June 20, 2011

2011 NBA Post Mortem

I wasn't going to write anything more about this year's NBA season, but it was so swell, I couldn't help it.  Plus, there seems to be an overload of dumbass narrative associated with the season, so it can't hurt to add some perspective outside of the 24 hour yak machine in Bristol.  And yes, I know it's really late, but that's what happens when you try to keep three blogs, two musical projects, and a 45-hour-a-week day (and night and weekend) job.

  • The Mavs didn't win the title, the Heat lost it.  Bullshit.  First of all, that's a silly cliche on the surface of it: the Mavs won the title, the Heat lost it.  BOTH THINGS HAPPENED.  But seriously, too many people are characterizing this as a series the Heat gave away, which is ridiculous.  In spite of the individual basketball awesomeness of LeBron, Wade, and Bosh, the ingredients weren't there for a good basketball team, at least not immediately, and not without some real work and sacrifice on everybody's part.  This is a point that has been heavily discussed (both here and elsewhere), and yet so many still seem to be missing the point.  The Heat may have had the better individuals, but the Mavs had the better team.  That doesn't mean that the Heat will never be a good team - as a matter of fact, they made some pretty serious strides in the playoffs - it just means that the best players don't always make the best team, at least not right out of the box.
  • "Scoring the ball".  I just have an image of some guy in carpenter's overalls whipping out an old-school pocket knife and cutting the surface of the basketball.  Is there any way we could just lose this hideous phrase?  Didn't think so.
  • LeBron isn't clutch; LeBron needs to become a killer, like Kobe Bryant.  Let's deal with that last one first, because I have said that myself before: when the game's on the line, who would you rather have the ball, Kobe or LeBron?  To the NBA fan, the answer would seem obvious, but it's not.  Of all the players who took part in this year's playoffs, who would you hand the ball to?  Kobe?  Not so fast - according to stats compiled by True Hoop's Henry Abbott, the first guy you would give the ball to is Carmelo Anthony.  No surprise there, the guy is probably the most lethal scorer in basketball, and that includes Kobe.  So, okay, Kobe's next, right?  Nope . . . how about Chris Paul, Shawn Marion (?!), Brandon Roy (no surprise there), Hedo Turkoglu (okay, leave him out after the brain farts he let out this year), and Mike Bibby (??!!)?  If you say to me "Dirk Nowitzki", I say "no duh" after what he did this year, but this list was compiled before his coming out party.  Then, how about Tim Duncan, Eddie Jones, and Raymond Felton?  And next we have . . . LeBron James?  Yup, the much-maligned King James is ahead of Kobe on this list, as is Ray Allen and Gilbert "Hibachi" Arenas.  As a matter of fact, Kobe is only about 1.5 points better than the league average at clutch time, and just over 15 points short of Carmelo . . . so, don't believe everything you think you know.  While LeBron did have a pretty serious drop off during the playoffs this year, I think it has to do with a lot more that "not being clutch", some of which we'll get into below.
  • LeBron James needs to work with a sports psychologist to cure his crunch-time woes.  Jesus Christ.  LeBron doesn't need a sports psychologist, he needs a midrange and post up game.
  • LeBron James needs to work with a sports psychologist to cure his crunch-time woes.  The writer and editor in me wants to leave the pithy response above by itself, but this was seriously suggested by more than a few talking sports heads (the emptiest of all heads), so a longer response seems warranted.  First of all, I think we really need to see that LeBron is not really that bad in the clutch, as noted above.  And if he does tend to disappear, which he does sometimes, I think it has less to do with him than with his coaches.  When he was with Cleveland, there was no question he was the man, and I think he did a much better job as a closer.  But this year with Miami, having to share the court with another "legendary closer" (D. Wade), his role is much less clearly defined.  I think it's this indecisiveness that showed this year, not some sort of mental block, or "yips".  Better coaching will lead to more clearly defined roles which will lead to more decisive action in crunch time.
  • In spite of having a rough series, LeBron is still the best player in basketball.  This one's hotly debated. I think that LeBron is potentially the best player in basketball, but right now I don't see him in the top five.  Most of it, in my mind at least, has to do with the lack of a midrange and post-up game mentioned above.  Nobody in the world can shut down LBJ one-on-one, but basketball, being a team game, means you don't have to.  Right now, all you have to do is pack your defense down around the paint to keep Wade and James away from the basket, making sure most of all to always have someone in front of James, and you have a real chance at beating the Heat.  There are three-point shooters on the Heat (Miller, House, Jones, occasionally Chalmers), so that's not the problem . . . besides, you can steal a game or two with the three, but you won't win a series.  And James, for his part, is either driving in or tossing up a three; you stop him somewhere in the middle, and he's not scoring.  Look at Carmelo or Durant: is there anywhere on the floor where they don't score?  Or Dirk: not the most graceful or convincing drive in the league, but it doesn't have to be pretty to be effective; and right now, that fade-away jumper of his is among the most unstoppable scoring shots I've seen since Kareem's sky hook.  The thing about LeBron is this: you can tell he's never really had to work on his game that hard.  Unlike MJ, he wasn't cut by his freshman team.  Unlike Bird, he could get by on his lightning reflexes, so he doesn't have to anticipate, he doesn't have to play the game two steps ahead of everybody else.  Unlike any given little guy (say, Juan Jose Berea or, even better, Alan Iverson), he can count on his bulk and athleticism to get to the basket, so he didn't have to develop any kind of subterfuge to help him out.  LeBron, being almost superhuman, always had that to fall back on.  Problem is, once you get to the upper echelons of the game, there is always someone only slightly less superhuman than you ready to put out the extra effort to shut you down just when you need that basket the most.  This, to me, is James's problem, and also the reason why this year's playoffs could turn him into the best player in the game. I have no doubt about his willingness to work, and his humility shouldn't be a question after this year's comeuppance; but now he needs some guidance, and he needs to show that he can improve his game, both mentally and physically.
  • LeBron is not living up to expectations.  First of all, he's still relatively young.  Secondly, I think that his ceiling is higher than any ceiling we've ever seen in the league, and indeed, he is already a very good player, but there seems to be a lot about the game that he has yet to understand.  We see him as a physical specimen, not a basketball player, and when the elite physical specimen is considered as a not-always-elite basketball player, we are disappointed.  At a certain point, we just have to admit that LeBron is not quite that good . . . yet.
  • The Mavericks had a good run this year, but next year they still have to be considered longshots.  Really?  You're still going to bet against the Mavs?  I'll admit that, with the rise of the young teams in the West (the Thunder, and now the Grizzlies too), the whole playoff picture is getting murky.  And if someone can step in and fix the Heat's offense, they have to be considered favorites.  But, this win by the Mavs was not a fluke.  They will be back in the picture, and I would count on them as much as I counted on the Lakers last summer.  But of course, all bets are off until the new CBA gets inked, and that is turning into a very sticky problem.
Everyone, even the Heat's biggest critics, still have them winning a ring or three in the upcoming years, and I think that's about right, given the current state of the game.  We can't, however, count on the current state of the game.  Too many franchises are currently loosing money, and unless things are turned around, there will be a contraction in the league.  Plus, I don't really see the owners looking past the sort of free-agent team building exercises that the Heat indulged in this year . . . though, if they did, that would probably be the biggest threat to a Heat dynasty (if Chris Paul ends up in New York or LA, all bets are off).

Meanwhile, the small market teams are in danger.  Oklahoma City caught lightning in a bottle (or rather, Seattle did, then promptly lost the team), but they will only last as long as they can hold on to those young contracts.  Indiana, the one ABA franchise that made money, has been struggling since the Malice at the Palace, and even though they had a strong finish to this year and a bunch of money to spend next year, they still hold out little hope of getting the players that will make them a real threat for the title.  Even the Mavericks are losing money, though only as much as Mark Cuban is willing to lose.

The next CBA will determine the future of the sport.  Here's hoping that one of the best NBA seasons that I can remember will help get everybody on the same page and pulling in the same direction.  This isn't the same as football, where the players are on the short end of the stick and there is a ton of money to be spread around, if only nobody gets too greedy.  Basketball needs both the owners and the players to team up and decide how this game can be run without bankrupting many of the people who put their fortunes on the line for our entertainment, and yet still not holding down the people who actually make this money for the owners. It's going to be a tough fall.

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