These past two days, we covered a few unexpected reasons that made the NBA’s lockout-shortened season so compelling, and broke down relevant storylines with help from one of America’s oldest and lamest column gimmicks (“20 Questions, Part 1″). Here’s the second part of that “20 Questions” column.
11. Why hasn’t #freestevenash evolved into a social media campaign along the lines of #occupywallstreet?
We still have time. This much is clear: Nash respects his leadership responsibilities and his legacy in Phoenix too much to ever become The Guy Who Asked For a Trade. Just look at what Carmelo Anthony did to the Nuggets last year, or Dwight Howard is doing to the imploding (and then some) Magic right now. Nash would never do that to his teammates; he’d rather miss the playoffs, flee Sarverville this summer and make one last run with a contender next year. That’s why Sarver’s Suns know they can hide behind the cop-out of an excuse, “Hey, it’s up to Steve to ask us for a trade,” despite knowing that (a) he took less money to stay back in 2009 under the assumption that the roster would always be first-class (and it’s not), and (b) he’d never shit on his teammates like that. What a bunch of cowards. I hate professional sports sometimes.
Did that stop me from taking a Nash-inspired whirl on the Trade Machine? Of course not!
Let’s see … barely conceivable trades with the Lakers (Nash and Josh Childress’ horrific contract for Luke Walton, Derek Fisher, Darius Morris and a 2012 no. 1 pick), Pacers (Nash for Darren Collison and a 2012 no. 1 pick),1 Mavericks (Nash for Jason Kidd and Roddy Beaubois) and Celtics (Nash, Grant Hill and Marcin Gortat for Rajon Rondo, Marquis Daniels and Jermaine O’Neal’s expiring deal) are just that: barely conceivable (and unlikely). But what if the Blazers offered Raymond Felton, Nic Batum (whom they just passed on extending) and $3 million for Nash, with the wink-wink caveat that Phoenix then had to buy out his buddy Grant Hill’s contract so Hill could sign with Portland? Could you go to war in the 2012 playoffs with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford, Hill, Kurt Thomas, Craig Smith and a rejuvenated-by-the-Pacific Northwest-and-a-title-shot-and-Rip City Steve Nash? Hell yeah! I haven’t been this excited for a fake trade in years. Naturally, that means it won’t happen.
Quick tangent: I still watch Inside the NBA even though it’s starting to seem like Shaq is a double agent hired by ESPN to ruin that show. Anyway, Barkley declared emphatically on Thursday night that Miami and Chicago were playing in the Eastern Conference finals and nobody else had a chance. With all due respect to the Chuck Wagon, can we really say anything definitively yet? I haven’t seen a single 2012 team that made me say, “That team is ready to play in the Finals, they don’t need anything.” Sunday’s Bulls-Heat game was a perfect example: Everyone came away thinking, “Chicago still relies on only one guy down the stretch” and “Miami still gets tight when it matters.” Same for Clips-Oklahoma City the following night, when the Zombies tried their absolute hardest and got run off the court. Bad sign for their 2012 title hopes. I’m not sure people appreciate how fully wide-open the 2012 playoffs are, or how easy it would be for eight to 10 different teams to sneak into the Finals with one shrewd move. The 2012 title will be decided by injuries, deadline trades and luck. And not in that order.
So yeah, during a normal season, “Felton for Batum to rent Nash for three months and hopefully re-sign him” would seem excessive. But this season? You should bang it out without blinking. Same for overpaying for Anderson Varejao — an elite rebounder/banger/defender who’s playing out of his mind right now — if Cleveland ever decided that they were better off converting him into draft picks and tanking 2012 over drifting into no-man’s land (the fringe of the lottery, where it becomes impossible to improve your team). The Celtics, Clippers, Mavericks, Rockets, Nuggets and Grizzlies could offer 2012 no. 1’s plus expiring contracts plus $3 million plus a young player with potential for Varejao. Hell, if I were Danny Ainge, I’d offer O’Neal’s expiring, my 2012 no. 1 AND the Clippers’ no. 1 for him.2 Wouldn’t you take your chances with a Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Garnett-Varejao quintet this spring? Or am I just a complete homer? That reminds me …
12. Are the Mavericks really passing on making a full-fledged title defense?
It’s been the most fascinating moral dilemma of the season: The Mavericks finally breaking through and winning a title, then glancing around and saying, “Instead of re-signing Tyson Chandler and running this back, we’re clearing as much cap space as possible while remaining relatively competitive, then keeping our fingers crossed for Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams … and we feel good about this because, again, we already won a title. It’s much more important to set up the next decade.”
It’s a defensible plan. I’m sure Dallas’ first-class analytics posse supported its statistical wisdom. Then again, the 2012 title is wide-open. How many chances do you have to win the championship? I keep thinking back to that 2007-to-now Celtics run, when the Celtics left a second title on the table in 2009 (KG’s injury) and 2010 (Perkins going down in Game 6 of the Finals). You never stop thinking about those lost rings. Ever. It’s the same reason Kevin McHale limped around on a broken foot for the entire 1987 playoffs, altered the course of his career and, incredibly, would make the same choice again. When you’re that close, you do whatever it takes. So watching Dallas halfheartedly contend with gimmicks like “96% Man / 4% Amazing,”3 Khloe & Lamar and “The Delonte West Roller Coaster Ride” while protecting its 2012 cap space and praying that Ian Mahinmi and Brendan Haywood can morph into a poor man’s Tyson Chandler … I mean … I guess it makes sense. I guess.
Of course, the Mavericks somehow won 14 of their first 22 games without Chandler and with Dirk playing himself into shape; they could still flip the Odom/Kidd expirings, Beaubois, $3 million and two no. 1 picks into Howard and Hedo Turkoglu’s contract atrocity faster than you can say “back-to-back.” You never know. We’ve all learned not to doubt Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks. Hey, that reminds me …
13. What in the holy hell is happening with Dwight Howard?
You have to admit, making up fake trades, deciphering real rumors from fake ones and watching the league’s only dominant center treat his final Orlando season with that same glazed/trapped/hostage-like look in his eyes that Katie Holmes has … it’s been pretty fun, right? Not since 2007-08 Kobe (right before the Pau Gasol trade) have we watched a superstar put up killer numbers this effortlessly while remaining emotionally detached the entire time; it takes a special level of talent to dominate games while simultaneously mailing them in.4 Even stranger, Orlando GM Otis Smith seems to be paralyzed by the proceedings — after Brook Lopez’s broken foot knocked New Jersey from the bidding, Joakim Noah’s trade value went in the tank5 and the surging Clippers shook off Howard’s overtures, poor Otis was suddenly left with Dallas and the Lakers as his only real suitors.
So what’s taking so long with Bynum-for-Howard? Why the foreplay? Just pull the trigger, Otis! Save face by expanding the trade to include Nelson ($17.2 million remaining, expires in 2013) and the already floundered Quentin Richardson ($7.8 million remaining, expires 2014) for Matt Barnes (expires this season), the Lakers’ 2012 no. 1 pick and a valuable trade exception (the $8.6 million opened by sending Nelson to the Lakers for Odom’s exception). The final haul: Orlando chops $13.1 million from this season’s payroll, dumps $11.85 million of 2012-13 salaries, picks up a draft pick and turns a two-dollar bill (Howard) into someone who’s definitely improved to a dollar bill (Bynum If He Can Stay Healthy) for someone who’s leaving anyway.
Of course, that makes too much sense, and we’re talking about Otis Smith here.6 What if Otis decides, “Screw it, I’m getting fired anyway for giving Dwight such a pathetic supporting cast that he practically put out Craigslist ads trying to get traded — I should just roll the dice with the 10 percent chance that he’d rather stay here next summer because we can pay him more”? Well …
14. What happens to the New Jersey Nets if they don’t get Howard?
After gutting their team for Deron Williams (Derrick Favors and the no. 3 pick in the 2011 draft), New Jersey faces a potentially humiliating situation: If they can’t land Howard within the next few weeks, they have to reverse course and frantically shop Williams over watching him play out his contract, then sign with his hometown Mavericks in five months. They can’t move to Brooklyn this summer without a star to market, right? (Sorry, I don’t think this picture is cutting it for 2,000 billboards in the tri-state area.) That means they’d have to flip Williams for an All-Star who’s locked into a deal already. You know, someone like Pau Gasol (who might be past his prime, or close), Amar’e Stoudemire (and his uninsured contract) or even (gulp … ) Joe Johnson. Wow, it’s hard to believe that things might play out badly for an NBA franchise owned by a free-spending Russian oligarch who splurged on Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow as his first four signings, hired Billy King, lost interest within nine months and decided to run for the presidency of Russia.
15. Hold on a second … it’s totally conceivable the Lakers could flip Gasol for Williams and Bynum for Howard??? So the 2011-12 Lakers could end up with Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard AND Deron Williams?
(Nodding my head grimly.)
(Praying this doesn’t happen.)
(Praying some more.)
16. What’s your favorite dumb subplot of the 2011-12 season?
During pregame intros for a Knicks-Suns game at MSG, I noticed Renaldo Balkman had thrown himself into that James Posey-type role for the Knicks: In other words, he’s the last guy every starter greets during the intros, and he’s the guy who waits at midcourt before the opening tap for one last round of “good luck” hugs and hand slaps. That got me thinking … why does every team suddenly have someone like this? Did James Posey start it? Was it Damon Jones? Was it someone earlier than them? Do teams elect this player or is it more of an unspoken embrace of that role? Does the player elect himself? What if two guys want to play that role? And what should we call this person?
Anyway, Grantland’s Rembert Browne and I came up with the perfect name for this job (“The Chemist”); in terms of office chatter, it’s reached the point where Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang sends us e-mails from Clipper games like, “Reggie
Williams Jackson — F+ performance as OKC’s chemist tonight!!!!” From what I’ve seen, the best two NBA chemists right now are Dr. Balkman and Dr. Nate Robinson; they’re like the Bird and Magic of that job. If you think there’s a better one, e-mail us or tweet us at twitter.com/nbachemist — we’re planning on cranking out an NBA Chemist Power Rankings later this season. And you’re right, I’m a little too obsessed with this. At every Clippers home game, I’m muttering to myself, “For God’s sake, Mo Williams, just let Reggie Evans be the Chemist! Your heart’s not in it! Just let him do it!”
17. Is Kobe Bryant the most polarizing NBA player of all time?
Watching 2012 Kobe has been like watching 2003 MJ play with a better 2003 Wizards team — 25 shots a night, no conscience, no first step, no fast break points, more tricks and upfakes than ever, little consideration for making his teammates better, and somehow, you still finish every Kobe game thinking, I have a ton of respect for that dude, there’s just nobody like him.
How much should we hold it against him that he’s cranking out his numbers and hoping it will be enough every night? As always, it depends on what you value in a basketball player. I keep coming back to something Phil Jackson mentioned during our lunch last spring, when the then-Lakers coach candidly admitted that he never wanted to be coaching Kobe when Kobe stopped being Kobe. I got the sense from Jackson that he believed he was cashing in his Kobe poker chips at the perfect time (and for a pretty substantial windfall). Not even a month later, Dallas swept the Lakers and Jackson retired. I bet he doesn’t have any regrets. You don’t want to be coaching Kobe when Kobe stops being Kobe.
All right, so … when will Kobe stop being Kobe? Why aren’t we there yet? Shit, why aren’t we even close yet? How is this possible?
Even your staunchest Laker hater (you know, like me) has been inspired by Kobe cranking out these 30-point nights while fighting off a mangled wrist, aching knees, advancing age (16 seasons!!!), a highly publicized divorce and a monstrosity of an NBA schedule. Nobody plays harder, nobody cares more, nobody plays at a higher level while enduring more pain. He’s one of the most incredible athletes we will ever see, something of a basketball machine, someone singularly devoted to his craft, someone who has convinced himself that he can become immortal simply by playing well for a longer period of time than anyone else. Kareem remained elite for nearly two solid decades (1969 to 1987), won titles 17 years apart and captured Finals MVP trophies fourteen years apart (his most amazing feat). Kobe seems determined to play 25 years and matter for at least 20 of them. Even if he can’t be greater than Jordan, Kobe knows he can have a greater career than Jordan because of his era-specific advantages (dieting, training, surgeries, stem cells, Germany trips, you name it). That’s what fuels him. I really believe that. Kobe Bryant wants people to look back 200 years from now, compare the raw numbers and say to themselves, “Who was better, Kobe or Jordan?”
That’s why any Kobe watcher knew he’d keep playing with that mangled wrist.7 You really think he would give up 10 weeks (and 1,000 points) after losing 16 lockout games (and another 500 points)? Come on. He’s on a mission. If he cared only about winning, he would do his damndest to get Bynum (playing his best basketball ever) and Gasol (struggling without Odom, who was a terrific sidekick for him) more involved every night. If he cared only about chasing Kareem’s record (and it sure seems like he does), then he’d match his 2006 scoring pace and just shoot 30 times a game.
What matters more? I don’t even think Kobe knows. He flips back and forth depending on the night, or sometimes, even the quarter. Because he’s saddled with such dreadful point guards, Kobe has the ball in his hands constantly — his 38.2 percent usage rate is his highest since his 2006 Teen Wolf season (38.7 percent), and higher than any Iverson season and any Jordan season except for 1988 (38.3) — making that ongoing internal struggle even more transparent. Unable to attack the rim with the abandon of his prime, Older Kobe works methodically at creating space for his 20-footers, turnarounds, leaners and double-pump jumpers. The degree of difficulty is off the charts — like watching someone throw for 300 yards a game without any decent receivers or something. He’s remaining relevant simply because he couldn’t stomach the thought of not being relevant.
Would you enjoy playing with him? Not this year. Not yet, anyway. But you’d respect him, marvel at him, remember him … and every night, you’d feel like you had a pretty good chance at winning. And so it goes for the most polarizing NBA superstar since Wilt.
You know what’s really crazy? Somehow, this isn’t the most riveting NBA story in Los Angeles. You know, because …
18. Are the Clippers really contenders? The Clippers???? IS THIS REALLY HAPPENING????
I’m saving my thoughts for a separate column. Just know this: I can’t remember witnessing a better struggle between baggage and talent. Seriously, it’s like a tug-of-war. They have two of the best 15 players in the league; they play their butts off; they already have a high-flying identity; they’re talented enough that they already beat Miami, Dallas and Denver and whupped Oklahoma City; they’re already embroiled in their first rivalry (a heated/bitter/hostile/awesome blood feud with the condescending big brother Lakers); they’re a Kenyon Martin signing away from legitimately going nine deep (and they’re the favorites to get him); and they can execute at the end of games because of Chris Paul (who’s simply a maestro, and by the way, he’s getting his own column, too). Anyone who watched Monday’s beatdown of Oklahoma City knows that the 2012 Clippers are the most entertaining contender since the 2007 Suns. It’s just a fact. If this were any other team, you’d think to yourself, What could possibly go wrong?
And yet …
There’s Donald Sterling still sitting courtside with that grumpy look on his face …
And there’s the immortal Vinny Del Negro still prowling the sidelines …
And there’s 35 years of hard-core baggage hanging over everything.
Once upon a time, I watched my beloved Patriots suddenly shed four decades of skeletons, catch every conceivable break and pull off one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever. Ten years later, they have three trophies and they’re gunning for a fourth on Sunday. It can be done. Maybe it’s never been done by a franchise as fundamentally fucked-up as the Clippers … but it can be done. Just know that, if Donald Sterling is holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy in five months, we may as well just surround him with 200 Mayans chanting, “Ster-ling! Ster-ling! Ster-ling!”
19. What’s been the biggest elephant in the room of the 2012 NBA season?
You mean, other than Clippers fans and Clippers season ticket holders (I include myself) believing they can make the Finals with Vinny Del Negro? Let’s have RJ from New Orleans explain:
“Eric Gordon, our main get in the CP3 trade to the Clips, has played two games (TWO!) this season and may not be back until mid-March. He also turned down an extension, making him a restricted free agent come July. Are the Hornets now covered in the blood of the murdered Lakers-Rockets deal? Has David Stern effectively killed basketball in New Orleans?”
Poor RJ left out the declining asset of Minnesota’s 2012 no. 1 pick (the T-Wolves are one win away from being .500 for the first time since one of Latrell Sprewell’s checks cleared8), although building around Gordon and two top-12 picks in a loaded draft (and secretly tanking this season) isn’t the worst thing in the world. Having said that, why won’t the league extricate itself from this Hornets mess? Last week, they failed to extend Gordon because, you know, DAVID STERN WOULD HAVE BEEN THE ONE SIGNING HIM TO AN EXTENSION! Really, we’re just going to let this f’ed-up train of hubris and greed keep chugging along at 80 miles an hour and plowing into cars and pedestrians? Can somebody call Chris Pine and Denzel Washington and tell them there’s a runaway on the loose? A thousand tomato juice baths won’t help Stern shake off the stink of what happened … and by the way, we’re still four months away from an even bigger PR disaster at the 2012 NBA Lottery drawing (New Orleans winning the no. 1 pick, or even worse, two of the top three). Tebow help us.
20. What’s been the most entertaining under-the-radar subplot of the 2011-12 season?
Even if it’s another topic that needs to be blown out into its own column, let’s quickly address the shadow of the 2012 Olympics and the three sub-questions it has spawned:
• Which 12 players are getting picked?
• Which five players are starting?
• Why are we pretending this doesn’t matter to every NBA star when it clearly does?
We know LeBron, Wade, Kobe, Howard, Rose, Paul, Carmelo, Durant and Love are making the team; we know LeBron and Howard are definitely starting; and that’s all we know. That means three roster spots and three starting spots are up for grabs, a juicy little subplot that hangs over the court like a thought bubble every time LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin battle this season, or Kobe and Wade, or Durant and Carmelo, or Paul and Rose, or Paul and Westbrook, or Aldridge and Griffin …
Here’s the best example from this season (that I’ve witnessed, anyway): When Chicago played the Clippers right after Christmas, Rose and Paul traded punches like heavyweights for three quarters. At least five or six times after Paul made a play, Rose demanded the inbounds pass and tore down the court to answer him. You could tell Rose had something to prove — that he was the reigning MVP, that he owned a starting spot in London, that maybe a month of “Where’s Chris Paul going?” hype shouldn’t have mattered as much as it did. He torched the Clippers down the stretch, put away the game, then left room for one last ankle-breaking crossover in garbage time (finished with a gorgeous alley-oop pass for a Gibson dunk) before getting pulled and defiantly stomping back to Chicago’s bench. If you were there, you knew this went deeper than basketball. Derrick Rose did everything short of standing on the scorer’s table and holding up his point guard world championship belt.
Anyway, London’s starting five looks like Rose, Kobe (the “token veteran” starter who also happens to be outplaying Wade right now), Durant (a heavy favorite after Carmelo’s early swoon),9 LeBron (locked in) and Howard (locked in). Note to everyone who loves Spain in an upset pick: Rose-Kobe-Durant-LeBron-Howard double as our first-team All-NBA squad if the season ended today. It’s the most loaded USA Hoops starting lineup of all time. Just remember that when you’re talking yourself into betraying the country with a “Spain +600″ gold medal pick.
As for Coach K’s all-important second unit (remember, he plays 10 guys internationally), it’s looking like Paul, Carmelo, Wade, Love and Tyson Chandler would be the favorites barring something crazy happening (like an injury, or Carmelo playing himself off this team). That leaves two more spots available for Griffin (the people’s choice), LaMarcus Aldridge (a bigger body and a more logical choice than Griffin), Andre Iguodala (defense defense defense), Deron Williams (backcourt depth), Westbrook (ditto), Curry (long-range shooting), Chauncey Billups (veteran leadership) and Dr. Renaldo Balkman (chemist). If we’re picking a basketball team and making sure we’re covering every potential situation, then Aldridge and Iguodala should probably make it. If we’re picking an All-Star team, then Westbrook and Griffin should go if only for their athleticism and garbage-time heroics (and the distinct possibility of Griffin trumping the Carter/Weis dunk). There’s no easy answer, just like there’s no easy answer with anything about this team.
In 1992, we knew the hierarchy: Michael leading the way, Charles and Scottie flanking him, Larry and Magic as the veterans, everyone else falling in line. In 2008, same thing: Kobe leading the way, LeBron and Wade flanking him, Kidd as the veteran, everyone else falling in line. There’s a different feel to 2012, with everyone constantly battling for territory, turf and respect. Even watching that Clippers-Oklahoma City game on Monday, as Paul and Westbrook traded haymakers, I found myself thinking about London again. Is there more going on here? Are there telepathic messages being sent? Maybe it’s a bad omen for our 2012 gold medal hopes, but that ongoing competitive edge — an Olympian one-upsmanship, if you will — is the cherry on the hot fudge sundae of an already compelling NBA season. Good times.