Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Week In Prose

With the onset of NBA games, months of rank speculation in NBA media -- about labor negotiations, trade rumors, obscure tweets, and a lot of stuff untethered to the game -- has turned to actual analysis of on-court hoops in the past week. Here are the best articles we have found. We promise not to make this a regular feature, but the return of good sportswriting has been refreshing.

  • Sports Illustrated's Britt Robson on the debut of Ricky Rubio (and you should click the Youtube link embedded in the article).

  • Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins on coping with the aftermath of a failed trade.

  • Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick on Derrick Rose's personal habits.

  • Sports Illustrated's Zach Lowe on how the Heat handled a zone defense in their victory over Boston on Tuesday night.

  •'s Ethan Sherwood Strauss on Dwight Howard's suitability to the current age of NBA game rules.

  • Blogger Devin Kharpertian showing why Andray Blatche is a low-quality defender.

  • Blogger Rob Mahoney breaks down a potential traveling violation on Dwyane Wade's game-winning shot against Charlotte from Wednesday night.

  • Howard Beck of the New York Times profiles the newly renamed Metta World Peace.
  • Friday, December 30, 2011

    Stephen and Dell Not the Only Curry?

    In a blog post last year, we alerted readers to Satnam Singh Bhamara, a teenaged giant from Punjab in India who is turning heads in national and international competitions. Following that AOL Fanhouse article discussed therein, ESPN The Magazine profiled Bhamara in a lengthy piece published today:

    THIRTY OR SO YEARS AGO, in the Indian state of Punjab, in a tiny village surrounded by rice paddies, miles from the nearest home with air conditioning or even with glass and screens on all its windows, there lived a teenage boy named Balbir Singh Bhamara who did what had once seemed impossible; he grew to be taller than his mother.

    Balbir's father was a wheat farmer and miller with a string of glistening black water buffalo that gave milk as sweet as honey. His mother was 6'9", and young Balbir grew to be a little over seven feet tall -- the tallest person in the village. Everywhere the giant boy went, people told him he ought to play basketball, a game many of them had heard about but never seen.


    And then one day another giant emerged: Balbir's middle child, a sweet and joyful boy named Satnam. When Satnam was 9 years old and already taller than most adults in the village, Balbir took the boy to a scruffy local court to play basketball, a game Balbir still barely understood. Satnam walked onto the court, utterly bewildered. He had misunderstood and thought his father was taking him to play volleyball. Predictably, the boy struggled. Balbir watched, feeling untroubled, undeterred -- happy, even.

    Not long after they got back home, Balbir crossed the lumpy dirt courtyard that separated his small stable and mill from his even smaller house and mounted a hoop to the weathered brick wall. Balbir summoned his son to the courtyard and handed Satnam a new rubber basketball.

    The family room was right inside. At the end of the workday, while others in the family strained to hear the little TV over the big kid's incessant banging of the ball against the wall, Balbir -- a man destined to become the second-tallest person in his village -- would just sit back, sip his tea with buffalo milk, stroke his long, graying beard and grin.

    The exoticized, indeterminate, hazy, fablesque tone of the story (which other ballers grew up around mooing buffalo?) is odd but not surprising. Only the sensational gets clicked on that particular website. As we reminded readers last year, Bhamara is just a kid-- one of many playing hoops at a high level in India. His story may already be nothing more than typical. In any case, here is a UK-produced video about him:

    Bhamara is not the only 7-footer of South Asian background to fall into the ken of serious scouts this year. The 80-inch-plus Bhullar brothers of Toronto, whose parents are from Punjab, both play for a prep school near Pittsburgh. Sim, the elder boy of the pair, is now in 12th grade and has committed to attend New Mexico State next fall (although, for unclear reasons, he will be academically ineligible to play ball in 2012-13).

    Behold the Bhullars:

    Saturday, December 24, 2011

    On Player Introductions

    The featured NBA personality of the past month has been Chris Paul, who was traded to the Lakers, then returned to the Hornets, then finally traded to the Clippers. Paired with Blake Griffin, Paul promises to mount an MVP-caliber season if he and Griffin keep their repaired knees healthy. One thing you can count on when the Clippers introduce Paul at their home opener will be his billing by the public address announcer: We will learn not that Paul was born and raised in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area, nor that he played four pro seasons in New Orleans (and two in Oklahoma City), but that he attended Wake Forest University for two years. Throughout the league, university attendance, no matter the duration or the proximity to the player's hometown (in Paul's case, he attended college close to home, but many ballers do not), is made part of a player's brand. Of course, not every NBA player attended university -- at least those who entered the league before the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement. But team marketing staffs have thought of a simple solution for this problem: wherever LeBron James, for example, has played pro ball, he is billed at "6 foot 8, from St. Vincent - St. Mary's..." owing to his early entry to the NBA direct from high school. (Forward to 0:52 mark of video:)

    Why, though, is a player's educational affiliation his most salient identifier? I tend not to introduce myself at parties by describing where I studied ten years ago; I might refer to my hometown, or what neighborhood I live in now. Minutiae like my high school or college are hardly relevant to my life today. Employers hardly care about my university affiliation, either: an adequate one is useful to get one's foot in the door, but for promotions and movement to different companies, it is recommendations and recent accomplishments that make the difference.

    With my examples of Paul and James above, at least their schooling was only a few miles from their hometown, but top college basketball programs usually draw recruits from all around the country, or from other nations. Kevin Love, for example, spent his whole life in Oregon before passing through southern California for one college season after he finished high school in 2007. And following the '08 draft, he has lived in Minneapolis for over 3 years. Yet the Timberwolves announcer always reminds us that Love is from UCLA. Kevin Durant is a son of Maryland, yet his introduction pairs him with the University of Texas, where he spent approximately 7 months of his life, in the fall and winter of 2006-2007. Similarly, lifelong Torontonian Tristan Thompson, now of the Cavs, spent two prep years in New Jersey, one further high school season in Nevada, and a few collegiate months in Austin, Texas, before he entered the NBA draft last spring. Before each home game, Cavs fans will be reminded of the news that this Canadian is "from" Texas.

    NBA fans with a moderately long memory will remember announcer Ray Clay's iconic introductory locution for Michael Jordan (backed by an addictive synthesizer hook from the Alan Parsons Project) before every game in Chicago: "From NORTH... Carolina... at guard, 6'6"... Michael... JORDAN!" At least in Jordan's case, the "North Carolina" appellation identified both his college and his homeland. But calling Tristan Thompson, of Brampton Ontario, a Texan is a bit of a stretch.

    It is true that college is a singular moment in the lives of many young people: away from home for the first time, thrown together with young people with different backgrounds, staking their future on their ability to sit for exams and nail the answers, college students form very intense bonds with their new friends and with the institution. Years later, former students look first to their college ties for social connection and professional support; even Rudy Gay, who spent just one year at the U. of Connecticut, or Kyrie Irving, who played 10 games for Duke, look to their alma mater for a place to scrimmage in summertime.

    Moreover, until twenty years ago, it was unusual for top young players to spend any fewer than two (and usually three) seasons in college ball; future MVPs Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan all spent four years on campus. Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O'Neal spent three. When Chris Webber left college after his sophomore season in 1993, he began to stress the three-season norm for college ballers that had mirrored the NFL's explicit no-sophomores rule, and afterwards entry by high school seniors (beginning with Kevin Garnett in '95) or college freshmen became more typical. Perhaps there was once a feeling in NBA circles that college truly was the most formative place for a young lad to learn the game, but things change.

    Today, of course, high school and college student-athletes spend most of their non-official time attending summer academies sponsored by apparel companies, AAU tournaments, and tours through China. It is risible to argue that a few months in Lexington, Kentucky was the most defining period of John Wall's pre-pro life, after he grew up in rural North Carolina in a challenged family. Yet...

    My co-blogger H.O.S.S. suggests that teams ask players how they would like to be introduced. Barring that, the smartest approach I have seen is the Chicago Bulls' introduction of Derrick Rose, who spent his whole life before college (including a celebrated high school basketall career) in the city of Chicago. Rose passed through John Calipari's point guard factory at the University of Memphis for one season before joining the NBA in 2008 -- returning to his hometown in Cook County. The Bulls do not pretend that his college half-year was the most salient time in his life, instead pleasing the home crowd by simply calling him "From Chicago" (forward to 4:52 mark of video):

    (Of late, Rose has spent more of his free offseason time in Los Angeles than in Chicago, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?)

    Friday, December 9, 2011

    Robber Barons Up In The Frozen Tundra

    Last year I expressed dismay that Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, was seeking to get his hands on the Pistons as well. In the event, a different buyer bought the Pistons from Karen Davidson and I was pleased.

    Today comes news that Rogers Communications and Bell Canada are buying Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. Rogers and Bell will each have a 37.5% stake. Though MLSE, Rogers now is the effective co-controlling owner of the Raptors, Maple Leafs, Air Canada Centre, and (not mentioned in the Reuters article) Toronto FC of Major League Soccer. And Rogers already owns a controlling share of the Blue Jays and Skydome (er, excuse me, "Rogers Centre"). The only independently owned pro club in Toronto is now the Argonauts.

    This cannot be good news for Toronto sports fans or cable TV subscribers. Rogers and Bell each own a cable TV channel (Sportsnet and TSN) and collectively they hope to corner the market on Leafs and Raptors broadcasts. Ticket prices and sports apparel will likely spike as well. Canada's Competition Bureau must stop this purchase.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    More Changes In The Association This Season

    Today the NBA announced two important sets of changes for the 2011-12 season: one impacting on-court play, and one impacting off-court business matters. Both developments are positive, in my view.

    The CBA
    The new Collective Bargaining Agreement contains tweaks to numerous league protocols. Notably, the new CBA allows a player to renegotiate an existing contract for lower annual money but more years, if the annual salary reduction is no more than 40%. This provision would allow, say, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony to take a bit less money in 2012-13 and beyond in order to create more salary-cap room for the Knicks to sign Chris Paul or another top free agent. [Reports Thursday indicate that the Knicks intend to sign Tyson Chandler to a large long-term contract that would cover 2012-13 and beyond. The contracts of those three guys would eat up most of the $58 MM salary cap. Theoretically, all three of Chandler, Stoudemire, and Anthony could agree to reduce their salaries sufficiently to make room for Paul at a large number; perhaps each of them could earn $13 MM annually, say.]

    The new deal also sets the minimum team salary at (after a couple years of transition) 90 percent of the salary cap, rather than 75 percent. This provision will help further the goal of competitive balance; cheap owners such as Donald Sterling or Glen Taylor will be forced to hire at least a few middling (as opposed to terrible or very young) players to fill out their roster.

    The contentious minimum age for draftees was not changed, but apparently punted to be decided by a future union-league committee. I have previously advocated in this space for the age limit to be raised to two years post-college.

    The previously over-generous shooting fouls granted in "rip-through" or "and-one" situations, wherein the shooter was clearly not in a shooting motion before the foul, will be curtailed. Travelling rules will be enforced more strictly (LeBron James's "crab dribble", which we reviewed in this post in 2009, will no longer be legal) and timeouts will be made to conform to the billed 20-second or 60-second lengths. Here at JPO, we have long criticized inconsistent rule enforcement, and this news begets great happification in our hearts.

    Sunday, December 4, 2011

    Should Dirk Nowitzki win Sportsman of the Year?

    Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award will be announced tomorrow. To me, the three strongest candidates are Aaron Rodgers, Dirk Nowitzki, and Novak Djokovic. Here is a review of their credentials.

    Rodgers has played superlatively in 2011, from his Super Bowl run in January-February to his undefeated regular season this autumn. Moreover, an American face on the cover would be likelier to sell magazines. On the merits, Rodgers's excellence in his sport was not worse than the success of Nowitzki or young Djok: all won championships (there is no defined championship in tennis, but Djokovic won 3 of 4 "major" tournaments) and looked dominant in doing so. In the current regular season, Rodgers has 37 touchdown throws against only 5 interceptions; he has completed 70% of his passes and is on pace to break the record for passing yards in one season. However, Sports Illustrated also picked NFL quarterbacks for the award in 2005, 2007, and 2010; four in seven years would be too much. Let us scratch Rodgers, then.

    Between the two Europeans, Nowitzki is likely better known to Americans, as he spent all his time this year playing in the main US pro basketball league. After a previous loss in the Finals, an individual MVP, a broken engagement to a questionable woman, and an impressive record of skill improvement over his 13-year career, it was heartening to see Nowitzki finally win the championship this year, leading his team to a surprising win over the more talented Miami Heat. Nowitzki played solidly against Portland before exploding against Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Miami in a two-month run that cemented his place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Against the Thunder and Heat, Nowitzki keyed improbable 15-point, fourth-quarter comebacks that sapped the spirits of his opponents and made his teammates believe that Dallas could really do it. Yet it was the relative brevity of this display -- just two months -- that puts Nowitzki just behind the rightful winner in my estimation. Nowitzki's vernal outburst excited American fans as they emerged from the long winter's freeze. He was very good. However, Djokovic did his thing all year long.

    Unlike Nowitzki, Djokovic's success lasted from the Australian Open in January to the U.S. Open in September, across a span of eight months, four continents, and four playing surfaces. Besides his three major wins in Melbourne, Paris, and New York, he won tournaments in Montreal, Rome, Madrid, Belgrade, Miami, Indian Wells, and Dubai. That's right-- Djokovic won ten tournaments in a single calendar year! [Notably, Djokovic has failed to win the three late-season tournaments he entered this year after leaving Queens-- losing to lesser-ranked players in Basel, Paris, and London.] Djokovic amassed a staggering 70-6 record in 2011, taking 3 of 4 matches from Roger Federer and 6 of 6 from Rafael Nadal. While Nowitzki's story is the most endearing, I would hand the award to Djokovic, who clearly established himself as the best in his sport. To understand Djokovic's season, consider his forehand to save match point against Federer in New York:

    UPDATE December 5th:
    Well, instead of the three guys listed above, Sports Illustrated gave the prize to two long-serving US college basketball coaches who did not win anything in 2011: Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. They are certainly deserving of something, with 12 NCAA championships and 3 Olympic gold medals between them, but the timing was strange. Perhaps Sports Illustrated / Time Warner wanted to do something "nice" in light of Summitt's recent diagnosis of neurologic illness. On the merits, though, it is difficult to defend.

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Worry Not, Flyover Fans

    I was on a long trip abroad and somewhat physically infirm for the past couple weeks, but a lot happened in NBA circles. The remnants of the players' union finally agreed with the owners on the framework of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the lockout is more-or-less now over. Immediately thereafter, rumors began flying about potential trade destinations for Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who will be free agents next summer and don't seem inclined to re-sign with their respective current teams.

    Fans of teams in smaller burgs tend to lament the inevitable loss of star players. But, first, the loss is not inevitable: Tim Duncan stayed in San Antonio, Kevin Durant seems bound to remain in OKC, and Isiah Thomas spent a whole career in Detroit. And consider that Kevin Garnett stayed in Minnesota for 12 years; save for one year when Sam Cassell played like an All-Star, the team could not assemble quality talent around him. 12 seasons was more than Garnett owed to the team.

    Secondly, if your team loses a star, another will come soon enough. Orlando lost Shaq and Penny; Hill and McGrady soon replaced them. When they proved too brittle for the job, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis rolled into town. Minnesota lost Garnett and now has Love. The Kings of Sacramento once had a robust Webber; now they have a rambunctious Cousins. The annual draft that assigns the best talent to the worst teams tends to do that. Toronto lost Vince Carter but found themselves nurturing a college-aged Bosh. Bosh left, but now Jonas Valanciunas seems poised to shine in T.O. [Toronto is hardly a small market, but its relative unattractiveness for American players makes it comparable to Detroit or Orlando.]

    Consider the recent plight of the Grizzlies, a 1995 expansion team. Originally based in Vancouver, the team held Top-6 draft positions every year from 1995 through 2003*, drafting Bryant Reeves, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antonio Daniels, Mike Bibby, and Stromile Swift along the way. Steve Francis, drafted at #2 in 1999, actually refused to play for the team, exhibiting the same Canuckophobia discussed above. Despite the repeated lottery picks, Vancouver could not build a winning team, mostly due to a poor overall talent level in the draft in those years. (None of Vancouver's draft picks could be derided as obviously terrible. They missed Kevin Garnett by just one draft position; nobody thought Kobe Bryant would be a superstar in '96; the '97 draft pool was terrible; and Mike Bibby had won a college championship while Paul Pierce had not. The 2000 draft was possibly the worst ever.) Owner Michael Heisley could not make the economics of pro hoops work in Vancouver, so he moved the team to another relatively small market, Memphis.

    *Memphis's 2003 first-round pick, which obtained as #2 in the lottery, was traded to Detroit.

    Heisley and his management were determined to start freshly in their new home. The '01 draft night served up a bounty for the Grizzlies, as they acquired rookie Shane Battier with their lottery pick and rookie Pau Gasol via a trade of Abdur-Rahim. Later that summer, they swapped Bibby for Sacramento's flashy disher, Jason Williams. Gasol won Rookie of the Year that season, and this core of players (plus the aforementioned Swift) was able to reach the playoffs in three consecutive springs from 2004 through '06. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies got swept each time, out-talented by Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki. After three straight playoff failures, Gasol wanted out; the team had no apparent intention of improving the roster, and Gasol wanted to win. Memphis sought his exit, also: he was clearly not good enough to captain a championship team, and Memphis had no obvious means of acquiring a better superstar with Gasol on the roster.

    Thus, starting in '06, the Grizzlies jettisoned their playoff roster and began rebuilding the team. They traded Battier for a draft pick that became one-and-done college prospect Rudy Gay; they acquired Mike Conley in the '07 draft; they traded Paul Gasol for the draft rights of his brother, Marc Gasol; they drafted O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur in the talent-laden 2008 draft; and they later drafted Sam Young, Greivis Vazquez, and Xavier Henry. Those are eight players who began their careers with Memphis and are still part of the team. Combined with veteran Zach Randolph, acquired in a 2009 trade, and defensive ace Tony Allen, signed as a free agent last year, the Grizzlies now have a deadly core that can contend for championships for the next few years. Taken seriously by no one, they rolled over the 4-time champion Spurs and nearly made the Western finals last spring.

    Twice now, the Grizzlies have restocked their roster with new stars. Fans in Memphis were despondent one year ago, fearing their team might be contracted, but now they have reason for glee. Even fans in Vancouver need not mope; their city might one day get a new or existing NBA team, notwithstanding the earlier divorce.

    The lesson here is that smart roster management can sustain a great team in a small market. Dumb roster management, such as the Timberwolves under Kevin McHale, will lead to naught.