Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Back to Business AKA Deadlines

The Free Forest City Redemption Project is over, my Puddlers, and now you’re back to following my sensitive, nostalgic and ignorant musings while also enjoying the brief respite of thoughtful commentary from guest columnists.  We will have another Mark Jack column on Friday as well as a new guest columnist’s debut tomorrow. I’ll introduce that columnist tomorrow and hopefully he will be contributing another weekly column that will add its own dynamic to the narrative of this site. Later this week I’ll post another one of my long, epic columns where I discuss the greatness of the new Strokes album Angles and the Woody Allen movie, Manhattan.

However, today I have to catch all of you sports fans up on the current events in the NBA (I’ve also been watching A LOT of college basketball, but I’ll spare you those thoughts this year since I don’t want to anger any basketball gods due to the fact that my Tar Heels are a fragile but very talented young bunch who have a chance to do something in the NCAA tournament). Over the course of the past three weeks, the NBA has gone through such a huge mid-season upheaval on multiple levels. I want to break down those changes and stories by talking about a few of the teams that went through the most major changes and that will lead us into the league-wide stories at large.

- We start of course with the Miami Heat. Obviously there has never been a more scrutinized team in NBA history or perhaps sports history than the 2010-2011 Miami Heat. Much of the scrutiny is due to the fact that Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade made such a spectacle of their union. However, what truly separates this team and their attention from any other team in history is the fact that their union as a team coincides with media (especially sports media) reaching its most fervent and crazed pitch. Take for instance this past period of insanity where sports news was focused squarely on the fact that the Heat took an important, playoff-caliber game against the Chicago Bulls so seriously that some of the players might have cried after they lost. There argument can certainly be made that a team that expects to win the title should not be crying after an NBA regular season game in March. I understand that argument, but the media had been so consumed with the following narrative: The Heat act as if they are entitled to a championship and expect the league to just hand it over to them so they don’t care about the games, they don’t put in their full effort. Here you had superstars who didn’t fully understand the pressure and the antagonism they would face in this new world where any event that goes wrong (see 2011 Oscars) is dissected in minutia by pundits on Twitter or Facebook in moment by moment increments. The 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls were the last professional team in any sport to garner this much attention. However, 1995-1996 is a completely different landscape technologically than 2010-2011. Our culture is drastically different as well. In that time, we still wanted our heroes to fail just as much as we wanted them to succeed, but we didn’t have the means to totally reflect or exploit this desire in ourselves as much as we do now.  How often do people use Twitter or Facebook or their favorite blog to complain, insult or poke fun at someone or something? I know that I do it. I use these mediums to poke fun at my friends, sports figures and celebrities almost as much as I use them to poke fun at myself and the actual digital or online presence I am engaging in and creating. We do not exist in the world of Michael Jordan. The world of Michael Jordan was a world where we could plausibly believe that there was a person that could be universally adored or admired for sheer will and success.  Now, we live in the time of the Miami Heat. That is to say, we live in a time perhaps of a true reality—a time where there is no one person, one thing or entity that is sacred. We adore nothing and only wish for things to fail so that we can anoint a new successor.  Perhaps through some level of success, the Miami Heat will be able to generate a bit of adoration, some modicum of appreciation for effort and the public admission to experiment with the game of basketball that will unite people.  After the Heat hit rock bottom with a five game losing streak, they have won consecutive games against the Lakers, Grizzlies and Spurs who are all playoff bound teams. There is an aspect of hope for them as they make a run to the playoffs. Yet, the problem with the Miami Heat is that they were never meant to play a game of basketball, they were only meant to make us wonder. So, in that sense, we actually live in a time that values less than reality, not hyper-reality or actual reality.

- The team that made the most controversial trade in the NBA was the Boston Celtics. The Celtics traded their defensive enforcer and one of their fan-favorite players in Kendrick Perkins (along with disappointing Nate Robinson) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for underachieving Jeff Green and solid offensively but not great defensively Nenad Kristic. This trade came as a shock to even league insiders.  The main reason being that the Celtics claimed they lost the 2010 Finals to the Lakers because Perkins was injured in Game 6 and they couldn’t get a rebound down the stretch in Game 7 when they truly needed it. The Celtics based the 2010-2011 season on the fact that they were getting Perkins back, they were deeper on the front line, they all liked each other and they were going to march their way to the Finals to avenge their heartbreaking loss. The Perkins Trade basically annihilated the company line. It also marked the end of one of my favorite teams to watch over the past four years. The Celtics with Perkins had everything: the mercurial point guard in Rondo; the gutty defensive leader and veteran in Garnett; the lights out classy shooter in Ray Allen; the dangerous, savvy, tough, clutch swingman in Pierce; and the rebounding enforcer in Perkins. After they figured out their new dynamic last year, when Rondo became the orchestrator on offense, they became extremely fun to watch. Everyone knew his role. They all knew where the other would be on the floor on both offense and defense. The crowd loved them and they learned to love each other. It was a great win for the NBA to have a Celtics team that mattered and who the Boston fans genuinely loved. However, Danny Ainge had to be a businessman and realized that Perkins was 26, had one bad knee and a second one that might be damaged. He saw a guy that could put up 10 and 10 for a season but never did and probably never would. He saw a window closing that he could help prop open in hopes of repairing for some day in the future.  Bill Simmons best explained the reaction of the Celtics to the trade in his column from a few weeks ago. The Celtics were devastated. They loved each other. Perkins cried his eyes out and Rondo was catatonic because his best friend had been traded. Its stories and reactions like the Celtics’ reaction to the Perkins Trade that make us love sports—it shows us a few guys genuinely caring about each other because of the time they spend with each other, the trials and tribulations that they go through, those are actions that require you to give up a bit of your soul, that is why retired players cry when they think about old teams that they enjoyed playing on: they gave something of themselves away and it belongs to that time and team.  Are the Celtics better because of this trade? I have been talked into believing that they are. Jeff Green is a good player who needed a fresh start and I think he will adapt to the team and gain a level of toughness that Garnett, Pierce, Allen and Rondo can teach him. He’ll change and expand on the looks that the Celtics can throw at other teams in the Playoffs. Kristic will have to adapt defensively or face Garnett. He gives them size and more offense than Perkins. Doc Rivers can get a rotation of Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal and Kristic to provide fouls and size inside to work. However, you still do wonder if they will miss Perkins’ gargoyle scowl and sharp elbows when push comes to shove—literally.

- The Lakers made no trades but they have received perhaps the second-greatest level of scrutiny this season. There have been times during this season where people have written them off as being too old, of not caring enough and as simply lost. Yet, here we are in the April and the Lakers have won ten of their last eleven games and are starting to round into postseason shape once again. This is nothing new. The same thing happened to the Lakers last year and it usually happens to most good championship teams. They go through the season and figure out the best ways to use their energy, they find out what dynamic will work for them this year, what balance of old tricks and fundamentals mixed with new wrinkles.  What’s fascinating about this Lakers team is really how much the Kobe Bryant narrative has changed. I’ve been thinking more and more about this lately due to the Young Michael Jordan Essay in Free Darko’s Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. That essay focuses on how the legend of Michael Jordan was re-written while it was in progress. When Michael entered the league, he was seen as an extremely talented, selfish and dangerous object of change. It was only later through his failures and his lessons about teamwork that he became the greatest player of all time and perhaps the greatest athlete of all-time. Kobe was once seen as the villain of the NBA. He was a cocky upstart, an alleged rapist, a selfish player who ran two legends out of Los Angeles.  However, Kobe then went through his phase of loss. He had to admit he needed Phil Jackson. He had to admit that he couldn’t win the title without at least a little bit of help (Pau Gasol). He had to go through a non-playoff season and a loss in the Finals to the Celtics before he was able to re-write his narrative by winning two more championships and perhaps on the verge of winning his sixth total.  Instead of being The Guy Who Wants to Imitate Michael Jordan So Badly Its Painful, he has entered the discussion as being the best player since Michael Jordan. A guy who might not be as transcendental or great as Jordan, but who could conceivably win as many championships and have perhaps a more productive career (though he never willingly walked away from the game in his prime like Michael did—arguably twice). It is this kind of story-telling, this kind of history manifesting itself that makes this NBA season so terrific. We have a slate of great games each week filled with talented and focused players as well as certain players writing themselves into history and myth with each passing weak. It’s a shame if the league loses its momentum by going into a lockout during the summer.

- What has also made this season compelling was the insanity that was the Trade Deadline. Never before has the league had such activity when at the Trade Deadline. If you don’t believe me, just look at all the trades that were made.  The two or three days prior to Thursday, February 24, 2011 were extraordinarily fascinating to a basketball fan. You had all these teams posturing and positioning themselves in case there is a lockout. Players were traded without any rumors being spread. Players you thought were untouchable or untradeable were all of a sudden gone. Even the smallest cash-saving trade became fascinating. Each trade reflected the mindset of that team and its ownership in relation to the lockout. Some (Nets) were confident that the lockout would not be a huge ordeal and that any new CBA would allow them to keep a high-profile star and build around. Other teams (Celtics) were nervous and wanted to make their changes and save their money NOW.  Usually, the Trade Deadline passes, teams don’t make a move and NBA fans groan and wonder at “what if.” 2011 was a completely different story.

- The most notable trade was the Denver Nuggets trading Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks for Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Danillo Gallinari and Timofey Mozgov. This trade was six months in the making and after months of posturing and countless news stories and rumors, Carmelo wound up in New York, which is where he wanted to play all along.  Now, Carmelo Anthony is a great player. He is one of the best scorers in the league and one of the most reliable players in crunch-time. However, he is not a great defender and he has not exactly shown great flashes of leadership. Despite that, he is productive and the Knicks had to make the move. I don’t know how his partnership with Amare will pan out for the Knicks. Together they provide a great core of leadership, but they are going to have to become more accountable on defense in order to make a huge impact on this team.  I think it is fascinating, though, that Amare shouldered the load of New York for the first half of the season. Amare made the city excited about basketball again. He talked big and the Knicks backed it up for much of the early part of the season playing energetic, up-tempo basketball and showing a scrappiness (see Fields and Felton) that made the team endearing to the crowd.  It seemed that Amare’s confidence and success spread and rubbed off on St. John’s as well which has made the Garden the center of the basketball universe once again. Then, Carmelo pushed everything over the top. I have heard that the Garden is back to its early 90’s level again and then some. Even the Big East Tournament was phenomenal with Kemba Walker, a New York City kid, stealing the spotlight with buzzer beaters and gutsy play. Every New Yorker wanted the trade to happen so badly that they are now throwing all of their energy into the team. And why not? The Knicks have two of the ten starting All-Stars from the 2011 NBA All-Star Game—that’s pretty impressive when you break it down. However, I’m not sure where it will all lead. I have no doubts about Carmelo and Amare playing well together—their games compliment each other well. I am just curious about what they will accomplish. Perhaps it doesn’t actually matter what they accomplish. Maybe all that matters is that New York remembered that it is a basketball town over any other sport. Yet, knowing New York, even remembering that elemental fact is going to get old at some point.

- I just want to give a shout-out to Kevin Love and his double-double streak.  Seriously, if you do not know who Kevin Love is or how good of a player he is, you really need to look him up.

- The other major trade was the Utah Jazz sending Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets. This trade was an absolute shocker, even Deron didn’t know about it. However, the Jazz saw the writing on the wall: Deron had run the out-dated but successful Jerry Sloan out of Salt Lake City; he was going to be a free agent in 2012 and would have held them hostage next year just like Carmelo did to Denver this year; they were not going to lose him for nothing like the Cavaliers and Raptors did with LeBron and Bosh. So, Utah beat Deron to the punch and traded him without warning.  Now the speculation begins as to whether or not Deron stays in New Jersey. The most recent rumor is that Williams has bought into Prokorhov’s plan and wants to be the centerpiece of the team going forward. I went to a Nets game last Friday when they played Blake Griffin and the Clippers (yes, Blake had a dunk that was the ESPN Top Play). The Nets and that arena and Newark are in a sad state. It seems like the set from a movie about a fictional professional sports team. It is truly a bizarro world. I think if they move to Brooklyn it will change the dynamic of the crowd.  Most New Yorkers are obviously Knicks fans and that dynamic won’t change. However, I imagine that most Nets fans are either from New York City or Long Island and those people will come to the games. Also, with the arena so prominently located in Brooklyn with access to the LIRR and most subways (better subway access than MSG actually) when a player like Blake Griffin comes to town, the arena will generate a greater crowd than what I saw in Newark on Friday. Above all, New Yorkers love basketball and even if the Nets aren’t great for the next year or two, each home game they will get to see Deron Williams (a better overall player than Carmelo Anthony and a Top Three point guard) play against some of the greatest superstars in the league. The fact that they won’t have to take the Path Train or NJ Transit after work to do so only makes the deal sweeter. I, unlike a lot of people, think that the Nets in Brooklyn is a no-brainer. It certainly hinges on Deron staying on the team (and from his recent performances while injured and his belief they can steal the eighth seed in the East, I think he is staying), but either way I think it works and that Brooklyn natives and New Yorkers in general will come.

- Finally, a shout-out to my man Tyler Hansbrough from the University of North Carolina. They said you wouldn't do anything in the pros. Hey, you’re not a superstar, but you’re better than people thought—and in a league full of superstars in an era that is perhaps the best ever, that’s saying something. God must have been a Tar Heel fan because he made the sky Carolina Blue.

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