Yesterday: We covered a few unexpected reasons that made the NBA’s lockout-shortened NBA season so compelling.
Today: We’re breaking down the other relevant storylines with help from one of America’s oldest and lamest column gimmicks. That’s right, it’s time to play “20 Questions!”
1. If the 2011 Miami Heat played the 2012 Miami Heat, who would win?
We would be treated to a remarkably well-played basketball game for 45 minutes, followed by both teams getting tight and unleashing a barrage of turnovers, bricks and missed foul shots as the fans in attendance said things like, “Did 2012 LeBron just put three pounds of Botox in his face?” and, “Is that a skidmark in 2011 Chris Bosh’s shorts?” With the game tied in the final 10 seconds, 2012 LeBron would bowl over 2011 LeBron on an out-of-control drive into three guys, miss the first free throw, then make the second … but only after it hit every part of the rim. That would leave 2011 Miami enough time to set up one final shot: which, inexplicably, would go to Eddie House. Game over.
The good news for 2012 Miami: We could be headed for an ugly, disjointed postseason that becomes a war of attrition more than anything else (much like the NFL). You know, the kind of season when you want one of the most indestructible physical specimens in sports history (LeBron) on your side. Even if the Wade/LeBron partnership will never totally work — it’s been like watching two signature lead guitarists awkwardly jamming at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert since Day One — LeBron’s freakish consistency trumps just about anything else you’d want in a rushed postseason. During the last lockout-shortened season (1999), the Spurs prevailed because David Robinson and Tim Duncan gave them a decided physical advantage: Two athletic, durable bigs1 who delivered the same numbers every night as the condensed schedule wore down their opponents. If Wade’s body holds up — a big “if” — Miami would have a similar advantage. You would think.2
Regardless, I’m starting to wonder if Miami will ever reach its considerable potential. It won’t happen this season — it’s just too hard for a three-man team to survive this kind of schedule3 — and wearing a giant bullseye for 14 straight months has to be wearing those guys down. There’s a joylessness about them some nights that just doesn’t seem … healthy. Like watching Michael Fassbender grimly thrust his way through Shame. (And like Fassbender, the Heat are physically endowed, almost to their own award-winning detriment.) Jordan fed off the doubters and haters, used their vitriol like caffeine, kept pushing his teammates because he couldn’t let those nitpickers win. LeBron isn’t wired like that. You get the sense that he’s still a little incredulous about how things changed, that he keeps thinking it’s a bad dream or something. Of course …
2. Do you realize that LeBron is having one of the greatest statistical seasons of all time?
I always thought Jordan’s 1988-89 season (32.5 PPG, 8.0 APG, 8.0 RPG, 2.9 SPG, 53.8 percent FG, 85 percent FT, 31.1 PER) was the most impressive statistical season by a modern perimeter player … and yet, here’s LeBron averaging 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 55 percent shooting and a 33.38 PER (highest ever) during a condensed schedule. It’s impossible. How can someone have their greatest season during THIS season? There have been games when LeBron backs down a smaller defender into the paint, uses one of the low-post moves he allegedly learned from Hakeem this summer — really just a drop step and a jump hook, but whatever — and makes it look so simple that you’re sitting there thinking, “My God, he could rule everything that’s holy if he kept doing that.”
Does that mean I changed my mind and now believe he’s coming through in the final 20 seconds of a nationally televised game? NO!!!!!!!! Are you crazy? After watching him choke in person yet again against the Clippers recently — it’s getting to the point that Miami should just hire Bill Murray, Chris Elliott and Andie MacDowell to sit on its bench — I drove home wondering if we’re witnessing the single weirdest professional sports career since Wilt Chamberlain. The seven best regular-season players of all time from a “grinding out the same game night after night after night for years on end” are Wilt, Kareem, Oscar, Michael, Mailman, Kobe and LeBron in some order. He’s staying on that list no matter what happens. But there’s another one that matters even more: The four most-gifted basketball players of all time are Wilt, Magic, LeBron and Michael in some order. Two of them got better when it mattered; two of them got worse. These are the facts until (or unless) LeBron James chooses to change them. To be continued.
3. What the hell is going on with Carlos Boozer’s hair?
It’s the NBA’s biggest hair controversy since Rick Barry wore a wig during the 1975-76 season.4 How does Boozer suddenly have Shane Battier’s hairline? Is he coloring it in? Did he get miniature plugs? Is he wearing the first ever shaved-head toupee? Did he think we wouldn’t notice? Did he do it to throw Bulls fans off the whole “Why didn’t we amnesty Carlos Boozer?” question? And why haven’t my bald buddies on PTI become the Woodward and Bernstein of this story? You know something serious is happening when you Google “Carlos Boozer” and the fourth-suggested result is “Carlos Boozer hair.” As a reader in Poland named Sebastian e-mailed me, “How is this story overlooked by American pundits? Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant was a major story on this side of the Atlantic!” Totally agree.
It’s been a bittersweet ascent for me: Less than three years ago, I was driving the Rubio Bandwagon and excoriating Memphis, Oklahoma City and Sacramento for passing on him in the 2009 draft, writing things like, “If I had to bet my life on any 2009 prospect becoming a top-three player on a championship team, I’d bet on Blake Griffin, Ricky Rubio and Stephen Curry,” “I’m excited for ‘Thabeet over Rubio’ to become the new ‘Darko over Carmelo,’” and, “Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is going to regret not being more excited about Ricky Rubio on June 25, 2009.” When he slogged along for two woefully unimpressive seasons overseas, I should have stuck to my guns and written, “I’m not giving up! I believe in Rubio!” and eventually, it would have become my greatest NBA prediction of the past 10 years, surpassing even, “Portland will regret taking Oden over Durant.” Like a pussy, I caved. The reports from Europe freaked me out. I worried Ricky was a bust, that I overrated his incredible Gold Medal game performance in 2008 (only 17 and battling the big boys!), that he wasn’t a step ahead of other players like I thought, that he didn’t have the passing gene like Larry and Magic did, that his lousy outside shot would sink his career.
Nope. I don’t know what happened in Europe, just what I see now … and what I see is someone who’s a step ahead of everyone else, makes passes that nobody else makes, loves playing basketball to the point that it’s actually contagious, aces the “Would You Like Playing With Him?” Test to the point that we should just change it to the Rubio Test, rises to the occasion when it matters (most recently with a game-tying 3 against the Clips with 20 seconds left in the game), beats anyone he wants off the dribble, plays with a Maravichian flair and, for lack of a better phrase, lights up the room. Only in this case, it’s usually a room with 16,000 people in it. If you were having a “Which Two Teammates Would You Want to Build Around for the Next 10 Years” argument, LeBron and Wade would be first, then Durant and Westbrook, then Paul and Griffin … and Rubio and Love would be fourth.
It’s the last point that matters most. Rubio and Love accomplished the rarest of feats: They’re such good passers and possess such a hugh basketball IQ, that it actually rubbed off on their teammates. They’re infectious. Watch the Wolves sometime — you’ll see perfectly executed pick-and-rolls, gorgeous backdoor cuts, seamless three-on-ones and everything else I grew up watching. Once upon a time, I watched Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (the two most infectious NBA players of all time) turn black holes like Kareem and Kevin McHale into half-decent passers. It’s happening again on a smaller scale in Minnesota. Well, with everyone but Michael Beasley. But it’s a beautiful thing to watch, and for Kevin Love — who slogged through three crummy years wondering if he’d ever play with anyone who had a basketball IQ over 80 — he has to feel like he died and went to basketball heaven. I never thought Rubio would play this well or stand out this much. What a pleasant surprise. I feel gooey. Of course …
5. Why didn’t Minnesota just sign Kevin Love for five years?
I can’t resist …
Yes, David Kahn gets immense amounts of credit for pulling off the 2009 trade for Washington’s pick, drafting Rubio and — eventually — bringing him over. Getting credit for someone that magical trumps every other dumb move he made. And there were plenty. You know, like drafting Jonny Flynn over Stephen Curry. Trading Ty Lawson. Blowing the fourth pick of the 2010 draft on Wesley Johnson (who, unfortunately, stinks). Overpaying for a slew of mediocre players (Darko Milicic, Ramon Sessions, Nikola Pekovic, Martell Webster, etc.). Hiring Kurt Rambis and trying to run the triangle with the youngest/dumbest team in the league. It’s a long list. Picking Rubio, then resisting the urge to trade him for two years — even with Rubio floundering in Europe — made up for everything. When you have Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on your team, the other 10 guys don’t matter as much. Eventually, you’ll find them.
Did Kahn decide to risk that last point almost immediately? Of course he did! Instead of giving Love their “designated max extension” slot (five years, $80 million), the Wolves decided to save that slot for Rubio and played hardball with Love … who’s only one of the stubborn athletes of the league, and someone who once pissed off the entire state of Oregon (where he grew up) by signing with UCLA. Let’s walk through this debacle quickly …
1. You’re Minnesota.
2. You stink.
3. You have a 0.0 percent chance of ever in a million years luring a marquee free agent.
4. You have one of the best 10 players in the league.5
5. You have a chance to lock up this player for five years and team him up with your other marquee player.
How does that lead to …
6. You sign that player for three years, then give him an opt-out clause for Year 4?
Is there any chance Love stays after 2015 now? The team just told him, “Yeah, we know Oklahoma City took care of Russell Westbrook for five years, but you’re not as good, so screw you.” Massive mistake. We’re getting three and a half years of the Minnesota Rubio Loves, and then Kevin Love will sign somewhere else. It shouldn’t have played out that way.
6. Who’s the worst couple of the past 12 months — Sammi and Ronnie, Kim and Kris, or Carmelo and Amar’e?
Kim and Kris. It’s no contest. By the way, I’m not willing to write off the Carmelo/Amar’e pairing yet — even if it’s been a ball-stopping, disjointed, shoulder-sagging mess so far — until we see how they look with a competent point guard running the show. By writing them off just from what we’ve seen, you are basically saying, “Point guards don’t matter.” That’s wrong. They matter more than any other position in 2012. So let’s at least see what kind of effect Baron Davis (and hopefully not Baron Davis’ love handles and herniated disc) have on this Knicks team before we make a final assessment. I mean, did you really think “Carmelo Anthony, point forward” was going to work? Or that Iman Shumpert was the answer? Come on. Give this a few more weeks.
(Has that stopped me from sending “Congrats on watching Spencer Haywood/Bob McAdoo 2.0!” jokes to my Knick fan buddies? Of course not!)
7. Will “Cleveland will regret taking Kyrie Irving over Derrick Williams” supplant “Orlando will regret taking Dwight Howard over Emeka Okafor” as the single dumbest thing I’ve ever written?
Irving is an absolute gem, so it’s definitely in play. (The lesson, as always: Don’t have a strong opinion heading into an NBA draft about someone you didn’t see enough.) I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “Kevin Johnson 2.0,” if only because Kevin Johnson was really good. But Irving has three distinct K.J.-ish qualities: He’s always going faster than it seems like he’s going; when he drives to the basket bigger guys seem to bounce off him; and there’s something about the way Irving dribbles that makes defenders instinctively back up, as if they’re saying, “I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I don’t want to get my ankles broken.” He’s also better in the clutch already than K.J. ever was. And he’s only 19! It can’t be forgotten how great it is to win the lottery sometimes.
8. Where does “What if the Clippers never traded Baron Davis?” rank among the all-time NBA What Ifs?
Definitely top 50. And climbing. It was already one of the dumbest NBA trades6 of the past 10 years before the amnesty clause became part of the new labor agreement … at that point, it became one of the dumber trades in sports history. Should the Clippers be criticized for not guessing in January, with a labor stoppage looming, that the amnesty clause would potentially be in play? Yes and no — yes, they should have known, and no, they couldn’t have known (because they’re owned by a slum lord who has no idea what’s going on).
Let’s say they kept Baron, kept that no. 1 pick and won the lottery. Well …
• The Clips would have drafted Irving, teamed him with Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, then had enough assets left over (DeAndre Jordan, Al-Farouq Aminu, Minnesota’s no. 1 pick, Eric Bledsoe) to swipe Dwight Howard from Orlando this month. Would you rather have a Griffin/Howard/Gordon/Irving/Free Agent X nucleus, or Chris Paul’s Lob City squad that just thrashed Oklahoma City last night in the single most entertaining game of the year? It’s a great question. (I can’t believe I’m saying this … but I think I’d rather have Lob City.)
• Chris Paul probably ends up on the Lakers (for Bynum) or Celtics (for Rondo and a couple no. 1 picks). Either way, an inferior basketball situation to the one he’s enjoying now.
• Instead of building around Irving, the Cavs would be building around Tristan Thompson and I’d be writing “The lesson, as always: Tebow hates Cleveland” jokes.
• Baron would get amnesthized,7 sign with the Knicks, then become their potential savior even though he’s overweight and has a herniated disc. Oh, wait, that happened anyway.
My final verdict: If Howard ends up on the Lakers (and not the Clippers), the Baron nontrade becomes a Hall of Fame “What If” because the actual trade created new identities for two contenders (the Lakers and Clippers) and saved the most depressed franchise in the league (the Cavs).
9. Has there ever been a better year for point guards?
The short answer: No. It’s like the quarterback boom in football — and if you want to extend the analogy, some of the NBA’s rule changes last decade (dumping hand checks, speeding up the game) helped point guards much like the NFL’s rule changes (changing the pass interference rules, protecting quarterbacks) helped passing. But you still need the talent, and fortunately, we’re blessed with Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry (although his paper-mache ankles are starting to worry me), Tony Parker (another killer season for him), Kyle Lowry (morphing into a poor man’s Fat Lever), Steve Nash, Ty Lawson (one of the fastest NBA players ever), Rubio, Irving, John Wall (coming on), Jrue Holiday (already came on) and Brandon Jennings (finally made a leap this year) … suddenly you’re in good hands with half the league’s point guards running your team. And we didn’t even mention capable veterans like Mike Conley, the Semi-Rejuvenated Jose Calderon, Ray Felton and Andre Miller; The Artist Formerly Known as Jason Kidd; Baron (if he has anything left in the tank); works in progress like Brandon Knight (I’m a fan), T.B.H. Evans,8 Roddy Beaubois (a possible late bloomer???) and Kemba Walker; or even Jimmer Fredette’s abundant garbage time skills.9
Look, it’s not rocket science: Any basketball game is going to be more entertaining with competent-or-better point guards running the show. (Cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding.) Without the right point guard, you won’t get fast break points or easy baskets (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), you won’t have good ball movement (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), it’s harder to get your post guys the ball in the right spots (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding), and you might have to rely on one perimeter player shooting 25 to 30 times a game while everyone else stands around (cut to Knicks and Lakers fans nodding vigorously while fighting off tears). More point guards = more fun.10
10. Now that Oklahoma City has extended Russell Westbrook for five years, does that mean we can shelve concerns for an Avon/Stringer ending with Westbrook and Durant?
I’ll answer the question with a question: Did anyone else notice that Westbrook started playing out of his mind the moment Oklahoma City gave him $80 million (and he knew he was staying there)? That HAS to mean something, right? Travel back with me to last spring, when Westbrook (a terrific kid by all accounts) got ripped for his shot selection in the 2011 playoffs (most famously by the TNT guys), took those comments personally, went into a semifunk, became something of a scapegoat for Oklahoma City’s collapse in the Dallas series, brooded all summer, then played the first month of the season (pre-extension) with a defiant anger that didn’t totally make sense.
Or did it? Look at it from Westbrook’s side: He probably believed he was just as valuable as his buddy Durant (and for the most part, he was right), only everyone loved Durant and never criticized him for anything … but when Westbrook did something wrong? He got slammed. That made it a no-win situation for him — even worse, he knew it — which was why Westbrook’s teammates (Durant especially) spent an inordinate amount of energy those first few weeks worrying about Westbrook, cajoling him, praising him, rubbing his head, slapping him on the back, engaging him and doing everything else you’d do when you’re trying to make sure someone doesn’t drift away from your tribe. I caught them in person in Boston two weeks ago (during the height of the “Westbrook for Rondo” Internet frenzy) and was stunned by how angry Westbrook played. He seems better now. Eighty million has a way of making someone feel a little more secure.
Still, that doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Can Oklahoma City ever achieve its potential without Westbrook accepting that he’s the Pippen to Durant’s Jordan? Avon and Stringer aren’t the right pop culture analogy anymore; there’s a better one. A New York reader named Yoni explains: “Is it just me or does this whole Durant-Westbrook situation remind you of the relationship between Russell Hammond (lead guitar) and Jeff Beebe (lead singer) in Almost Famous? Just as Jeff could never quite understand how Russell takes the band to a new level with his guitar, Westbrook doesn’t quite understand that KD is a franchise player in a way that he can’t ever be. And if OKC makes T-shirts, Durant will always be front and center, and Westbrook will always be in the background as one of the ‘out of focus guys.’”
(Making $80 million from 2012 through 2017 … but still.)
Coming Wednesday: 20 Questions (11-thru-20)