NBA Shouldn’t Punish Spurs For Benching Stars

When you consider the success of long-term NBA contenders, there’s perhaps no controversy more irrelevant than the San Antonio Spurs’ decision to bench their stars in their nationally televised contest on a Thursday night in November against the Miami Heat.

Coach Greg Popovich’s decision to sit Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green will be only an afterthought come playoff time, when the Spurs resume sitting in their annual spot atop the Western Conference. At 13-4, San Antonio is only a half game back of the conference-leading Memphis Grizzlies despite easing Ginobili back into the rotation by playing him less than 23 minutes per game off the bench.

Clearly, Popovich’s decision was made with a watchful eye fixated on the playoffs, the real indicator of a successful 2012-13 campaign for the Spurs. The team finished first the West last season, but their strong regular season became irrelevant when the team blew a 2-0 lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

For this veteran-laden team destined to cruise into the playoffs, regular season success is secondary to ensuring the health of their core players going into the postseason, a fact that’s just as a true for so many other contenders as the grind of an 82-game season wears on.

However, when the NBA levied a hefty $250,000 fine against the Spurs for sitting their star players against the Heat, league Commissioner David Stern sent a strong message that such practices will not be tolerated in order to preserve the integrity of the NBA’s regular season.

The sanctions placed upon the Spurs only highlight the hypocrisy of Stern reign atop the basketball world. The bottom line is that it is simply unfair to expect these athletes to endure the grind of the 82-game regular season, in which teams are periodically scheduled to play four games in five nights on the road, as was the case when the Spurs opted to rest their most valued players.

Regardless of the perhaps unrealistic expectations placed upon the players, most teams trot out their expected lineup without resting seemingly healthy, if not fatigued, core rotation players. However, Popovich’s executive decision to sit his aging stars shouldn’t be punished; instead, it should be lauded as a choice that could potentially change the landscape of the NBA.

In Major League Baseball, it’s not uncommon for managers to rest their most important players, a policy that’s become commonplace due to a schedule that includes no built-in rest to protect the health the players who make the sport watchable. Although this practice hasn’t become conventional among NBA teams, Popovich’s decision to display it in front of plenty of eyes on national television could be seen as a public message that the NBA’s regular season is too long and meaningless.

Whether Popovich benched his star players to send a message to the league or merely in the interest of his team’s long-term prospects, we will never know. But one could argue that it’s not only his prerogative to ensure that his players are healthy going into the playoffs—it’s also his job.

Every coach has the right to make the personnel decisions that best situate their team for “success,” whatever that term constitutes for a given team. For the Spurs, success isn’t determined by their regular season, it’s hinged upon how far Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can carry the team in the playoffs. Thus, it’s Coach Popovich’s responsibility to keep these players fresh for their inevitable playoff run.

For Stern to step in and impose sanctions upon Popovich and the Spurs for running their team the way they see fit is wrong on so many levels. The league office making personnel decisions on behalf of coaches sets a scary precedent; hypothetically speaking, why couldn’t the league demand that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade play in the Heat’s last game of the regular season, even if the team has already locked up their playoff seeding and has nothing to gain from a meaningless regular season game?

Meanwhile, the league has done nothing to address the issue of tanking, in which teams at the bottom of their conference standings play a less-than-optimal rotation to lose games in order to give themselves better odds at receiving the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.

Lost in the shuffle is that the starless-Spurs nearly made a fool out of Stern by beating the Heat with a second-string lineup. Would San Antonio had been fined if the likes of Nando de Colo, Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter had knocked off the defending champs on Thursday?

Clearly, Stern fined the Spurs in hopes of sending a league-wide message that the benching of stars will not be tolerated in the NBA. But if he was truly interested in protecting the sanctity of regular season games, he would shorten the regular season to give each game more meaning. That way teams would have less incentive to tank games and sit their core players to prepare for the playoffs, when the NBA season really starts.

We know the season will never be shortened for financial reasons, but Stern and the league should brace themselves for benching controversies in the future should the regular season schedule remain status quo.

Summing Up The Lakers Problems

With it being no lockout this season, the Lakers took full advantage of the time and their prestige. They went out and added Steve Nash, a definite upgrade at point guard. If they were not finished there, they added Dwight Howard at center. Not as big an upgrade, but an upgrade nevertheless.

Then it begins, they hype that is!

The Lakers starting 1-4 is not a help to that hype. In fact, it can quickly turn into panic. That in itself creates problem number 1 for the purple and gold. Some players are not equipped to deal with that hype on a nightly basis. Looking up at that LA crowd is just a tad different from looking at any other NBA crowd. That will take time and I’m sure the Dwights of the world will definitely get past that part of the issue. Even though air balling a free throw is not an indication that it will be quite so soon.

Age might become the biggest of issues for this year’s Lakers. Lets not forget that Steve Nash had “Mike Miller Syndrome” at times last season. You could often find him lying on the bench, as opposed to the oh so traditional sitting. Nash is well on the other side of 35 and can’t possibly be as durable as you’d like your starting point guard to be.

Lets not forget about injuries to Howard and Bryant. While Bryant is indeed a warrior and will seemingly play through anything, injuries are injuries. With a few more losses, those injuries may begin to hurt just a tad more. Howawrd is still recovering from back surgery but looks fine offensively. Coming into the season most would’ve thought that his injuries would be the most troublesome, however those tides have turned quite quickly.

Some will say that the main problem is coaching and those same may want the immediate removal of one Mike Brown. This is the guy that missed on delivering a title in Cleveland, but we won’t even touch on that. Mike Brown has been given a loaded team and he might want to turn it around due to that aforementioned panic.

Here is why you can’t blame Mike Brown, and is possibly the biggest reason for the Lakers’ stumble. By trading for Dwight Howard the Lakers are essentially saying that the Bryant era is nearing its end. Bryant, himself, has acknowledged that he may hang it up once his contract is over.

While Bryant can still put the ball in the goal as good as anybody, it just doesn’t fit what Mike Brown wants to do on offense. Running Brown’s “Princeton” offense (which i find hilarious) is quite the opposite of running your offense through Bryant.

The Lakers clearly want to move forward, but they don’t want to let go. By no way am I saying they should trade Bryant but maybe its time for somebody to realize something. Having two guys that can be near unstoppable at times (Bryant and Howard) but taking the ball out of their hands for back cuts and sliding screens just can’t be the most effective way to use them.

To sum up the Lakers’ Problems, their problems are themselves at this point. They went out and spent the money, made the deals, therefore created the hype. At some point someone will have to look in the mirror and ponder about the present.

If this tart is any indication, the Lakers could be in more trouble than what we actually think.

Why Can’t LeBron Reach Jordan’s Level?

It’s understandable why there is taboo about saying anyone could ever be better than Michael Jordan. He was 6-6 in NBA Finals appearances, he won the MVP in each of those Finals, he won five league MVP awards, he won ten scoring titles, he was one of the rare perimeter players to win Defensive Player of the Year, and he even averaged 37.5 points in an 82-gamen season while making just 12 three-pointers.

We get it, he transcended the sport.

Like anyone else, there is a possibility that Jordan could eventually be overshadowed by another talent. The media likes to deem the Vince Carters, Tracy McGradys and Jerry Stackhouses of the world the next Jordan, yet they all failed. Kobe Bryant won’t ever be a Jordan, LeBron James probably will suffer the same fate in terms of greatness. The real problem is why it’s a problem to even address the possibility.

Jordan’s greatness is unique in that his competitiveness will likely never be matched, no one will surpass that and that’s fine. But when talking about greatness, it goes past just how competitive someone was.

We can harp on LeBron’s failures in the two NBA Finals before his eventual title this past 2012 Playoffs, we can be redundant and say that Kobe the leader of a couple clunker teams that lost in ugly fashion, it happens. It happened to Jordan, too.

Jordan’s accolades aren’t without hardship. He played fifteen seasons, went home in nine of them. He’s lost games despite gargantuan efforts (see his 63 point performance versus the Celtics in 1986), he struggled versus the Pistons the same way that LeBron struggled versus the Celtics, they both kicked the door down in great fashion.

LeBron’s first nine seasons in the NBA don’t overshadow Jordan’s just in that he won a ring, that’s a pointless stat that implies that championships are won by one person. In LeBron’s first nine seasons, he’s been on Jordan’s level in terms of scoring, field goal percentage, shot-blocking and free throw attempts while being superior in rebounding, passing and shooting.

LeBron has already made twice as many threes in nine years than Jordan did in his entire career (917 to 581), his ability to take over a game in every way possible is evidenced by his career averages of 27/7/7 that no one else in NBA history has ever achieved.

Of course, some cynics and skeptics will interpret this as a means of saying LeBron WILL be better than Jordan, that he already IS or even that Jordan is a lesser player, overrated in some ways. No, this is just to say that it’s possible.

Although Jordan transcended the game, there are people who scored more points than him, that won more titles than him, that were more athletic and more all-around better. Oscar Robertson was seemingly the Jordan of his era in terms of build and dominance, who else do you know could average a triple-double for a season? Oh, that’s right, no one.

We’ve seen Kobe’s offensive arsenal prove more well-rounded than Jordan’s, we’ve seen guys come along and put up similar numbers to Jordan with bigger, stronger and faster bodies in LeBron James. It happens, there isn’t anything wrong with it.

One thing that comes with the exaggerated folklore of saying Jordan is seemingly untouchable is the undermining of the fortune he came into when it came to being a Bull.

Scottie Pippen was one of the two or three best small forwards ever, a perimeter defender that doesn’t come along often, if ever again. The same magic Phil Jackson worked with the Bulls in winning six titles in six appearances was worked in Los Angeles with five titles and seven appearances. Dennis Rodman was a Hall of Famer, Toni Kukoc was one of the best foreign players ever, Jordan wasn’t the ONLY constant that contributed to his greatness.

Had it not been for his two years of retirement that saw Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the best centers ever, would Jordan have been 6-6 in the NBA Finals considering Hakeem dominated the very position the Bulls were notoriously weakest? Circumstance can skew perception.

It’s why people harp more on the fact that LeBron lost two NBA Finals and overlook how bad the 2007 Cavaliers were, how he never played with a legitimate All-Star (no, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas don’t count) until 2010, and it’s arguable that Dwyane Wade is declining at this point.

Jordan’s throne probably will go untouched, he may end up being overshadowed. Who is to say that he won’t?

Just as LeBron could just win one or two rings, he could go on a run of three or four titles before he’s 32. Who is to KNOW this won’t happen?

With his blend of scoring, passing, rebounding, elite defense and growing post game, LeBron’s 6’9, 275 pound frame can transcend basketball even more than he already has. He may not be the global icon Jordan was, he likely won’t touch Jordan in terms of “mental toughness”, but that’s somehow become an exaggerated way of claiming one isn’t “clutch”.

LeBron’s had clutch performances before these past playoffs. He hasn’t hit a bunch of game-winners but that’s because he’s contributed where games don’t tend to come down to the last minute when he’s on the court. Alas, why argue clutch when the numbers are the argument that trumps all?

We obsess with Jordan’s six rings because winning is all that matters, when do fans argue Bill Russell as one of the best players ever with an unmatched grit and competitive nature? Because that’s exactly what he was.

Alas, people are too removed that generation to understand that. Some of those same people are too fixated on the legend that comes with Jordan and his greatness, so fixated that they may end up being just as argumentative when someone comes along only to hear how they could never touch the same LeBron people continue to find ways to sell short.

Winners And Losers From Howard Deal

If you have any rooted interest in the NBA, you’ve probably heard about the reported blockbuster trade sending Dwight Howard to the Lakers by now. The trade is sure to shake up the outlook of the upcoming season, as the Lakers will add a three-time Defensive Player of the Year to a core that already included two former MVPs (Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash) and a perennial All-Star (Pau Gasol).

That the Lakers were able to land Howard while giving up only Andrew Bynum is obviously a huge boost to their title chances, at the least in the short term. But with so much set to change in the NBA, it’s worth looking at which teams and players are set to benefit from this trade and who should be shaking their head at the news of this blockbuster.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers

One look at the Lakers’ roster must put the fear of God in most of the NBA’s contenders. In one night, the purple and gold went from being just another solid team in the West to a legitimate title contender, and arguably the favorite to win it all. Behind the most dangerous frontcourt in the league, the Lakers will be a terrifying matchup for the wing-loaded Heat and have added perhaps the only player that can cover up for Nash’s inability to guard the league’s elite point guards.

But time will really tell whether this trade benefits L.A. in the long run; Howard hasn’t committed to extending his contract with the Lakers next offseason, and if he doesn’t, the Lakers just gave up Bynum to rent Howard for a year. Either way, you’d have to say GM Mitch Kupchak pushed the right button here, as getting Howard puts the Lakers in the best position to take advantage of the narrow window they have to contend for a title as Bryant and Nash reach to twilight of their careers.

Loser: Orlando Magic

New Magic Rob Hennigan GM was clearly handed an impossible task when trying to obtain assets in exchange for Howard without any leverage. However, the haul the Magic received in return was perhaps less appetizing than anyone could have expected, especially when there were rumors that Orlando could receive big man Brook Lopez from the Nets.

Instead, the only young player they received that could potentially play a role in their next winning team is Arron Afflalo, who would likely be no more than a role player on any successful team. What’s worse is that they weren’t able to unload Hedo Turkoglu’s massive contract in the deal, and there are reports all three first-round picks the Magic will receive will be protected.

Even without leverage, you’d think the Magic could have gotten more in return for the best defensive player in the league.

Winners: Philadelphia 76ers, Andrew Bynum

The Sixers clearly used savvy management to turn their glut of wing players into the second best center in the league, all while staying under the radar and out of the media spotlight. Philly gave up Andre Iguodala, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, and a future first-round pick to get Bynum, who clearly has the talent to make them a formidable team in the East and badly needed a change of scenery.

Perhaps the Sixers aren’t a favorite in the East, but Bynum immediately becomes the conference’s best center, and they’ve accumulated enough depth at the wings to try to replace what they’ll lose by giving up Iguodala.

Things couldn’t have worked out much better for Bynum in this deal, as he moves to a promising young team that will now be built around him. He’ll get all the touches he can handle on a playoff team with room for improvement.

Loser: Denver Nuggets

While some will argue that the Nuggets didn’t give up much to get All-Star and defensive stalwart Iguodala, I’m struggling to see how the acquisition fits into their long-term plan. Iguodala isn’t the premier scorer that will put Denver into contention in the West, and his contract over the next three years will be expensive as he drifts into his age 30 season and out of the prime of his career.

After extending JaVale McGee this offseason, the Nuggets will have a great deal of their salary cap invested in McGee and Iguodala, which shouldn’t inspire too much fear among their Western Conference rivals.

Long term, the Nuggets might have been better off preserving their cap flexibility and retaining Afflalo, who has a similar skill set to that of Iguodala.

Winners: Arron Afflalo, Moe Harkless, Nikola Vucevic

We’ve seen how losing a superstar can set back a franchise in Cleveland, and this trade launches Orlando into similar territory. However, the young players involved in this deal must view this as an opportunity to they belong in the NBA.

Afflalo will become perhaps the most potent scorer in Orlando after scoring 15 points per game as a role player for the Nuggets last season, and he will be handed all the minutes and scoring chances he can handle.

Vucevic will be given an opportunity to win the starting center spot as a stretch-five, which he would likely not have on most other teams.

Meanwhile, Harkless’ path to the NBA got a lot smoother by getting out of Philadelphia, a team with plenty of players at his position, and moving to a team that will be more than willing to work with him as a developmental project.

Losers: Jason Richardson, Al Harrington

It’s never a good sign for veterans when they’re used as supplementary pieces in blockbuster trades like these, and unfortunately Richardson and Harrington find themselves in that position. Richardson moves into a crowded wing position in Philly, who added Nick Young and Dorell Wright in the offseasonto compete for shooting guard and small forward minutes alongside Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. At age 31 with four years remaining on his contract, Richardson may struggle to see the same compliment of minutes to which he’s accustomed if the Sixers stick with their young players.

Harrington had carved out a nice niche off the bench in Denver, and while he may not see a dip in minutes with the Magic, the veteran forward will not sniff playoff contention for at least a few years in the midst of Orlando’s rebuilding project.

Loser: San Antonio Spurs

Sure, the Spurs weren’t directly involved in this trade, but their road to title contention just got much tougher with the news of this trade. With their aging core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are clearly built to win now, but the Lakers may have just emphatically shut their window by adding Howard and Nash.

San Antonio might look back at last season as being their last realistic chance at reaching the Finals, and the Spurs will be even more disappointed that they were unable to take advantage of their 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

2012 Team USA Is No Dream Team

We could beat them.

The message was already unmistakably clear as Kobe Bryant quickly began fawning over the MJ-in-his-prime-led 1992 Dream Team, backtracking from any potential media-driven dispute he might have sparked.

Regardless, the message was clear: according to at least one of the leaders on the 2012 Olympic USA basketball team, this year’s squad could have beaten the previously-undisputed greatest Olympic basketball team ever assembled.

Bryant’s actual quote was simple, unassuming, lacking of deep implication. What he said — “I don’t know. It’d be a tough one, but I think we’d pull it out,” referencing the current Team USA’s chances at beating the 1992 version — was modest enough, especially by the superstar guard’s standards.

What perpetuated an otherwise-calm statement, aside from Bryant’s well-documented otherworldly competitiveness and penchant for publicly insinuating his alpha dog demeanor and competitive fire, was that the comment probably isn’t far off from the truth.

Assuming “far off” implies earning a silver medal just behind Team USA Dream Team #1, of course.

Bryant represents a sports enigma that has never been duplicated. Never has a player of any sport been so fiercely backed by people on two completely opposite spectrums as Bryant has. While some call it swagger, others call it arrogance. Some say he has a competitive drive unmatched, others pronounce him a loose cannon always on the verge of blaming others. He is called a scorer with a knowledge for when to pass and when to shoot, or a black hole that swallows up possessions mercilessly. Both sides can be debated flawlessly with statistics, reason, or talking-heads’ logic. Regardless, dude wins, and wins often.

As soon as he opened his mouth and gave his Olympic squad unprecedented props at the hands of the 1992 Dream Team, however, he began a game that will ultimately go down in Mr. Bryant’s rarely-touched “L” column.

Perhaps it already has. With Team USA’s “narrow” 80-69 win over Brazil last Monday and an even tighter 86-80 win against Argentina Sunday, any critics who were on the fence upon first hearing Bryant’s statement, myself included, have quickly hopped to the 1992 Dream Team’s side of the metaphorical fence.

That’s not to say Bryant’s statement, as is generally the case in all pro-and-anti-Bryant arguments, isn’t still completely up for legitimate debate in either direction.

The 1992 Dream Team did have an over-the-hill Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, yes. They also had bigger, slower players on the team compared to this year’s current all-star collection. And, of course, the one argument that keeps me from completely believing that the current Olympic squad wouldn’t stand a chance: the athleticism on MJ’s squad was certainly secondary.

That’s no disrespect to “His Airness,” or any of the other Hall-of-Famers on the 1992 squad. But what other Olympic squad in NBA history had a full line-up of players who could not only dunk, but do so well, point-guard-through-center? Aside from Kevin Love (big, but not explosive) and perhaps Chris Paul (too small-in-stature and not explosive enough to bring down the house with a dunk), this Team USA squad is stacked with high-fliers and aerial killers capable of putting nearly every member of the 1992 Dream Team on a poster.

That being said, Kobe’s militia of athletic freaks doesn’t play basketball like MJ’s Hall-of-Famers. From Charles Barkley to Chris Mullin, the real Dream Team was fraught with Springfield immortals, a far cry from this year’s squad. Aside from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Bryant himself, no other player on the roster is a lock for the NBA Hall of Fame. In time, perhaps, but not now. Not in London. Not in 2012.

The modifiers Bryant used in his statement weren’t as far off as Jordan’s mockingly-shocked reaction would indicate. That’s just two of the greatest basketball players of all-time defending their competitive turf. Perhaps Bryant’s squad would beat the H.O.F.-laden 1992 Olympic basketball squad.

But until we see it, could might even be a slight stretch of the imagination for the 2012 squad’s chances at taking down the Dream Team.

Bad Planning Costs The Knicks

Any fan of the New York Knicks has inevitably wrestled internally with inescapable truth that owner James Dolan is controlling the team, for better or for worse. Whether this resigns the Knicks to perpetual mediocrity is debatable, but disapproval of Dolan’s reign atop the franchise has been harsh and frequent.

Of all the criticism Knicks fans have given Dolan, the one thing you can’t say about the owner is that he’s afraid to spend.

Perpetually over the salary cap, Dolan has exhibited a willingness to spend into the luxury cap—wherein he has to pay a penalty for player contracts that exceed the cap—in order to land his next big target. Whether he’s spending his money in the right places is the product of criticism.

After all the years that the Knicks have spent in the luxury tax from the massive contracts of underachieving players, many fans are frustrated that Dolan chose to draw a line in the sand with the Houston Rockets’ backloaded offer to Jeremy Lin, the underdog point guard who set the league on fire for 25 games last season.

However, it’s hard to blame Dolan for being unwilling to match Lin’s offer, which would reportedly cost him $43 million in the third year of the contract due to salary cap penalties, especially when he’s unsure of whether Lin’s run was an aberration or an indication of what’s to come.

What we do know is the contract Carmelo Anthony termed “ridiculous” became all the more absurd when you consider the luxury tax penalties Dolan will be paying in the third year of the contract for being over the league’s tax line.

You could argue that Dolan’s hands are tied in this case, but poor decision-making with regards to the cap has only tightened the rope around his wrists. A slew of bad management decisions ultimately cost the Knicks a chance to keep their budding star and marketing bell cow.

Though it’s still too early to criticize the max contracts of Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, the Knicks’ decision to use the amnesty clause on newly-signed Chauncey Billups is looming large with regards to cap room.

Shortly after the 2010-11 season, the Knicks were faced with the choice of whether to pick up Billups’ one-year, $13 million option for the following season. Not wanting to be left without a point guard after a lockout-shortened offseason, the team picked up his option.

But after the lockout introduced the amnesty clause, which allowed teams to take one big contract off their salary cap to save cap space, the Knicks used their amnesty on Billups in order to make room for a sign and trade for Tyson Chandler, who turned out to be last year’s Defensive Player of the Year.

While it was necessary to do so in order to acquire Chandler, the Knicks sacrificed the right to future cap flexibility by using their amnesty on Billups, whom they had just resigned by picking up his option. Had they declined his option, the team would still have the amnesty in their back pocket, available to use on a massive contract (like Stoudemire’s) to clear cap room for a player like Lin, whose contract would be much more affordable without the luxury tax penalties.

The Knicks also made mistakes by signing veterans Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby to three-year deals, which took up cap space in the much-maligned third year of Lin’s deal. Both Kidd and Camby will be well into their 40’s by the time they are in the third year of their contracts.

Since the third year of Camby’s deal is only partially guaranteed, the contracts of Kidd and Camby will cost the Knicks about $5 million against the cap in that third year. Because the luxury tax hits rise incrementally, the final $5 million dollars of Lin’s third year would be taxed $12 million, as that portion is taxed at a rate of $2.50 for every dollar. Thus, the team could have saved $12 million by giving Camby and Kidd one less year to avoid the tax hit in the third year.

Although they weren’t faced with the final offer sheet when they made their final deals for the veterans, the Knicks knew the Rockets were contemplating backloading Lin’s offer sheet to make it tougher for the Knicks to match. By taking on extra contracts in that crucial third year, the Knicks only made it tougher on themselves.

The Knicks can call the contract as “ridiculous” all they want, but they have themselves to blame for losing out on the man they morphed into a celebrity. Now he will take his star to Houston, where the Rockets will enjoy the fruits of “Linsanity.”

USA Basketball Team Built For Success

The final roster for the 2012 USA Olympic basketball team was announced on July 7th, and the decision from chairman Jerry Colangelo added James Harden, Andre Igoudala, and Blake Griffin to the mainstays of the international roster.

The trio got the call over the likes of Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, who were also competing for the right to round out the USA roster this summer in London.

Though invaluable to their teams in NBA play, Harden, Iguodala, and Griffin will be relegated to supporting roles at the Games. Still, their inclusion demonstrates the direction Mike Krzyzewski will take this team once this team begins their familiar role as international favorites.

While the selections of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams could be seen as no-brainers, USA will also round out their team with the likes of Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Tyson Chandler, perhaps providing a glimpse into the style of play the team will employ in London.

The roster selections certainly indicate the value Team USA has placed upon experience and versatility, as only Harden and Griffin will be making their debut for their country in an Olympics or World Championship.

A number of players also have the ability to defend and play multiple positions, a strategy used to combat the lack of frontcourt depth in light of the absence of USA mainstays Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh.

The inclusion of only one true center (Chandler) indicates that Krzyzewski may play a smaller lineup in key moments during the Games, relying on athleticism and quickness rather than a size advantage. This will allow the Americans to closely mirror the lineups of their opponent, most of whom will not be led by a dominant big man.

With the likes of James, Durant, and Anthony on the wings and Paul at the point, Team USA will certainly hope to use their athleticism to get baskets in transition. But Plan B will depend on a halfcourt set in which almost any player can create their own shot, and Paul will inevitably be key with his ability to break defenses down off the dribble.

Although there are concerns that his drive-and-kick game will be less effective without the NBA’s stringent hand-checking rules, Paul should be able to get wherever he wants on the court and exhibit spectacular court vision against less than NBA-caliber defenders.

The team also lacks a three-point shooting specialist to stretch the floor and create space to operate, a role that may be filled by Bryant on this star-studded team. It’s one he’s unfamiliar with, however, as Bryant is used to dominating the ball as the alpha-dog for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Either way, the USA shouldn’t have trouble scoring in London with their wealth of offensive talent and pedigree. Instead their main challenge will likely be handling the familiarity and continuity their challengers bring to the table.

This will likely give them the most trouble defensively, as the international game is predicated more on motion offense rather than pick and roll play, which dominates the NBA game. It will be a challenge for the American stars to remain aware of the challenge this presents, especially in the form of back cuts and hustle plays that have fallen out of favor in the NBA.

Irrevocably the favorite in any level of international basketball competition, all eyes will be on Team USA this summer in London. Let’s hope their eyes are more fixated on the opponent than their own hype machine.

It’s the only thing that can stop them.

Idea Of A “Big Three” Still Brings Excitement

Paul Pierce was tired. At the ripe age of 29, Pierce had wasted yet another season of his prime on a Boston Celtics team that had endured one of the worst basketball seasons in their storied history, finishing a paltry 24-58 and dead last in the Atlantic Division.

The five-time all-star small forward had missed significant time that season with a bum foot, as the lack of help surrounding Pierce contributed mightily to the team’s miserable year. Negative attitudes between Celtics players, Pierce included, and members of the organization’s front office only enhanced the team’s unstable situation, as each day brought increased tension to the storied franchise.

In truth, a winning brand of basketball couldn’t have seemed further away for the Celtics.

As the Celtics’ 2006-2007 season sputtered to an end, Pierce seemed doomed to spend the remainder of his glory days as a star carrying his squad to mediocrity at best. But what happened next would change the recent fortunes of the shamrock-yielding franchise and the landscape of the entire NBA for years to come.

On June 28, 2007, the same day the 2007 NBA Draft took place in New York City, Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge acquired sharp-shooting all-star guard Ray Allen from the Seattle Supersonics, immediately transforming his team into a playoff contender.

A month later, on July 31, Ainge pulled another rabbit out of the hat when he plucked perennial all-star power forward and 2003-2004 Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves for nearly nothing in return.

Without warning, Ainge had transformed the Celtics from a perennial Eastern Conference bottom-feeder into an immediate title contender, setting up a record season that would garnish him Executive of the Year honors.

The 2007-2008 season also saw Garnett win the Defensive Player of the Year award, while the Celtics posted the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in NBA history, improving their record a full 42 games from the 2006-2007 season.

With a 66-16 regular season record, good for best in the league, the Celtics would grind their way through the playoffs with home-court advantage in each round, something that proved beneficial for the surprisingly road-deficient Celtics.

After defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals, the Celtics’ could raise another championship banner as their league-leading 17th was perhaps the most improbable of all considering the massive disappointments they’d endured the previous season. Pierce was named the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, a total vindication for the Hall-of-Fame-bound forward that completed a journey which seemed so lost just a season before.

With those three superstars intact, the Celtics’ core had enough reason to fall victim to the cliché and unoriginal moniker “The Big Three.”

As NBA analysts began to thrive on the epithet, increasingly referring not to the individual star power of the Celtics but rather the “Big Three” as a solitary being, teams around the league began deliberating their own methods of how they could acquire this ingenious recipe for immediate success.

First, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, whose three-pronged star power came to fruition in February of 2007 when they hijacked All-Star forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in return for a handful of misfit, over-the-hill Laker pieces and relatively meaningless draft rights.

In addition to superstar guard Kobe Bryant and up-and-coming big man Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol’s entrance to the Lakers was cause for yet another stratospheric leap for a previously unimpressive team.

Though the Lakers’ own “Big Three” couldn’t handle the Celtics’ original version in the Finals that season, they would go on to win the next two championships, another example of the suddenly realistic possibility of “Big Threes” across the league leading to immediate success.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat following the 2009-2010 NBA season as the third such model of the “Big Three” frenzy that had swept across the league, igniting some teams that didn’t even have the recipe to fit the moniker to begin using it anyway.

Indeed, teams like the New York Knicks, with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler/Jeremy Lin, began believing in their own almost-but-not-really “Big Three” potential, despite barely making the playoffs in 2012 before getting eliminated in five games by the soon-to-be-champion Miami Heat.

Still, as the off-season creeps nearer to training camp, another realistic “Big Three” possibility sits on the horizon.

Less than a month following the Heats’ first championship together, rumors of grandiose, albeit realistic, possibilities surround the Brooklyn Nets in their hunt for their own immediate success.

With superstar point guard Deron Williams and top-five center Brook Lopez manning the Nets’ franchise, disgruntled superstar big man Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic has indicated that he wants to be traded now, perhaps to the Nets.

Back when the NBA landscape circled primarily around logical trades and evened-out star power, it would have been crazy to think of three top NBA players playing for the same team. It would have been absurd to think that franchise players have as much, if not more, power within the organization than management themselves.

But the “Big Three” extravaganza has only built steam since its 2007 Celtics’ inception, with more players than ever before realizing that they can force their way to a team of their choice when playing opportunities open up for them, refusing to give into the boring, conventional trade and free agent situations that have permeated star diffusion in this league since the NBA’s beginning.

One big three has since spawned multiple. As an avid NBA fan, I’m no longer tired.

Durant May Be The Best Closer In NBA

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers were outscored 9-0 late in the game.

LeBron James takes a lot of, well, Heat for not finishing ballgames. And a lot of it is warranted, the way he tends to disappear and almost takes himself out of plays when it comes to clutch time.

Kobe Bryant, however, is known as “the best closer in the game” by many.

But not on Wednesday.

The Lakers butchered a seven-point lead with two minutes to go, with Bryant having a hand in a majority of those miscues down the stretch of a 77-75 loss at Oklahoma City.

Here’s how the play-by-play looked down the stretch, and it didn’t look good for Bryant:

3:20: Bryant misses 24-footer.
3:16 Bryant foul on Westbrook.
1:59 James Harden drives past Bryant for layup, LA leads 75-70.
1:47 Bryant turnover, Durant steal and dunk, LA leads 75-72.
1:39 Steve Blake pass goes off Bryant’s hand.
1:00 Harden blocks a Bryant field-goal attempt.
0:56 Harden scores again past Bryant, LA leads 75-74.
0:36 Bryant misses 3-point attempt.
0:34 Durant runner, OKC takes the lead 76-75.

Former L.A. Times columnist and ESPN writer J.A. Adande summed it up best with his tweet afterward: Based on the last 2 nights, the answer to Kobe vs. Lebron? is “none of the above.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Maybe the best player of the postseason is Kevin Durant, who led the Thunder on a 9-0 run to end the game. He’s definitely starting to make the MVP voters reconsider their votes cast last month.

As for the Lakers, this all but wraps it up for their season (with back-to-back games Friday and Saturday, it’s going to be tough to take Games 3 and 4 in L.A.). And when Bryant can’t close out a game, you know the Lakers are in trouble. And when his teammates are throwing up their arms in disgust, as Andrew Bynum did late in the game on multiple occasions, it’s clear the team is dysfunctional and has too many issues to be overcoming what is clearly the best young team in the league.

Where do they go from here? That’s anybody’s guess, but if Bryant is starting to lose his touch — on top of all of the other issues the Lakers are having — you know the franchise is in trouble.

World Peace Helps Lakers Advance

While the Lakers “bigs” got all the credit from ESPN and the major media outlets Saturday for stepping up in a 96-87 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, it’s clear defense was the difference.

Specifically Ron Artest, or Metta World Peace, who completely shut down whoever he was guarding Saturday in his return from a seven-game suspension.

World Peace also did plenty of damage at the offense end, scoring 15 points and hitting four big threes in the Laker victory.

Steve Blake, who struggled at the defensive end, made up for his lack of D with a playoff career-high 19 points.

Kobe Bryant played a more passive role, getting his teammates involved with 17 points and eight assists.

Pau Gasol also came to play at both ends, fishing with 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. But after the game, he gave the credit to the return of World Peace at the Staples Center.

“(Metta) had a great impact,” Gasol told TNT afterward. “Metta does a great job. He just gets into guys. He forces things. He makes things happen for us on the defensive end.”

While Denver’s guards blew past Blake and the Lakers front line for much of the night (Ty Lawson scored 24 points, Arron Afflalo had 15), typical go-to’s such as Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller struggled against World Peace. Gallinari was 1-9 from the floor, finishing with three points and four turnovers. Miller was 1-10, finishing with three points and five turnovers.

Arguably the difference in the series for Denver, Miller’s only field goal came against, you guessed it, the Lakers “bigs.” The 6-foot-2 Miller upfaked Gasol and then scored over the slacking, 7-foot Bynum to cut the the Lakers lead to 78-77 with 6:51 to go … a play ESPN.com’s headline writers obviously missed.

“It’s defense, defense,” World Peace said. “It’s the little things you can’t really see. … It’s about the intangibles that I bring to the table.”

Especially when it comes to the NBA playoffs, and a team with aging super stars that don’t have the defensive presence they once had.

A year ago, Tyson Chandler converted Dallas from a soft, aging team of offensive-minded veterans, into a scrappy, gritty defensive squad that suffocated LeBron James and the Miami Heat to win their first NBA title.

This year, with Chandler gone (he still won the Defensive Player of the Year award), the Mavs are already gone from the playoffs.

Same thing for the Lakers. With Metta World Peace, the Lakers have a chip on their shoulder and play a suffocating defense that translates into team basketball at the offensive end as well.

Without him, the Lakers get pushed to seven games by a Denver Nuggets team that’s void of a superstar.

Luckily for the Lakers, they get World Peace back just in time for their showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Artest’s old friend James Harden. And while Harden – who suffered a concussion courtesy an Artest elbow the last time these two teams played – will certainly be looking for some revenge, you know the Thunder will be thinking twice about taking it right at World Peace this time around.

It’ll be interesting to see how Mike Brown sets the matchups heading into the second round, but it appears he’s finally starting to realize just how important World Peace is to the Lakers’ success.

“Obviously, we all played well, but I’d be remissed if I did not talk about Metta,” Brown said in the postgame press conference. “He was huge tonight. … His presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-19. That is our team defense, but Metta had a lot to do with that.

“I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely, freaking amazing for us defensively.”

Why Cuban Went Silent In The NBA Finals

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After the Dallas Mavericks had just beaten the Miami Heat in Game 6 to capture their first NBA title in franchise history, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was asked why he was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the series.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Cuban scoffed, walking away from the microphone to celebrate with his team.

And Cuban was right, the Mavericks had avenged their 2006 Finals loss to the Heat, and – thanks in part to Cuban biting his tongue, for once – the NBA can continue moving right along without anyone brining up officiating scandals of years past.

But if you want the story behind why Cuban was silent during the series, look no further than Page 82 of former NBA official Tim Donaghy’s book “Personal Foul,” where the disgraced referee wrote candidly about the 2006 Finals where Dallas played “five against eight” and had “an uphill battle” against three biased referees.

Few outside of Dallas (certainly not ABC/ESPN, which has lucrative TV deal with the NBA) brought up the free-throw discrepancy and questionable officiating from five years ago, but the boxscores tell the tale as the Heat went to the line 207 times as opposed to Dallas’ 155 free-throw attempts in the 2006 Finals.

Which begs the question, did dirty officiating cost the Mavericks an opportunity to win their first NBA title five years ago?

I know, it’s conspiracy talk, but it’s a story that needs to be raised … if anything to measure where the NBA’s officiating stands today.

While the disgraced Donaghy did not officiate in the 2006 Finals, he admitted on the Galloway & Company Show in Dec. 2009 that he regularly bet on Mavericks games because of the league’s distaste for Cuban.

And in Game 5, Donaghy said that distaste helped put the  Heat on the free-throw line 49 times (they made a Finals-record 32 free throws) in 2006. In his book, Donaghy said, “the referees handed Miami a tremendous advantage by awarding the Heat 49 free throws during the contest, compared to just 25 for Dallas.” The Heat won Game 5 in Dallas, 101-100, thanks to a pair of Dwyane Wade free throws with 1.9 seconds left to send the series back to Miami.

“In the NBA, it’s tough enough for one team’s five players to beat another team’s five,” Donaghy noted in the book. “But when it’s five against eight, and three of the eight are referees, forget about it – you’ve got no shot.”

OK, we’re getting back into conspiracy theories and book sales here, so why would we believe a guy like Donaghy when it comes to what happened behind the scenes in the first meeting between the Mavericks and Heat? Well, I look at Donaghy like I look at Jose Canseco. Yeah, he’s a scumbag, who did some shady stuff during his time in the league, but he’s also become the whistle blower who shed light on the dark side of professional sports. Just like Canseco did with performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, where he’s been correct with a lot of his allegations after the fact. And with the FBI carefully going over many of Donaghy’s allegations since, and no legal action being taken by the NBA against Donaghy and his book, why shouldn’t we believe him?

For those of us who followed the NBA closesly five years ago, we remember just how bad the officiating was.

ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, a Celtics fan who had no rooting interest in the 2006 NBA Finals, went as far as to say “Wade and Miami received some Vince McMahon-level assistance in Games 3 and 4 of the 2006 Finals.”

He even wrote an angry column about the “officiating crisis” that prompted Cuban to post the link on his blog with the note: “I never have to say a word again.”

After Dallas fell apart in the 2006 Finals, Cuban was so upset by the officiating he nearly sold the franchise. So yeah, the officiating had an impact on the Mavericks both during the 2006 Finals and well after it.

Luckily for Dallas fans, Cuban didn’t sell or blow up the team and kept cornerstones like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry on his roster. And luckily for the Mavericks, Cuban kept quiet during this year’s Finals and didn’t let his mouth get in the way of a stellar run by his players.

Because while few in the media pointed it out this time around, there were still connections to that 2006 officiating crew in this series. Joe Crawford, for example, officiated in both the 2006 and 2011 series, but you wouldn’t have known it by ABC/ESPN’s coverage of the Finals.

In fact, nobody brought up the officiating or followed up with Cuban about why he was mum about being silent during these playoffs, which leaves us to speculate or believe a guy like Donaghy – who is either the biggest liar the game has seen or the only one who’s telling the honest truth about NBA officiating in the past.

“I would absolutely confirm that there is obviously relationships that have taken place in the NBA, and there’s negative relationships, and they involve Mark Cuban,” Donaghy told ESPN Radio just a year and a half ago. “I think that when you see this, and he goes up two games to none in the (2006) series, I think the league office, and the way they train their referees to favor teams that are down in playoff series, obviously had a major part in the training and programming those referees to put the Miami Heat in an advantage if they fell in that hole.”

This time around, Cuban and the Mavericks quietly buried the Heat in that hole before Wade, LeBron James or even the officials could dig themselves out … and they’re NBA champions because of it.

Like Cuban said, “It doesn’t matter now.”

James Continues To Wilt In The Fourth

When LeBron James torched the Detroit Pistons for 48 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, hitting 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points, many called “King James” the best closer in the NBA.

But since that spectacular playoff run, which ended with an abrupt Finals sweep by the San Antonio Spurs, James has struggled in closing out playoff games.

At least that’s the perception, but is that perception unjust? Well, the numbers don’t lie, particularly in these playoffs.

On Thursday, for example, James tallied a triple double but again struggled to make an impact in the fourth quarter, finishing with just two points as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 112-103 victory over the Miami Heat and took a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals.

James, who did finish with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, scored his two fourth-quarter points on a meaningless layup with 29 seconds left. For the series, James now has just 11 fourth-quarter points, mostly while being hounded by the Mavericks’ Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson.

The fourth-quarter struggles have been so significant, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra even admits they’ll need to address the situation over the next couple of days.

“There’s obviously going to be some priorities in terms of closing out games,” he said. “… We haven’t been able to do it consistently enough in this series.”

That might be the understatement of the season.

Heck, as it stands right now, the Boston Bruins have scored more in the past two games of the Stanley Cup Finals than James has in the fourth quarter of the Finals.

“The King” could have put the fourth-quarter woes to rest Thursday but blew two crucial shots down the stretch. He missed an 18-foot jumper with 2:55 to go and the score tied at 100. He followed with a missed 3-pointer after the Mavs took a lead 102-100 lead with 1:50 left.

Then, to top it off, Jason Terry stepped back and drained a back-breaking trey in James’ face with 33.3 left to seal it. The under-sized “Jet” has now outscored James 16-2 in the fourth quarter of this series, but James wouldn’t admit he’s been outplayed down the stretch in the Finals.

“I don’t believe so,” James said when asked if he was pressing to close out games in this series. “I know I’m not. We as a team we played good enough to win, again. We put ourself in position to win down the stretch. Guys made plays. They just made a few more than we did. That’s what it came down to.”

While much has been made of James’ fourth-quarter play, what really comes into question is his play in the “clutch” – or the final five minutes of games where the scoring margin is within five points.

During those scenarios in the 2011 playoffs, James’ shooting percentage is down to 40% (from 46% over the rest of the game), while his three-point percentage is down to 33% (from 35%).

During the regular season, those numbers were also down: 44% from the field in the clutch (as opposed to 51%) and a dismal 24% from three-point range (compared to 33%).

It’s a far cry from LeBron’s first go-around in the Finals, scoring double digits in the fourth quarter of two of the four games. In that 2007 Finals against the Spurs, James scored 39 fourth-quarter points, increasing his fourth-quarter production as the series wore one (6 points in Game 1, 8 in Game 2, 12 in Game 3 and 13 in Game 4). Even in “clutch” situations, James improved his point production (0-3-6-8 points).

So how do LeBron and the Heat turn their clutch problems around this time around, and avoid being upset in the NBA Finals?

Well, it appears it’s time they turn to Dwyane Wade, just like they did in 2006 when he emerged from Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow to win the Finals MVP and his first NBA title.

Otherwise, it might just be Dirk Nowitzki who is labeled the next best “closer” in the game.