many things went wrong for the Lakers; offensive flow, shooting, foul trouble, turnovers, closing out, and missed calls.
But many things also went right. They did a good job on Howard by crashing in and poking the ball away numerous times for 7 turnovers on the day for D12. Even though he got his numbers he had to work for them.
The Lakers also played the pick and roll pretty well for most of the game, and didn't allow too much penetration. Out of 79 shot attempts for Orlando, 30 of them were behind the arc. The guards for Orlando were a miserable 6-26 shooting. Closing out on shooters quicker is one noticeable thing the Lakers need to improve on for Game 3, as Rashard Lewis kept Orlando in the game by getting hot in the 2nd quarter and carrying that throughout the game.
As for the Lakers' offense, Kobe had too many mental errors (7 turnovers). Also, their offense wasn't as fresh and flowy as it usually is. Kobe, Gasol, and Odom carried most of the scoring load, and the 3rd biggest shooter of the night was Ariza, who went 3-13 for 8 points. The Lakers need more from starters Ariza and Bynum, and the bench, which other than Odom only provided 4 measly points.
The Lakers had 12 steals and 12 turnovers, while the Magic had only 5 steals while amassing 20 turnovers. The Lakers won the defensive battle this time around (41.8% shooting for ORL, still below their average significantly).
The Lakers can do better on a few things, but the list for the Magic seems a little bit longer. There was one reason the Lakers didn't win comfortably like they did in Game 1: Rebounding.
The Magic outrebounded the Lakers by 9, a 23 rebound net swing from Game 1. They also won the offensive rebounding battle 10 to 4. 4 is a disappointing number of offensive rebounds for an entire game in itself (with overtime), let alone with two 7-footers on the court at multiple times in a game. Pau and Bynum had zero offensive rebounds combined, and Pau is usually a good offensive rebounder. He has to get after it more on the offensive glass. A difference of 6 offensive rebounds is 6 more possessions in addition to a huge momentum boost every new opportunity.
The most disappointing stat of all:
Bynum: 16 minutes, 1 rebound.
That kind of production isn't worth $14 million a year, especially when only coupled with as many fouls as points (5).
Game 2 was close as the Magic won the rebounding battle but the Lakers won the steals/turnovers battle, and that will change at home for Orlando. One of the main reasons the Lakers won by 25 in Game 1 is that the Lakers had a good rebounding effort (+14), but if they carry their rebounding from Game 2 on to Orlando, their winning ways might not continue if the Magic take better care of the ball with their expected energy and shooting bump at home.
Even though Kobe Bryant isn't in the Gillette ads with Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter like Roger Federer is, the comparisons between the two couldn't be clearer today. Federer captured his first ever French Open title, cementing his legacy by finally winning the Slam that has eluded him for so long. Before Sunday, he had lost to Rafael Nadal three straight years in the French final, while only managing to win a total of two sets. Federer brushed off the Roland Garros demons cursed unto him by the Matador of Spain by handling Robin Soderling convincingly in straight sets in the championship match.
Roger Federer has now won 14 Grand Slams, and at least 1 at every major Grand Slam event. He has tied Pete Sampras at 14, but has something that Sampras never achieved: a Career Grand Slam (winning all four major championships at least once). Most in the tennis world consider him the best of his era, if not the best of all-time. A younger, flashier, rising star in Rafael Nadal is clipping at its heels, having taken chunks out of Federer in the last few years. Federer has lost 8 times in the relevant years of his career after he matured into a dominant professional. 5 of those losses have come at the hands of Nadal in Grand Slam Finals. Their 2008 Wimbledon Final has been lauded as the greatest match ever played (which Nadal won).
You might ask why Kobe Bryant is even in the title of this article with so much about Roger Federer?
Because it's actually about both of them.
Federer had lost 3 straight French Open Finals, Kobe? 2 straight NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant is looking to exorcise his demons from Finals past, by redeeming the Lakers of their loss to last years Celtics on the NBA's biggest stage. We can't forget 2004 either where his Lakers lost 4-1 embarrasingly at the hands of the up-and-coming Detroit Pistons in the Finals. Roger needed to win the French to cement his legacy and it seemed to be slipping away from him the last few years as Nadal became more and more dominant on clay. But Federer finally did it in 2009. Kobe needs to win this championship in 2009, without Shaquille O'Neal, no matter what he or the media will say, to finally cement his championships and legacy as legitimate. He won't be mentioned in the conversation as the greatest ever if he can't win one being the best player on his team. Federer needed the French to make the "greatest-ever" debate between him and Sampras a little easier.
Federer is unwillingly passing the torch to Nadal. Kobe? To LeBron James.
The younger, flashier nemesis? Watch any sports channel for about 5 minutes and you'll see his face about 13 times. He goes by simply "The King", or LeBron James. He's flashier, he's more outgoing, and he's right there. Most consider LeBron the best player in the game today, a title he snatched from Kobe who held it for about the same time as Federer held the No. 1 ATP Ranking. LeBron's rise is validated by the fact that he won the Most Valuable Player award this season. Most tennis pundits consider Nadal the best in the game today, validated by his No. 1 Ranking which he took away from Federer after a record 237 consecutive weeks for the Swiss.
Both need to silence the critics, but...
Sadly, because Federer didn't beat Nadal (who lost to the guy Federer beat in the Final), some don't consider this championship legitimate, contending that he must go through Nadal, the King of Clay, to truly cement his reputation. Kobe and the Lakers can't fully redeem themselves either as they never got a chance to go through the Celtics that thrashed them last year and brought Kobe to tears at the conclusion of last years' Finals. The Celtics suffered a knee injury to arguably their best player and never had a chance to make it to the Finals to face the Lakers. Ironically enough, Nadal was suffering from a knee injury as well.
But Kobe doesn't care, and neither did Federer.
Both have time catching up with them as they age, and can't rely on youth to get them by. Both have younger challengers to the throne of their respective sports. Both need to validate something this year. Both need to lay claim to their respective sports' title of the best-right-now. Both have legacies to build, cement, and protect. Federer did his part on Sunday, June 7th, 2009. Can Kobe do the same?
We'll know before the month is over.
Saturday, June 6, 2009
The Lakers had over a 16% FG% differential over the Magic. The only other times in this postseason that kind of a differential has existed have been in games where one team shoots extremely well, like LA did in Game 6 against Denver shooting 57%. One team will shoot above 50% and another team will shoot near 40%. Shooting 30% is unheard of and the Magic will never come close to that again. The Lakers should take some confidence away from their defensive performance, because part of that 30% can be attributed to the Lakers defense. But, they amassed only 7 blocks, 1 less than the Magic did, so the numbers indicate that the Magic missed more than the Lakers made them miss.
Their offensive performance seemed stellar but they only shot a respectable 46%, and when you take away the garbage time from the 4th quarter the Lakers shot a hair over 50%, a far cry from the 57% they shot a game earlier. These statistics are skewed from the 4th quarter where the scrubs didn't play well at all and Kobe heaved up a bunch of shots just to get to 40 (for the first time in Finals), but they do tell a part of the story. Phil Jackson was asked in the postgame whether the Lakers can play better and he wavered around the question, but the truth is the Lakers can and will have to play better to beat a Magic team that even has an average shooting game.
If you up the Magic FG% to 40%, which is still low for an NBA team especially with a guy like Dwight who shoots over 60% usually, that equals 8 more made shots out of the 77 they took. If you assume 2 of those are 3's, that is 18 more points to add to their total. That makes this game look a lot closer than it really was. The media after the game would have you believe that the Lakers crushed the Magic in every way possible, but it might just come down to the Magic making shots post game 1 NBA Finals stage-fright.
A few individual points to note:
Pau Gasol had 8 rebounds in 37 minutes, and needs to do a better job rebounding. Lamar had 14 rebounds in 32, which accounts exactly for the 14 rebound difference in team totals. Early on in the 1st half the Magic seemed to be getting 2 or more looks on many occassions on offense, and when Gasol is out on the floor for 37 minutes he needs to make sure that happens less. Anything less than 10 rebounds means he isn't putting in the effort at 7 feet.
For as much as Bynum is getting lauded for a good defensive game, he only guarded Howard less than half the game (Lamar took a shot at him and Pau got the rest of the assignment). He collected four fouls and seemed to get discouraged when his offensive game was frustrating him (which is usually the case for players like him and Sasha in particular). The problem is, he was frustrated on offense, missing an easy layup and seeming to fumble the ball on multiple occasions. He finished 3-8 which is sub-par for a guy that is capable and has had games of 7-9 and 8-10 shooting.
Also, Howard struggled, but still went to the line 16 times, above his average for the regular season and the playoffs. Much is being made about him only making 1 field goal, but he still finished with 12 points and 15 rebounds. Most of the plays where he would have gotten layups or dunks we fouled him, so the 1-6 field goal line is a bit misleading. Without foul trouble Dwight would have had a 20/20 game.
While the Lakers did win by 25 points, cautious confidence, which Kobe emitted in full (if not in excess) during his postgame conference, should be the word around Staples before Game 2. Kobe Bryant was sensational in the 3rd quarter, and ended up having an average shooting night a little under 50%, but added 8 rebounds and assists a piece. After the game in a response to a philosophical question from a purple-and-gold clad wizard reporter, Kobe said "it's one game. It's no big deal. It's one game." Fans should adopt his face after the game, and share that focus.
Let's wait a few more games before we start calling for the brooms.