The above picture shows LeBron James collecting a rebound with 2.7 seconds to go in the first quarter of Thursday night’s Heat-Mavs game. After James secured the rock, he jogged his dribble towards the halfcourt line, never bothering to try a buzzer beater heave. LeBron wore an expression of utter disinterest as the arena’s blaring alarm and flashing red lights argued with James’ languid face.
This is a familiar sight to those familiar with the Miami Heat. When LeBron James is presented with the chance at a long buzzer beater, he errs towards protecting his field goal percentage. This is another way of saying that LeBron James chooses to marginally hurt his team for the sake of his long term statistics.
He’s far from the only one. While I ironically do not possess statistics on this statistics vanity, it does seem as though buzzer clutching is at peak levels. What does that mean? Do modern superstars indulge in a selfishness that might turn Bill Russell’s beard into an even grayer shade of gray?
Actually, I would argue that this buzzer clutching is indicative of a positive development, a development not so divorced from John Hollinger’s Memphis Grizzlies hire. “Yay points!” used to be the ruling NBA ethos, with little concern as to how well-known players compiled their point totals. In a less informed era, scoring leaders were lauded, considered better than their peers, even if the points came on shoddy shooting. This past decade of increasing analytics-savvy is different.
The percentages matter a lot, and they gain a new life when plugged into popular catch-all statistics like PER, Win Shares, and Wins Produced. If you’re hurting your field goal percentage, you’re also dropping multiple other indicators of your value, indicators that will get seen and passed around by fans
Pistons-Bulls. Lakers-Celtics. Magic-Bird. Russell-Wilt. A giant chunk of NBA history is written in rivalries and it’s no great mystery why: a true rivalry is the game becoming more than the game. When the game gets personal, it forges heroes and villains, champions and outcasts. It pushes players to their limits. It tells us a story.
But to hear some people tell it, rivalry is all but dead in the modern NBA. Ray Allen is playing for the Heat. Steve Nash is playing for the Lakers. Kobe says he’s never had a real rival. And Kevin Durant and LeBron James got together to work on conditioning like they hadn’t just squared off in the modern Circus Maximus of the NBA Finals. Where’s the loyalty? Where’s the blood? Where are the severed limbs? Has the whole league gone soft?
Maybe, but maybe not. Below the placid surface of professional basketball is a roiling mess of ever-shifting dynamics — including our complex relationships to history, psychological, economic, technological and sociological factors, flexible narrative structures and more — that subtly shade and alter that surface.
Maybe rivalry isn’t dead. Maybe it’s just evolving into something we can’t quite recognize yet.
THE STUFF OF LEGENDS
The roots of rivalry stretch back at least to Cain and Abel, and probably further. In the popular imagination of the basketball fan, though, rivalry in the NBA begins with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. “Before them,” says hoops historian Curtis Harris, a contributor to both Hardwood Paroxysm and Ball Don’t Lie, “you had the fixation on team rivalries. For example, the Minneapolis Lakers vs. Rochester Royals was the big one in the earliest years of the NBA.” The league was ascendant in the early ‘60s and Russell-Chamberlain made for good publicity. Plus, Harris adds, “Chamberlain never stayed
Perhaps you remember those 2011 LeBron and Durant workout videos. Back then, the videos were intriguing. A year later, the videos are hypnotizing.
This was pre-season prep, James was trying to bounce back from an inauspicious Finals. We say “bounce back” for sports recoveries, but the term doesn’t always fit temporally. LeBron’s Finals humiliation was sudden, but the journey to get there was drawn out over 82 regular season games and 21 playoff battles. Maintaining offseason motivation should be especially difficult for NBA superstars because those playoff battles usually mock the notion that the preceding regular season games count. The rule: If your team is good enough to matter, the regular season games don’t matter. Players still have to go through with the tiring charade, though.
How do you “bounce back” slowly? How do you invest so much time in an arduous climb when the fall comes so much quicker? Your run can end on one stupid play. It could all be over before national TV audiences receive the images on the seven second Janet Jackson delay. And how do you build yourself back up, lego-by-lego on the off chance that owners and players might end the 2011 lockout? LeBron and KD were doing this just in case, just so they could start the tiring charade at full tilt.
I’m curious about this motivation because these workouts do not look fun. There is squatting, sprinting, and situps. Broadcasted enjoyment can be contagious. We like to rent it from those we watch, laughing along with their laughter. These videos are different. The footage is so enjoyable because this is such joint-rubbering drudgery. LeBron James and Kevin Durant could be betting on camel polo from an invisible helicopter hovering over Dubai, and yet here they are, running windsprints. It’s
If you’ve already tired of the Dream Team 1992 versus Dream Team 2012 debate, apologies for tossing my non-opinion into the fray.
To be direct: I have no idea who would win. In a single game, inferior teams win all the time.
But the reason this debate is so fun, and maddening, is, of course, that these two teams come from different eras, a fact that reflects how the original Dream Team indelibly changed the league.
For all the talk of matchups — who would guard David Robinson?! Could Magic Johnson defend anyone on the 2012 team? — the whole Dream Team argument seems to be wrapped up in what we mythologize about that team, best exemplified by the singular Michael Jordan.
Specifically, that Jordan was more competitive, worked harder and cared more than anyone else playing the game then or since. Hard to prove, but fine. But let’s look at what he actually did that differentiated him at the time (not from everyone, but from many): supreme athleticism, a real commitment to defense, lifting weights seriously, working with a personal skills trainer to add new weapons, such as his killer post game, each year.
Jordan represented an evolutionary step forward in a time when basketball was becoming the modern game as it’s largely played today. The end of the 1980s was when the league started to look into developing active help defenses and offenses that focus more on getting good shots than getting as many shots as possible. That transition was brewing during the Bird-Magic decade (1980-1991), and Jordan was basically the thing that emerged from all that primordial NBA ooze.
Having defined the modern NBA, someone is going to come along and mighty special to be an obvious evolutionary step forward to achieve
Kevin Durant is the second best player in the world and yet he backed up Carmelo Anthony in Team USA’s exhibition game against the Dominican Republic. If this continues, observers will continue to rationalize. My guess is they’ll wash down the odd decision with, “Well, Melo’s a great international player.”
In complete fairness to Carmelo Anthony, he was a revelation at power forward late in the 2011-2012 NBA season. He’s devastatingly strong on the block and a move to the four could redefine his game as inexorably efficient. I wouldn’t be shocked if Anthony made a spirited 2012 Olympic run in Coach K’s smallball lineups. Not in the slightest.
Okay, caveats gone, now for how I really feel.
Why is there a persistent myth that Carmelo Anthony is some kind of FIBA savant? I’ve encountered the trope countless times since the 2008 Olympics, which strikes me as strange, because I happened to watch every U.S. game of the 2008 Olympics.
Carmelo Anthony, as I’ve repeated quite a few times on the blue bird, was awful in those games. While his 42% shooting and .4 assists might not seem like a basketball travesty, you have to keep in mind that his teammates were killing it against inferior competition.
Dwyane Wade shot 67% on more attempts than Anthony lobbed, while delivering five times as many assists. LeBron James shot 60% with twice as many assists as Wade had. Both LeBron and D-Wade shot better from three point land than Anthony. Team USA’s big men were even more brutally miss-averse. Both Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh claimed over 74% from the field in limited opportunities.
So if you were watching–and I’ve become increasingly convinced that few actually watched–Anthony’s mediocrity was all the more glaring. But the FIBA Melo myth drums on, and its
Image by @AnthonyBain
Now that we’ve had a few days to digest LeBron James’s first championship, it’s an appropriate moment to examine this moment in the context of his entire career. It’s a neat little 10 year capsule: from discovery as a high school wunderkind to his recent coronation.
When I look at that decade, I’m struck not just by the dramatic swings, but how and when those swings occurred.
Why did LeBron James matter so incredibly much to American sports fans?
There are plenty of ways to answer this, but the answer may simply be: it’s a well constructed story.
Okay, I need to level with you (as if the image above wasn’t a big enough clue). I’m about to make a comparison that may just be a bit too much of some of the people who read this, but bear with me: this is eerie.
To answer the above questions, I think we need to go back to William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest storyteller ever to use the English language (WHO DIDN’T EVEN EXIST!!… OR DID HE?!). He used something called five-act structure for many of his great plays, and a ton of awesome movies like Iron Man do the same.
I’m going to suggest that James has been so compelling a public character not just because of his obvious and fantastic talent, but because his public performance has hit all the marks of an enthralling five act play. It’s the kind of drama that could make even Tim Duncan compelling to a casual observer.
Take a look…
(Suggested puns include [but are not limited to, that’s what the comments section is for]: LeBromlet, Lebeth, LeBras You Like It, Midsummer’s Night James, and my favorite: Titus LeBronicus.)
Act 1 (2002-2004): Main characters, key conflict introduced.
There were a few Game 7 fourth quarter plays where LeBron James was matched up against Brandon Bass. Now, it’s remembered as LeBron torching Bass, or Doc making the mistake of putting Bass on James. And yes, LeBron dunked on poor Brandon in semi-transition. It was a stunning crossover that morphed into a tomahawk in a way that made it all look like part of the same movement.
But, what followed did not reflect so poorly on Bass. An exhausted James had difficulty beating him off the dribble, which resulted in a lucky dagger of a deep three. In the subsequent possessions, a flagging LeBron settled for two bricked jumpers. He was tired, the victory was largely in hand, but I couldn’t help but think:
Cleveland LeBron would make a planted windmill out of Brandon Bass.
Cleveland LeBron thrice averaged over 10 free throw attempts per game. Cleveland LeBron beat the entire Detroit Pistons team off the dribble en route to a Game 5 victory that felt like history’s closest trouncing. He was a brilliant passer and an inexorable force when driving. To call LeBron “just that” would be reductive, but those qualities defined him.
It did not look as though he needed much else, well, maybe apart from a slightly improved jumper. In 2008-2009 LeBron posted 31.7 PER and .318 win shares mark. He was dominant in the 2009 playoffs, though his team failed him against Orlando. James was nearly as good the next season, but in the 2010 playoffs, LeBron was memorably mortal in that Game 5 versus the Celtics, for reasons that still aren’t clear. Still, it was only a game. His playoffs were altogether brilliant, and his supporting cast was altogether mediocre.
Cut to last year with the Heat, when Dallas cut off his driving
I’ve been doing hot yoga lately. It’s been a great exercise in not just helping me get into better shape but it’s also teaching me how to breathe.
Breathing can be a big problem when you’re going through strenuous activities. Personally, I’ve always had a problem breathing when I’m working out. It’s not that I have asthma or any kind of respiratory issue. My breathing is just fine during normal activities. For whatever reason, I have a problem remembering to breathe and regulating my breathing toward a normal state when I’m lifting weights, using the Stairmaster, or doing pushups or sit-ups.
I have no idea why this comes up. It isn’t necessarily a nervous thing, although there are some rare instances in my life in which I find myself breathing abnormally. When I was asked to be a guest on a radio show the first few times, I’d find myself speaking and almost holding my breath at the same time. It was a nervous action that went away, but every once in a while I find myself doing it the first time I’m on someone’s show.
For some reason though, I hold my lungs in when I’m working out. It’s a habit I’ve tried to break on my own, but I find that it takes away from my concentration. Now that I’ve started doing hot yoga, I have no choice but to learn how to breathe properly. The workout itself is introspective. It’s one of the few workouts that isn’t ephemeral by nature. There aren’t really short sets of exertion. Everything flows from one pose into the next, always requiring consciousness of movement and how it affects the next step.
With the added increased temperature, it strains not only the body but it strains your concentration. It forces you to focus on the basic parts of your workout. Your movements and holds have to break through your own mental limits. And in all of this time, you have to regulate your breathing. Controlling your breath into evenly distributed expulsions and intakes is how you learn to normalize the exertion for your body. Continue reading “Learning to breathe” »
While LeBron James is two wins away from dashing away a lot of exemplums regarding his legacy in the NBA, no one has improved their image during the course of these playoffs like Chris Bosh has.
In the past, people have made fun of anything about Chris Bosh – from softness to cross dressing like RuPaul to his genitalia to… oh yeah, they don’t think he’s a very good basketball player either. He’s been called half a man when referring to the Miami Big 3 Two and a Half Men. He’s been the most overrated player in the NBA and nothing deserving of his contract.
It’s often been the ammunition coming out of the quills full of desperation for discounting what Miami is capable of doing, what kind of a team they are, and the reasons they’ll never win a title. When in reality, Chris Bosh has been arguably the best safety valve in recent memory. Last year, there were times in which he looked lost and didn’t fit in. There were also times in which his scoring and spacing provided the perfect balance to Miami’s attack. Continue reading “Meet Chris Bosh: your traditional big man” »
One of the bedrock questions about the “clutchness” of an athlete is whether being clutch — i.e., playing well in the most intense and stressful moments — is an inherent trait, or one learned and honed over time. Gene versus Experience; Nature versus Nurture. On all other issues besides psychological analysis of supreme athletes, most reasonable people can agree that people are born with certain abilities like the physical ability to dunk all over your face then develop and hone learned traits like reading the weakside zone and making the right read or to feel comfortable in situations that make another person crumble. In other words: it’s mental and physical … it’s a mix.
In 1994, novelist, critic, professor, essayist and all-around master of letters David Foster Wallace wrote an essay titled “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In his essay, which is about why athletes tend to be so vapid and shallow during sideline interviews (his theory is that cliche is reality for them — there’s nothing complex or poetic about those moments which is why they are poetic to lay people like us), Wallace theorizes the following about the elements of the clutch mentality:
It is not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even — and, for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially — under wilding pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to a self-conscious fear in two.
The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound