Your Annotated Smartphone Bathroom Reader for Sunday, July 28th, 2013.

Didn’t do one of these last week.  Don’t want the place to fall into ruin, you know?

The NSA Transcript of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett’s Late Night Phone Call
Chris S.
Negative Dunkaletics

I must admit that I am something of a curmudgeon when it comes to so-called NBA fan fiction.  I don’t really get off on hearing about NBA players searching for relics in temples, or getting lost on desert islands, or whatever.  But I was pleasantly surprised by this piece that I stumbled upon while cruising around Twitter yesterday.  I’m not sure if Paul Pierce played a role in getting Kevin Garnett to waive his no-trade clause so the deal with the Nets could go forward.  I’m not sure if that role involved a personal phone call.  But if it did, I hope it looked a bit like this.  The image of Garnett and Pierce as old statesmen, sadly but slyly lamenting about the coming storm for their respective countries, is rather humorous, and very well written.  A nice Sunday read to ease your wearied minds.

- JG

Why is Jennings Still Unsigned?
Jonathan Hartzell
Hang Time Blog

Casual fans might not have any idea who this fellow is, but hardcore fans can agree: it’s a bit puzzling that Brandon Jennings is still on the market.  The talented but mercurial point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, who scored 55 points (against the Warriors) in his seventh game in the league, remains an unrestricted free agent.  Why is this?  Jon Hartzell provides us with the answers in this tidy little piece for Sekou Smith’s Hang Time Blog.  Hartzell boils it down to two main issues: (1) Jennings cannot shoot, which is a problem since he often shoots more than anyone on the court, and (2) he is a restricted free agent, meaning his current team can match whatever offer is delivered to Jennings and retain his services.  The problem is that the Bucks seem ready to move on from Jennings so they can build around defensive big-men Larry Sanders and John Henson, and, as Hartzell writes, no self-respecting NBA teams hungers for “a point guard who can’t shoot for the next four years at a high price”.  Seems reasonable.  This is a good read if you’re wondering about what’s going on with the most talented piece left in the free agent bargain bin.

- JG

The Ghost of Robert Smith
Sam Riches
The Classical

Failed Player narratives often become trite and overblown; like we’re really supposed to be heartbroken that someone didn’t earn the $250 million they deserved, and only made off with $11 or $12 million.  Those types of pieces usually make me roll my eyes, and attempt to seek out a more legitimate sob-story elsewhere.  However this piece by Sam Riches about Robert Swift, the failed center for the Seattle SuperSonics/OKC Thunder, really does a nice job emphasizing both the uniqueness of that situation, while at the same time, highlighting the motifs that seem to be ubiquitous in tales about guys who didn’t make it.  Riches writes that Swift’s failure — informed by a weak frame, under-developed skills and a knee injury — has features present in other Failed Player narratives, but stands out due to the way it ended: with reporters trying to figure out why he wouldn’t leave his foreclosed home in a Seattle suburb.  It is an informative and somewhat eerie read.

- JG

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Fear of Settling

The off-season has grown hotter and hazier by the day, weighing down on hardcore NBA fans with shimmering heat and stifling humidity, soaking shirts with sweat and raising temperatures to dangerous heights as bad teams fight the urge to bid against themselves and summer league All Stars sign lucrative deals (in Europe).  When these dog days arrive, hardcore fans are tasked with finding alternative means of entertainment; something to get them through until football season starts.  This has always been something of a struggle for me — I am a hardcore fan of the NBA, if you couldn’t tell — and I’m finding that struggle has been greatly exacerbated now that I work a “real” job that requires me to live in my quaint but relatively quiet home town.  I already work a lot.  I’m too terrified to make new friends.  And I’m too lazy to call my old friends.  So it’s not surprising that I greatly miss the supremely athletic men who perform amazing feats of strength on my television and laptop screen.  For me, they are handsomely paid security blankets for un-surefooted late-twentysomethings to rely upon, and each summer, I miss them dearly.

This summer, my main distraction has been the trials and tribulations of the San Francisco Giants, the baseball team I am ostensibly a fan of (this parenthetical interlude is only here so I don’t end my sentence with a preposition).  Now, I’m hardly a baseball fan.  It plays no role in my life, professionally or otherwise.  I have no memories of going to the ball park with my dad (a Jewish hippy lawyer who has practiced Tai Chi for most of my waking life and whose childhood athletic memories invariably devolve into embittered stories about his father), and I certainly wasn’t going to be next great black Jewish left-fielder based upon my two or three years of little league experience (my great highlight was catching a fly ball, I think).  I owned zero baseball cards, and never wore a mock jersey.  Similarly, I never saw a game at Candlestick, nor have I seen a game at AT&T. I watched the team in 2002, when they went to the World Series, and 2003, when Barry Bonds was slugging home runs juicier than an over-ripe peach into McCovey Cove.  I sort of watched from Seattle when they won their first one in 2010, but not until the World Series itself. Except for Barry Bonds or Buster Posey, I couldn’t tell you any other player on those team, or what position they played (save for former ace pitcher Jason Schmidt, who looked exactly like Jack from Nightmare Before Christmas).

But that changed last year.  Having arrived at my parents house with all of my earthly possessions — which, at that point, could still fit into my two-door Honda — with zero contacts and nothing but a desire to hibernate, I found the Giants.  It was early August, and they were just starting to gel in a big way.  Of course, it was a good year to jump on a bandwagon, as the Giants rode that momentum through the playoffs, through six different elimination games, and right over the Detroit Tigers to a second World Series win in three years.  It was thrilling, and almost too perfect.  Feeling no real rush to dive head first back into life in my home town, it was all too easy to find friends in some of the more lovable professional athletes I had ever witnessed.  From the lovably rotund Pablo Sandoval to the endearingly gaunt Hunter Pence (who apparently had just arrived in a trade, someone made me hip to that fact on the radio, I think), to my personal favorite, the charismatic and flashy Sergio Romo I could find something to like in just about everyone.  I happily let the iconic voices of Miller, Flemming, Kruk and Kuip explain the nuances of game and regale the players, through heart-stopping playoff games and frenzied World Series celebrations.  It was like a new group of friends, a way to hold off the fear of an all-too-familiar frontier, and delay another too early night retreating to my childhood bedroom.

Luckily my stay in my parents house was brief — I had moved back for a real-life “adult” job, after all — and soon, basketball was back on television.  Moreover, new jobs don’t fuck up themselves, and neither do old basketball blogs, so my time was spoken for in terms of taking care of both of those things.  But I was excited for when baseball came back, since the Giants were coming back, too.  And they literally were coming back; literally every single starter from the defending champions was back in the orange and black.  For someone whose relationship with a team was just starting to grow, this made re-identifying with the team, and the experience of being a fan, that much better. The idea of welcoming back familiar faces back to a familiar place was comforting. Perhaps it was because I had come back, I guess.  Back to California; back to the Giants.  Back again and here to stay; no more bandwagon for me. Reunions are saccharine sweet, aren’t they? Together we are champions.  Together we’re better.

But Murphy’s Law has little mercy; especially not for defending champions in a professional sports league.  Today, the Giants enter a series against the Chicago Cubs 46-55, second to last in the National League West, and seven games behind the division leading Arizona Diamondbacks.  While the faces are familiar, they are really the only thing that resemble the team from last year.  Team (and NL League) MVP Buster Posey continues to produce in his quiet, understated way, and Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence seem to have their moments, as well as Madison Bumgarner and Sergio Romo (when he gets a chance to close) but there’s not much left that’s recognizable to me, a new fan seeking a warm safety blanket to cuddle with.  Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt cannot seem to find offensive consistency.  Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres seem to struggle more than succeed. The pitching, once the strength of the Giants, has been decimated by injuries to and inconsistency.  The Giants can’t beat anyone on the road, and have a hard time winning series at home.  And with more of the season in the books than left to go, many local pundits (mostly on the AM radio station that broadcasts all Giants games, KNBR 680) have begun calling this “a lost season”, and have begun to hypothesize about what will happen next year.  But in the meantime, we still have to get through this one.  You can’t start something new until you get done with the old, after all.

Now, the NBA fan in me can find something to pique my interest with this Giants team.  I mean, I certainly don’t mind a “lost season”.  Heck no. Being a Warriors fan was an exercise in stomaching lost seasons, and finding a way to gleam some form of entertainment out of the entire drunken punch-up.  In that sense, I can appreciate the overblown excitement over Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter against the San Diego Padres in the same way I appreciated Antawn Jamison’s back-to-back 50 point games back in 2000 (and I have to say, both were absolute blasts to watch).  When the games don’t really matter, and the proceedings seem pre-ordained, you become excited over the unexpected surprises that go against the grain of the season.  That’s what keeps it fun, despite the fact that things aren’t working out the way the pundits predicted, or the way you and I hoped.  I can understand as the Giants begin to sell the ball park experience to prospective consumers rather than the prospects of a good, close game.  After all, for most of my life, the Warriors were just “a great time out”; a place to have fun and feel some sort of contentment, regardless of who won or lost, or where the team was in the standings.

I’m still watching the Giants.  I don’t plan to stop.  Seasoned baseball fans keep assuring me that the season isn’t over yet; there are still enough games left to mount a comeback in the standings and qualify for the post-season.  Seems to make sense to me; seven games isn’t that far back from first place, and there are still about 60 games for something interesting to happen.  I’ve paid enough attention to baseball to know that a team can make up a lot of games in the standings in a fairly short amount of time.  And if it doesn’t work out?  Well, c’est la vie, as the Malian elite say.  Trade deadline could be fun, I suppose.  We’ll have to figure out whether to pay Tim Lincecum or not.  Some things will have to change.  Everyone keeps insisting that the expectations have changed, given that the team has won two World Series in three years.  And of course, the NBA blogger in me can’t help but wonder whether the defending champion Miami Heat have a similar fate awaiting them as they get ready to begin their pursuit of a three-peat.  Much like the Giants, they have settled on sticking with what they know (aside from shedding Mike Miller and his contract through their amnesty provision), and are simply a year older.  However, LeBron James likely makes up for much of the team’s potential wear-and-tear and inconsistency, and it’s not like the Heat have exactly been perfect in the playoffs anyways. So it’s not a clean comparison.  But it does keep me interested in the lackluster Giants; settled into my comfortable second-hand couch as the other team runs up the score, and Santa Rosa kids play in Santa Rosa streets, thoroughly unperturbed by the proceedings.

Regardless of the score, no one settles forever.  It’s impossible to be fully content with mediocrity, even if it sends the fans home relatively happy.  It’s not fulfilling to continually conjure up memories of a more glorious past to legitimize the banality of the present.  As the Giants season enters the second half, it will be interesting to see whether the team just shrugs and decides to ride quietly into the sunset, ready to go for all the marbles next year.  Or maybe the year after that.  Or even the year after that.  There’s no rush, after all.  We’ve already won a few times.  What more could we want?  What more could we need?  I’m not sure I’ll ever have the answer to those questions.  And I wonder if I’ll ever stop looking.

Just the offseason thoughts from a man sitting alone in his apartment; situated nicely in his quiet, quaint and occasionally terrifying home town.

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Complimentary Pieces.

Despite the overwhelming success of my team, Summer League just couldn’t hold my attention very long.  The games themselves were largely uninteresting — you won’t see the vast majority of the players on the court in an NBA uniform, so it’s not really worth getting too invested — and with the most marquee name being likely 10th or 11th-man Kent Bazemore, I really wasn’t buying the echo-chamber hype coming from Las Vegas.  Moreover, free agency has entered the yawn-inducing phase where bad teams fight the urge to bid against themselves (you know Milwaukee wants very much to not have to pay Brandon Jennings more than $12 million a year, but they need to sit down and wait for the urge to subside before they just do so anyways), and now that Dwight’s departure freed up some amount to cap space for 2014, I (and we) have to endure a discussion about whether LeBron and Melo will join forces to help Kobe win two or three more rings (spoiler alert: no).  As such, I was delighted to be able to find respite in this small piece by the timeless Tzvi Twersky (oldies like me fondly remember his work in SLAM [print] magazine) about Delonte West, the diminutive combo guard who hasn’t played in the league since October 29th, but who would very much like to get back into the business of playing basketball.

Now, it isn’t that West’s story is much different than any other former NBA player on the outside, looking to get back in.  While the uniqueness of West’s struggles with mental health have been thoroughly chronicled (though whether they’ve been chronicled well, or fairly, is another matter altogether), this is a fairly oft-repeated trope in the NBA.  Twersky’s interview of West emphasizes the crux of West’s problem with getting back to the NBA: his off-court troubles, and the considerable amount of external matter that Delonte West’s name has associated with it.  Seemingly, it isn’t a matter of his skills.  “I had tears in my eyes watching games this past year—not because I’m bipolar, but because I’m sitting at home and miss the game” Twersky quotes West as saying. “When my agent calls, I’m going to be on the next flight. Not to be cocky, but some teams that are trying to win are one guard away, one guy that can make a couple great plays away from going to the Finals.”  This may seem like lofty words for a man whose chances of making an NBA roster — let alone the roster of a contender — but it’s clear that West’s confidence is still high. “What I’m excited about is that I haven’t even scratched my prime,” he is quoted as saying. “Just give me a jersey.”

For me, West will always be connected to another guy who’s just looking for someone to give him a jersey: Mo Williams, until recently of the Utah Jazz.  Of course, Williams and West formed the starting backcourt of the 2008-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers, a 66-16 regular season outfit that represented LeBron’s best chance to win an NBA championship before he departed for Miami and left Cleveland saddled with a lengthy rebuild project.  While that 2009 team’s legacy has been mostly defined by their playoff collapse on the NBA’s biggest stage — they ran into an Orlando Magic team playing their best basketball of the season, as well as Dwight, Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis playing the best basketball of their careers, up to this point — it would be irresponsible to forget how exciting and skilled of a regular season team they were for those who took the time to watch them.  Granted, LeBron was still LeBron (though Cleveland’s somewhat muted version of LeBron; a multi-talented forward relegated to running isolation plays for himself at the top of the key), and that’s what made the Cavs most appealing to a broad audience.  But even the casual fan could appreciate West and Williams, the small starting back-court, as among the more compelling parts of the team.  A small but lightning quick duo, West and Williams became prized trinkets for casual fans like myself; everymen-type players at the top of their games, able to feed off each other and, for a time, defy the narrative that bigger was better.

They were incredibly fun to watch together.  Williams wore the label of “LeBron’s Second Scoring Option” well, utilizing a quick handle and deadly mid-range game to set himself apart from other guards.  West belied his stature, and evolved into a perfect off-ball option, able to cycle through the roles of facilitator, scorer and help defender easily.  They would swarm the floor in unison, scrambling around screens while LeBron facilitated the offense from the top of the key, coming hard off of screens and hitting jumpers, or re-facing the basket and driving with impunity.  At the time, the two guards seemed like ideal fits next to LeBron’s Cavs, who behaved that season like a lovably obnoxious “look at me, too!” entourage around a childhood-friend-turned-famous.  Both clearly enjoyed the spotlight that came with King James’ vibrant starlight, shaking, baking, driving, diving and their way into the national consciousness.  Playing next to LeBron elevated both their games and their statures.  The soon-to-be-MVP was able to essentially throw a tantrum to get Williams into the All-Star game as an injury replacement for Chris Bosh.  And for his part, West averaged career highs in all statistical categories, and elevated his scoring by 2 points per game in the playoffs.  There were few backcourt duos that were more fun to watch in the entire NBA.  But of course, we know how that whole thing ended; the 2009 playoffs, the LeBron era, all of it.

Regardless of who exactly is offering the assessment, and regardless of the arena, a professional NBA player is judged by a variety of metrics, all of which are weighted differently, either by the individual or society at-large.  Such assessments can be limited to just the actions of (and reactions to) the player, or they can be used to offer broad assessments about a group of people, or a concept, altogether.  The complicated trajectories of West and Williams put the harshness of holistic analysis on full, brutal display.  Williams himself has seen a steep decline in his reputation and worth; his numbers dropped off in 2010, he moped on-and-off the court throughout 2011 until he was traded at the deadline for Baron Davis (only to lose his starter’s job after CP3 arrived in Los Angeles in the 2012 season), and spent an inconsistent and injury riddled year as the part-time starter in Utah.  Now he’s waiting for a call, presumably to be the second or third point guard for any NBA team that will accept his services for a number that meets his (and his agent’s) liking.  And West, as we know, is unemployed as well, seeking a call as well.  And if we are to believe Twersky’s latest work — we have no reason not to — it seems that he would accept a call from just about anyone, whether it’s related to basketball or not.

History is long and complicated, and no event should be considered without considering the other events that led up to it.  And while the Cavs six-game defeat to the Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals was decisive enough to make “What If?” questions seem more like a stretch than usual, it’s hard to not consider what would have been different had the Cavs won a championship, or at the very least, made it to the Finals.  Of course, most questions would focus on LeBron’s eventual decision in 2010, and whether he would’ve stayed in Cleveland for the long term (I believe he would’ve gone to a bigger market regardless).  But there are other questions too;  Would the success of a small backcourt in Cleveland comprised of two players under 6’3” have kept the ill-fated “can’t work, won’t work” duo of Monta Ellis and Steph Curry together for a few more seasons in Oakland? Would a reduction of the expectations around keeping LeBron produced a more welcoming work environment that could’ve supported both Williams and West in the long-term, both as contributing players and marketable figures?  Simply put, and with all hypotheticals notwithstanding: would both men have jobs today?

I wish West were right; that it comes down to a single story-line or failure to make the mark. But nothing occurs in a vacuum. Much of where West is right now is due to what happened a few seasons back; regardless of the fact he helped the Cavs win the most games in their franchise’s history, and that he was one of the more recognizable and appreciated players in the entire league.  It doesn’t seem to matter that, for a time, West and Williams were mentioned among the best backcourts in the NBA; a perfect compliment — and perhaps even the final reason — that a transcendent player would need for a championship.  That image is fleeting; more of an apparition than a solid recollection.  The Cavs are rebuilding.  They have moved on from West and Williams, the starting back-court for Cleveland’s most successful regular season team of all time.  And right now, it seems like the rest of the league is trying to figure out if they’re collectively moving on as well.

In any case, here’s to hoping Delonte’s phone rings soon.

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Monday Media: Overvaluing Nate Silver

Nate Silver is moving from The New York Times to ESPN/ABC and everybody­—from Politico and The New Republic to the Times itself—seems to think it’s a big deal. I’m not so sure.

Broadly categorized, Silver is one of those new-fangled “advanced analytics” guys that, frankly, haven’t fared so well at ESPN. Analytics—advanced or otherwise—has almost no presence on ESPN television properties. Its deepest foray into the territory, the deceivingly named Numbers Never Lie, was never very advanced in the first place and pivoted away from numbers towards a debate format after less than a year.

Things are better on, but it’s still nowhere near the leader in analytics, and never will be. Basketball analytics godfather Dean Oliver is criminally underutilized, while its widely touted Total Quarterback Rating is kind of a joke. The simple fact of the matter is that is one of the most visited websites in the world, and thus the vast majority of its content is targeted towards the average fan that isn’t particularly interested in analytics.

So what exactly is Nate Silver going to do at ESPN? He actually contributed to in the past, mostly with a bunch of baseball articles in 2003 and the Soccer Power Index through the 2010 World Cup. He’s very good at that type of work, but I highly doubt ESPN is paying him the big bucks it surely took to lure him away from the Times to write relatively mundane, statistics-heavy pieces that don’t have wide appeal. If they ask him to tone the statistics down—an approach that he would certainly reject—it neutralizes the very reason for hiring him in the first place.

It has been reported that he will be a semi-regular on Keith Olbermann’s new show, but that pairing sounds a lot better in theory than it does to the average common denominator fan who has heard of neither. Silver can also come off as awkward on television, and will require work to polish that presence.

The above-mentioned Politico reports that the Times was prepared to offer Silver his own brand-within-a-brand” site, modeled after things like Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog and Bill Simmons’ Grantland. It seems quite conceivable for ABC/ESPN to put together something similar for Silver—and I do generally agree that this will be one of the more successful blog models in the coming years—but would it actually be successful in this instance?

A site heavily featuring both political and sports content would be a tough sell, with the typical response to the mix being “stick to sports!” Perhaps more saliently, how much different would Silver’s vision—some mix of politics, sports, weather, education, the Oscars, economics and health care—be than the Freakanomics empire which, while popular, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire?

I don’t doubt that his departure is a big blow to the Times, where Silver was a huge driver of traffic during the election season. I also don’t doubt that this is a coup for ABC, who will be able to feature Silver’s work for two months every four years without having to figure out how he can best contribute during the other 46 months. But I’m still struggling to see why this will be the gamechanger for ESPN that everybody else seems to think it will be.

Instead, the arguments for its importance seem to be part self-generating hype from media critics. ESPN has long been a punching bag because of its “embrace debate” ethos and continued employment of folks like Skip Bayless and Rick Reilly, and Nate Silver is just the sort of intellectual that critics want ESPN to hire. To some, the hire can be read as an acknowledgement that they were right all along, and that ESPN is finally listening to them and pursuing a new, more intelligent, direction.

That may indeed be the case, but if so it still doesn’t mean that Nate Silver was the right hire.

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Diss Guy Miss Guy, Vol. 48

Diss Guy: Bob Myers

I’ve been sort of dialed out of basketball for the last two weeks, so I’m pretty out of the loop with whatever your team is doing right now.  But I know about my team, and right now, our general manager Bob Myers is on some sort of winning streak. I feel pretty safe awarding him Diss Guy of the week.  Congrats, Bobby.  You the man.

I mean, dang, has any general manager had a run quite like Myers has over the past month or so?  He convinced Joe Lacob to buy into the NBA draft, securing the 30th overall pick (and a pretty nifty looking combo guard named Nmanja Nedovic).  He then pulled off one of the steals of the offseason, turning the unsavory contracts of Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush into Andre Iguodala.  He signed an impressive array of free agents to reasonable contracts, including backup forward-centers Marreese Speights and Jermaine O’Neal and scrappy Curry stopper Toney Douglas.  And what’s more?  The summer league team he helped put together is currently undefeated, getting ready to play in their second straight final, and Kent Bazemore looks great! Granted, he’s likely not working alone.  But as the face of the operation, damn.

GMs can fall as quickly as they rise, and if things go wrong Myers could be gone by next year (though it’d take a pretty big choke job at this point).  It seems like a cutthroat business, with pretty nasty turnover.  But as long as he keeps up with the Jones’s of the West (and not overpay role players whose values artificially skyrocket after a few weeks making plays on national television, but nothing to love for Jarrett “4 years $25 million” Jack and Carl “4 years $26 million” Landry), he’s going to have to try pretty hard to fall out of Warriors fans’ (and ownership’s) graces.

This fun won’t last forever, and it’s not even guaranteed to work in the regular season.  But this sure is exciting.  Thanks, Bob.

Miss Guy: Joseph McCarthy & McCarthyism

Here’s a brief History lesson, for all of those who forgot their high school US history.  Joseph McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin, who really, really hated communists.  He hated them to virulently that he conducted something of a witch-hunt from 1950 to 1955, a period called the Second Red Scare.  During this time, McCarthy used his position as an elected official to compromise the civil liberties and rights of thousands of American citizens, who were falsely accused of being communists and Soviet subversives.  These practices were later labeled as “McCarthyism”, and the term has been expanded to include most campaigns against individuals or ideas, backed by flimsy or non-existent evidence.  For his part, Joseph McCarthy is responsible for some of the more deplorable episodes of the Cold War domestically, especially the formation of the House Un-Americans Committee, and the Hollywood Blacklist.  Hundreds were imprisoned, and thousands lost their jobs, all based on flimsy evidence informed by the hysteria of the age.

Why am I bringing this up on a basketball blog in 2013?  Well, the legacy of Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism  are seemingly apparent in some rumblings around recent free agent dealings with the Brooklyn Nets.  The Nets recently signed Andrei Kirilenko to a two year contract worth roughly $6 million.  This was a bit puzzling, seeing as how Kirilenko was due to earn about $10 million from the Timberwolves next year.  Almost immediately, reports starting coming out that NBA GMs suspected some rule breaking had taken place between Kirilenko and Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire and oligarch who also owns the Nets.  Prokorhov rightfully asserted that these misgivings were based largely on outmoded stereotypes about Russians that date back to the Cold War.  “I think old stereotypes, they are very hard to beat and to break,” said Prokhorov in a press conference late last week to introduce a bevy of new Nets (Kirilenko was not in attendance.  He added, “I want to thank our fans and members of the press, because they have been very quick to support us. And I respect all the NBA rules, and we play by the NBA rules. But I want just to stress once again, like with the luxury tax, I will do whatever I can in order to win championship, but under the NBA rules, please make no mistake about this.”

I am reluctant to label the grumblings of NBA GMs as McCarthyism reincarnated, but it’s hard not to agree with the Nets owner in this situation.  Ken Berger does an excellent job laying out the flimsiness of the “backroom dealings” argument here, and indeed, it does seem like the crux of their argument is that Prokhorov is rich and both guys are Russians.  There are strange ties to historical distrust of Russians in this strange tiff, and it is as compelling as it is disturbing.  It is interesting the ways history repeats itself in unlikely spots.

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Pax Cubana

When I read that the Dallas Mavericks had signed Samuel Dalembert to a multi-year contract to become their starting center — the final death blow in a summer full of free agent signings that look like leftovers on fine china — I finally felt safe declaring the dream in Dallas dead, and no longer simply deferred.  It seemed finally appropriate to tear through Big D (a city I’ve never visited; I picture big skyscrapers, cowboy hats and permanently shimmering heat on unforgiving pavement) like a meth-head in a Hallmark store; decrying bizarre transactions and questionable failures to keep pace with the rapidly improving Western Conference.  My lips moistened and my eyes lowered to sinister slats, Mark Cuban fully in my blog sights, ready for the blog arrow he has always deserved from this humble little blog crossbow.

But then my goddamned brain got in the way again, and I against my better judgement, I started thinking about the whole Mavs-related picture. Now, strangely, I will not sit here and eulogize the Mavericks.  For the best, probably.  After all, their 2013-2014 record, like 29 other teams, currently sits at 0-0, so it would be a premature eulogy, in any case.  But my, does it take great effort.  Indeed, the past two summers were supposed to be hot months of rebirth and renewal for the 2011 NBA champions.  Their plan was widely known: preserve financial flexibility through assembling short-term contracts around a certifiable star player, in the hopes of clearing enough space to sign some Dallas-sized fish.  They weren’t the first team to go about rebuilding through this avenue. This was the method used by the Miami Heat in their quest for LeBron James (and whomever else would come; in this case, Chris Bosh).  A variant of this framework was utilized by the New York Knicks (they had no certifiable star, save for David Lee) in an effort to get their own 2010 prize (Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, to a certain extent).  Like everyone else, the Mavericks coveted Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, all unrestricted free agents in 2012 and 2013.  And by now, their story — and seeming fate — is well known.  Over the course of 2012 and 2013, the Mavericks passed on giving market-value deals to 2011ers like Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and Jason Terry, and chose to tender shorter contracts to O.J. Mayo, Vince Carter, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.  Though there were legitimate financial reasons to balk at signing members of the championship team to their asking prices, the implications for the team were lasting. And now, in July 2013, Deron Williams is a Net, Dwight Howard is a Rocket and Chris Paul is a Clipper.  The money meant for those players has now been distributed to Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and, most recently (and hilariously), Samuel Dalembert.  Certainly this is a far cry from the two Olympians playing next to Dirk fantasy that informed the Mavericks front office activity over the previous two seasons.

While the results of the past two summers must be disappointing to the hardcore Dallas Mavericks fan, the casual fan of the league can’t be terribly surprised that Mark Cuban failed to get his prized free agents, and maintain his seat at the top of a pile of lopped-off heads.  Indeed, despite their championship in 2011, and their fortunate placement in the fifth biggest television media market, the Mavericks have struggled to acquire a “big market team” label enjoyed by the teams in other massive media markets, like the Bulls, Knicks and Lakers.  Why that has been the case is puzzling.  The 2011 run to a championship was undoubtedly a fantastic moment for most casual NBA fans, as it fell lock-and-step into a cinematic narrative that could be easily identified and enjoyed.  Dirk played the role of an aging yet dangerous star who just liked to do his job, and Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler supported him brilliantly as a ragtag group of likable and skilled veterans. The timely heroics of Jason Terry, the diminutive and bombastic combo guard, were balanced nicely by the a calculating but crafty coaching of Rick Carlisle. With the ownership role filled by an eccentric, larger than life billionaire, the Mavericks were tailor-made to defeat the first imperfect version of the modern Miami Heat,the team that, at the time, epitomized “evil” in sports. The event seemed nearly scripted; a team that most imagined would never win an NBA championship, especially after heartbreaking defeats to the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, and the Warriors in the first round of the 2007 playoffs, rising to the challenge half a decade later, and beating the best player in the world in the process.

Yet, at the same time, it was not surprising when the Mavericks fell back to Earth the next season,  unable (and in some cases, uninterested) in defending their surprising championship from the previous June.  The team, once again, was filled with players who clearly wouldn’t stay long (another helping of Antoine Walker, anyone?), to be used as place holders for something — anything — better.  Dirk had difficulty staying on the floor due to a dicey knee (and poor conditioning after the lockout ended sooner than he thought it would).  Championship-tested former All-Stars like Kidd and Marion gave way to rickety one-and-two year contract players; washed up veterans like Vince Carter and Lamar Odom, as well and as diminished and false stars like Elton Brand and O.J. Mayo. The team missed Tyson Chandler’s interior defense sorely, and the intangibles that Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and (after 2012) Jason Kidd brought could not be replicated by Mike James or Bernard James (unrelated).  It was no surprise they struggled over the next two seasons.  Their 8th seeded sweep at the hands of the Thunder in 2012 seemed appropriate given their effort in the lockout shortened season, when it seemed like they were still resting on their laurels.  Their 9th seeded disqualification from the playoffs in 2013 seemed pre-destined, given Dirk’s injury at the start of the season and the (strangely lovable) lack of talent on their roster.  Mike James will lead no man to the playoffs in 2013.  As I’ve written before, they looked like an empire decayed, ready to turn to salt.

Thankfully, pithy armchair eulogists (like me) are often felled by research and reflection, and that is where I am at right now.  Indeed, focusing on the broad picture ignores recent results, most of which remain largely positive.  Though the Mavericks did fail to make the playoffs this season, it seems likely they would have beaten out at least the Lakers, and perhaps even the Rockets, had Dirk been healthy the entire season.  They were ten games below .500 in early January, and finished the season at 41-41.  And despite their struggles through this difficult season, where Dirk Nowitzki missed so many games, when Mike James spent time as the starting point guard, and the team was often reliant on fall-away jumpers from Vince Carter as a crunch-time solution, the team stayed close, united, and while they were under .500, fully bearded.  Clearly Rick Carlisle continued to command the respect of his players, and inspired them to play with a sense of pride and prestige, despite their teetering records over the past two seasons.  That professionalism remained evident throughout the season; belied the strange eccentricities of the team’s still boisterously defiant owner, and served as a strange juxtaposition to the team’s puzzling free agent choices.

It seems that the best teams — the ones that remain at the top for extended periods of time — develop a sort of ethos that makes them immediately recognizable and identifiable among fans and professionals alike.  For a long time, the Mavericks portrayed an identity that was nebulous, anchored by a star whose game was impressive but far from marketable, and informed mostly by a billionaire with a passion as strong as his ego as well as a revolving door of role players.  The 2011 team existed as an exception to this rule, laden with veterans who seemed to all operate as coaches on the floor, organized nicely by Carlisle and his staff, and allowed to work unperturbed by Mark Cuban (who took a vow of silence during the championship run).  However, to the casual eye, that culture did not carry over to 2012, when the team emerged from the lockout bloated and hungover, seemingly spent after the emotional run to the 2011 championship. The moments of glory were brief, and the team struggled accordingly.  In 2013, pride and professionalism was high, but talent and results were uneven.  And after two offseasons with disappointing returns in free agency, the ethos of the Mavericks is murkier than ever.

Folks, I do not think I have ever been more compelled by a Mavericks team than the one we are about to see.  They are ridiculous; an NBA version of a cheap vacation house, stocked with cheap appliances, lumpy beds, shitty paperbacks and board games with pieces missing. On paper, the pieces seem randomly assembled, the contracts seem bloated, and the prospects seem slim.  But lest we forget, very few would have even thought of the Mavs as contenders when the 2011 playoffs started, let alone at the beginning of the regular season.  At that point, most pundits had declared the Nets the winners of the Jason Kidd-Devin Harris trade, and most saw Shawn Marion’s contract as another Cuban folly. However, by June, the team was champions, and Cuban was vindicated.  They’ve done it once already.  And with this team — this strange, weird team — this may be the season that the Mavericks true championship colors become known: a team that is motivated by being regarded as disappointing; always on the verge of middle-of-the-road irrelevance.  This may be the season where Monta Ellis embraces efficiency while playing next to Dirk; when Harris and Calderon use their uber-backup powers to become a competent two-headed point guarding machine; when Samuel Dalembert shows up on a nightly basis to be the starting center he’s somehow managed to be, all because they’ve ended up in a place that knows how to win.  Stranger things have happened in this league; stranger things have happened in Dallas, as recently as 2011.  They’re the only thing keeping us from a 3-peat for Miami.  They did the dirty deed.

It might all go wrong.  But it might also go right.  And if that happens, all I’ll be able to do is shake my head, and wonder how the Mavericks proved everyone wrong again.

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You Can Go Home Again.

As the first round of free agency signings wrap up, one common theme seems to be the disproportionate amount of reunions that seem to be occurring at both the player and management level.  Of course, Mike Brown returned to Cleveland and Flip Saunders returned to Minnesota, but that’s just the beginning.  Many players decided to sign their next contract with the team that originally “took a chance” on them, or alternatively, where they had the most gloried years of their careers.  In the most notable example, Chauncey Billups is returning to Detroit, where he won a championship and went to another NBA finals. In addition, Corey Brewer is returning to Minnesota, where he played nothing but defense because he didn’t know how to shoot yet.  Both Zaza Pachulia and Carlos Delfino are going back to Milwaukee, the team that drafted them and gave them a chance to craft nearly decade-long careers as role players in the NBA.  Those are but a few of the reunion signings that have taken place over the last few weeks.  Unmistakably, in this offseason there has been a strong desire to go back home and try again.

Don’t get me wrong; this a not a new event in the NBA.  You can call it “retreading” if you wish, though that term wouldn’t be quite appropriate for the situation. This isn’t the first time various players and coaches have decided to go back to where it began for them, regardless of the trajectories of any one career.  Each year a couple individuals decide to sign their next (or perhaps last) contract with their original teams, or the teams where they experienced the most individual (or collective) success.  In this case, 2013 is no different.  In fact, all of these signing seem to be motivated by a singular desire: to return to the place where one started, and try and end a particular chapter of one’s life or career on a high note.  It’s what took Chris Mullin back to Golden State at the end of his All-Star career, and what brought Scottie Pippen back to the Bulls even though his body had long betrayed him. In all of these cases, from past to present, the act of return seems to be informed by the same desire: to return to the place where one’s career started; to make what was once wrong, right in the very end.

Despite the high levels of sentimentality that accompany these types of signings, mid-to-late career returns to teams of origin offer sometimes messy conclusions to careers that, in spite of brilliance, often times were imperfect.  The players return to their teams as older, weathered versions of their former selves, not quite able to do what they used to be able to do on a nightly basis.  The teams themselves are often times not what they used to be; either declined to the point where the operative word is “rebuild” rather than “contend”, or having progressed to a different point in their development where the returning player offers a sort of anachronistic reminder of how things used to be.  Rarely ever does a graying star become a missing piece for a team that felt that it had enough pieces to move forward without that player; they become a reminder of past times, and in some cases, a trail-marker to recall when things used to be different, both positively and negatively.  Indeed, there are times that these types of signings become head-scratchers; strange forays into a past not seemingly worth revisting.

But these reunions, for us, are necessary, as they show that mistakes happen, and resolution can occur. When Pistons GM Joe Dumars re-introduced Chauncey Billups to the Detroit faithful, he was able to say publicly that the infamous 2009 trade which sent Billups to Denver in exchange for Allen Iverson was the worst transaction of his career, and the one he’d like to take back.  When Mike Brown returned the Cleveland Cavaliers to guide the Cavs into post-LeBron contention, owner Dan Gilbert was able to say, to both the press and Brown himself, that this was probably the way it was supposed to be all along; that firing him in a weak bid to retain LeBron James was the wrong move to make.  Watching how teams rectify their previous transgressions, and the ways that they try to make the wrongs right, is a fairly rare occurrence in the National Basketball Association, and one that deserves a moment of pause and reflection.

So as Chauncey returns to Detroit, where he got a nickname that only seems appropriate if you believe in the “eye test”, or as Devin Harris returns to Dallas, where once upon a time it looked like the Mavs had an All-Star level point guard (instead of a guy who’s really just a high-quality backup) it’s important to remember that the expectation should never be about recreating the past.  No one wins in that case, and all are disappointed in the end.  A total focus on what a player used to do, or how a team used to play, does a disservice to all.  Looking totally at the past just emphasizes that mistakes were made; things didn’t work out the way all had anticipated.  The best laid plans went awry, Murphy’s Law reared its ugly, ubiquitous head, and so on.  Things didn’t happen the way that were planned, which is what lead to the separation between team and individual in the first place.  And if one sees a player wearing their old uniform in a new context, it is easy to trend towards that line of thinking.  For all involved, it is best that the past remains in the past, as glittering or imperfect as it may be.  It’s history; meant to be studied, but also meant to stay in the past, where it can been reflected and acted upon.

The focus, as always, should be on the future, and moving forward, seeking final, lasting resolution.

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