Friday, August 29, 2008

Our Achilles' Heel

So Ginobili is going to undergo anthroscopic surgery to repair the ligament in his left heel. At this point its unclear how long this will keep him on the sidelines. I am still confident the Spurs can maintain a decent record throughout the beginning of the season even without Ginobili's presence, so to a certain extent I am happy they are addressing the issue of his nagging injury and addressing it thoroughly. That being said, his potential absence only further highlights how underwhelming an off-season this has been for San Antonio.

At the end of the day, we rely on the big three for the vast majority of our points, and we all know a two-legged stool can't stand. We failed to add an offensive player who was capable of scoring consistently, instead choosing to re-sign an aging and increasingly unproductive Michael Finley. We also failed to hang onto Brent Barry, who I feel was the more versatile and consistent of the veteran gunners we have on the squad. I am happy we signed Roger Mason Jr., but its unrealistic to see him as a steady answer to our offensive woes. I am concerned that Mason's addition is thought of in the front office as similar to what the addition of Finley and Horry were when we first acquired them. Although both are now far past their prime, at the time they joined the Spurs they were undeniably solid additions: Finley was an offensive machine and Horry was the premier role player in the league. Mason's addition, however content I am with it, will not be as substantive as previous "tweaks" the Spurs have made.

I am not seriously concerned about Ginobili's ankle. Obviously it highlights his age (because he spent years playing pro abroad people often forget that Manu is 31), but if this is what is necessary to make sure he will be at 100% than so be it. I just think it gives some perspective regarding the front office's inflexibility regarding the current roster: They consistently refuse to invest in younger talent or honestly acknowledge that, however solid our defense may be, our offense must improve significantly if we are going to compete for a championship in the next year or two. No team that wants to compete for a ring should rely so overwhelming on so few players to put points on the board.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gordian: The Early Writings

When I was in college I wasn't a particularly big basketball fan. Basketball had been my favorite sport as a child but when I got into college I spent more time focusing on football, or in all honesty, on things other than sports. I remember attending a Spurs-Mavs game during the latter half of the 2005 season, and then watching part of the Finals that year, but the next regular season remained pretty absent from my consciousness.

Somewhat unexpectedly, I became very invested in the Spurs-Mavs series in the 2006 playoffs, and continued to follow the post-season closely until I witnessed Dallas collapse against Miami in the Finals (I was actually rooting for Dallas, despite the gut-wrenching manner in which they knocked off the Spurs. I despise the Miami Heat). Sometime early during the next season I discovered Free Darko and the Basketball Jones, and suddenly I was back.

That spring, I took a class entitled "City in Fragments," in which we used the thought of Walter Benjamin and Rem Koolhaas as a jumping off point to discuss issues of urbanism, modernity, and other terms students at small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast throw around with reckless abandon. We had to do a final project for the class, and my close friend Erik Beranek and I decided to make a documentary about playground basketball in New York City, using the phenomenon as a jumping off point to further probe the questions the class was primarily concerned with.

I haven't been able to find a copy of the documentary itself or else I would just present it in all of its amateur glory, but I did happen to stumble across the narration I wrote. What I am about to present is literally the first thing I ever wrote about basketball. In it I can see the origins of much of my current thought, however bumbling and raw they may be. But I've got to say, if at the time I didn't find such fulfillment exploring the topic, this website probably never would have existed. So now, I humbly present to you the text that accompanied The West 4th St. Courts.

The West 4th St. courts are the stuff of legend. NBA players such as the Lakers Smush Parker, and the Rockets Rafer Alston (to this day warmly known at West 4th as “Skip to my Lou”) cut their chops in what is famously known as “the cage”. One non-regulation size full court, one half court, and a few handball courts surrounded by a 15 ft. high chain link fence are all that consist of one of the most famous playground courts in New York City (and subsequently the world). On a warm Summer’s day Knicks stars such as Nate Robinson and Stephon Marbury can be found playing in the never-ending five on five games that start early and end late at what is referred to by one of the court’s regulars as a “Mecca” of basketball.

On Saturday, April 28th, and Sunday April 29th, we went to this storied place in order to discover for ourselves what was so magnetic about basketball as it exists in its most casual form.

Playground basketball is not a new phenomenon. As condescendingly well-intentioned city bureaucrats such as Robert Moses began building parks and playgrounds throughout the city in the 1940’s and 50’s, the charismatic play of poor urban (and most often black) youths began to garner increasing amounts of public attention. Legendary streetballers such as Connie “the Hawk” Hawkins, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Cody “Code Red” Adams, and Earl “the Goat” Manigault (who famously could dunk the same ball twice in a single leap) began to make a name for themselves beyond Rucker Park, Foster Park, and West 4th, solidifying in the mind of the general public a vision of the high-flying, flamboyant style with which they played. As people increasingly saw in the freedom with which these men played a sense of authenticity, organizations such as Nike and the NBA began co-opting imagery from the street-courts. Today, images of players like Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O’Neal duking it out on the black-tops of New York City are common advertising content. Recently, this imagery has begun to seep its way into video game culture as well, as one of the most successful recent basketball video games is EA Sports “NBA Street Series.” The streetball of New York City has, over the last 40 years, become increasingly conflated with a vision of the rough but authentic edge of late Twentieth Century New York life.

Before arriving at West 4th st. we had strong preconceptions about what the culture of the court would be like. An urban landscape as intense as Manhattan creates an equally intense atmosphere. The selfishness, competitiveness, inapproachability, and exclusivity of much of Manhattan culture is widely reported to exist on the playgrounds of New York as well as in its most posh clubs. The streetballers in our minds were, and in the minds of much of the general public remain, men of arrogance and intensity, willing to challenge a famous pro-star to a game of one on one and more than ready to boast about their conquest afterwards. The game, according to our preconception, served as a vehicle for self-identification and the flexing of one’s ego. The court was not a place to “play”, it was a venue in which to dominate, and hopefully one day “get discovered.” In fact we were so convinced of the inapproachability of these men that we originally planned on going to less famous spots to do our documentation. But the opportunity to witness the thunderous physicality and seemingly effortless finesse of New York’s finest streetballers was too attractive an option. We expected to go and witness the game played in a way that we never had before. That expectation alone remains true.

We arrived at the court to find a casual game of basketball being played. Unlike the rigid position-based play of the NBA, the men of various size and speed moved around the court as they wished, the larger of them feeling free to shoot from beyond the arc, the smaller crashing the boards as intensely as any front-court giant. They laughed smiled, and took chronic breaks to chase and play with the children who anxiously stood along the edge of the court. They even allowed the children to participate in a full-court game before it became more competitive later in the afternoon.

Yearning to get in on a game, I jokingly asked who had next, and several of the players quickly and casually responded “you”. Surprised, I gathered together a group of guys and took the court. The game was casual and loose. In my youth, I was taught a midwestern style of basketball. Make good, safe passes. Take clean open shots. Hustle back on “D”. These men had been schooled in a very different type of play. They drove when they felt like it, shot when they felt like it, even softened up on defense in the hope that their opponent would perform some miraculous stunt. And even though they all seemed to have a more individual rather than team oriented style, the air was not that of selfishness, but rather of graciousness. It was as if there was an unwritten rule that the point was to have fun, so if you wanna take it to hole, take it, just let me have my fun next time down.

My team lost by one, and the ten of us stood around briefly exchanging pounds and kind words. I derided my own play (clearly inferior to theirs) but instead of taking the opportunity to assert their own superiority they merely laughed and told me I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. Their hospitality was warm and reassuring, and I took the opportunity to ask about the supposed NBA stars that frequent the court. “Yeah, I’ve played with Smush a few times, Mel was here when Marbury came by once and we’ve all played with “Skip to My Lou.” “Skip to My Lou?” I asked. “Rafer Alston”, they responded. I asked what the environment was like when those guys came by. Mel, a thick forward whose style of play was physical yet comical, spoke up. “The crowd gets more into it than we do. When they step on this court, they’re just another player. They play good ball, but so do we, so what’s the big deal. They’re all nice guys though.” Despite the air of openness and unpretentious inclusion, I decided to gracefully sit out the rest of the time rather than barely hang on amongst men who, despite their humility, were skilled enough to play with members of the NBA.

As we watched we noticed that they didn’t take into consideration the sidelines, using the fence instead as an “out-of-bounds” marker. Similarly, they played with no referee, and called their own fouls. Any disputes about a call were briefly debated, and quickly declared by all to be inconsequential. They needed no rigidity, nobody to dictate to them the rules, because as far as they were concerned if a rule kept you from expressing yourself during the game, it was antithetical to the point of their community. They wished for one another to move how, when and where they wanted, because they recognized that their boundless sense of physicality is what makes what they do beautiful.

In Between games we sat talking with a guy named Vince whom I had played with earlier. He was stoic but friendly, and his style of play was controlled but purposeful, making his backcourt play a good balance to the more casually dynamic style of most of the guards. We asked him about his dreams, with the preconceived notion that we would hear some over inflated tale about “getting discovered”, and one day “playing pro-ball”. His answer was anything but that. “Sure, guys keep that stuff in the back of their mind” he said, “but it’s not about that. You gotta live first. So we work to pay the bills, and play whenever we get the chance. Its about as simple as that.”

His humble characterization aptly captured the ethos of the court. For all of the guys on the court, it wasn’t about being discovered and making it big, or even winning the game at hand. If they lost there would be another game a minute later. If anything the type of gamesmanship seen in the NBA was not tolerated on the court. The only memorable moment of animosity between the players occurred when a defender fouled a man hard as he went for a lay-up during a fast break. In the NBA, what the defender did is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. You ensure that the man doesn’t get the easy basket, and force him to make the free throws. At West 4th, men on both teams erupted into righteous anger, calling the previous play “bullshit” and insisting “that’s not how we play here.” The man apologized, and the endless and free play of the court began again.

As the day went on, players came and went. Some arrived anonymously, had a few laughs, made a few shots, and continued on their way. Some, such as the well-known Obadiah Toppin (whom everyone called “snoop” because of his physical resemblance to the famous rapper), made more of a splash. Within minutes of his arrival he was slamming down ally-oops, nailing open 3’s, and laughing with the gang.

As they played game after game after game, the distinctions between the culture they had created for themselves and the culture of Manhattan that surrounded them became clearer. Rather than embrace the spatial rigidity that dominates the Manhattan grid, they favored a style of free movement that blissfully ignores the lines. Rather than embody the competitive anonymity that pervades Manhattan, they embraced warmth and generosity. Although many said they came from broken homes, they confidently and proudly acted as parental figures to the children who gleefully played along the edge of the court. As the sights and sounds of a congested and violently practical urban environment filled their senses, they existed in a space that is simultaneously amidst and beyond Manhattan’s cold grip – a space that is not defined by an empty capacity to be passed-through, but rather, that is shaped by the event that occurs therein. And this event has a magnetic effect.

As the traffic and hurried passers-by rushed past the court, some stopped to look briefly at what they deemed to be part of their culture. But it is a culture all its own. At the West 4th. St. courts, the forgotten and disregarded members of New York society get together to create for themselves a space for physical expression and brotherhood. And in doing so they create a community not in accordance with the ideology of Manhattan, but in rebellion against it – a community ruled by no one but themselves.

Movies About Basketball Considered by Me, Cody, for Graydon: Hoosiers

I am proud to present the first columnist to join me here at 48 Minutes of Hell: Cody Adams. Cody is the author of The Erection of Disbelief, an excellent film blog "for those with highly discerning tastes willing to watch absolutely anything." Every Thursday, Cody will take his keen eye and sharp wit and apply it to the glorious canon of basketball cinema. The only catch: Cody isn't really into basketball. So if you're looking for somebody whose going to slobber all over the mediocre movies you loved as a kid solely because they took place on a basketball court, it's probably best you look somewhere else. He begins his reign of terror by taking a look at that untouchable hoops classic, Hoosiers. Without further ado, the inimitable Cody Adams:

Director: David Anspaugh
Year: 1986
Leads: Gene Hackman, Dennis Hopper
Classification: Sports Drama
Rating: **½

There is perhaps no finer basketball drama than Hoosiers, a seminal sports film depicting the travails and triumphs of a failed college basketball coach taking on the mantle of an obsessive small town Indiana high school B-ball franchise. And by finer, I mean that there is perhaps no other basketball movie that is composed and articulated so finely, so seriously, and so earnestly. Which isn’t a compliment. While it doesn’t reach the self-ecstatic sap-o-drama heights of such sports yarns as The Natural or Field of Dreams, Hoosiers takes low-stakes to dizzying low-key heights.

There are essentially two kinds of traditional sports films; those about the high-stakes professional gambits of national brands, like Major League, Invincible, and Eddie, and those about small-town, amateur, who-gives-a-fuck match-ups where the only thing on the line is a pissing match against an asshole competitor. Hoosiers falls into neither category. Gene Hackman, the principal actor in the drama, plays a character from the first category of sports film, the high-stakes national stage type, who got booted from the spotlight after an unfortunate incident that got him banned from the NCAA. Over a decade later, he’s called by an old friend to take over coaching the high school basketball team of Hickory, Indiana. That’s right, major 1952 Hoosier action, in a one-horse hick town that is unhealthily fixated on the performance of their high school basketball team.

This downgrade from New York national champion college basketball to Bumfuck, Indiana regionals moves Hoosiers in theory to the second category of sports film, the amateur, no-stakes grudge match. Except that in everyman grudge match movies the focus is heavily on the diverse and eccentric personalities of the scrappy teammates, accentuating their underdog trajectory toward the ‘big game.’ Hoosiers barely bothers to differentiate the 5-8 players on Hackman’s team. They’re all tall, skinny, crew cut farm boys wearing identical uniforms. Few of them have more than 10 lines the entire movie. The team somehow grows from 5 to 8 players over the course of the movie without explaining where they all came from. This strangely gels with Hackman’s basketball philosophy, as stated early in the film; no member of the team is more important than the other, and they all must operate as a single coordinated unit. Same goes for the film craft. The Hickory Huckers are an amorphous cracker blob, with only brief, token moments of individuation that are entirely lost during the actual competitive basketball scenes.

So that leaves us with Hackman, a bristly anti-socialite who brooks no guff from his players, his colleagues, or the small minded Hickory townsfolk (who spout hick dialogue like “new-fangled ideas” and “you ain’t been in these parts long”). While this is kind of cool, because he’s so damn rude most of the time, it serves to accentuate how terrible 1952 small town Indiana must have been. Which really detracts from how much you actually care about the pathetic vicarious thrills of the small-minded Hickorians, who apparently have the time to interrupt early afternoon basketball practices en masse to harangue the unorthodox practices of coach Hackman. Going back to the principle of low-stakes. High school basketball is low-stakes. The cinematic transformation into watchable personal high-stakes never happens. We don’t know the players, we don’t know the enemies, and the local boosters are deplorable rednecks. Gene Hackman seems to hate everyone around him, which might have garnered some sympathy, except that as part of his coaching obligation he has to pretend to be a civics teachers at the high school. Gee, I guess my high school economics and history teachers must have had more important shit on their minds while they played old film reels of edutainment like “Chickenomics” and sat in the back of the classroom reviewing stats.”

The first 2/3s of Hoosiers focuses on Hackman doing a bad job of coaching Indiana small town basketball. The team does terribly, and he has constant personal trouble with his team, their boosters, and his colleagues. But then something changes! He’s almost voted out of his position via town hall action, but is saved by the local wunderkind. A kid who has refused to play, but is great, bursts into the town hall meeting and agrees to play, but only if Hackman is the coach. The crowd goes wild! Except that they already voted Hackman out, despite an emotional plea from his younger woman interest. (Who, by the by, just doesn’t get why people are so fucking invested in high school basketball. It’s just a game.) But hey, there’s always another vote. Hackman stays!

And then the film transitions into full-on sports movie mode, with a half hour or so of near constant basketball montages. Despite Hackman’s earlier insistence on fundamental, teamwork, and defense, the new player single-handedly turns the situation round. He’s got a wicked jump-shot, and soon the Huskers are dominating. They make it to the sectionals! The regionals! State! It’s never explained how exactly the scrappy crew of backwoods taters manages this, but we must assume that Hackman’s brilliant coaching led the way. We rarely see actual examples of his innovative technique, but the movie’s musical score assures us that something remarkable is happening nonetheless. Of course, all of this draws us closer to that sports film standard, the big game.

Despite all odds against it, and an apparently huge losing streak earlier in the season, the Hickory Huskers make it to the Indiana state championship. Their enemy? An integrated Indianapolis high school. All of the sudden the struggle manifests as one against the super-tall black athletes of the urban center. This is especially jarring, as every character in the film thus far has been white, and seeing our corn fed Husker clone army knock into black teenagers is disturbing and foreign. But we’re rooting for the white hicks. Does that mean that the real battle of the film is against urban pan-racial understanding? ‘Commentators’ on the game frequently state during the final match that Hickory is the first tiny rural high school to make it to finals. In this sense, they are underdog against the slick, heavily favored force of big city racial athletic superiority.

Predictably, Hackman’s backwater squares get their asses kicked in the first half by the fluid, rhythmic game of the inner city high school. How can they compete? Those guys are unstoppably taller than them. A time-out is called, and it is established that they really want to win. And you know what happens? They start winning! Just because they want to, and they believe in themselves, and every “small town” (white) high school that never had a shot. Minutes pass of hoop-swish after hoop-swish after hoop-swish. By the end, they’re tied. Hackman calls a last time-out, and concocts a clever plan to side-step the opposing team’s expectations. The team doesn’t like this. They prefer that the wunderkind just take the shot. Hackman acquiesces. They win.

The crowning moment posits individual talent over team unity, oddly undermining the previously bland uniformity of the Huskers progression through the ranks. Hackman states early on that “in his experience, no one is irreplaceable.” But the movie ends on a contradictory note, in line with the current state of professional basketball. Give it to the rock star.

(This review would not be complete without a mention of Dennis Hooper’s character, Shooter, the town drunk with an encyclopedic knowledge of local high school basketball. He spends the first half of the movie shambling around in a jacket and hat worthy of a hobo clown, and eventually gets drafted to be the assistant coach, provided that he can sober up. He does, for awhile, but doesn’t really do anything, and eventually just gets drunk again and almost dies from passing out in cold weather (which, incidentally, is how I want to go out). He spends the rest of the movie in a hospital, getting dry, and acting as an easy emotional lynchpin for Hoosiers’ otherwise yogurt dramatic gestures.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Movement Has Begun

My new column is up over at Hardwood Paroxysm. This week I advocate for the creation of a one-on-one tournament during All-Star weekend. It would be considerably cooler than many of the current events, including the game itself. Check it out. Sign the Petition. Join the Movement.

I used HP to launch the petition but I'll be tracking its progress weekly here at 48 Minutes up until the start of the season. My goal is to have enough signatures (whatever that means) that I feel confident sending it to the league on opening day of the upcoming NBA season. I don't know whether its realistic to believe that we can really influence the league on this matter, but it doesn't hurt to try.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A New Look at the Squared Circle

Although I am a fan of several sports I typically reserve this space purely for the discussion of basketball. But today, for a minute, we're going to step off the hardwood and get in the ring.

This morning I stumbled across Boxiana, a new blog that will undoubtedly join my list of required reading. For any Free Darko readers out there, you may recognize the author, Shoefly, as he was once a contributor to the blog and in fact penned the site's inaugural post: a petition to Free Darko Milicic.

The site shares a name with Pierce Egan's early 19th century tome on the same subject. Egan was the man who coined the phrase "the sweet science of bruising" by which the sport is so well known today. I first became familiar with Egan's work after coming across A.J. Liebling's frequent references to him in his old New Yorker pieces. I would call Egan's work a must read for the boxing fan, but I'd be being disingenuous if I didn't admit that the style of the writing can be a bit daunting.

Either way, I'm glad to see that Shoefly has taken the Free Darko aesthetic and applied it to boxing. This isn't the first time the boys over at Free Darko have taken a crack at a FD/Boxing spinoff site. I hope that this attempt builds more steam.

I am a little surprised that this is my first time discussing the sweet science. I used to be an amateur boxer and actually worked as a boxing trainer for a bit after I graduated from college, so the sport is near and dear to my heart. Anyways, if you aren't into boxing, I apologize for the brief detour. But if you are, be sure to check out it out.

NBA Roundtable: The Role of Small Markets Teams

So I participated in a blogger roundtable over at Hardwood Paroxysm regarding the role of small market teams in the NBA. It's is consciously from the perspective of a Spurs fan, but most of my answers reveal larger opinions of mine about the relationship between geography, economics, and the league. Ziller, Ben Q. Rock, Rock King and Frank from Brew Hoop were just a few of the many excellent writers whom I had the pleasure of being included alongside.

Oh, and congratulations to Team USA for bringing home the gold. If you didn't get a chance to see the game, you absolutely should find some time to watch it. Both teams showed a lot of talent and tenacity out there and should be proud. I would again like to note that while I found the whole "Redeem Team" rhetoric to be foolish, Dwayne Wade has redeemed himself in my eyes. I apologize for ever doubting you, Mr. Wade.

Friday, August 22, 2008

USA-Argentina: Recap

So I went all out and even wore my Argentina rugby jersey to work today, but it was of no use, as the South Americans got pretty thoroughly handled by Team USA, 101-81. Let's get down to business:

Manu: Manu Ginobili is the best player on the Argentinian squad and their most prolific scorer, but he went out during the first quarter with an injury and never returned. I would like to say otherwise, but his presence would not have made a difference. Yes, it may not have been a 20 point blow-out, but he wasn't even playing that well when he went out. Obviously he still had plenty of time to pull it together, but I just don't think that's a legitimate excuse in this instance. I hope he is healthy enough to play for the bronze. I'm not even gonna talk about my anxieties regarding the regular season.

USA Defense: Team USA was active out there. I mean really active. Shifting feet, quick hands. Even Melo was fired up and playing some hard D. When Team USA approaches the defensive end of the court with that much tenacity, they really are unbeatable.

Anthony: Melo seemingly had a poor shooting game (3-14 FG, 2-8 from 3 pt. range), but he was 13-13 from the line and led the team with 21 points. In general this was a Melo we don't often see. He was physical, he was fired up (he got really testy with Oberto at a point), and he was playing tough Defense. I can't even imagine how much the Nugs wish he played like that consistently.

Scola: In the absence of Manu, Scola really stepped up this game. He was physical in the lane, and showed some great footwork on offense. Although not as strong as some NBA players, he's relentless and it pays off. I am excited to see what he, Artest, and Yao can do collectively next season.

3-point shooting: I said the Argentinians would live and die with the long ball, and it pretty much turned out to be true. They went 6-23 from the outside, a meager 26.3%. I was thinking they were gonna need to shoot over 40% from outside to even have a chance at stealing this one. Looks like that didn't pan out.

MVP: LeBron should be the MVP of Team USA, but I want to make a case for Wade nonetheless. LeBron has been excellent on defense, particularly on the help side. He's been active on the boards, and wisely restrained with the ball in his hand. But Wade has just been such a warrior out there. I really don't feel like anyone has played with close to as much intensity as Wade has. I think the whole "Redeem Team" rhetoric is silly, but for Wade this is about redemption. Not Olympic redemption, but redemption in terms of all those people (myself included) who didn't think he would ever seriously bounce back. I just hope people don't soon forget the heart he has shown out there.

Depth: Really, this is about the bench though. The worst players on Team USA (probably Prince or Boozer) would start on pretty much any other Olympic squad. It became most viscerally clear to me when Coach K threw in the second team, and that team consisted of Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul (all of whom, I might argue, should be starting). I love the starting 5 for Argentina, but there's a reason so many USA games are close in the first and end up 20-30 point blowouts.

Medals: Personally, I still think this Argentinian squad is the second best team in the Olympics this year. I know there is a lot of hype regarding Spain, and Spain is gonna end up with the silver medal, but I think this should have been the two teams playing for the gold. I still believe that despite Argentina's down right abysmal first quarter.

Withdrawal: What's really most disappointing about this game, aside from the fact that I betrayed my country to root for my favorite player and he didn't even play, is the fact that there will be no competitive basketball for a while now. After Sunday there won't even be basketball really. I don't even really care about the Olympics, but I just wanted to see some quality hoops. And what we got today was not exactly what I traditionally call "quality hoops."

I really think Team USA is gonna crush Spain, but we'll save that for another day, as I have to actually go do some work now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Argentina-Greece: Recap

Argentina defeated Greece 80-78 this morning in what turned out to be the most competitive Olympic matchup I have witnessed so far. I think its safe to say either of these teams is deserving to be on the medal stand, and its a shame only one will now have that opportunity. Let's get down to business:

Differing Styles of Defense: Watching the Greek defense during the first half I couldn't help but think back to this most recent NBA Finals, in which the Celtics did an excellent job of being physical with their bodies, while the Lakers were oftentimes plagued with fouls because of their roaming hands. I thought Greece and Argentina created a similar dynamic: Greece is physical, no doubt about it, but they don't get a ton of foul calls because they work a lot with their chest and hips. Argentina, on the other hand, had a tendency to be a little slap-happy during the first half, although they calmed down during the second.

Perimeter Shooting: Obviously Argentina's perimeter shooting kept them in this one, particularly during the first half when they were having trouble creating in the lane. They went 14-32 from beyond the arc. Part of the reason they put up so many shot attempts was Greece's refusal to really come out and guard them on the perimiter. Greece plays defense as a collective unit, and laudably so, but subsequently they seemed more concerned about being in a good position to offer help defense then about reliably marking their man. Greece also exploded from outside late in the game, but it wasn't enough to snuff out the defending gold medalists.

Ball Movement: The nature of Argentina's ball movement caught me off guard. I think of them as being a very fluid team, having several guys who are effective passers. Really, even Oberto is a decent passer for his position. But they seemed to run a lot of isolation sets through Delfino, Ginobili, and Nocioni. If Argentina can't learn to make some safer, crisper passes, I am not sure how they are going to survive against the "steal first" USA defense.

Ginobili: Ginobili played well, scoring 24 points and going 6-13 from beyond the arc. He also had a couple of beautiful drives in traffic, including one in which he blew past his defender with his right, but finished softly with his left. Just another of the thousand plays that prove that Ginobili CAN DRIVE WITH HIS RIGHT.

Delfino: Delfino went off in the 4th, scoring at least 15 points but maybe more. He had a number of clutch three pointers down the stretch as well as made a few excellent drives.

Sofoklis Schortsanitis: This is the kid they call "Baby Shaq," because he's in equally poor condition, just not as tall. I will say this for the guy: He may be the most god awful free throw shooter I have ever witnessed. His first of two free throws hardly even made it to the rim.

Pablo Prigioni: I'm impressed by this guy. I think he could be a legitimate NBA PG if he wanted. Not a starter, but I'll tell you right now, I would trust him with the ball way more than I trust Jacques Vaughn.

Going Forward: Next up, Team USA. To massively understate Argentina's predecimate, this one is going to be tough. I would say they have a couple of things to focus on:

They need to fill those passing lanes. Greece was far too easily moving the ball on the inside. If you give Chris Paul, Lebron James, and Chris Bosh those opportunities, you are gonna regret it.

On the flip side, they need to move the ball a little more. They had to work way too hard to put points up on the board, and it would have been easier with some simple ball movement.

Really, I don't think Argentina can beat Team USA this time around. The only situation I can really imagine is if Argentina got really hot from the outside and stayed hot, coupled with a poor shooting night by Team USA. I don't see Argentina controlling the boards and I don't see them effetively slowing down Team USA's potent fast break game. Anyways, I gotta get back to work. I'm proud of the Spurs out there on the floor, proud of Team Argentina, and very excited to watch the semifinal round. No matter who wins, Argentina-USA is the game I wanted to see from the beginning.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

An Interview with Joel Kimmel

So my new column is up over at Hardwood Paroxysm. This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Kimmel, an artist who takes an acute interest in basketball. I happen to think Joel is quite talented, and he had a number of very thoughtful reflections to offer, so be sure to check it out. If you like what you hear/see, be sure to check out more of his work at his website.

Monday, August 18, 2008

An Inappropriate Response

As an increasing number of NBA players set sail for Europe, fans of professional basketball in the United States have grown anxious. The future of the NBA has never seemed more uncertain. While some commentators deride the league as an increasingly "niche" interest, the quality of the game is threatened by a potential flood of mid-level talent overseas in pursuit of more lucrative contracts than the NBA salary structure allows for. Now that major stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have spoken openly about their willingness to play abroad for the right price, the worst fears of many American basketball fans seem to be only a few short years from coming to fruition.

Although the situation may not be as dire as some make it out to be, the anxiety is nevertheless justified. Never in my life (never in the history of professional basketball, really) has a foreign league legitimately challenged the NBA. Although the NBA will almost certainly remain the preeminent professional basketball organization for years to come, the landscape of the game is changing, and changing irreversibly.

Although anxiety is justified, it is often coupled with an arrogant nationalism that I find unjustifiable. Many are ready to accuse NBA players of not merely acting in their self-interest but also of treason, as if playing in the NBA was some sort of sacrificial testament to national pride.

The idea that an individual must practice his profession in his place of origin is laughable, and a standard to which Americans in no way hold foreign players. The more deceptively fallacious criticism is that if the players were true "competitors" they would remain in the higher quality NBA rather than chase lucrative contracts overseas.

As far as the level of play exists currently, the NBA is the finest league in the world, and as I said a moment ago it is sure to remain so for some time. But if James and Bryant choose to go to Europe? Could you legitimately claim that the European leagues would be so much less competitive than the United States if the most talented players in the world played in Europe? Obviously, even if the biggest superstars went abroad, the depth of the talent in Europe would be unlikely to equal that of the NBA for sometime. But the idea that NBA players should not be able to to play abroad because they don't already play abroad (which is fundamentally the argument) is absurdly tautological.

I'll be honest: I would like for the NBA to remain the finest basketball league in the world, not because it is here in the United States, but because it is the only league to which I consistently have access. If the Euro leagues were given greater airtime on American cable (something I wish would happen, NBA migration or no NBA migration), I would only casually mourn the passing of the NBA dominance.*

Many Americans also underestimate the upside of current NBA superstars abroad. We may loose a generation of the highest caliber talent, plucked from our midst by Russian oil barons and Greek media moguls, but we have a world of talent to win. Currently the finest athletes the world over dedicate their efforts toward soccer. If we were able to present them with a consistently exciting and high quality product, we have the potential to attract a whole new generation of top quality athletes from across the globe. The potential of such a development may seem distant, but only a few months ago the idea that we would all be so threatened by the success of professional basketball in Europe would have seemed laughable. Never underestimate the speed with which things may change.

Much of this is pure speculation. The NBA could easily make certain adjustments to its salary cap system, subsequently halting the movement of professional players abroad. It's also more than possible that neither LeBron or Kobe are as interested in playing abroad as they claim to be. But the growth of the game globally is not something to fear. We should rejoice in the increasing international success of the game we love, instead of allowing our arrogance to trap us in the muddy waters of mindless nationalism.

*The one unavoidable drawback of professional basketball's looming global expansion is the increasing infrequency with which we would see specific players live.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Dominant Performance

The USA dominated Spain this morning in what was billed as a clash between the two most legitimate contenders for Olympic gold. I think its pretty obvious that only one of those contenders is actually legitimate. But fear not World. Although the juggernaut may have easily dispatched all those who have stood in it's way, there is reason to believe. As long as the sickness lives, there is still hope.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Pargo v. Smith

UPDATE: Pargo will not be a Spur this upcoming season, as he is instead headed to Russia. He has agreed in principle to a one year/$4 million contract with the Moscow Dynamo. Well, I guess that settles that. Although I must admit, if the Spurs not signing Pargo just means they aren't gonna sign anyone else this off-season, well, that would leave me perturbed. The clock is ticking, Buford, and the names on this list aren't exactly stunning.

Ever since the rumor that the Spurs are looking into Jannero Pargo creeped up, I've found myself frequently deriding the idea in favor of the Spurs pursuing J.R. Smith. Many people have subsequently called me an "idiot," which is a term I am becoming increasingly familiar with. So, I figured I deserve to make my case:

First and foremost, Pargo is a point guard, while Smith is a shooting guard. This is significant. At the point we currently have Tony Parker and Jacques Vaughn. We also drafted a point guard, George Hill. Oftentimes, when our bench is in the game, we have Manu Ginobili bring up the ball. And when we picked up Roger Mason it was partly so he could bring the ball up in a point-forward capacity similar to the way we utilized Brent Barry this past season. All in all, I just counted 5 guys whom I trust with the ball in their hands at the top of the key (alright, I haven't really seen Hill play and I don't trust Vaughn whatsoever, but you catch my drift). We don't need a back up point guard.

Let's consider then the shooting guard position: Currently on the roster we have Manu Ginobili. And Manu Ginobili. That's right, being that we have yet to resign Michael Finley (a move I hope we don't do), we have only one shooting guard. We drafted Malik Hairston in the third round I believe but I am not giddy with anticipation in his case. It's not as dire as it sounds, being that half of our roster is made up of small forwards who like to shoot from beyond the arc. But needless to say, we could use another gunner/slasher at the 2.

But the reality of the team itself and what it actually needs to succeed aside, let's just put the two players straight up against one another.

Pargo: On his career he shoots .365 from beyond the arc, although last season he only shot .349. His career average for points per game is 6.9, although last season he scored 8.1 a game. His career and 2008 FG percentages are .395 and .390, respectively. He also averages about 2.4 assists a game and .6 steals. He is 28 years old and is unlikely to improve much beyond the current level he plays at.

Smith: On his career he shoots .368 from beyond the arc, although last season he shot .403. His career average points per game is 10.9 although he had 12.3 last season. His career and 2008 FG percentages are .425 and .461, respectively. He averages about 1.6 assists per game and about .8 steals. He is only 22 and is loaded with talent.

So Smith plays a position we actually need depth in. he shoots better from beyond the arc than Pargo, as well as just in general. He also brings youth to a squad that has an endless reservoir of "experience." While with Pargo, what you see is what you get, Smith has yet to play his best ball. The other key component that distinguishes the two is their differing ability to create off the dribble. Between Bowen, Mason, Udoka, and Ginobili, we have a solid perimeter shooting core. We need guys who can get to the rim. In my opinion, J.R. Smith and his wellspring of athleticism are better suited to do that consistently.

But Smith is so "crazy." Well, I'll be honest, locker room issues are just not a concern for me. No team takes the concepts of unity and family as seriously as the Spurs. Yes, Smith can be a problem child, but so could Stephen Jackson. And now the man is the heart and soul of one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Under the watchful eyes of Popovich and Duncan, Smith could really blossom. Plus Smith is just exciting to watch. There is nothing wrong with Spurs fans valuing a little excitement, ya know.

And if you think this is mindless speculation, it's not. The Spurs have seriously looked into both of these players and are critically aware of the need to add another reliable scorer to next year's roster if we are gonna contend.

UPDATE: My man Rohan over at At The Hive just showed me this. I would like you to consider the positions of J.R. Smith and Jannero Pargo on this list. If it takes you a second to find Pargo, check a tad bit further down the page.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


My new piece is up over Hardwood Paroxysm, so check it out. I've hesitantly approached discussions of politics in the past, but in this instance I felt compelled to make a comment. While we're loosely on the topic, might as well just take it on home:

Friday, August 8, 2008

One Tough Guy

So if you haven't been checking out Skeets and Trey's excellent All-NBA Olympics series, you should. Because it's pretty funny. Typically I don't link to Ball Don't Lie because if you're reading this, you probably read that, but a couple of things went down over there today that I couldn't just let slip by without a comment.

First, the Spurs have been cleaning it up in the ALL-NBA Olympics. Having been a competitive swimmer before deciding that it was more lucrative to become the most dominant power forward in history, Tim Duncan easily walked away with the gold medal in the 100m freestyle. Appropriately enough, the entire silver and black also nabbed gold in Men's Rowing, because who is more committed to the concept of "team" than San Antonio.

But more importantly, Skeets dropped this little bomb on us. If you happened to read this blog during the playoffs, you may have come across any number of pro-Ime Udoka lovefests on the part of your humble author. I'm just crazy about the damn guy. People talk about him as if he is the heir apparent to Bruce Bowen but in some ways he is so much more. He is a fierce defender on the wing and in the post. He can drop it from beyond the arc and make effective, smart decisions off the dribble. He is tough without falling into the "cheap" trap. And, as a frequent BDL reader has informed Mr. Skeets, he can absolutely wail on your ass if necessary:
After the game, they were waiting for us to come out of the locker room. And seriously, I didn’t start it. Kingsley Ogwudire was in front of our team in an all-out tirade in his best Arabic. The next thing you know, there were three Algerian players on him. Everyone was engaged in combat save me, if you can believe it. And lo and behold… Ime! He was taking people out like in Mortal Kombat. Finish him! Incredible. I was so out of it as I had five guys I was fighting (oh yeah, the crowd jumped in as the fight spilled over to the court of the championship game of Senegal and Angola).

In the middle of the whole thing I heard Ime, literally in mid-swing of another opponent say, "Watch back, Gabe" and he calmly, I mean calmly, smeared a guy who, as I turned to see his warning, jumped from the stands with a chair to probably kill me or knock me out to where the crowd would have. I mean, Ime caught the guy in mid air with a fist and calmly continued his dispatching of oncoming people. He and other guys (yes, me too) were whoopin’ so many people the crowd backed up. True to the letter! But Ime had the most notches by far.

Now, I may fancy myself a tough guy but if you've got the tenacity to whoop ass in the middle of a North African basketball riot, well, I'd say that puts you in a whole new class of "tough." It's official: Ime Udoka is my favorite player on the Spurs.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

It's Tuesday...

...which means my new column is up over at Hardwood Paroxysm. Swing by and give it a read if you get a chance. It's meant to be a thoughtful critique of the NBA live experience, although sometimes I collapse into crotchety old man mode and just complain about "noise." It's actually not the first time I've broached the topic, so feel free to take a look back at this post I wrote back in May. Whether you agree with my criticisms or not, here's a little something we can all get behind:

UPDATE: Jeff McDonald is reporting that the Spurs are looking into signing Jannero Pargo. Corndogg has some pretty lucid thoughts on the matter if you wanna take a look. To be honest, I don't love the idea. As far as things seem, we are gonna be reasonably deep at the point. And when I've said the Spurs need to pick up another reliable scorer, I meant we need to pick up someone who actually can get the ball through the hoop, not just somebody who throws it at the basket with no restraint whatsoever. As I have said a few times, I would prefer J.R. Smith.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Basketball Roundtable: Team USA

(An artist's rendering of the bloggers taking part in the roundtable.)

So my main man Rob Mahoney gave me the great pleasure of taking part in a roundtable discussion of Team USA and their chances for success at the summer Olympics. If you aren't familiar with Rob's work not only is he the author of Upside and Motor, where the roundtable takes place, he also does news analysis for Hardwood Paroxysm. If you aren't consistently reading his stuff, you should be. If you also happen to be in the mood to read half-drunken musings on Tayshaun Prince, Kevin Love, and the Mad Ant, you can feel free to take a look back at the liveblog of USA/Russia that Rob, Matt Moore, and myself did on Saturday night/Sunday morning.