Category Archives: Features

When Michael Jordan Refused to Tank

Mjlottery

MJ preferred playoffs action at Boston Garden to a better draft pick in 1986.

If you were following pro basketball in 1985 then you probably remember when Michael Jordan broke his foot. MJ wasn’t quite the world icon that he would soon become, but he was a big star, and clearly on the rise. The year before, he won Rookie of the Year and 2nd Team All-NBA honors. He put up huge numbers on an immediately-improved Bulls team. Fans already knew Jordan from his college days at North Carolina. He hit a game winner as a freshman in the NCAA Finals and later became an All-American. So when the Bulls young star fractured the navicular tarsal bone in his left foot in just the third game of his second professional season, it was a huge bummer for the NBA and its fans.

I don’t remember it. I was barely three years old in October of ’85, and my first memories of watching Jordan involve him shoulder shrugging his way past Cliff Robinson in Portland and — the next year — kicking it out to Paxson for three, in Phoenix. This void of knowledge about the most athletic days of the most successful basketball player of my lifetime led me to read David Halberstam’s “Playing for Keeps.”

The story of Jordan’s broken foot, as told by Halberstam, touches on a pressing issue in modern NBA discourse:

Tanking.

The 64-game, Jordan-less stretch in 1985-86 was stressful for everyone involved. Chicago was worried about the health of its franchise player. Jordan quickly grew so restless that he moved back to Chapel Hill for his rehab, and had frequent spats with Jerry Krause about when he could return to action. Jordan would explain how he knew his body better than anyone else, and he was ready to play. (He was sneaking in five-on-five runs back at UNC, during his time off from the Bulls.) Krause wanted to err on the side of caution. He was never good with player relations, and even regrettably told Jordan that he and owner Jerry Reinsdorf would make the decision about his return because Jordan was their property. (MJ apparently never forgot nor forgave that one.)

But there was another factor at play in the decision to keep Jordan on the shelf while his team piled up losses.

Halberstam explained: Continue reading

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INBOX: Are the Heat still hated? (Now with more Ricky Buckets and Master P)

beas & lebron

The Heat welcome back the affable-but-troubled Mike Beasley. Does this pickup, along with the Greg Oden signing, flip the script on whether to cheer for the Heat?

Andy G: In I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman devotes a chapter to hating rock bands.  He runs through a list of every band he’s ever hated, explains the specific point in his life, and why that particular group evoked irrationally negative feelings from him.  The chapter is largely focused on The Eagles.  In the end, Klosterman forms the discomfiting conclusion that he now no longer possesses the capacity to hate rock bands.  Even The Eagles.  (He included the band three different times on his list.)

He explains why this is problematic:

Being emotionally fragile is an important part of being a successful critic; it’s an integral element to being engaged with mainstream art, assuming you aspire to write about it in public.  If you hate everything, you’re a banal asshole . . . but if you don’t hate anything, you’re boring.  You’re useless.  And you end up writing about why you can no longer generate fake feelings that other people digest as real.

Klosterman goes on to explain his “brain’s unwillingness to hold an unexplained opinion,” and articulates a general feeling that I’ve struggled with on this blog.  Caring about sports — or art — is not a rational exercise.  Hating a professional athlete or sports team is as dumb as hating a rock band.  Hating a professional athlete is as irrational as loving one.  Those are emotions far too strong to hold for people that don’t even know that you exist.

Reading that chapter reminded me of the Miami Heat and its best player, LeBron James.

I hated The Decision. I hated LeBron’s *decision* itself to overlap his talents with Dwyane Wade’s, I hated the primetime stomach-punch to Cleveland, and I hated the Kobe rip-off, “taking my talents” delivery pitch. I hated everything about LeBron exercising his rights as a free agent.

Four things about Heat Hatred:

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Excerpts on Kareem

kareem

I caught myself day dreaming about sky hooks yesterday.  I’m not sure why.  Long day in the office?  Not enough *real* basketball to keep my mind occupied?  Whatever the case, I was specifically thinking about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the NBA’s all time scoring leader — and his supposedly unstoppable go-to move.  First, why hasn’t anybody copied the sky hook?  Second, why isn’t Kareem — a six-time MVP and champion — discussed more in G.O.A.T. debates?  (Seriously, look at his basketball-reference page.)  And finally, it occurred to me that almost every book I’ve read on basketball history has a section on Kareem.  His career arc was interesting for multiple reasons, but mostly because he spent most of the 1970s as the league’s best player and most of the 80s as a champion with Magic Johnson receiving more of the credit.

With that in mind, I thought I’d scrap together some of the better stuff I’ve read on Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

David Halberstam, The Breaks of the Game:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is likewise a dominating player.  He is not the defensive force that Russell or Walton was, but he is so consistently good on offense that he changes the texture of every game he plays…

He was very tall and his height was a matter of some conjecture.  He listed his height as 7’2″.  Other very tall young men, seven feet even, who had played against him, swore he was at least 7’4″.  Some, not given to exaggeration, said he was surely 7’6″.  What most people did not see was the grace, the agility so rare in any man, but truly astonishing in a man of his height; they saw only the height, which was greater than their own.  Failing to see the grace, they also failed to see the passion, which was brilliantly concealed, hidden behind two layers of masks, first a protective eyepiece which was a mask to the face, and then the face itself which was a mask to the soul.  They saw the lack of emotion and decided that Kareem did not care as they cared…

His play had, if anything, too much consistency to it.  His good games were forgotten, his bad ones remembered.  He had played for much of his career on weak teams or on teams poorly designed for him.  Often too much depended on him, and because he was so dominating a force, opposing teams always knew that the key to stopping the Lakers was stopping Kareem.  His teams, strong in their regular-season records, tended to wear down in playoff games.  Opponents always based their strategy on stopping him and he rarely got very much help from referees.  He was held, fouled and elbowed more than any otehr player in the league, all with the semitacit approval of the referees; for in truth, if they did not allow his opponents some small advantage there would be no way of stopping him.

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A Loss, and the Feeling of Loss

Farewell Transmission, Magnolia Electric Co.

The Timberwolves lost their first Vegas Summer League game on Saturday to the D-League Select team, 83-81. The basketball wasn’t pretty. There was no Ricky Rubio. There was no Kevin Love. There was really no one.

Except Shabazz Muhammad. Muhammad played like you would expect most rookies to play in their first ever pro game after just a few practices, with entirely new teammates, and with literally no point guard play. He finished with 7 points on 3-7 from the floor, with 1 assist and 1 rebound. Specifics are here.

What to make of it?

Well, Muhammad, the Wolves’ top first-round pick certainly didn’t play great. But he didn’t necessarily play poorly either. He looks aggressive around the hoop. He will get to the line. He will be a step slower on defense than we would like. He has useful skills. He has imperfections. He’s a #14 pick. He registered an assist. That means he exceeded the expectations of many naysayers who ridiculed the pick on draft night. An assist? That’s more than we expected, right? As Charlie Sheen said, “winning.”

But this post isn’t about Shabazz Muhammad and it isn’t about the Timberwolves. It’s about loss, and losing, in broader context.

Tonight’s loss didn’t matter. It was fake players and fake rules and fake everything.

The cat is out of the bag: Summer League doesn’t really matter.

At all. It’s cotton candy for fans when there’s no other NBA action. You don’t take Summer League losses, or wins, or stats, very seriously, unless you want to end up deluding yourself.

Juxtapose tonight’s loss with one that did matter–at least to me.

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Dispatches: The NBA Finals in the Philippines

Melo is huge in the PI. See this cover story on Melo from Slam Philippines (http://www.slamonlineph.com/latest-news/slam-philippines-162-out-now/)

Melo is huge in the PI. See this cover story on Melo from Slam Philippines (http://www.slamonlineph.com/latest-news/slam-philippines-162-out-now/)

I’m back from the Philippines. Jet lag is my master.

But it was a good visit.

Basketball euphoria was high in Manila. Everyone was all about the Finals, despite the fact that we were tuning into games live at 8:30 AM local time.

A few thoughts on hoops in the Philippines below the fold.

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Punch-Drunk in Japan: Day 1

20130617-224116.jpg

So, I’m temporarily stranded in Tokyo, after being temporarily stranded in Atlanta. At this rate, I’ll make it to Manila by the time I’m scheduled to return to DC.

Stay classy, Delta.

But hey, it’s summertime, and the living’s easy…

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Should David Stern punish player speech?

Roy Hibbert was fined 75 large for one of two reasons:

1. He said something offensive and should be punished in order to deter NBA players from this type of behavior;

and/or

2. He said something offensive and the NBA felt the need to issue a statement (via Roy Hibbert’s checking account) to its corporate partners that it does not share the offensive views expressed by Roy Hibbert.

I suppose there’s a third rationale; one that’s so offensively paternalistic that I’d rather just hope it isn’t the case. That would be:

3. He said something offensive and the NBA felt the need to punish him so that he would think about why what he said was wrong, and change his views accordingly.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of reasons 1 and 2.

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Hill –> Bradley –> Flip

hill-bradley-saunders

1. Grant Hill

He retired last night during the TNT pregame show. Hill is one of the most successful, post-Wooden college players. He won two national titles and was runner up for a third. He was an All-American and ACC Player of the Year. In the NBA, Hill was — for a not-insignificant period of time — on the short list of the game’s greatest players.  The absolute PICTURE of “NBA Ready,” a 22-year old Grant Hill was Co-Rookie of the Year with fellow superstar, future hall of famer, and still-playing Jason Kidd. For six seasons, before injuries I don’t need to detail here, he averaged between 19.9 and 25.8 points, 6.4 and 9.8 rebounds, and 5.0 and 7.3 assists, per game.

Healthy Grant Hill is one of the best small forwards I’ve ever seen. The only one clearly better has a Game 7 tomorrow night.

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Assessing DeMarcus Cousins’ Potential

DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins

Bill Simmons’ ever-intriguing “Trade Value” series of columns has begun over at Grantland. He has lots of provocative, interesting opinions, whether or not you agree with any/many of them. Simmons, tongue-in-cheek as can ever, also talks a lot of sense from angles that matter: player potential and history, team cap situation, and team need. It makes for a good read.

There are a bunch of guys I’d flag as worth checking out to see if Simmons’ idiosyncratic ratings comport with your own. But none more than DeMarcus Cousins, the almost-Wolf who was passed over in favor of Wesley Johnson.

I found what Simmons had to say – both the goods and the bads – remain revealing about what a team might be getting in Cousins. This isn’t directly Wolves’ related except insofar as he easily could’ve been a Wolf and probably still would be had we drafted him at #4 instead of Wes Johnson, but Simmons makes a fairly credible case both about what’s wrong (and right) with Cousins, what’s wrong in SAC, and how we might come to see this behemoth talent realize at least a good part of its massive potential.

Simmons writes:

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What Did the Glen Taylor Interview Really Tell Timberwolves Fans?

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor did a long interview with Ray Richardson that appeared in the Pioneer Press on Sunday. There’s a lot there, and it’s worth reading in full: Taylor talks about the status of Rick Adelman and David Kahn for next season, as well as how the Brandon Roy debacle has played out.

Yet much of the interview is cryptic, leaving one  to read between the lines for meaningful subtext. My takes are below the fold.

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Should the Timberwolves Sign Greg Oden?

What lies ahead for Greg Oden?

What lies ahead for Greg Oden?

In case you missed it, ESPN reported that a Greg Oden comeback tour may be in the works.  Oden, of course, had the misfortune of being selected over Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant with the top pick in the 2007 draft – the misfortune being not that Oden earned a lot of money as the #1 overall pick, but rather that he’s had to endure non-stop rants ever since about how the Blazers should’ve taken Durant and how he’s the Sam Bowie to Durant’s Michael Jordan.

That said, Oden had a pretty ridiculously successful run during that period in 2009 (wow, that really was an eternity ago…) when he was healthy. For the 21 games he played in the 2009-10 season Oden averaged just shy of 17 & 13 per 36 minutes.  He also blocked 3.4 shots per 36.

I’ve always been forever enamored of Oden’s talent, soft touch around the hoop, rebounding, and, of course, his size. And I’d really like a rim protector not named Greg Stiemsma to take the backup minutes when Pek isn’t out there. (And yes, for the record, this discussion assumes the Wolves match any reasonable Pekovic deal, so we’re not looking at this as an either/or despite the potential salary cap challenges the Wolves will face.

Andy G and I took to the wheel to discuss whether the Wolves – still scarred, certainly, from last season’s free-agent acquisition of Oden’s former Portland teammate Brandon Roy – ought to take a gamble on Oden this offseason, and what they should do with him if they were to acquire him.

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1,000 wins is a time to reflect

One thousand is just one more than 999 and Rick Adelman is no better coach today than he was yesterday.  But large, even numbers serve as milestone thresholds that, when reached, afford the opportunity to reflect on all that led up to the achievement.  In the case of our coach, that period spans 22 seasons.  It includes not only the 1,000 regular season wins, but also 79 in the playoffs.  It inevitably includes many losses as well; Games 6 and 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals being the most memorable (infamous?) in non-Finals playoff history.  Game 6 was the night that Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and was later described by referee Tim Donaghy as fixed by a league conspiracy.  Game 7 was the night, on Sacramento’s home floor, that Adelman’s Kings were absolutely snake bit while shooting.  They were 16 of 30 from the foul line, 2 for 20 from three-point range, and still took the game to overtime when they lost to the eventual three-peat champion Lakers.

It’s difficult for me not to dwell on those losses because I came to appreciate Rick Adelman the Coach during his time in Sacramento.  I was cheering for the Kings in that series about as hard as I can remember for any Minnesota team.  I even attended Game 3 at Staples Center; a game the Kings won, going away.  Why the attachment to a team so far away — at a time when the Wolves were in the middle of the Kevin Garnett Era?

Let me count the reasons.

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“Practice?!”: Why Ricky & the Wolves should copy Kermit Washington

Spring is here (no really, it began two weeks ago), which means summer is coming.  For the Wolves, as is often the case, it also means the off-season is coming.  Most off-season discussion, here and elsewhere, will focus on free agency and the draft.  But what about the players we already have?  What will they be doing?  More importantly, will any of them improve at playing professional basketball?

During next training camp, there will inevitably be pieces written in the local press about the amazing dedication that Timberwolf X/Y/Z showed in his off-season workout regimen.  We’ll read about how he improved his diet and is working with a trainer and nutritionist.  We’ll read about what famous veteran players he played daily pickup ball with in Los Angeles, or another major coastal metropolis that is nowhere near Target Center.  We’ll read a few puffy quotes from the coaching staff — likely answering the most leading of questions — about how the player looks improved, how the team really needs him and how everybody is expecting big things.  I’m a sucker for those pieces and I already know that I’ll be GUZZLING that Kool-Aid.

But will any of it actually matter?  Will it make a bit of difference, relative to the work that every NBA player does in 2013?  Every NBA player, these days, works out hard.  Most of them eat pretty well.  Some party hard, but they’re young enough to combine late [summer] nights with elite conditioning and professional dedication to their craft.  The thing I wonder — not working or having worked with a pro team — is how much of that off-season work is devoted to basic skill development.  I know that I saw video of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose working on their jumpers.  It looked intense and productive and — it seems to me, anyway — it helped each guy become a greater shooting threat and all-around player.  I’m sure other players work with trainers and coaches in similar fashion to remove weaknesses and improve as players.

I’m almost done with Breaks of the Game and I have to share parts of the Kermit Washington story.  Washington was a bench player on his high school team, miraculously convinced a scout at an all-star showcase (that he wasn’t actually invited to) to offer him a scholarship (based entirely on his incredible hustle for rebounds and loose balls), and befriended a former military friend at American University to help train him into becoming a beastly specimen and outstanding college player that was drafted to the NBA.

But Washington struggled like hell in his first NBA seasons, lacking the skill polish required to play forward at a professional level.  As in his high school and college careers before, Washington needed to outwork his peers, and he needed to do it in the off-season.

Halberstam described how the NBA schedule did Washington no favors:

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INBOX: Kahn, Adelman, and 600 1st Avenue North

Andy G: New topic and one that seems to get discussed less and less often: David Kahn.  You reminded me the other day about the time he gave Kurt Rambis a homework assignment. (!!!) We’ve come a long way from the days when Kahn wielded such authority over his coach.  To everyone’s benefit, Kahn was later able to hire Rick Adelman; an acquisition that naturally shifted the channels of authority over at 600 1st Ave. N.  But the degree to which Kahn seems less relevant is significant and poses some questions for the future of the franchise.  He still holds the prominent title of P.O.B.O., which should amount to the team’s acting agent in matters such as trade discussion and free agent negotiations.  We’ve got a recently drafted #2 pick that should be aggressively shopped and a star center up for restricted free agency.  It’s important that the Timberwolves have a clear chain of authority on these matters, both within the ORG and to be transparent to callers from the other 29 teams.

Why is this important?  Well, James Harden was dealt to Houston in a swift and covert manner that involved Sam Presti making phone calls that he certainly needed a high degree of trust would be: a) fruitful in terms of possibly ending in a big trade; and b) confidential.  I doubt the Wolves had the juice to get The Beard without dishing out Love or Rubio, but we’ll never know because (by all accounts, which includes a Bill Simmons report that Presti first called Golden State and Washington, before Houston) Presti never approached the Wolves.  Opportunities could potentially be lost, is what I’m saying.

1) Do you agree that it is important for the Wolves’ authority chain to be clearly defined and transparent to the league?

2) How much — for comedy’s sake — would you enjoy reading about Rick Adelman being assigned homework from Kahn?

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Glory Days & Ghost Games

“I try to stay away from that, and the reason is: I would never ask a player to play against a ghost; past, present, or future.  We could only play against the guy that showed up while we were playing.”

That was Bill Russell’s response to Chris Webber asking him for input in the never-ending recent debate about individual legacies and how championship rings factor in.  It was an especially hot-button issue over All-Star Weekend because Michael Jordan — whose 50th Birthday was being celebrated by the media — said he’d pick Kobe Bryant over LeBron James because, “five beats one every time I look at it.”

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Rashad McCants: Actor, Teacher, No Longer a D-Leaguer

mccants booster

Not too long ago, we chronicled Rashad McCants’ comeback to pro hoops with the Dallas Mavericks’ D-League team, the Texas Legends. So quiet is kept that it was only yesterday that I learned Shad had been “deactivated” by Texas on February 5th. [Eds note: Even an ADVANCED Google search fails to provide me with a reason for Shad's DEACTIVATION. If anyone can shed light, please do so in the comments!]

That didn’t take long. They hardly knew ya, Shad.

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Why Melo’s Old-School Game is Great for the NBA

There is a long list of reasons why NBA basketball is The Greatest Game.  It has the best athletes and viewing experience, the coolest personalities and fans, the most thoughtful writers, and the funniest Twitter accounts.  It is culturally and ethnically diverse.  It is relatively safe from bad injuries.

The NBA is also, in my super-biased opinion, the most thought-provoking sport.  Its genius rulebook created tensions between core concepts like size and speed, athleticism and skill, aggression and control, and intellect and instincts.  Its playing venue allows close observation of the actions and reactions.  It’s all pretty fucking brilliant.

But the NBA faces a real threat that it will become uninteresting.  Or less interesting, anyway.  Data collection and analysis becomes more thorough and sophisticated by the day.  We’re learning what works best, what works worst, and everything in between.  In today’s rules, the tenets include high ball screen offense, mobile pick-and-roll defenders, four out/one in, three-pointers & layups, two-for-one’s, Hack-A-[Raw Young Center X/Y/Z], and some others.

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Rashad McCants: Actor, Teacher, D-Leaguer (Where Are They Now Edition, v. 1)

I thought I saw a ghost yesterday: Rashad McCants was playing professional.

Earlier this month, Shaddy took his talents to Texas, joining Dallas Mavericks D-League squad the Texas Legends. Yesterday’s game, against the Erie Hawks, was televised on NBATV.

The scouting report, and much much more, are below the fold.

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Derrick’s Turnovers: A Video Review

[Last night's game is the rare Wolves tilt that shows up in my League Pass Broadband archives.  I wanted to look back at Derrick Williams' three turnovers, because I remember each one was of the head-scratching and maddening variety, and they represent recurring issues with the inconsistent young forward.  Below are my notes on how he screwed up 3 times in last night's 1st Half, causing his minutes to be limited to just 29 on a night that every other viable option was out with an injury or illness.]

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Jump Shots, Set Shots, and Ricky Shots

We all love Ricky Rubio and what he has brought to the Timberwolves franchise.  His injury last season marked an immediate downward spiral from hopefully playoff team to lottery-bound loser.  Part of his recovery process from ACL surgery is regaining his shooting touch.  But before we completely excuse his early woes (before tonight’s game Ricky is shooting 18 percent from the floor, through 9 games) it’s worth pointing out that his field goal percentage last year–when healthy–was also very poor; just 35.7 percent despite being a relatively selective shooter.  From a shot-mechanics perspective, what is Ricky doing wrong?

Let’s start with a couple of great shooters, Ray Allen and Steph Curry.

That’s what a textbook, pure, jump shot looks like.  The right foot slightly ahead of the left.  The slight crouch straightened up into perfect posture as the ball is raised and set, before the proverbial “hand in the cookie jar” release, right at–or slightly before–the peak of his jump.  Ray Allen, the greatest shooter of the modern era, is a good one to copy.

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