the old lie

9 07 2008

Last week, Baron Davis threw the Golden State Warriors for a big time loop. Despite being owed over seventeen million dollars for the final year of his contract by the Bay, he decided to opt out in favor of a new, long term contract from the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers, despite the fact that it now seems they may lose Elton Brand to either the Philadelphia 76ers or those same scorned Warriors, likely would have been interested in Davis regardless; he’s a local legend, raised in South Central Los Angeles, and combines the sort of skill, exuberance, and flash that typically enthralls an LA crowd. It seems symptomatic of America’s two coastal capitals, LA and New York City, that a player will invariably be remembered for how they perform in the clutch, and that performance will be weighted more heavily against their complete body of work. In that regard, Davis will no doubt leave a positive footprint on the Clipper franchise.

I had the good fortune to see Davis play in person over a dozen times last year, as well as watching nearly every other game he played in years past for my beloved Warriors on TV, and I will say at the outset that he is fantastically thrilling. Knowing before a game that Davis would be playing point for Golden State became, for me, a source of hope. Not the general, reluctant, “aw shucks, maybe we can hang with these boys” sort of hope, but rather, the kind that heartens in a way that doesn’t need to be spoken. As an avatar for gutsy underdogs, you’ll find no better than Lord Baron.

The grab by the Clippers, though, seems uncharacteristic; Donald Sterling is known as an incompetent owner primarily due to his tight purse-strings, and at sixty-five million over five years, Davis is going to be making big money well into his mid thirties, and he has a troubling history of lower body injuries. Even last year, when he was lauded for playing a full, eighty-two game season, any Warriors fan can tell you that he was not fully healthy for some of that time. He played through aches and pains, which is admirable, but by year’s end his motor was clearly low on oil. His body is a world-class anomaly, a quick and fast guard bolstered by bursting muscle. But that very strength may be his undoing; even when in perfect physical shape, his bulky frame at times seems to be too tightly wound and heavy for his legs and his stamina to compensate. In any event, the inherent risk of this signing, especially given the torturous grind that is the Western Conference, suggests that Davis may have inspired some hope in Clippers management as well. This is the sort of signing a team makes when it starts thinking about championships.

During the NBA Finals, back when my Baron Davis “the city” throwback jersey was still temporally accurate (though anachronistic), I started pondering something as I watched Rajon Rondo and Derek Fisher square off. Neither of the two are what you would consider great point guards. Rondo is certainly more athletic, and can play exceptional defense, but his jump shot was so unsteady that the Lakers opted not to bother playing perimeter defense on him. Fisher, despite his reputation as a rugged, clutch veteran, is also a far substandard point guard by nearly any statistical measure, his biggest skill being shooting from deep, and his biggest weakness being most anything else sans flopping.

It fascinated me that during what seemed to be a year of unprecedented guard strength, the two teams that would be standing at year’s end would be two with such flawed players running the show. In both cases, the reason this was possible seemed clear; neither Fisher nor Rondo were truly running their team’s offenses. The Celtics’ triumvirate set the tone in the half-court offense, and Kobe Bryant certainly enjoys having the ball in his hand. It got me thinking, though- how many point guards have won championships while being the best players on their team?

If the Clippers manage to keep Brand, you could still make the case that Davis is the more important player; it is at the very least an argument to be had. If Brand leaves, Davis is the unquestioned star of the bizarro, Clipper Staples Center. But can a team win a title with a jack-of-all-trades, ball dominating point guard? A saunter through the history books doesn’t look promising.

Champion Starting Point Guards Since 1990:

’08 – Rajon Rondo

’07 – Tony Parker

’06 – Jason Williams

’05 – Tony Parker

’04 – Chauncey Billups

’03 – Tony Parker

’02 – Derek Fisher

’01 – Derek Fisher

’00 – Derek Fisher

’99 – Avery Johnson

’98 – Ron Harper

’97 – Ron Harper

’96 – Ron Harper

’95 – Kenny Smith

’94 – Kenny Smith

’93 – BJ Armstrong

’92 – John Paxson

’91 – John Paxson

’90 – Isiah Thomas

This is a very interesting list for a few reasons. The first is that only two of these men could reasonably be argued to be the best player on their team, Billups and Thomas. Tony Parker did win the Finals MVP in ’07, but you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would argue then, or now, that Parker is better than Tim Duncan, who is still putting up hall of fame worthy seasons. Jason Williams would be hard pressed to find a single NBA team he could start for today. Derek Fisher is more of an undersized shooting guard than a true point, and shoots a mediocre percentage at that. The only guy on that list who had what you’d consider a prolific assist average was Isiah, who averaged 9.3 per game for his career. If you calculate the career assist average for this entire list, it comes out to a paltry 5.9 assists per game, not laughably bad, but not what you’d expect from a great (or “elite”) point.

Now certainly, maybe you’re wondering where Scottie Pippen is on this list, since he was more “point” than Ron Harper. And that’s quite true. However, it speaks to my overall conclusion, that teams which place the heaviest responsibilities for production on a conventional point guard seem doomed to fail. Pippen, whether you consider him a guard or a forward, is certainly a peculiarity for that position. Similarly, Magic Johnson like Pippen was a physical force uncommon for his skill set. In a nutshell, the conventional wisdom regarding great point guard play (“the prototype,” a guard between six-one and six-three who can drive, pass, and shoot from range) seems to be a false idol in recent years. While John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Baron Davis, Chris Paul and Deron Williams’ ultimate achievements to this point amount to little more than epic failure, Derek Fisher is sitting at home polishing his rings.

So I urge a bit of caution to Clippers fans who are conjuring up visions of a Baron-Brand championship collaboration. In fact, I urge caution to Clippers fans who even think those two will guarantee a playoff spot. As I learned last year, Baron Davis can be thrilling, dominating, clutch and cool as a cucumber. Unfortunately, he can be all those things and leave you sitting in the ninth seed. He can save your soul and break your heart. But then again, so can many “dominant” point guards.

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mavericks are law, you are crime

1 04 2008

Some interesting things have been going on in Dallas recently. Things that speak not only to the possible psychological decay of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, but to a growing culture of journalistic resentment towards the blogging community.

The fracas seems to have begun following a blog entry written following a Mavericks loss. Tim McMahon of the Dallas Morning News, a writer who publishes a Mavericks blog for the newspaper’s website, wrote an entry addressing among other things a growing fan dissatisfaction with head coach Avery Johnson. He specifically mentioned the website fireavery.com, which as its name suggests is devoted to the notion that the NBA’s beloved “lil’ general” should be terminated.

averyj

Shortly thereafter, it was announced that bloggers of any sort would not be permitted in the Dallas post-game locker room, regardless of their professional obligations (McMahon as a function of his job with the newspaper normally had that locker room access). McMahon was apparently told that this policy change was not affected by his pointed and critical article.

The blogger ban got a fair amount of play in the news, culminating in the NBA stepping in and demanding that Cuban revert back to the old policy. It makes every bit of sense for the NBA to make this move, seeing as pro athletes have managed to tap into the internet to enhance their public personas and popularity. Gilbert Arenas is a notable example, although his blog is not actually written by him, but by a team staffer that types while Gilbert rambles.

A truer example might be that of Golden State’s Baron Davis, whose participation on yardbarker.com has galvanized his popularity amongst the Bay Area fans. Full of stilted English and exaggerated slang, Davis’ writings are not incredibly unique or insightful, but it’s no doubt enjoyable for an average fan to know that their favorite athlete felt like filling them in on what was going on. It’s a concept that has the potential to erode the barriers between players and fans in an entirely safe, communicative way that could be to the great benefit of the league, and it hinges on the concept of the blog. Their decision to can Cuban’s edict was likely a no-brainer.

Cuban reacted in a distinctly childish manner, stating as follows:

“Which means we will encourage all bloggers to apply, whether they be someone on blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school web site or those that work for big companies…we won’t discriminate at all.”

mark cuban

There is, of course, an inescapable irony here, as Cuban himself is a blogger. He operates blogmaverick.com, and is known for being the most outspoken and accessible owner in the NBA (he works dumb jobs just like us!). The everyman image that he’s cultivated through the years, though, doesn’t quite jive with his feelings regarding both the worth of internet publishing. A medium that allows everybody a voice and unprecedented influence would by its nature be something that I would have expected Cuban to approve of, and it’s a shame he doesn’t.

What’s a greater shame, however, is the news received by Mavs Moneyball, an NBA blog/community for Dallas fans. They’ve received word from the principal author of fireavery.com that Avery Johnson filed libel charges against them yesterday afternoon. Unless this turns out to be a very elaborate April Fool’s joke*, it’s disheartening. Regardless of whatever legal leverage Johnson may have in the matter (though I find it unlikely he has much), this lawsuit serves a dual purpose. It may deter the proprietors of fireavery.com, which I’m sure the Mavs organization would appreciate, but more importantly, it sends the message to internet scribes everywhere: do not fuck with us.

What bothers me most about this is that I suspect it wouldn’t be happening if the Mavericks, say, had beaten a team with a winning record since selling the farm to get Jason Kidd (that’s 0-10 against winning teams at last check), or to use a larger scope, if they hadn’t gotten their teeth kicked in by Golden State last year, or if they hadn’t caved against Miami the year before that. This all smacks of Mark Cuban wallowing in despair as his team’s title hopes fade, and thus attempting to tighten control on the aspects of his team he knows very well; the business and operating aspects.

As if I needed more reason to root against them these last couple weeks.

*Turns out it is, which I guess I should’ve realized sooner. Luckily, Mark Cuban can still act like a dork whether or not his coach is suing people. Seriously, though, apologies to Avery. Except for the silly voice and the maniac on the sideline routine. That’s still lame.





super monta bros.

25 03 2008

Last night, the Golden State Warriors fell to the Los Angeles Lakers as at least the partial result of a blown call with four seconds left in the game. Monta Ellis was hooked on the shoulder by Lakers guard Derek Fisher and pulled to the ground. Referee Bob Delaney whistled Ellis for an offensive foul that gave the Lakers the ball up two points, essentially awarding them the game. While it was visibly a bad call, and at a time in the game when refs historically become tight with their whistles for fear of handing one team a win, it was perhaps not as flagrant as Warriors broadcaster Bob Fitzgerald made it out to be, who called it a “pathetic” end, and railed for a solid three to four minutes of airtime that Fisher had “tackled” Ellis to the floor.

 

His frustration was probably more inspired by the journey than the fizzle at the end. The Warriors have had terrible problems with the Lakers over the last several years, and were poised to win both ends of a back-to-back with a three pointer in overtime, or at least force a second overtime. It was a long and very taxing game to watch, and the Warriors had played hard minutes. Baron Davis played fifty-three (the whole game plus overtime) only never to get a shot at the hoop to end it. The highlight show that followed didn’t even bother to make note of the late foul that sent the Lakers home happy, and maybe in some respects that was why Fitzgerald was so passionate in his condemnation; it sometimes seems that the media will revise history a bit to enhance the Laker good vibrations.

 

It’s not unlike the Super Mario Bros. Sure, we’ve all played the game, or at least seen others play it, the diminutive plumber leaping and soaring above Koopa Troopas, Bullet Bills, and indeed, the stoic and tragically flawed Goomba. Children and adults alike have had great fun attempting to thwart the evil despot Bowser (although I still prefer to call him his classic name, King Koopa), so of course, they all loved the movie, right?

 

The movie, for those who don’t remember, was a bit of a disaster. Released in 1993, it starred Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as Mario and Luigi, respectively. The film was rife with bizarre choices, perhaps not glaring flaws in an original screenplay, but irrefutably strange in the context of the bright, fun video game. The world Mario and Luigi find themselves in is not vibrant, pretty, or even kitsch. Instead, the duo found themselves in an industrial, post-apocalyptic slum smack in the middle of an endless desert. Gross looking fungus hangs from every conceivable surface, the simple and tiny Goombas are hulking dinosaurs stuffed into bulky overcoats, lovable sidekick Yoshi gets stabbed in the throat, and King Koopa clumsily attempts to seduce/force/pester Princess Daisy into a sexual foray.

 

It’s dirty and unpleasant, and it’s completely unlike it’s own source material. One notable aspect is that the famous jumping power the brothers have at their disposal in the games is absent in the film. Instead, they equip themselves with mechanized boots called Stompers, and use them to blast themselves into the air. This bothered me, because it struck me that the movie, already a film about two guys who trip through a dimension to fight a super-evolved dinosaur, was not willing to indulge in anything that might be considered silly or illogical.

 

There’s a similar childlike instinct regarding basketball that makes me want to remember certain games and moments in exaggeratedly epic terms, and whether you agree with Delaney’s call on Monta Ellis or not (I don’t), there’s nothing epic or fulfilling about watching a referee, essentially the bureaucrat of the hardwood, decide a game. It shakes and shatters in some way the nostalgia and love for the sport that has built up in me slowly over time. Not unlike a plumber wearing hydraulic shoes, Bob Delaney has killed my spirit.





he plays a lot like detlef schrempf…

18 03 2008

The world of professional sports lends itself easily to cliché. The idea of an athlete telling a reporter he wants to “take it one game at a time” was laughed at as a blandly silly cliché in Bull Durham almost twenty years ago, but it continues to be a mainstay of the post-game interview. It’s rare if ever that such an interview reveals any true insight into the minds of our sports heroes, unless you’re amused by Craig Sager’s suit (I am!), or are curious what Steve Nash ate (probably Del Taco).

 

That said, the fact that a star guard who just dropped forty doesn’t want to ramble on about his team’s momentum, his calisthenics, and who’s on his iPod is irrelevant and inoffensive. The truly irksome habits aren’t those of the players, but the networks that cover them. The media at large has the power to influence millions, especially the sports media by virtue of the lowered stakes of the discussion. I engage my brain a lot less watching ESPN than I do watching the news, mainly because I assume I can get away with it (that recent piece about football players chasing rabbits in a field was dumb and terrible). I enjoy having the chance to shut down my mind for that invaluable bit of time, which is precisely why I hate it when I’m watching an NBA draft preview and suddenly I’m thinking about racism.

 

You will, you see, almost never read or watch or hear an NBA draft report comparing a sweet shooting, deft passing, six-foot-eight black kid to Larry Bird. Maybe he’s a Magic Johnson, a Bernard King, an Oscar Robertson kind of guy, but Larry Bird? Hell no, this kid is black. This may not seem so major, especially since calling a guy the next Larry Bird has evolved into a sort of backhanded compliment (the assumption being you can shoot a little, pass a little, and hit the boards a little, ignoring the fact that Bird dominated at all three), but it is an unpleasant instance of people allowing a latent racism to color their remarks.

 

It could be argued that because such comparisons drawn between players tend to be trite and inaccurate regardless, the process of comparing a collegiate hoopster with any NBA player, legend or bench scrub, is silly and therefore not capable of engendering a racist mindset. And it probably is worthwhile to point out that being called Oscar Robertson instead of Larry Bird might not be a bad thing (might be a good thing if you love triple-doubles), but it bears repeating; despite the at times grossly inaccurate predictions of success young players have thrust upon them, I cannot recall ever reading that Sebastian Telfair was going to be John Stockton, that Luke Ridnour was going to be Dennis Johnson, or that Yao Ming was going to be Hakeem Olajuwon (it’s worth mentioning, actually, that I have seen a few comparisons that were made between Yao Ming and former Pacer Rik Smits, although the rules around this seem to be different when comparing NBA imports).

 

This is a concerning blind spot I think needs to be addressed, since I have and continue to hold basketball in a very high regard not just for the beauty of the game itself, but for the social and political awareness that seems to be exhibited by many of its fans, teams, and players. It is with this in mind that I’d like to present Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, or as I like to call him, the next Greg Ostertag. Apologies to Hasheem, but equality marches on.