Being a sports fan is a funny thing. Your life is dictated by the schedules of games on certain nights of the week. You get frustrated if a great game is going to be on a Friday or Saturday night when you have some kind of social obligation to partake in. This is mostly because you feel like you’ll be missing out on a legendary game and, in order to prevent that from completely happening, you’ll be checking your phone every five minutes. Also, if the game doesn’t go your way you know that you ultimately end up turning drunk and surly. Then there are those Sundays when you swear you are going to do productive reading and writing or that you are going to enjoy a leisurely walk around the city or organize the paperwork accumulating in your life. The only problem is that there are two to three must see football games on and you can’t pull yourself away from the TV no matter how much you want to. “I’ll be able to get everything done once football season is over,” you say. But once that happens the playoff races for basketball and hockey are heating up and baseball season is just beginning.
When you are a sports fan, you keep track of time by the events that happen during certain sports seasons and you distinguish different eras of your life by the prominent players or teams from those particular years. In general, you rely on the success of strangers as well as their ability to be great in order to bring a certain modicum of happiness and fulfillment to your life. In short, it is a bizarre phenomenon.
Recently, I have been thinking about my own sports fandom. The reason I have been thinking about it is because I have been enjoying this NBA season so much. I’ve enjoyed it so much, but it is odd because I don’t have any true vested interest in any one NBA team over another – I simply love the league as a whole. And yesterday, while I was watching the Eagles play the Giants in the NFL, I thought about how that might reveal some sort of weakness in my sports fan character. You see, guys that cover the NBA for a living have to be impartial. They have to enjoy the league as a whole, report on a variety of teams and stories and deliver the news as quickly and without bias as humanly possible. However, many times these analysts of the game can ruin the passion and absurdity of loving a particular team or player by overanalyzing elements of the game or looking at stories too objectively. No matter how much they love a team or player, their job requires them to be unbiased. Perhaps this is just the division of one’s job versus one’s personal opinions and enthusiasm, but to me and the joy that sports can bring it is an important distinction.
On Sunday as I was watching a classic Eagles vs. Giants game and screaming at every Eagles miscalculation, I cursed myself because this season I had vowed not to raise my voice at all. When I could no longer control myself, I decided to turn the game off, retreat to my room and try to read to calm down. “I’m getting too old for this shit,” I muttered to myself. While reading, I kept the online game tracker up on my computer, which is set up on my desk at the foot of my bed. I noticed that the Eagles were creeping back into the game. So I put down my book (Nicole Krauss’ excellent new novel Great House), and returned to the TV. I watched the game a little further before another Eagles miscue. After a small scream, I returned to my room, deciding that the Eagles would do better off without me watching. My superstition seemed to be accurate, as the Eagles got closer. So, once more, I returned to the TV only to be disappointed by an Eagles drive that stalled out. It seemed like the game was over, so I went back to my room to read. “If they win, they win.” I said to myself. Well, as I was reading, I noticed that the Eagles had come back from twenty-one points down and tied the game at 31 in the fourth quarter. “Fuck it,” I said. “Even if me not watching has been helping them win, I have to see how this ends.” So, I went back to the couch and turned on the TV. What unfolded was one of the most amazing comebacks and ends to the game in perhaps NFL history, as Desean Jackson returned a punt 65-yards (after fumbling the catch) for a touchdown as time expired. I got up and screamed, “FUCK YEAH! FUCK YOU, FUCKING GIANTS! FUCK YOU!” Then, I settled down, turned off the TV, checked on the chicken I was cooking and returned to reading.
Obviously, I love the NBA way more than I love the NFL. However, my devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles as a franchise is what differentiates the love I have for the NFL and the love I have for the NBA. My love for the Eagles is blind passion. I don’t care who they are playing because no matter who it is, I will automatically hate that team. Their quarterback could be fantastic, but to me he sucks no matter what. Their players could be stand-up guys, guys that play the game it was meant to be played, who don’t show boat and who do community service, but to me they are smug assholes who deserve their comeuppance because they suck. In basketball, I have no team that makes me feel that way. When I was younger, I felt that way about the Chicago Bulls because Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen represented something good, something about excellence and achievement and never wanting to lose. However, I had no personal ties to Chicago or the Bulls franchise and as the Jordan era came to an end, I found myself attempting to latch on to some kind of team connection. I loved Allen Iverson, but the Sixers had always been so terrible that it was still hard to blindly root for them as he revived the franchise into relevancy. So, I started paying attention to all the players as I had more or less done when I was a little kid and the Bulls were ruling the NBA. I learned how to appreciate Jason Kidd and what he did with his Nets teams in the early 2000’s; I loved Iverson’s toughness and electricity; Chris Weber’s passing ability. I saw the weakness in Vince Carter’s defense despite his incendiary offense; I marveled at how complete of a player Rasheed Wallace was even though most of the time he was flustered by the referees; I even tried to see the beauty in Shaq’s game even though I hated him so much. However, my full devotion to the NBA didn’t arrive until Dwyane Wade entered the league. He was the first player that reminded me of what Michael Jordan stood for. I didn’t look to him as the “next Jordan,” but something about him made me think of goodness, effort and striving for excellence. There was a toughness and grace about Dwyane Wade that I appreciated and it signaled a new era in the NBA.
Flash-forward about six or seven years and a new era of the NBA has certainly dawned. There is now more talent in the NBA than possibly at any time ever. The only region where there may have been as much talent was in the 1986-1988 range. However, I am beginning to think that even then there may not have been as many great players as there are now. You have the prolonged careers of 13+ year veterans like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. You also have the peak years of veterans such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony. There is even a subset of players from that generation who are good but not as great as those guys (Rudy Gay, Raymond Felton, Big Baby Davis, Danny Granger, Tayshaun Prince, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson). Then, you have the young generation with players like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. The league is literally stacked with talent no matter which way you look. And that has been the story of this season so far. The great teams are actually becoming deeper and more talented than they were last year, such as the Celtics and the Lakers. There is an uber-team that everyone talks about in the Miami Heat. Orlando just made some huge trades over the weekend to get even deeper and perhaps better and the Knicks are looking to land Carmelo Anthony in order to become another powerhouse in the East. And I didn’t even mention the Bulls or the Thunder, which are two of the more exciting young teams in the league. So for me, when I feel as though I have been lackluster as a true blindly passionate sports fan when it comes to the NBA, I take a look around and remember how I take each team into consideration. How I appreciate the players league wide; how I pay close attention to what each team is trying to do, which teams are trying to make a run, which teams play hard, which players are head cases and who doesn’t deserve the honor of being in the NBA. I take all of that into account and realize I am one damn great fan of the NBA and perhaps that is the mature way to appreciate a sport, maybe all that screaming is something I have to grow out of – perhaps its just something I should keep relegated to one team. Well, maybe two if you count the Phillies once the baseball season gets a little bit more serious in late August and September, or college basketball when UNC throws players out on the court that actually have a pulse.
In any event, here are year-end NBA thoughts has we have finished over one quarter of the season. These thoughts may all be shaken up after the huge slate of Christmas Day games that we are about to see, namely Heat vs. Lakers.
1. The main thing that everyone probably wants to hear me weigh in on is the Miami Heat. I was as disappointed and confused by the Heat’s slow start as anyone. I was blinded by the talent of Bosh, Wade and James and figured they had played enough with each other in Beijing and in the offseason when they were hanging out that they would become acclimated very quickly. I didn’t realize how severe the drop-off in talent between them and the role players would be early on and I really didn’t think that Wade and LeBron would have an issue integrating the rhythms of their games. However, what we have learned very quickly is what it takes to make an actual team in the NBA. The early season games between the Heat and the Celtics made that perfectly clear. The Celtics play as a cohesive unit and have exhibited some extremely graceful and fluid team passing early on in the season. Rondo orchestrates that team like a maestro and their pieces fall into place perfectly. They have a deep bench with high energy guys and Doc Rivers understands the psyches of his players, their ups and downs – he knows how to push their buttons at the right times. The Heat were a totally different beast. Spoelestra had no player rotations down; he thought James should handle the ball and initiate the offense (I thought this too because I, like most people wanted LeBron to be like Magic, when even though he may resemble Magic in body size and stature, he plays basketball like LeBron James and no one else); the team played a lot of half court offense even though their best two players are arguably the two best players of all time in the open court; Wade and LeBron didn’t really move without the ball because they were used to handling the ball so much when they were carrying their own teams; Bosh just seemed lost trying to figure out when to initiate the offense and attack and when to just let LeBron and Wade take control. The team also had to deal with Mike Miller’s injury and then Udonis Haslem’s. They had no true rebounder. However, over the past near month that they have been on their twelve game win streak all of that has changed. Haslem’s injury actually opened the door for Wade to expand his game and add another purpose, which was to account for the rebounds the team would miss without Haslem. Wade is averaging the highest rebound rate of his career. The team also added Erick Dampier who has fit in a nice role as a big, tough, body rebounder in the middle to go along with Zydrunas Ilgauskus’ ability to shoot the open jumper and Joel Anthony’s uncoordinated but appreciated effort. With those three different looks in the middle the Heat have been able to improve their rebound rate drastically. Juan Howard has also found a niche and been able to provide a few points as well as rebound help and toughness off the bench. With each week Bosh is learning his role. He was especially terrific in attacking the basket against the Knicks as well as helping to defend Amare. His rebound rate has improved as well. The big difference has been the fact that the Heat are now looking to push the ball at every instance, which makes sense because when you have LeBron James or Dwyane Wade getting a good portion of your rebounds, you should always be looking to run and move the ball ahead because chances are one or the other will be streaking upcourt. Also, Spoelestra has Carlos Arroyo and Mario Chalmers handling the ball as true point guards and letting LeBron operate from the wing. He and Wade are now moving much better off the ball with Wade finding his go to movement on the baseline where LeBron can find him for quick layups or short jump shots. I also believe they should run Wade in modified screen sets like the Celtics do with Ray Allen. Instead of Wade’s routes taking him to the outside where Allen splashes all those dagger threes, Wade should curl in the 16-18 foot range where he can catch the ball and either continue his drive into the lane for a layup, dunk, foul or kick out, or stop and hit a jump shot in his range. In either way, it keeps the defense off guard and gives the Heat another look. What has also been big is the solidification of the rotations. Now, Spoelestra lets James lead his own unit at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth quarter and also for the beginnings of many of the second quarters. That allows Bosh and Wade to rest and for LeBron to keep his confidence and pride up by carrying the second unit. What is so fascinating about this team is that they are still learning what actually works for them and it is already becoming a little scary. On any given night you know that either LeBron or Wade is going to go off and on some nights both of them do. What is becoming apparent and what may actually be the key for this team is that Bosh is becoming reliable every night for about 16 to 20 points and about eight to ten rebounds. If he does that almost every night then he will very much be the glue that keeps the team together. For me, that is one of the many fascinating stories to keep track of with this team. There has literally never been something like this team before. Every game has its own new point of interest and every game is just another experiment in the lab of basketball where each tweak is magnified and you find yourself paying attention to and noticing things you never did before. This is all good stuff right? These guys are selling out arenas, driving up national TV ratings and blowing out teams almost regularly now that they have established an initial chemistry with each other. All of this has happened in just fewer than thirty games and Wade only played three minutes in the preseason. I and everyone else in America completely overreacted – another unfortunate side effect of being a modern sports fan.
2. The Knicks. Being a Bulls fan in the 90’s meant I hated the Knicks. I never liked Patrick Ewing. John Starks and Derek Harper annoyed the hell out of me. Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Xavier Daniels were all dirty players who couldn’t keep up with Jordan and Pippen so they had to try and slow them down with hard fouls. The only times the Knicks were able to do anything was when Jordan was out of the league. However, now that that era of the game is over, I realize how much I appreciated those players. But what I really appreciated was basketball being relevant in New York and Madison Square Garden being the most electric sports venue in the world. There really is nothing like it. Last Wednesday, when the Knicks and the Celtics played perhaps one of the best regular season games in the last decade, the Garden was absolutely on fire. Amare and KG were going head to head. Spike Lee was in the front row waving his arms and being completely obnoxious. Ray Allen hit a dagger three and Spike Lee had to shake his head at his own creation, Jesus Shuttlesworth, silencing the New York crowd. You had Danilo Gallinari showing why he is a coveted wing player. Landry Fields showcasing the fact that he was one of the most slept on rookies in a long time. Raymond Felton was taking the ball at a hobbled Rondo but despite his big numbers was still not able to out play him. And of course you had Paul Pierce hitting his patented herky-jerky step back jumper from about sixteen feet to win the game. Then there was the added bonus of Amare draining the game winning three as time expired only to have the shot called off, which prompted Paul Pierce to come to center court and bow to the crowd. All of this happened at a Knicks game? On a Wednesday night? In the middle of December? You better believe that basketball is back at the Mecca. Now, the Knicks are not an elite team and they are on a three game slide as I write this, but they are a team that plays hard and will be in the playoffs. To me, it’s debatable that they add Carmelo Anthony. He is a unique superstar who is nearly unstoppable on the wing. However, he doesn’t play defense and Amare is already a nearly unstoppable offensive force that doesn’t play defense. In my opinion, they just need to solidify the backup point guard spot so they can spell Felton (like D’Antoni never could in Phoenix for Nash). They need an athletic shutdown wing defender (like Iguodala from Philly who won’t need to score as much with Amare in the middle) and they need a tough inside presence who can play the true five spot and move Amare to the four spot he prefers to play (not sure how they land that piece). I think Carmelo upsets the dynamic of this team, which is that Amare is the man and COMPLETELY believes that he is the best player on the court on any night and the rest of the team feeds off that energy. If you add Carmelo to that mix, I’m not sure what the identity of the team is. Amare and Carmelo are not Wade and LeBron. Sure, their positions are much different, but they are not as flexible in being able to adapt, as I believe Wade and LeBron are. It’s all up in the air and I could be completely wrong about Carmelo and Amare playing together. If they did, that team would be some offensive powerhouse running in the D’Antoni system. However, right now they have a lot of nice pieces, they are a fun, hard working team to watch and they have people in New York thrilled and excited about basketball. The thrill may wear off when the natural cynicism of New Yorkers slowly seeps back into this initial euphoria, but right now we are witnessing a pure joy that is not often seen in New York sports. You should all enjoy it because this town is buzzing again about the Knicks and that buzz will always be better and more electric than any buzz about the Yankees, Giants, Jets, Rangers or Mets. There’s just something different about New York and basketball, I don’t care how many championships the Yankees have one – all 27 of those are stored up in the Bronx. The Knicks’ championships and banners are in the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden and those halls run right in Midtown Manhattan. That’s a big difference.
3. The Boston Celtics are an absolutely fantastic basketball team to watch. They are on a revenge tour through the NBA this year after their heartbreaking loss to Los Angeles in Los Angeles in Game 7 of the Finals. They want that championship badly and you can actually feel it. Rajon Rondo has a legitimate shot to break John Stockton’s average assist record. Kevin Garnett seems to be back from the dead and is playing with an intensity that has been missing (mainly due to his injured knee) since the 2007-2008 championship season. There is a great chance that Garnett could win the Defensive Player of the Year Award and he can also finish dunks again. Ray Allen never seems to age and seems to make three pointers whenever it counts (I think he is on a mission after his disappearance in the second half of the Finals series). Pierce is just simply being Paul Pierce as usual and giving this team a championship swagger that was missing the past two years. Shaq has been solid and is doing everything they need him to do (when he’s on the court). Big Baby has improved his game and has become nearly automatic on his 16-18 foot jumpers and is one of the best around the rim finishers in the league right now (playing below the rim). Nate Robinson has gained a modicum of maturity and has settled into a nice role on the team. They are even deeper now with Delonte West (when he comes back from injury), Jermaine O’Neal (if he ever plays) and Semih Erden (who has been a pleasant surprise). Plus they have a fantastic team chemistry that is probably only rivaled by the Thunder and Bulls (though the Heat are making a strong run now). All of this has happened without Perkins joining the lineup. I watched the Celtics handle the Hawks on Thursday night without Rondo. Now, this was the night after their emotional win in a packed out and pumped up Madison Square Garden. As I was watching the game, I was thinking about how good the Celtics were and how their one weakness was rebounding even though their interior defense has been terrific. Then I realized that Perkins hasn’t even played a minute this whole year. This team is going to be a beast when the playoffs roll around and I just hope all you casual followers of the NBA realize that this Celtics teams is very similar to all of those vintage NBA teams that we have nostalgia for. This team is deep, it has memorable players, they all play well together and you should appreciate what they do on almost a nightly basis. Plus I’m pretty sure that Rondo is some kind of alien who was ordered to exhibit the future of basketball at least twice every game.
4. The Los Angeles Lakers are not going to roll over and let anyone take the championship from them. They started off hot, cooled off and are now on a five game winning streak. They are going to walk away with their division, but the West overall is much more competitive at the top with the Spurs and Mavericks looking pretty tough to beat. Kobe seems to have lost another step, but still has the best footwork in the NBA and is the number one killer. You know he wants to tie Jordan’s championship tally and this just may be his last chance to do it. Pau Gasol has actually gotten better and is without a doubt the best post player in the NBA this year (one more year of progress and Dwight may be knocking on that door). Lamar Odom gained a new level of poise and confidence after being the elder statesman on the FIBA Gold Medal team this summer and is playing with motivation and leadership. Shannon Brown has made a leap as a player. Steve Blake is an upgrade at backup point guard over Jordan Farmar and Matt Barnes gives them depth, toughness and scoring off the bench. Oh, and Artest is on this team and is a wild card to go off for points or shut down defense on any given night. Also that and making the funniest statements known to man. He actually reminds me of the real life Pedro Cerrano in Major League II this year. Artest won the championship and is all about charity much like Cerrano was all about Buddhism and peace. Maybe the Lakers need to get a Japanese player to infuriate Artest into inspired play just like the Indians did. And, the Lakers, like the Celtics, have been playing much of this season without a key player – Andrew Bynum. Once they ease Bynum back to his regular minutes and spot in the starting lineup, then the Lakers can bring Odom off the bench and their team takes on a totally different look and returns to their dynamic of the previous two championships. They are going to be scary and have a legitimate shot at a three peat. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen.
5. Blake Griffin. If you haven’t watched any of his highlights or if you don’t know what kind of experience it has been to watch this kid play basketball this year, you have some serious catching up to do. Absolutely unreal. He’s like Shawn Kemp and Dominique Wilkens. Maybe that’s hyperbole but who knows how long this freak is going to be around. YouTube him NOW!
6. The intriguing Orlando Magic team. Look, I have not been a fan of Dwight Howard at all. I thought he was a “non-killer” in the same vein as LeBron for most of his career. However, this summer he spent time with Hakeem Olajuwon and he has come back with some legitimate post moves that are looking better and better as the year goes on. He put in his time like the old school NBA players and came back with a new wrinkle and I respect that. The only thing is that his team has gotten stale. Vince Carter is pretty much washed up and Rashard Lewis is actually dead in some states I believe (those reports aren’t completely accurate). So, this weekend the Magic made two ballsy moves and shipped Vince to Phoenix with Marcin Gortat and Mikael Pietrus (playing terribly) in exchange for Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson and sent Lewis to the Wizards for the troubled Gilbert Arenas. I actually like these moves. Hedo only played well on the Magic and created matchup problems when they went to the Finals so he may play inspired ball alongside Dwight. Richardson is a very good three-point shooter and is definitely an upgrade over Vince at the shooting guard spot. And Arenas can lead the second unit for the Magic and be a top sixth man in order to gain some respect and good graces throughout the league to try and get one more contract. I think the Magic needed to shake up their team and this was a good way to do it. If they can add another, cheap, low post player that can spell Dwight when he gets into foul trouble that would certainly help, but it isn’t a perfect world. We’ll see how the experiment goes because this team can’t afford to waste too many more of Dwight’s prime dominant years, though with these new post moves that period may be longer than we originally thought. In any case, I always appreciate ballsy trades and the Magic did that this weekend. Certainly makes their team much more interesting to watch.
7. Kevin Love becoming the best player you never really knew about. He put up a 30 and 30. That is literally insane. He and Beasley make the Timberwolves interesting. They lose a lot of games, but they always play to win, which is definitely an upgrade.
8. The Bulls and Thunder and their budding rivalry. Rose, Westbrook and Durant were the young leaders of the FIBA Gold Medal team and now they play on two teams filled with young talent who could both go deep into the playoffs. Their teams have already played twice this year and both games have been supremely entertaining. Both the Bulls and the Thunder have fantastic chemistry throughout their roster and whenever they are on TV you should always make sure to check out their games. You literally can’t wrong watching a basketball game that features Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. Hell, I’ll throw Serge Ibaka of Oklahoma City in there too just because he is such a hard working and great player to watch. These two teams could very well be the two that stand in the way of Miami dominating the league for the next six or seven years. So, get on board now and say that you saw greatness coming years before it came – courtesy of Matt Domino and Puddles of Myself of course.
9. Chris Paul and Brandon Roy and their injuries. Paul’s may just be a case of him coping with a knee injury and that can take time for a dominant player like him to get back to the level he was used to playing at. And I believe Paul will get back to his transcendent Isiah Thomas level of basketball soon. However, Brandon Roy’s knees are basically non-existent and he was one of the best and most likable young players in the league. Poor Portland.
10. I’ve already written five thousand words and I could possibly go for another five thousand to expound on how great this NBA season has been so far and how great it could potentially be. We are only in December and most teams haven’t even played thirty games yet and there are endless fascinating points and storylines to follow. I may be a huge NBA fan and perhaps some of this stuff is over the heads of a lot of casual fans, but I think 70% of what I have covered is interesting to even the casual NBA fan. And if you are not interested now, we’ll get you there. I’ll allow you just tuning in next June when the Celtics and Lakers are engaging in the rubber match of their most recent Finals battles. Then, I’ll get your ear and make you really listen and understand.
The bottom line is that the NBA is well into a new golden age and you should start learning the teams and names now so that you can get on board and then get nostalgic years later while I am trying to pump you up about the next generation. What can I say? I’m a visionary. I’m a visionary even if I don’t have an irrational passion for one NBA team. Perhaps I can just leave the irrational passion for a far lest interesting and worthy sport – the NFL. I’ll just leave my irrational, tunnel vision passion for the Philadelphia Eagles. Well, that team and basically everything else in my personal life. However, those misguided passions will be the topic of a best-selling memoir to come much, much later.