Mama There Goes That Meme: Lakers Hang a Banner in August

Beckley: No small market pity party here, this was an awesome moment for the NBA. The Nuggets, Lakers and 76ers all get more interesting, Andre Iguodala finally gets out of Philadelphia and we get to stop caring about what happens in Orlando. Whoohoo!

Now on to Showtime. The Lakers now have two former MVPs, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and a seven-foot Spaniard with the skill of a guard and deft touch of a spinal surgeon.

Aside from the age of the parts, what strikes me about this roster is how seemingly conventional it is.

Steve Nash is pointiest guard of the last decade. Defenses must now duck for dunking PGs, but it’s flightless Nash, not Derrick Rose, who defined the position within the modern NBA offense because of how adroitly he ran the pick-and-roll.

Kobe is the team’s and league’s shooting guard. He took more shots than anyone in the NBA last year … SHOOTING IS RIGHT IN THE JOB DESCRIPTION.

At Pau-er Forward (wince), Gasol! He’s excellent around the rim and can make midrange shots. He’s not a stretch four, he’s just a tall 1990s power forward.

And in the middle, Howard is a proto-futuristic defender and an effective blunt-force weapon on offense.

Where’s the weird small lineup? The non-traditional positionality?

This isn’t what great NBA teams in 2012 look like, is it?

No explanation. (By @AnthonyBain)

Ethan: Traditionnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Tradition! Tevye approves of this Lakers roster, as it conforms to a century of what we thought ideal basketball should be. He’s further enthused that the trade makes life difficult for the NBA’s Russian-owned franchise.

I sense that the Twittering classes are overreacting to this deal a bit. Is it probably awesome for the Lakers? Duh. Does it make Los Angeles a prohibitive favorite? Unjerk that knee, please. This squad would indeed be THE favorite for the 2008 championship, no doubt there. While the Lakers are a title contender today, I can’t believe the incredible exuberance vested in three old guys and a young guy coming off major back surgery.

You point out L.A.’s strategic allegiance to the past, but I’ll harp on our sentimental allegiance to older athletes. Kobe Bryant is not “Kobe” anymore; He’s a good player who siphons from his positive contribution by using a 2006 shotchart. Pau is not his Grizzly self, though it’s hard to tell because he continues (and will continue) to play out of position, out of role. Steve Nash is now clocked at eight seconds or less. And like the phrase “seven seconds or less” we make allowances for nice sounding names. After all, who dares point out that the correct version is “seven seconds or fewer”? As Gregg Popovich might say, I’d be quite unconfident to do so.

But if you want some more nasty, here it is: This team has one superstar and he’s returning from injury. Time has eroded the others down to ersatz status, but for some reason, the knee jerkers don’t react so quickly to such a slow development.

I am being too negative, but that’s only to emphasize the ignored downside of all that’s being celebrated. This roster has the potential to work wonderfully, and I wouldn’t be wholly shocked if it all ended in a championship parade. It’s also a volatile concoction. The Lakers made the necessary moves for a shot at the title, which isn’t the same as playing from a position of immense strength.

Beckley: NBA brands tend to endure long beyond their use, even minor ones like Gerald Wallace’s.

The Lakers will have a great shot at a championship, but everyone should keep in mind that the four best players on the Thunder, the team that savagely Batum’d the Lakers in the playoffs last year, will be better next season simply by virtue of their youth.

I’m bullish on LA, but after crashing and burning behind the wheel of the “Heat in 2011” bandwagon, my kneejerk no longer has full mobility. That Heat team needed to sort out the on-court relationship between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to an extent I didn’t anticipate. In the end, James took up residence in the mid-post and Wade has decided to focus on becoming an improved spot up shooter. The two best players in the league when they joined forces had to alter their fundamental hoops identities. This is no small feat, even for a player with as much versatility as LeBron James.

So what’s going to happen in LA, when Nash, Kobe and Howard — three players who over the last decade have existed almost exclusively in environments constructed specifically to suit their games — share the same terrarium?

I don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Nash and Howard don’t thrive together. Pau is something of an awkward fit with those two unless he develops a reliable 3-point shot. Ditto for Bryant, though if he can operate the Howard pick-and-roll to find Steve Nash spotting up, life will be good in Lakerland.

Here’s the thing. For years two points of near consensus in the NBA have been:

1) Any offense directed by Steve Nash will score tons of points at an incredibly efficient rate.
2) Any defense anchored by Dwight Howard will protect the paint and pressure 3-point shooters, taking away the two best options of efficient offenses.

Now they are on the same team, and it feels good. My concern isn’t that the players aren’t good enough, it’s that they are so old they have such a small window to coagulate and win a championship. The margin for error seems too slim for them to be an overwhelming favorite.

Ethan: I have the latter, “they aren’t good enough” concern. I defer to few men in my Steve Nash appreciation, but my fan-fueled observation has led me to conclude that his skills have suffered a subtle, recent erosion. Last year, I witnessed Nash get blitzed on PnR traps some. It could be all-too-subjective memory, but the old Steve (meaning, the relatively younger Steve) was more elusive. The pushing-40 version can get hung up and helpless out there. Arnovitz once described the Shaq era Phoenix offense as restricting Nash like a “hummingbird in a paper bag.” Nowadays, the opposition brings the lunch sack. Also, what kind of sick monster puts a humming bird in a paper bag? It sounds like some kind of hideous French-style ortolan preparation.

In Kobe Bryant, we have the ultimate brand. Behind the brand, Bryant has posted his worst win share average since his rookie year and the worst true shooting percentage of his career. Kobe’s also shooting with an action hero’s restraint for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. He will be 34 when the season begins. At what point is he a merely good player, whose quest for greatness undermines his ability to help?

And then there’s Dwight, a top-3 player coming off major back surgery. The heralding of Howard has drowned out nagging concerns like that balky back. In his introductory press conference, Dwight refused to give even a vague timetable on his return, which was strange. The press conference was a celebration of his arrival, but he wouldn’t even reveal when and if that arrival could arrive. “No timetable” makes his on court play an open question for the season, which seems somewhat important when the Lakers just traded the NBA’s second best center for Howard’s services. Speaking of which, fans are treating this as though they just traded Kwame Brown, not Andrew Bynum.

But I want to return to your thoughts on an un-traditionally traditional lineup. Los Angeles appears to be the perfect “team,” because they fit positional archetypes. But doesn’t the ideal team boast versatility? There’s been so much made of how the Heat are weak at center or point guard, but Bosh, James and a slew of 6-8 role players allow Miami to be court chameleons. In a hypothetical Finals matchup against L.A., LeBron could occasionally harass Nash on defense. When James plays the four spot, Bosh at the five pulls Howard away from the hoop.

I’m not sure as to what the Los Angeles counter moves are. They appear to be built perfectly for an era in which everyone agreed on what basketball should look like. It’s a beautiful machine, but will it break on new terrain?

Beckley: It does appear to be something of a clunky contraption, this Tall Ball line up with a point guard who thrives in a spread offense. It’s a functional ideal to control the paint the way that the Lakers could with Howard and Gasol, but I wonder if it’s pragmatic given the type of teams they will face at the top of the league.

"No hay revolucion sin pick-and-roll D" (via Basketball Jones)

How often has a team actually succeeded with this sort of thing?

Duncan and Robinson spring to mind, but after that the list of “twin tower” lineups that were truly effective is surprisingly short. That might be a function of the scarcity of talented giants — they rarely end up on the same team — but even in LA’s champion years, Phil Jackson liked to play super-stretchy Lamar Odom in the crunch to give them more speed and versatility.

Such speed and versatility, as you point out, are the calling card of the two teams at the top of the league. The Thunder, in particular, smothered the Spurs with their team speed to reach the Finals. That same Spurs team raced circles ‘round the Lakers like throughout the regular season.

But what if the Lakers, with their conventional positionality, are the new guerillas?!

Dwight Howard could really be the keystone to the Lakers defense. He could, like he has so many times in the last few years, push the great wing players outside of the paint (James, for example, always attempted far fewer shots within five feet against Howard’s Magic than his average)?

But is Howard, the diamond drill bit on this hulking Laker machine, is hurt? Why didn’t he give himself a timeline for return? Just trying to manage expectations, or is it more serious than the health issues facing departed center Andrew Bynum?

And why do I think, whatever the answer, you’re licking your chops for the drama sure to follow?

Ethan: Oh I love it. The league is better for grand, precarious experiments, and this Tall Ball might be all the retro rage.

Subjectively, it concerns that these big Laker additions are framed as fixing problems. In regards to an offense that must balance Dwight’s needs with those of Kobe’s and Pau’s, I keep reading that “Nash will figure it out.” The tacit message is that there’s a flaw that must be transcended by the (thirty eight year old) physical manifestation of Steve’s brilliance. Somehow, the Howard pick and roll will wring all that should be wrung from Gasol and Bryant off the ball. I hope they both have been practicing those threes.

Dwight Howard is tasked with macro problem solving on the defensive side. While I believe that Dwight will improve the Lakers on that end, defense is more collaborative than offense. And while Howard’s value is derived from being one of basketball’s few individually influential defenders, we’ve only seen his best work in one system. Somewhere in the collective subconscious of writers and analysts, there’s the concession that Los Angeles has the kind of slow perimeter D that concedes to the point of requiring compensation. Does Dwight–by himself–blot out the problems associated with slowish Tall Ball’s defensive issues?

There I go, being negative again. When the last two title winners played perimeter stars at the four spot, it’s hard for me to wholly endorse the Tall Ball zombie. Maybe this rendezvous with the recent past isn’t all that revolutionary. Maybe the speed-and-threes NBA is a blip and the Lakers are restoring a protracted order. And maybe I’m unthinkingly just raising questions, hoping that Steve Nash will figure it all out for me.




HoopSpeak Network

“Mama there goes that meme!”: It’s all Melo’s fault

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.”

Beckley: Hey Ethan, let’s blow the dust off the ol’ meme machine and investigate the mystery of New York’s flip-flopping fan base, who have been flambeing Carmelo Anthony since the team decided to make a run at Anthony Davis in the 2012 draft.

I can’t say as I blame them. Expectations frame perception, and time was a man could trade for a superstar and know he got the best bargain, almost no matter what the cost. But just about everyone has come around to the fact that Carmelo Anthony, pedigree and talent notwithstanding, is not The King (as in James), though the ransom paid for his services suggests otherwise. Heck, the New York Times even called on our TrueHoop Network cousin Jeremy Wagner to explain that Melo’s game is more seductive than productive.

The Knicks stink. But I can’t help wondering if this is Carmelo’s fault at all. Like the rest of the ‘bockers, his offseason shooting training with Reggie Evans appears to be backfiring, but his assist % is at a career high and he’s clearly trying (at least on offense). And after all, he didn’t trade for himself.  There are other, more serious problems here.

You secretly love the Knicks almost as much as you overtly hate Carmelo-hype. Where do you stand on this, and is Melo the symptom or the disease?

Ethan: Hold up! Stop the presses! Knicks just clubbed Charlotte, EVERYTHING IS SOLVED! Quick, throw D’Antoni’s 1,000 degree seat into the liquid nitrogen tank, cool that sucker down!

Sorry, just doing my best to mimic a hyperbolic fanbase, media. As the presses restart, I think your 2012 draft comment just prompted a, “KNICKS TO GET ANTHONY DAVIS DUE TO HISTORIC BASKETBALL MAGNA CARTA WEDDING TOAST BLOOD PACT” headline at a few NYC ink mills.

But wait, did you say you can’t blame the New York fans? The same ones who once chanted, “We Want Me-lo” to the degree that D’Antoni begged against it? Much as no fanbase deserves a Dolan dose, Knicks supporters seem to have taken on the character of the owner. They’re reactive, impatient, and in constant pursuit of the flashy fix that isn’t one.

Expectations frame perception, frame happiness. Then I ask to Knicks fans: What’s wrong with you people? Why did you expect a one-dimensional scorer to be the franchise savior that makes you coo like rubbed quails? This team was plunged into expensive despair for much of the 2000’s precisely because Isaiah Thomas kept adding scorers. There are other elements of basketball, you thin-pizza-munching lovers of the contrived nature that is a city park.

The Melo affair brought out the worst Big Apple elements. First, there was the self-regarding entitlement, the idea that New York would get a grand superstar because New York wants that. Then, there was that famous New Yorker cartoon myopia–the one where the world outside Manhattan looks like far off rubble. The Knicks fan mob payed little attention to distant Denver, preferring their sepia, locally-sourced Syracuse memories of Saint Anthony. Had you people focused, you would have noticed a ball-stopper so stagnating that the very earth might stop rotating during his jab step sequence. Speaking of rotations…defensively, Melo is so continually late on those that he might as well be nicknamed, “Leap Year.”

This view of the solar system reveals why the Knicks' rotations are so slow (by Anthony Bain)

Beckley, I’m keeping my powder dry for your next bout of Carmelo apologism. I want to hear why Marbur–whoops, Freudian slip, there. I want to hear why Anthony is still a top player, how he can maintain respectability while existing as some blameless “symptom.” In the meantime, I’m staring at Knicks fans and yelling, “YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELVES!”

(Cleveland beats New York, scientists put out a conclusive study on how D’Antoni’s seat is the number one cause of global climate change)

Beckley: I’ll answer your question with one of my own: what is Carmelo’s role in New York? Three point specialist? Pick-and-roll creator? Low-post threat? Isolation savant? He doesn’t know, and I sure can’t tell myself. (picture of Melo with Nash’s body?)

In Denver, his role was to get down court quickly and establish position or else receive a cross screen to get the ball in his favorite spots. He was asked to score and hit the offensive glass and little else. I know you’ve been secretly impressed by his passing ability, but for whom on the Knicks is he supposed to create? Even when operating a pick-and-roll, credible shooting threats are necessary to spread the floor.

My point, if it isn’t crystalline already, is that the Knicks are a grotesque, Frankenstein construction of a would-be contender. Who’s the brains behind this operation, on the court and off? That has never been Carmelo’s role, nor Stoudemire’s. The Knicks lack an organizing presence, a definable spirit.

Don’t try to trap me in a Camel-apologist dungeon of long two bricks. His talented was exaggerated by fans, but Melo isn’t responsible for the roster that now surrounds him. Why make him the villain when the owner and management are the ones who thought it would be smart to let Toney Douglas play 25 minutes a night.

People who focus on Melo over Dolan et al gasp at the symptom–on court play–rather than the festering, chronic disease of overly impetuous and impatient management.

Ethan:

I like how you’re trying to strong arm me into being “secretly impressed” by Melo’s passing ability, a tendency that seems more like a passing ability than any grand skill. Per your brick dungeon analogy, I almost feel like this pertains more to Dolan. Exterior media forces fanned his delirious thirst for Cask of ACarmelo, led him astray, and now they’re torching the tomb.

Image by Anthony Bain

Actually, that doesn’t work, Melo has agency here, he’s not a wine cask. This is more scorpion and the frog. Melo didn’t think he’d sting Dolan/fans, though they were foolish to jump on a scorpion’s back. While Anthony is more the symptom than the disease, his inherent flaws are causing NYC to sink towards lake bottom. Wait, or is Dolan the scorpion and Melo’s the frog?

In a way, isn’t everyone at fault here? Wasn’t everyone overly optimistic to the point of self destructive delusion?

Beckley: Yes! Blame everyone! For the last few seasons, Carmelo has gone from prodigy to a garish symbol of overvalued scoring. He embraces the type, but are we sure he’ll never change, evolve, progress?

I guess that’s besides the point. Carmelo will lead the headlines because that’s what he came to New York for in the first place: to be the star of stars, even if he’s sometimes a black hole with the ball. Hope has been unceremoniously replaced with bitterness and disillusionment. It’s a sticky and perhaps intractable situation that reminds too much of real life disappointment. We have a down economy, the world is quite literally running out of the stuff of life and now Carmelo Anthony can’t bring the Knicks a home series in the first round of the playoffs. The short cut was a dead end. I blame Obama.

It’s time to take the long view. Anthony isn’t going anywhere, he’s not up election. So let’s all quit with the whining, and embrace the threadbare future: 4 more years! 4 more years! 4 more years!

Ethan: This got weird.


Mama there goes that meme: Is Rose hurting the Bulls’ offense?

Beckley: After a week of playoff basketball, one of the leading stories is how much the top-seeded Bulls have struggled to beat the Indiana Pacers, a team that scuttled into the playoffs 8 games under .500. The other is that in escaping upset, the Bulls have leaned on Derrick Rose, intrepid buster of ankles, to a potentially unhealthy degree. Should that cause worry? After all, Rose lead the league in percentage of team points created during the regular season, and was second in Usage. One might argue that three tight wins in which their defense and Derrick Rose dominated the most important moments is essentially what the Bulls do. Then again, Chicago  spanked the Indiana by 19, 13, and 21 during the regular season. Is this over-parsing a 3-0 series lead, or is there cause for alarm?

Ethan: THE REAL STORY IS HOW DROZE IS WILLING HIS TEAM TO VICTORY! Beckley, stop playing with stats, watch the game!

In all, or at least some, seriousness: Rose has applied an individually productive strategy to these 2011 playoffs. A long time ago, we wondered if he wasn’t getting fouled enough. Now he’s averaging 16.3 free throw attempts. Derrick’s passing less, driving more, all to a high 27.6 PER. But, he does this as teammates grow colder than being naked on the moon. Perhaps he’s suffocating the offense and perhaps he’s providing CPR until it gasps unassisted. So I ask, Beckley: Is Derrick Rose holding Chicago’s scoring back or compensating for that which holds them back?

Beckley:
I wouldn’t say Derrick Rose is holding anything back, in any sense of the phrase. He is hurling himself into the paint and being greeted by a chorus of whistles, which will keep his play relatively efficient even when he seems, at times, to be wearing horse blinders. And for all his single-mindedness– attack and finish or kick, very few passes to just move the ball– it’s also an effect of the Bulls’ general offensive gameplan rather than a dearth of talent around him. Aside from Rose’s individual artistry, Chicago’s offense looks predictable and uninspired. If there’s one place to put some blame on Rose, it’s that he’s a weak screener. Perhaps it’s because he’s saving his energy in case he needs to absorb a Jeff Foster elbow to the mouth while moving at full speed, but Rose’s screens–and most of the off-ball action in Chicago’s offense, are toothless.

I wonder if a team can sustain a winning offense when it is so completely built around the ability of one player. Not because predictability is a liability, but because the Bulls, or any team, for that matter, must have all five players feeling invested and responsible for the team’s success. I suppose you’d cite the 2006 Heat as a counterexample?

Ethan:
Sure, 2006 it is. And it’s a counter that stymies, frustratingly so. I’d like to rip how Chicago’s halting ball movement in favor of Derrick’s foul shot trawling. It’s not pleasant to watch and it goes against my basketball morals. But, the formula was effective back then, and this Bulls team is better than that 06’ Heat squad.

Chicago’s playoff offensive efficiency is almost exactly what it was during the regular season, so the strategy hasn’t exactly hurt. I still find Rose’s ball dominance a bit troubling because its degree is shocking. Derrick Rose posted a gargantuan 44.9% usage rate in Game 2, meaning: The basketball now smells like Derrick Rose and will till after the lockout.

"Humility...Desire...More Humility. Humble Unicorn: the new fragrance from Derrick Rose"

Beckley: Gross. And creepy.

Ethan: I know! It’s like, stop going after that ball like a stalker ex-girlfriend.

Beckley: I meant your “smells like Derrick Rose” comment.

Ethan:
Oh. Fair. Anyway, what are your feelings on Rose-centrism going forward?

Beckley: I love that Rose is willing to take full responsibility for his team’s offense, but I have a philosophical aversion to this style of play. Tonight the Pacers basically announced that they feared no Boozer, no Deng, no Noah, by trapping Rose as soon as he crossed half court. Rose had more charges than made layups, and only attempted a handful of field goals around the rim, after taking 11 such shots in Game 2. Without his mighty dribble drives, Rose was like He-Man without the power.

I have the (particularly in late-game situations) POWEEEERR!!

Then, Rose turned the corner, figuratively and literally, and gashed the Pacer’s pick and roll defense for his only made layup of the night. Good timing, it put the Bulls ahead for good with just seventeen seconds remaining.

Rose’s style of play has a similar effect on media as it does on opposing defense: they forget about the other guys. Kyle Korver has made a number of clutch shots not just in this series but all year, and it was Luol Deng who pushed Chicago’s offense forward in the first half of Game 3. The thing is, it may not be possible to cover Derrick Rose–for writers or opposing teams–without losing perspective on the rest of the squad. We can attribute this to Rose’s soloist style, but must also credit his success in that mode.

But Can Rose sustain this level of energy and will for six straight weeks, against increasingly intricate and disciplined defenses? Thibodeau seems determined to put the Bulls’ offense in Rose’s hands alone, while opponents toss him chainsaws to juggle. I’m not sold that this philosophy will work over the course of 48 minutes and seven games against top opponents, but there’s nothing wrong with handing him the rock and telling him “go” with game in the balance–no one can stay in front of him, and he finds open shooters if the help comes.

Ethan:
So I think we’re in grudging acceptance of selfish-ball?

This, I believe: The Rose-centrism of Chicago’s offense is good for Derrick Rose. I mean that in terms of branding, gaining fans, wooing media. Divorced from production, people follow the guy who controls that mystical orb. To have the ball is to have “possession.” We respect someone who has “possession,” and subconsciously assume he has it for a reason. Rose will get more respect from a wider audience than ever before.

This respect is growing as current fans defend Derrick’s honor against the evil statistics that would glove slap his cherubic face. Derrick’s late-game buckets are hardening into cudgels, thwacked against “stat-heads” who questioned his MVP cred. Is that fair? Is it stupid to look for postseason validation of a regular season award? Is it right to believe such validation comes from the end of games?

Well, perhaps that’s on-docket for the next Meme.

Beckley: Until then.

Twitter: Beckley and Ethan

Thanks to John Converse Townsend for the Foster-Rose image!

Mama There Goes That P.E.D!

Dateline: Boston, July 13, 1999
Beckley and Ethan sit comfortably in seats overlooking Fenway’s Green Monster. It’s Boston’s 99’ Home Run Derby and baseballs are flying higher than Icarus–on the wings of PEDs. Mark McGwire hits some far enough to puncture America’s enormous dotcom bubble, as “ooohs” and “ahhhs” speak to a credulous kind of incredulity. When Mason and Strauss took a whirl on the official HoopSpeak Time Machine, they chose the steroid era’s apogee over Dallas, November 22, 1963. Apologies to history teachers everywhere.

(A towering McGwire homer sails over Beckley’s head)

Ethan: Sorry I nixed the JFK assassination experience. It’s my fear of blood and also…I just didn’t want to lose any more respect for Oliver Stone’s movie. The Home Run Derby is pretty funny though, huh? Look at these fools, they have no clue how phony the contest is!

(Ethan cackles in the direction of an adorable, cheering grandmother)

Beckley: McGwire needs to button up another button on that jersey, Ethan, his bra strap is showing. Dude looks like he’s been injecting himself with saline… but the homers are probably just due to these newfangled baseballs.

(A sarcastic sneer rests comfortably on Beckley’s face)

Ethan: Dude, he needs another bra for his massive bacne! Honestly, how did people BUY this? It’s so obvious!

(Ethan cackles in the direction of a small, beaming child)

Beckley: Well keep in mind, the steroid scandal is still just a glimmer in Rick Reilly’s eye. These people are enjoying the historic ability and the entertainment, can you blame them?

(Ethan delivers a glare of immense blame)

Ethan: Well, at least I know basketball couldn’t be dirty like this.

Beckley: Why’s that? Big Baby has some manbreasts to rival McGwire.

Ethan: Well ya, but he’s like, um, er, not an important player…

Beckley:
What would that have to do with it? We know now that it wasn’t just Clemons on the juice, but Ryan Franklin. Everyone wants to get paid more and play longer, after all.

Ethan: Sure, sure, but we’re watching baseball, here. The advantages of increased muscle mass are so manifest in this, the boring sport God made to help men stem arousal. Why would anyone need PEDs in the NBA? It’s all about coordination and creativity, right?

Beckley: Coordination–like using a cylindrical bat to hit a round ball traveling 90 miles per hour while moving vertically 6 inches? Or do you mean flexibility and agility?

(Ethan steals a worried glance at a buff, enormous meathead, who’s wearing a Larry Bird jersey)

Ethan: Um, well…it’s just…McGwire looks so hulk-like. NBA players seem leaner. Some would look almost normal, save for being freakishly tall.

Beckley: I’m not trying to cast unfair aspersions, but look at every cyclist ever. Anabolic steroids may occasionally make you want to tear your opponents face off and wear it like a mask, but there are plenty of athletes using PEDs that don’t make you freakishly bulky.

Ethan: Okay, I’ll buy that. But how would these fanciful PEDs of yours help basketball players?

Beckley: Well, they could make a player stronger and more resilient in the face of 82 games, constant flights and the pressure of performing in front of 20,000 people. I mean, consider the player coming off a leg injury in the second half of his career. Maybe he’s got a contract year coming up and he needs to recover quickly from off-season surgery. So he takes HGH or some such supplement to help re-grow tissue more quickly. Maybe he’s not a tangibly better player than he was before injury, but he gets back to the team earlier, wins a larger contract, and is able to get paid to ball for a few more years. That’s one thing PEDs could do for a player, I suppose.

Ethan: Come on, that sounds as implausible as a veteran quarterback putting up career-best numbers at age 40. We’re from 2011. It’s a different era. It’s not like the old days, man. Players take care of their bodies, Steve Nash has convinced everyone to ditch sugar…or something like that.

Beckley: Totally, man. Using electric stimulation therapy, hyperbaric chambers, eating better, working out more intelligently could add a few years. But what if, hypothetically, you could extend your career or your prime with PEDs with low risk of side effects? Would you?

Ethan: Hell yes I would! I mean, but…they wouldn’t? Would they?

(Sammy Sosa smacks a baseball off what’s left of Ethan’s innocence. The crowd cheers deliriously)

Beckley: Who knows, man. I certainly don’t. It just seems there’s a motive, and these prolonged careers are nearly incredible. Even younger players like OJ Mayo and Rashard Lewis have been caught using banned substances. And again, pros are given supplements by trainers all the time, who knows if they intended to gain an illegal advantage or not.

(Ethan attempts to ignore Beckley by putting his iPod headphones on. Beckley smacks the anachronistic device away, sending it bouncing towards a man who looks suspiciously a lot like Steve Jobs)

Ethan: Dude!

Beckley: Why don’t you want to hear this? Is it that you’re just like these cheering seamheads?

Ethan: Look, I’m not sure I want to think about this, okay? I like basketball a lot, and the last thing I need is for us to further malign it. I don’t want to open up Pandora’s box, and get hit in the eye by a needle. Because, well, that metaphor sounds rather unpleasant.

Beckley: I mean, do you really care that testing isn’t all that stringent? Does it really bother you that after the first few weeks of each season, relatively infrequent testing is the NBA’s policy?

Ethan: Yes…I mean…no. I don’t think it does. I kind of like watching my favorite stars play on, well into their gray years. If banned drugs are helping them, then what separates a legal one from an illegal one? That’s just another question I’d rather ignore. Jesus, I feel like such a hypocrite. Do you care about testing, Beckley? Do you care about cheating?

Beckley: Well, I’d say the NBA is different than the NFL or MLB. In pro football, random testing of six players on each team each week keeps players from gaining the kind of (more) inhuman strength that turned Bill Romanowski into Bane from Batman. And basketball is such a team game, individual statistics will never carry the cache that they do in baseball, so I can’t imagine feeling like my entire existence as a fan has been a PED fueled sham.

Ethan: You evaded my question.

Beckley: Uhm… I’m going to get an order of triple bypass stadium nachos. You want anything?

Ethan: Maybe some Google stock? And your introspection here.

Beckley: OK, look, the sanctity of competition is something I don’t take lightly. Part of why we all love the League and the game itself is because of the transcendent beauty of coordinated movement and the pure meritocracy of competition. I suppose rampant PED use would sully both. Ugh, this is making me feel more naive than you. I cynically recognize the motive and opportunity to use PEDs, but can pull off the cognitive feat of not actively caring. I’m smugly poking holes in the mythology, but I’m a willing participant as well.

Ethan: I don’t care…most of the time. But part of me is irked if PEDs are indeed stretching careers into a Groundhog Day time freeze. It’s not fair to the past, or future, it doesn’t feel right. But then, the other part of me understands that cheating is subjective, scientific advancement is unstoppable, and that, right now I love basketball more than ever before. What I won’t do is blame anyone for “cheating,” as if sports impurity is decisive like wins and losses. It isn’t. And we shouldn’t scapegoat certain players who dare to stray from areas that we’re keeping gray. Fans tacitly bend the rules when they don’t demand that rules be stringent, and in the case of athletic performance, I’m not sure it’s possible to enforce the spirit of the rules–much less the letter. So I’m tabling my concern, just like you are, just like all us fans are.

(Ethan musters a dramatic, somber gaze)

Beckley: That was awfully eloquent for this stadium setting, Ethan. But I think you’re right, the system could be broke, but no one worries about fixing it. After all, the quality of ball and popularity of the game has never been higher. I just hope we don’t collectively act completely blindsided if a PED ring in Germany is traced back to pro ballers here in the States. I hope there’s no moralistic witch hunt after no one bothered to ask questions during a time of unprecedented excellence amongst the older NBA crowd.

Uh oh, this Polaroid of our relationship with the NBA is fading… we better get back before we do more damage to our love of the game.

(Beckley sits back in his chair with a worried and despondent look)

Ethan: It’s okay, man. The lockout’s probably coming first.

Follow us on Twitter: @BeckleyMason / @SherwoodStrauss

“Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 11: LeBron is Most Villainous Player

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.

Ethan: We’re headed for a historical Hindenburg on the order of Karl Malone’s MVP! And nobody seems to care, nobody seems to question it. So far, LeBron James has been the League’s best player. Yes, I could cite Chris Paul, but damn if you didn’t convince me otherwise. And I’d put Dwyane Wade second on account of Dirk Nowitz-knees. Point differential says: The Heat are a vision realized. Advanced stats say: James and Wade are liquefying competition. I say: Where is the MVP buzz?

It’s as though society is resigned to rewarding lesser talent out of “moral” obligation. Amar’e? Well apart from not featuring defense, rebounding, and playing on a top ten team, he’s the perfect choice. I could make a case for Stoudemire, but like a drunken text–it would be lower case, sloppily conveyed out of wee hour mania. Derrick Rose had to melt icy veins to make inroads towards my heart, and he’s bound to ascend higher than a Mt. Everest kangaroo. But, is Rose tangibly better than Dwight Howard? Kevin Durant?

All I know is, the smoldering heap that was Cleveland is validation enough for LeBron’s talents, and Wade’s soaring like he’s got talons for feet. Shouldn’t these guys be one and two for MVP? And if not, what does that say about this increasingly mysterious annual prize?

Beckley: Woah, Ethan, take a breath. We’re less than half way through the season, and the NBA’s fandom still needs time to heal. From what, I’m not sure, but we need it.

Phase One of this recovery process, Pure Outrage, is nearly passed as windbags half-heartily exhale their last invaluable pieces of advice. Now LeBron inhabits Phase Two: Embracing Villainhood. It’s not just LeBron who has accepted the black hat cliche, but the society of NBA meme generators.

It’s understandable, because at some level it’s just fun to have someone to root against. And the more he wins, the more insufferable he’ll be to those who must suffer his greatness. It’s in part by being the best that he inspires the negative energy that prevents him from being openly recognized as such.

So what if posterity eventually validates James’ self-coronation? The MVP trophy is about now (except every time it isn’t), and at present LeBron’s not putting up the stats he did last season. How are we supposed to argue for someone who is averaging fewer points, assists, steals, blocks and minutes per game while shooting a lower percentage from the field and turning the ball over more (all leading to a lower PER)?

Because he’s shooting better from three? That only works if you play in Chicago.

Voters and fans seem to favor narratives of improvement. Like when Kobe became a good guy and “got it” (“it” being a 7-foot Spaniard), or when, in the mid 2000s, voters decided that white guys could also be really good at basketball.

Is it enough that LeBron is the best if you can’t prove he’s any better than he was last year? And if we know he’s the best, why do we care one bit whether he gets another piece of metal?

You can't argue with an arbitrary graph. It's Science.

Ethan: The villain status relies on how LeBron’s been framed by people who aren’t LeBron. His recent quote was:

“I enjoy it. & I’ve kind of accepted this villain role everyone has placed on me.”

We wove this paradigm around the King and all the King’s men. Society turned against James, making him the “villain,” but his evil status is fueled by success…until it isn’t. What I mean by that is: If LeBron fails, he becomes a pathetic non-villain. And if he wins, he’s the bad guy until he’s accrued enough victories to be the good guy. To paraphrase a younger, bushier tailed Beckley Mason, “If someone is a winner, we need to make him our winner.”

As Dan Gilbert once insanely said: “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” Obviously, I disagree. LeBron can rise to heights of angels so long as he succeeds in the underworld.

In the meantime, he’s thrown the MVP discussion into a purgatorial holding pattern. While James hasn’t gotten better, nobody else has closed the gap. Don’t we already have a Most Improved Player award?

But what about Wade in this race? Is he a villain? An underrated afterthought? D-Wade and LeBron are back-and-forth on a per diem basis when it comes to PER. The MVP discussion might be a referendum on how much you hate LeBron versus how much of that LeBron hate has seeped into a generalized Heat hatred. A pure James hater might want to tweak the King by deeming him a prince. But a Heat hater wouldn’t want to reward LeBron’s teammate.

Beckley: As the slightly lesser player, Wade could have perhaps still raised the Podoloff, but not as the lesser story. If LeBron’s 2011 tale has the weight of Moby Dick, Wade’s is Baby Beluga.

But here’s a lullaby for LeBron lovers: if there’s one thing America cherishes, it’s a story of redemption. It’s the twisted truth that in politics and sports, it’s better to be Born Again than to never have sinned.

Some have linked Kanye and LeBron for their Dark Side of celebrity appeal, but Kanye doesn’t get booed every time he touches the mic. Unlike in the realm of entertainment, where intentionally being a ridiculous, asinine personality is a celebrated part of being a star, athletes are expected to marry morality with competitive success. As we’re recognizing with LeBron, Most Villainous and Most Valuable are superlatives that in sport share a paradoxical bond.

Either he’ll stop playing so well, rendering him unfit for both booing and cheering, or he’ll keep inciting invectives by singularly eviscerating the competition and their teeth-gnashing, hair-rending fans.

If you want to believe in Most Villainous, read a sportswriter; if you want proof of Most Valuable, ask the Nuggets or Cavaliers.

I doubt most fans and writers really hate LeBron much more than James actively seeks the villain role. We’re all along for the ride on this narrative and feel the need to see the thing through. Kobe couldn’t shed his “black hat” or win his trophy until his team won the ring that binds us to respect. Even Jordan went through a version this before finally exorcising his demons by demonically exercising his game in the Finals. What I’m suggesting is that villainhood is a right of passage for stars like LeBron and that redemption is really just winning That Ring.

Do you buy this, Ethan, will it take a championship? Or are regular season rainbow threes tuning the strings for LeBron’s Redemption Song?

Ethan: Unless a gold championship trophy waits at the end of that rainbow, the tune is discordant. Now picture a Celtic leprechaun doing a triumphant jig as “Shipping up to Boston” garbles “Redemption Song.” Translated to English, I mean: The King needs rings. It’s not enough to simply climb standings, James has to win a piece of jewelry that he could easily afford, would never wear, so that we fans can revel in the success that we did not achieve.

Our Puritanical streak dictates that we blame great players for team failures (If you really deserved it, God would have bequeathed a title unto you!). We praise the character of great players when those teams finally win a chip (God has rewarded you, you must be pure of heart!). That’s how it’s been since the dawn of sport.

But you’re talking regular season, and I know that because I just read the part of your section that wasn’t the last sentence. Well, until LeBron is redeemed through championship, sportswriters won’t offer plaudits–no matter how well James plays in the first 82. LeBron will have to wait till next season, which with the impending lockout, might arrive sometime after the public forgets about basketball–retroactively rendering this conversation moot.

Follow us on Twitter: @BeckleyMason / @SherwoodStrauss

We’re on the Heat Index

Talking about that big, fat X-Mas game: Heat-Lakers: the Christmas Litmus

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Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 10: Thorns in Rose’s Crown

IMAGE BY ANTHONY BAIN

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.

Beckley: Have you noticed there’s a former Number 1 overall pick who was drafted into his hometown central division team with a ball-dominant game, unreal speed in the open court, and a knack for miraculous finishes over and around his opponents who’s climbing the ranks of most divisive player in the NBA? No, not LeBron, time to move on, Cleveland is boring.

Derrick Rose can’t top The King or Mamba yet (he’ll need an absurd nickname to do that), but judging by our recent Daily Dime chat, trolling for Derrick Rose haters and defendants is like shooting fish in a barrel made of fish. Yet Rose doesn’t have any of the personality complications that underscore the Kobe and LeBron punditry– he didn’t even have a speaking role in his own commercial. Perhaps it’s the molten hot point guard debate that gives the Rose question so much gravity. The same way “I believe Kobe is a really good basketball player” must really mean “LeBron isn’t fit to carry Kobe’s gym bag,” any praise for or criticism of Rose seems to imply judgment on Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook (fine, Steph Curry too). It seems that Rose has become an unlikely lightning rod of NBA opinion-makers. Where do you stand on this? Remember, Ethan, you can ONLY love or hate him. Anything else speaks of rationality, which is boring, and will result in no one reading this post.

Ethan: I appreciate your charity in parenthetically including Curry. Though he just trails Derrick Rose in PER, wouldn’t ya know? For all the focus on the Heat as a theoretical team–as opposed to a currently great one–what about the Bulls? What the hell have they done to earn Rose’s MVP hype? These Bulls munch cud to the tune of 12-8. The lineup looks impeccable and some experts prefer them to the Heat, Celtics or Magic. But we haven’t seen success yet. It only feels imminent.

If the Bulls are missing some gears it’s possibly because Derrick Rose only knows one: Me Ball. Known fact: 123% of Bulls possessions involve Rose touching the rock into submission. He applies himself to the game, doesn’t let it come to him–which is an affront to particular point guard aficionados. One man watches the hyper-athletic one-man show and smiles in wonder. Another man favors Steve Nash’s understanding of pacing, nuance and facilitation. How you feel about point guards influences how you feel about Derrick. Like you alluded to, it has nothing to do with Rose. He’s a personality tabula rasa, a man who can’t be bothered to speak even when starring in–or is it staring in?–commercials.

So is Rose some new species, the more effective realization of Marbury’s vision? Or is he just one among a new breed of controlling givers? As I typed this, Stephen Curry’s ankle bent sideways, tying my heart into noodles.

Beckley: Full disclosure, I used to be an unabashed Rose hater. I saw him in person last year and Hinrich ran the point for half the game. Rose seemed to disappear and his sublime eruptions to the basket only amplified my displeasure at his apparent discomfort with taking over against the likes of Shaun Livingston. He’s kicked that habit this year, getting off 3.5 more shots per game, dropping two more dimes and upping his Usage 3.5%. He’s clearly put in the work this summer, dramatically improving his three point shot (shooting 3 more per game and making 36% instead of 26%) while also cutting down on long twos, which, as Jeff Van Gundy can tell you six times per telecast, is the worst shot in basketball.

Yet somehow, I’m not satisfied. Perhaps it’s that his mindbending athleticism will always make me feel as though there is more he could be doing. It’s like your theory on big man bias and Dwight Howard, only instead of height making it all seem easy, I irrationally think “jeez Derrick, why couldn’t you spin Tyreke Evans all the way around instead of only a 270* rotation?” Players like Nash or Chris Paul, who have the quicks but routinely outsmart opponents appear to be playing better because they consistently hit their athletic limits. But how does one reach a potential that seems infinite?

Is this fair? Of course not. It’s the same heartless demand we only place guys like LeBron James and Dwight Howard, players of an elite athleticism so dynamic that they appear machine like in their physical perfection. Their mental errors frustrate us like a computer glitch, “why won’t this damn thing work!?” Well Rose is 22, and certainly doin’ work of some kind. But is his improved aggression and shooting enough to place him in contention for league’s top PG? Is a positional comparison even worthwhile?

Ethan: Give in to your Derrick Rose hatred. Let it wash over your face. Stop rationalizing, apologizing, squeezing words of praise through pursed lips. Perhaps more is expected of Rose due to his athleticism. And perhaps you’d bleat a schoolgirl squeal if I tossed you a Russell Westbrook jersey. By the way, did you know what the sped-up pronunciation of Russell Westbrook is? It’s “Wusswawhawmph”

Me: “Here’s a free new jersey!”
You: “Wheeee! Wusswawhawmph!”

(Beckley flounces about, giggles maniacally, models the jersey in front of his full length mirror)

Westbrook is similar in stature and athleticism to Rose, but neither of us takes issue with RW. Why? He shoots three fewer shots per game, and gets to the line three more times. Derrick occasionally looks like Jamal Crawford, and though the imitation equals squandered athleticism, though that frustrates, mainly: It’s annoying to see any player comport himself in such a manner. Dribbling back and forth, crossing over, slinging a contested jumper…it’s an abomination! While I hate the undermined potential, the actual act undermines the sport itself. And if that’s not the case, explain why we like Wusswawhawmph and hate on D-Rose.

Beckley: Listen, I’m not crying over the Thunder jersey of a guy drafted in the 206 (interesting that Stern didn’t feel any compunction to help out a city with a great NBA tradition but dutifully supports New Orleans…grrrrr). But I think Russell’s been getting a free pass because he “came out of nowhere” as much as any #4 overall pick can. The internet-bred fetish for being first to get behind an underrated anything and the feel-good style of play from Hustle BestDunk blinded us to the fact the he too has been taking AWFUL shots and has coughed the ball up at a league worst rate. True, Westbrook is a superior defender and offensive rebounder, two traits that ooze humility and awesome teammateness. But he’s also had the luxury of playing in a franchise that invests in player development like few others and features Kevin Durant (he’s slightly better than Ben Gordon) as the marquee attraction.

I love that Westbrook impacts the game in so many ways (do opposing point guards not know he likes to go to the glass or is he just the most unblockoutable guy since Rodman?), but my aesthetic and tactical preference will always be for point guards like Chris Paul or…..wait… how did you get me talking about these other guys? I’ve been had! As predicted, this conversation has become as much about our biases as Rose’s actual play. You’re a slippery customer, Strauss.

I guess I’ve made my peace with Rose. He’s not my preference, but I can’t knock the hustle, the drive to become better and be a good teammate– even if he doesn’t always play how I wish he would (what I’m saying is: more bounce passes and fewer dunks, please!).

Now out with it, what’s really stoking this flame of hate in the craw of the heart of the root of your being?

Ethan: Keeping with my sneaky digressions: Forget it, I’m already over Rose-hate. It was more fun back when I thought him overrated. In my world there is no worse crime than overratedness, because that world is comprised of my condescending to conventional wisdom. I need to feel special. Pathetically, pointing out the flaws in our society’s basketball star system allows me such a pittance.

Derrick’s one-and-done Tourney run served as a catapult to greater pro fame. The hyped single year mercenaries are afforded a parental status push as they shed training wheels–in this case, it’s Rose pedals. Westbrook has to worm his way into a national consciousness that DRose owned since Kansas-Memphis.

How else could I explain our social memory of the thrilling 2009 Bulls-Celtics playoff series? Ask around–or if you’re lazy, hear around: This battle is described as an epic duel between Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. D-Rose was fantastic in Game 1, but after that, he served as little more than a sinkhole through which vital possessions disappeared. Over a 44.7 minute average, Rose notched 19.7 points, 6.4 assists, 5 turnovers while providing defense that delivered Rondo to the hoop with a bus boy’s earnestness. If this was a duel, Derrick Rose was Alexander Hamilton.

I fixed on this Rose overhype, harped and obsessed, tried to get people to understand his unworthy crowning. The unfair, cosmic injustice was inexorable. Derrick’s implacable face garnished endless commercials, despite pedestrian second year production.  In my darkest moments, I wasn’t sure whether to wring hands over Kobe’s lofty status or Rose’s. Those were bleak weeks.

Today, Derrick’s improving, growing, bending the game to his will. So either I can take solace in his ability to become what people thought he was, or resent him for skipping steps. I think, it’s high time to get on the Rose bandwagon. In the spirit of how I made no use of a college history degree, I’ll say, “Fast Don’t Lie,” and forget the past.

@SherwoodStrauss/Ethanstra@gmail.com

@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

“Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 9: There Can Be Only ONE!

Image by Anthony Bain

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.

Ethan: The grand Miami experiment stumbles around the arena, bleeding from the belly. The laughing masses poke it like a toreador mob.

(Jajajaja! Jajajaja! JAJAJAJAJA!)

Spoelstra speed deflates LeBron stats as James’s reputation sinks at a pace faster than time travel. The Heat live a bleak, unforeseen present. And the damning accusation: Bron undermines Spo like the coach is lower than under mines. The criticism is swelling, swallowing this guy, his teammates, even Miami’s upped fans. If LeBron’s The King, this is the French Revolution.

In theory, LeBron’s rivals should be kissing press clippings, riding torrents of praise to that number one spot. But…where’s Kobe Bryant? Where’s Kevin Durant? What about Dwy–oh yea. Somehow, with James caught in quicksand, every threat to his status is getting outplayed–by a teammate. Well, except for Chris Paul, but he’s never on TV. So Paul’s existence is a boxscore’s whispered rumor.

Beckley: I agree, this young season seems off kilter. The story lines we want are failing us, while subversive narratives gasp for airtime. The Lakers are clearly the best team in the West, except the Spurs have a better record. We can’t hype that team too much without adding “the Lakers are still going to the Finals!” and “Tony Parker is their best player?” caveats. The success of the  Spurs (and Hornets) has wrongfooted the entire NBA community, but it’s not nearly as awkward as what’s going on in Miami.

When people used to criticize LeBron, it was often on the absolutist rationale of “he hasn’t won anything.” Supporters and fans said “you’re dumb, he puts up 30-8-8, he’s historically great, shut up.” Well now LeBron’s points and rebounds have plummeted, his narrative is undefined and kind of depressing. He’s still the best (right?!), but now it’s harder to say exactly why. Similar situation for Kobe. With Pau Gasol outplaying Bryant, and maybe everyone else in the league, there’s only so many “Kobe really wants to win…no seriously you guys… you don’t even know!” odes we can stomach while observing Gasol and Odom routinely carry the Purple and Gold. Ditto Durant, who is being outplayed, or at least matched, by the increasingly terrifying Russ Westbrook. KD’s scoring Messiah story doesn’t have the same hook if one of the disciples also walks on water. And as you mention, my vote for best player in the league this season, Chris Paul, is on national TV only once this season, playing the ever-enthralling Cavs in March.
I’m at a loss Ethan, where do we go from here? How much time are people willing to spend thinking about tiny markets like San Antonio (with Duncan not playing a reduced role in their success) New Orleans and Oklahoma City? Miami is befuddling, the Lakers aren’t good in the right way… maybe this is a good thing.

Ethan: I like your media dissection: Wrongfooted when throngs looked at Heat—and a Lakers three peat. Per the Lakers and Kobe storyline, Bryant is off to an excellent season. But the Lakers are carried on the shoulders of giants, shoulders which bulge before a shadow that envelopes Kobe’s accomplishments. In a normal fan environment, this would not matter, because winning is all that matters.

Los Angeles is not a normal environment, for reasons divorced from movies and money. Kobe Bryant has a unique connection to a substantial contingent of Lakers fans, and to call it a “connection” undersells what is really a mass subsuming into Bryant’s legend. It’s to the point where hordes flood article comment sections, just to bash an existential KB rival. Troll any post’s depths, and you’re likely to see something like…

AlanSmithee33:
This Collective Bargaining Agreement article is very insightful. Great research.Thanks!

KOBE24BEST: LEQUIT SUCKS!! Admit he SUCKS. he’s a cry babie who cant no the game like KOBE! He’s not anywhere close to KOBE! Five rings! That’s enough for a HAND!

Dr.Stevo79: Wonder how the rookie payscale will be impacted?

KOBE24BEST: I wonder how KOBE will own Kevin Durant in the playoffs who will never be KOBE! Hahaha! Your a JOKE if you think Durant’s better than KOBE.

Billsville77: According to my addition, the MLB pays more in salaries than the NBA. What gives with that?

KOBE24BEST: Go play with your Hollinger computer! Maybe you can CRY ON IT when Wade and LeBrickness r loozing! Kobe! Ko-BE. Ko? BE! Kobective Bryanting Agreement!

Of course, your average Lakers fan has better things to do than to sewer-strew anonymous banter. I would assume so, but another assumption suspects this online activity meaningful, illustrative. When LA faltered in the post Shaq era, Bryant’s trial made him a national pariah. In the absence of the usual team success, Lakers fans rallied around an embattled star–until his redemption became their voice.

A few years later, I’m at Staples, sitting amid oddities who openly counted Bryant’s point total, openly prayed for 50, and openly booed anyone else who deign shoot. It was like attending a symphony wherein the conductor’s baton was a trombone, and that was all the audience sought to hear in the first place.

Odom’s thoughts: “It’s time for my flute solo!”

Kobe’s trombone: “WAMP WAMP WAMP WAAAAAAAAMP!”

Much has changed since the Pau Gasol trade, but vicarious Bryanting still lives. Some Lakers fans wear shirts that boast Kobe’s “Five Rings,” as though those championships don’t matter as much as the fact Bryant got them. And when the Lakers succeed with Kobe in the backseat, many don’t even know how to cheer it. Thank God the Mamba’s picked up his game during a Gasol lull: Beta Bryant is a threat to LA identity.

Now, I dare you to expand on Westbrook, Durant, Chris Paul, and why the hell you think this narrative confusion is a “good thing.” I’m also bumping into your shoulder on the way to the bench.

Beckley: Classic LeBrethan. Dazzles with faux Kobe comments, then tosses me a hand grenade. I’m not annoyed by the bump, I’m upset that you got sweat on my suit. Six weeks into the season It appears all the hemming and hawing that went on in the way of prediction was really just the sound of the NBA gods laughing. I’ve already mentioned a few, but here’s a fuller list of unexpected returns from the young season:

  • Russell Westbrook is a legitimate MVP candidate, and Kevin Durant can’t shoot.
  • Dwyane Wade looks like the most trade-worthy of the Big Three, wasn’t this his team?
  • New Orleans, picked by only one of the ten surveyed TrueHoop Network writers to finish with a playoff worthy record (Hornets 24/7’s Joe Gerrity), is now 12-5.
  • This was going to be the year time finally eroded the Alamo. Instead, for the first time in Duncan’s storied career, San Antonio isn’t one of the 10 slowest paced teams in the league. So far this year, only seven teams are out racing the Parker propeled Spurs (14-2).
  • Despite Kobe leading the league in usage (35.3%), Pau Gasol is still tops in Offensive Win Shares and just barely trails Chris Paul in total Win Shares. The once soft Spaniard is the best Laker (21.5 PTS, 11.5 REB, 2 BLK, 55% FG), but he makes it look too easy along side Kobe’s hero complex to get serious MVP buzz.
  • LeBron James has turned the ball over more than anyone else in the league (4.2/gm), despite handling the ball less than in previous years. Also, no one likes him.
  • Darko Milicic is leading the NBA in blocks per game. Read that again.

Even though the Dark One has risen from the depths of NBA laugh lines, I don’t see his ascension as a sign that the unholy union of Kurt Rambis and David Kahn has produced an NBA apocalypse-heralding Rosemary’s Baby. Instead, consider that we are blessed in this holiday season with a cornucopia of unexpectedly awesome basketball. I thought Russell Westbrook was two more years from consistently dominating, and who guessed that Michael Beasley would be silkily justifying his #2 pick in Minnesota or that the Pacers would be kind of good? Did you predict DeMarcus Cousins would be a headcase or that the Clippers would drown Blake Griffin in a tar pit of apathy and discord? OK, so not everything has been a revelation. But the disappointment of not seeing one solitary Wade-James pick and roll is, at least in part, assuaged by the bounty of entertaining peripheral plot lines.

Ethan:
Iconoclast NBA genius David Kahn is smirking right now, because only he understands the counter-intuitive wonders of a Carlos Arroyo-Joel Anthony pick and roll. Kurt Rambis squints happily, knowing the triangle should run through Big Z, James Jones and Eddie House. Sorry Miami, the modern Manhattan project thrives in Minny.

@SherwoodStrauss/Ethanstra@gmail.com

@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

Heat Index Meme: What makes Chris Bosh soft?

(As posted from The Miami Heat Index)

Mama there goes that Meme!” is a feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse and ultimately learn from a popular media meme. In this special Heat edition, the guys look at what makes Chris Bosh soft.

Beckley: Hey there, Ethan, ever get the feeling that Chris Bosh is a subhuman creature who shouldn’t be allowed to trod the same floorboards as James Jones? I know he averaged 23.3 points and 10.4 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from 2008-10, and that almost everyone viewed him as a max player on the same level as Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. But this year he’s collecting only six boards in 34 minutes per game. After watching 130-pound Rajon Rondo go boom over Bosh’s trembling frame, I’m drawing the following conclusions: Chris Bosh is soft because he likes to shoot jump shots and get dunked on. Also, he should be traded for someone useful, like Kevin Willis or Popeye Jones or the newly Shaped-Up Karl Malone. What’s your take — is this guy any good? Can he anchor the Heat’s front line, or will he simply drag LeBron and Wade’s season into the deep?

Ethan: Bosh has been losing cred since that “soft” label was sewn to his lapel. Or was it his ascot? Look, I don’t know a whole lot about this league, but I know that “soft” is bad. It’s feminine, and feminine is losing. And losing is bad. And feminine. And European.

We all know that Europeans are softies — they lack our hearty American volkgeist, they flop till they drop, they have silly accents. That logic leaks into basketball, where we blame Vlade Divac for inventing a “womanly” foul-faking phenomenon that John Stockton had mastered from the womb. Chris Bosh isn’t European, though he did play in prissy Canada — which neighbors wimpy Europe by the grace of clean streets and functioning health care. It doesn’t help that Bosh’s foreign-influenced Raptors might well have played defense in front of hula hoop rims.

Apparently, defense is “hard,” because the Raps are soft for lack of it. But the Heat have played amazing defense so far. Beckley, I’m confused. Does everybody hate Chris, due to his recently bad rebound rate? Do we judge grit, heart, hustle and hardness on the basis of board-ability? If that’s the case, then why is Dwight Howard lacking in fortitude when he’s mastered rebounding and defense?

Beckley: Well if Rihanna is to be trusted on such matters, being “hard” means you’re a combination of brilliant and resilient. Also, it’s good to have fan-mailers numbering at least 27 million (also known as the Selena Gomez line). But if we survey recent history, we find there are five surefire ways to be labeled “soft”:

  • Smile too much
    This is Dwight’s downfall. No matter how he chisels his righteous delts, until he trades in his megawatt grin for scowls and growls, he’ll just be a big teddy bear.
  • Avoid contact
    The Vince Carter Curse. VC has great size and strength, but put him on his butt early and he has a tendency to wither over the course of a game.
  • Be European/play “like a Euro”
    As you alluded above, Pau Gasol has often been ripped for the softness of his hands as much as an unwillingness to bang. Many have clumsily equated his grace with a disinterest in the brute tasks of a power forward (can also apply to South Americans).
  • Shoot too many jump shots
    Dirk was the perfect confluence of softness when he first found stardom: Euro jumpshooting phenom who didn’t like to go to the rack (something he does very well these days by utilizing one of the most underrated first step in the league). Also there’s the time in the 2007 playoffs when Stephen Jackson punked him like he was the new kid at Barry Farms. Now Dirk drops 30 with his opposition’s teeth lodged in his elbow and sports a snarling, Teutonic mean-mug, so he’s ditched that rep.
  • Be scared of “the big moment”
    This one is Vince Carter’s well-worn territory as well, see his gut-twisting choke job at the free throw line against the Celtics in last year’s playoffs.

Reviewing this list, it’s interesting to note that one of the “hardest” dudes around today, Kevin Garnett, qualified for items 2,4, and 5 prior to his tenure in Boston. In fact, Bosh’s offensive game mimics the Big Ticket’s as much as any player in the League. But whereas KG’s body language says “I’ll punch your grandma!” Bosh’s seems to say “scoring is fun!”

Bosh is probably too skinny (he weighs only 15 pounds more than Wade) to ever be described as rugged, tough or bruising, but his quickness has historically compensated for the limitations of his sinewy frame. We can usually offer an approximate measure of a player’s willingness to go inside with the rock by how frequently he shoots at the rim. This season, only 25 percent of Bosh’s shots have come in the immediate basket area, compared to 33 percent in 2009 and 35 percent in 2010. When Bosh goes into his jab step dance, he isn’t boogieing to the bucket. It’s unreasonable to expect this relative waif to protect the tin, but can’t he at least use his preternatural quicks to attack the rack?

Ethan: I always assumed Rihanna was singing “Brazilian” instead of “resilient,” but that was dumb as thinking Chris Bosh to be the only girl in the world. Speaking of resilient Brazilians, if the flailing, flopping Anderson Varejao isn’t soft, he’s an “energy guy.” Though foreign, Anderson hails from the species of of non-scoring bigs who can escape critique of their masculinity through perceived “hard work.” These dudes hustle, take charges and do all the winning yeoman basketball stuff. When the plucky Energy Guy keeps rebounding his own missed shot, the fans roar as though Air Bud is nuzzling buzzer beaters. The masses love a scrappy striver far more than a polished Goliath. Lacking a sling, the next best way to knock perfect Pau is to impugn his machismo.

But, is there a logic which bigs get criticized? To quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“For if you look at softness you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships … I dunked on Chris Bosh in front of his girl.”

Unlike a yarnball, there’s no common soft thread here. Beckley, we’re stuck with your maddening rubric of definitions. Dwight Howard is physical granite, but that friendly face somehow undermines his shoulders? Dirk was ripped for rack avoidance, yet Robert Horry’s toughness was based on a career of timely, sleepily-heaved 3s? Just thinking about Kevin Garnett in this context fills my eyes with dark blood.

Like KG, Bosh scores 2,4, and 5 on your list. He also could score a 1 though I stopped charting NBA player smiles ever since my girlfriend discovered the notes.

(Embarrassing Note No. 47: Kevin Durant smiles like a frolicking dolphin. I want to swim with him, my heart is an ocean.)

Anyway, the total rubric conveys that Chris might as well be a European Canadian from Brazil. At what point do we throw him into a lake to see if he floats?

As Bosh starts sinking, our mob might realize that he hasn’t been bad for the Heat. Chris has a near 19 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and is second in total team plus-minus. He’s scoring efficiently and avoiding turnovers. The assault on his manhood is just a distraction from Spoelstra’s maddening assault on creativity. If Spo would merely bench Arroyo in favor of a lineup that features Wade, James, Jones, Bosh, Z/Haslem/Anthony, the Heat would redefine basketball. Instead, he’s wasting usage on 28 minutes of Carlos and Mario. As the losses pile up, we’ll keep piling on Bosh. Spoelstra’s insistence on playing the smallest Miami players is stoking ridicule of his tallest star.

Beckley: It does seem logical that a more avant-garde coaching philosophy would better exploit the Heat’s position-pulverizing, unprecedented combination of talent. But while Arroyo’s play may not pass the eye test, stats tell us he has the highest offensive efficiency rating and second best defensive efficiency rating. So, at the very least, he’s not hurting the Heat.

Speaking of the ornery Viennese philosopher, I suspect Ludwig would sneeze at any attempt to analyze Bosh as an entity separate from the context of his Heat teammates. A month into the season, Bosh still juts out like an evocative but misused word in the syntax of the Heat’s offensive and defensive schemes. Bosh is still a top talent, but Miami still haven’t made sense of how best to use him. Yet other players have also had their share of struggles. Notably, Dwyane Wade has made some costly mental errors on defense and seems to be having just as much difficulty as Bosh has in finding rhythm offense opportunities. Yet Wade’s play has been shrugged off, we know what he can do. Bosh still has to prove to a large population of viewers who’ve never seen him play that he’s worthy of the hype.

I expect Bosh to shed some of these unflattering linguistic associations only if the team finds its collective voice. 10 games in, it’s not too late for Bosh to have the last word.

Ethan: Not only is Wade a relative known quantity with a firm partner’s leeway, sports media tells me that the Heat is obviously his team. And Dwyane deserves your respect, because he made the real estate purchase back in the mid 2000’s, when Midas couldn’t afford Miami prices.

I’m also wondering: Is Bosh suffering from what Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter called “the forbidden triad”? FT syndrome is the deterioration that occurs when the relationship between three people gets unbalanced. While Bosh-James-Wade may be cool with each other, the fans who use them as avatars are untethered to tact or mercy. Worshippers of LeBron and Dwyane look to the weaker third and see a skinny scapegoat. Chris is like the new roommate who talks just a little too much. It’s only a matter of time before the two other roomies conspire against Chris, and hiss gossip whispers about his enduring virginity. But yes, Beckley, I agree with you in the long term. Once the Heat get balanced, so too will the dialogue about poor, feminized Chris Bosh.

@SherwoodStrauss/Ethanstra@gmail.com

@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

“Mama There Goes That Meme!” Ep. 7: Contraction Traction, What’s Your Action?

“Mama there goes that Meme!” is a weekly HoopSpeak feature in which Beckley Mason and Ethan Sherwood Strauss, like curious extraterrestrials, probe, abuse, and ultimately learn from a popular media meme.

——

“I don’t know that there will be contraction, but I just don’t want to say anything that denies that that subject gets raised.”– David Stern

Ethan: Obviously today’s meme is about how crazy that statement is. Right, Beckley? Isn’t that just, totally nuts?

Beckley: Yeah man, I can’t get enough of the Pistons! More teams! Wooo!

Ethan: Uh oh. Dude, you’re not saying that—

Beckley: …Listen we both know there are too many teams. Don’t hang me out to dry now, you’re the one who noted that despite the Pistons’ Pontiac-level suckery, they still get better TV ratings than the Thunder…

Ethan: Dude! Stop! Don’t do it, man! Put DOWN STERN’S LOCKOUT BEARD!

Mark Jackson: Beckley, you’re an amateur bloggah of 8 months, you’re a fan who’s lost his team…YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT!

Beckley: I’m not answering to you, Mark, until you answer the hundreds of tear-stained letters I’ve sent you! (Just want to say I loved you on The B.S. Report… call me!)

Ethan:
Get a grip, man! We’ve already alienated big market readers with our Kobe-bashing.

Beckley: Okay, Okay, I think it’s possible to semi-rationally discuss the ready benefits of contraction… call it the SternVaders’ Advocate. We’ve already heard why contraction is a bad idea. Now give yourself to the Dark Side, Ethan. It is the only way you can save your League…. Yessss, your thoughts betray you…Your feelings on contraction are strong.

Ethan: You’re advocating for small towners to suffer the sad Sonics fate. Like Blackwater, you’ve become an evil contractor…a monster, a fat cat, an oligarch…

Beckley: I don’t know about that small market jibba-jabba. Seattle remains a bigger market than 60% of the League–we’re just out West and not in California so no one cares–but that’s a conversation for another day. I will, however, admit that The Relocation did alter my perspective because I now view the NBA from a non-partisan perch. I just want to see good basketball, ie- not the Pistons, not the Pacers, not the Wolves. Before you jump to conclusions, know that I don’t want there to be fewer guys rewarded for putting their entire lives into getting to the League, I actually think there should be more professional ballers–just fewer NBA teams.

If I were Commish for a day, I’d make the Development League a real minor league system with one D-Leag team for each NBA team. There are currently 16 D-League Squads and 30 NBA teams, what if there were 26 of each? That would give us six more professional teams total, employing another 80 or so players, while pruning teams or cities without enough talent or interest to warrant an NBA team, like Memphis. Yes, I know there would be a couple divisions with an extra team, but let’s ignore logistics for this hypothetical. With fewer NBA teams, you would need to cut the playoffs down to six teams from each conference–something like the NFL playoff bye system. A decrease in the number of teams and top paying jobs would go over with players and owners about as well as  Joel Anthony’s insistence that LeBron “feed him the rock.” But, coupled with a stronger development league, it would increase the level of play. That’s different than simply casting cities out of the league, which, in my opinion, is a solution only the dark and mighty Lord Cthulhu would desire.

(Beckley starts undulating Stern’s lockout beard like a pendulum. Ethan’s eyes spin and spiral.)

Ethan: Screw it, you’ve turned me, there’s too much basketball improving incentive. I’m for eating teams, if it means better NBA consumption. Even a kind shark can’t resist the current-carried blood. Speaking of which, my father once penned a script for “Sharkula,” back in the 70’s.The plot: Shape-shifting Venus shark monsters disguise themselves as returning USA astronauts, only to gobble gullible humans. There’s a character named, “Discozilla.” Again, it was the 70’s. My point is, some innovations don’t translate across generations. The NBA in Charlotte, Memphis and New Orleans might be a Discozillas–ideas that retrospect hates. Shades on, rhinestone, strobe light, Mothra fight. The goal of contraction should be to serve man.

And I like the D-League idea. Let them eat D-League if they can’t support The League. It’s a kinder, gentler way to kill teams. Beckley, you’ve really threaded the lethal injection needle there.

Beckley: How your Dad kept the lid on the spacecandy-laced adventures of Sharkula and Discozilla all these years I’ll never know. So do the Sharkula(s?) walk around? Are they clothed? Can they boogie? Is this just more Sharksploitation cinema?

Also, I notice all the cities that you single out for contraction are in the South. Yet no one goes to 76ers games, even when they make the playoffs… Do you have some criteria other than apathy, or is this just some time-honored, Berkley-bred South bashing?

Ethan: This is fraught territory, I have to discuss race in the NBA and how it relates to American politics. I feel like Edward Scissors Hands, juggling Fabergé eggs, as Sharkulas nip my gonads. Well, first off I’d cite Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels (by way of Paul Krugman), who made the case that white men as a whole have not fled the post-1960′s Democratic party: The demographic’s donkey departure is confined to the regional South.

Tremble before Krugthulhu!

Regardless of how you feel about Red vs. Blue, Democratic civil rights support was the major propulsion behind this Southern political shift. And it leaves us with an odd situation where disproportionately black states vote against the Democrats, whom black people tend to vote for.

Contrary to popular urban myth, the majority of poor white Southerners don’t vote Republican–upper Southern classes overwhelmingly do, enough to swing elections. And the middle-to-upper classes comprise a great percentage of a team’s viewership, and an even greater percentage of its attendance base. My uncle used to say “Vote with your feet, vote with your wallet.” Buy an NBA ticket and you’re making an unconscious social statement about who you are and how you likely vote:

Perhaps politics and race have nothing to do with hoop in this modern era of African American presidential leadership. But, “bad” basketball towns mostly exist in a certain region. The Grizzlies, Bobcats and Hornets often wither on death watch. The Hawks have had team success amid numbing local apathy.

This issue is more complex than “racism.” Tradition, tribal identity, and subconscious thought patterns are involved. But it shouldn’t shock us that a league constantly at war with unfair depictions of “thugs” and “gangsters,” finds ears deafest below the Mason-Dixon portal. As for Philly, I don’t know. Philadelphia does have something in common with Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta, though: African Americans make up the city’s largest ethnic group. And that’s the sound of a Sharkula sinking his teeth into my inner thigh.

Last thing I want to know before cold death sweeps my soul into oblivion: Why no D-League teams reside in the dozen or so states that comprise America’s Southeast corner?

Beckley: While I bow to your academic insight into NBA patronage patterns, I don’t think there’s rhyme nor reason to the league that includes the Maine Red Claws, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Albuquerque Baleful Coyotes, and Erie Bayhawks–can you guess which one I made up? My guess is that if Chris Paul doesn’t inspire attendance, folks aren’t going to be rarin’ for Rashad McCants.

I still contend that The Development League remains a major opportunity for the NBA. Currently, the Mavericks, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets are the only teams with their own D-League squads– which means that only those teams can completely control player development at that level. Is it any surprise that these are four of the healthiest, best-managed franchises in the league?

Every team should be developing young players for a couple of reasons. For one, it increases the depth and institutional knowledge within your franchise while giving coaches an opportunity to cut their teeth and experiment with strategy. Player injuries issues could be more cheaply mitigated by pros who are already “in your system.” But more importantly, this is an opportunity to develop assets for relatively cheap. If you invest $95K/yr in an undrafted player and are able to increase his market value so that he can be traded or bought by another team you are getting a great return on that asset. This is how small market English Premier League teams remain profitable, by developing major talent through the minor league system. While the EPL is not a model of parity, that’s more because English teams import a large percentage of the league’s top talent. For the NBA, top notch player development programs across the D-League would allow smaller market teams to remain competitive by growing cheap young talent through the “farm system” instead of relying solely on hitting draft day home runs and overpaying free agents.

But not only could an expanded Developmental League be an essential part of every franchise, it would result in better players playing better basketball. I’m no Krugthulhu, but I know there’s a strong relationship between the quality of the product and the health of the league. I suppose the main risks would be the perception of contraction as a sign of league-wide weakness (although Stern is already doing his best to promote that), and the millions of hearts broken by franchise demotions. But in 20 years, would it be the best thing for the league?

Henry Abbott: Hey Beckley and Ethan, I’ve got some bad news. You guys have been putting a lot into this I know (or hope), but the harsh reality is that we over-expanded the TrueHoop Network and at this point it’s kind of a “last in, first out” situation. As HoopSpeak was the latest blog to be added to the network, it falls to me to tell you your time with TrueHoop is up. Also, people weren’t really attending your blog at the rates we find sustainable. I think you’ll find that, over the long term, this is the best thing for the Network. For now, I would recommend trying to get on with our “minor league” writing system. Thanks for all your hard work! Please leave your dreams by the door on your way out.

Ethan: Well, we’ll always have the memory of hurling Kobe disciples into apoplectic spasms of rage…back to WarriorsWorld it is.

Beckley: This is all bad Karma for letting Sharkula out of the bag…why Discozilla? WHYYYY?!

@SherwoodStrauss/Ethanstra@gmail.com

@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

Note: All “celebrity” voices impersonated.

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