Hey Jackass: There's Nothing Wrong with the NBA

Typical NBA Critic
Well, that's not quite true. I'd be lying if I claimed that the NBA isn't as flawed as any other corporate monstrosity: from terrible (and, at times, corrupt) officiating to an untenable financial system, David Stern certainly has his hands full trying to remedy the myriad number of issues facing the league. And unlike his counterparts, Roger Goodell and Bud Selig, Stern doesn't possess the luxury of being able to count upon the largesse of a traditionally supportive and forgiving public to lessen the impact of negative publicity; indeed, the NBA's margin of error is undeniably lower than that of the NFL or MLB, which became quite evident during the aftermath of the Nuggets-Knicks "brawl" in December of 2006. While such a scuffle in baseball or football would have been, at worst, regarded as laughable, the media treated the "fight" as if the league had been dealt an indelible blow by Carmelo Anthony's slap-and-run.

This double-standard becomes especially evident when scrutinizing the host of false assertions and accusations that are frequently hurled at the league by angry, bitter "fans," whose rage is undoubtely fueled by the absence of a Great White Hope in basketball to rally around. Because I've grown weary of these baseless criticisms, and (more importantly) because I have nothing better to do, I've taken it upon myself to debunk and dismiss the most prominent allegations.

"NBA Players Can't/Don't Play Defense!"

Bullshit. Anyone who's watched even a minute of professional basketball over the last fifteen years can attest to the fact that there've been moments when the game has been stifled by too much defense. If someone ever repeats this claim to you, smack them upside the head, spit in their eye, and kick them in the shins. After they've recovered from the shock of being assaulted, direct them to the "League Index" on Basketball-Reference.com, and specifically the 1990 Season Summary, where you'll force them at gunpoint to observe the league-wide offensive statistics of said season:

107 ppg (!), 47.6 FG%, 98.3 Pace Factor (a measure of a "team's possessions per 48 minutes")

These numbers were posted in the midst of the NBA's "Golden Age," when (supposedly) both players and teams possessed the proper basketball "fundamentals" (more on this later) and executed at a level on both sides of the floor that had rarely been seen in league history. And yet, arguably the best defensive team of this specific year and era (the Pistons) gave up 98 points-per-game (first in the league). To give our imaginary NBA critic some perspective, force him or her to click back to the "League Index" page and select the 2004 Season Summary (the last season before hand-checking was outlawed), where (if they're not crippled by fear) they'll undoubtedly become aware of a noticeable dip in offensive numbers in the fourteen-year interval:

93.4 ppg, 43.9 FG%, 90.1 Pace Factor

While some would claim that the precipitous decline of scoring averages and field-goal percentages was the result of a parallel decline in offensive talent, the more plausible explanation is that a league-wide embrace of the defensive philosophy pioneered by the Pistons of the late 80's and early 90's led to a slowing down of the game and a subsequent need for defensive specialists who may not have been as successful if they had played in the higher-paced 80's and early 90's (I'm looking at you, Eric Snow). The numbers (as well as the tape) simply do not support the assertion that there was a greater emphasis on defense before the late 1990's and 2000's; in fact, the opposite is true. Defenses were so good, and so effective, that fans fled in droves, all the while complaining about the lack of defensive effort. Of course.

"NBA Players Lack Fundamentals!"

What the hell does this even mean? Are we talking about dribbling? Passing? Shooting? Rebounding? Since no one has ever taken the time to explain this criticism to me, I'll just assume that those who make it are more concerned with skin pigmentation than anything else (yeah, I said it).

"The League is Fixed!"

David Aldridge debunked this pretty conclusively last season, but since I'm one who loves to belabor the point, I'll reiterate how truly stupid this argument is:

If the NBA was fixed, the Spurs and Pistons wouldn't have won five combined titles in a nine-year span. If the NBA was fixed, the Suns, Kings, and Mavericks (arguably the most entertaining teams of the 2000s) would've made more than one combined Finals appearance between the three of them. If the NBA was fixed, the Pacers wouldn't have beat the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 and prevented a Knicks-Lakers Finals matchup. If the NBA was fixed, the Nets wouldn't have beaten the Celtics in the ECF in 2002 and prevented a Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup. If the NBA was fixed, the Magic wouldn't have beaten the Cavs in last year's postseason and prevented a LeBron James-Kobe Bryant Finals matchup.

And so on and so forth.

"Only the Best Team with the Best Record Wins the Championship!"
"The Regular Season is Meaningless!"

These two criticisms are, paradoxically, tied together. When you hear one, the other is not far behind, and despite all the evidence you may use to disprove these inherently contradictory suppositions the critics in question will fail to see that these claims cancel each other out. If the best team with the best record wins the title every year (which is patently false, but I digress), then the regular season must mean something because it is the barometer by which a team proves its superiority; likewise, if the regular season is meaningless and has no bearing on the playoffs, then the best team with the best record should not, theoretically, win the title every year.

What's especially frustrating about the latter argument is that it's deemed a positive when applied to MLB and the NFL (though doubts have arisen over the competitiveness of the latter in light of last season). If a team with a middling record gets hot and goes on a deep playoff run in either of those leagues, it's a testament to parity and the inherent drama of the postseason; if it happens in the NBA (as was the case with the Celtics this past year), then it's proof of the pointlessness of the regular season and a slap in the face of the teams that finished with better records.

Speaking of parity . . .

"There's No Parity in the NBA!"

This argument is hard to refute considering the fact that the Celtics and Lakers have won thirty-three titles in sixty-four years, or that the Spurs and Lakers have combined to win nine out of the last twelve championships (and, except for 2006, have appeared in every Finals since Jordan retired). If there was a single picture which could aptly sum up the history of the league, this would be it. Arguably more than any other sport, the NBA is marked by dynasties, which for some is an indication of inherent uncompetitiveness.

Yet at the same time, there's evidence that the league is far more competitive than its detractors give it credit for. Indeed, the conference ironically criticized for being "weak" during the 2000s (i.e. the East) was a paragon of parity; after all, seven teams represented the East in the Finals during those ten years, with only the Nets and the Pistons reaching that round more than once. And despite the stranglehold the Lakers and Spurs have had on the West, the Mavericks, Suns, Kings, Jazz, and Blazers were at least able to offer some resistance and make the proceeding seem less perfunctory.

"NBA Players Are Thugz! LOL!"

Yeah, and the other sports leagues are populated by saints.

This accusation, like the one concerning "fundamentals," probably has more to do with skin pigmentation than anything else.


Why . . . Mitch Richmond is a Hall of Famer

Being the obvious and only choice for the completely imaginary "Best Shooting Guard of the 1990's" award, Michael Jordan and his exploits have, for obvious reasons, dwarfed the accomplishments of some of the other greats who played the position during that decade. Indeed, despite Clyde Drexler's all-around brillance, Reggie Miller's playoff heroics, and Joe Dumars' cerebral play, Jordan's singular dominance has almost rendered the debate over who was the second-best two-guard of that era immaterial; what, after all, would be the point of arguing who was the next best after Leviathan?

At least, however, Drexler, Dumars, and Miller have received proper recognition for their otherwise oustanding careers. The former two have already been honored by the Hall of Fame, and the latter will undoubtedly be enshrined on the first ballot. The same cannot be said for Mitch Richmond, whose career has essentially been forgotten by fans and journalists alike. We all remember Drexler's spectacular dunks and layups, and Miller's game-winning shots, and Dumars' lockdown defense, but few recall the Rock's steadfast play during the entirety of the 1990's on a series of execrable, pre-Chris Webber Kings' squads.

Indeed, the biggest knock on Richmond's career is that he played for bad-to-mediocre teams for the majority of his time in the league. And this is inarguable; he appeared in the postseason only four times and played in a grand total of twenty-three playoff games (though he did win a ring as a bench-warmer for the Lakers in '02). At the same time, Richmond continuously earned the respect of his peers during his playing days, and was regarded by one guy in particular to be one of the most underrated players in the league (fast-forward to the 43-second mark):

The praise Richmond received was mirrored by the accolades he garnered: he was selected to five All-NBA teams (3x Second Team, 2x Third Team), six All-Star Games, won the All-Star Game MVP in 1995, and was Rookie of the Year in 1989. His resume compares favorably to that of Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing (3x All-NBA, 7x All-Star, '76 ASG MVP, '67 ROY, 31 total playoff games) and Miller (3x All-NBA, 5x All-Star, 144 playoff games with better teams), and his career point total (20,497) is good for 34th all-time (25th all-time at the time of his retirement in 2002). Indeed, so prolific was he that he finished the 1990's as the fifth-leading scorer of the decade (ahead of Hakeem Olajuwon, Miller, Charles Barkley, and Scottie Pippen), and the second-leading scorer among guards (behind only Jordan).

If he had never been traded by the Warriors, or if he had been dealt to the Knicks, Jazz, or another contender seeking a shooting-guard to counter MJ in the late 90's, we'd undoubtedly remember Mitch Richmond as one of the better players of his generation. Though he never enjoyed the postseason success that Drexler, Miller, or Dumars did, his numbers and acclaim are proof that his lack of team success was not the result of substandard play or poor leadership, but rather of misfortune and poor managerial decisions.

Seriously, you know a guy's been screwed over when he's forced to spend his prime years relying upon Brian Grant and Lionel Simmons for support.


Why . . . Grant Hill is a Future Hall of Famer

In a preview piece written before the start of the 2001 season, Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen wrote of the Orlando Magic: "Though the Magic (are) by no means a title contender this year, (they) will be among the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. With nine first-round picks over the next five years, and with the city of Orlando an ever-attractive destination for free agents, the Magic (are) in excellent shape to gradually add the muscle needed to go all the way." While the rest of SI's staff begged to differ (they picked Orlando to finish first in the East and ultimately lose to the Blazers in the Finals), there was no debate that the Magic's addition of the newly-formed super-duo of Grant Hill (coming off a season in which he'd averaged 25-6-5 and dragged a sub-standard team to a playoff appearance) and a very-young Tracy McGrady would elevate the franchise to new heights in the succeeding years.

Beyond the misfortunes which ultimately undermined those dreams, and beyond the obvious and, quite frankly, spooky parallels between the Magic's situation in the summer of 2000 and the Heat's in 2010 (right down to the addition of Mike Miller and the vociferous criticisms launched against a superstar small-forward for leaving an economically-depressed Midwestern city for the Sunshine State), perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of the failures of the Magic to capitalize on their luck and guile was the damage inflicted upon the public and media perceptions of Grant Hill's career. Leading into the 2001 season, Hill was widely-considered to be one of the best all-around players in the game, whose stellar play had (unfortunately, and seemingly inevitably) inspired writers and fans to draw comparisons to that of Michael Jordan; following the conclusion of the 2004 season, Hill had, due to an assortment of injuries, been able to participate in only 47 out of a possible 328 games since joining Orlando. Coupled with the meteoric rise of Tracy McGrady, Hill was all-but forgotten and his legacy seemed to be forever tarnished by unfulfilled expectations.

And unjustly so, I might add. While there are undoubtedly many who would balk at the suggestion that his career is Hall-of-Fame worthy, I have to remind my imaginary skeptics that Hill's career before joining the Magic ten years ago was in-and-of itself enough to garner that distinction. In his first six years, Hill averaged 21.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 6.3 apg on 47% shooting, numbers which compare favorably to those posted by LeBron James (27.8 ppg (though he averaged four more shots a game than Hill), 7 rpg,  and 7 apg on 47% shooting) and Scottie Pippen (16.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg, and 5.2 apg on 49% shooting) in the first six seasons of their respective careers. He was also selected  to five All-NBA teams (1x First Team, 4x Second Team) and five All-Star games, and finished third in MVP voting in 1997 after averaging 21 ppg, 9 rpg, and 7 apg on 49% shooting and leading the Pistons to fifty-four victories (their best win total since 1990).

Of course, one cannot simply dismiss the impact Hill's injuries had on his career; they undoubtedly robbed him of his prime years, and submarined any chance the Magic had at contending for a title in the first half of the 2000's. However, the true extent of the damage to his abilities has been somewhat overstated over the last few years; after all, despite being beleaguered by health issues in five out of six seasons in the 2001-2006 stretch, Hill was able to return briefly to form in 2005 (averaging 19 ppg on 50% shooting and making the All-Star team), and has from 2007-2010 (a period in which he has only missed twenty-seven games) reinvented himself into an extremely effective role player on playoff teams in both Orlando and Phoenix. Indeed, this past post-season saw Hill assume the duties of a defensive ace for the Suns in their unexpected run to the Conference Finals, and come up with plays like this (at the age of thirty-seven, no less):

While he is obviously no longer the player he was, his ability to remain effective despite his history of injuries and his age is a testament to his overall talents. Tempting as it is to wonder what could or should have been, Grant Hill's legacy as it stands now is one which is both inspiring and worthy of the highest recognition; one hopes that writers, fans, and media personalities will remember this when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Chaos Reigns or: Evaluating the 2010 Offseason

What a weird and wacky offseason! Weird and wacky I say!

Recapping everything that's happened would be as monotonous an exercise as recounting every malapropism ever spoken by our previous President, so let's just stick to the most important events of the last few weeks:

LeBron and Bosh Head South

It's hard to even fathom at this juncture. Not only does Miami have two of the three best players in the league on its roster, it also has another top-20 player who doubles as one of the best big men in the game. Add a deadly sharpshooter (Mike Miller, who shot 48% from beyond the arc last season), competent role players (Haslem, Ilgauskas, Chalmers, Joel Anthony, James Jones, and possibly Carlos Arroyo and Juwan Howard), and a decent head coach (with Pat Riley waiting in the wings if things go awry), and we easily have the makings of a 65+-win team (barring injury or a tactical nuclear strike on the state of Florida).

What's even more disconcerting is the fact that the Heat were a 47-win team last season without LeBron, Bosh, and Miller. I think we can safely assume that LeBron is an astronomical upgrade over Quentin Richardson, and Bosh a titanic improvement over Michael Beasley (strangely enough, I think Miami will miss Jermaine O'Neal and Dorell Wright slightly-repeat: slightly).

"The Decision"

As ill-conceived a P.R. move as we'll ever see in this day and age, so incomprehensibly idiotic that it defies any and all logic, even in the world of professional sports. While the subsequent wailing and gnashing of teeth among journalists and fans has been a bit much, it's certainly hard to defend the hour-long ego-fest which LeBron and his handlers had undoubtedly been planning for months. Then again, at least we'll  have something from this offseason to look back at and laugh about in the years to come (well, unless you're a Cavs fan, in which case I offer my deepest sympathies).

Chicago is Utah!

While the Bulls struck out on the Big Three of this year's free-agent class, the additions of three erstwhile members of the Utah Jazz (Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer) were more than adequate consolation prizes. With Noah, Boozer, and Deng up front, Chicago has arguably one of the best front-lines in the East, and the backcourt tandem of Rose and either Brewer or Korver is nothing to scoff at either; although presently I'd be hard-pressed to rank them ahead of Miami, Orlando, or Boston, any improvements made to the bench (though a group consisting of Taj Gibson, Korver/Brewer, Omer Asik, and James Johnson isn't necessarily terrible) in the coming weeks and months could be enough to propel the team into the top three of the conference (most likely at Boston's expense).

Joe Johnson Re-Signs with the Hawks

You would think by now that the achievements of R.C. Buford (San Antonio), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), Kevin Pritchard (recently and unjustly ousted from Portland), Daryl Morey (Houston), Kevin O'Connor (Utah), and other savvy G.M.'s would have led to a league-wide embrace of a new paradigm entailing a bolder and more nuanced approach to team-building, as well as a keener appropriation of resources and money by both G.M.'s and owners. Of course, these principles have all but been unheeded, as can be evinced in the Hawks' soon-to-be-indefensible resigning of Joe Johnson for six years and $120 million (!).

Look, Joe Johnson is a fine player (though by no means a superstar) and it's more than reasonable to suggest that Atlanta had no other choice but to resign its only true star; however, one can't help thinking that by taking the road less traveled (i.e. letting Johnson go or moving him for other assets in a sign-and-trade), Hawks' management could have positioned the franchise nicely for the next 5-10 years. Instead, Atlanta's stuck with a team that's no better than fifth or sixth in the East (depending on how you feel about Milwaukee), with really no chance to improve outside of trading a core player or getting lucky with a mediocre draft pick.

David Kahn: Madman? Or Genius???

Quickly becoming the laughing-stock of the NBA, David Kahn has proven himself to be of the utmost value when it comes to comedic relief. We have to thank God that there's still a G.M. dumb and incompetent enough to not only give Darko Milicic another chance, but also to pair him with Michael Beasley (apparently in an effort to create an All-Dissapointment team) and grossly over-pay for a second-round draft pick (Nikola Pekovic: 3 years for $13 million). To top this all off, Kahn traded one of the better low-post players in the league (Al Jefferson) to Utah for basically nothing (the legendary Kostas Koufos and two useless draft picks), and signed yet another point guard (Luke Ridnour), despite the fact that the Wolves already have Jonny Flynn, Ramon Sessions, and Ricky Rubio (who is undoubtedly very eager to come to the States and play for the basketball-equivalent of Captain Ahab).

Honestly, at this point I wouldn't be surprised if Kahn traded Kevin Love for a sack of potatoes and signed Daunte Culpepper to a five year-$100 million deal.


Celtics vs. Lakers, Part XII or: How We Got Here and Where We're Going

Consider this: not too long ago (three years, to be exact), both of this year's finalists appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be dead in the water. The Celtics had come off a disastrous 2007 campaign in which it had become more than apparent that the young "core" (Gerald Green, anyone?) surrounding Paul Pierce was incapable of propelling the franchise into contention; adding insult to injury, any hope of improvement through the draft vanished with the inopportune bouncing of lottery balls. A draft-day deal for Ray Allen, while undoubtedly an upgrade to the roster and an obvious (and much needed) attempt to placate Pierce, was viewed by some as a foolhardy move which further underscored Danny Ainge's general incompetence and lack of vision.

The Lakers, despite having made the postseason for two consecutive years, were in a similiar dilemma; first-round exits at the hands of the Suns in the two postseasons prior, coupled with the apparent inability of Mitch Kupchak to surround Kobe Bryant with a capable supporting cast, had driven said star to the breaking point. Soon after exiting the playoffs, Bryant (quite) publicly expressed both his displeasure with the Lakers' front office and his teammates, as well as his desire to be dealt to a contender. That summer was thus marked by unbridled speculation regarding Bryant's future, and by any measure the Lakers appeared to be on the brink of starting a long and painful rebuilding process which would mark the end of an era.

Of course, the Kevin Garnett trade of that summer and the Pau Gasol deal in the winter of the following season irrevocably shifted the fortunes of both franchises. Since the tumultuous events of 2007, the Lakers have made three straight Finals appearances, and the Celtics have advanced to that round twice in the same time period; one could even go so far as to argue that the latter was a knee injury away from achieving the same feat as the former. Beyond returning the teams in question to contention and revitalizing the careers of some of the game's most burdened and unlucky stars, the roster overhauls of these two teams and the subsequent success each franchise has enjoyed has had unforseen and historic consequences which have, in a way, upset the NBA narrative of the past decade.

Indeed, this era (or mini-era, if you will) will be remembered not only as a time in which the league's flagship teams returned from the dead to contend for the throne, but also as a unique period in which the order of the previous decade (i.e. the San Antonio-Detroit-Shaq balance of power) was overthrown and the ascendancy of the up-and-coming powers (i.e. Cleveland, Orlando, OKC, etc.) was denied. Neither marked by the stodgy orthodoxy of the old hierarchy nor the friendly exuberance of the new generation, these Celtics and Lakers squads have adhered to a third-way philosophy of basketball which entails a reliance upon players both old and young, a blend of stylized (yet efficient) offense and stifling defense, and a sublimation of individual superstar egos into a greater whole. While these axioms are by no means radical or revolutionary, their successful adoption by L.A. and Boston has created a rift in the NBA order and kickstarted a transitional-period in which the machine-like teams of yore are put out to pasture and the superstar-led outfits of the future are forced to wait their turn to dominate.

And to think that, not so long ago, Kobe wanted to be traded to Chicago to play with Luol Deng and the Celtics were banking on Greg Oden to save the franchise . . .


The Return of Ubuntu

A month ago, I thought the Celtics were done. Finished. Caput. I thought, like many others did, that age had finally caught up with the Big Three; that whatever chemistry issues were plaguing the team over the last couple of seasons had finally come to destroy the unity which had propelled the franchise to its 17th championship in 2008; that Cleveland and Orlando had stockpiled enough talent to maintain a stranglehold on the East for not only this season, but also for the forseeable future as well. In short, I thought that (to use an already overused cliche) the championship window was firmly shut, and that the next few seasons would prove painful as the team's stars aged and the young players (including Rajon Rondo) would prove unable to carry a team by themselves

Man, was I wrong. Perhaps it was foolish to write off a team which, over the last two seasons, had proven time and again that it was capable of performing at the highest level when required, regardless of the circumstances. In fact, I could, at this juncture, copy and paste the entirety of Rudy Tomjanovich's "heart of a champion" speech into this space, and go on and on about the grit and resolve of this particular squad, and observe how Ragin' Rajon Rondo has entered the "best point guard in the league" debate as a result of his dazzling play during this postseason. I could, in other words, list all the reasons why we shouldn't be surprised with the Celtics right about now, and thus bore my non-existent audience with things they are undoubtedly already aware of.

And yet, I can't but help feel that this doubt was justified for much (if not all) of this particular season. While the decision to "pick their spots" and not go full-bore during the dog-days of winter ultimately payed off, the lethargy which accompanied many of the Celtics' performances left many (including myself) with a bitter taste in their mouth; this was especially true when these lackluster performances were contrasted with the efforts of the two seasons prior. The teams of 2008 and 2009 were memorable and likable because of the fire they brought to virtually each game, especially on the defensive end; it was as if every contest was a test of their pride and will, whether they were playing the Nets on some random night in February or the Lakers in the Finals.

The beginning of this season was no indication of a shift in attitude or effort, and the Celtics were, with their victory over the Magic on Christmas Day, possessors of a 23-5 record, which in and of itself left one with the hope that they were capable of winning another title. Then, as a result of a variety of injuries and the onset of Sheeditis (a horrible, horrible disease which strickens its victims with extreme laziness and apathy), they began to slip and struggle for much of the rest of the regular season. Their hearts and minds appeared to be elsewhere, their efforts marked by a distinct lack of interest; again, this disinterest in the vagaries of the season ultimately paid off, and now they find themselves in a position to exact vengeance on the Magic for last year's loss in the Semifinals and advance to their second Finals appearance in the last three years. It's too bad that it took them until the middle of April to show us that they were still capable of that.

Note: if this report proves to be true, then this Celtics victory may (as Bill Simmons pointed out earlier today in his podcast with Sean Grande and Brian Windhorst) have just irrecovably altered the future of the NBA. While the speculation regarding LeBron and his impending free agency has been a feature of league-talk for the last two seasons or so, most of the chatter has been concerned with the possibility of James signing with the Knicks (obviously); if he were to sign with the Bulls, that would not only portend terrible things for New York, but also for the Eastern Conference as a whole.

Let me illustrate this point with simple mathematics:

LeBron James + Derrick Rose + Joakim Noah + competent supporting cast = dynasty