A Double Three-Peat

By: S. Davis

June 14, 1998. Summer in Brooklyn, New York City. It was on. There were some inconsistencies with my high school credits that would push my graduation date out later than it should’ve been. I wouldn’t be going to college just yet and I was bothered. Whatever. I had great friends and a summer ahead of me that would be full of parties, chilling with my friends, and of course…girls. I had a group of friends around me that are still in my life 20 years later.

Wait! Is that correct? Has it been twenty years? My God. It was June 14, 1998 and only that evening mattered to me. Game six of the NBA Finals had my Chicago Bulls – still my favorite basketball team – going into Salt Lake City to attempt to close out the Utah Jazz. I wasn’t nervous but the Jazz competed hard enough to let the world know they wouldn’t go quietly. John Stockton and Karl Malone ultimately didn’t lift the trophy but they pushed the Bulls to the brink. The Bulls survived the Eastern Conference Finals with the Indiana Pacers, barely, in seven games and were a wounded team. The Pacers joined the 1992 New York Knicks as the only two teams to push Michael Jordan’s Bulls to a seventh game. I had potato chips and Sprite – and a feeling that the Bulls would finish the series.

We all know the final sequence: Jordan steals the ball from Malone while lurking from behind along the baseline, eschews calling a timeout to isolate Bryon Russell one-on-one to set up the game-clinching jumper which was followed by a three-pointer from Stockton that looked good from my living room. It was fantastic!

I remember Bob Costas declaring, “That may have been, who knows what will unfold in the next several months, but that may have been the last shot that Michael Jordan will ever take in the NBA.” The Bulls clinched their sixth title in eight seasons and I didn’t care that my summer didn’t kick off the way I expected it to. The chips were half eaten but the Sprite never tasted as refreshing as it did that night. I didn’t scream or carry the blanket of relief I did after the Bulls outlasted the Pacers in the prior series; I just remember my house being silent. All my cousins were just as reserved as I was. We watched the man…do it again. The poise was remarkable. As someone who closely followed the Bulls’ front office, notably Jerry Krause and his management style, I knew the team would be stripped for parts. I knew it was over. But on that night I shared one of the best moments of my life caring about sports with millions of others.

The fact that it’s the 20-year anniversary makes me feel ancient. Honestly that play sticks out so vividly that I had to take a breath and realize that a significant chunk of time has passed since it happened.

I thought of this Jordan moment a few days ago when a piece published on ESPN had the 2017 Golden State Warriors favored over the 1996 Bulls according to Vegas bookmakers by anywhere between -8 and -2. OK. I get that it’s difficult to compare eras but it’s odd how so many people think the 72 win Bulls team – that finished their season with an NBA Championship by the way – couldn’t adapt to play in the open basketball the Warriors currently reign over.

Is it a faster pace of play now? Yes. Are the Warriors a spectacular shooting team? Even a true hater can’t deny that. They put runs together that are shocking…in a matter of possessions. The thing that’s often overlooked is who draws the defensive assignment on the greatest player ever in an era where you can’t play physical defense anymore? Nowadays people complain about how much James Harden gets to the foul line. Unleash Jordan on this NBA.

As for the three-point shooting, the Bulls are capable in their own right of adapting as any team would be forced to in going against the Warriors. The Warriors employ several players with the ability to make plays for their teammates, just as the Bulls do with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc. I feel the length of the Bulls on the perimeter would hinder the Warriors on the offensive end. It wouldn’t take options away but it would make it difficult to get the clean looks they get at the basket. How would Steve Kerr coach against the younger version of himself? Would the Earth implode during this basketball game? Ha!

The equalizer would be how would the Warriors defend Jordan? Klay Thompson would obviously draw the assignment initially but once he picks up two quick fouls and hits the bench a little of the spacing the Warriors feed on goes with him. Andre Iguodala would then find himself under siege and plagued with fouls as well. I just love the idea of the Death Lineup facing off against Jordan, Pippen, Harper, Rodman and Kukoc. I played the game in NBA 2K18 and won with the Bulls 128-120. In a Finals series I would take the Bulls 4-2, but hey Jordan is my favorite player ever, the best ever, and led the best team of all time. It’s starting to seem like Jordan is becoming underrated.

At one point winning titles was important and now it seems like it isn’t because Jordan’s undefeated Finals record is now being picked apart by those who are clamoring to proclaim LeBron James as a better player. I like James and I think he’s on par with Jordan but I don’t feel any player is better than MJ. Everyone needs to calm down; recency bias is strong in terms of this debate.

Additionally, comparing James directly to Jordan and questioning if he’s knocked MJ off the top of the mountain directly implies that he’s already surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird and Tim Duncan. Personally I don’t think he has. As a Jordan supporter, I’m not sure he’s surpassed Abdul-Jabbar or Russell – and he’s my favorite athlete ever. Simply, if we’re just dumbing it down to rings – above all else – the entire list is Russell and no other basketball player is even worthy of mention.

How come it’s so easy for the talking heads and the columnists desperate for clicks? This is the hot -take era in the media but it’s tiresome. Jordan vs. LeBron. I think it’s unfair especially when people on both sides rip the accomplishment of the other to uphold their guy. If you want to argue for Jordan, PER is in his favor as the number one rated player, ever, in player efficiency rating. James is right behind him, all-time at the second spot. James has the edge as it pertains to win-shares at fourth with Jordan at number five. (Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Malone round out the top three.) Jordan is 6-0 in the Finals while James is 3-6. At the end of the day they’re all just numbers. Fight fair in the debate people – although there’s no reason for one. Jordan is the best ever, to me, while James is making a rightful claim to his seat at the table along with Abdul-Jabbar, Russell and Magic.

Twenty years ago I watched my favorite player secure a sixth title. I feel that – in my time – he’s the best the game will ever see. I remember wanting to eat a pile of wings and rejoice after it all sunk in. I remember my sadness knowing that the Bulls were headed for a monumental explosion due to ego. I remember thinking about all the girls I was going to meet on the beach. That was two decades ago.

The time does fly by.

 

Photo: Wayfair.com

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NBA: Express Mail From Texas

By: S. Davis

Has anyone actually bothered to watch the San Antonio Spurs play this season; as in truly paid attention to the action on the floor? I’m not talking about the monumental statistical leap that Kawhi Leonard took this year. No. Which reminds me, I vividly recall the majority of talking heads around the sport questioning the Spurs’ future with him as the offensive fulcrum for the next decade, I do. We all knew his defense was established.

Fast-forward this year and now, everyone, predicted this surge from the best two-way player in the league? (LeBron James remains the best player in the world when he’s tasked with defending the opposition’s best threat.) This piece isn’t about Leonard though – at least not as the primary focus. This is directly in response to all the chatter surrounding LaMarcus Aldridge.

Of all noise surrounding Texas, from fans and analysts, I find it compelling that the Spurs’ “system” has escaped all criticism. Where’s the depth within the sets? Where’s the ball movement? Where are the quick passes and off-ball action that made the Miami Heat crumble in 2014? Has anyone seen the selective and effective post touches to hurt defenders in the frontcourt who have abandoned sound post defense because the league is pulling “bigs” further away from the basket every year? Where’s the style of play that influenced Steve Kerr to cook up a version of his own to feed to his Golden State Warriors?

It doesn’t exist. At least not in the form we’ve been accustomed to seeing.

By the time I publish this, Aldridge may be packing up his home on the way to another franchise that will use his skills as incorrectly as the Spurs have. I’ve liked him since his time at Texas and I’ve always felt he was underrated. When the Spurs signed him I was excited to see the partnership with Leonard, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich. As masterful as any head coach, in any sport, why did Popovich fail Aldridge? Why does all the blame fall on the player and not the coach?

Where’s the critique regarding how unbalanced the Spurs have become offensively?

Leonard – who’s great – has the entire game plan within his palms. It’s logical as he’s young, proven and their best player. There is no doubt there. He’s risen from his apprenticeship to take the mantle from Tim Duncan. However the offense has become easy to defend. How many times have the Spurs relied on Leonard play hero-ball, in isolation, when a basket is needed? Too many to count; more often than not he’s successful but the other four players on the court are stationary; as in late 90s, early 2000s, he’s-clearing-it-out-so-I-guess-we’ll-watch-this-from-here kind of motionless.

When’s the last time the Spurs executed their offense in that fashion?

“Trade Aldridge!”

“Get him out of here!”

“He can’t play!”

“He’s soft! It’s over for him!”

These are comments I’ve pulled from paid analysts over the last year and more frequently after the Warriors eliminated them from the playoffs. These are real quotes from the experts.

I don’t agree and it isn’t a terribly difficult argument to defend either. He was the prize of free agency TWO years ago and now he’s trash? Worthy of being express-mailed out of San Antonio? He arrived TWO YEARS ago. This isn’t a case of him failing to perform, the team has devalued him and turned their noses up at the thought of keeping him on the roster.

Popovich barely posts him, for one. Secondly, the offense has him attacking from the perimeter – which habitually leaves him with the choice between a long jumper or a three; shots he can convert – once Leonard dribbles the air out of the ball. But their problems are all tied to No. 12?

I don’t think sports fans are intelligent by any means so I’m not astonished that they are also blaming the former Portland Trailblazer. It’s the reporters, screaming heads and the like that are paid to watch basketball – who should have a deeper understanding of the game – and yet they have their eyes wide shut. It’s their profession. Side point: It’s akin to the issues involving Kevin Love. He’s a power forward with three-point range…but the Cavaliers deploy him chiefly as a stretch-four and he’s a “bum” now?

This is basketball and Aldridge is not utilized properly. This. Is. Obvious.

Is it a coincidence that Leonard’s MVP-level campaign coincided with Aldridge’s worst statistical season since his freshman NBA year? These two events transpired simultaneously. I can’t be the only person that sees that. How is that being ignored? Additionally, wasn’t the analytics movement buoyed by the reasoning that traditional methods of gauging a player’s value; e.g. points, rebounds, assists, etc, are incomplete measurements? Yet when everyone’s head is steaming and/or there’s a live microphone around, the first spotlight is on points per game? Lazy.

If you watch basketball and you understand more than a highlight or a flashy pass then this truly isn’t difficult to comprehend.

Every team can’t try to copy what’s on deck for the Warriors. The galaxy lined up for them so perfectly and now the league is in a frenzy to bottle it. It isn’t alchemy. They drafted their dynamic backcourt and then signed Steph Curry to a below-market extension due to his ankle troubles which gave them the flexibility to focus cash elsewhere (namely Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston). Then they got lucky enough that when their all-star, David Lee, was injured Draymond Green turned into a complete force that NO ONE expected. Oh…and then they win an NBA championship, follow that year with a 73-9 season (but lose in the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers after blowing a 3-1 lead) and sign Kevin Durant. He then helps lead them into another dance with the Cavaliers in which they finish the series in five games. The Warriors were built organically and then looked to free agency.

The league is killing itself to replicate their style. I get it. However there’s a reason why the Spurs have been able to beat them. Size. Aldridge gives them trouble for that same reason. When the Spurs defend and the offense is run through both of their top players, they can compete with the Warriors. There isn’t a team that’s going to beat the Warriors playing small – and to their strengths. A roster needs to have a perfect mix of shooting, defense, size and speed in order not to get blown out by 30 – and the Spurs are pointing all the blame at Aldridge without taking a look at their offense. If Popovich did, I’m sure he would reconsider trading his power forward. At least he should.

But again, by the time this is published he’ll probably be in another city.

Lottery Bound

By: S. Davis

It was going to be a “pure basketball decision.” Those were the thoughts emerging from Kevin Durant – and his representatives – as the superstar was preparing for his first invitation into the madness of NBA Free Agency. He took his meetings, flew to the Hamptons and Boston for a few more – and then made his decision. By now the choice has been evaluated and discussed across most media outlets so you won’t find that here.

After the yelling, cheering and horror (from the Oklahoma City Thunder supporters) where is the franchise headed? Just four years ago, the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. It was almost taken for granted at the time that they would be challenging for the trophy every June into the foreseeable future. They have yet to win the NBA championship, traded James Harden a week before the 2012-13 season began, let a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals over the Golden State Warriors slip through their hands…and now Durant is on this way to the Bay Area. That unfolded swiftly.

Is this how a dynasty that never was disintegrates? Over the last decade there’s been a chorus supporting the notion that market size doesn’t matter anymore (the obvious test case being the San Antonio Spurs) but it’s hard to ignore that Oklahoma City is facing a future with just one star in Russell Westbrook…who is in the last year of his current deal. Is this franchise headed for the lottery?

This isn’t a knock on Oklahoma at all. The question is whether the franchise will be able to recruit top-tier free agents for the first time that they will definitely need to. They’ve had the comfort of having their own stars in-house and now the coin has flipped and they’re going to have to enter the same free agency dance that other teams are well-versed in going forward. It’s going to be a tough sell without having Durant and Westbrook, together, under contract. Major free agents haven’t viewed the Thunder as a destination and now the franchise needs to pitch players on why it is one.

With the trade of Serge Ibaka, Westbrook is the last of the four cornerstone players expected to compete for titles as long as they remained healthy throughout their respective athletic primes. The top-tier free agents have mostly agreed-in-principle to deals so the options remaining on the market are the scraps in the bargain bin. (Bargain being a loose term when factoring the amount of money being handed out to journeymen and unproven NBA talent over the weekend; it’s eye opening.)

Can general manager Sam Presti construct a playoff contender; better yet, a championship contender around Russell Westbrook? The worst thing in the NBA is to be mediocre because all that does is cement a four-to-six seed in the postseason, an exit in the first or second round all the while killing the chance to get a high pick in the draft to (possibly) acquire a franchise changing player to make the team elite. Presti is sure going to try but the clock is ticking loudly on Westbrook’s time; it started yesterday morning.

At this point he’s faced with trading one of the few, true, superstars in all of sports or running the risk of losing him this time next year for nothing at all. It’s easy being a general manager when things are humming along like a brand new sedan. What does it take to steer a franchise clear of the abyss? After their inaugural season in 2009-10 they’ve made the playoffs every year (with the exception being last year due to the foot injury to Durant).

The franchise was incredibly lucky to relocate to Oklahoma City with Durant and the newly drafted Westbrook in tow. Through exceptional scouting and draft positioning Harden and Ibaka joined the fray to complete a devastating, young core. They’ve never faced two losing seasons, consecutively; a small comfort on this summer evening but one that could change dramatically depending on the next few months.

Presti will have the decision on Westbrook, the future of the franchise and his job, obviously, all in his hands and they are all connected. Across social media, basketball fans in Seattle are claiming “karma” for Durant’s decision to join the Warriors. Maybe.

What’s in the future for the Thunder?

Through sheer will and force Westbrook can lead his team to a playoff berth in the upcoming season. The locks in the Western Conference seem to be the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. That’s five slots and adding the Dallas Mavericks makes six so the last two seeds will be open among the Thunder, Houston Rockets and the team too-many-love-too-soon, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Selfishly, it’s sad that one of my favorite tandems will no longer be together but no one can say the NBA is absent of stories next season…or obscene contracts due to the salary cap spike.