Brandon Roy’s Remarkable Comeback Story

The story every basketball fan will be talking about this season is Brandon Roy’s return to the NBA.

Less than a year ago, on December 10, 2011, Roy retired from the NBA due to issues with his knees despite being only 27-years-old. Instead of entering his prime, health issues forced him to limp away from the game he loved.

What made Roy’s decision to retire surprising is that it came on the heels of an epic game in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks where he lifted his team to victory after overcoming a 23-point deficit.

Roy came through in the fourth quarter and put his team on his back with 18 points.

Roy averaged a career-low 12.2 points in 43 games his final season with Portland, but there were glimpses of what he could still do on the court. But if you look back at what Roy went through with his knees there was little doubt he was making the right decision to retire prior to the start of last season. Portland’s team doctors removed cartilage in Roy’s left knee before the 2008-09 seasn, he had surgery for a slight meniscus tear in April of 2010, and in January of 2011 he had arthroscopic surgery on each knee.

It was the arthroscopic surgery that essentially sucked the life out of his knees and temporarily ended his NBA career. When Roy attempted to return to the court following that surgery he would have his knees balloon up and his minuted were limited.

Throw in the fact that his knees would making snapping and popping noises due to the bone rubbing on bone, and it was clear his body was no longer appeared able to withstand the rigors of an NBA season.

How did Roy get his knees back to being able to endure the rigors of the NBA? He took a leap of faith and tried out a medical process similar to what Kobe Bryant did in Germany.

However, instead of flying to Germany, Roy met with the medical staff at LifeSpan Medicine in Los Angeles. The medical procedure is known as Regenokine and is something that is used to help with joint pain.

The funny thing is this procedure is something that seniors use to deal with joint inflammation and arthritis. Not exactly the kind of medical procedure an elite athlete would normally look at, but for Roy, it was just what his body needed. He still deals with the pain of bone rubbing against bone in his knees, but he no longer had the swelling that limited his ability to perform at a high level during the end of his time playing for Portland.

Watching Roy limp around Minnesota’s locker room on Sunday was painful to watch – and that was before the game. After the game the limp was even more pronounced.

Still, even though Roy walks with a limp, he was unable to stay away from the game he loves.

After a few months of playing with Seattle’s “Home Team” this summer and getting his competitive juices flowing again, on July 6, 2012, Roy agreed to join the Minnesota Timberwolves and his comeback story officially began.

“The biggest thing from playing with those guys (in Seattle) is they are all pros,” Roy explained. “You can play against your friends but it you obviously have to play against guys who are at the highest level of basketball. Playing with those guys all summer long gave me the confidence to believe I can get back out there and play in the NBA.

“It was a long grind with some ups and downs with mentally preparing and trying to commit to making a comeback in the NBA. But the basketball was great and those guys were really good with making sure they were getting in the gym with me as much as possible so that I could build my confidence.”

The signing was met by jubilation by die-hard NBA fans, but for Roy, he was happy to become just another player on an NBA roster.

A big reason why Minnesota was a great fit for Roy is because he would no longer have to shoulder the burden of being the focal point of the offense. In Minnesota, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will share that burden when they are healthy.

Now Roy is free to play the game he loves in whatever role the team needs from him and his game has grown, adapted and changed.

“The biggest difference is I have to smarter out there on the court,” Roy admitted. “I don’t want to go into too much about how things changed because I don’t want people guarding me differently. The biggest thing is trying to stay healthy and put my injuries behind me. I need to be as aggressive as I can while I’m out there on the court.”

Even though Roy isn’t the same player he was from an athletic standpoint, he is still getting respect from players and coaches around the NBA.

“He (still) knows how to play,” Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey boasted. “He does it with his brain now more so than his athleticism. He has always been a floor type player and he is doing even more now as far as knowing where to be or how to trick you and get you in the air.”

Through his first two games, Roy is only averaging 26 minutes and 7.0 points, but he is content just to be back in the NBA.

“You always have that goal as a kid to play in the NBA and once players get to the NBA, I don’t think they take it for granted, but at the same time they start to have a sense of entitlement once they are there,” Roy said. “Me being out for a year I think I got that appreciation back just for playing the game that I’ve love for my entire life. So now when I go out there on the court, no matter what is going on, I just try and go out there and enjoy it and make the most of every moment I get to play this game.”

Roy isn’t the only one smiling as basketball fans are relishing the chance to watch him play in the NBA again this season.

Hopefully Roy doesn’t need to announce his retirement from the NBA anytime soon.

Martin Filling Shoes Harden Left Behind

Filling the shoes of James Harden in Oklahoma City is no easy task. However, through two games, Kevin Martin has proved that he’s up to the challenge.

The biggest concern for the Thunder coming into the first week of the season was how long it would take Martin to mesh with his new team and his new role. Since the opening tip against San Antonio, Martin has been nothing short of consistent.

“When K-Mart comes in he just makes things happen,” Scott Brooks said after the Thunder’s win over Portland Friday. “It’s his ability to move without the ball. He’s not a one-dimensional scorer at all. He can score, he can get to the line and he can shoot three’s. He sets up his man as well as anybody on our team.”

Martin scored 15 points in Oklahoma City’s loss to the Spurs on Thursday and dropped 19 in their win over Portland Friday. Over the first two games he shot 6-9 from long range and 9-21 from the field overall. He has seven assists and just one turnover in over 60 minutes and has looked comfortable while playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

“We’re very comfortable together,” Martin said. “We have such different skill sets. I can move without the ball and they (Durant and Westbrook) love to have the ball in their hands. That’s when I can come in and find a corner or just read how the defense is playing them. We have a great connection right now.”

It’s one thing to change teams and it’s another to change roles. Martin has been a starter for most of his career and has never had to take on the role of sixth man. He seems to be embracing the challenge for the Thunder and has had to do it while learning on the run.

“We’ve given him a speedy course on how we like to do things and he’s picking it up on the fly,” Brooks said. “He knows how to play and he does a lot of good things that we can use offensively and defensively.”

“When you score for a team that doesn’t have a lot of success, the natural thing to think is that he’s not a good defender,” Brooks said. “But he’s done defensive things that we like and he’s only going to get better with our group.”

Martin has embraced the role of coming off the bench so far this season, but he claims that the team has made the transition from starter to sixth man a smooth change.

“They’re making it easy for me,” Martin said. “You have to have a punch coming off the bench and that’s our biggest strength right now. We’ve got to keep gelling as a group and help get the first group of guys some rest when they come off the court. That’s our role off the bench.”

Martin may not have the skill set that Harden possesses offensively or defensively. However, one thing Martin does have is basketball intelligence and sometimes that can be more important than raw talent.

The Wandering Beard

As Thunder GM Sam Presti was watching his former sixth man run circles around the Pistons, I suspect he had a moment of recoil. At least he should have.

Keep in mind that as the Lakers struggle to 0-10 (including preseason) much like the Heat struggled a couple of years ago, NBA analysts around the country emphasize that a team needs time to “gel”. And while I don’t doubt the acumen or insider expertise of any of these former players and coaches, I did just watch James Harden turn into “Big Game” James and drop a LeBron James like stat line without ever having played with any of the current Rockets.

James Harden came off the bench last year and regularly sparked the Thunder to victories. He was a burst of energy that the other team rarely saw coming, and often had no answer for. Standing 6’5” and 230lbs, Harden has prototypical size for his position and is one of the best athletes in the NBA. If he had LeBron’s size I could make a case for him possibly growing into the best in the game. He drives the ball with raw power and swift feet. He shoots the ball with a silky release and a confident follow-through. He’s already one of the most intelligent players with the ball in his hands. And he is COLD BLOODED.

Now, none of this is news to Sam Presti. So why get rid of him? Money, money, money. He saw Harden was in line for the type of deal he got from Houston and simply could not fit that into the Thunder’s current budget. The key word there being “current”. Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are all locked up to big deals and Harden’s deal would have meant another $30 mil in luxury tax.

I get that, but here’s the thing: Would you rather have Westbrook or Harden signed to a max deal?

Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents in the NBA and there is absolutely no disputing that. But he is a little behind the curve from the neck up. He fires wild, wayward passes; often turning the ball over more than 7 or 8 times in a game. Most possessions that begin with the ball in his hands end that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him dribble the ball up, then just pull up from 15 feet. That’s great when you make 70% of them, but that seems to be happening less and less. Meanwhile, the best scorer in the game goes possession after possession without touching the rock. My biggest problem with him is he clearly thinks he’s a better player than Durant. That’s not a strategy conducive to winning.

Presti could have, and in my opinion should have dumped Westbrook on a team for a good young point guard who is years away from a big payday or a veteran who can be an extension of Scott Brooks on the floor. Even Harden himself would have been an excellent solution at point guard.

But c’est la vie, Presti decided to hold on to one of the more volatile personalities in the NBA and dumped his 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year.

My second problem here is the haul he got for Harden. Presti brings in Kevin Martin, who was a good scorer in Houston, but who else was going to score for them? Martin is a solid talent, moves off the ball well and has a good, albeit funky-looking jumper, but he has been apathetic to coaching in the past.

My big problem is after that they landed Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. Picking in the NBA draft can truly be a lottery experience. The Thunder have drafted well, yes, but there is also a lot of luck involved in that. They could have easily ended up with Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet (who is ironically on the team this year) in the drafts that netted them Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

Obviously, only Presti knows what other offers were out there, but I can’t believe he got all he could for a man on the verge of becoming one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. If anyone had to go, Westbrook should have been the guy here. Only time will tell of course, but I seriously doubt any of the other teams in the West are sad to see Durant and Harden split up. They could have been a new generation Jordan-Pippen.

I’m afraid in the next five years Durant will have to endure some serious frustration with Westbrook and that this could end in tragedy for OKC.

Eastern Conference Preview

Up until this past summer, few things were as certain in the NBA as the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Any observer worth their salt knew that Orlando would probably secure themselves home court advantage in round one with a No. 3 or 4 seed and that Atlanta would find their way into that good-but-not-elite middle ground, likely winding up on either side of the 4/5 match-up.

Then came a turbulent off-season that saw Dwight Howard ditch Disney World for Disney Land and Joe Johnson get sent packing, alongside his mammoth contract, to Brooklyn in exchange for a pile of warm bodies. The fallout from the pair of Southeast division mega-moves will likely see the Magic fade to also-ran status, with the potential of the Josh Smith-led Hawks still very much to be determined.

So who steps in to fill the void?

Indiana Pacers

The deep roster that propelled them back towards relevance remains mostly in tact, save for a slight downgrade at the point with Darren Collison (traded to Dallas for Ian Mahinmi) out and free agent signee D.J. Augustin in. Still, another year’s maturation for Paul George and Roy “Gangnam Style” Hibbert will help a club that still managed 42 wins last year in a 66-game season against what was a more top-heavy East.

Philadelphia 76ers
I can’t figure out why there isn’t more talk about this young Philly team that made the Conference’s biggest addition by trading for Andrew Bynum. It cost them long-time face of the franchise AI, but the two-way veteran is a small price to pay for the league’s second best center. Beyond Bynum lies the rest of a potential-laden core (Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young) supported by complementary incoming veterans (Jason Richardson, Nick Young).

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ presence on this list, which would have been perceived as an unimaginable slight at this time last year, speaks volumes of the value of Derrick Rose. With a healthy Rose, Chicago would be a lock for a top three seed. Without him, the team faces plenty of questions as to whether it can simply tread water while awaiting the return of their point guard (likely around February). Can Kirk Hinrich balance the offense? Can Luol Deng or Carlos Boozer take charge as leading scorers?

Atlanta Hawks
A salary dump usually coincides with a drop down the standings. However, credit Hawks GM Danny Ferry with not only keeping the rest of a productive core (Smith, Al Horford), but bolstering it with some savvy additions to offset the loss of Johnson. The signing of Lou Williams helps address the scoring void in the back court, while acquiring Devin Harris from Utah for Marvin Williams creates depth at the point alongside Jeff Teague. The club also quickly accounted for the loss in outside shooting from the Johnson trade, bringing in veteran shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow and will find minutes for rookie marksman John Jenkins. One more thought: are we sure that Johnson is actually that good?

New York Knicks
All the stories gleefully talking about the Knicks and their historically old roster are missing the point. Truth is, all of Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Pablo Prigoni could wind up showing their age and flopping in NYC – and this team could STILL be a top four seed. This team will go as far as Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler (and, strange as it sounds, Ray Felton) take them – no more, no less.

Brooklyn Nets
The addition of Joe Johnson could easily be costly in the long term, but that’s not the concern of Mikhail Prokhorov and the Nets for now. Heading into their first season in Brooklyn, the club boasts a defensively porous high-priced star-laden back court, but could struggle when it comes to getting stops and securing critical rebounds. Still, those in attendance at the Barclays Center likely have playoff dates to look forward to.

Quick omission explanation: Miami and Boston are too good, whereas I don’t see any of Toronto, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Charlotte, Washington or Orlando being in the mix.

Podcast: 2012-13 NBA Season Preview

Mark and McNeill recorded a podcast to preview the 2012-13 NBA season. We talked about what teams we’re excited to watch on League Pass, the sleeper teams in each conference, what teams are overrated and what storylines we’re going to watch closely.

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Click here to download the MP3.

Morrison Is Unsure Of His Future In The NBA

As media members slowly filled the Orlando practice facility on Monday, there was a small buzz when, collectively, everyone realized that the first game would include Adam Morrison, the floppy haired 3rd pick in the 2006 NBA Draft.

Standing outside the Amway Center locker rooms, the former Gonzaga star’s 6’8 lean body and long hair still strike an impressive figure. But when HOOPSADDICT.com talked to him on Thursday, we asked what he had improved since he left the NBA.

Morrison grimaced, then forced a smile.

“I’m not sure,” he said, and the implication was clear: move on to another question.

It was a moment of uncomfortable honesty. This uncertainty has seemed to plague Morrison throughout the Summer League.

In Brooklyn’s first game on Monday, Morrison started off well, scoring the first four points for the Nets off short floaters. But playing off the ball has never been Morrison’s strong suit and as the game progressed and this teammates became more comfortable, Morrison’s touches became fewer and further between.

After taking four shots in the first quarter, Morrison took just three the rest of the way. He had just nine field goal attempts in 31 minutes on Tuesday, and on Wednesday and Thursday, Morrison played just 13 and seven minutes respectively.

“I had a good camp,” Morrison said. “I haven’t been playing well here. Hopefully I can play better in Vegas and see what happens.”

Watching his minutes gradually trickle away may feel uncomfortably familiar to Morrison. A phenom in college, a lack of athleticism and confidence doomed him in the NBA. His field goal percentages were consistently disappointing, and as he struggled, his minutes per game dipped lower and lower until they fell into single digits in his final two seasons.

After spending two consecutive years watching the Lakers win championships from the bench in 2009 and 2010, Morrison took his talents overseas. In 2011, he traveled to Serbia before playing in Turkey for 16 games in 2012. Despite averaging 31 minutes per game in Turkey, Morrison left because he wasn’t pleased with his playing time. So now, as the Brooklyn Nets have brought him back to the United States for Summer League, Morrison, like most other players, is trying out for a roster spot.

“Overseas, you’re not going to have the nicer things you have in the League,” Morrison said. “Obviously the play is a little bit different. The game is really different.”

In Turkey, Morrison was effective. Though his three point percentages never topped .400, even with a shorter line, Morrison was able to get shots closer to the basket and score the ball inside the arc.

He shot .513 from the field overall in Turkey and averaged 13.7 points per game.

“I just want people to see that I’m healthy, that I can move and that I can play a little defense,” Morrison said. “Hopefully people understand I feel like I can still score in this league. So maybe it will happen.”

Confidence is a strange phenomenon. For Jacob Pullen (profiled yesterday by Hoops Addict), confidence gives him a desire to have the ball in crunch time. It gives players a knowledge, even if the knowledge is false, that they are the best player on the court, and that belief can be part of what makes a player great.

“Maybe it will happen.”

The spoken implication, of course, is that Morrison hasn’t given up hope, but the unspoken implication is that an NBA comeback might not happen. He doesn’t know whether or not he will make a roster. He isn’t certain.

For Adam Morrison, and for any NBA player, uncertainty does not bode well for the future.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Free Agency Preview

Mark and McNeill broke down what might happen this weekend when free agency starts. Some of the topics we covered included Kevin Garnett’s new deal to stay a Celtic, where Deron Williams might land, why Memphis could be a great team for Ray Allen, some creative ways for Steve Nash to land with Toronto or Miami and what teams are poised to be big players this summer.

Also, at the end of the podcast, McNeill had an exclusive interview with DeMar DeRozan where they talked about DeRozan’s plans for this summer.

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Here’s the link to download this podcast.

Steve Nash Will Have Plenty Of Options

Despite have a wonky back and being one of the oldest free agents in the NBA, Steve Nash will have plenty of options this summer.

And why not? Nash finished second in the NBA in assists last season and he has lead the league in assists five times over the past nine seasons.

Despite only averaging 12.7 points per game last season, he was effective shooting the ball as he made 53.7% from the field and 38.9% from three.

Nash clearly still has a lot of juice left in his tank.

Granted, his minutes will start to decrease over the next few seasons, but Nash still has the ability to put fans in the seats, and, more importantly for an NBA point guard, he still makes his teammates better.

His current team, the Phoenix Suns, have claimed they want to re-sign their legendary player. But, if talks break down and Nash wants to play elsewhere, there appears to be an agreement between the two parties that they will work together on a sign-and-trade that will benefit everyone involved.

But it isn’t the lock many assume it is that Nash will bolt the desert. People are quick to forget the Suns have more cap space than any other team this offseason and love having Nash as the face of their franchise. ESPN’s Larry Coon reported that the team will have $26 million to play with this summer without using the amnesty on anyone.

Clearly Nash has a bond with the fans in Phoenix and the training staff have done wonders preserving his body.

“It was amazing to get that type of reception and support,” Nash told The Republic after his last home game in Phoenix. “It’s very special because it’s not something I asked for or imagined. To get that kind of reaction means it’s authentic, the relationship I thought we had. It really feels special. The fans have been phenomenal and it’s meant a lot to me to play in a city like this as long as I have and to feel important to the fans and community. I just feel like a very lucky guy.”

Despite being 38 on opening night next season, the list of teams that covet Nash is long and there’s no doubt somebody will provide him with the three-year deal that he wants. Some NBA team will give Nash a huge contract despite his bad back and the fact he will be 42 when the deal expires.

One of the intriguing teams rumored to be chasing Nash is the Portland TrailBlazers. It would provide Nash with the chance to play closer to where he grew up and where most of his family still lives. They have an elite power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge, same talented player on the wings, and two draft picks in the lottery.

Plus, with just under $35 million in committed salary going into next season, they will have enough cap room to both re-sign Nicolas Batum and offer Nash considerably more than the mid-level exception.

The Toronto Raptors, a team many analysts feel is one of the front runners for Nash, doesn’t have nearly the same splashy roster, but they would provide Nash the chance to finish off his career in Canada.

With his new role as General Manager of Canada Basketball, that may also sway Nash’s decision towards Toronto.

The New York Knicks were long thought of as the ideal situation for Nash, but with the strong play of Jeremy Lin this season, the resignation of Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony dominating the ball, it no longer seems like Nash to Gotham is the slam dunk that many felt it would be. In fact, now it appears to be a long shot.

Another team that many people thought might intrigue Nash is the Miami Heat.

Not so fast, according to Nash.

“Of course I want to win a ring,” Nash told The National Post nearly a year ago. “But at the same time I’m like, ‘I don’t want to win it with those guys. Those guys have been the enemy for X amount of years.’ So I’m not quite in that camp yet — ‘I don’t care, put me on the best team and I’m going to try to win a ring.’ I still feel like kids from my neighbourhood want to beat the kids from that neighbourhood, like (when) we were growing up. I’m not ready to concede, ‘Well, they’re better than us, I’ll join them.’ I’m just not there yet. Maybe I’ll get there.”

It appears that time has softened his stance at least a little bit.

“I’d listen,” Steve Nash told Dan Patrick back in March. “I love what they’re doing there. A lot of people don’t like them because they put all that talent together. They’re professional, they play hard, they play together. Their coaching staff has done a great job. So, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, and I would definitely listen.”

A dark horse to win the Nash sweepstakes are the Los Angeles Lakers. For the past few seasons they have lacked a legitimate, all-star point guard to run their offense. After coming close to trading for Chris Paul last winter, look for the Lakers to try and woo Nash to Los Angeles this summer.

The tricky part is creating a contract offer that would entice Nash. Even if Ramon Sessions declines his player option and his salary comes off the books, the Lakers would still enter the 2012-13 season with nearly $79 million in committed salary, leaving only the taxpayer mid-level exception ($3.09 million) for Nash. Nash can make a lot more money from other teams considering he made $11.6 million last season and teams like Toronto and Portland will be willing to pay close to that.

The Chicago Bulls, Knicks, Heat and Lakers will all be both over the cap and over the tax next season so the chance of them being able to add Nash appear to be slim to none. Sure, it makes great headlines, but the reality is Nash would need to leave a team he loves (Phoenix) or leave big money on the table from teams like Toronto or Portland.

Due to the new CBA, teams over the luxury tax can only offer the mini-MLE which probably won’t enough to lure Nash to their team. Plus, some of teams will need to start shedding contracts in order to avoid the massive new tax bill coming in 2013-14 season so Nash would end up with less money and talent around him.

Regardless of who Nash signs with, he should get a three-year contract and he will land with a team he feels will be competitive night in and night out.

Not bad for an old man with a bad back.

2012 NBA Mock Draft

Things are starting to round into shape, but there will still be a lot of movement leading up to the draft in a couple of days.

Here’s how I see things falling into place on Thursday:

1. New Orleans – Anthony Davis – 6’10” PF Kentucky
2. Charlotte – Harrison Barnes – 6’8″ SF North Carolina
3. Washington – Bradley Beal – 6’4″ SG Florida
4. Cleveland – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – 6’7″ SF Kentucky
5. Sacramento – Thomas Robinson – 6’9″ PF Kansas
6. Portland – Damian Lillard – 6’2″ PG Weber State
7. Golden State – Andre Drummond – 6’10” PF Connecticut
8. Toronto – Austin Rivers – 6’4″ PG Duke
9. Detroit – John Henson – 6’10” PF North Carolina
10. New Orleans – Kendall Marshall – 6’4″ PG North Carolina
11. Portland – Dion Waiters SG – 6’4″ Syracuse
12. Milwaukee – Perry Jones III – 6’11” SF Baylor
13. Phoenix – Jeremy Lamb – 6’5″ SG Connecticut
14. Houston – Tyler Zeller – 6’11” PF North Carolina
15. Philadelphia – Meyers Leonard – 6’11” C Illinois
16. Houston – Arnett Moultrie PF/C – 6′ 11″ Mississippi St.
17. Dallas – Terrence Jones – 6’9″ SF Kentucky
18. Minnesota – Moe Harkless SF – 6’8″ SF St. John’s
19. Orlando – Terrence Ross – 6’6″ SG Washington
20. Denver – Jeff Taylor – 6’7″ SG Vanderbilt
21. Boston – Fab Melo C – 7’0″ Syracuse
22. Boston – Royce White PF – 6’8″ SF Iowa State
23. Atlanta – Andrew Nicholson – 6’9″ SF St Bonaventure
24. Cleveland – Jared Sullinger – 6’9″ PF Ohio State
25. Memphis – Tony Wroten – 6’5″ PG Washington
26. Indiana – Will Barton – 6’6″ SG/SF Memphis
27. Miami – Marquis Teague PG – 6’2″ Kentucky
28. Oklahoma City – Evan Fournier SG/SF – 6′ 7″ Poitiers
29. Chicago – Draymond Green – 6’6″ SF Michigan State
30. Golden State – Quincy Miller – 6’8″ SF Baylor

Durant Snatches The Torch From Durant

Game 1 of the NBA Finals didn’t really teach us much. Mostly it reconfirmed everything we’ve known for days, weeks, even years. Kevin Durant can take over any game, having recently developed the “edge.” LeBron James has a tendency to become less than the most talented athlete on the planet during the fourth quarter of Finals games. Dwyane Wade still looks hurt. And Russell Westbrook is the Tasmanian Devil.

By way of what we might have learned from this one game, it was a relatively placid affair—as should probably be the case for singular events.  However, it did signify the passing of the torch.

For first time in the last 14 years, neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan is representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And, in an apparent alignment of the basketball cosmos, the Thunder rolled past the Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Bryant’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs on their way to this year’s championship round.

This means something.

Suddenly, Bryant doesn’t seem so interesting. He is on the cusp of being pressed out of the narrative of NBA champions, resigned to pushing for the all-time scoring crown. Duncan and Nowitzki may have playoff runs left in them, but their chances look increasingly unlikely as the Thunder grow more impressive with every game.

A generation of players and teams, long dominant, is giving way.

“Precocious” has become the word of the month in NBA circles, and for good reason. Durant and Westbrook are each 23, not yet close to their primes. James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each 22, have become stars in their own right. Reggie Jackson was born in the 90’s. The 90’s!

The Heat, led by James (27) and Wade (30), look like fogies by comparison.

We haven’t seen this sort of shift since the late-90’s with Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement, and the quick decline of a decade’s worth of dominant big men in Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. The turnover of superstars is good for the league, surely, but it’s no less a strange sight.

We are quickly reminded that our heroes age, and we with them.

Fortunately, Durant and Westbrook are no Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury circa 1998. They are no Chris Webber, no Antoine Walker, and there are no “back in my day” complaints to be made of the Thunder. There is only basketball—good basketball—to take in, and a fresh age of superstars to watch grow into a dynasty.

As LeBron James might say, “We are all witnesses.”

Flopping Has Tainted The NBA’s Postseason

When the casual NBA viewer picks my brain about this lockout-shortened season, we have a lot to discuss: Lower scoring across the board, playoff teams with losing records, and a plethora of extensive injuries, just to name a few.

When that same viewer narrows the discussion to the post-season, one topic seems to rise above the others: The flop.

Last week, I talked about the issues surrounding the current applications of the foul call, and the consequences thereof. Essentially, it weakens the game as a whole when fouls are called too often. The same effect is found when players flop.

While it is difficult to escape this topic, even for the most casual enthusiast, I do want to start with a brief overview of what a flop is. To begin, please understand that not all contact is a foul. Essentially, a personal foul is a limitation or control of movement. If a defensive player makes contact, but it does not affect the offensive player, there’s no call.

In the case of a flop, the offending player exaggerates the effect of the contact in an attempt to persuade the officials to call a foul. Slimy, right? NBA commissioner David Stern even admitted in an interview that he should be handing out Oscars, not MVP awards.

The effect is much the same as drawing the foul, only without actually taking the hit. Drawing the foul is frustrating enough, but watching a supposed superstar sprawl on the ground for no reason, then stare down the official in anticipation of a call… Well, that’s almost unbearable.

From a coach’s perspective, I can’t imagine that a flopping player is gaining much respect from the bench. I appreciate good, solid, smart players more than players who fall to the ground at the drop of a hat. There’s more sportsmanship involved when a player truly earns their points, stops and steals, rather than relying on manipulating the referees to get ahead.

Honestly though, don’t these players look a little silly, reacting the way they do to what is obviously minimal contact? Do we not expect more from them, athletically? You’d think that, given the feats they pull off on the offensive end, they’d be too proud to play this type of game.

And let’s look at the trickle down effects of flopping: Each player can only commit five fouls a game. On the sixth, they’re ejected. So at the worst, it would lead to inflating a player’s number of fouls, which could lead to them being ejected from the game. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James fouled out in overtime, and Miami lost. Easy enough to see the correlation.

A more extended fallout is if the flopping starts early in a game, leading a player to have four fouls by the end of the first half, which in turn results in them being benched for an extended period of time, which could affect the final score of the game.

And what about the flopping player? It’s understandable that they would become “the boy who cried wolf,” and would then be less likely to actually get a legitimate call later on. And when they don’t get a call on a flop? If they’re on defence, imagine what would happen while they’re swimming around on the floor, whining for an unnecessary call. There goes their player, off to the races for an easy layup.

And with all of the (entirely justified) fuss over injuries in professional sports, why do players willingly risk their bodies unnecessarily? Doc Rivers recently admitted that he wouldn’t be half as sore now if he hadn’t flopped so much as a player. Please note how few Boston Celtics are accused of flopping. Kobe Bryant won’t even take a legitimate charge, much less start throwing himself to the ground for no reason, and look at how effective and impressive he still is.

What about the effect flopping has on the game as a whole?

Back to last week’s topic, it all comes down to accountability. Players who flop are perceived as being unreliable, cowardly, and overall less impressive than their non-flopping counterparts. In one of the early games of the Western Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili and James Harden, both fantastic and entertaining players, bumped into each other. Both flopped. Ginobili got the call, and both were criticized pretty thoroughly.

In the last game of the Spurs/Thunder series, in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with San Antonio on the brink of elimination, Ginobili hits a three point shot. Harden flops. The three is waved off, and the Spurs lose. While the series was a testament to just how great basketball is, how unfortunate is it that it’s as a result of a flop that the winner was decided? Granted, we can’t tell exactly what would have happened if Ginobili’s shot had counted, but many point to that call as the moment when the tide turned definitively in Oklahoma City’s favour.

So, much the same as with the problem of over-fouling, flopping weakens the game. Of course, a huge part of any sport is mental: There’s strategy, psychological warfare, knowing your opponents weaknesses and taking advantage. We would be remiss if we asked to remove any planning at all from the game. But it seems that more and more coaches and players are relying too much on loopholes, flaws in the system, and manipulation to get ahead, rather than trusting the team to do what they’re meant to do: Put the ball in the basket.

Stern has already made it clear that this topic will be up for discussion in the off-season, but what could possibly be done about it? It really is a subjective call made by whichever officials are on the floor at any given moment, officials who really are trying to do their best to keep the game controlled and safe for players.

Are we calling their judgement into question? No. The blame should definitely be placed squarely at the feet of the offending players.

But how? For the moment, they only have to withstand mockery and criticism from the people inside or outside the league.

Calling an offensive foul wouldn’t be the correct answer, as it truly doesn’t fit the criteria, (the player doesn’t gain any advantage due to illegal contact, rather, a lack thereof) but how about a technical foul? Giving the opposing team a free throw and possession of the ball might be enough of a deterrent for most players, granted that the rule were applied on a consistent basis.

And what of repeat offenders? For the moment, I can only imagine that the same situation would arise as with repeat foulers: Suspensions, fines, etc. We can only hope that the problem would resolve itself before it got to the point, as it seems a little extreme to remove players who aren’t actually hurting anyone, only disrupting the development of the sport and irritating spectators.

Flopping truly has become a serious issue within the league, causing officials to call into question every perceived foul and creating negative effects on both individual games and the sport in general. I, for one, am excited to see what, if anything, is done about it next season, as nary a game goes by now when flopping isn’t pointed out and commented on, distracting everyone from the real athleticism shown.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see a good, tough player over a whiny one, any day of the week.

How Miami Can Avoid Elimination

If you watched Game 5 and the utter meltdown by the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, you’re probably thinking the same thing that I was after the final buzzer: this series is over.

I mean, come on. Kevin Garnett is playing like he is 25 years old and Paul Pierce has found a way to make big shots despite barely being mobile due to injury. Ray Allen is shooting like Ray Allen again and Mickael Pietrus is doing his best Steve Kerr impression on the offensive end and looks like Metta World Peace defensively, back when he was Ron Artest. Oh, and the Celtics have that Rajon Rondo fella’.

Game 6 in Boston, a Heat team on the ropes, and arguably the best coach in all of basketball – Doc Rivers – has to be enough to knock off the hated Heat, right?

Here’s the thing though: if there is any team that can win these two games under the current set of circumstances, it’s Miami. The question is whether or not they figure it all out in time for tipoff on Thursday night and are able to sustain it for 92 minutes.

Slow Down, but not too much

The first problem the Heat have to eliminate is the turnovers. Miami turned the ball over 15 times in Game 6, which was good for 13 Celtics points. The Heat are in a funk offensively, especially in the half court. Cutting down on the turnovers and avoiding giving Boston any easy baskets will help Miami control the flow of the game. This will be extra important in the TD Bank Garden.

With all of this in mind, it’s imperative for the Heat to get out in transition in Boston. The earlier the better because if the Celtics are able to dictate the pace of the game early, Miami may not be able to muster a large enough counter attack with the way they’ve been playing.

Setting up to succeed

Miami head coach Eric Spoelstra has to find a fire extinguisher and quick, because the hot seat has never been so scorching for the young Heat headman. Spoelstra has to step up and take control of this team. Just take a look in the Miami huddle next time it’s on the screen. These guys could care less what ‘Spo’ is talking about and he may have already lost the team.

The end of Game 4 was one of the worst sequences imaginable for Spoelstra. I don’t know how you draw up a play for Udonis Haslem when you have two of the most lethal scorers in the world. What’s even more troubling is that Spoelstra did nothing to improve his stock in Game 5. If anything he’s made himself out to be even more of the scapegoat should the Heat do the unthinkable and blow this series after an early 2-0 lead.

Chris Bosh must play 25-30 minutes at a minimum if the Heat are to have any chance. Garnett is destroying Miami offensively and he has utilized the lack of inside scoring by the Heat to coast defensively this entire series. Bosh changes all of that and forces the future Hall of Famer to be active on the defensive end, which will open up more driving opportunities for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

If you watched closely on Tuesday night – especially in the second half – Boston had the paint sealed up tighter than an extra strength zip lock bag. Every shot inside was contested and Miami was forced to settle for jumpers. Wade was visibly tired down the stretch because Boston made everything he did on the offensive end difficult. Several times you could clearly see the Celtics were able to score in transition because Miami guys weren’t getting back. On several occasions James was just standing in the corner with his hands on his knees, looking exhausted.

One of the keys to an effective offensive attack is movement, especially for Wade and James. The biggest difference in the Heat offensive attack this season has been the two stars’ improved ability to move without the basketball.

Part of setting up the team to succeed is putting the right players in the game at the right time. Joel Anthony has to be utilized at least for a couple of minutes. He can give the Heat energy off the bench and bringing in fresh guys to battle KG may be the only way to contain the ‘Big Ticket.’

The James Jones experiment has failed. There were two or three plays in Game 5 that made me wonder if this guy has an ounce of athletic ability in his body. I counted at least three plays where Jones’ blunders led to Boston points. He’s in the game for instant offense and he hasn’t been producing enough to warrant any playing time.

Get back to fundamentals

I know it sounds cliché and it is, but everything was rushed in Game 5. Miami’s passing has to be crisper, it has to get after loose balls, and it has to pick up the defensive intensity.

When this team is playing their best basketball they’re turning defense into offense. It’s easy to apply yourself on defense and it can galvanize the entire unit on the floor. It happened with Boston in Game 5. The way it hamstrung Miami throughout the game helped get them going offensively when most of the guys in green struggled throughout the game.

Miami has to start communicating out there and lose this whole lethargic body language that has been present throughout these playoffs. At times I’m wondering if a number of Heat players aren’t bored or something.

If that’s the case, Thursday night should provide the perfect wake up call.

The stars must shine

Everything – right or wrong – is on the line for LeBron James. If this team falls short of making the Finals in its second year the floodgates are really going to open up on James, and I wonder if he’ll be able to swim in those waters.

This is the time when the great players get the most out of their teammates and somehow find the collective will to win that’s been so obviously lacking for this Heat team.

The interesting storyline in all of this is how well James has played this postseason. It’s been one of the most staggering statistical onslaughts in memory and he has looked just straight unstoppable for most of these playoffs. He’s doing everything too. He’s setting up teammates, rebounding the ball, playing suffocating defense – but if the Heat lose before they’re able to win two in a row, it will all be for nothing.

That’s the world LeBron lives in and it’s one he helped create. He’s said that every decision and motivation throughout his career has been because of his desire to win. If that’s the case he can’t wait any longer to let his teammates know exactly where everything stands. He needs to remind them why they’re all there. Who they are and what they need to do in these next two games.

Many believe James isn’t capable of this sort of leadership, and maybe he isn’t. But one thing is for sure, Miami’s playoff hopes rest on his shoulders and if he can’t inspire 11 other men to help him pull off a miracle, it’ll be another summer full of questions, and I know one thing for sure: Pat Riley is going to want some answers.

Podcast: Conference Finals Rundown

Mark and McNeill chatted about Boston struggling to close out games against Miami, Chris Bosh’s impact on Miami, the adjustments Scott Brooks made in Game 3, and how the Spurs can regroup.

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Here’s the link to download the MP3.

Rondo Continues To Be An Enigma

Rajon Rondo is a fascinating enigma.

At times, he’s transcendently brilliant—a throwback to a bygone era, where on-court vision and basketball I.Q. triumphed over size and strength.

Other times, he can be painfully frustrating—missing easy layups, passing up open shots, and doing his best impersonation of a sulking, moody teenager.

But Rondo is captivating to watch, in whichever incarnation you find him. He fixes butts on seats, glues eyes to television sets. At times he displays a confident Iverson-esque swagger, giving the impression that he can make the impossible possible, with his unique abilities.

Simply put, it’s hard to ignore him when he’s on the floor.

And no one was ignoring him last night—except maybe the Miami Heat defenders.

Last night’s Game 2 against the Heat, reemphasized what we’re all starting to realize about Rondo—he absolutely thrives on the biggest stage. Just check out his triple-double numbers when playing in front of a national audience—they’re outstanding.

Against a Heat team that was absolutely rolling, and looking to stick another nail in Boston’s postseason coffin, Rondo had the greatest game of his career.

He scored 44 points, shooting 16 of 24 from the field, while racking up 10 assists, and 8 rebounds. Even more startling was the fact that Rondo played every minute of the game. 53 in total! Rondo had only 3 turnovers in that time.

Rondo’s display ranks up there as one of the all-time great Celtics’ playoff performances—and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Of course, Rondo’s efforts were largely in vain. The Heat received big-time displays from their stars too, and some timely scoring from their bench. The backbreaking loss may prove to be the defining moment of the series for the Celtics.

Coming back from 0-2 down, against this Miami team, will be nearly impossible.

Whatever the impact on the series, however, the night belonged to Rondo. The basketball public was given a glimpse into a world where Rondo could be the greatest point guard alive.

Chris Broussard put it best during ESPN’s halftime show, when he said: “It’s the NBA’s worst nightmare: Rondo with a jump shot.”.

And he’s right. If Rondo can consistently knock down that 15-18 footer, watch out, world! Teams have become accustomed to giving Rondo space to shot, begging him to take that mid-range jumper, and willing to live with the consequences.

If Rondo can shoot even half as well as he did last night, on a regular basis, then he may just become un-guardable. Add a jump shot to a player that already has elite level basketball I.Q., athleticism, solid defense, rebounding, and unreal playmaking abilities, and we’re talking about a top-five player in the NBA.

This is all a massive ‘if’, of course. We may never see another shooting display like that from Rondo again. Even without a jump shot, his other elite attributes still make him a genuine all-star and top-5 point guard in this league—as well as being one of the most entertaining players to watch.

But boy, he could be so much more. We saw it yesterday and lets hope we see it again.

The Meaning Of Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’) To Duncan

Not since Michael Jordan’s sixth title has a superstar had so little to gain by winning an NBA championship. Dirk Nowitzki needed his ring to cement his place among the greats. Kobe Bryant wanted so desperately to tie MJ that he managed to shoot the Lakers out of this year’s playoffs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook long to stake their ground as the new sheriffs in the wild, wild Western Conference. And LeBron James just needs to win, and win fast.

Tim Duncan’s legacy, though, seems complete. He is a four-time champion, the best player of his generation, a top-10 all-timer and a no-discussion, first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Jerry Sloan, long-time coach of that Karl Malone guy, called Duncan “probably the best player to ever play the position.”

If the individual accolades weren’t enough, Duncan scored David Robinson a pair of rings and turned Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker into potential Hall-of-Famers. At this point, winning a fifth championship is almost superfluous for the Big Fundamental.

But a Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’)? The actual realization of Moses Malone’s 1983 playoffs prediction for his dominant Sixers team (who managed just a Fo’, Fi’, Fo’)? The addition of an extra Fo’? It would be the greatest run in NBA Playoffs history. It would give small-time, dusty old San Antonio (quietly the second-highest scoring team in the league) and boring, staid Timothy Theodore Duncan something they have never had, nor asked for: sex appeal.

No one would mistake Duncan for the best player on the Spurs’ roster, not for the past few years. But he is inarguably the team’s leader, and he remains a steady force in the paint, as evidenced by the 17-10-3 he has put up in San Antonio’s 10 postseason games (all wins, of course). This is Duncan’s team and will remain so until he retires.

The Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’) and the glory that comes with, is his for the taking.

That said, he doesn’t much seem to care about his legacy—no more so than he cares about winning his next game. Duncan, the honors psychology graduate, might even suggest that a player’s legacy is little more than an intangible, third-party construct of the media and fans, a tool used to compare legends and generations and organize them just so.

And he might say that the Fo’, Fo’, Fo’, (Fo’), whatever it’s worth, is really for us. Because even knowing what we know, maybe we still feel the need for a bright, shiny ribbon to find, compare and come back to what, on the outside, we’ve decided is the bland, bank-shot packaging of Tim Duncan’s wildly successful career.