Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

I thought I was done with the Team USA recaps until the championship game, but watching the Argentina game tonight pulled me back in. Yes, the margin (91-76) was closer than it has been, but this team is so much fun that I can’t stop watching and enjoying them. I’ve seen every minute of Team USA’s games in this tournament and wouldn’t have it any other way. At the risk of sounding too much like Bill Walton, an overpowering positive life force pervades everything they do on the court. As such, this recap won’t focus entirely on the strategic intricacies of the game; honestly, I just want to talk about some of my favorite things from the night. Hopefully some of you will have some to add, as well.

After LeBron’s perfect game against Uruguay, I assumed Kobe, arguably the proudest player in the league, would try his best to take back some of the spotlight. For the first few minutes, he did exactly that, scoring 15 in the first quarter. The best part of his early performance, though, was that he didn’t seem to be doing it primarily out of anger, although I’m sure there was some of that. It all came naturally. Kobe genuinely seems to love playing on this team, and it shows in most everything he does on the court. This is the highpoint of his post-Shaq career, and he knows it. Let’s remember to think about the good times when he submarines the Lakers in training camp.

LeBron was obviously phenomenal last night, but one play from tonight stood out to me almost as much as anything he did versus Uruguay. In the middle of the 3rd, LeBron thundered through the lane and scored a basket, only to be called for a highly questionable charge. On the next USA possession, LeBron picked up a loose ball, instantly barreled through a few Argentineans, checked an off-balance Luis Scola in the hip hard (he took his time getting up), and scored for an and-one. It was a truly great play, and, along with his improved shooting, evidence that LBJ might be growing up some. Of course, let’s see what I think about that after he hosts SNL in a few weeks.

Scola played limited minutes due to early foul trouble and the blowout, but I saw enough to know the Spurs made a mistake in trading him to a divisional rival. I watched a bit of Scola earlier in the tournament, although that didn’t quite prepare me for how well he matched up against the legitimate NBA post defenders on Team USA. The Rockets have to be thrilled; he should be a great fit opposite Yao. The high/low could be a really effective weapon for them, although those guys are talented enough to make just about anything work. Trading Scola wasn’t the worst idea for the Spurs simply because they don’t need him, but why trade him to a team in the West that needed just a few more pieces to be really dangerous? Big up yourself, Daryl Morey.

The 4th quarter featured perhaps my favorite moment from the entire tournament: Kidd’s attempted backboard pass to LeBron ... on the run ... from the right wing. It was an absolutely perfect pass; if LBJ had caught it cleanly and thrown it down, we’d be watching it for the next half-century. No one but Kidd could make that play half-work, and the fact that even tried it explains exactly why I’ve loved watching these games. They’ve been better than any All-Star Game I’ve seen.

And now, some extremely important off-the-court news. Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Jeremy Pond (who wears an eye patch!) has reported (towards the bottom of that page) that Amare and LeBron partied with UFC superstar Chuck Liddell, Ron Jeremy, and master illusionist Criss Angel last Saturday (via AZ SportsHub). I could really care less about Liddell, and Jeremy is pretty much established as a hanger-on at this point, but Criss Angel was partying with two of the best players in the NBA. I don’t know how many of you watch Mindfreak—it is truly the most ridiculous show ever—but this surprised me even more than the time he teleported into an armored truck. Who let him hang out with that group? Did he hypnotize them or something?

Shockingly, it gets even better. Angel’s chief rival, David Blaine, has also been hanging around the team, although Captain Jeremy Pond’s notes make it seem like no one’s let him in on the inner circle fun. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this whole situation for the last hour or two, and all I can picture is Angel pulling quarters out of Amare’s ear band-aid while Blaine sulks in the corner. My mind is officially blown.

Random notes: Someone with more internet talent than myself really needs to put that Kidd pass on YouTube. If you do it, I’ll be in your debt forever. … I could really care less about Ginobili, Oberto, and Hermann being out for this tournament, but I’m very upset about not having Pepe Sanchez around. It’s been too long since I’ve seen one of my favorite college point guards of all-time. … Argentina’s jerseys—particularly the road ones—are so bad that even Oregon would reject them.


Bloggin' to the Oldies: Seize the Hour

It’s time once again for Bloggin’ to the Oldies, our series on classic NBA games and how they relate to today’s league. For this post, I’ll be looking at the 1991 Finals (specifically Games 1, 3, and 5) between the Lakers and Bulls. Some background for the uninitiated: In Michael Jordan’s first finals, LA won Game 1 on a Sam Perkins triple with 14 seconds left. The Bulls stormed back to win the next four contests, but many of them were close; Game 3 went to OT, and the Lakers were in Game 5 up until the final portion of the 4th.

I might as well start with the best player I’ve ever seen. I’ll save a dissection of Jordan’s exact game for an upcoming post (preview: it involves Kevin Durant)—for now, I’d like to talk about reactions to him. It’s interesting that Marv and Fratello never questioned Jordan’s credentials as the best player in the league. Magic, of course, received a lot of attention from the crew, too, but the general consensus seemed to be that it was only a matter of time before MJ would get his rings. Likewise, when Jordan missed a wide-open 17-footer at the end of Game 1 that would have won the game, the announcers said nothing about him choking. I can’t say how much of that reaction can be explained by MJ finally getting over the Detroit hump, and I know that Jordan already had a reputation for hitting clutch shots, but it’s worth noting just how much slack the announcers gave to someone who hadn’t won a championship at age 28. I doubt that would happen today, and, in fact, you could make an argument that LeBron gets (or at least got up until Game 5 of the Detroit series) unfair criticism for being a poor clutch performer despite having made several game-winners during the 06 Playoffs.

I could talk about Jordan forever, but the other Bulls deserve a huge amount of credit for winning that first championship. As you'd expect, that contribution starts with Scottie Pippen. A long discussion developed in the comments last week at FD about Pippen possibly being more important to the Bulls’ success than Jordan. Like I said in this post, I’m not ready to go that far, but, as Stop Mike Lupica explains, Pippen really doesn’t get enough credit for being how good he was. This was his fourth season, and, while his offensive skills weren’t fully developed yet, his defense is on another level compared to every wing playing today. The only moderately comparable player is Shawn Marion, but Pippen was much, much better in every defensive category. I can comfortably predict that we will never see a defensive tandem on the wings as impressive as Pippen and Jordan again. (I have too many Bulls games to talk about to go into full depth on Pippen right now. There’s a ton to say, though, so I’ll get to all of it eventually.)

I already talked about the 91 Lakers a bit here, but watching one game of this team doesn’t show off their most interesting quality. In that Warriors game, they played at an absolute breakneck speed, scoring close to 100 by the start of the 4th. In the Bulls series, with the same general lineup and substitution pattern, they played much more deliberately, waiting for the less experienced team to make mistakes. Honestly, these games closely resembled recent Spurs-Suns matchups in that Lakers tried to slow the athletically superior team down to a more manageable pace, relying on quality defensive rotations and ball control more than their legitimate scoring ability.

The Lakers might have only won one game, but they were close enough to win in the others that I watched. The fact that they were able to do that just weeks after playing at their top speed against the Warriors speaks to how versatile they were. From what I can tell, that versatility stemmed mostly from every starter’s excellent passing ability; if they needed a shot with the shot clock running down, they could find anyone with even a small opening. If Magic hadn’t contracted HIV, Showtime would’ve slowed down, but I’m willing to bet they would’ve made their fair share of finals.

This was clearly the Bulls’ moment, though. In the first game, they looked relatively unprepared for crunch time, but over the course of the series you can see them become more champion-like. When I use that term, I don’t mean that they got boring—they just looked incredibly comfortable in every situation. In Game 5, they executed much better down the stretch than the Lakers, which is surprising given the Lakers’ superior depth and experience.

A hero of the internet has posted the last few minutes of Game 5 and the entirety of Game 2 on YouTube. That’s a lot to watch, but it’s worth it if you have the time.

Miscellaneous notes on the series: In terms of jersey tightness, Magic was second only to Maurice Lucas. … I was pretty surprised by how impressive Vlade was at such a young age. The passing ability was there, as always, but he actually executed a spin off of Pippen from the high post that led into a free-throw line jumper. Related note: Vlade is the most Euro-looking Euro ever. He has taught Vlad Radmanovic well. … I remembered John Paxson as nothing more than a three-point specialist, but he was a pretty stellar all-around player, too. … The most shocking thing from this series, by far, was that Will Perdue was a generally solid contributor. In Game 1, he came in early, got a huge ovation from the crowd, and immediately scored a few baskets and blocked several shots. Marv couldn’t stop talking about how the Chicago crowd had completely embraced him. … With 10:40 left in the 4th of Game 1, the Lakers were up by 7. Jordan came in from his customary early-quarter rest and had a hand in the next ten points of the game, all of which occurred in two minutes. … AC Green was all energy at this point in his career. Nice to see him putting that sex drive to good use.


The Annexation of Puerto Rico

No, this is not another post about last night's USA/PR game. I have recently been drafted by Jason Gurney (who goes by the clever alias "Jason" in our comments) to write a series of posts over at Ballhype about "17 Games," a new game they've created involving weekly NFL picks. (Yes, I like other sports, too.) There's a celebrity blogger group (featuring such Blogburgh stalwarts as Jamie Mottram and The Big Lead) for which I'm serving as an "up-and-coming" embedded correspondent. Essentially, that means I'll write weekly updates on the group and NFL-at-large. My first post, a preview of the competition, is up now.

Fear not, readers who don't care about football. This gig will not change my posting patterns here in any way; if anything, it'll probably make me take this whole blogging thing that much more seriously.

Site updates: I don't know how much more I can say about the Tournament of the Americas, but we should have a post up at some point later tonight on a topic of importance. Plus, if I were to write something on the Uruguay game happening right now, I would probably just laud LeBron the whole time. His first half was unreal.

Anyway, I'm heading back to the obliteration of Uruguay. Again, we'll be back later tonight.

Our Energy Would Simply Prevail

After winning by a paltry 27 points on Monday against Mexico, Team USA got back on track and downed Puerto Rico 117-78 in front of another shamefully small crowd in Las Vegas. Given Puerto Rico’s recent success against its imperial overlord, a thumping of this magnitude bodes well for the continued improvement of what looks like the obvious favorite to take the gold in Beijing. The first quarter brought some troubles, but Team USA rebounded to make the second half inconsequential yet again.

In the first quarter, Team USA seemed to carry a hangover from the Mexico game. At the offensive end, there was a noticeable lack of ball movement and a willingness to take threes, while the team’s play at the other end featured poor help defense and a generally poor effort. Puerto Rico didn’t look particularly wonderful, though, and the Americans were able to create an impressive 24-15 lead by the end of the quarter. You really can’t argue with that margin, but, for a team with this kind of talent, domination needs to be obvious to even the most ignorant viewer.

The second quarter brought exactly that kind of performance, with Team USA outscoring PR 35-12. The offensive difference, as it has been throughout the whole tournament, was the team’s excellent ball movement. The Puerto Rican zone held up decently in the first quarter, but it got thrown around like a village baseball in the second. Of course, it became much easier to beat the zone once Team USA got out in transition more often, something they can do quite easily because of their tournament-long commitment to defense and phenomenal depth. A team like PR, which only has a few legitimate players, can’t hope to maintain their level of intensity when that handful of guys has to play nearly every minute of the game if they want any chance of winning. As they have done in every game, Team USA turned the entire second half into extended garbage time.

LeBron continues to be one of the most impressive players on the team. During the Mexico game, Bill Walton made the thoroughly ludicrous observation that Kobe and LBJ have not adapted to the international game as quickly as Carmelo, which is incredibly weird to hear coming from someone who excelled at so many things in addition to scoring. LeBron has obviously impressed in the scoring column, but his commitment to defense and unselfish play have made him seem like a much more integral part of the team than Carmelo. His performance in this tournament makes Cleveland’s inability to give him help even more frustrating. Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse: Danny Ferry’s lollygagging on signing Pavlovic and Varejao or the fact that bringing back those two players would give the Cavs the same roster they had last season.

Amare Stoudemire hit a three during Team USA’s big run, which has me incredibly conflicted. On one hand, it’s hard to get upset with someone for improving his game, particularly when that player had a reputation for being all athleticism, no skill. However, Amare should not be spending his time on the perimeter; his talents and situation with the Suns require him to be a force inside. The 12-footer he developed last season is a perfect move for him, and there’s no reason for him to venture out farther when his team already has several excellent three-point shooters. If Amare’s not careful, the Shawn Kemp comparisons could become all too real.

Team USA trotted out a zone for a good portion of the second half, and, once again, the results were poor at best. I know that the international game in many ways promotes the use of zones, but a team with shot blockers like Howard, Amare, and Chandler (plus Bosh when he gets healthy) should focus on shoring up its help defense. Flexibility can be nice—I’m just not sure it’s warranted in this case.

Throughout the Tournament of the Americas, we’ve been noting some of Bill Walton’s weirdest comments. Up until now, I’d considered them to be nothing more than his way of bringing some bizarre perspective to the game, but some of Walton’s remarks in this game have me fearing for his sanity. Late in the game, Walton quoted full passages from Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops as if it were a Ginsberg poem. The passages had some connection to the game in that they were about Jackson’s time in Puerto Rico, but Walton took up at least three possessions with his dramatic reading. The sad thing is that, while his insistence on quoting Jackson was incredibly odd, he immediately followed it up with an even crazier comment. After finishing his speech, Walton told partner Al Saunders that “for every 100 Americans, there are 90 guns in this country.” Huh? Again, that came right after he quoted Phil Jackson’s experiences in Puerto Rico at length. Let’s make sure someone’s watching Bill, okay?


Only for Those with True Grit

So much for my comment yesterday that nobody would come within 30 of Team USA. The Americans had another successful game, topping Mexico 127-100, but were unable to create a mindblowing lead due to the Mexicans’ tenacity and confidence. The final result was never in doubt, but this game said a lot about Team USA’s players and tendencies.

The epic first quarter (45-23 in ten minutes!) had the look of most of our outings in this tournament, with excellent ball movement, ridiculous alley-oops, and all the other details that signify full-scale annihilation. I was all set to write an entire post about how these games have ceased to resemble competitive basketball and that they’re really just superior all-star games in which the incredible plays arise from real situations instead of a desperate entertainer’s desire to “put on a show.”

Shreds of that concept showed up throughout the rest of the game, but Mexico announced that they weren’t going to quit with a terrific second quarter in which they actually out-scored Team USA 28-20. The Mexicans weren’t able to top Team USA in any other quarter, but any time things looked seemed to be on the verge of getting out of hand Romel Beck, Anthony Pedroza, Adam Parada, or Victor Mariscal made make a basket or two to keep the deficit in the teens or 20s. The outcome was never in question, but Mexico’s performance was easily the most impressive of any of Team USA’s opponents in this tournament. The simple facts that they never gave up, executed their cuts extremely well, and got into triple digits say a lot about their resolve and the coaching of Nolan Richardson. Honestly, if they had some legitimate players in the paint, I think they could have made this a real game.

While Mexico deserves the bulk of the credit for their play, Team USA should also shoulder some blame for failing to turn this game into an epic blowout. Given the success Kobe’s had defensively during this tourney, it seems weird to criticize his play at that end tonight. However, he let his inability to shut down Romel Beck affect his play offensively, resulting in the return of some of Kobe’s worse tendencies. Instead of playing the selfless team basketball that’s typified his play with Team USA, Kobe forced some questionable shots and drives. Some of those plays worked because, you know, he’s Kobe Bryant, but you would have thought he were playing with Sasha Vujacic instead of LeBron James. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds against Puerto Rico.

Coach K’s decision to start Chauncey Billups in place of Jason Kidd made absolutely no sense to me. I understand that Kidd needs more rest than any other player on the team, but he hasn’t played a great deal of minutes in this tournament in the first place, and it’s not as if the coaches can’t limit his minutes in the second half. The first quarter was obviously a success with Billups running with the first team, but things didn’t really get kicking until Kidd entered the game. Additionally, Billups had some trouble keeping Team USA from getting three-happy during some of their worst stretches. Kidd fits with that main lineup quite perfectly; his lack of a need to shoot works beautifully with three guys (plus Howard) who can finish easily. Billups, on the other hand, spends more time dribbling and fits much better with the second team, where his shooting makes him a nice addition to a lineup without great creative ability. Placing Billups on the first team gives Team USA two great lineups instead of one phenomenal lineup and one very good one.

Dwight Howard had yet another tremendous game, scoring 19 points on 9/10 shooting (I’m pretty sure all but one of those attempts was a dunk). Howard obviously won’t have the opportunity to be the fifth option in Orlando, but watching him with players of this caliber suggests that the Rashard Lewis signing will help him a great deal. Yes, the Magic overpaid a limited player, but Rashard’s scoring ability should take some pressure off of Howard, allowing him to freelance in a way he’s never experienced. Now, if only they could trade Jameer Nelson for Kidd.

Other notes on the game: FIBA rules continue to boggle the mind. Why do teams not get to carry over victories to Round Two involving teams that did not make that round? Aren't they completely different rounds with completely different consequences and situations? Teams shouldn’t be punished for beating the teams they were scheduled to play. I’m starting to think the FIBA bigwigs consult a Ouija board whenever they meet. … Mike Miller has turned into the Mark Madsen of Team USA. He could challenge Sarunas Jasikevicius’s 2007 record for “most times shown after a teammate’s dunk.” … Not Walton’s best game, but he still had some amazing moments. For instance, his love for the Baja Peninsula made it clear that it’s his favorite place to get stoned in Mexico. The highlight of the day, however, was his reference to “UCLA legend Lorenzo Mata.” I know that he uses that term for anyone with even a tangential relationship to the school, but I never expected to hear that phrase in my life.


Won't Be Long Now Before They Tear Us to Shreds

Team USA kept rocking and rolling through the weekend, destroying Canada 113-63 on Saturday and mauling Brazil, the second-best team in the tournament, 113-76 on Sunday night. At this point, it’s clear that no one will come within 30 of the Americans at this tournament, and it’s not even worth pretending otherwise. In a way, this team is now a lot like next year’s Mavs: having established that they’ll be a favorite in the Olympics, Team USA now must focus everything they have on attaining the gold. It might seem silly for the team to focus on something that’s now a year away, but they need to take this tournament for what it is—a bunch of games against inferior, half-strength competition.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the weekend’s games didn’t teach us some important lessons about international and NBA ball. These games didn’t look quite as one-sided as those against Venezuela and US Virgin Islands, but the United States’ ability to dominate shows exactly how much deeper and more talented they are in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. It’s tempting to say that Argentina or Spain could come close to matching the USA at full strength, but Walton’s comments throughout the game today about how no other players in this tournament could even think about trying out for Team USA (Leandro would make the Select Team, though) speaks volumes about the talent gap around the world. Even a team like Brazil, which rotated well on defense for much of the first half and hit some tough shots, still couldn’t make it anything less than a blowout heading into the locker room at the break.

In the Brazil game, many players on both sides took advantage of the curious FIBA rule allowing players to interfere with the ball once it has touched the rim, a rule that both Carter and I find amazingly stupid. For one thing, it seemed to have been concocted by a bunch of stoned FIBA higher-ups playing NBA Jam in their basements. (Note: This scenario could also explain why it’s easier to make threes on the international court.) I know that game wins at life, but did they ever consider how this rule would affect the game? On a very basic level, the Americans will have even more of an advantage if we ever learn how to adjust to the ridiculous rule. Will anyone be able to out-jump Bosh, Amare, or Howard for a tip-in or block (or would it be a rebound?) off the rim? Carter only half-jokingly believes that Coach K should designate the center as a put-back and rejection man on every possession. On offense, his sole responsibility would be to stand at the elbow and swoop in for follow-dunks, while his defensive job would be to stand under the basket and swat everything up court as if he were making an outlet pass.

Much of Team USA’s success against Brazil can be attributed to Kobe Bryant’s typically excellent defense on Leandro Barbosa, who scored just four points (1/7 FG) after being the leading scorer for the tournament in his first three games. Everyone knows that Kobe wants to take the best perimeter player on the opposing team, but his performance here suggests that Phil Jackson made a mistake in not putting Kobe on Leandro during Barbosa’s full-scale demolition of the Lakers in the playoffs. To be sure, Leandro can take on a less noticeable role on a team with Nash, Marion, and Amare than he can on a team like Brazil, causing Phil to have to weigh his options in terms of where to put his best perimeter defender. However, putting that man on Raja Bell seems like a poor choice when a lightning fast guy like Leandro is embarrassing your team in every conceivable way. That would create an issue with regards to putting Jordan Farmar on the much bigger Bell, but I’ll take my chances with the less explosive player.

Dwyane Wade attended Saturday’s game against Canada in a bright red Team USA shirt, bringing to mind questions of exactly how he’ll fit in on this team. The starting lineup has been phenomenally successful and shouldn’t be broken up under any circumstances, which will likely force Wade to the bench. On a purely strategic level, that move would make a great deal of sense; Wade could man the two, allowing Coach K to quit using the bizarre Billups/Deron backcourt. However, Dwyane is far from selfless (we think he idolizes Marlo Stanfield—check the unnecessary lollipop in this Barkley ad) and might not take too kindly to being demoted to the second unit. This probably won’t be a huge deal, but it’s something to watch out for next year.

Way back in July, we said that LeBron might not be the best fit on this team. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. For my money, he’s been the third-best player on the team behind Kobe and Kidd (yeah, Melo has scored, but I’ll take LeBron). No small forward in this tournament can match up with his size, and even if that player did exist, Lebron would just drive past him for easy buckets. Most importantly, LBJ’s been able to incorporate himself into the team style with remarkable ease; his trademark 15-second hold-and-chuck isolation plays have been noticeably absent. That shouldn’t really be surprising, though, considering everyone compared him to Magic more often than they compared him to MJ. No team could ever have the talent of this team in the NBA, but LeBron’s performance just goes to show that the surrounding “talent” and system in Cleveland have significantly affected his style of play for the worse. We’ve said it before, but it deserves to be said as many times as possible: Mike Brown is making a serious, serious mistake in not letting LeBron run. Sasha Pavlovic and Tits Gibson aren’t the best wingmen around, but an open court talent of LeBron’s caliber only comes around once per generation.

Assorted notes: Bill Walton toned things down a bit in Thursday’s game, but this weekend had some amazing highlights. They included: an extended endorsement of Festival Express, a documentary about the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and a bunch of other like-minded bands touring around Canada; an explanation of the origin of Brazil’s name; enough praise for Oscar Schmidt to make 50 million Brazilians blush; and a discussion of Nova Scotia’s odd time zone. … The Spurs should be really happy with their pick of Tiago Splitter, who looked very quick for a big man. He could probably contribute this year, if necessary. I’m sure the Spurs will gladly keep him in Spain, though. … Team USA had some rebounding issues against the bigger Brazilian frontline of Nene and Splitter, although some of those troubles could be explained by the lack of effort that attends a commanding lead. … Brazil pressed for one possession, which might be the stupidest idea in the history of basketball. Kobe hit an easy three on the play. … I can’t imagine “Cuarenta Minutos de Infierno” will have much success against a team with significantly more athleticism. Here’s hoping we can score 150 points.


A Gross Physical Salute

Despite the massive margin of victory (according to the broadcast the second largest in FIBA history after the legendary Cuba thrashing of '92 ), tonight's game against the Virgin Islands wasn't nearly as exciting as yesterday's Venezuela contest. A lot of that can be attributed to a lackluster second quarter in which a disturbingly bad team actually outscored Team USA. Granted, it's hard to stay motivated when you've jumped out to an awesome 42-13 lead after the 1st quarter, but it's exactly that type of foot-to-jugular mentality that makes these blowouts worth watching. Because the Virgin Islands managed to be even worse than Venezuela, this game didn't uncover anything earth-shattering about Team USA and their readiness for top-level competition. Nevertheless, there were still a few issues worth discussing. (Note: this is another TK/CB joint production.)

Hey Vegas, you want a team in your city? How 'bout you start by by filling the stands when your own personal All Star wrecking crew comes to town. Forget the Donaghy stuff, that kind of underappreciation of the opportunity to watch some of the finest talents in the world worries me way more. Are these tickets dramatically overpriced or something? I can't imagine turnout being this pathetic if it had been in Venezuela. About 100 fans in the upper-deck of an 18,000-seat arena is pathetic.

At this point there's not much left to be said about Kobe. MJD summed it up perfectly in his recap of the Venezuela game: "Kobe Bryant is in [sic] the floor with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwight Howard, three of the ten most physically gifted basketball players on the planet ... and Kobe's standing out head and shoulders above them." One thing that did stand out tonight that I was too jaw-droppingly impressed/amused to notice yesterday is how freaking happy he looks. And who could blame him? First off, he can't possibly do any wrong in this situation. It doesn't matter if he wants to play the facilitator or dominate the scoring, either way he'll look awesome. For practically the only time in his career, during the next few weeks his chorus of critics won't be able to say shit about him. More importantly though, he's getting to remember what it's like to play with real players. Although the powers that be probably mandated it, Kobe seems to genuinely like chilling with LeBron and Melo on the bench in a buddy-buddy kind of way I'm not used to seeing from him. Leaving this environment for the glamorous world of Larry Turner and Coby Karl is going to hurt. The first time Sasha goes to high-five him, Kobe might have to resist punching him in the face.

The Kidd/Bynum fiasco has to sting more than ever. Anyone who continues trying to defend Kupchak (or lil' Buss or big Buss or whoever) needs to stop rationalizing already. I don't care what system you're running, Kidd will work in it. I don't care how good Bynum's going to be someday, he's never going to average a triple-double for a playoff series. Kidd clearly made the very conscious decision to avoid dribbling whenever possible, which I never realized would make basketball that much more thrilling. At one point he tried to touch-pass a steal. His half court bounce-pass through three defenders was about as cool a way to commit a turnover as possible. I wasn't sure which was more shocking: that he actually took a shot, or that he dribbled four times on the same possession. We already mentioned some of this last time, but he's been brilliant enough that further analysis was needed.

The intensity of the second unit just isn't the same as that of the first. A lot of that's probably because Kobe sets an impossible standard, but Tayshaun really needs to take it upon himself to be the guy who sets the tone by playing harder than everybody. If they're going to insist on playing the Billups/Redd/Miller/Tayshaun lineup, there's really no need for him to be taking shots. He should be focusing on hustling his ass off on both ends making things happen, which for now doesn't seem to be happening. Also, we touched last time on our displeasure with Miller filling what we see to be Durant's spot, but this game strengthened our feeling that Redd can be both the designated shooter and a multi-faceted player at both ends. Miller can't.

On the Virgin Islands side of things, there's really not much to say other than that they looked really, really bad. Not that it would have helped any, but it's still a shame about Raja's surgery because I was really looking forward to the role-player-as-franchise-star experiment. Honestly, even as a pre-college UCLA fan, I (Ty) couldn't get excited about Jim Harrick on the sidelines. I will say, though, that it's unconscionable that he couldn't figure out a way to get the O'Bannons and Tyus Edney on the team.

Random non-USA notes: Be sure to check out the Painted Area's recaps of the Mexico-Puerto Rico game, the Canada-Brazil game, and the Uruguay-Panama game from Wednesday. His knowledge of the international game is kind of absurd. ... Mexico forcing 27 turnovers (11 against NBA PGs) sounds pretty hellish to me. ... Jose Juan Barea getting suspended for two games for cursing is bullshit, especially in a tournament this short. ... People need to stop talking about Varejao's absence from Brazil as though it's a huge deal. This team has Nene, Splitter, Barbosa, and plenty of other capable players. ... Argentina-Puerto Rico could be a good game tomorrow, especially now that Mexico's shenanigans have put Puerto Rico's back against the wall.

Now This Was a Superior Machine

Team USA blew out Venezuela 112-69 Wednesday night in their opener to the Tournament of the Americas, but the margin of victory and box score do not begin to explain the important on-court issues and great moments that populated this contest. With that in mind, here’s Plissken’s rundown of what transpired on the court and in the broadcast. (Note: I don't want to take all the credit for this one; Carter and I worked on this post together.)

In our breakdown of the Team USA scrimmage last month, we talked at length about the intensity that Kobe brought to the proceedings, and nothing seems to have changed with regards to his mindset over the last few weeks. From the opening tip, it became clear that he’s taking this competition more seriously than just about everyone else involved (at least among those on Team USA). Honestly, he’s like the guy who takes your pickup game way too seriously and Ds up everyone hard, except he’s also the best player in the world. Kobe terrorized Venezuelan standout Greivis Vasquez on defense throughout the first half, easily justifying his request to guard the opponent’s best scorer in every game. Maryland’s Vasquez isn’t an NBA player yet, but he didn’t notch a triple-double in the ACC as a freshman by mistake. Kobe effectively bottled up the player most capable of embarrassing this team, which, for an outfit that's struggled with that recently, is nothing to sneeze at. It’s also worth mentioning that Kobe brought his Pilates instructor to Vegas with him, suggesting that he’ll unveil his most impressive shit in the fall.

Kobe’s contributions show up in the box score, but those of the game's second-most impressive player do not. Jason Kidd attempted no shots, dished four assists, grabbed three rebounds, and probably didn’t even hold the ball for more than 90 seconds combined, but he completely controlled the game’s tempo with a number of full court outlet passes off of both makes and misses. Without having looked at game tape, Kidd never seemed to hold the ball for more than one second; he had every move planned out well in advance of the defense. He’d be the perfect point guard for this team even if Nash were American, because no one can control tempo like him without dribbling. On a team with so many talented scorers, his skills cannot be talked about enough.

The backup point guard situation is a little less defined. We both believe that Kirk Hinrich should have made the team ahead of Billups; Hinrich’s a better defender right now and not too much worse of a distributor or shooter. Additionally, Billup’s greatest asset, his size, is essentially a non-issue on a team with Kidd and Deron Williams. Billups didn’t play poorly on Wednesday, but it’s frustrating to see him get minutes at Deron’s expense.

Another curious roster choice involves the decision to keep both Mike Miller and Michael Redd. The primary reason that this choice should be questioned is that the international line is close enough that players like Carmelo Anthony (who doesn’t exactly light things up from outside in the NBA) can become solid shooters. Three-point shooting was more of an issue when Melo, LBJ, and Dwyane comprised the primary wing rotation, but substituting a terrific shooter like Kobe for Wade nearly solves that issue. At that point, the decision becomes one of whether to keep Miller or Redd. For the sake of argument, let us assume now that Miller is the better shooter of the two. Even under these circumstances, Miller still misses shots (six misses from outside today), and it’s not like Redd is too far behind him. Additionally, Redd has a much more well-rounded offensive game than Miller, particularly off-the-dribble. Why not keep Redd, who’s still a terrific shooter, and put Kevin Durant in Mike Miller’s place? Lord knows Durant can get hot from long-range, and his complete offensive game and defensive length make him an asset at both ends of the court.

The shooter situation seems even weirder given that Miller and Redd play together on Team USA’s thoroughly bizarre second unit. The Billups/Miller/Redd backcourt is theoretically a zone-busting one, but they played very tentatively today. You can kill a zone by hitting outside shots, but stagnancy isn’t the best way to get those looks—penetration gets the defenders moving, thereby causing the zone to become frenzied and late-to-recover. I’m all for creating cohesive first and second units due to the fact that these players mostly haven’t played with each other before, but those units need to make more sense. However, it’s likely that the second unit will seem like a better five against a team with a quality zone—Venezuela played one of the most porous ones I’ve seen in quite some time.

In the frontcourt, all this talk about the injury to Chris Bosh potentially leaving the team dangerously thin inside looks like hogwash. It's an unfortunate injury, to be sure, and he would have been unbelievably awesome, but we still have Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire—uh, and Tyson Chandler, if Coach K ever decides to use him for more than mop-up duty in the fourth quarter. Let’s be real here: we're honestly worried about not sizing up against Samuel Dalembert? Nene and Tiago Splitter are solid, no doubt, but I think I'll take my chances with the manfreaks.

We were a bit worried that Kobe, Melo, and LeBron would have trouble meshing, but one look at them on the break completely ended that fear. Watching those three work together with Kidd makes the situations in LA and Cleveland that much more difficult to take. It’s ridiculous that Mike Brown won’t let loose the best open-court player in the league (ever?), and Kobe would do wonders with competent finishers.

Bill Walton can be a polarizing figure in the booth, but only the biggest Dead hater would give him poor marks for his work on Wednesday. Some of the highlights: opening the game with a detailed explanation of the origins of Venezuela’s name; not knowing what a fade haircut is (“so you go in and ask for a fade?”); comparing LeBron’s best dunk to Angel Falls, the largest waterfall in the world (and in Venezuela); telling us not to underestimate the importance of Scot Pollard in Boston; and, my personal favorite, praising Hugo Chavez for educating poor Venezuelans. Can you imagine Mark Jackson talking about how Hugo Chavez doesn’t govern “the right way”?

Before we leave you, some assorted thoughts from the game: Outside of Walton, the best broadcast moment came during halftime, when they showed part of a Coach K pep talk. The reactions said it all. Kobe was way more interested than everyone else, Carmelo looked like he realized exactly why he left college, Chandler looked like he knew why he never went, Amare didn’t seem to understand how anyone could take it seriously, LeBron chewed on his lip and seemed to be thinking about his favorite SNL sketch ideas, and Mike Miller looked furious that anyone would condescend to him like that. … Given his strength, there’s no reason for Carmelo to get blocked inside as often as he did. Missing five “twos” against a defense that awful is uncalled for. … Someone will burn the USA zone very badly at some point during this tournament or next year’s Olympics. On one possession, two Venezuelans made three consecutive passes to each other and beat the zone easily. … After about a quarter-and-a-half, Hector Romero, who looks vaguely like Etan Thomas, clearly decided he’d had enough of the blowout and started focusing on nothing but trying to block every shot. He was our favorite player on Venezuela.


Look at All the Beautiful Honeys Here

Hours away from a reprieve from the dog days of basketballess summer, we here at Plissken are stoked to be able to talk about some games that didn't happen 30 years ago. There have been some good articles about Team USA's strategic concerns and roster issues around the internets. Kurt has had some quality work both at FB&G and at Ballhype on the U.S.'s need to focus on defense, and the Painted Area has been all over the topic with a great roundup of Olympic qualifying news and a look at the complexities of Team USA's defensive issues. Sheridan, as usual, has been pretty solid covering the news surrounding the team and the tournament. However, some important plotlines have gone underreported, so I've decided to take it upon myself to take a look at a few to watch.

Luis Scola: Making Spurs fans bitter and Rockets fans stoked

With his in-the-NBA countrymen out of the picture, Scola should have a chance to shine as a leader for Argentina, the Group A-favorites. When you have the greatest power of forward of all time and four recent championships it's probably hard to get too concerned with losing a 27-year-old prospect that's logged no time in the NBA, but if Scola lays waste to Group A you have to imagine some people in San Antonio start to feel a bit worse about handing a quality big man to a close division rival for nothing. Because of the rock-steadiness of Duncan, Houston's gain might be much more interesting than San Antonio's loss in this case. Even though it's being discussed, people probably aren't talking enough about just how much the Rockets improved themselves this offseason. The next couple weeks might help demonstrate that.

Raja Bell: Franchise Player
The U.S. Virgin Islands should provide a fascinating case study for what happens when you hand the keys to a team over to a guy who typically acts as a defensive and 3-point specialist. I'm not sure how this will factor into the role player discussion, but, regardless of that, I'm interested in seeing what Raja will be like as a primary option. The slight chance of a Kobe/Raja altercation on Thursday might pique your interest, or maybe you want to see Barbosa and Bell face-off on Saturday. Whatever the case, you know Raja has some kind of superstar-level flop up his sleeve for the occasion.

Jose Juan Barea: Fast as All Hell
Watching Barea run circles around everyone was one of the highlights of Summer League. I actually think losing Daniel Santiago, their starting center, might not be such a bad thing for Puerto Rico in the end, or at least for the people watching them play--anything that pushes a team towards embracing its identity is alright in my book. The pair of Barea and Arroyo should be as exciting to watch as any non-American duo.

Levon Kendall: Cool as Ice
The Canadian made a lot of noise on the international scene two years ago when he scored 40 in an upset victory over the United States. Of course, that game existed in print more than in any other form, so when college fans watched Pitt the next season, they were in for quite the shock: a white man with a Vanilla Ice haircut who's better at the nitty-gritty things than at scoring. With Nash and Magloire out of the tournament, the Canada will rely on Kendall for a healthy chunk of their scoring, giving him the chance to establish himself as a true international-ball idiot savant with a few huge games. Word to your mother. --TK

Cuarenta Minutos de Infierno
If you want to overachieve, having Nolan Richardson as your coach can't hurt. When run properly, his fast-paced system is probably as able to pull off an upset as any, so if you want the big money bet, Mexico might not be a bad choice. Tonight's match up with Puerto Rico is probably one of the non-U.S. games I'll be most interested in watching, mostly because I want to see a) how well Mexico can put on the pressure and b) how well Puerto Rico's guards respond to it.

Instigate the Role

I’ve watched a number of classic games in the last few weeks in preparation for our “Bloggin’ to the Oldies” series, and the experience of closely watching teams I thought I had pegged has caused me to reevaluate my conception of what a role player does and how that player affects the greater makeup of a team’s system. Namely, a system with pre-defined roles can hold back certain players from reaching potential, and I’m not convinced it’s a superior method of building a team under all but the most rare circumstances. A more amorphous system, on the other hand, allows a player’s talents to define his role, thus letting players complement each other naturally. As such, calling anyone on teams like the Warriors or Raptors a role player seems silly. These are merely basketball players defining a team’s system on their own merits.

This idea first came to me while watching the 94 Rockets, a team I’d always remembered as built around Hakeem with a number of capable shooters taking advantage of the opportunities created by the big man in the middle. In that way, they seemed like the ProtoSpurs. Actually watching their games proved to me that I'd been very wrong. A closer look at the Rockets showed that Vernon Maxwell and Robert Horry, while not quite stars, were versatile talents capable of defending and scoring from deep or around the basket. Most importantly, Hakeem’s skills did not limit what they were allowed to do: instead of trying to restrict some of Maxwell’s more volatile tendencies, Rudy T let him play his own way, knowing that such fetters would keep him from being Vernon. Horry, even as a young player, was given leeway, too. In fact, even players like Kenny Smith and Otis Thorpe appear to have played the way they did simply because that’s what they were best at; Kenny looked past his prime on his occasional drives to the basket, and seeing Thorpe’s jumper explains why he rarely took them. In all cases, the players defined their own roles, even on a team this committed to rigid system principles like defense and ball control.

A quick perusal of most successful teams in NBA history uncovers similar relationships between non-primary players and their systems. The 95 Magic relied primarily on Penny and Shaq, but Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant played the only way they knew how and worked as secondary options. The Celtics and Lakers of the 80s had numerous players beyond Magic and Bird, but none of them could be called “role” players because they so clearly defined their own positions on the team. Even the Knicks of the same time period, one of the more frustrating teams to watch of the era, relied on defense and structured jump shots because they had no pure scorers outside of the entirely erratic John Starks. Looking at the truly successful teams of my basketball-watching lifetime (from about 1985 on), only a few can be said to be rigid system teams.

Yet even those cases are somewhat arguable. The first incarnation of the champion Bulls, while nominally a system team in that they ran the triangle, didn’t restrict Cartwright or BJ Armstrong, who mostly shot threes but still had freedom to attack the basket. The second version of the Bulls somewhat qualifies in that Luc Longley was given no room to do anything and Rodman really just defended and rebounded, but how much of that was because of their limits? More recently, the Shaq/Kobe Lakers likely qualify, as does the Shaq/Wade team in Miami.

The Spurs are quite clearly the best recent example of a successful rigid system team, letting Duncan roam the middle as every other position fulfills a well-defined role around him. The small forward exists almost exclusively as a three-point shooter and defender, while the post opposite Duncan only needs to make the occasional basket between rebounding and defending. To a certain extent, Parker and Ginobili’s undeniable talents have defined their own positions, but Popovich has reined them in from their more exciting early years. I don’t deny that the Spurs use a system that works for them, but the exactness of the system creates an environment in which a potential-filled player like James White is never allowed a chance to play his type of game. Additionally, the Spurified Parker and Ginobili give off the impression that they are not realizing their full potential—perhaps this incompleteness is why it’s difficult for many to think of the Spurs as a dynasty.

On a more general level, a system with stark divisions between its star and role players sets itself up for failure once that star stops performing at his top level. The team can only place those players into defined roles because the star is good enough to make that predictability unimportant; the star draws enough attention that the role players can still be successful doing basic things. Any disruption to that system, then, can send the whole operation into flux.

Additionally, the other players have to be perfect fits for the star talent. Look at the Lakers, who’ve unsuccessfully tried—okay, only half-tried—to surround Kobe Bryant, the best player in the NBA, with quality role players. After a few years, Kupchak and Co. have come up with nothing better than a team unlikely to gain home-court advantage in the first round.

Compare that fate to that of last year’s Warriors, who took a bunch of underperforming players and pulled off an amazing first-round upset. Likewise, the Pistons won a championship by letting a bunch of non-stars play to their strengths. A rigid system might work for a team like the Spurs that has one of the best three players in the league, but, for a developing team, it makes much more sense to let the players at hand define the team’s style. It’s much easier to pick up a few talents than it is to find players willing to forfeit some of their own skills for the sake of a few more wins. (It can be said that Don Nelson runs a rigid system of his own, but the difference there comes in realizing that Nellie has issues with players unwilling to fulfill their potential, as opposed to the other way around.)

Moving away from the team-building aspect of the role player/basketball player difference, it’s also important to consider how this change affects our understanding of these teams. Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko ran an excellent post (with a solid comments section, as well) on this topic this Sunday, coming to the conclusion that certain second options actually play a more important role in facilitating a team’s system than the identifiable alpha dogs. I think Shoals goes a bit too far in inverting the conventional hierarchy, but his general point about giving these players more credit for defining their teams’ systems is one with which I can fully agree. The star-to-complementary trickle-down theory of definition is exactly what made me assume that Horry and Maxwell played easily defined roles, when in reality they played with Hakeem in a much more symbiotic relationship. Players of this kind, of which there are many in the league, must be recognized for their contributions to successful teams in a way that goes beyond describing them as complementary pieces.

That can be difficult for a GM, who must decide how much each player means to a particular team in concrete terms—if he doesn’t, he’s Isiah Thomas—but analysts (particularly those who don’t have ties to mainstream media outlets interested in television ratings, like bloggers) need to be more attentive to the dynamics behind particular systems.


Bloggin' to the Oldies: A Rare and Different Tune

Time to turn back the clock once again with “Bloggin’ to the Oldies.” In this post, I’ll be looking at Game 6 of the 1977 Finals between the Portland TrailBlazers and Philadelphia 76ers. Some general background: This Blazers team has the same basic makeup as that described in David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, with Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Lionel Hollins as the main pieces. The Sixers had one major star in Dr. J, although some other recognizable names like George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, Henry Bibby, and Doug Collins contribute, too. As for this particular game, the Blazers won in the final minute to close out the series. Walton rocked the box score with 20 points, 23 boards, eight blocks, and seven assists on his way to the Finals MVP award.

Although I’m now a Stanford guy, I was brought up a diehard UCLA fan, so watching Walton in his prime has been something I’ve wanted to do for quite a while. This game obviously provided me with that chance, and I must say that the unreal stat line above doesn’t tell the whole story. The points, rebounds, and blocks explain those aspects of Walton well enough—he’s a franchise center, and franchise centers control the paint—yet the passing is another story. Walton’s amazing passing abilities have been discussed before, but the centers of today so rarely make outstanding passes that Walton’s ability needs to be talked about in some detail. His ability to find cutters out of the post resembles that of Shaq (a tremendously underrated passer), except Walton did it much more often. At times, it looks like Walton passed based on instinct alone, although the rewatching plays on the DVR uncovers brief moments of recognition. Additionally, Walton fires outlet passes up the court faster than anyone around now, although everyone says that Wes Unseld topped him in the that regard.

Unfortunately, there’s no one currently in the NBA with the same kind of passing ability. However, Kevin Love, an incoming freshman at Walton’s alma mater, is said to possess freakish court vision for someone his size (6-9, 260 according to most lists, although word has it he dropped some weight). Anyone who watches UCLA regularly knows that—when they choose to do so—they run out on the break faster than anyone else in the Pac-10 (if not the country), so adding a phenomenal outlet passer can only help matters. Love’s skills become more intriguing when one watches the way the Blazers’ secondary players feed off of Walton’s versatility. Bottom line: I’m now officially scared shitless of UCLA next year, but I can’t wait to watch them.

I don’t want to single out Walton as the only terrific passer on the 77 Blazers, because every other regular made a few great dishes in transition or to a cutter from the wing or post. In theory, this team should be one of the most exciting teams ever: five guys, acting as a whole, throwing each other the ball simply because the other player had a great chance to score. Yet something about the non-Walton players constantly passing to cutters in the half court makes the whole operation seem rather systematic; I can only watch a wing pass to a man cutting through the lane so many times. I don’t mean to suggest that the Blazers were boring, or even less-than-exciting, but calling them one of the most exciting teams ever neglects the most important aspect of an exciting athlete: namely, that he does things we’ve never seen before.

The relative regularness of the secondary players in this game (apart from McGinnis, Lucas, and Hollins, who I’m sure I’d appreciate more if I watched multiple games) partly explains the relative rut the NBA found itself in before Magic and Bird burst onto the scene a few years later. Simply put, watching this game felt a lot like watching a college game, right down to the fans rushing the court at the end of the game. Outside of Walton and Dr. J, there was nothing particularly otherworldly about this game. When you get right down to it, that’s what makes the NBA as interesting as it is.

Random thoughts on the game: I feel stupid for not talking about Dr. J in greater detail in the main body of this post, particularly because he scored 40 points in the game. I must confess that I focused most of my attention on the Blazers during this game because of my Walton/UCLA connection. Honestly, when I saw that Dr. J had 40 I was pretty astonished. One obvious thing about his game is that he would still be a star today: the man rises faster than almost everyone playing now. … This game only makes me more confident in my earlier assertion that the NBA would have needed to introduce the three-point line if only to make avoid the clutter that comes with more athletic players. Even at this relatively early juncture in the athleticism boom of the modern era, players seemed to have less space to operate. … Nice to know that Brent Musburger has always been an atrocious announcer. Some of his worst moments: continually hyping the final round of the Kemper Open, as if it were a more important event than the deciding game of the NBA Finals; talking about the volume of the Portland crowd so much that viewers, who couldn’t hear the fans through the shoddy 70s audio equipment, must have thought he was exaggerating in order to make the game seem more exciting; and, worst of all, saying that the Blazers had the game won throughout the last two minutes even though it was usually a two-or-three-possession game. … Lloyd Free jumped unnaturally high on his shots. … In the first few possessions, Lucas trampled a few players, got tangled on the ground with Bibby for a few seconds, and knocked a player into a ref. … Jake Shuttlesworth ripped off his entire look from Dr. J. ... Someone needs to reprint Breaks of the Game.


Bloggin' to the Oldies: 40 Million Daggers

This post marks the second in our “Bloggin’ to the Oldies” series, for which I watch one of the “NBA’s Greatest Games” and both relate that game to the current NBA and revise common impressions of the players and style of play. Today, I’ll be talking about Game 2 of the 1991 Western Conference Semifinals between the Warriors and Lakers. Some brief background on the game: the Warriors won 125-124 in the final minute, tying the series, which clearly motivated the Lakers, who won the next three (two in Oakland) to close out Golden State. Chris Mullin went out of his mind to lead the Warriors, missing just a few shots attempts on his way to more than 40 points. Magic Johnson had around 40, too. (Unfortunately, I can't find a box score anywhere.)

As a Warriors fan, I came into this game most interested in how much Nellieball has changed over the years. Defensively, things look just about the same. The Warriors used an undersized starting lineup with Alton Lister at center and Mario Elie, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin at the forward spots, requiring double-teams to the post and general swarm nearly identical to the defensive tactics that characterized last season’s team. Of course, all that running around led to a lot of open looks for the Lakers, but Nelson and the players seemed plenty content to let that happen if it meant for chances for running.

At the offensive end, the Run-TMC team looked like they had a plan in a way that the current team does not. I’m not sure that difference has anything to with the team’s actual game plan, though—I stress that it just looked that way. In reality, Hardaway, Richmond, and Mullin were so clearly leaders of the offense that they necessarily had to take more shots. If Nellie’s system works because it gives players opportunities to score, then the best players on the team would logically have more opportunities to score just because their skills allow them those chances. Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, while very good, are not on the same level as Richmond and Mullin, so it makes sense that the current team would have a more balanced look. I’m sure that would have changed had Mullin been able to trade for Kevin Garnett.

Chris Mullin was a great player, and I’m sure he would have thrived in any system, but the nature of his amazing performance in this game is part of what has me so excited about Marco Belinelli. Mullin hit an unbelievable number of his shots in this game, but most of them were the sort of looks that Nellieball creates for everyone. Last year’s Warriors team didn’t have an objectively great shooter; Jackson, Baron, Barnes, Harrington, and J-Rich can all make them fairly regularly, yet none would ever participate in a three-point shooting contest. Marco, however, has the chance to be one of the best shooters in the NBA. Additionally, while Mullin hit a decent amount of shots with hands in his face, he did so because of his extraordinarily quick release, and Marco has the same type of trigger. I doubt that he will ever get to Mullin’s level, but all Marco really has to do to be a valued member of the team is hit open shots, and there should be a ton of those.

Moving on to the Lakers, I now better understand why Jerry West’s reputation as a GM is as strong as it is. I always knew he did a great job putting together the 80s Lakers, but looking at this team—the second wave of the Lakers dynasty had Magic not contracted HIV—it’s clear that West had a clear vision with this group, as well. The frontline of Vlade Divac, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy was incredibly versatile, capable of scoring from the perimeter or post, running or playing a slower game, etc. This is something I’ll talk about more when I get to the Bulls/Lakers series from the same year, but it’s unreal that the Lakers could play such a fast-paced game against the Warriors and then beat the Bulls in the first game of the finals by slowing things down with the exact same lineups on the floor. It would’ve been interesting to see how long the Lakers could have kept up their regular runs to the finals with Magic still playing. Alas.

It bears noting that the Warriors won this game because of a ridiculously questionable foul call on Elden Campbell with three seconds left. Elie grabbed the board, Campbell got his arm tangled, and some bozo zebra called the foul. The Lakers lose, fans have to watch free throws instead of a potential game-winner, and an amazingly entertaining game comes down to the referees instead of the players. Referees seemed to be more consistent than they are now, in general, but it’s nice to know that they’ve always sucked in some areas.

Some random notes on the game: The score was 99-97 Warriors after three quarters. More evidence that a Suns/Warriors playoff series would have been the greatest thing ever. … I’m pretty sure Tim Hardaway’s early years will somehow get lost in the shuffle as the years go by, but, like Kevin Johnson, at least those who saw him will remember. … There are few sights that make me as happy as that of Sarunas Marciulonis barreling into the lane. He’s the reason I get upset about the Spurification of Ginobili. … I’m not sure there will ever be a player again like this incarnation of James Worthy, a small forward who spends a healthy chunk of his time in the post. … The Warriors could definitely use a guy like Tyrone Hill, a reasonably athletic power forward who doesn’t really need to do anything other than rebound and defend. I expect bigger things out of Brandan Wright eventually, but maybe he can be that type of guy for the next year or two. ... Jack Nicholson attended the game sporting dark, slicked-back hair, a moustache, and a dark suit. He looked more like Dan Aykroyd from the old SNL bad toy sketches than the coolest guy in the world.


Pay Your Rates

The Warriors have bought out the last two years (via this Tom Ziller FanHouse article) of Adonal Foyle's albatross contract, signifying the end of Chris Mullin's purge of his less-than-stellar first few years as GM. I'm guardedly excited to get arguably the worst contract in the NBA off the books, but, without knowing the exact terms of the buyout, I will reserve judgment and simply lament that I won't get to say that one of the best guys in the league plays for my favorite team. What really excites me about this buyout is that it suggests another move will occur soon. If that doesn't happen, though, I fear Mullin will have missed a chance to take advantage of one of next offseason's best expiring contracts.

On Draft Night '97, I remember yelling at the radio (we did not yet have cable) that the Warriors should have taken Tracy McGrady. History has proven me correct, but I've always been a fan of Adonal, even if more for his off-court personality than for his on-court performances. That said, he was a decent rebounder/defender in his best years, and I still think he could be moderately productive on a slow-it-down team. The Warriors are not constructed to do anything close to slowing it down, of course, so getting rid of the contract was a good move if only for that reason. I'll miss the guy, but only on an emotional level.

In terms of depth, I'm not sure the buyout really changes anything. The Warriors had little post depth last year and weren't going to have much this year either. The deal could have some effect on team chemistry and general locker room morale, but this team belongs to Baron Davis. I'm not even sure any players have been around long enough to truly appreciate what Adonal's ten years of service stood for.

The roster implications of this deal are quite interesting. Before buying out Adonal, the Warriors had 15 players under contract. That number does not include Mickael Pietrus, who was given a qualifying offer at the beginning of the summer and thus has the choice to return. So, as of now, the Warriors have 14 players under contract, leaving one spot open. That means one of the following things has to happen: (1) a trade that brings back one more player than they give up, (2) Pietrus comes back, (3) a sign-and-trade involving Pietrus, (4) the team keeps an open roster spot (unlikely). Of these options, I think (2) and (3) are the most likely, although I won't speculate about the specifics of any deal right now.

I want to make it clear that this buyout needs to lead to a real trade for it to be an incredibly smart move instead of just a good one. The buyout money still applies to the salary cap, so there's not a great difference between paying Adonal for sitting on the bench and paying him for sitting at home; this situation is not analogous to that of Steve Francis, who the Blazers brass thought might be a bad influence on the young 'uns in Portland. If no move happens, Mullin just squandered an opportunity to hold one of the most coveted expiring contracts in the league next offseason. The Lakers outright released Brian Grant instead of waiting for his expiring contract a few years ago, and I bet Kupchak now wishes he'd kept and moved it for a serviceable player.

But that's all idle speculation. For now, let us appreciate one of the most impressive people in the NBA and perhaps the only GM in the NBA with the balls to admit that he made five poor decisions in his first years on the job. Quite shockingly, Mullin has rectified all of those mistakes, and the Warriors' future looks brighter for it.

For those of you haven't already, it's worth checking out Adonal's website democracymatters.org. Some good work going on there.


Human, All Too Human

After the Warriors' upset of the Mavs last spring, commentators all over the internet, print, and television media claimed that Dirk Nowitzki had a lot of soul-searching to do. Well, it seems like he took that advice to heart. NBA.com's Johannes Berendt reports:

"We [Dirk and longtime coach Holger Geschwindner] toured five weeks through Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti. With a rucksack. That was about the only place in the world where nobody would recognize me and I could move somewhat freely," Nowitzki stated. "At Ayers Rock a few tourists noticed me but the trip was just right to clean my mind."

Down under, the Dallas Mavericks star was looking for answers.

"I have been exploring the sense of life. I haven't entirely found it yet but I will keep looking," he said with a smile.

Yes, Dirk spent five weeks on a life-considering backpacking trip through Oceania. Once I got over the hilarity of imagining Dirk on his form of an Australian walkabout, I decided that Dirk's introspective qualities are admirable, and I bet few NBA stars share them. However, this story also points to why he doesn't seem cut out for leading a team to a championship.It's possible that this trip will clear Dirk's head enough that he achieves some kind of zen relationship with the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but history has shown us that the most successful basketball players have had an unnatural obsession with doing everything possible to win. Namely, they spend the entire offseason working on their jumpers and shoring up their weaknesses.

To a certain extent, Dirk is doing just that: the article mentions that he's been working with Geschwindner quite intensely over the last few weeks. Of course, it also says that he's living at home, getting "the full-service treat from [his] mother," who irons his shirts, does his laundry, and tells him when to get haircuts. Call me crazy, but that doesn't seem like the best way to improve one's toughness. Can you imagine Kobe doing the same thing?

I can't blame Dirk for wanting to go to Australia to clear his head. The trip actually sounds pretty cool, and he sounds fairly down-to-earth about the whole thing. I'd actually probably like him as a person. Unfortunately, his personality is exactly the kind of thing that makes him a frustrating basketball player; Dirk would rather get his mind right instead of learning some post moves. This trip might be the best thing for him in the long run, but I'm almost sure next spring we'll all see the same picture we did this playoffs: a confused, upset Dirk, wondering where everything went wrong.