On the NBA: All-Star Weekend and Second Half Musings

  • We all think we’re ready for a break, every time this weekend rolls around. Then, soon as it’s here, we’re starved for content and competition, again. NBA TV was wise, this year, to fill some of the empty air time with their MJ, Bill Russell, and Barkley interview pieces; each of the pieces was intriguing. But MJ’s pre-leaked comments from his sit-down with Ahmad Rashad, and those from his extended ESPN profile by Wright Thompson, cast a huge shadow on the weekend, as his suggestion that the league is now softer, more coddled, and less challenging was the biggest discussion piece throughout much of the media—and, one can likely assume, amongst some of the players. But comparing generations of players is always a slippery endeavor, to say the least. While it’s true that Michael’s 90’s boasted far more physical basketball than is now seen anywhere (this is simply a matter of the game’s constantly evolving set of rules), it’s also changed in other ways. Defensive schemes have become more complicated, for starters—this means a higher premium on ball movement, and finding gaps in team coverage to shoot more three-pointers in. According to the rules of Michael’s game, these defenses were penalized, and so he was regularly doing the best thing for this team by dominating in isolation play. The 90’s set of rules—while, arguably, leading to a worse brand of basketball—were more friendly to individual dominance, and stardom. Who knows if MJ could have dominated like he did against a Tom Thibodeau defense? Most likely he could have, because Michael was king of the league’s hill in a way unseen since Russell; and not seen since. And this is the one undeniable advantage: his competitive fervor was miles beyond anything in the league, now, and his desire for championships was profound enough to significantly elevate the play of not only his teammates, but also of the entire NBA around him. And until LeBron imposes his will onto his competitors in a similar way, I’m not convinced we’ll be clamoring to install so many red curtains for his 50th birthday.
  • The trade deadline is Thursday. There is, usually, a strong flurry of trade activity in these closing days. But as management offices around the league settle into the reality of the new CBA, while still holding numerous unwieldy contracts penned under the terms of the player-friendly, pre-lockout CBA, it seems that a roster unencumbered by bad contracts (which means about half of all contracts, given the relative freshness of the new arrangement) seems more valuable to teams than any amount of basketball talent. This is why we shouldn’t be too surprised if a lot less happens at the deadline, this year. Wise as it seems for the Hawks to unload Josh Smith, it’s not clear that it’s wise for any team to take him on—only a cusp title contender in need of Smith’s skill set could, in their right mind, swallow his huge contract that expires this summer. And there’s no team in that circumstance. But, of course, it does not seem that Mikhail Prokhorov is entirely in his right mind, and so while it is possible that Brooklyn will bite on J-Smoove, I expect Atlanta GM Danny Ferry to get more out of him than Kris Humphries’ egregious contract; more talent, and far less onerous salary weight. Is it possible to deal Smith to a team who wants him, and not take back non-assets, or anti-assets? It seems not, so I’m betting on Ferry figuring out that, in this climate, getting nothing in exchange for the sure-to-depart star is actually the most he can get. The Celtics, Grizzlies, and Clippers should stand pat, too, as none the rumors surrounding them are good ones for their teams. Eric Bledsoe for Paul Milsap is somewhat intriguing on its face, but LAC will merely be swapping one embarrassment of riches (point guard) for another (power forward), and, unless they think Milsap’s the missing ingredient for a title (he isn’t; replacing Vinny Del Negro with someone who can inform and organize his team to at least a quarter of the ability of Greg Popovich is), they’re getting a bad return on the preternaturally athletic Bledsoe, since Milsap’s contract is expiring, and—as players do—is just about guaranteed to flee to the highest bidder (hint: not the Clippers). Of all the suggested, splashy moves around the league, it’ll have to be folly in the front office (or the supremely unlikely event of Kevin Garnett waving his no-trade clause) that causes any of them to happen. More likely, we’ll see some smaller moves in the style of the Memphis-Cleveland deal; rearrangements of fringe earners, for reasons that are mostly financially convenient. But I guess I’m unwise to rule folly out, as it’s what brought us our CBA in the first place.
  • Can anyone beat the Heat? In a seven game series? Likely not. Their dominant dismissal of the Thunder in OKC, last week, saw Miami playing to the height of their abilities—and it was terrifying. It’s a reminder and confirmation that, yes, this team often dials it in. But when it matters, you better believe they’re even better than last year’s squad, with more perimeter shooting, a smarter LeBron, and a healthier Wade. OKC, as they were last year, is simply too raw and one-dimensional to defeat the Heat; against most teams, the talent of Durant and Westbrook is overwhelming enough to obscure the team’s youth (obvious in a lot of their jittery, sloppy play of the first half), and schematic deficiencies. But to beat Miami, the Thunder will have to develop a more sophisticated pattern of ball movement, and a greater ability to adjust mid-game. They seem at least a year away. And, barring an absolutely spectacular return from Derrick Rose, no one in the East can dream to oust the Heat, either. While New York and Indiana have both beat them twice, by taking care of the ball and (in the case of Indy) pounding them down low, I’m pretty sure neither team has seen Miami’s best shot, yet, because I’m pretty sure Miami doesn’t fear either team enough to inspire their full regular season succor. San Antonio’s potential to rise from the West is the greatest threat the Heat face. As Rick Carlisle proved in 2011, Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James can be thoroughly out-coached, and Greg Popovich was the man born to do this sort of thing. With their ability to force bad shots as a team defense, take care of the ball, dominate inside, and always make the extra pass, the Spurs seem the antidote to Miami’s fast-break, small-ball, ace-shooting, defensively suffocating dominance, if there ever was one.
  • With these prospects of Miami’s dethroning looking so dim, we’re pressed to find joy, as fans, in all the parity below the championship ceiling the Heat represent. Teams like the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pacers, Nets, Warriors, and Bulls are all something of competitive enigmas, in the thick of their conferences, and it’ll be interesting to see which of them look readiest to make noise, come playoff time. The Heat’s seeming title monopoly notwithstanding—it’s likely to end after next season, when their big three are all due for free agency—the league seems more open and conquerable for younger teams than it has in a while. LeBron’s first title was also the first for any team-leading superstar of his generation, and the strongest signal that we’ve entered an era beyond Kobe, KG, Duncan, Nash, and Nowitzki’s hour of reign. And what’s perhaps even more enticing than the coming rise of the likes of Durant, Westbrook, Chris Paul, and D Rose into champions is who will take their old place—the development of Kyrie Irving, namely, looks to be a league-changing phenomenon, as the 20-year-old is already one of the better players around. And, with a little luck, the Wizards, Pistons, Blazers, and soon-to-be Pelicans could join the Cavaliers as teams on a huge uptick. I can’t wait to see which of them show the most mettle in the second half, ignoring the ostensible futility of missing the playoffs to build a program for a winning future.

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