NBA Awards Preview 2015: What's in the Cards?

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 12.28.58 PM

I hate click-bait article titles. As such, before we get into this post, I want to answer the question I posed.

Q: "What's in the Cards?" -- Aaron McGuire, minutes ago.

A: Nothing. They are a baseball team, not a storage receptacle.

Glad to get that cleared up. Now, since we've reached the absolute final day of the offseason, let's quickly run down a season-preview type post where I emerge from the murky depths to share the precognitive ramblings of a dying goat (EDITOR'S NOTE: Me) relayed through ticker tape by a starving artist (EDITOR'S NOTE: Also me) whose exploits are relayed humbly through a website built on the exploits of giant anthropomorphic ants (EDITOR'S NOTE: That's also m--wait, that's not me, who let an anthropomorphic ant into my blog's masthead? Dewey, I'm disappointed in you.) I will award the season-ending awards of the 2015 season before a single game has been played, and as an added bonus, I'll tack on some alternate reality awards. You know, just in case the NBA gets a lot weirder before the 2015 season ends.

• • •

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LeBron James (CLE)

For LeBron James to avoid winning an MVP award this season, things are going to need to go awfully wrong for the Cavaliers. His primary opponents in the MVP chase include a superstar who's going to miss 15-20 games of the season, a two-headed star combo where nobody can agree on the superior player, a defense-challenged point guard whose team generally wins on the defensive end of the floor, a 36-year-old German whose role will be chopped back as the year goes on, and a guy who shot 15/59 in FIBA play this summer. So... yeah. I think LeBron's probably got this.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Moist Valuable Player, awarded to the sweatiest player in the NBA. I'm going with Zach Randolph.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Nerlens Noel (PHI)

There's a lot more uncertainty than usual in the predictions for this one. Noel is my pick, simply because I don't see Wiggins, Parker, or Exum putting up world-beating stats for any of their teams. Wiggins is going to spend most of the season learning NBA speed, and Parker might end up marginally rotation-buried on a dismal Bucks team. Exum looks like a quality player, but he'll be defended by the other team's best defender on a nightly basis and will be prying his trade in the defensively pesky West. On the other hand, Noel exists in a position of scarcity in a conference generally lacking premier big-man defenders. He'll get ample minutes and he'll be playing for a team that plays fast-paced stat-padding basketball. I wouldn't be shocked if he put up a shimmering 13-9-3 type line with reasonable percentages and decent defense, and I have a feeling a line like that could eke out the award this year.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Wookie of the Year, awarded to the most luxurious body hair in the NBA. I'm taking the long view and assuming that this will be the year that Nikola Pekovic tries growing a playoff beard. His body hair will then gain sentience. When detached, it will serve double-time as the antagonist in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It will also wear stupid hats and star in a crummy NBC drama. It's gonna be a really weird year for Nikola Pekovic's sentient body hair.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Carlisle (DAL)

Dallas is going to be really, really good this year. They won 49 games last season in a brutal Western gauntlet and upgraded just about every position on the floor. Their bench looks better, their starters look better (...outside of PG), and their army of options meshes really well with Carlisle's coaching style. He likes giving opponents different looks and different defensive flows depending on the needs of the game -- with his versatile multi-punch roster, he should be able to keep opponents on their toes for most of the season. Don't be surprised if Dallas schemes their way into a few crazy wins on strategy and gamesmanship alone. I mean, alright, you should be a LITTLE surprised if they win the game entirely without playing the game of basketball, but that's not what I meant.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Paunch of the Year, awarded to the player who entered the year in decent shape and ends it with more chins than playoff wins. The problem with this award is that you need to find someone who started the season in good shape but is a strong candidate to completely fall apart physically due to disinterest and dismay. Let's go with Caron Butler!

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Anthony Bennett (MIN)

Generally, I have an issue naming incoming sophomores as the league's most improved player. It may be true, but almost every rookie improves by leaps and bounds after their first season in the league, and the sophomore jump can hardly be considered a revolutionizing charge. On the other hand, the MIP award is the most nebulous of the NBA's season-ending accoutrements, and it's hard to take it all that seriously regardless. And very few rookies have ever been as bad as Anthony Bennett was in 2014. If Bennett puts up a season that's legitimately deserving of a spot on all-star weekend's all-sophomore team, he'll have a strong case for deserving this award.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Most Improved Playa, awarded to the beach that undergoes the most improvement over the course of the 2015 season. Congratulations to Mylopotas Beach in Ios, you are Gothic Ginobili's pick for MIP!

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Andrew Bogut (GSW)

Call it a hunch. Call it a guess. Call it crazy. But don't call it a comeback. Bogut has been one of the finest defensive centers in the league for much of his career, and Golden State has given him one of the most unlikely jumping-off points for showing it to the world. Last year's Golden State team made its bread on defense, a surprise to any casual NBA fan who's primary exposure to Oakland's fast-paced history came at the hands of Run TMC, Don Nelson, or the Curry/Monta/Lee incarnation of the current team that aimed for the playoffs before Bogut's arrival. Marc Jackson got a lot of credit for their revolutionized schemes, and he deserved a decent bit. So too did Draymond Green, whose underrated defensive strength allows Bogut to stay within a smaller range of the court during active defensive possessions and save his legs for the playoffs. If Bogut can stay healthy this year, his efforts are likely to lead the Warriors to a top-5 defensive unit. That'll deserve a DPoY nod.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Pensive Player of the Year, for the most thoughtful NBA player of the year. Jaden Smith wins this award. I mean, come on. Will Smith has an ownership stake in the Sixers, and the Sixers would EASILY be a more entertaining team if Jaden Smith was on the court. I'm just going to pick this award aspirationally and hope with all my heart that Jaden laces it up this season. As a wise man once said, "Once All 100% Is Neglected You Have A Citizen. A Walking Zombie Who Criticizes Every Thing They See. Have Fun Its A Really Awesome Place."

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Richard Jefferson (DAL)

Aaron, don't delete this. I wrote something about RJ. It's really awesome and I want to share it. Okay, so in honor of NaNoWriMo (uh... crap it's only the 28th, uh... let's roll with it), I have written a novelization of Richard Jefferson's upcoming season with the Mavericks. Unfortunately, all but the first and last paragraphs were destroyed in an oddly-specific fire that I may have started, in a momentary fugue of mercy and compassion. Following are those paragraphs.

Call me Richard. Well, I suppose you'd already planned to, here in Dallas. My childish nickname being RJ, and my given name Richard Jefferson, my veteran tongue would make of both names nothing longer or more absurd than Richard. So I called myself Richard, you know, and came to be called Richard. We were somewhere in Golden State when the small forward rotation began to take hold. I would be, you know, the back-up to Chandler Parsons. Every starter is happy; every backup is unhappy with his minutes in a different way. I had high hopes for this season; the Galactic Empire was dying in San Antonio. The most merciful thing in the world, you know, is the inability of the basketball veteran's mind to simultaneously take stock of all his injuries. It is a truth universally acknowledged, you know, that a veteran in possession of a good fortune and free agency must be in want of a contender. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this baller Dirk.

[...]

Don't ever tell anybody you're retiring. If you do, you start missing everybody. Heh. After a while I went out and left the ring ceremony and walked to the hotel in the sun. Tomorrow is, you know, another day. Dirk believed in the green light on the break, the orgastic crowd that year by year increases among us. Rings eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine June evening--

So we beat on, shots against the backboard, bounced back ceaselessly into the net.

So, this is actually just the start of what I wanted to write about Richard Jefferson today, Aaron. I have at least 1500 more words of equal caliber that I wish to share with

STOP THIS, ALEX. HERE'S THE REAL AWARD:

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Isaiah Thomas (PHX)

Most of the usual suspects for this award are conspicuously absent or hobbled this season. Quietly, the quickly-aging Jamal Crawford has been getting a bit worse over the last few years with Los Angeles, and his poor performance against Oklahoma City was one of the tipping points that cost L.A. the series. He'd have to have a pretty incredible regular season to offset the poor taste left from his uninspiring playoff woes last year. There's also a distinct possibility that L.A.'s gaping roster wound at the three-spot forces Doc Rivers to experiment with a three-guard starting lineup that features Crawford as a starter for large portions of the season. Manu Ginobili is coming back from a fracture, and chances are slim he'll stay healthy long enough to put up a serious challenge for the hardware. Taj Gibson is likely to start for much of the season, Markieff Morris is likely to step into Channing Frye's starting spot, and Reggie Jackson's offense might be needed in the first unit as well. So why not Isaiah Thomas, the obvious odd man out in Phoenix's curious three-headed-hydra at the point? He's a burst scorer, he's unlikely to start, and he's going to have to prove he deserves the playing time he gets.

ALTERNATE AWARD: Simple Plan of the Year, awarded to the NBA player most likely to play Simple Plan's rendition of the Scooby Doo theme song for their first dance on their wedding day. Let's go with Matt Bonner. Sure, he's already married. But people can reaffirm their vows any time they want to. And I have no doubt that if Matt Bonner REALLY thought about it, he'd realize that his best course of action is to reaffirm his vows to the dulcet tunes of Simple Plan's Scooby Doo theme song. His new wedding cake can be in the shape of a giant hoagie. He can dress up as a perfect Shaggy. The question isn't when, it's "why hasn't it happened already?"

• • •

Hey, all! Glad to be back. I'm going to try and pull out one to two posts a week now that the season is back. Enjoy tonight's slate.

A Primer on Cap-Smoothing: the NBA's BRI Problem

Adam Silver answers a question. (Credit Pat Sullivan from the AP for the photo.

Two days ago, Zach Lowe stirred up a minor storm on Twitter with a tiny aside in an otherwise non-controversial piece about the frustrating tête-à-tête between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix front office within his restricted free agency. The offending aside, in its essence:

And that’s where things get interesting: Executives on lots of teams have gotten the sense from the league office that the NBA will try to smooth the increase of the cap level to minimize the impact of any massive one-year jump in revenue. Exactly how it would do that is unclear. The precise team salary cap — $58 million last season, $63 million this season — is tied to overall league revenues; the two rise and fall together. Players are guaranteed about 50 percent of the league’s “basketball-related income,” and the league and union set the cap figure so player salaries add up to a number in that 50 percent ballpark. The league’s specific plan for smoothing out the cap increase is unclear, and in the end, it may opt against doing so at all. The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

There's a lot of misunderstandings about how exactly this cap smoothing plan could work, and those misunderstandings spread in a controversy so deadly it almost became a twitpocalypse. (Alright, I lied. It was a pretty average twitter controversy. I just wrote that so that I could use the word "twitpocalypse.") Much like Lowe, I don't feel this is all that controversial. And I generally think a cap smoothing plan could be an ideal situation for both the league as a whole and the players as a collective. That sounds weird at the outset, especially because as-described the cap smoothing plan is effectively depressing player salaries.

But there are a lot of key facts about the NBA's general operating agreement that lead me to that conclusion, and I realized while arguing about this that most people were totally unaware of these. While I tried to explain my rationale in 140-character chunks, I quickly realized that Twitter was a terrible medium for this kind of a complicated explanation. Let's try it in post form. My intention is to try and explain a) why it's necessary in the first place, b) what such a proposal would need to entail, and c) a few off-the-cuff ideas of how the parameters of this proposal might look. But to start to explain this, one must start at the very beginning, which can be done by answering a hypothetical posed to me by the incomparable @basquiatball.

• • •

What would the NBA offseason look like if the cap doubled?

The NBA's 2015 salary cap was set about a month ago. The exact figure was $63 million dollars. Let's say, for the purposes of this argument, that the NBA's basketball related income will roughly double in the 2016 offseason, for reasons unknown to all of us. Ergo, the cap (a figure that's tied intricately to BRI) suddenly jumps from this year's $63 million figure to a total of $120 million dollars. This has a lot of side-effects, as the cap figure has a massive impact on the NBA's salary structure. The most important ones for our purposes:

  • An NBA team's minimum collective salary is set at 90% of the NBA's salary cap figure. This past year, it was set at $56 million dollars. In this scenario, it jumps to $108 million dollars.
  • The maximum salary of an NBA player is set at a certain percentage of the cap depending on how many years the player has been in the league. This would result in maximum salaries jumping like so:
    • 0-6 years: 25% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $14.7 million to $30 million.
    • 7-9 years: 30% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $17.7 million to $36 million.
    • 10+ years: 35% of cap. Jumps from a starting salary of $20.6 million to $42 million.
  • The tax level is set at a certain percentage of BRI, meaning that it matches the cap level. It would rise from $77 million to $146 million.

I filled out a spreadsheet with every contract currently on the NBA's books. The NBA currently has salaries roughly totaling $2 billion dollars for the 2015 NBA season. In a scenario where every team opens up so much cap room, it's a fair assumption to state that every single player in the NBA with a qualifying offer or a player option will reject it and every player with an early termination option will exercise it. With those assumptions, players who remained on the books with their guaranteed contracts would represent $1.3 million of those $2 billion in contracts. The players who represented the other $0.7 billion would become free agents.

At this juncture, let's take a step back to try and understand the mechanisms by which the league and the players meet the overall player salaries proposed in the 2011 CBA. According to that CBA, the players receive 49 to 50% of basketball related income. The cap total (and cap floor) is tied to BRI in such a way that forces teams to dole out salary so that the players get their agreed-upon share. If a team does not meet the minimum salary among all their players, the difference between their total salary and the salary floor is paid out in equal margin to all players on their closing day roster.

Still. With max salaries doubling and every team in the market for every player in free agency, what do you really think is going to happen? Nobody on that free agent market that gets picked up is going to get a minimum salary -- too many teams with too much money will ensure that. If BRI doubles, the total amount that goes back to the players in salary will need to approach $4.3 billion dollars despite only having $1.3 billion dollars on the books in guaranteed money to the players with existing contracts. Even assuming that some teams don't get all the free agents they want and are forced to end the season under the salary floor, that still means that salaries for the players on the free agent market (the ones who made up just 0.7 billion of the NBA's salary in 2015) will need to approach $2 billion dollars for the numbers to work out, with the remaining $1 billion dollars being distributed in payments to players on sub-floor teams. That means that virtually every player in that free agent class will see their salaries double or triple over their previous contract while players with guaranteed contracts see little to no impact from the massive salary boost.

• • •

Why is this bad for the players?

Now that the previous scenario has been laid out, this one should be easier to understand. To put it plainly: every non-free agent in the NBA gets screwed. The NBA doesn't really have many avenues for adjusting to massive shifts in the cap -- under the current CBA, players on existing contracts aren't going to see the benefit of a massive cap increase until they hit free agency. And by that point, the rush on contracts might very well be over. Sure, they'll get MORE in their next contract, but how much more?

Again, let's return to our example. Let's say that BRI projections stay completely flat after rising to $120 million dollars. In the 2015 offseason, we calculated that there would be $1.3 billion dollars of guaranteed salary on the books alongside a BRI projection that would lead the players to require $4.3 billion dollars of the NBA's revenue. In the 2016 offseason, after the projected 2015 spending spree of $2 billion dollars on the 2015 free agents, the total guaranteed salary would instead be roughly $3 billion dollars, leaving $1.3 billion to divvy up between all free agents on the market. This would lead to raises, assuredly -- the new class of free agents have salaries that summed up to roughly $600 million dollars, so those free agents are likely to double their salaries.

But notice what happened in the previous offseason -- due to the wild fluctuation caused by the rapidly rising cap, free agents in the 2015 market ended up with almost triple their previous salary as teams got into predictable bidding wars with their bounty of cap space. Once that cap picture stabilizes and the market starts to look like a normal one again (that is, with 5-6 teams with big cap room and the rest working around the margins), the NBA would return to a generally stable world where future free agents saw their salaries increase to match the big BRI increase. But future free agent classes would never quite see as much of an increase as the initial run -- there wouldn't be as many teams able to engage in large bidding wars nor would there be as much of a need for teams to sign overpaid contracts in an effort to avoid missing the salary floor.

Hence, the big problem. Suddenly increasing the cap by a massive amount DOES increase salaries, which is good for the players in aggregate. But that increase is NOT evenly distributed -- it provides a larger-than-deserved bump to the players who happen to enter free agency during that free agent period without any means of redistributing that money to players on guaranteed contracts. Even after the 2011 CBA decreased the number of years on contracts and forced more of the league into free agency on a yearly basis, the number of players who enter free agency in any given offseason is still much less than half the players in the league. Which means that 30-40% of the league would be reaping the benefits of the increased revenue without any of the players on guaranteed money seeing a dime of it until their own respective free agency periods.

That's simply not a good look. It penalizes:

  • Veterans who signed long contracts as injury insurance.
  • Rookies still on their now comically underpaid rookie deals.
  • Any player whose team convinced them to sign a longer deal to help foment team stability.

That's a hell of a lot of the league. It's pretty hard to see a situation where the 30-40% of the league entering free agency could outvote the 60-70% of the league that would be stuck on the sidelines, watching as free agents gobble up the NBA's suddenly-bountiful cap room with obscenely huge guaranteed contracts. If the league could come up with a cap smoothing proposal that keeps such a free agency period from happening, it's a good bet that most players would support it.

• • •

Isn't salary suppression illegal? Why would the players give up money?

Returning to Zach's quote for a moment, there's one sentence that bears repeating:

The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

This is a core point of any particular cap smoothing proposal. In no universe will the players NOT receive the share of BRI they were promised during the 2011 CBA negotiations. That wouldn't just be bad form -- it would be completely illegal per the NBA's operating agreement, and probably lead to the end of the league through the courts. Even if the salary cap is artificially depressed, the players will still receive their agreed-upon share of the pie. The question therefore is one of distribution -- cap smoothing would be an effort to prevent uneven assignment of the revenue increase, essentially a way to prevent one season of lucky free agents from gobbling up 60-70% of the NBA's salary cap in the near term.

 

Having established that the players are going to receive their money regardless, the question becomes one of the league itself. Why would Adam Silver and the owners want to implement a smoothing proposal if they aren't actually getting any more money? If we consider the players' vested interest in an even distribution of salary, the league has a vested interest in preventing the variety of other ill side effects stemming massive jump in the cap as well. In a world where every team is suddenly under the cap, the chances of any particular team actually accumulating enough salary to go over the tax line in a meaningful way is extremely low. Ergo, the various teams who depend on tax payments would suddenly be without their main source of income. Because every single player who could possibly finagle his way into free agency would do so, the league would look almost completely different from one year to the next -- 40-50% of the league would likely change teams when you account for all the trades and machinations teams would go through to try and attract the star players of the free agent class.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it isn't ideal either. Given the NBA's focus on competitive balance and the subsidizing of small markets, that kind of an offseason free-for-all could be seen by many owners as an anathema to balance and a reward to teams in large markets who haven't managed their cap space particularly well. Hence, the league office has a vested interest in keeping the cap figure stable regardless of whether they get any extra money in doing so.

• • •

How would a cap smoothing proposal work?

So. We know the league's BRI estimates are likely to rise 30-40% after the league agrees to a new TV deal -- that's nowhere near the wild scenarios described in this post, but it would cause a similarly deleterious impact on the league's salary structure. While I'm no legal expert, there are a few ways I could imagine a cap smoothing proposal being both legal under the 2011 CBA and operating in such a way that both the league and the NBPA would agree to it. They are as follows:

SCENARIO #1: EVERYONE AGREES TO PRETEND THE CAP IS LOWER.

I mostly just included this one because it's the most obvious result, even if it's extraordinarily unlikely. The basic idea is that teams would simply operate as though the cap is near historical levels, rising by 5-6% instead of 30-40%. They'd sign contracts commensurate with those from previous free agency periods but reflecting the gradual increase. This is silly for obvious reasons. Even in the unlikely event that all teams collectively agreed to operate under a lower threshold to keep salaries in roughly equivalent ranges, the method by which the CBA deals with a salary shortfall (the aforementioned equal assignment of sub-salary floor money to all players on the team below the floor) is a wildly imprecise method of evening out the league's salary. It would still raise the salaries of free agents signed in that free agency period, and it would grant an equal portion of the pie to minimum-salary journeymen and superstars stuck in max deals. And it would also assign larger raises to players on teams with low salary obligations (like tanking teams) at the expense of teams that are trying to field title contenders. Even if Silver could somehow convince the teams to do that, it's unlikely the result would be to anyone's liking.

SCENARIO #2: THE LEAGUE AND NBPA MUTUALLY AGREE TO DISTRIBUTE EXTRA SALARY THROUGH THE NBPA

There was one way for the NBA to fix errors in the cap that I didn't mention in this post. Per Larry Coon's CBA FAQ:

Since individual salaries are negotiated before the season starts (in many cases years before), and BRI is not determined until the season concludes, there are mechanisms in place to adjust when salaries miss their target. If the players receive less than their guaranteed share of BRI, the league cuts a check to the players association for the difference, and this amount is distributed to the players (this happened in 2010-11, under the 2005 CBA).

This may be the most likely smoothing plan. In this scenario, the league would knowingly keep the BRI estimate lower than expected in concert with the NBPA, which would artificially depress the cap. The remainder of player salary would then be distributed to the players by the NBPA at the end of the season, with the NBPA deciding how to split the large imbalance among all its players. This would probably go on for a few years, increasing the cap by 5-10% each year until the shortfall isn't a massive number anymore. There might be some quibbles among some players with max salaries that this artificial smoothing deflates their max salaries, and that's a very valid point. But this is probably the fairest option.

SCENARIO #3: THE LEAGUE ADJUSTS FOR THE BRI INCREASE BY SHORTENING THE NBA SCHEDULE

Both the league and the players have expressed for some time that the NBA's schedule is a bit too long for comfort. The players don't like the increased risk of injury that comes with a longer season or the unnecessary back-to-back stretches that make it hard to stay at top form all year, while the league isn't particularly fond of the anemic basketball that gets played for months of the NBA's calendar or the widespread perception that the NBA's regular season doesn't matter. The NBA has maintained for quite some time that it would like to add some kind of midseason tournament to manufacture new interest in their product and add different parameters for a successful season outside of the simple "NBA championship or bust" framework they have now.

My thought is that it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that the league could use this BRI increase as a way to justify shortening the NBA season. Depending on how much they shortened the NBA season, they could depress BRI projections enough to maintain a relatively even cap despite adding the new national TV deal. They could keep the basic skeleton of the schedule the same (that is, start in October and end in late April) but implement 2-3 weeks of dead time around the all-star break, effectively giving NBA players a month off in the middle of the year. That month would lie dormant until the 2017 CBA negotiations, when the NBA could introduce a plan to hold a two week midseason tournament directly in the now-empty weeks. They could structure the TV deal to include basic parameters for covering the midseason tournament with exact terms to be negotiated after the CBA deal, giving an instant BRI boost as soon as the tournament is agreed upon.

If there are fears that the tournament's addition could push the league into a similar cap situation to the one it's facing now, the league and the NBPA could negotiate terms such that tournament income is considered "post-BRI" asset income, much like NBA jerseys. That way, players would get paid for the tournament separately from their salary, allowing the league and players to profit off the

There are a lot of ways the NBA could manage this in a way that benefits both the players and the league. At this point, only one thing is certain -- it's unlikely either side has a great appetite to see how the 2011 CBA holds up in the aforementioned stress case. Artificially easing the cap increase could benefit all parties involved, despite how odd that sounds in a vacuum. Keep an eye on this -- as the NBA's new T.V. deal approaches, this back-and-forth between the league and the players is only going to get more interesting.

The NBA is Worse at Criminal Justice than the NFL

kyle lowry

Word broke today that the NFL has finally completed deliberations on the punishment for Ray Rice's offseason arrest over grisly charges that he assaulted his fiancee. The punishment, in total? A two-game suspension, coupled with a $58,000 fine and a recommendation from the NFL to attend counseling. Rice pleaded not guilty to the offense and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that led the charges to be dropped, so that NFL penalty (in addition to the intervention program) will represent the sum total of Rice's punishment for his outburst. News flash: this isn't rare. Out of morbid curiosity, I've collected information about the last four years of assault or battery charges in the NBA from Google and the NBA Crime Library. Presented with minimal comment, and ordered by date:

  • June 2014: James Johnson was charged with domestic assault for allegedly slapping and choking his wife. The charges were dismissed because his wife did not appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • October 2013: Kendrick Perkins was charged with assault after punching a two passengers of an automobile in the face after an altercation in a bar parking lot. I have been unable to track down what happened here, but the league nor the Thunder never commented on the allegations. LEGAL PENALTIES: None (that I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2013: Jared Sullinger was charged with assault and malicious destruction of property for allegedly discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him and beating her to the ground before smashing her cellphone. The charges were dropped when his ex-girlfriend refused to appear in court. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • May 2013: Terrence Williams was arrested on charges of assault, amidst allegations that he pulled a gun on his child's mother during an annual visitation and made threats. It does not appear that a trial ever occurred, although the Celtics waived him shortly after the news broke (likely as a result of the arrest). LEGAL PENALTIES: None. (That I could find). LEAGUE PENALTIES: None officially, although the Celtics did waive his contract.
  • January 2013: Andray Blatche was arrested on charges of sexual assault, allegedly standing in the doorway and watching as his friend raped a woman in Blatche's hotel room. Charges against Blatche were dropped several months later, although reports are unclear as to whether his friends evaded sentencing. Blatche played in an NBA game against the 76ers the exact same day he was arrested. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • September 2012: Jordan Hill was charged with felony assault for choking a former girlfriend. He pleaded guilty, dropping the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor. LEGAL PENALTIES: One year of probation, $500 fine, counseling. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • February 2011: Kyle Lowry was charged with misdemeanor battery for throwing a ball at a female ref during a preseason game and threatening the ref with physical violence. Lowry refused to appear in court, but his lawyer got the charges dropped in exchange for pleading guilty and community service. The NBA said nothing. LEGAL PENALTIES: 100 hours of community service. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.
  • August 2010: Lance Stephenson was charged with assault and harrassment for throwing his then-girlfriend down a flight of stairs and allegedly slamming her head into the staircase. The case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of cooporation from his ex-girlfriend. LEGAL PENALTIES: None. LEAGUE PENALTIES: None.

Actually, I lied. I said I'd present it without comment, but that doesn't really do it justice. Much of the NBA's twitter community has been devoted to jokes and observations about how horrifying and hypocritical the NFL is for letting Ray Rice get off with a two game suspension while players like Josh Gordon lose a year of their career for something as minor as a marijuana charge. It's true. It's hypocritical, awful, and unbelievably dumb. But a lot of talk has also been made about boycotting the NFL for their hypocrisy, and giving them financial ramifications for their hand-wavy attitude towards the serious issue of assault. My take? Do it. It's justified.

But if we're being honest, you'd be better off boycotting the NBA first.

It's hard to conclude that the NBA is anything if not much worse when it comes to league penalties for non-drug-related criminal behavior. Many of these players actually pleaded guilty without seeing any league penalty. Kyle Lowry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from an actual on-court basketball game -- the league said nothing. Jordan Hill pleaded guilty -- the league said nothing. The rest of these are, for the most part, grisly cases with an abundance of evidence pointing to evidence of guilt. But most of them got off, and not once did the league take even a cursory action. The only two times the NBA players suffered a legitimate on-court penalty were times when the player was an expendable, fringe NBA talent who wasn't worth the hassle. These are all things that happened in the last four years.

And when it comes to former players and public figures, the ledger is just as full. Beloved Grantland contributor Jalen Rose pleaded guilty to a drunk driving charge stemming from an event where he got in a car almost immediately after having six martinis and rolled his Cadillac. He could've killed someone. Idolized general manager R.C. Buford was caught doing the same. Marv Albert is a generally accepted commentator, and one of the leading lights of the business -- hell, he's part of Blake Griffin's endorsement deal with Kia! -- but few people remember the disgusting charges of rape he faced back in the 90s. NBC fired him a few months into the scandal, but quietly re-hired him years later after he'd pleaded guilty to lesser charges and the public furor had died down a bit. He's still calling the NBA Finals, using the same voice he used on the stand when he argued that his assault was "consensual."

We can call this a massive moral failing, because it is. But in broad strokes, this is essentially how society treats these crimes. There's a curious amount of outrage over the NFL's punishment without the necessary realization that -- realistically -- this is one of the few times in the history of criminal justice where a sports league has accomplished the following three things in an assault case:

  1. The NFL punished a player who managed to get the charges dropped.
  2. The NFL punished a star player despite their status in the league, and gave a semi-meaningful suspension.
  3. The NFL made it clear that such an action was not OK, and essentially countered Baltimore's disgusting press conference.

The NFL is hardly perfect. It would be nice if they levied harsher punishment against Rice, and the juxtaposition between Rice's punishment and Josh Gordon's inexplicable marijuana suspension is comically off-base. But it's hardly more off-base than the actual criminal justice system's differential treatment of those particular crimes, with assault cases regularly falling apart over extremely minor inconsistencies in evidence or intimidation practiced on the part of the defense while marijuana locks up thousands of poor black teenagers on incomprehensible sentences every single year. And it feels slimy to say this, but at least they did something. Two games out of sixteen is equivalent to a 10 game NBA suspension. That's not sufficient, but it's not nothing. I don't generally endorse giving gold stars for minimal effort, but in this case, it might actually be deserved. Especially compared to the NBA's horrendous record of response on these kinds of cases.

Boycotts are fine. They rarely work, but they're a good way to take action on moral stances and provide heft to your arguments. I rarely watch the NFL anymore, as I have trouble mentally justifying it given their laissez-faire attitude towards concussions and their former players. But if NBA fans are going to boycott the NFL for their treatment of the Rice case, they should probably start off by storming the NBA's league office in New York and demanding answers on the NBA's pitiful track record. And given the widespread love and adoration for some of these players -- Lowry, Stephenson, and Hill in particular -- many might want to rethink the way they approach fandom as a whole. It's easy to pick holes in sports you don't love, but it's much harder to honestly address very real moral failings in the sport you hold dearest. And it's even harder to come to terms with the fact that the players we hold up as totems to virtue and aesthetics are real human beings with real human flaws.

But that's part of being an adult, and it's part of being a sports fan. Games aren't always fun.

Lost in Vegas: Who Sources the Sourcemen?

 Every time I walked into this place, "Return of the Mack" played on repeat in my head.

This is the second of a two-part dispatch from the 2014 Summer League. For the first part, see this post.

As I discussed yesterday, my approach to this year's summer league only gave me two days of games and analysis. The second day was a quick two-game slate, starting with a rough-and-tumble grinder between the Rockets and the Hornets. They were playing for a spot in the summer league finals the next day. Somewhat inexplicably, both teams were pretty into the game -- there was at least a cursory effort on the floor, despite the obvious boredom of the coaches and the few remaining agents. Among my favorite examples to the point: near the end of the game, one of the refs completely missed a call on a ball out of bounds play -- Isaiah Canaan and Donatas Montejunas proceeded to SCREAM at the refs and throw their best Duncan bug eyes, pointing incredulously at the ball and various body parts.

Amusingly, the ref just flashed a smile and told them to calm down, reversing the call almost immediately. It's almost like the refs only cared insofar as the players could make them care. Given the quick turnaround on the call (despite the fact that none of the other refs seemed to be present), one wonders if a player like Kevin Garnett or Chris Paul (any obnoxiously vicious competitor, really) probably could've talked himself into 20-30 free throws if they actually cared about winning the contest. "Ref, I'm the only guy who really gives a crap about this game. Free throws, please!"

It became essentially impossible to pay attention to the simplistic and poorly-executed sets being played by both teams after a few minutes of the day's action, which led to me paying a bit more attention to one of my old college favorites: Andre Dawkins. See, okay. I went to Duke. I'm not the biggest fan of my alma mater in the world, and that's putting it lightly. Coach Krzyzewski once hissed at me at a game. I don't think I'm allowed to sit in the student section anymore. But Dawkins was one of the dudes I liked. He had a good head on his shoulders, and was in the same dorm as one of my best friends. Where a lot of the Duke team acted like they were above the rest of the student body (... and yeah, let's be honest, they were!), Dawkins was soft spoken and easy to get along with. An adorably nice kid on a team of people who were generally pretty difficult to talk to. So I've been at least marginally familiar with his game since he arrived at Duke.

I could be totally wrong, but I think he'll make a deep-rotation NBA player at some point. His three point shot is just so functionally pure, I can't imagine he won't get a shot. It's one of the quickest releases I've ever seen, and he can get it off under significant duress. He's also good at slithering without the ball -- he sneaks through seams as well as anyone. Of course, he can't defend worth anything, which dramatically lowers his NBA potential. And he somehow managed to amass a handful of technicals during his time in Vegas (... technicals in summer league! TECHNICALS IN SUMMER LEAGUE!!), so perhaps that soft spoken moniker doesn't apply to him anymore. But a shooter as good as him with passable NBA size has a place in the league on a minimum contract, and I'd be shocked if he didn't end up there. Of course, he also was kept out of Houston's crunch time lineup in a close game against summer league competition, so I could be vastly overstating this.

Aw, heck. I probably am. Love you anyway, Dre.

• • •

The second game of the day -- and the final game of my 2014 Summer League experience -- was a lethargic contest between the Sacramento Champs-in-Waiting (Congrats, Sactown!) and the exhausted Wizards. There were a few things that stood out. For starters, Ben McLemore needs to get better at catching the ball. He doesn't seem to have a good sense of where his hands should be, and it makes passes in his general direction a risky proposition. This was partly obvious because he wasn't receiving great passes, but there were a lot of missed directional reads on his end. Too many to ignore. Another obvious part of the game: the Wizards weren't really ready to play again. Washington started the game with the first two points and held tight for 2-3 minutes, but they ended the first quarter down 18-11 and quickly went down 28-11 within 90 seconds of the second quarter. It's almost like playing a triple overtime game the night before at a league you don't want to be at isn't conducive to a great semifinals performance. Who'd have thought?

Beyond the one McLemore notation, it was hard to really take any coherent basketball knowledge from WAS/SAC -- it was one of the least interested games I've ever seen. Sacramento got bored by halftime and spent the entire second half playing with their food. Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. -- who had combined for almost 60 points the night before -- shot 3-13 combined in the first quarter for 7 points. They got a bit better as the game went on, but both were blisteringly inefficient, combining for a tough-to-watch 1-14 shooting display from the 3-point line. Given their constant grousing to the refs, it was pretty obvious that Washington felt Sacramento was playing too physically, but it's hard to imagine a team playing LESS physical basketball than that of the Kings this game. They were laying off Wizards players and daring them to shoot jump shots. Which they did, they just happened to miss them. All of them, basically. By the middle of the 2nd quarter, the game stood at 43-17 in favor of the Kings. Marshon Brooks had almost completely outscored Washington BY HIMSELF. The game got a bit closer later on, but the Wizards never really launched a credible threat.

Before we knew it, the game was over.

• • •

"Stop taking pictures of me," sources relayed, while calling the police.

PLUGGED IN SOURCES SAY...

This was my girlfriend Julia's first time in Vegas. Since I was there with her, I didn't get a chance to interview the handful of real basketball kingmakers left in the arena. Lots of journalists go for the cutting-edge sources and the big NBA gurus when they're anonymizing sources and turning them into gospel. Me? I'm just gonna take random quotes from Julia and try to turn them into quotes from a plugged in anonymous source. It's all for you, readers.

  • JULIA SAYS: "Man, the refs all have perfectly shaped butts. I'm serious, look at them! Do they have padded butt-pants? The players are nice, but... wow. Just wow."
    • "Plugged-in sources assure Gothic Ginobili that the NBA's referee crew are working diligently in areas related to their respective gluteus maximi, perhaps with the advent of FEDs (fashion-enhancing-drugs). While the players are working to combat this reality, the referees are not to be trifled with."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Wait, you're writing all this down? Oh man. I've gotta get some popcorn."
    • "My sources would only speak on conditions of anonymity. Also: popcorn."
  • JULIA SAYS: "So, uh... I think I heard someone snorting coke in a bathroom stall. Are you sure Summer League is safe?"
    • "Las Vegas is a den of iniquity and drug abuse, sources confirm. Bathrooms are dangerous. Don't use them."
  • JULIA SAYS: "Player #40 seems pretty OK. I don't know. Why are you asking me this?"
    • "Scouts in-the-know say that Jordan Henriquez, a Center playing with New York's summer league squad, is seemingly a lock to be picked up by OKC."
  • JULIA SAYS: "I am outraged that you've never had Dippin Dots. You've been to HOW many sporting events? This is a travesty."
    • "I can confirm that my sources have abandoned me at the curbside due to my lack of Dippin Dots knowledge. Send help."

• • •

MISCELLANY AND NOTES:

  • I didn't notice this last year, but the elevator that takes media members from the main arena floor and the media hospitality room is quite possibly the slowest elevator used in the modern world. It takes almost 30 seconds to make that one-story trip upwards, and 35 seconds to make the one-story trip downwards. This may not sound like much. In a vacuum, it's not a ton of time. But I felt that it was very long for an elevator, and while drunk I inexplicably decided to test this out by counting the seconds it takes other Vegas elevators to get a single story in larger buildings. The average I came to based on the wholly scientific numbers written on the back of my hand (after 5 hotels and a few restaurants) was about 5 seconds. No wonder the arena elevator seemed so absurd. One of the staff members pointed out that the building is extremely old, which led to us to the conclusion that the elevator is slow because there is a long-suffering soul at the bottom of the elevator tasked with pulling it up and down. That's his entire job. Plot twist: his name is Mario Chalmers. Why don't I have a book deal yet?
  • Many other sources have written about this, but I have to emphasize -- hearing random people in the crowd yelling "COVER THE SPREAD!" and "AYO, POPS, WHAT'S THE SPREAD?" is kind of incredible. It's like listening to Carlos Boozer's "GET DAT, JO!", but yelled by random people in the crowd -- it's just the perfect embodiment of the moment and the player, with the moment here being "existing in Las Vegas" and the player here being "the aforementioned random folks in the crowd." Speaking of which, the crowds were actually surprisingly large -- the arena was mostly full, which I wasn't expecting at all. Good on you, Vegas.
  • The halftime entertainment wasn't really BETTER than it was last year, but given that I hadn't had to watch a week straight of it, I was able to accept it a bit easier. In halftime of the SAS/WAS game, they had a bunch of 4-5 year old kids playing ball, and I'm gonna be honest with you, it was pretty amazing. Maybe these were just way better kids than usual, but there were actually several baskets in the game despite the use of NBA regulation hoops. The first one was a layup in a crowd, the second was a neat scoop shot, the third one was a fadeaway scoop shot by this long haired girl with a lot of heart, and the last one was this skyhook-looking thing. Look, okay. It wasn't exactly the greatest basketball in the world. But I can't deny that it was completely adorable.

dirigible

  • By far the strangest addition to this year's summer league action? This obnoxious dirigible that flew over the crowd dropping foam fingers. Seriously, that thing was weird. Look at that picture of it above! It was shaped like a flying smokestack and propelled by what looked like a bunch of handheld fans attached to the bottom of the balloon. The arms race to create bold new methods for swag dispersal is going too far.
  • On press row at the LVSL, there's always a staff member who comes around peddling statsheets for writers on deadlines and anyone who's curious. I tended to avoid them, just because they represent a bunch of clutter I don't particularly want to keep around. But they usually don't ask directly if you want the sheets, instead gesturing them towards you like a cigarette toting hipster outside of a concert. For the last statsheet of the day, though, the staff member changed it up -- he walked up behind me and asked "Hey, do you like stats?" Without skipping a beat, I responded "I do. I mean, I work as a statistician, so I suppose I have to. I don't know if I like referring to statistics as a monolith like that, and admit that there are many places where stats are misused in the profession of basketball, but I'm a fan." He stared at me for a few seconds, before I realized he was holding the stat sheets and was NOT actually asking me a broader question about my profession and life goals. That was about when I decided I was too tired for Summer League.

• • •

This concludes Gothic Ginobili's coverage of the 2014 Summer League. Please wait patiently while we cue up our coverage of the 2014 Extreme Knitting Championships of the World, which is likely to be roughly as relevant to the 2015 NBA season as this year's Summer League was.

<a name="p1"></a>

Lost in Vegas: Dispatches from the Summer League Playoffs

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 9.48.07 AM

I like to vary my experiences a bit. When Gothic Ginobili covered Summer League last year, I got to Las Vegas the day Summer League started and left right as the "playoffs" portion began. This year, I decided to do the opposite -- instead of coming to Summer League with Dewey and Arnon and dedicating a week of my life to Summer League coverage, I'd arrive in the dead of night on the Friday before the last weekend and observe how the mundane-yet-maniac energy of last year's Summer League changes as an outsider being thrust in right at the end of the game. I'd also be swapping out Arnon and Dewey for my girlfriend Yoko Julia, a lovely individual with no discernible interest in the game of basketball and no particular investment in any of the teams playing at Summer League. The only way this year's Summer League experience could be more different would be a sex change.

To the many who haven’t been to summer league, it’s a difficult place to pin down. "Summer League ball is totally wicked!" is how I'd describe it if I was peddling lies. Also: if I was from Boston. I’m no peddler, so I'll be frank: the basketball at the later reaches of the NBA’s summer league might be the worst basketball in the world. For tiny children playing basketball in Elementary School gymnasiums, at least there's some iota of fun. For mid-league FIBA games, the players are playing for clear and obvious goals, and with knowledge that their end-of-season stat sheets would be finely combed through by the arbiters of their next contract. But the players that remain at summer league at the very end aren't having fun, and they aren't particularly hopeful of building a contract case either.

Why? It’s pretty simple. In the first few games, the scouts are out in full force and all the players are on their best behavior while they try and finagle their way into a big league contract. That changes as time goes on. As one scout aptly relayed: “I saw everything I needed to see in the first few days.” Did he really, for every player? Perhaps, perhaps not. But that’s how scouts approach the exercise, which makes real effort among the players a rarity as time passes. While the scouts are still here, they aren't really paying THAT much attention to the actual basketball anymore, and the main takeaways have already been taken. Which leads to hours upon hours of half-interested "playoff" basketball between teams that aren’t invested and players that have nothing to play for. It’s a pretty dreadful product, and finding fun in one of these games is often like finding water in the middle of a desert – the truly industrious can salvage a few drops, but you’re going to need to chew up a cactus to do it.

• • •

Chief among those rare tidbits of fun: the numerous random moments where NBA journeymen suddenly look like next-level superstars because the competition is so lousy. In the first day of games, this happened most obviously with noted no-shot journeyman Shannon Brown. He was playing for the Knicks, and was cradling the ball around the top of the three point line looking for a hole in the defense. He didn’t really find one, but decided to throw caution to the wind anyway and curl around 3 defenders to charge the rim. If we’re being honest, all of them had ample time to try and steal the ball back from him. It didn’t matter; even at what looked like half-speed, the 28-year-old Brown juked by all three defenders and finished a scoop layup against the remaining two. That’s right – the threat of Shannon Brown warped the entire Charlotte defense and caused the whole team to effectively quintuple team a guy who might never play in the NBA again. Reflective of how warped the NBA’s competitive fabric becomes in the Vegas heat? Sure. But at least Shannon’s having some fun.

Another element of fun comes from the thirsty throngs who make the yearly trek to watch terrible basketball. Sure, they’re mostly ridiculous, but the crowds get significantly more invested into Summer League games than you see at most NBA arenas during the regular season. This is partly a function of size – as with college crowds, Summer League is held in front of a small enough group of people that it’s possible for a single fan to have a far greater impact on the crowd en masse. In fact, a single guy with a loud voice and a grudge can completely take over the arena. Case in point: one tanned-to-the-limit dude sitting near press row ended up taking over the entire crowd with his loud and droning “AIIIIIIR BAAAAALL” chants while the ball was being thrown back in play. They had stopped the music, which made him and his acolytes echo through the arena in a way that felt more like a cage fight than a basketball game. It may not have made much sense, but at least it distracted from the basketball.

Even though the league is theoretically a proving ground for the NBA’s newest younger guys, few of them were still playing when I got there. Wiggins and Jabari were long gone, and the Spurs had eliminated Exum’s one-man-show a few days prior. That left Adriean Payne as the big early showcase for my first day’s action. His stats were rather weak, but I liked what I saw. For starters, Payne had great speed when recovering off a set screen – he was excellent at setting a screen, switching directions, and catching a pass in motion going towards the basket all while moving in a fluid, controlled motion. This isn’t exactly RARE in the NBA, but it speaks to Payne’s offensive versatility in a system that requires a mobile, active big guy on offense. He appears to have a decent toolbox. His decisionmaking was hardly ideal – he was a few steps late on defense with regularity. When you look slow and plodding during summer league, it’s pretty hard to see how you project out as a positive NBA-level defender. This also ignores the fact that he was chucking with abandon, although it’s hard to blame him given how disinterested the rest of his team was in the day’s proceedings.

• • •

I’m sort of burying the lede, though. On my first day of Summer League action, there was one particular game I was excited to watch. It was the most excited I’d been about ANY summer league game I’d ever watched. Yes, even more than the interesting matchup with Wiggins against Jabari -- the story was certainly cool in that one, but the play was never destined to live up to expectations. The summer slate is hardly the place that brings out the best in much-ballyhooed young talent, and the game would hardly serve as a referendum on whether Jabari Parker can hang with NBA-level athletes on a work-a-day level or whether Andrew Wiggins could bring to the league the same defensive tenacity he showed at Kansas. Hence, it wouldn't really answer any of the questions I had about the players, and the hype was so high I felt it could never live up to expectations.

No, my big focus was on the Spurs/Wizards "playoff" game -- the last game on the Saturday slate. There were two reasons for this. I'm a Spurs fan, so there’s a natural enjoyment in watching the various odd and varied incarntaions of the Spurs. San Antonio's summer league teams tend to run a much-simplified version of the classic San Antonio playbook, much like the Austin Toros and the preseason Spurs. It isn’t nearly as beautiful as San Antonio’s regular fare, but it’s a decent enough echo to keep me piqued. The second reason? No team has ever won the NBA title (est. 1946) and the Summer League title (est. 2013) in the same calendar year. So I pose to you my question: WHY NOT THE SPURS, DEAR READERS? WHY NOT THEM.

Alright, yeah -- that’s mostly a joke. But there were plenty of fun Spurs-tinted plays by the faux team. Vander Blue showed off some excellent creativity on the bounce throughout the night, whipping passes that were generally on point and creative. Midway through the second, he threw this positively awesome mustard-ball bounce pass through the outstretched hands of his defender straight into the hands of Austin Daye, who finished a pretty off-hand layup in fluid motion. Good stuff, right? The Summer Spurs had 14 assists on 21 made field goals at halftime, and looked to be on their way to a fun rout. The dream was alive! San Antonio was heading to back-to-back titles! No San Antonio team would furrow away a 10 point lead, right?

Wait. Yeah. They definitely would. These are the summer Spurs. And even the regular season Spurs have noted issues with holding leads, as Gregg Popovich loves to remind his guys – after shooting 50%-57%-100% in the first half, the Spurs shot an almost inconceivable 14%-0%-0% in the first 5:27 of the second half with four mostly-fast-break turnovers. The Wizards almost instantly turned around San Antonio’s bulging lead into a blowout-margin of their own. Although the Spurs fought back, they had trouble getting over the hump, and ended the third frame down a few points. All the uninitiated quickly discovered that Jeff Ayres literally has hands made of stone and granite – pretty hard to put a soft touch on the ball when your hands are a TSA-banned heavy weapon. Alas.

Then, with about a minute left in the game, I wrote this in my notes:

The Spurs and Wizards kept it surprisingly tight (and interesting!) throughout the fourth quarter, but Otto Porter essentially put the Spurs away with a three point basket with roughly 2:30 left in the contest. I mean, being down three with 2:30 to play is hardly a death knell during most of the season. But this is Summer League, where the defense is sparse but the shotmakers sparser.

That’s where the basketball gods decided to mock me. The Spurs went on to tie the game with a chance to win it at the buzzer – they missed, but it made my prognostication look pretty silly. I figured there was no way Coach Udoka would extend a Summer League game. I was wrong. The best part about OT wasn’t the play or any of the stories – it was the fact that I had five rows of press row to myself. Andy Katz was a few rows down, and Holly McKenzie (among others) were closer to the front. But I wasn’t going to let anyone enter my territory – definitely leaning more Walter White than Kermit the Frog, here. So I just ended up with this massive space all to myself. It was delightful.

As for the endgame, it wasn’t too bad – the Spurs rode Vander Blue and Austin Daye pretty hard in the extra period, although they kept inexplicably trying to involve Jeff Ayres in the offense. (Probably for his championship experience. Maybe they thought his will to win the previous year’s title would translate to buckets.) For their part, the Wizards continued doing what they’d been doing the entire night – they fed the ball into Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr. and let them do literally everything. Near the end of overtime, Austin Daye had a few free throws that could’ve put Washington away for good. He missed them, leading to a second period where the Spurs were up 3 with less than 3 seconds left in the contest.

That was too much time, as it turned out – Otto Porter drained a three from the left quarter to force an unprecedented TRIPLE overtime, where the Spurs finally fell after essentially conceding the last few possessions in an effort to make sure nobody had to play another overtime. Ime Udoka: the real summer league MVP. Although I spent most of this post grousing about the quality of play this past weekend, I can't deny it -- the SAS/WAS game was the best summer league game I'd ever seen, and about as good as a mid-tier regular season game. As such, my first day ended happily. Hooray!

• • •

MISCELLANY AND NOTES:

  • Midway through a surprisingly tight game between the Summer Rockets and the Summer Hawks, Steve McPherson hijacked the attention of nearly every writer on press row by bringing back everyone’s favorite hashtag: "#RemoveALetterRuinABand”. The general idea is that you can usually completely ruin a band name and change their overall image by taking away a single letter. I want to remember some of these, so here are some of my favorites. I don't remember who tweeted which, but I know that @DamianTrillard and @CalebJSaenz were responsible for a bunch of these. I was pretty proud of "Ron Maiden", myself.
    • Grateful Dad
    • Taking Heads
    • Ron Maiden
    • Dr. Dr
    • 2Chinz

I’ll keep you guys abreast of the situation as I workshop more of these. This is extremely important journalism.

  • Overheard in the crowd: "Ayo, son, Kevin Love lives on double doubles. They like water to him, bruh. I aint sayin Klay Thompson's a bad player, man -- he's a top 20 at his position, maybe -- but he aint that last piece. You gotta have Kevin Love over Klay Thompson man. You just gotta." There are a lot of layers here, and the idea posited probably deserves a post of its own. My main question, though: how is Thompson only top 20 at his position? I realize he's a bit overrated, but there are barely 15 decent starters at that position. By dint of being a half-decent player, he's ALREADY above his positional average. In his defense, I asked him about that later and he realized that he was being a bit hyperbolic. He also said the following: "Jeff Ayres is like a 9 year veteran in this league, but he's still playing in summer league. What that mean to you, son?" It's a good point.
  • The arena staff introduced a fun wrinkle at the end of the final overtime period: tossing copies of NBA Live 2014 into the much-depleted crowd as they broke for the last 4.8 seconds of the first overtime. They spent all day tossing random things, but an actual working video game was saved for the final game of the day, 10-12 minutes from the end. Talk about burying the lede.
  • There was something really silly about the overtimes in the last game of my first day. For most of Summer League, the NBA instituted a rule replacing all extra time after one OT period with a sudden death shootout. It was a really good idea, because nobody there actually wants to register extra time. But rather inexplicably, they abandoned the sudden death concept for the "playoff" component of the league, which meant that as the competition gets more and more languished, the players suddenly have to play extra basketball. Absolutely nonsensical, especially since they set teams up in a position to play three days in a row if they make the "title" game.

• • •

That concludes our first summer league dispatch, admittedly posted after I got back. I'll compile the rest of my notes into a catch-all conclusion tomorrow before continuing with our inexplicable free agency grades. Stay frosty.

Free Agency 2014: More Signings, More Grades!

richard jefferson

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started two weeks ago. One of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Any given contract's maximum length was slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm trying to stay abreast on the information overload so you don't have to. Today I'll be covering:

  • A large number of low-end free agents. Not all of them, as there are officially too many to discuss in one post.
  • Grades for each signing based on my take on how said player would fare in a zombie apocalypse.
  • Everything BUT LeBron. His name will not occur after this line. Live to LeBron another day, lovelies.

Let's get to it.

• • •

Here are a large number of deals that have gone down so far with a few snap thoughts on each of them. I will also provide a grade on each contract. Last week's grades were on a rapidly shifting scale with no comparability between the different grades. These will be comparable, but completely agnostic to a player's talent, fit, or general basketball acumen. I'll be grading on my best guess as to whether the player in question would be a standout citizen in a zombie apocalypse. (Before anyone asks -- yes, slow zombies. Get that fast stuff out of here.)

  • Nando De Colo signs with CSKA-Moscow on an undisclosed deal. Nando De Colo was not a particularly groundbreaking NBA player. A perennial backup at best, he showed serious NBA speed but often found himself tricked into making passes that were far outside any possible comfort zone for a player of his caliber. Compounded that with low finishing ability and a shaky-yet-quick-trigger shot. In San Antonio almost seemed like he was trying to imitate Manu. Maybe it was some kind of hilarious attempt to trick Gregg Popovich into giving him extra minutes by getting the two of them mixed up. (SPOILERS: It didn't work.) He cleaned up his act enough in Toronto that you could start to see a decent option at the backup point if you squinted, but in a league replete with point guards that wasn't quite good enough to make the kind of money he wanted. Too replaceable. De Colo might very well be a star with CSKA Moscow -- his aggression and speed that's relatively pedestrian in the NBA could make him a standout in any league that's slightly slower and slightly more by-the-book. Probably a good deal for CSKA Moscow.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: While De Colo isn't an amazing NBA player, the guy is lithe and stringy. Also: delightfully fast. I think he'd survive pretty admirably in a post-apocalyptic wasteland -- perhaps not the most cerebral member of the group, but he'd be quick thinking and good at running when the caca hits the rotors. Four brains out of five.
  • Kent Bazemore signs with the Atlanta Hawks on a 2 year, $4 million dollar deal. Remember when I mentioned less than one paragraph ago that the league has a glut of point guards? Consider Bazemore exhibit A. He's hardly an amazing talent, but he's eminently passable. In a league with fewer options, it's feasible that an athletic wunderkind like Bazemore could get a much larger contract than that. Especially given his turn with the Los Angeles Lakers last year -- in his first serious minutes, Bazemore averaged 28 minutes of burn with 13-3-3 on 47-37-64 shooting and his usual scraphouse grinder defense, which certainly seemed like a decent-tier backup to me. He's only 24 years old, so chances are reasonably high that this deal ages well over the next two years as he develops into his passing game and backs up the entrenched incumbent in Jeff Teague. That's where we are as a league right now -- there are enough passable point guards that $2 million a year can net you a young, low-risk athletic burst guy at your backup point guard slot. No wonder Nando left for greener pastures.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Bazemore's burst and athleticism may make him a strong option for the Hawks at backup point guard, but he's a bit stocky. He's also a physical defender, used to bodying guys up and aggressive fronts. If you aggressively front a zombie, it will be difficult to avoid being bitten. Atlanta, you made the wrong call. Two brains out of five.
  • Brian Roberts signs with the Charlotte Hornets on a 2 year, $5.5 million dollar deal. As with Bazemore, this represents a decent bargain on a flawed-but-developing point guard. Bazemore is more of an offensive project, Roberts is more of a defensive project -- his close-outs were wild and often terribly timed, but he shot the ball well and helmed several reasonably efficient offensive units off the New Orleans bench. This probably signals the end of the Ramon Sessions era in Charlotte, with Charlotte going for a younger option with a bit more upside. Probably a lateral move, if we're honest, but maybe Clifford can milk a bit more out of his game.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Brian Roberts is a worldly player, having played overseas for Israel and Germany. I'm going to assume he's learned a lot of cool tricks from his Israeli and German teammates, giving him that extra edge that nudges him just above replacement level. Three brains and a femur out of five.
  • Willie Green signs with the Orlando Magic on a 1 year, $1.2 million dollar deal. This is selfish, but I hate this deal. I hate this deal for one reason, and one alone -- I hate watching Willie Green play. I just don't think he's an NBA caliber player. This will be his eleventh season in the league. He played almost 16 MPG for one of the three or four best teams in the NBA last season, so it was silly of me to expect he'd leave. But he just didn't really do anything! He shot under 40% from the floor despite playing well over a third of his minutes with Chris Paul. Do you have any idea how hard that is? He only shot 33% from three! Perhaps he'll be a calming veteran presence in an Orlando locker room that needs it. I doubt it. More likely, he'll shoot even worse than he did last year and slowly fade into the ether.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: His name is 'Willie'. Need I say more? One brain out of five.

• • •

Kevin Garnett: starting center on the zombie all-stars.

  • Ben Gordon signs with the Orlando Magic on a 2 year, $9 million dollar deal. In a vacuum, I don't despise this signing. The second year is reportedly a team option, which essentially means they're draining about $4 million on him this season with the intention of cutting him or shipping him off for assets if he shows even the slightest pulse. He hasn't in several years, but it's a flyer on a possible asset grab. The thing is? Even understanding the logic, I still don't see the point of picking up Gordon specifically. It's not like the market is bone dry or anything -- there are a bunch of cheap young mid-career options that Orlando could've kicked the tires on instead. Jerryd Bayless, Jordan Crawford, Xavier Henry, James Anderson... even their own Doron Lamb, who wasn't that bad last season. They probably could've had their pick of any of those shooting guards for the same general price range they're paying Gordon, and all of them are roughly as likely to turn into the kind of trade asset they're hoping to get from Gordon. And none of them left their former team on terms nearly as bad as Gordon's last ouster. Just sort of puzzling to me. Certainly could work out, and it's hardly a harrowing loss even if it goes horribly wrong. Just fundamentally strange, much like their odd Willie Green signing and their difficult to defend Afflalo dump.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Ben Gordon fearlessly took on chomping zombies back when he was a member of the Chicago Bulls, as seen in the picture above. He's a grizzled veteran of the zombie game. Five brains out of five.
  • Richard Jefferson signs with the Dallas Mavericks on a 1 year, $1.5 million dollar deal (10+ year veteran's minimum). Little known fact: Richard "El Jeffe" Jefferson wasn't that bad last season. He wasn't exactly some building block for the future, which begged the question of what on God's green earth Tyrone Corbin was doing by giving him 27 minutes a night. But lost in the futility of his season was the fact that he really wasn't that bad. He was actually better than he'd been since 2011, with perfectly mediocre averages of 10-3-2 on 45-40-75. He brought back a bit of his at-rim finishing game and continued to show off the rehabilitated shot he got in San Antonio. His defense has fallen off a cliff, but as a purely offensive player, he's the absolute definition of "replacement level" at this point. Adequate to a fault. Hence, I actually like this signing for Dallas -- given Shawn Marion's precipitous falloff on defense, Jefferson might actually represent an equal caliber veteran replacement as a backup for Chandler Parsons. Given that the Mavericks are contending for a title (if only on the periphery), it makes a bit more sense to focus on veteran known quantities over flyers at your backup slots. And a vet min deal is decent value for that kind of production. It's a silly deal simply because Richard Jefferson is silly -- it's a good one regardless of the omnipresent humor.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Richard Jefferson reminds me of the mild-mannered side character in most zombie movies. He doesn't really distinguish himself in any way before the zombie apocalypse, but his quiet strength quickly makes him the backbone of the group, quickly showing his importance as the greatest zombie fighter of all. ... YO, I'M PLAYIN, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT RICHARD JEFFERSON. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. One brain out of five.
  • Bojan Bogdanovic signs with the Brooklyn Nets for 3 years, $10 million dollars. I don't know much about Bogdanovic. He's a Croatian player who plays for the Croatian national team, and is coming stateside from a tour with Fenerbahce Ulker in Turkey. He's 25, which means he has some limited upside, and the deal is structured such that he can opt out of the final year if he wants to try his hand at a larger payout. He's played with fellow Brooklyn bench-bro Mirza Teletovic before, so there might be some preexisting chemistry between the two Croats. All things considered, it isn't a terrible use of the taxpayer MLE -- Bogdanovic averaged 15 points a night in Turkey and has a reasonably smooth perimeter shot, although it remains to be seen if his release is quick enough to get open looks at an NBA level.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: I really know nothing about him. This is a stupendously difficult zombie grade to assess. According to Wikipedia, the Croatian national team's head coach kicked him off the team in 2012 for disciplinary issues. Perhaps that implies that as the going gets tough, Bojan starts to get rougher and tougher, and that he would end up a lone agent in a zombie apocalypse scenario. Going one-on-one in a world like that is not usually conducive to success. Two brains out of five.
  • Danny Granger signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $4.2 million dollars. There are few moves this summer that I disliked as much as this one. When negotiations completed on this contract, the Heat still had... uh... "that one dude" (remember, I can't use the L-word!) who should theoretically have be a big free agent draw. They were looking for Granger as a backup spot-minute guy who would play 10-15 minutes a night. His veteran minimum salary value is $1.3 million dollars a year. That's what the veteran minimum was made for! Why were the Heat willing to give up their $4.2 million biannual exception for Danny Granger, despite the fact that they could've signed him to a veteran minimum deal for $2.6 million dollars over two years? Was there a huge market for Granger, despite his scintillating playoff shooting of 27% from the field with 22% from three point range? Look at other players who signed around BAE value -- Kent Bazemore, James Johnson, Beno Udrih, Lavoy Allen. Are you telling me that NONE of them would've considered Miami's money if Riley could've convinced Granger to take a $1.6 million dollar haircut? Come on. Miami should've pushed on the veteran minimum. And if they failed, they should've reoriented and found other quality vets who might've taken it instead and spent their BAE on someone with a modicum of upside. I love Danny Granger, but that was a heck of a puzzling move by Riley.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: High. Not many veterans have their own Batcave -- as long as Granger can make his way to his New Mexico home, he should be able to hole up in the Batcave and hold out a strong defense against the zombified hordes. Huge value for Miami's BAE, and could very well save Riley's butt once everything goes down. Great move. Four brains out of five.

• • •

mario welcome

  • Mario Chalmers re-signs with the Miami Heat for 2 years, $8 million dollars. Although Chalmers is coming off one of the worst NBA Finals performances I've ever seen, this contract seems like a decent value to me. Chalmers is 28 years old, which means it's unlikely he evolves his game much, but he's a capable showrunner for Spolestra's playbook and a decent defensive talent at an ordinarily defenseless position. He's hardly one of the league's better point guards, and as the entrenched Miami starter, he'll remain one of the league's worst starting point men. But he's also quite cheap for a player in his nominal prime and it'll keep Miami from losing too much corporate knowledge as they shuffle the pieces around Bosh and Wade. Which is valuable, if not particularly sexy. (Still wish they had Isiaiah, though.)
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Picture this. The Heat are in their RV, driving to Danny Granger's Albequerque home. Tempers run high. Suddenly, the RV sputters. They turn to Mario in concert, and start yelling at him. Even Spolestra stops the RV, turning to join the mob. Mario, it was your job to fill the tank! Mario, why are you so useless! Mario, THIS WAS YOUR ONE JOB. As they scream, hordes of zombies start clawing at the outside of the RV. Pat Riley looks out the window and steels himself, resigned to their fate. (PLOT TWIST: The gas was full. Mario did his job. It sputtered because RVs do that sometimes. Whoops.) Zero brains out of five.
  • D.J. Augustin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 2 years, $6 million dollars. Augustin isn't an incredible player, but I like his fit in a Stan Van Gundy offense. I could see him playing a role not-dissimilar to the one played by Rafer Alston in 2009 -- a spot of reliable three point shooting and burst scoring off the bench by a generally tepid distributor. Of course, that makes a lot more sense when you aren't paying Brandon Jennings tens of millions of dollars to play a similar role (and play it better!), but that's beside the point. (Yes, pun intended.)
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Augustin is quite small for an NBA player, standing at 6'0". He's also really fast, which means that he'd be great at darting through the woods and escaping a horde on his own. He calls his own number a lot, which probably would frustrate members of his group, but his size makes him a replacement level zombie fighter. Three brains out of five.
  • Cartier Martin signs with the Detroit Pistons for 1 year, $1.1 million dollars (6-year veteran's minimum). Martin isn't a phenomenally adept player, but he can shoot threes. I wrote a few days back about how Stan Van Gundy (the GM) was building the exact sort of team that Stan Van Gundy (the coach) wanted to work with. Martin is a reminder of that desire, a one-dimensional shooter who will spot up to the corners and do little else in his system. One-dimensional or not, he should be useful to a Pistons team that was almost unbelievably bad at shooting threes last season.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: One-dimensional agents can be useful in the aftermath of a zombie takeover, but only if that dimension actually has anything to do with rebuilding society or defending yourself against zombies. Corner threes will not be very useful while zombies are eating you. Zero brains out of five.
  • Aaron Gray signs with the Detroit Pistons for terms that are still totally undisclosed. Seriously, wait, what? It's been ten days, Stan Van Gundy. This was announced over a week ago -- it is now the 15th. Let the terms leak already! ... That said, I don't really love this move, nor do I really understand it. The Pistons are going to have to waive Peyton Siva or Josh Harrellson in order to fit this contract on the books. Siva is talented, and a decent young player to maintain a flyer on. Harrellson is an incredibly cheap floor spacing center with mediocre defense. Neither of them are less substantial than Gray, a 30-year-old NBA lifer who's mediocre at everything and lacks any particular big-ticket skills. The deal is likely for the minimum, so it's hard to fault him too much. But I prefer Harrellson simply for his differential skillset -- adding a traditional meat-and-potatoes big man with no intriguing tertiary skills to a rotation as cramped up as Detroit's strikes me as a poor move.
    • ZOMBIE GRADE: Aaron Gray is a massive, massive man. This means he'd be stronger in a fight as long as he maintained enough distance from the zombies, but he would be unable to outrun them and would have to stay fully armored the entire time. A tough proposition, and probably an early casualty of the zombie horde. Two brains out of five.

• • •

Fun times. Join me later this week as I continue sifting through the NBA's myriad free agent moves, and continue my ever-present quest to find the least useful grading scale ever. Stay frosty.

Free Agency 2014: Grading a Week's Worth of Signings

dirk colorful hat

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started last week. One of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Any given contract's maximum length was slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm trying to stay abreast on the information overload so you don't have to. Today I'll be covering:

  • Every single free agency deal I haven't discussed yet.
  • No, really, every single one! I even graded them, using an incomparable scale!
  • (Okay, actually, I'm missing a few of the one-year deals. Whoops. At least I graded the ones I have!)

Let's get to it.

• • •

Here are all the deals that have gone down so far with a few snap thoughts on each of them. I will also provide a grade on each contract. These will be placed on a constantly shifting scale completely impossible to compare between transaction-to-transaction. No, really. Just TRY to compare them.

  • Dirk Nowitzki re-signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $30 million dollar deal. Unless LeBron signs for a significantly below-market deal (under $20 million), this is the best contract of the summer. Much like Duncan's $30 million dollar deal right after San Antonio's rough jaunt with Oklahoma City in the 2012 WCF, this essentially amounts to getting an all-NBA caliber player for less than a sixth of your cap. Dirk and Duncan both have games that are aging beautifully, with Duncan's offense and Dirk's defense falling off from career highs but their inverse advantages staying roughly in line with career averages. As long as Dirk exists as a threat on the floor, he's likely to deserve this contract and more. GRADE: Three Pterodactyls out of Two Oranges.
  • Kyle Lowry re-signs with Toronto on a 4-year, $48 million dollar deal. Much like Dirk's deal, this was a pretty strong move. Lowry isn't one of the best 3 or 4 point guards in the league, and it's unlikely he'll ever quite reach that stratosphere -- not with stars like Paul, Parker, Westbrook, Curry, and Wall filling the league's ledger above him. But Lowry exists firmly in the next tier of almost-star point guards with Lillard, Irving, Conley, and Rondo -- all of them have a handful of fatal flaws that keep them right outside that top group, but all of them can take over a game with their skillsets. And unless you have LeBron, you better have someone from these lists if your offense intends to contend for a title. If Lowry didn't have his (completely deserved) reputation as a bad-attitude guy, he probably could've strung out for a little bit more. As is? Fairly nice deal with very low blow-up potential for Toronto, and it gives Lowry both financial security and legitimacy as one of the league's 10-or-so best showrunners. GRADE: Five seasons of Orange is the New Black scavenged from six computers.
  • Marcin Gortat re-signs with Washington on a 5-year, $60 million dollar deal. While I don't love this contract, it was probably what Washington needed to pay to keep him. I just wish they could've kept the years down a bit more for the sake of their flexibility. The Wizards were good this year, but they weren't good enough to give the impression that they couldn't have lived with a shakeup around their Beal/Wall core. Especially given how they frittered away what should have been an easy series against a reeling Pacers team -- although Washington relies on a few young pieces (specifically Wall and Beal) they're hardly a young team overall. The "playoff newbies" excuse doesn't hold that much water when Ariza is your 4th man and Gortat/Nene are your one-two punch from the frontcourt. This team isn't strictly built to win now, but bringing the core back doesn't guarantee that they're going to improve enough to pull off a string of conference finals appearances. If Gortat has a down year, I'm not totally sure teams are going to be chomping at the bit to take this kind of a contract off Washington's hands. Still, in a pathetically weak East, even if it isn't a guarantee the potential is there for this Wizards team is good enough to become an ECF staple. And that's worth something, so it's hard to fault them too much. GRADE: Eight wax figurines of Tuco Salamanca out of the Internet.

• • •

boris the magic diaw

  • Boris Diaw re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $22.5 million dollar deal. I'm not a massive fan of this one on its face, but I heard a few rumors that the last year might be partially guaranteed. That helps it along a bit. While the exact details of the contract aren't completely clear, it appears the last year is partially guaranteed and the first two years will pay him $18.5 million in total -- that would tend to imply (at least to my eyes) that the contract is set up in a manner similar to Tiago Splitter's contract from the last offseason, where it starts high and gets lower as the years go on. Given the high likelihood of a post-championship hangover from one of the league's most motivation-fickle players, that sounds pretty good to me, and makes his contract easy to move as early as next offseason if the Spurs decide to go in a different direction. Maintains continuity without sacrificing flexibility. Decent move, and rewards him for a great year. GRADE: One perfectly acceptable croissant out of a hole-in-the-wall French chain restaurant.
  • Avery Bradley re-signs with Boston on a 4-year, $32 million dollar deal. A lot of people were complaining about this one, reasoning that Bradley hasn't really shown himself to be a $32 million dollar player. I disagree. He hasn't consistently put together the kind of play you want out of a max guy, but his abilities as a defensive stopper (despite his size) and generally proficient three point shot make him worth this kind of mid-tier money. Some people compare him unfavorably to Danny Green. It's a fine comparison, as Danny is a better player that does nearly everything Bradley does. Does it better, too. But it ignores the fact that Danny Green is incredibly underpaid, and likely deserves to be making anywhere from 10-12 million himself. The small wing is a position of massive scarcity right now. Green has a serious case for top-5 at the small wing, and Harden is almost certainly the best at that position right now despite his massive flaw. In that context, of COURSE Bradley deserves more than an MLE! Especially given his age. Why was this even a question? GRADE: Seven steel unsorted Monopoly pieces taken from seven hundred beat-up game boxes... but they're the seven coolest ones, so you really lucked out.
  • Patty Mills re-signs with San Antonio on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. Diaw's contract might be a bit outsized given the likelihood of a worse season, but THIS contract is basically a steal. Yeah, he's injured. Won't play for the first few months of next season! But I hardly care. The Spurs have Cory Joseph to develop during Patty's rehab, and Patty is a $5-6 million dollar player -- possibly more. Mills could put up solid numbers for just about every lottery team in the league, with a superb handle and an unflappable three point acumen. He's been improving his defense, too. And the Spurs only have to pay $4 million a year to lock up his services? Fantastic. GRADE: Sixteen kangaroos out of five spider-clocks.
  • Shaun Livingston signs with Golden State on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Backup point guard was a massive problem for Golden State last year, and Livingston represents a very different approach at the point to the one Curry holds dear. Change of pace is a real thing. It totally changes how the opposing team game-plans your bench. Livingston also has the flexibility to play the two, although it'll be a weird fit. Still. At that price, he was a great pickup. GRADE: Six hundred and seventy two egrets hand-picked from the private recesses of Gil Scott Heron's legendary egret collection.

• • •

Darren Collison, right now.

  • Darren Collison signs with Sacramento on a 3-year, $16 million dollar deal. Since I think Darren Collison is significantly worse than Shaun Livingston, I like this deal a lot less. I also like it less because the Kings were dangerously close to the NBA's hard-cap apron BEFORE this deal was signed. In its aftermath, the Kings have inexplicably forced their own hand regarding Isaiah Thomas' contract -- despite Isaiah's status as a restricted free agent, they can no longer match any offer that takes them over the apron. This deal is shaky-but-reasonable if they're paying Collison to be Isaiah's backup. If they're paying him as a REPLACEMENT, this is just sad. Ergo... well, it's just sad. Sorry, Kings fans. GRADE: Two dumpster-diving hipsters lecturing you about Freegan culture inside a whale-shark.
  • Thabo Sefolosha signs with Atlanta on a 3-year, $12 million dollar deal. If the Hawks get the player OKC had by last year's Conference Finals, this was a bad deal. Sefolosha's shot had degraded to the point that he simply could not stay on the floor, and his defense hasn't been at its career-best for a few years now. That said? Atlanta has had salary space to burn these last few years, and there aren't any big fish they're really aiming to pull. Even if Thabo is useless, a deal like this should be reasonably easy to move in a pinch and given his former highs as a three-and-D Bowen-style stopper, this kind of a deal represents a decent flyer. GRADE: One cumulonimbus cloud placed lovingly on a hoagie bun.
  • Chris Kaman signs with Portland on a 2-year, $10 million dollar deal. The Blazers needed some improvement from their bench guys, but I'm not really sure this was the way to go. They lost in a ridiculously lopsided gentleman's sweep to the champs. Could've at least played the youth game and put in a flyer on Ed Davis or Aaron Gray. Not that either of those guys would've been massive difference makers, but at least there's some upside. What's the upside on a no-defense shot chucking big man? Other than the commercials. Those are pretty high upside. Nevermind, I've talked myself into it -- this signing is all worth it if one hipster joint in Portland gets a sponsorship deal with Kaman and forces him to pretend to be a hipster in a commercial. GRADE: One deleted Animal Crossing save file placed in the context of a whole human life.
  • Spencer Hawes signs with Los Angeles on a 4-year, $23 million dollar deal. Not a huge fan of the years on this one, and the dollar value seems mighty steep for a big man with defense as bad as Hawes. In the big picture, though, it's a solid move. I'm all for moves that fill actual holes, and one of L.A.'s biggest problems in recent years has been a borderline terrifying lack of depth in their frontcourt. Signing Hawes FINALLY gives L.A. a passable option beyond Griffin and Jordan, and (as mentioned in the Livingston note) functions further as a change-of-pace option to space the floor and free up the rim for the other big man. Length is a bit steep, and his defense is going to hurt them. But they aren't going to have to give Glen Davis 15 minutes a night playing center in playoff situations anymore, and that counts for a lot. GRADE: Green Eggs out of Ham.
  • Jordan Farmar signs with Los Angeles on a 2-year, $4.2 million dollar deal. I really like this move. Farmar isn't great, but they don't need a golden God at backup point guard -- Chris Paul can handle it for most of the game. Farmar makes threes and exists as a credible off-ball threat. He won't replicate Collison's wares exactly, but he'll be a good enough facsimile that I doubt the Clippers will notice the difference. And that's an incredibly cheap contract. GRADE: Sixteen Kid's Choice Awards awarded indiscriminately to family members that are vaguely related to you.

• • •

kyrie approaches

  • Kyrie Irving signs an extension with Cleveland for 5-years, $90 million dollars. Kyrie's career hasn't exactly gone as I expected it would. One of my favorite parts of Kyrie's college game was his on-ball tenacity and generally sound defensive fundamentals -- absolutely NONE of that has been present in his NBA game, and he hasn't really evolved like I'd expected him to. His passing hasn't really taken much of a leap forward, his defense has been pathetic, and he simply hasn't changed much. His rookie season was one of the best rookie seasons in the last decade, but that's comparing amongst rookie seasons -- his rookie season was also arguably his best season, which makes it hard to place where his contract deserved to land. That said? Given the weakness of the East, this max was probably worth it. Cleveland might very well have an all-star locked in for the next five years. And it's not the $20 million dollar max, it's the post-rookie max -- that's a huge difference, and it keeps the contract pretty reasonable. Stability is huge, too -- it's a big step forward for a franchise that's been in a state of constant change since LeBron's departure. GRADE: Several origami shurikens thrown from the back of a moving truck by a pyromaniac who's not too lost to cry.
  • C.J. Miles signs with Indiana on a 4-year, $18 million dollar deal. Much like how the Darren Collison deal depends on their treatment of Isaiah Thomas, my feelings depend on how Indiana's pursuit of Stephenson shakes out. If they retain him, this deal is great -- Miles adds a much-needed pop of scoring and shooting to an Indiana bench that's been unfathomably awful these last few years. If they don't, this deal is somewhat unfortunate -- despite the decent price they got for a good bench option, Miles is never going to replicate what Stephenson brings the Pacers, and he represents a huge step down in their rotation. Still. In a vacuum it's a pretty decent deal. But if it really does end their pursuit of Stephenson, it was a mistake. GRADE: Miles and miles of Gomer Pyle, but everyone's still so thirsty.
  • Patrick Patterson signs with Toronto on a 3-year, $18 million dollar deal. I really like this for Toronto -- Patterson has come a long way since my not-particularly-complimentary player capsule, and getting a young big man with a constantly improving track record on a patently affordable seven-figure annual deal is pretty tough in the modern NBA. Combined with the Lowry move, the cost savings Ujiri pulled off from those two moves should allow him the flexibility to continue adding to Toronto's fringe East-contending roster. Great call. GRADE: Five capitalized "P's" placed next to several capitalized "T's".
  • Devin Harris signs with Dallas on a 3-year, $9 million dollar deal. This is... fine. It's fine. I don't love it, mainly because the Mavericks just lost Jose Calderon and really need another point guard in his place. Harris is better in Dallas than he is anywhere else, as he works well in Carlisle's system and plays well off Dirk. And given that Dallas was a pretty good team last year, continuity is worth something here. But Harris is clearly a step down from the league's contending point guards, and Dallas is going to need a better replacement for Calderon if they intend to contend for the West next year. If they strike out on Melo and LeBron, I'd like to see them go after Isaiah Thomas with their remaining cap space -- he's short, but his three point shot would work well in Dirk's shadow and I have a feeling Monta and Isaiah would be must-see TV. Just an inkling. GRADE: Three musketeers out of all the other superior candy bars you could be eating instead.
  • Zach Randolph signs an extension with Memphis on a 2-year, $20 million dollar deal. Although Randolph is reasonably young (currently 32 years old), I'm a little bit concerned about this deal for Memphis. This extension's $20 million dollar price tag doesn't include this year's $16.5 million dollar salary, meaning the overall picture is more like $36 million for three years of late-career Randolph. And that simply isn't what it used to be. True, Randolph's 2014 was a bit of a throwback campaign -- he had his highest TS% since 2011, highest free throw rate, and higher usage than he'd put up since his days with the Clippers. But his rebounding has continued a worrying downward trajectory and his playoff performance was barely a shell of the game he showed against San Antonio years ago -- against LAC, he barely shot above 40% (40.4) and couldn't even clear 9 rebounds a game despite playing almost 40 minutes a contest. Not ideal. For this contract to make any sense at all, Randolph is going to need to get back in shape and perform at a level fitting with that kind of a salary. The Grizzlies aren't going to have much of a chance at a finals berth otherwise. GRADE: That one old girlfriend you always forget when listing off your dating history.

Tomorrow, I'll be covering the inevitable Carmelo Anthony deal (and the resultant detrius) as well as a rumination on this year's considerably entertaining LeBron drama, even if (like most people) I have serious doubts about most of the information we're being fed by anonymous sources. Later, haters!

P.S. For the stampeding legion of slighted Jodie Meeks fans who are wondering where my grade is for his signing, I discussed the Meeks deal last week. However, I did not grade it. Now that I've graded everything else, I see the error in my ways. I apologize, Jodie Meeks fans. My grade for the Jodie Meeks signing is a robust "nineteen stereos playing out-of-sync Feist songs in a hermetically sealed silent room with nothing but a tuba in the corner." Hope that flies with you guys.

Free Agency, 2014: Day #1's Three Biggest Stories

stan van gundy

Lest you've been living under a rock, I must inform you -- free agency started yesterday. Zach Lowe and Tom Ziller have gone over this ad infinitum, but one of the unintended consequences of the NBA's 2011 CBA renegotiation was a collective bargaining agreement that dramatically increased the craziness and general velocity of free agency. Essentially, max contract lengths were slashed dramatically in the new CBA, meaning that far more of the league (by percentage) goes to free agency than they used to. And because contracts are shorter, teams churn through cap space much quicker, which means a good 10-15 teams have easily accessible avenues to hand out max deals. The in-season trade block is less lucrative than it used to be, but free agency is wilder than ever. In recognition of this, I'm going to try and give a rundown of the three most interesting stories (in my oft-besotted mind) of the previous day's free agent action. Today I'll be covering:

  • Stan Van Gundy building the team he wants to coach
  • Miami's shaky tightrope, and Pat Riley's high-risk traversion
  • How an inopportune injury can completely derail a player's career

Let's get to it.

• • •

Story #1: GM STAN VAN GUNDY LISTENS TO COACH STAN VAN GUNDY

In the most shocking development of the first day, it turned out that there is a huge overlap between the wants of Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy and Detroit Pistons General Manager Stan Van Gundy. Shockingly, Van Gundy and Van Gundy appeared to be on the same page. They were acting as one. It was eerie, almost as though they were the same person. Absolute shocker.

Okay, I can't keep that joke going much longer. But more seriously, it WAS a bit shocking that the first contract of free agency rated out as a deal for 3 years and $19 million dollars for -- of all people -- Jodie Meeks. I suppose I knew peripherally that Meeks was a free agent, but even if I'd actively paid attention to him, I probably would've made the fair assumption that he'd be a late-period signing for a team that struck out on all of the big prizes -- you know... your Gortats, your Lowrys, your Melos. Meeks as a first signing seems like an odd choice tactically, although it makes more sense the more you think about it.

Let's start with the obvious. Detroit isn't exactly anyone's first choice when shopping for a future home. There's a massive difference between living in Detroit as an average citizen and living in Detroit on a multimillion dollar salary, but neither is going to sniff the first-in-class choices for either income bracket. To some extent, attracting free agents to Detroit without having a championship-caliber core in place is going to take a bit of overpaying. It's just not somewhere that anyone wants to live. Until Stan Van Gundy molds Detroit's young talent into a contending team, he doesn't really have much to sell on the "potential" side either, which makes living in Detroit an even thornier value proposition. Why live in Detroit to play for a shiftless eastern lottery team?

Through that lens, this particular overpay looks a bit more understandable, even if it's still a bit undesirable. Jodie Meeks is a good shooter, but he's got little beyond that. His defense is hardly worst-in-class (and generally gets way too much crap -- he's a good ballhawk and sticks on his man), but it isn't enough of a tertiary positive to add that many millions to the deal. He doesn't have any best-in-show defensive chops like Danny Green's transition defense or Avery Bradley's petty theft. And Meeks can't handle the ball at all, which is something of a problem for a team that needs tertiary ballhandlers beside their marginally overpaid shooting-focused point guard in Brandon Jennings. He's flawed, essentially. And those flaws have a big potential to make this signing look silly if the Pistons are ever wanting for cap space in the next three years.

That said? If you want to get a free agent to come to Detroit, this is probably the way to do it. Give the free agent a slight overpay earlier than any other team reaches out to them, sell them on their value, then finish it off by reminding them that they were Detroit's first call out of the gate. Make them feel important. My guess is that the overpay was partly ensuring that the offer blew Meeks away and made him accept the money quickly, theorizing (perhaps correctly) that if they waited a week or two, Meeks would have to decide between offers like their deal and a 3-year $10 million dollar deal for a contending team or 3-year $15 million dollar deal for a lottery team in a better location. Much less likely they'd get their guy. If Van Gundy really wanted Meeks, which it appears he did, striking fast and early with a slightly above market offer to counter the location and the inevitable run on shooters is exactly how you get your man.

Beyond the Meeks move, there are signs that Stan Van Gundy is working diligently trying to build a team he'll enjoy coaching. Meeks was a play to get more shooters into the fold for a team that was abysmal beyond the arc last year -- Cartier Martin represents a cheaper all-in raise on Van Gundy's shooting dreams. Meeks is lacking in versatility, but Martin's one-track skillset makes Meeks look like LeBron. He's a decent shooter that does virtually nothing else with any proficiency. Although Greg Monroe might be decent with Stan Van Gundy, there are further signs that Van Gundy is pursuing routes to flip him for someone that fits a bit more into his space-and-pace stylings; just look at the myriad sign-and-trade rumors for Monroe, including this tasty morsel where the Pistons receive Van Gundy alumnus Ryan Anderson in exchange for Monroe's rights. And then there's my favorite rumor of free agency to date -- Van Gundy is mulling an offer of 3-years $24 million dollars for Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas.

Thomas is a restricted free agent, so it's certainly possible (and perhaps likely) that Sacramento matches and ruins Van Gundy's plans. But they're strangely close to the cap despite a team that's nowhere near playoff contention in the West, and a $24 million dollar contract might be a bridge too high for them. Thomas is a phenomenal young guard despite his diminutive stature, and on a team like Detroit that tends to play monstrously large lineups his size could prove to be less of a problem than it would be otherwise. Sort of a change of pace -- as guards switch on and off of each other on defense, it's possible that Isaiah's lower center of gravity would let him take advantage of guards that get lazy and switch to a high dribble while they face off against larger men. And offensively? He'd be lights out -- a brilliant three point shooter, worthy finisher, and an adept floor general that takes care of the ball and keeps the ball moving. All of these are things that you love to see on a Van Gundy team, especially one that's likely to be based around the threat of a Drummond dunk or an unexpected corner three. He'd be a far better fit than Jennings, and a possible perennial all-star candidate in a not-so-packed East.

If there's one story out of the first day's actual action that I'd take away, it's this -- the Pistons aren't playing around, and Stan Van Gundy is really intent on building a Central Division version of the 2009 Orlando Magic. These are fun times to be an NBA fan.

• • •

pat riley heat

Story #2: PAT RILEY BALANCING ON THE ABYSS

Around the middle of free agency's crazy first day, one of the oddest news breaks I've ever seen came up out of nowhere on my news feed. John Canzano, a veteran reporter for the Oregonian, broke what appeared to be news of embryonic final contract numbers for Dwayne Wade (4 years starting at $12 million) and Chris Bosh (5 years starting at $11 million). After an hour of reporters frantically trying to confirm his story one way or the other, Brian Windhorst confirmed that Pat Riley was selling free agents on the idea that Miami had $12 million dollars in cap space, indicating that Canzano's numbers might actually be accurate.

If it seems strange to you that a veteran reporter for the Portland-based Oregonian would be breaking news about the Miami Heat before any of the legion of national reporters assigned to the beat sniffed it, well, you'd be human. And you'd be right. As it turned out, Canzano was correct in the assertion that Riley was selling free agents on significant cap space (indicating massive pay cuts for Bosh and Wade, given LeBron's perfectly reasonable demand for a maximum salary), but completely incorrect on the idea that Bosh and Wade had actually agreed to those terms -- as you can see in the edited closing paragraph in Windhorst's piece.

Let's be frank -- this is a highly dangerous game for Pat Riley. The Miami Heat have -- assuming they waive bird rights (which they'll need to do -- or sign them to sub-market contracts quickly) -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $55 million dollars in cap space. This is a dangerous game. Part of the reason teams rarely allow their entire team to churn is that when everything's up in the air, managing the possible comeback kids with the new roster additions is fraught with peril. There are more moving pieces than there are in the average offseason, and Riley's management of those pieces strikes me as interesting. It appears there's a bit of information asymmetry in how Riley is approaching his discussions with free agents and his own team. That is to say -- he hasn't yet gotten an agreement from Wade and Bosh on the contract numbers he'll need to actually have the space he's advertising to free agents.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's smart strategy -- he's trying to finagle a verbal commitment from a free agent or two given certain contract parameters, bringing those back to the Big Three as a bargaining chip. Once Wade and Bosh balk at the salaries they'd need to take, he's probably counting on their friendship with LeBron to force LeBron's number down a bit and open up the wiggle room he needs to sign the new players and bring the gang back. He's playing his players against each other in such a way that he's able to fill the roster adequately. It's smart. But it's also incredibly risky. Because it's all dependent on a lot of shaky verbal agreements, all it takes is one naysayer to throw the entire ecosystem off balance.

Let's say that Riley gets Lowry to verbally agree to a 4-year deal starting at $9 million dollars, and let's say he gets Pau Gasol to verbally agree to a $4-year deal starting at $4 million. Both of those deals are assumed to be contingent on an in-place big three. He brings those players back to the Heat's current star trio as his leverage to get them to resign, but he needs the big three to make up just $42 million dollars to fit Gasol and Lowry into their space. If LeBron doesn't lower his max salary demands to a $18-20 million dollar level, one of Wade/Bosh is going to have to accept a sub-$10 million dollar deal. If they say no, the entire puzzle falls apart -- Riley has to get Lowry/Gasol to agree to less (hardly likely) or LeBron to lower his salary (likelier, but hard to see if Wade/Bosh can't do it themselves). Which makes the verbal dominoes fall apart, putting Riley squarely back at stage one with days of legwork down the drain.

Additionally, it adds a level of variance to the Big 3's fate. Sure, the assumption is that they'll come back to Miami. It always has been, and until they ink contracts elsewhere, that's going to be the safe bet. But it also means that there's a clearly defined possibility that they'll simply enter real free agency later than the rest of the class. If Riley can't fill his roster with the proper impact players to whet LeBron's desires, it's hard to envision LeBron coming back to a bare-bones roster that's clearly worse than last year's team. Not if there are any better options on the table. And even after the Melo dominoes drop, there are still going to be 3-4 teams that have enough cap space to sign him outright -- and even more still that could open the space with a few easy moves.

Nonetheless. The game's afoot. Most of the reporting around LeBron and the Big Three has focused on how teams are backing off a bit now that LeBron's agent has been cool on other teams. That's fine. But silence doesn't necessarily represent success for Riley, not until the ink's on the paper and he's turned a few of these verbal agreements into something more tangible. Let's see if he can rekindle his 2010 free agency magic. Lord knows he'll need it.

• • •

Story #3: INJURIES! THOSE FREAKING INJURIES!

This isn't a very long one, but it's a sad one. Reports broke yesterday evening that Patty Mills will miss several months of next season rehabilitating a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. I know, I know. It's one injury -- he'll still get a decent value contract (most likely from the Spurs) based on the strength of his breakout 2014 campaign, and he'll likely remain a strong rotation piece on a contending team for years to come. In terms of fit, this might be a better long-term play for him. Mills was a strong candidate to receive one of the league's legendary "post-title glow" contracts, where some random lottery team throws monstrous money at a limited player with expectations that they'll bring championship mojo to their struggling squad. Did we REALLY want to see Mills become the next J.J. Barea?

Well, no. But it still sucks. I feel like I mention this point dozens of times a season, but it bears repeating -- NBA players have really short careers relative to most jobs. They obviously make a lot of money, but for marginal NBA players, that cash represents the vast majority of their career earning potential. Any minor malady that causes them to lose out on a few million dollars during their playing career is a massive hit to their long term savings. It's not like most NBA players smoothly transition from the life of a millionaire to a profitable business owner that makes their money work for them -- there's a depressing trend of NBA players throwing good money after bad and winnowing away their savings within a decade or two after their playing career draws to a close.

In that vein, Patty's injury -- perhaps the most poorly timed injury I can possibly imagine -- royally sucks. Mills was looking at a contract in the $5 million to $7 million a year range -- when Jodie Meeks got 3-years and $19 million dollars, Patty's agent had to be salivating. That's exactly the kind of contract a healthy Mills could've gotten from a spacing-hungry team that struck out on the big players at the point guard slot. Strike out on Isaiah Thomas or Kyle Lowry? Take the unconscious flamethrower fresh off the bench of a champion! It's an easy pitch... you know, when he's healthy. But he wasn't, and he'll probably end up losing out on $5-6 million dollars over the course of the next three years because of it.

Long story short? Injuries suck. They ruin careers and ravage earning potential for marginal players all the time, although rarely as starkly as it's happening here. Here's hoping the Spurs give Patty a fair offer commensurate with what he would've gotten healthy.

patty patty oi oi

The 2014 San Antonio Spurs -- A Team for All Seasons

confetti spurs

"Sir Thomas More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons." -- Robert Whittington on Thomas More

There's going to be a lot of time to reflect on exactly where these incomparable Spurs stand historically. Legacies are written with the benefit of hindsight, not as in-the-moment missives. They ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, managing to win more games than anyone else despite dealing with injury trouble that would cripple their peers. They were the first team since the NBA/ABA merger to go without a single player averaging 30 MPG in the regular season, and they were one of just five title teams in the history of the league to field a Finals MVP who didn't make an all-star game. There are lots of team-wide accolades and accomplishments to thrust upon them, and many ways to tell the same story about their collective brilliance. It is beautiful. But it is hardly the be-all and end-all of the Spurs. Being the so-called "perfect team" can get you far, but to spin their accomplishment like that is to necessarily minimize the individual components that make up the whole.

Sir Thomas More was the philosopher-statesman who refused to recognize King Henry VIII's authority as the supreme head of the Church of England, given Henry's ill-begotten marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was executed. He's historically relevant for both the courage of his convictions and the uncommon range of character and nobility he embodied -- as his friend Robert Whittington described him, More was a man of all seasons. Gentle, mirthful, noble, grave. He had a range of emotion and character rarely discussed when those around him canonized and idealized him. They simplified his character for ease of reference, and boiled him down to an uncomplicated idea in order to better share his story with future generations. They glossed over his flaws (see: his rabid persecution of protestants) to tell a simple and beautiful story. They obviously succeeded -- we're still talking about him, right?

Inevitably, we will simplify the Spurs. The 2014 Spurs will always be remembered as a stunning achievement of a team that redefined the NBA's hierarchy. But there will be time to reflect on the team as a whole later. For now, while the taste is fresh, it profits us to discuss the range of characters that conspired to bring about this singularly dominant run. The motley crew of oddballs and weirdos who collectively made up one of the finest NBA teams to ever run the gamut. There are fun men, there are sad men, there are hard-working men. There are strange, strange men.

These are their stories, at least a taste of them.

• • •

THE MIRTHFUL

If you're looking for San Antonio's resident smiley-sacks, you'd do well to start with the first point guard off the bench. You know who I'm talking about -- Patty Mills, professional towel-waver. His background was covered rather extensively in the player capsule I wrote about him and his little-known history. Ethnically, Mills is an aboriginal Australian, a long-suffering race of people who were subjugated by the British and whose children were forcibly torn from their homes with little-to-no records kept to put the pieces back together again. Patty's mother was taken from her family at the age of two, and Mills proudly waves the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags as strongly as he waves his Australian flag.

Mills could be a gloomy man. He could be of grave disposition -- he could be stoic, silent, sad. But he's not. He's the happiest man on the Spurs roster, a whirling dervish of energy and smiles that makes the court shine every second he steps on it. His family has had hardships to last a million lifetimes, but the man virtually never stops smiling. He's Australia's most famous basketball player. He averaged 22 points per game at the most recent Olympics, and he's finally filled an NBA niche as a hyper-efficient bench scoring guard with a great handle and a pestering defensive activity. His incredible turn in the 2014 Finals likely priced him straight out of San Antonio's budget for next season, but I doubt there's a single Spurs fan who won't remember him fondly. And nobody can deny the warm and tender feelings of his first title. He made it to the top of the mountain -- and with him, he brought his people and flags along for the ride. He gets to cement his aboriginal flag straight to the NBA's pinnacle.

Matt Bonner already won a title. And he was a bit player to end all bit players in this one, averaging the fewest minutes-per-game of his career (11.3) and even fewer in the playoffs (6.2). That said, he still filled a role, at least for me. Every single time he checked into the game, he was a threat for one of his patently hilarious lumberjack teardrops. That's what I call his unbelievably weird attempts at driving to the rim and scoring, a lumbering ginger determined to sniff the rim. Teams would generally leave him wide open, mostly because he's Matt Freaking Bonner. Matt Bonner took four free throws in the Finals this year -- prior to the Finals, his last free throws were in early March. That's right -- he went THREE MONTHS without taking a free throw in an NBA game. He made three of the four, because Matt Bonner is wonderful. Thanks, Coach B.

Austin Daye seems to enjoy the game of basketball. That's a good thing, because Spurs fans made it a point to give him "honorary MVP status" midway through the season. Clearly, he lived up to the task -- the Austin Daye Spurs have yet to lose a playoff series. When you compare it to the Nando era, it's like night and Daye. (... yeah, that pun was pretty bad. I'm sorry, but I'm also not really sorry in the slightest.) And then there's Aron Baynes. I've been really happy to watch Baynes this year, mostly because he's (fittingly) the NBA player who's closest to imitating the way I play in pick-up basketball. I'm skinnier than him (...obviously), but I can't shoot the ball to save my life and just try to constantly bruise in for post-ups. Aron Baynes is the Aaron McGuire of the NBA. Watching him play amuses me to no end. He's also the Aaron McGuire of the NBA in how he celebrated his title:

With his country's flag wrapped around his shoulders, Aron Baynes bellowed out, "I'm not an alcoholic, I'm just Australian!" as he dumped champagne on his own face.

Yep. That's pretty much how I'd play it too, Baynesie.

• • •

manu celebrates

THE STRANGE

There are weirdos on the Spurs roster, too. The organization may be mundane and buttoned up from the outside, but some of the NBA's strangest stories come from the sweltering San Antonio heat. (Yes, that's a joke about the air conditioning mix-up in Game #1 that's likely doomed to be forgotten in a year or so. If you're a future generation of NBA fan reading this to remember the 2014 Finals, run a Google search for the air conditioning kerfuffle in Game #1. It was kind of absurd.) To wit, three of San Antonio's weirdos:

  • Marco Belinelli. Yeah, I know. He played like rubbish throughout the entire playoffs. Doesn't matter. He's a champion now! And him being a champion gives me an excuse to go back to one of this season's most hilarious sideshow stories -- Marco's early-season attempt to use Twitter as Tinder and match up with a randomly selected cute follower. Seriously, spend a moment to really take that pickup line in. It's astonishing. Possibly the worst pickup line ever. How weird of a person do you need to be to think that's a reasonable line? WHO EVEN SAYS THAT?! Look. Every single time Belinelli shot the ball during the playoffs, I was scared for my life. But we'll always have this pickup line, and he'll always have his ring. (Somehow.)
  • Boris Diaw. When people refer to the Spurs as a team built of men taken from the garbage heap, Diaw is probably the first player everybody will flock to. After all... Boris was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats, a team then in the midst of a season where they'd come ever-so-close to the worst record in league history. People don't quite remember the circumstances correctly -- he was waived less because he was useless and more because he wanted to go to a new team but there wasn't a team in the league that would trade for him. But it's a fine story regardless. Diaw is roly poly to a fault, a post-up passing mastermind whose nicknames range from the "Stay-Puft Marshmallow Center" to "the Cream Shake". He's a tubby maestro whose basketball success is based on a multifaceted game the league may very well never see again. He was 3rd or 4th on most people's Finals MVP ballots despite averaging 6-9-6 in 35 minutes a night. The league will see other superstars, certainly. But it will NEVER see another Bobo. (Read this, when you get a chance. You'll understand.)
  • Jeff Ayres. Okay, no. He's not that strange. Ayres is the player formerly known as Jeff Pendergraph, if you weren't familiar. Pendergraph was the surname of his stepfather, a man who married his mother when he was in elementary school. Pendergraph Sr. left the picture when Ayres was in high school, and when Ayres and his wife had their first child this past summer, they decided that they didn't want their daughter to have the name of a stepfather that left his life years ago. Ayres is the name of his biological father, chosen to hearken back to his ultimate roots. There's nothing particularly strange about the idea of changing your name to better reflect your heritage -- it's a beautiful sentiment. But it is a bit out of the ordinary, and the story itself is sort of funny. There was a point in their name choices where they were jokingly considering renaming themselves to Mr. and Mrs. Awesome. Seems legit.

Finally, there's the player who most embodies the fundamental weirdness of the San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili. All praise in the world to San Antonio's star shooting guard, the doting father whose weirdness is more on-court than off-court. We call ourselves Gothic Ginobili for a reason -- we're a weird blog, and Manu's a fundamentally weird player. He completes passes that exist on the fringes of human possibility. He's always a billion steps ahead of everyone -- sometimes, in his turnovers, this precognition is a curse. But all too often he just sees things that nobody else can. For all the talk about how teams should "play the right way" and play like San Antonio does, there's hardly a single player in the NBA who makes as many ridiculous and unnecessary plays as Manu Ginobili does. A Manu by any other team could be considered a chucker, or a risky daredevil who gets too cute for his own good.

It is strange, then, that he is so important to the Spurs.

But he is. And that's his charm. That's the odd twist at the core of the San Antonio system. The precise, rigid machinations of San Antonio's pinpoint passing are possible partly because of the wild unpredictable chaos that Ginobili brings on the court. Any lineup of marginal players becomes an offensive nightmare with Manu on the court. Any lineup of star players becomes unpredictable when he's on the court, and it disorients the defense in a way that few other players accomplish. His passing is similarly prolific, but it's fundamentally different from that of Steve Nash or LeBron James -- he doesn't JUST put his teammates in a position to succeed, and he doesn't JUST dominate the ball and score like an all-time great. His game isn't that simple.

Ginobili is an unstable chemical compound. He's an acid that reacts with the basketball to turn the game into a chaotic storm of air-bending passes and impossible step-back jumpers with barely a hair of space. He whips the ball from butter to cream, shakes defenders, and scoffs at the impossible. Manu Ginobili essentially blew out his hamstring on a dunk earlier this season. In Game #5 of the NBA finals, Manu rose and threw down exactly the same dunk -- in traffic, under duress, without fear or hesitation. That's his way. That's how he plays the game. He doesn't know how else to play. That's what it means to be Manu Ginobili. And the Spurs would crumble without him.

• • •

THE DILIGENT

Not all players on the Spurs can be considered weirdos. Not all players are likely to be smiling on any random moment you turn on a Spurs game. The overriding narrative about the Spurs places them as a team of lunch-pail strivers, a team of diligent workhorses who do their jobs and operate within their system like the blue collar folks that watch their games. This is, for many players, bluster. Nothing about Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, or Patty Mills is "blue collar." They all work hard, but the Spurs don't necessarily work any harder than any other NBA team. They're more talented, more successful, more beautiful (to certain eyes). But that's silly. To conflate talent and success with how hard they work is to make a rank mistake in how you assess any team.

That being said, there ARE a few strivers on the team -- and they're worth mentioning, even if you reject the broader storyline. There's Cory Joseph, of course. He was a bit player during this run, and he wasn't a very important player to San Antonio's season on the whole. He played a tiny bit over six minutes in the Finals, when all was said and done. But his tiny role undermines his evolution as a player, and the importance he held in one key play. Joseph used to be a generally useless player -- no real defense to speak of, little shot, passing of ill repute. He's hardly perfect now, and he can't really get minutes in San Antonio given their reliance on Parker, Green, Ginobili, Mills, and Belinelli. But he's gone from a marginal-to-worthless player to a skilled spark-off-the-bench, mirroring the transformation Patty Mills went through from his marginal spark in Portland to his key rotational cog this year.

And, as I mentioned, he had that moment. Amidst a deflating blowout loss that had Spurs fans in peptic nervous terror, there were few positives for Spurs fans. The Thunder had roundly destroyed San Antonio's system in the fourth game of the Western Conference Finals, making Duncan and Parker look mortal and keeping Kawhi Leonard completely in check. Virtually the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, and Spurs fans are used to the random back-and-forth of those minutes -- it's hard to really take anything from it. Usually. Except for Cory Joseph, who used those garbage time minutes to do something nobody else on the Spurs had the courage to do. To wit -- he went straight at Serge Ibaka, rose up, and threw the damn ball in the hoop like an angry pint-size rottweiler. It's funny that a play as visceral and emotional as that one can be considered a triumph of process and work ethic, but it was. It stood as a culmination of Joseph's evolution as a player up to this point. And the Spurs took notice -- from that moment onward, the Spurs went hard at Ibaka regardless of their fear of his blocks, and the Spurs offense stopped getting quite so gummed up. Even though he barely played in the Finals, that play cemented Joseph's impact on this title run. It changed the complexion of a series the Spurs could have lost. He earned that ring.

And what of Tiago Splitter? The Spurs' oft-criticized starting center was beyond essential in the first two rounds, taking primary coverage on Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge (who both had, not coincidentally, a terrible time scoring on him). He matched up less well against Miami and Oklahoma City, but he hardly backed down; he simply accepted the matchup difficulties and accepted his move to the bench with aplomb, impacting the game with his quiet defensive brilliance and his impeccable movement, screening, and box-outs. He doesn't play loud, and his skills are subdued. But he was as essential to this run as he needed to be, showing himself to be mightily deserving of the large contract he got last offseason.

Oh, and that other guy. Danny Green. Don't forget him either. Green's story is one of redemption and evolution above all else. He entered the league as a marginal player, a bit piece from one of the greatest college teams ever whose NBA skills seemed lacking. He was less than a nonfactor on LeBron's final Cavaliers teams, and he (like Diaw) was waived by a bad Cleveland team and left to the trash heap. He went abroad, and played in the D-League, and came back to the league as one of San Antonio's young guns. And he worked. For all the credit Chip Engelland gets for San Antonio's shooting stars, it takes an incredible amount of work to actually apply the tips and form overhauls Chip gives a player. And Green was ready to do it. He had his coming out party last year, with his NBA-record threes-in-a-Finals. This year he was less impressive, offensively -- he made 9 threes, a far cry from last year's 27. But his defensive achievements were many, including a national coming-out party for the best-in-class transition defense that silly egghead Spurs fans like myself have appreciated for a few seasons now. And he solidified his status as one of the league's absolute best shooting guards, full-stop.

He represents the absolute ideal of a roleplayer, and he's a roleplayer so game-changing and impressive that he's very nearly as valuable as a star. He always had the talent, but it took so much work to unlock it that one would be remiss not to point that out. He's got his ring.

And then there's -- in my view -- San Antonio's last strictly blue-collar player. It's strange to call him that, especially given his personality, game, and tastes. He's the drama. He's the one who wanted to go to New York. He's the one with the occasional bouts of heroball and isolation basketball. But Tony Parker's game has hardly stayed the same with time, and that's part of what makes him so similar to the Josephs and Splitters and Greens of San Antonio's universe. Think about it this way: Tony Parker was a superstar, back in the day. He was San Antonio's most essential offensive player for 3-4 years, a cog without whom the offense simply wouldn't function. San Antonio's constant playoff failures rarely fell squarely on his shoulders, but there was always a decent case that they should have. He was their rock, and he never quite seemed to be all there in the bitter end.

But now? Years later, as the Spurs ran roughshod over the league and ripped the title out of Miami's lethargic grasp, Parker had... a profoundly nonessential playoff run. He was important, of course -- he held the ball more than any other Spur, he darted across the court to make the plays and the reads Pop needed, and he kept the ball under control against Miami's tired-yet-dangerous defense. All of this is good. But part of Parker's brilliance was that he too sunk and faded into the background, letting the threat of his breakout game keep the floor open for the shooters San Antonio knew they could rely on. The Spurs offense could've worked with Parker averaging 20 points a game, most likely. But Diaw and Joseph were the only two Spurs who shot worse from the field over the NBA Finals, even with his garbage-time padding at the end of the final game.

Which is really the point. Miami spent much of the 2014 Finals chasing the shadows of Parker's prior accomplishment, covering him hard as they dared San Antonio's lesser lights to beat them. They were so scared of the threat of a throwback Parker game that they refused to leave him, even if it left a few open shooters around the rotation. At an earlier time in Parker's career, he would have seen that as a challenge -- he would have driven into the double and thrown up a wild layup, or accepted the long two and tried to drain fadeaways until the lights went dark. But this is a more evolved Parker -- he still does all of those things, but he does them contextually. He does them when the game really demands it, not when it's merely convenient.

Parker could have averaged 20-25 points a night in these Finals. But the Spurs wouldn't have won quite so emphatically. Perhaps they'd still have taken it in five -- it's hard to imagine any individual switch flipping the last three games. But the feeling of annihilation, this overriding sense that the Spurs demolished the competition en route to the title? That was accomplished by pushing every lever, and understanding EXACTLY which threats should remain threats and which roleplayers should shine to keep the opposition disoriented and disheveled. Parker couldn't have done that five years ago. Hell, he couldn't have done that three years ago.

But he's there now, and the Spurs are too.

parker grin

• • •

Yes, I know. I'm missing two of San Antonio's players. You know the ones -- Duncan and Leonard, the past and the future. This post has gotten too long to do them justice, so I'll have to return to them later this week. They deserve more words than I could possibly give them, but I'll try. Until then? Welcome to the offseason. Basketball will be back, before long.

Do try to enjoy the quiet before the storm.

2014 NBA Finals: What's the WORST possible story?

green and lebron

As part of our coverage of the 2014 NBA Finals, we're going to have an every-few-days check in with Aaron, Alex, and Jacob regarding various questions and quibbles with the Finals as it plays out. Today, we're going to give you a strange reprieve from the usual preview schtick with a "preview" of the world's worst upcoming stories. No, really. Let me explain...

Just about every single blog and writer has gone hard in the paint to bring you the best storylines and things-to-watch in this year’s Finals. Most of them are really awesome, and some of them are terrible! Friends: what storyline in the NBA Finals promises to be the single most annoying and unnecessary thread we nonetheless devote unseemly amounts of our focus to? What are your top few things-to-avoid-watching? Note: storyline does not have to exist, it merely needs to have the POTENTIAL to exist.

Aaron McGuire

AARON: This one actually happened last year, and it was one of the least substantial NBA stories I’d seen in a while. After the 2013 Finals, Danny Green happened to stop by the club that LeBron was celebrating in and gave him a dap and a handshake before leaving. TMZ (or some related rag) happened upon photographs of it, which led to a number of articles about how Danny Green was a failed Spur and how TRUE rivals wouldn’t be able to give the opposing superstar dap at a club after he’d beaten them for a hard-fought title.

You know what? SHUT THE HELL UP. Danny Green started his career in Cleveland, and he was friends for LeBron for a long time before he was a Spur. So it isn’t exactly some betrayal in the first degree that he felt the need to congratulate a friend of his. The worst part, though, was that the pictures were presented completely out of context and the stories assumed that Green had been seeking LeBron out. According to Green’s later statements, he was just going around from club to club trying to get his mind off the Finals. He happened to find LeBron. He left as soon as he realized LeBron was there, even though LeBron invited him to join the Heat players. In essence, he did exactly what the media would expect of a bitter sports rival – he refused hanging out with his old friend because of residual rivalry fury.

But the pictures were taken out of context and became a stupid big story. I imagine something similar is going to happen this year. Because it happens every year. Don’t know what, don’t know when. Maybe LeBron will be caught flipping off Duncan as a joke. Maybe Parker will be caught making eyes at a Heat cheerleader. But some completely innocuous action is going to get snapped or taken wildly out of context to create a stupid sideshow story that distracts from the awesome series at hand. Alternatively, some quote will be taken completely out of context, like the infamous Jennings “Bucks in Six” comment last year or the “We’ll do it this time” bravado from Duncan this year.

Avoid watching the tabloids. It’s never a good idea.

writer1

ALEX: Ooh. How about one of the most irritating tropes in recent memory, and one that doesn't dog just the Finals but every game the Spurs play. It's sort of a logical counterpart to the "LeBron just needs to take over [take and make 100% of available field goal attempts]" nonsense. It's the idea that ball movement, as practiced by the Spurs and Heat, is fundamentally unselfish and virtuous.

Maybe this is just something that only bothers me--a Spurs fan deigning to choose the exact lines of praise my team receives--but this always strikes me as a basic misapprehension of the sport. It's not always even altogether wrong, but it elides so many complexities as to be practically useless except as ambient noise. Passing as Manu Ginobili or LeBron does is phenomenally difficult. It may be easy to "just find the open man" in, like, a scrimmage, but almost by definition the situation changes the moment competition on a professional level is introduced. Most players in the human population just simply don't have the on-court intelligence or skill or athleticism to dribble all the way to the rim--if someone is in that rarefied air, it takes a kind of genius to be able to get there and then decide between the options you've created in a way that's consistently right even when defenders have been watching your previous choices for signs of exploitable weaknesses. Everything Manu or Boris or Tim does with passing is a potential masterstroke built on years of experience and an unteachable genius with angles and space. The way the Heat find space and surgically swing the ball around the perimeter is awesome and creative. But it's not built on virtue, and I genuinely believe it's not built on virtue even a little bit. No matter how personally caring and understanding these players may be, the dominant factor that determines the success or failure of their style is their unbelievable level of skill to create those kinds of plays, a skill plenty of teams identified as "selfish" would love to have.

And then, there's the slanderous converse of the narrative, even worse to these eyes. Prime example: The Thunder don't have an iso-heavy offense because they lack for virtue, emblematized by Russell Westbrook's evil shot-taking. Rather, it's their personnel. They can get away with several defensive non-scorers on the floor while still putting up a top-5 offense year after year, in part because the very same "selfish" Westbrook is able to selflessly carry that kind of burden. When the Thunder have sought out offensive lineups, why, it's remarkable the gain in virtue and unselfish, Secret-Santa-esque passing lanes! Reggie Jackson must be a saint, I tell you. Seriously, most teams do precisely what they have to do to win, including the Heat and Spurs. And scores of great players on both kinds of teams, whether the versatile two-way anchor of some of the best offenses and defenses of recent memory or the born scoring prodigy from an adjacent state, seem to me personally selfless enough for anyone's tastes. Durant and Duncan give the lie totally to that dichotomy.

The two offenses on display in these Finals are beautiful and a testament to the sport of Naismith. Let's not tarnish these offenses by reducing their brilliant geneses to ordinary virtue.

writer3

JACOB: This is a little more of a hot sports take type of thing, but I do mean it with all sincerity. Thus far it's been mostly overshadowed (and rightfully so) by the imminent drama of two Hall of Fame trios facing off to seize their respective basketball destinies, but were the Heat to seize control of this series, I anticipate the likely continuation of a running story-line 3 years overused: The Heat's triumph over struggles and strife. Look, I'm tired of hearing about the Heat's struggles. All of them. I'm tired of the over-dramatization of what they've "had to go through" and the mental gymnastics fans and the media have collectively performed to justify their slavish treatment of this team.

Seriously, what have the Miami Heat had to go through?

This story-line cropped up a few months ago, when LeBron responded to the Indiana's befuddling internal struggles with dismissal, implying it was nothing compared to what he and the Heat had suffered. Talking heads and the commentariat roundly cheered his response. "Yeah! Suck it up, listen to a real man!" was the implied sentiment towards the Pacers. But seriously, hold the phone. What have the Miami Heat had to suffer through? Wasn't the reason we all turned on them in the first place that they colluded to unite three Hall of Fame players in their prime? Weren't we insulted that they did so with reckless bravado, and responded to their ensuing domination with somewhat of a sneer of dismissal, because of course they were supposed to do that? Wasn't the extent of the suffering they had to go through the exact same kind of media criticism faced by the Pacers -- that is, almost completely self-inflicted? Correct me if I'm missing anything about the post-Decision media dynamics, and explain to me the difference between the two situations (beyond the obvious fact that LeBron speaks with the benefit of hindsight and the "RINGZZZ" that retroactively "justify" his decision).

Sometime during the 2012 Playoffs, while the Heat struggled gamely with a young Pacers team and an overachieving Celtics team playing on borrowed time, everyone seemed to talk themselves into this collective absurdity that everything said of the Heat before the Boston series was no longer true. Because Bosh was injured for a couple of games and Wade was no longer "Finals MVP" Wade, LeBron had done what he never could in Cleveland and dragged an inferior supporting cast past elite competition, won on the biggest stage, and triumphed over adversity. At some point we all talked ourselves into believing that because Chris Bosh's counting stats have fallen off, he's not a player still in his prime who proved himself as one of the best forwards in the league in Toronto. We point to Dwyane Wade not playing half the season as evidence he's basically replacement level (an argument I've heard made unironically by quite a few fans), rather than evidence that he'll be all the more dangerous come the big moments in the playoffs.

The Heat are a team with four Hall of Famers, minimum, playing a majority of the minutes in a system where they can all maximize their roles and unique specialties. They receive unabated adulation from the media. They're an elite team that plays in a largely noncompetitive conference, in one of the most one-sided eras of conference imbalance in modern league history. We all pretended that their jog to the much-lauded Fourth Consecutive NBA Finals wasn't by default because of the Pacers, but it's been clear to everyone since April that the Pacers were as much a perfunctory effort as any other Eastern conference opposition the Heat might face. "Overcoming struggle" never should have been a legitimate part of this team's identity, were it not for the media tripping all over itself to prostrate itself in apology for its overreaction to the Decision.

Don't get me wrong, the Heat have won these past two Finals fair and square (some good fortune in Game 6 last year aside). But in both cases against opponents who've had to overcome far worse in their journey to the same destination, and neither of whom could have ever afforded to "coast" the way the Heat can through large swaths of their regular season, much less the playoffs.

So yeah, I'm already tired of hearing about the Heat reaching the Finals four times in a row, the "first since the Celtics" and all that. To me, that's a laudable achievement when you've come by it honest, through legitimate competition and strife. But the Miami Heat have yet to suffer any pre-Finals drama that wasn't almost entirely self-inflicted. No team in the Eastern Conference during this run has been good enough to make Miami sweat when Miami isn't playing down to their competition. They still have had multiple game sevens and multiple incomprehensible embarrassments. Their fourth consecutive Finals is more circumstance than anything else, a byproduct of the period of competitiveness in NBA history they happen to play in. It's an accomplishment, but I'm not sure it's quite as incredible as it's been made out to be.

If anything, this talk of a fourth Finals in a row should give us some pause, and lead us to reflect on how screwed up the NBA conferences are that one of these Finals teams only had to beat one team that even would've made the other conference's playoffs in order to reach that much-exalted fourth Finals.

writer1

ALEX: I agree. But I would argue that the overzealous, tracks-covering narrative of triumph over adversity is as old as politics (and perhaps sport) itself. How tall was Goliath, really? How impossible was Thermopylae, really? How many of the great obstacles of history are completely apocryphal and how many legends were only half-legends carried by canny myth-makers eager to build up a legend? And how many actual legends were either forgotten by history or folded into generic legendary figures that were the most convenient or politically advantageous to ascribe those legends to?

Glory is so much determined by how it is framed by history's storytellers that, for me, it's hard to even talk about a supposedly glorious victory in battle without also picturing the glory-seeking PR reps and politicians walking astride the battle, looking for the best photo-op. The real story will always either be lost or fought to the bitter end. Because that's how the story goes, and it works. It's poignant. It's inspiring. It makes good copy.

My point is that it didn't start with the Miami Heat. Even in the NBA. Bill Russell was perhaps the best and surest winner in the history of North American sports, but the Celtics were cheaters. The legendary parquet floor had dangerous nails sticking up and broken boards, strategically placed. That floor had potholes upon potholes, and that famous steal by Bird on Isiah was probably preceded by an unseen bottle thrown by a Boston fan at Thomas, temporarily blinding Isiah from his right field of vision. I'm exaggerating, but not by much: the locker room dirty tricks by Red Auerbach were legendary, and that's after you account for the Celtics being essentially 20 years ahead of everyone else, on and off the court.

Michael Jordan, despite being the greatest player of all time, made up all sorts of adversity for himself. The Spurs feasted on incompetent management across the league and ridiculously advanced scouting and development (and, above all else, completely lucked out with Robinson and Duncan -- would the Spurs be the Spurs if they'd picked a 1997-era Anthony Bennett instead of Tim Duncan? NO!); the Thunder -- even with excellent scouting -- still hit the jackpot with Durant/Westbrook/Ibaka/Harden; and the Heat and Pacers had Pat Riley and Larry Bird, two of the smartest, savviest folks in the history of the league. And let's not even get into how Showtime and the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were born.

All this to say that you can make the argument that no great team has ever been in a position of pure adversity. Sports is never like a flat playing field - a large proportion (maybe even a majority) of victories were concocted out of good fortune. Athletes and media, always needing fuel for their next journey, endorse any narrative that makes the hero the uber-hero. That always means exaggerating the triumph and downplaying the fortune. Miami went 7 games against Indiana, Boston, and San Antonio -- they played their worst possible hands and risked elimination time and again, and they still emerged victorious. Ergo, the fact that they loaded the deck with 12 aces didn't matter. Not that much.

If you turn your eyes askew, The Decision was as much a stacking of potential humiliations upon themselves as it was a stacking of potential championships. The East's decline made it several times easier, to be sure. But, on the other side of the coin, imagine if they'd lost to Indiana or Boston. They'd be pariahs of the league, and LeBron would not just be hated by some; he'd be utterly derided. Laughed out the gym. They placed themselves on the cusp of ultimate vulnerability and emerged as champions. And that's just truth-feely enough to put into copy as an ultimate narrative of triumph.

It all circles around, though. It IS the most annoying narrative. When you break it down, they made the easiest path in the world to their great accomplishment, and then they made it rocky only with hubris and unlikable pomp and underperformance, and then they "heroically" overcame that rockiness. And they got some absurd breaks their way. That really isn't the most inspiring narrative in the world. But most real narratives about real people aren't, even legitimate legends, the moment you cast a critical eye.