Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part I - Atlantic Division

Aaaaaand we're back!

Apologies for the long layoff -- I decided to take a little break from basketball. I still have been watching the WNBA playoffs (in case you're interested, now that the Sparks are out I'll be rooting for San Antonio in the finals), but otherwise have been out of touch. The primary reason for my break was to clear my mind and ready myself for the upcoming season (as a Lakers fan, I fully expect it to last well into June), and the secondary reason was I really enjoy the first four weeks of football season.

Luckily for me, I took my break just in time to ignore the completely idiotic "controversy" over Josh Howard's cellphone video YouTube thingie.

Other random thing that happened during my absence: Jason Williams retired. I will remember not the post-Hubie Brown, low turnover, high efficiency version, but the bombastic White Chocolate version who threw elbow passes and did crazy things with the basketball in Sacramento and Memphis. Goodbye Jason, good luck! Stephon Marbury is still a Knick, despite his best efforts. And Monta Ellis' injury turns out to have been the result of a moped accident (we think), and he might miss the entire season. More on that as news becomes available. Finally, due to my break the unread portion of my rss feed reader has grown to intimidating numbers, so I am likely behind on some other big news -- feel free to update in the comments.

Anyways, seeing as how training camps are starting up for the NBA, I guess it's time to take a look around the league and some super-early thoughts on what to expect and what to watch for. I'm calling this Round One since, as the season gets closer, there will probably be more and more to say.

Before the preview, just wanted to draw your attention to a further comment about the Stephon Marbury's philosophical dabblings. Our friend from Bushwick drew attention to a David Foster Wallace passage about language that specifically utilizes the example of the meaning of the word "green." It's well worth the read, not the least because it refers to one of my all-time favorite texts, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. In case you're interested in further study, I find the beetle in the box analogy quite useful as an illustration of the public/social nature of language. Maybe we can send Starbury a copy of the Investigations?

Anyways, on to the previews! I'll go in order, division by division. The "players to keep tabs on" is my best guess about which players may perform significantly differently from last year, for better or worse, whereas "reasons to watch" will be something to get excited about if you're tuning in to a particular team's game.:


Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics
Any sort of stumble this year for them will be seen as some sort of "Championship Hangover" because the press likes to re-use worn stories rather than either coming up with new ones or doing a bit of analysis. The two surprises last year were the great defense and the fact that the team was able to keep the big three to around 35 minutes per game each. Tom Thibodeau and Kevin Garnett tend to get most of the credit for the defensive improvement, but the minutes issue might be more interesting. It wasn't just some old vets who signed for the minimum, but young players who really kept these team going not only in the regular season but even at times in the playoffs. Glenn Davis and Leon Powe played meaningful minutes off the bench, not to mention the fact that Rajon Rondo (age 21) and Kendrick Perkins (23) were supposed to be the young, weak links in the starting lineup. Rondo not only used his quickness to get penetration and hound opposing guards, but also greatly improved his mid-range shooting, while Kendrick Perkins really showed something not only in his ability to score garbage points around the basket, but in moving well enough to solidly defend the pick-and-roll away from the basket.

The loss of James Posey (discussed at length previously) probably means more time for Leon Powe, since Posey found himself at the 4 quite a bit last year. However it does leave the Celtics thin at the small forward position behind Paul Pierce. If the Darius Miles experiment doesn't work out, this might be something to pay attention to (unless rookie Bill Walker can step in as a rookie the way Powe and Davis did last year). Role-wise, Eddie House can shoot the 3 and Tony Allen can guard the swing positions, so they may see some more playing time too . . ..

Outlook: They're still one of the top 2 teams in the East.

Players to keep tabs on: Tony Allen made a surprisingly quick recovery from reconstructive knee surgery and was able to play in 75 games last year. He played solid defense, but he wasn't as strong of a finisher on offense as he was before the injury. If he regains some of that explosiveness, it should be fun to watch as well as help the Celtics. Rajon Rondo was exciting and promising as a rookie, but I doubt anyone expected him to improve as much as he did last year. Now he's entering his third year, meaning he's playing for a contract extension. Expect even bigger and better things. And finally, Patrick O'Bryant was supposed to be something, he was a lottery pick, but he's big and he played for Don Nelson, who doesn't like bigs unless they shoot three pointers. So now Mr. O'Bryant gets to learn under Kevin Garnett, and hopefully realize some of the potential that made him a lottery pick.

Reasons to watch: See the other team get Rondo'd! Also, Tony Allen, if his knee is completely healed. Before his injury, Darius Miles was one of the most fun-to-watch players in the league. I have no idea if he'll be able to play at all this year, and even if he is healthy he'll be serving a ten-game suspension before he can log a minute, but if he's at all healthy we can count on him for an amazing play, a dumb play, and a fists-on-forehead celebration a la the Clippers from early this decade.

Toronto Raptors
They traded away T.J. Ford (and Rasho Nestorivic), lost Carlos Delfino, and now they have Jermaine O'Neal. The move to Jose Calderon as the full-time point guard should help them, as long as he can hold up health-wise for an entire season. If not, they'll be depending more than expected on first-year player Roko Ukic (first year in the NBA, that is -- he's been playing professionally for several years now, and performed decently in the Olympics this summer for Croatia). If O'Neal is healthy, he should shore up the defense, which was an issue last year. Chris Bosh and Jose Calderon are all-star caliber talents. The last couple of years, they've had players come seemingly out of nowhere and play big roles on the team (first Anthony Paker and Jorge Garbajosa two years ago, then Jamario Moon last year). Will someone step up from anonymity this year? Ukic seems to fit the profile . . ..

Outlook: Probably depends on health. They're talented enough to make it to the second round of the playoffs.

Players to keep tabs on: Andrea Bargnani is still looking to prove that he wasn't a bust as a first overall pick in 2006, and now he can relax in Jermaine O'Neal's shadow, and try to provide something off the bench (and start the 15-25 games that O'Neal will surely miss due to injury).

Reasons to watch: Jamario Moon jumps really high. He used to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Enough said.

Philadelphia 76ers
They had a pretty good year last year, driven by a surprisingly solid defense and solid play from the Andres (Miller and Iguodala), that looked even better because 40-42 gets you into the playoffs in the east (as opposed to getting you 11th place in the West), then they went and signed Elton Brand in the offseason. Now expectations are high, but it remains to be seen whether the young players will continue to improve, or even stay at the high level they played at last year. Also, there still isn't a good outside shooter on the team, and with Brand on board it won't be as easy to make up for their lack of shooting by outrunning the other team.

Outlook: Let's not crown them just yet, but anything less than the 2nd round of the playoffs would probably be considered a disappointment.

Players to keep tabs on: Big things are expected of Mr. Thaddeus Young, who played surprisingly well as a rookie last year. However, with the arrival of Brand, he'll probably be moving to the small forward position, so watch for how he handles his new role. If it works out, the 76ers should be a solid rebounding team with Igoudala (who would presumably move to the 2), Young, Brand, and Dalembert (and Reggie Evans off the bench).

Reasons to watch: Thaddeus Young and (sweet) Louis Williams are always good for a few highlights.

New Jersey Nets
Goodbye Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson! Devin Harris now gets a full year as the starting point guard, with Keyon Dooling instead of Marcus Williams behind him. Yi Jianlian got his wish, and will probably be on his way to Brooklyn before his contract is up -- quite a feat for a guy stuck in Milwaukee just some months ago.

Outlook: There will be more stories written about the Nets' impending move to Brooklyn and their supposed attempts to get way under the cap in 2010 so they can sign Lebron James (friend of part-owner Jay-Z! That means he'll definitely go to the Nets!) than there will be about the team's play.

Players to keep tabs on: Yi Jianlian. If Lawrence Frank can keep him motivated throughout the game, and if his body is ready for the full 82-game schedule (he really hit the rookie wall last year), he has the skill to be a productive and exciting player.

Reasons to watch: Sean Williams is guaranteed to do something exciting. If he's having a good day, Vince Carter can still wow you as well. Also, you can tune in to see what Jay-Z and Beyonce are wearing courtside.

New York Knickerbockers
Uggh. Hiring a new GM and a new coach was necessary, but it probably also helped draw attention away from just how crappy they've been lately. I have no idea what to think of this team in the coming year. The most fun to watch players on the team last year were all young and underpaid (David Lee, Renaldo Balkman, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson), while the starters were often brutal to watch (with the exception of Jamal Crawford, who I liked even though no one else does). Now Balkman's gone (but Starbury, as far as we know, is still around), but the other young guys should get some more minutes, I would think. Duhon is in as (presumably) the starting point guard. He's a decent player, and probably better than he gets credit for from Bulls fans, but if he's your starting point guard, that isn't really a good sign.

Outlook: Remember how Pat Riley went to the Knicks and completely changed his style to play slow and physical? Yeah? So why does everyone keep talking about how this isn't a "D'Antoni roster" and how D'Antoni needs better shooters and faster players in order to succeed? Don't typecast the man, give him a chance!

Players to keep tabs on: Wilson Chandler, I guess. He has the tools to be a very exciting player. Maybe Gallinari, too, if he can do anything as a rookie.

Reasons to watch: Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing (Jr.) are both part of the team, as of this writing. If they make it through training camp cuts and so forth, and you squint and just look at the names on the jerseys, you can pretend it's the good old days.

SIDENOTE: Jamal Crawford's blog on Newsday is one of the more entertaining player blogs out there.

Coming up next, the Central Division!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Warmongers strike again!

I'm a little late to the story, but wanted to draw attention to it given earlier commentary on Hamed Hadadi and his trials and tribulations in going to the Grizzlies. Also, today is September 11th and as a country we seem to lose our collective minds around this time every year, and it's important to remind ourselves that our senseless bullshit policies have meaningful effects on people's lives who don't deserve it.

So there's a young man named Bol Kong currently living in Canada (and has been living in Canada since the age of 7) who happens to be a pretty talented shooting guard. He's been playing recently for Douglas College in British Columbia, but scouts have been impressed enough that he's received scholarship offers from several Divisin I NCAA schools, and even accepted one from Gonzaga.

Sounds great, right? The African Adam Morrison, coming soon to the Pacific Northwest? There's just one problem: Kong was unfortunate enough to have been born in Sudan. There are some 200ish countries in the world, but there are five that are singled out as evil by the U.S. State Department, and Sudan happens to be one of them. So, as the story linked above outlines, Kong's been having a lot of trouble getting the Visa that he would need to come to the U.S. as a student, despite the scholarship offer from Gonzaga.

Now there's some rumors that Kong may have given up, and will finish his college education at St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia.

This is a basketball blog, and that's why the story made it into these pages, but be aware that Kong's story is just one of thousands of students who either already were studying in the U.S. before 9/11 and subsequently had to leave, or those who were planning to come over and now cannot. This isn't just about being able to play basketball where you want to, it's about access to education also.

Look, I get that anti-intellectualism is sort of what the Bush administration is famous for, and that stupid right-wing fucks think education is bad and elitist and theories of evolution were first expressed by the devil and that literacy is a sign of Babylon but ease up!

I ask the State Department: What possible threat do you think a 20 year-old who has been living in Canada since he was seven and wants to study and play basketball poses to the U.S. of A.? The only bombs he drops are from the three-point line.

I, for one, don't feel at all safer. Not one bit.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Kobe Bryant does his best Shawne Merriman impression

According to his own website, Kobe Bryant has decided not to undergo surgery on his pinkie. I would like to draw your attention to one particular portion of his statement: "What it really came down to for me is that I just didn't want to miss any time 'punching the clock' for the Lakers, given all we are trying to accomplish as a team this NBA season." Compare that to Shaq's infamous "I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time" as an explanation for why he waited until the start of the season to get surgery on his foot when he could have gotten the surgery over the summer and not missed any games.

The similarity in terms of the imagery and form used in the two statements seems purposeful, does it not? Is this Kobe getting in one more jab at the Diesel?

The Genius of Stephon Marbury

Commenter Bushwick Bill has expressed in the past some interest in conversations about Stephon Marbury. So this is for you Bill!

Stephon Marbury has long struck me as a fascinating character in the NBA landscape. He's best known, it would seem, for being replaced by hall-of-fame point guards whenever he leaves a team (he left New Jersey and was replaced by Jason Kidd, who took the Nets to the finals two years in a row, then he was replaced in Phoenix by Steve Nash, who went on to win back-to-back MVPs. Knicks fans are eagerly awaiting any rumor of a Chris Paul - Stephon Marbury trade . . .). He also made headlines for leaving Minnesota because he wasn't getting paid as much as Kevin Garnett, despite the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement made it impossible for him to receive as much as Garnett (who signed his deal before the current CBA was agreed to). Or he's known for naming himself "Starbury." Or perhaps he's known for having sex with a Knicks intern in the back of his truck, or shooting too much, or whatever.

He also appeared on television before last season sounding kind of, well, crazy, which led people to wonder if he was going through some mental problems:

The thing is, I really feel that with these oversimplifications we're missing an intriguing and nuanced human being, who is much smarter than we give him credit for. He's done quite a bit of charity work, as well as started a line of shoes that cost only $15 so that people could afford them without spending a whole paycheck. He was also laughed at a couple of years ago for saying he'd like to play a few years in Italy after his contract in the NBA is up, before he retires. This was before Josh Childress made it cool for ballers to go to Europe, so it's kind of like if you were to wear your jeans backward before March 17, 1992.

[Sidenote: how unbalanced is our perception of athletes? What other group of people would we scorn for saying they would enjoy making millions of dollars while living in Italy?]

Anyways, I recently saw an outtake from a year-old story about Marbury. I was curious at the beginning because of Marbury's attempts to explore epistemology with the reporter:

"... Why does green mean that's the color green? Why can't you say another word for green being green? Know what I'm saying?"

It's not the deepest question in the world, but it's a question from a dude who's really exploring and interacting with serious philosophical questions. It's a question about language, as well as about the distinction between substance and attribute. Further, given Aquinas's view of language, how does "green" achieve meaning for someone who is color-blind? He might stumble into language games, or maybe he'll try to define "green" as some sort of intersection of a number of different contexts (U.S. currency, the light at the bottom of the traffic light, baking apples, and so forth -- what do they have in common?).

Anyways, today I don't intend to discuss Marbury's philosophy of meaning. Instead, seeing Marbury saying odd things reminded me of a passage in the original article from last year:

They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.

Basically here Marbury is responding to those who criticize his game by saying "Oh you don't like my game? Boo fucking hoo. I'm going to go cry into a giant pile of money after wiping my ass with your annual salary. Ha ha suckers!" In itself, that's a hilarious and biting response to critics -- "you think I'm dumb? Well wait till you meet that old white dude who's giving me $20 million a year." But what I really want to get into is his uncommon usage of the word "factorial."

It's easy to read "factorial" in this statement as a mistaken adjectivization (see that? that was a mistaken verbization!) of the word "fact." In other words, perhaps he just meant to say "factual." Again, I don't think that's giving Marbury enough credit. A recent conversation with John Rosenberg made me realize what he really meant. Here's the breakdown:

A factorial is a function in math such that n-factorial is equal to the product (n)(n-1)...(3)(2)(1). That is:

Notice, though, that the mathematical notation for the factorial function is visually identical to the English language punctuation mark known as the exclamation mark ("!"). As its name suggests, the exclamation mark is used after an exclamation, to indicate excitement or to emphasize a strongly felt point.

Now, a celebrity being interviewed has to consider the various filters through which his words will pass before reaching a wide audience. Not only are his words being interpreted by the interviewer, but they will be edited and taken out of context before publication. Furthermore, the medium in which his words are presented will affect the meaning they eventually come to have. For instance, a common rule of e-mail etiquette taught in business writing workshops is not to use sarcasm because it is difficult to express sarcasm in text. Likewise in an interview -- if you know the interview is for television, you might be able to get away with sarcastic remarks while knowing that viewers will have the advantage of tone and vocal inflections to dissect intended meaning.

In this particular case, Marbury understands that the interview is to be used in print. Now, how to express the correct level of emotion, when you know the writer might mis-punctuate your comment? Marbury introduces the ingenious device of the dual-meaning "factorial." Basically, he's giving typesetting instructions to the publisher of the interview while bypassing any possibility of a misunderstanding by the intermediary interviewer. Read the above, replacing "and that's factorial" with "and that's an emphatic exclamation," or, more simply, with an exclamation point: " . . . and it's never gonna change!" In addition, though, Marbury is roundaboutly expressing that what he's saying is, in fact, factual. The genius is that he express the factuality of his statement along with the intended emotional emphasis all in one compact phrase that is not susceptible to mis-transliteration by the interviewer. It's one thing to be self-aware, but to also be savvy enough to consider the medium of communication and adjust your comments on the fly to adapt to that medium -- well, I think it's quite impressive. Given the various media through which news is filtered these days, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that Marbury is providing a roadmap for the true 21st century celebrity.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

There's only room for one Kwame in Detroit

One Kwame arrives, another steps down.

Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the charismatic mayor of Detroit who has been embroiled in legal problems stemming from a sex scandal since the beginning of the year, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and agreed to resign Thursday morning as part of a deal with prosecutors.

In other thoughts, I'm trying to put together a pre-presidential election all-star team for each candidate. We'll then simulate the games to see which team wins. So far, for the ObamAllStars, I have Baron Davis at the point, Kareem at the center (with Greg Oden backing him up off the bench), Etan Thomas at the power forward (maybe I'm missing someone?), Grant Hill at the 3, and Joe Dumars as the shooting guard (Obama himself can come in off the bench).

On the McCain side (I can't think of a catchy name), we have Gilbert Arenas at the point (with Sarah Barracuda Palin backing him up), and Spencer Hawes at the 4. They'll probably have Coach K from Duke as the coach. After that, I'm not really sure how to finish constructing the team. Anybody know any ballers who happen to be McCain supporters? As it is, it looks like the ObamAllstars would destroy the McCain team.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Around the NBA

It's mostly a slow time in the NBA, hence the lack of regular NBA posts here lately. I do intend to do a full season preview, but the regular season is still two months away, so in the meantime, here's a quick roundup in case you've missed any of the recent storylines in the NBA.

  • Mo Williams got traded to the Cavs, who sent Joe Smith and Desmond Mason to the Oklahoma City THUNDER (see bel0w), and the Thunder sent Damon Jones, Luke Ridnour, and Adrian Griffin to Milwaukee. The prevalent media spin: Lebron James finally has a competent scorer to play alongside him, the Thunder are just clearing salary, and Milwaukee is getting rid of a talented player who happened to not fit in with what they're trying to do there. The McFruity spin: Williams does indeed have the ability to create shots for himself and others and score with moderate efficiency, and that's more than any other non-Lebron Cavs can say. However, he's 6'1" and not a great defender. Boobie Gibson is 6'2" and not a great defender. Delonte West is still officially a free agent. Gibson is a solid outside shooter, and Williams can shoot well enough to need guarding, and Cleveland's defense is strong everywhere else, so hopefully this move helps the team and gives Lebron a bit of a break on the offensive end. But the move isn't exactly a slam-dunk, you know? As for the Bucks: the most intriguing part of this deal to me is whether this gives more playing time to Ramon Sessions. I'll have more to say about Sessions at a later date, but in any case I think the fact that only Luke Ridnour stands between him and a starting point guard job must be a good thing.
  • Yes, the Oklahoma City team has an official name, and it's the Thunder. No word on whether the Golden State Warriors mascot is upset about this development.
  • Manu Ginobili needs ankle surgery and will miss the first month or so of the season.
  • During the league-mandated rookie transition program, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur were "caught in their hotel room with marijuana and women." (Yes, that's really how the story reads. Apparently the latter part is noteworthy because "Having visitors at the rookie transition program is not permitted."). I'm not linking to the story because it's stupid and as a basketball fan I don't care about it so I don't want to draw attention to the story or encourage the reporting of it. So is it hypocritical of me to write about it here? Yeah, a little bit. I just point it out in order to draw attention to how completely senseless it is to punish 20-year olds (or anyone, really) for smoking weed (let alone for hanging out with women).
  • Rod Benson, one of my favorite players I've never actually watched play, is going to play in France. He writes a very entertaining blog, and I really hope he continues to do so while he's overseas. I was hoping for him to get an NBA contract, but I guess that's for another time. In any case, congratulations Mr. Benson, and good luck! What with Josh Childress and Rod Benson and Brandon Jennings, I'm all excited to watch Euro-ball this year as an NBA fan.
  • The Suns traded away D.J. Strawberry to Houston, for Sean Singletary. It's not clear that either player will make it onto the roster of his new team, although I believe Strawberry would do well in Houston. Meaning Phoenix seemingly traded away Strawberry for nothing.
  • The Rockets then sent Patrick Ewing, Jr. to the Knicks for, essentially, nothing (they got the rights to Frederic Weis, who may never actually come to the NBA). The spin all seems to be about another Ewing on the Knicks, though he may not make the roster.
  • Ben Gordon STILL has not signed a contract with any NBA team, and supposedly he's been offered a contract to play in Moscow. I'll keep an eye on what happens . . .
  • Some random dude won a chance to play HORSE with Lebron James (hey, I told you it's the slow part of the offseason!).
Now you're caught up!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I thought Duncan Sheik was the name of a condom

Q: Is it a big deal that Monta Ellis might have lied about how he injured his ankle?

A: No, it is not.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sparks 82, Lynx 58

This was a close game throughout the first half, but Los Angeles outscored Minnesota 45-21 in the second half.

Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie were the stars here, combining for 44 points, 24 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 10 blocks, and 5 turnovers in a combined 61 minutes of play. Candace Parker again looked best when getting defensive rebounds and immediately getting out in transition, much like what Lamar Odom is capable of in the men's game. Lisa Leslie was hassled into early turnovers because the Lynx were immediately collapsing 3 and 4 players on her whenever she touched the ball, but the Sparks responded (once again) by scoring more quickly and putting the ball in the hands of Parker on the perimeter. Another solution, longer term, might be to play Sidney Spencer more at one of the guard spots, with her size (6'3") and shooting ability (40% from 3 for the year), she would force her defender to stay with her at the three-point line, giving Leslie more room to work down low. The untold story, though, was solid guard play from Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson. Bobbitt did a great job of pushing the pace as often as possible -- if she can develop some scoring ability she'll be a wonderful starter. As it is, she doesn't have a very strong jumpshot, and she is pretty creative in the paint but because of her size her penetration often doesn't lead to scoring opportunities for herself. Bobbitt also contributed some pesky defense at the perimeter, often forcing Lynx guards directly into Lisa Leslie, who used the opportunities to accumulate 8 blocks on the night. Bobbitt is probably the Sparks' best player at using ball-screens and splitting double teams -- hopefully by next season she can change her shot to be more consistent and have a quicker release. Temeka Johnson, meanwhile, has a better shot and also pushes the pace but was able to contribute in the half-court as well. She doesn't zoom down the floor quite as quickly as Bobbitt, but she's controlled and makes good decisions (if Bobbitt is kind of like T.J. Ford here, then Johnson is closer to being Jose Calderon. It's sort of a poor analogy, but it's close . . .). Johnson ended up with 6 points and 6 assists in 19 minutes.

The Sparks played pretty suffocating defense, particularly in the second half, and won the game because of blocked shots (Leslie) and defensive rebounding (Parker). They held Minnesota to just 74.4 points per 100 possessions, and harassed them into 33.6% eFG%.

The Sparks are looking really strong going into the playoffs, but their upcoming matchup in San Antonio (this Friday) is huge, and should give an indication as to how serious of a contender they are.