The Kyrie-Isaiah Trade

celtics-cavaliers-basketballIn what continues to be a most tumultuous  and eventful NBA offseason, perhaps its biggest move happened last night as Kyrie Irving was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick. This is a move that will dramatically alter the NBA and could have an enormous effect on what happens not just next season but well into the future. Mike Prada at SBNation wrote, and quite correctly, that this trade is one that made sense for both teams and so thinking about this in terms of "winners" and "losers" doesn't seem all that useful. The Cavaliers remove an unwelcome bit of drama and add a player who can contribute much of what Irving did in Thomas and a strong wing defender in Crowder, not to mention Brooklyn's 2018 first round pick. Meanwhile, the Celtics acquired one of the big stars in the league and put together a nice core of their own in Irving-Hayward-Horford-Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum while also avoiding having to pay Thomas an expensive long-term contract. Personally, I like the trade a bit more for the Celtics than the Cavaliers (they are acquiring the best player and one of the best players in the league and thus I would give the edge to them) but I do think both teams came out looking good and it was a move that was logical for each side.

However, while both teams appeared to have done well in this trade and dealt with problems or issues they might have had, I don't know how much it helps them towards bigger goals (like winning a championship). Perhaps this is the Warriors fan overconfidence showing but I don't see how either of these moves positions either team to better compete with Golden State. The Celtics, who have won the past two seasons when they've come to Oracle (which is no small feat), have let the two reasons they've been able to play the Warriors so tough go in Crowder and Avery Bradley (traded to the Pistons to make room for Gordon Hayward). While the team now has more offense by adding Irving, trying to beat the Warriors by trying to overtake their offense is not a winning strategy.

The Cavaliers, by acquiring Crowder, did position themselves to better defend the Warriors but it underestimates just how big of a loss it will be to not have Irving. Yes, Isaiah Thomas had an amazing season last season (statistically, his season was comparable to Kyrie's) but he is coming off of a major hip injury in last year's playoffs (there are already concerns about his health and, as many have noted, Thomas is one of the shorter and smaller players in the league and thus he's a bit more prone to his body breaking down) and is someone who is an extreme defensive liability. Thus, if you're Cleveland and putting him on the court, you are giving up a lot defensively to get that offense (and if your ultimate measuring stick is beating the Warriors, doubling down on offense is not the best way to go about doing that) and then if you take him off the court you are giving up a lot on offense and taking what you traded your second best player for and keeping him on the bench.

Of course, we will have to wait for the season to actually start before we can properly evaluate this trade. Though I do think it makes things a bit more interesting and exciting in the Eastern Conference (those Boston-Cleveland games next should be extra intense, and imagine if they end up meeting in the playoffs...) I question whether anything has changed in terms of the hierarchy in the league and if this has made both teams better or, dare I say it, if it's caused both teams to take a slight step back. Again, we won't know until the season starts...

On the Precipice of the Strangest Oakland Raiders Season of My Life

Throughout my life as an Oakland Raiders fan, there have been many kind of seasons. There have been the ones when I was pretty sure the team was going to be pretty good (ok, there haven't been all that many of those seasons, most of those were around 1999-2002), seasons where I knew the Raiders were going to be bad and it was going to be a tough season, seasons when I tried to talk myself into the Raiders being decent (how many retread quarterbacks did I try to convince myself could lead us to the playoffs), seasons where I had no real idea. But I can say that, without a doubt, heading into this season is the strangest I've felt about the Raiders and a Raiders season. The strangeness, for once, doesn't have as much to do with the performance on the field. In fact, this is one of the most promising upcoming seasons for the Raiders. Last season, they had their highest win total since the 2000 season and made the playoffs for the first time since the AFC Championship season of 2002. The unfortunate injury to QB Derek Carr cost the Raiders the chance to make any noise in the playoffs as they were dispatched in the Wild Card round against the Houston Texans, but it does not change the fact that the season was a big step in the right direction for the team. This offseason saw the Raiders make one very big move in acquiring former Seattle Seahawks RB and Oakland-born and raised Marshawn Lynch to provide a bit more depth and strength to the running game that could compliment the prolific passing of Carr and WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. The Raiders look to be the favorite in the AFC West and, provided their major players stay healthy, one of the best teams in the league.

No, the strangeness has to do with the future of the Raiders. This year, it was announced that the Raiders had made a deal to move from Oakland (again) to Las Vegas as they had secured the funding for a state-of-the-art stadium in Las Vegas. The Raiders will play the 2017 and 2018 seasons (and potentially the 2019 as well) in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas in 2020 (or 2019 at the absolute earliest). It won't be the first time the Raiders have left Oakland (famously moving to Los Angeles from 1982-1994) and they've been fighting with the City of Oakland and Alameda County since their return in 1995. It's also not that big of a surprise, given that the Coliseum is the only dual-purpose stadium left and its shortcomings  have been made abundantly clear. Coupled with tensions between the franchise and the City of Oakland and it's not all that surprising that the Raiders would be looking to move.

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The other reason that the pending move of the Raiders is so galling and why it puts me, and most Oakland-bound Raiders fans, in such a strange place is that for the first time in a remarkable amount of time the Raiders are actually... good. If the Raiders were a team like they'd been for the previous few seasons, perpetually drafting near the top of the draft, never being close to contention, lacking in good players that you knew would be with the team for a long period of time, it would be easy enough to check out and say "good riddance." But for the first time in a long time, this is a team that one should want to watch and be a fan of beyond out of sheer loyalty, a team that's probably the favorite in the AFC West and one that could go far in the playoffs.

I wasn't alive when the Raiders moved to Los Angeles so I don't know what it felt like when they left then. But as it became clear that the Raiders were going to leave Oakland, it became clear that Los Angeles... wouldn't be so bad. The combination of them having been there before as well as it being, you know, in the same state as Oakland could soften the blow a bit. And yes there is something very appropriate about the Raiders moving to Las Vegas. But the problem in all this, and why I think it's so galling, is that it's not just a football team that's leaving but the Raiders. When Art Modell famously tore the Browns from Cleveland after the 1994 season, the Browns name and franchise history "stayed" in Cleveland to be brought back as an expansion team in 1999.

The Raiders leaving, with both the team and the franchise itself (the name, the colors, the history) is closer to the Rams leaving Los Angeles for St. Louis in 1995 (though the Rams had moved out to Anaheim away from the city of Los Angeles years earlier) or the Colts' midnight ride from Baltimore to Indianapolis. It might not be so bad if the "Raiders" were staying in Oakland but the team now as going to Las Vegas to become something else. But part of why Las Vegas would make the investment in the team is the power that the Raiders brand carries and thus that was never going to happen.

An NFL team could, in theory, be set up in Oakland again but it wouldn't be the same, it wouldn't be the Raiders. They fit the persona of that city and the East Bay as a whole. I remember when I was a kid before the Raiders came back and seeing all the memorabilia and signs and things from when the Raiders were first in Oakland that made it clear they were something important to the East Bay community. And I saw it first hand when they returned from their Los Angeles sojourn in 1995 and re-estabilshed some of those bonds and became so closely tied to my home in my mind. If the Raiders go, then that's it. There's nothing that can really come in and replace them because the only thing that fits is the Raiders.

As we head into this NFL season, I find myself a mix of emotions. I'm excited that the Raiders look like a strong team that could be a contender, I'm looking forward to spending my Sundays watching a good football team, I'm angry that this team I've invested so much in on its way out, and I'm sad that this team is leaving my home and that we all are going to lose this team. It's a strange mixture of excitement and dread that I'm feeling as we head into this new Raiders season and I'm not quite sure how to process it all.

 

The (George) Best

Every few years, I go through a valiant attempt to get interested in and follow soccer-50th-anniversary-of-george-bests-debut-for-manchester-united-310x415professional soccer. Various things will prompt it-- the World Cup, general boredom and curiosity, and many other things. I've been in the midst of one of those times of late (part of it having to do with, as I brace for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas and the absence of pro football in my life, I'm looking for new places to put my energy). In perhaps a nice bit of serendipity, ESPN's most recent 30 for 30 would be about not just soccer but one of the most famous players on my British club/Premier League team of choice as the newest entry would be George Best: All By Himself directed by Daniel Gordon. Using both archival footage and interviews as well as ones done recently with those who knew the Manchester United great, the director gives us a sense of the very tumultuous life of George Best. Starting with his life in Northern Ireland and running up through his death from alcohol-abuse caused liver failure in 2005, it takes us through the highs and lows of Best's life-- amazing play and championships both international and domestic, quickly deteriorating relationships with teammates and managers, drinking and the beginnings and ends of marriages. It certainly gave me a greater sense of who Best was and why he mattered so much. I knew he was a very important player in Manchester United history and one of the best players to play in professional British football (what we now know as the Premier League) and that his talents were ultimately wasted. But while I had that sense of the big narrative, I did not know some of the specifics and this documentary helped to fill it in.

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The thing that was perhaps most striking, and what Gordon was clearly trying to make clear, is the role that the media (and tabloids in particular) played in Best's struggles and downfall. After scoring two goals in the 1966 European cup against Portuguese powerhouse Benfica (whom Best and Manchester United would defeat in 1968 to win the European Cup and be a major victory for United following the Munich Air Disaster), Best would be photographed wearing a sombrero, a picture that would run in British newspapers with the headline "el Beatle" next to it. Between his dazzling play on the pitch and good looks and swinging, fun lifestyle off of it, Best became a celebrity in a way that no athlete had ever been in England. Much of the problems that plagued Best were because of the incessant attention of the sensationalizing press. This point is made in the documentary but much of the structures and strictures we have now (ones that emerged as a result of George Best and what happened in his life) would have prevented such a thing from happening back then. While Best clearly made the choices that precipitated his decline, you get the sense from this documentary that it could have been slowed to some degree had there been things in place to prevent the press and the public from influenced Best in this way. The sadness that comes through to the audience is that so much of what happened to Best was out of his control and could be prevented knowing what we know now.

What I found myself wanting out of this 30 for 30 is more on the higher points of Best's career, specifically his time with Manchester United. Director Gordon makes Best's celebrity and notoriety very clear but we don't get the sense of what led to that, namely that he was such a great and talented player. There was a lot of telling that went on in that regard and not enough showing. United won two league titles with Best, in addition to that European Cup win, and came in second numerous times. With these kinds of things left unsaid, you don't get the sense of why Best would be this kind of figure and it misses out on an opportunity to give a bit of history of Manchester United at that time and why, even today, they are still one of the most prolific and popular soccer clubs in England. Though I am a supporter of United, I don't know everything there is to know about the club and their history or in as great of detail as it might have liked, and thus using this opportunity to paint the portrait and fill in those gaps in our (in America) collective knowledge about the club and one of its most famous players would have been worthwhile.

But despite these qualms I have, All by Himself is definitely a worthy entry into the 30 for 30 series. It's one of the more emotionally affecting ones to be certain, as you watch this sublime talent destroy himself because of factors (alcoholism and the British tabloid press) beyond his control to some degree. It's a very powerful entry and one that did affect my emotions as I found myself getting choked up towards the end as it depicted the final years and decline of Best's life. While more history of the highlights, and in turn giving a proxy history of British professional soccer, would have been welcomed by me, it was still an outstanding bit of sports documentary filmmaking.

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On Not Learning the Lesson of the Golden State Warriors

Yesterday Bill Simmons drop a Woj-bomb level tweet today involving Carmelo Anthony

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On a podcast with The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor and Joe House, the three briefly touched upon the possibility of this and said it made the Thunder a team that could really compete with the Warriors/potentially beat them. This deal is still a considerable ways away from happening and there's a good chance it might not come to pass. But the rumor of this as well as how some people reacted to its potential implications made me think a bit.

I talked about this in my piece on the Chris Paul trade but it looks like many teams in the league think the lesson to learn from the Warriors with Kevin Durant and their dominant championship campaign is that the way to win in the NBA one must merely amass as much talent as possible. But that's not the case.

Here's what I wrote back in that piece:

Durant is not just a top-flight talent but he represents the ideal small forward in the Warriors system. Now Durant would be perfect in many systems but with the things the Warriors want to do on both sides of the ball, a player with the particular skills and attributes of Durant is what is needed to reach the ideal and perfected vision of this team. Putting in a player that mirrors Durant’s numbers and production but does not possess his style and features would not yield the conclusions that we saw this season. If you think the Warriors just added another MVP and that’s why they won this year then you’ve missed the point of this whole thing and why the signing of Durant made so much sense.

Had the Warriors missed out on Durant, they weren't going to chase big-name players just for the sake of getting them if they didn't fit within the culture and style of play at Golden State. And thus what a move like the Thunder (or, to be honest, the other teams linked to acquiring Carmelo Anthony, like the Rockets or the Cavaliers) are trying to pull off to acquire Carmelo Anthony is not in the same style as what the Warriors did with Durant.

Anthony is a player that likes the ball in his hand to play his game, as the majority of his shots last season came 15 to 7 seconds left on the shot clock while nearly 10% of his shot attempts came after taking 7+ dribbles and 15% came after a touch that lasted for 6 seconds or more. All three of these teams linked to Carmelo-- the Cavs, the Rockets, and now the Thunder-- all present problems because they feature players that have similar games in terms of how much they command the ball. LeBron ranks near the top of all forwards in terms of these same categories, which is understandable because he is LeBron and perhaps the greatest player in NBA history, but when coupled with a usage rate of 30.1 (and Kyrie Irving just underneath him with a 29.9 usage) you see that Anthony's game might not be best suited for the Cavs as presently constructed (Anthony's 28 usage rating is nearly 4 points greater than Kevin Love's, the player he would ostensibly be replacing on the Cavs).

The Rockets are a bit like the Cavs in that regard. Houston's star player and last season's MVP runner-up, James Harden, ranked at the top of the list last season for field goal attempts coming after a touch that lasted 6+ seconds, posted the second highest usage rating, and nearly 40% of his shots came after 7+ dribbles. Their newest addition this offseason, point guard Chris Paul, posted similar numbers in terms of shot attempts after 7+ dribbles and touches that lasted 6+ seconds though possessing a considerably lower usage rate. The Thunder, with last season's MVP Russell Westbrook, have a player that posted the highest usage rating with 42.5, the highest in the history of the statistic and the only time one player has gone over 40. Westbrook also took 40% of his shots after a touch that lasted 6+ seconds and 34% of his shots came after 7+ dribbles. The Thunder also made a big offseason acquisition in the form of Paul George and while his numbers and ball dominance are not like Chris Paul's when it comes to additions to a team, he's still someone the Thunder would like to get more out of and thus want him featured more (the same goes for if they hope to keep him past this season).

If either of these teams were to add Carmelo, I would feel about it much like I felt about the Rockets adding Chris Paul to go with James Harden-- he's a talent and will make their team better but I question the fit on the team as it is currently constructed. With this overlap in terms of how each player plays and what they need to play their game, to put them all together means you will be diminishing what they bring to the metaphorical table. In that regard, you're not getting peak Carmelo Anthony if you add him to one of these teams, you are getting some of the things he does but not all of it (and likely sacrificing some depth and flexibility with that). Thus I think that assuming that whatever team adds Carmelo is immediately on-par with the Warriors is a bit short-sighted and means that the lessons of what the Warriors have done have not been learned by the rest of the league and the people who comment on it.

A Sense of Where You Are

14336My  sweet spot, what I'm most interested in and what is the closest to my heart, is the intersection between writing and sports (the name for this blog comes from one of the great American novels in which sports plays a role) but specifically basketball. Sadly, there isn't much in the way of writing about or related to basketball. David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game comes to mind as the best book of sportswriting and the best work on basketball out there and there are some great oral histories by Terry Pluto, specifically Loose Balls, his book on the ABA. But when compared to the proliferation of amazing writing about baseball, basketball is definitely lacking. But one example of the best writing on basketball, ranking amongst the best writing about sports overall, is John McPhee's A Sense of Where You Are, his excellent profile of Bill Bradley during his time playing at Princeton. McPhee, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction and teach nonfiction writing at Princeton, provides background on both Bradley's life as well as his game as it developed and led him to Princeton before focusing on the star player's senior season at Princeton when he led the Tigers to the NCAA Final Four while winning the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award as well as setting numerous records along the way.

After this narrative (which was initially published in The New Yorker), McPhee writes a coda that talks about Bradley's life after that time, of his time playing on two New York Knicks championship teams as well as his career in politics as a Senator from New Jersey. But the piece itself focuses on Bradley and his time at Princeton, which saw him (in part because of this piece and its publication in The New Yorker) become a nationally celebrated basketball player and would contribute to his place amongst the pantheon of great basketball players of all time.

But beyond just writing about a great player, what one can see in A Sense of Where You Are is something that goes beyond as McPhee brings our attention to the finer aspects of the game of basketball, things that Bradley himself embodies and displays through his style of play. McPhee, writing about Princeton's coach at that time Butch Van Breda Kolff, says that he is:

a cheerful and uncomplicated man, has a sportsman’s appreciation of the nuances of the game, and appears to feel that mere winning is far less important than winning with style. He is an Abstract Expressionist of basketball. Other coaches have difficulty scouting his teams, because he does not believe in a set offense. He likes his offense free-form.

Why I quote this section about the coach is to show what McPhee is able to see in the game as well as the particular genius of Bradley and how Van Breda Kolff was able to tap into that. The spontaneity and movement that one sees in an Abstract Expressionist work, like that of Jackson Pollack, is how Van Breda Kolff wants to play basketball and, in one of the best minds and thus great basketball improvisors in the form of Bradley, he is able to create a team that can play this style of basketball. McPhee writes about Bradley's game and his moves in a way that makes it seem like it's a craft or an artistic skill, though also using geometric and scientific terminology to describe the game play (which will be discussed later).

What McPhee does is show how, particularly at the high level at which Bradley plays, basketball is not a game of random chaos and unstructured movement. It is a game that is directed and determined by thought and where there seems to be disorder or chaos it is a conscious decision to move forward in that way. In that regard, it makes me think of free verse and more unstructured forms of poetry and prose that do not happen randomly but rather through an attention to aesthetics and craft. As a writer and lover of art and literature it's hard for me not to feel a kinship with a sport that could allow for that kind of creativity.

Continuing to write about Bradley, McPhee then says:

If Bradley were more interested in his own statistics, he could score sixty or seventy-five points, or maybe even a hundred, in some of his games. But this would merely be personal aggrandizement, done at the expense of the relative balance of his own team and causing unnecessary embarrassment to the opposition, for it would only happen against an opponent that was heavily outmatched anyway. Bradley’s highest point totals are almost always made when the other team is strong and the situation demands his scoring ability. He has, in fact, all the mechanical faculties a great one-on-one player needs.

What Bradley is able to do is to not be just one thing, being not just an accumulator of points but rather someone concerned with making the best and right and most productive play and that yields a positive outcome for his team. "Every time a basketball player takes a step, an entire new geometry of action is created around him," McPhee goes on to write, as "[i]n ten seconds, with or without the ball, a good player may see perhaps a hundred alternatives and, from them, make half a dozen choices as he goes along. A great player will see even more alternatives and will make more choices, and this multiradial way of looking at things can carry over into his life," which is exactly what Bradley does through his game. What McPhee, writing in a detached manner and yet also bringing a profound reverence to the subject matter as well, calls attention to is how Bradley's game is both unselfish and dominant, thus enabling him to take over a game in many ways and have a greater effect on the game than another kind of player.

What McPhee calls attention to is the particular basketball genius of someone like Bradley (genius perhaps being an appropriate term as Bradley was also a Rhodes Scholar, a graduate of an Ivy League school, and served in the U.S. Senate). The moment in the piece that gives it its title comes when Bradley says “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this [...] You develop a sense of where you are.” What Bradley is describing is how for the great players and those who have played for a long time, the moves and actions of basketball become like second nature or something that does not need to be considered while one is playing. But beyond muscle memory, this notion of the "sense" takes this to another level and is that which McPhee identifies as a particular element of Bradley's basketball genius. McPhee focuses particularly on Bradley's eyes, their notable wide-ness as well as his mammoth field of vision, as being endemic of his basketball prowess, writing of how "Bradley’s eyes are always a glaze of panoptic attention, for a basketball player needs to look at everything, focusing on nothing, until the last moment of commitment." But what this quote by Bradley that provides the piece with its title speaks less to an actual sense (as in one of the 5 senses) and rather something that goes beyond it. That sense, that perception that goes beyond specifically looking at a given thing while also remaining profoundly present, is something that only the best and most gifted basketball players possess and it's that which made Bradley such an amazing player.

A Sense of Where You Are was also fascinating to read in the context of the current NBA and, for my own personal reasons, with the ascendance of the Golden State Warriors and the style of basketball they helped to promulgate. Soccer is often called "the beautiful game" but it's definitely a phrase that could be assigned to the kind of basketball that the Warriors play, one predicated on ball movement and passing that adds up to a game that's both successful on the court as well as aesthetically pleasing. Though predating the Warriors by many decades, the style of basketball that Bradley plays calls to mind this kind of basketball and, in essence, where the modern NBA has gone. The way in which Bradley could dominate a game through his scoring but also through his passing and facilitating calls to mind the things that Stephen Curry or Draymond Green do on the court that make the Warriors such a uniquely difficult team to play against. Bradley and, to shift to his pro career, those early 70s Knicks teams are some of the most beloved basketball teams of all time (think of the book and ESPN documentary When the Garden Was Eden) and Bradley was a big part of it. I've often thought about the players I wish I could have watched in person for myself and those teams are definitely up there and Bradley in particular.

But beyond all this, the book does not work if the writing is not good. And McPhee, a masterful writer of nonfiction, is more than up to the task and writes about basketball and how it's played in a most engrossing and amazing way. Again, while maintaining that same removal or detachment that Bradley possessed on the court, McPhee writes about the game in a precise way that makes every movement clear and easy to envision. I was struck with how easily, because of the way the prose was crafted, that I could envision the game being played and Bradley's performance within it. It is a wonderful example of sports writing at the highest level and is something that makes me want to write about basketball as I try to emulate McPhee and A Sense of Where You Are in my own limited way. McPhee sees the art and artistry of the game of basketball and, in writing about one of the game's greatest artists in Bill Bradley, allows us to see how beautiful  a game it could be and what a master craftsman of that art that Bradley was.

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NBA Free Agency Thoughts

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Though there still might be some moves and signings left that could have large impacts (Jonathan Simmons and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are still sitting out there, amongst others), we've hit a bit of a lull with the NBA off-season as we head into the start of the Las Vegas Summer League. Thus I thought I'd share some of my thoughts on the movement and changes that happened during NBA free agency.

The Good

Minnesota Timberwolves The Timberwolves might have improved their team the most during this part of the offseason. First, the Timberwolves bring in Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn (a pretty favorable return for the Timberwolves) and followed that by trading away Ricky Rubio and signing Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. When Gibson was traded to the Thunder at the trade deadline last offseason from the Bulls, it flew a bit under the radar and his move to the Thunder was underappreciated and under considered. But Gibson is a player who can be a contributor for a good team and should see an uptick in usage under his former coach Tom Thibodeau. I also like the Teague acquisition and think he's a bit more of a complete player relative to Rubio and should allow for the team to be even more dynamic than they'd been in previous seasons. Building around a core of Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins with Gibson and Teague and coupled the continued development of Gorgui Dieng could make this the year that the Timberwolves finally make the leap to being a playoff team.

Denver Nuggets Rumored to be a part of a three-team-trade that would net them Cavaliers F Kevin Love, the Nuggets passed and instead of giving up their many young assets signed former Atlanta Hawks F Paul Millsap to a 3 year $90 million deal. Adding Millsap, a veteran player yet still very relevant and able to contribute, to a young team with the likes of Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and (maybe) Emmanuel Mudiay (who needs to bounce back from a less than stellar 2016-17 season), the Nuggets could be joining the Timberwolves in pushing to make the Western Conference playoffs this season.

Sacramento Kings Some of this might have to do with the Kings draft as well but the Sacramento Kings have, surprisingly, had themselves what I would define as a pretty good offseason. Drafting De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, and Harry Giles was a solid draft haul but when coupled with the signing of George Hill, Zach Randolph, and Vince Carter for reasonable contracts and I like the direction of the Kings. I don't think the Kings are going to contend for a playoff spot any time soon (certainly not next year) but I like the moves and direction that the Kings have taken and that's not something you could have said about previous Kings offseasons.

Golden State Warriors I won't spend too much time on them since they're the defending champs, but bringing back everyone (including, and most notably, Kevin Durant on an extremely discounted deal) as well as adding some very interesting pieces to the bench for a reasonable price in the form of Nick Young and Omri Casspi and the Warriors had about as great an offseason as a team with all the particulars and peculiarities of the Warriors can have.

The Bad

Los Angeles Clippers After trading away Chris Paul for a pretty substantial haul of assets, the Clippers appears to be moving towards a strip down and rebuild period until they re-signed F Blake Griffin for 5 years at $173 million. Though the haul from the Chris Paul trade was a decent one, the clear move for the Clippers was to go for the full rebuild. I also question whether Blake Griffin can be the driving force of a team that wins. Not that he can't be the best player or anything like that, but I feel like if you don't have some kind of perimeter force to go with Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers don't really work.

New Orleans Pelicans Giving that much money to Jrue Holiday does not seem like the wisest move to make (though I understand the need to bring it talent to surround Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins). Perhaps if the Pelicans were banking on the fact that a training camp and a full season together would help Cousins and Davis play better together and make a push for the playoffs, but committing major resources to Jrue Holiday does not seem like the best way to do that. Holiday is a good player but you don't want to be paying him a 5 year, $126 million contract. Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer discussed this in much greater detail than I ever could so go check out his piece.

New York Knicks There's not much that I can say that hasn't already been said so I'll let Zach Lowe say it all:

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The Good and Bad

Oklahoma City Thunder This is one that could have ended up in the "Good" column. Landing Paul George for a reasonable price is a big get for the Thunder though who knows if he would re-sign there and you're just renting him for an entire year. Also moving away from the Victor Oladipo contract and deal is probably a smart move to make at this point for the Thunder. The signing of Patrick Patterson is a nice addition to go along with George, though I'm a bit skeptical about re-signing Andre Roberson who is a good wing defender but whose offensive liabilities and struggles are almost too great to overcome. This will be a very interesting season of the Thunder and GM Sam Presti has put together a team that should, if all things go according to plan, be in the top half of a very competitive Western Conference. But what happens after that and the ways in which it might go very wrong very quickly does make me question whether these moves were the best ones to make.

Boston Celtics This is another one that I could put in the positive camp given that they did finally land a marquee free agent as Gordon Hayward signed a four-year $128 million contract. After missing out on Jimmy Butler and Paul George, GM Danny Ainge was finally able to bring in a star to play alongside Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford. I also think that having Jaylen Brown move to the bench for the time being, letting him get his legs under him and used to playing in the NBA, will be helpful as well. What gives me pause with the Celtics is just how big of an impact Hayward can have. It's also being reported that, as part of the movies required to clear cap space to sign Hayward, the Celtics are going to trade Avery Bradley to the Pistons for Marcus Morris. Though I do understand that moves needed to be made to accommodate Hayward, I don't know that trading Bradley (a strong backcourt defender) is the one you want to be making.

Toronto Raptors I'm tempted to put the Raptors in the negative column because I do think they overpaid a bit to keep Serge Ibaka and the questions about Kyle Lowry are getting to be a bit louder and more credible. But I think letting both of them walk, but especially Lowry, would be disastrous for the Raptors especially when the East is losing talent. The Pacers, Bulls, and Hawks are all poised to take big steps back (and for the Pacers and Bulls, who were the 7th and 8th seeds in the playoffs last year, that could be a huge drop off) and thus the East is a bit more wide open than one might have thought. The Ibaka deal does give me pause, given that his production has really diminished since leaving Oklahoma City but he's also been a high level player for many seasons before and the deal, while on the larger side, is not as bad as a bad deal could be.

The I Don't Know Yet

Philadelphia 76ers Any review of the 76ers offseason is contingent upon that most important of variables-- the team's ability to stay healthy. Amir Johnson is probably better than his reduced role in Boston would lead you to believe and signing J.J. Reddick to a one-year deal gives them a good locker room presence and someone who can hit shots when the time calls for it. The core of the Sixers, with Embiid, Simmons, and Fultz, was already there so it was just a matter of building on and around that. But if that core is not able to stay healthy or to develop, then these signings will not look as great. But, as it is the offseason and hope springs eternal (and we all want the Sixers to be healthy and fun/relevant again), I'm choosing to take a more positive stance and say that this was a good offseason for the Sixers. We might finally see the fruits of The Process realized on the court.

The Chris Paul Trade

imrs.phpOn the precipice of NBA free agency beginning this weekend, we've already had one major trade (the Jimmy Butler to Minnesota deal on draft night) but this morning saw some major news as the Los Angeles Clippers sent their star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, a first round draft pick + $661K. Some of these things might change but the major moving pieces going to LA for Paul are Williams, Beverley, Dekker, and Harrell. While the Clippers radically alter their team and head into an offseason full of great potential and change, the Rockets add an elite player to a roster with MVP runner-up James Harden, 2017 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson and put together talent that can compete with the world champion Golden State Warriors. The biggest knock on this trade and why it has some questioning its logic is that Harden and Paul are both "ball dominant" players. The both orchestrate their respective offenses, though obviously in different ways and by exhibiting different skills and traits. Both players rank in the top 10 of touches per game, with Harden at 99.2 and Paul at 86.2. Both players also keep the ball for about the same amount of time with each player averaging around 5 seconds per touch. These are both players who want the ball, control the ball for much of the time of possession, and who play best when they have the ball in their hands/are ball dominant.

This is not to say that I think this won't work for Houston. Paul's prowess as a passer and facilitator should, in Mike D'Antoni's fast pace offense, fit in nicely even if Paul isn't scoring as much. Also Paul's a pretty strong defender, possessing a good defensive rating and the second best net rating amongst guards, so you shore up the defensive qualities to your backcourt if you are Houston. Both players are pretty good catch-and-shoot players, which is something they will need to develop sharing the Rockets backcourt.

What I do think is that the ways in which Paul and Harden's games overlap means you are taking away one of the things that they do well. If you're letting Paul really control the ball and using Harden more off the ball, you're taking away some of the things that make him special. Now he can still do things better than many of the shooting guards in the league, but you've taken away something from his game. It might be small, but it's still going to have an impact especially at the highest echelons of basketball play. The same goes for Paul's game as well as he is still a very good player if he's not as central to the offense but he's not the great player he would be otherwise.

I also do wonder how Paul, who is not a young player anymore and has had his fair share of injuries, holds up in Mike D'Antoni's more fast-paced offense and how the movement involved goes with Paul's more focused and deliberate style of play. These things, coupled with the loss of depth (Beverley, Williams, and Dekker were all interesting or important pieces to this Rockets team last year and I do wonder if Paul's game makes up for all that) gives me pause when I consider this trade. The Rockets certainly got a great player and will be better next year but whether it makes them better to the point where they're on the Warriors level/are an elite team remains to be seen and I think there are some issues that make me think this won't be the case.

Now, to address the issue of depth on their roster, the Rockets have been looking to add another player whether it be Paul George or Carmelo Anthony. George would move the Rockets closer to the Warriors (though it seems unlikely/do the Rockets have the assets to make that trade happen) while acquiring Anthony if he were bought out by the Knicks does not seem like a move in team building but rather in talent acquisition. Anthony is a player that is a "ball stopper" as well and if he's stopping the ball you're keeping it out of the hands of two other elite players and thus not maximizing your resources. Acquiring Paul feels a bit like this as well, as though the lesson of the Warriors and Kevin Durant is simply "get a great player." Durant is not just a top-flight talent but he represents the ideal small forward in the Warriors system. Now Durant would be perfect in many systems but with the things the Warriors want to do on both sides of the ball, a player with the particular skills and attributes of Durant is what is needed to reach the ideal and perfected vision of this team. Putting in a player that mirrors Durant's numbers and production but does not possess his style and features would not yield the conclusions that we saw this season. If you think the Warriors just added another MVP and that's why they won this year then you've missed the point of this whole thing and why the signing of Durant made so much sense.

Signing Durant, in addition to bringing in more talent and someone who can help share the load with Stephen Curry, was about acquiring a perfect player for the way the Warriors want to play. The Rockets acquiring Chris Paul, however, does not feel like that and instead feels like it's about the acquisition of more talent alone, redundancies be damned. There were elements of this in the Wade-LeBron pairing in Miami and why Chris Bosh was such an interesting player for that team. It will have a positive effect on the Rockets and I think they will be better and stronger than last year but I also think we must distinguish between acquiring talent and acquiring talent that fits within a system that enables a team to play at the highest level possible.

Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

CelticsLakersPosterUpdatedIt's appropriate, given that the NBA Finals just ended and we witnessed the resumption of another great NBA Finals rivalry between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, that ESPN would release their latest 30 for 30 documentary, which focused on the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s. Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies, which was released in three parts, tells the story of this rivalry, how it started and what it looked like from the point of view of two notable residents of each city: Los Angeles' Ice Cube and Boston's Donnie Wahlberg. Replete with great archival footage and featuring interesting and insightful talking head-style interviews with many of the rivalry's prominent figures and the people who covered it, it's another worthy entry to the network's series of outstanding sports documentaries and a very entertaining watch. But, even though I did enjoy Best of Enemies, that doesn't mean I didn't have issues with it. Perhaps my biggest complaint with this entry into the 30 for 30 series is that it takes too narrow of a focus and spends the bulk of its time on the 1980s portion in this rivalry. What makes the Celtics-Lakers rivalry so special and interesting is that it spans the decades. You can talk about the Baylor and West Lakers teams versus the Russell and Cousy teams in the 60s or the matchup in 1969 that saw the aging Celtics in Bill Russell's last season defeat the Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers. To say that the eighties installment of this rivalry is the only period worth noting is a bit short-sighted.

I do understand that those eighties matchups are not as far away from our collective memory as those older ones were and thus would resonate better with the viewers of today. However, with those matchups in the 1960s somewhat lost to history in the minds of some contemporary NBA fans, it might have been worthwhile to give more time to those older series and really mirror them with the series from the 1980s, providing a very defined parallel. I mean, I consider myself an NBA aficionado and I don't know  all that much about those classic series and what happened in them so I would have enjoyed a little bit more history. I have the broad sense of things-- that Russell won and Jerry West lost and the loss in the 1969 NBA Finals that included Chamberlain and was Russell's final season-- but beyond that it's all a bit of a blur to me. Making the historical sweep a little bit bigger and making this about the entire rivalry rather than just one portion of it would have made for a more interesting and informative viewing experience.

Along those lines, I found it distracting that there would be a kind of laser focus on certain games or even moments within games (plays and series) that felt a bit like overkill while other parts of the larger narrative were left underdeveloped and under considered. The section on the 1984 NBA Finals felt like it could be a documentary unto itself while the last part of the documentary moved so fast it felt like years were covered in a matter of minutes. The pacing felt a little bit off and the ending felt rushed and uneven. There could have been more done to bring the whole thing to a nicer and more even conclusion.

But though I have these criticisms, overall I think it's a great entry to the series and one of its best. Maybe I'm biased but I think the NBA-centric entries to the 30 for 30 series (Bad Boys, This Magic Moment, Winning Time) are amongst the strongest and some of my favorites. This entry certainly belongs alongside those. The interviews are insightful and interesting, which is not surprising when you get people like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and James Worthy and Pat Riley and Danny Ainge and Jerry West on film. But beyond the marquee figures in this rivalry, it was interesting to hear from players that were important to it but that maybe you don't hear all that much from, players like Cedric Maxwell and Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper, to name just a few. They provide a depth and insight to the narrative that make it more than just "Larry vs. Magic," as it easily could have been.

Though I also feel like the focus was a bit too much on the Magic-Larry stage of this rivalry, I do think the documentary did a good job of providing historical and cultural context. In particular, discussing the elements of race that were in play with this rivalry and how each team carried with it certain racial implications gave the whole thing a bit more weight and heft to it. This quality of Best of Enemies is frustrating because you see a little bit of what could have been had they decided to really expand the scope and not limit themselves as much as they did.

As a way of circling back to the opening of this and calling attention to one of the more interesting parts of this documentary, I think some of the discussion of how the Showtime Lakers were discussed and seen relative to the Boston Celtics of that time really resonates today with how we see the current NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Those Lakers, as represented by Magic Johnson's perpetually upbeat demeanor and the flashy style of play that was very aesthetically pleasing, were viewed as being not "tough" or "strong" enough relative to the Boston Celtics and the workmanlike attitude they possessed that was symbolized by players like Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. While there was obviously a prominent racial element to this (the "flashy" Lakers are represented by an African-American man while the "workmanlike" Celtics are best symbolized by two white players), there's also the issue of masculinity in play as well.

The Lakers were not seen as tough or strong, words that carry a certain gendered charge to them. The Lakers were not a "manly" team in the same way that the Celtics, the team treated as the strong and tough team" were. Watching the clips of people talking about the Lakers from that time, it sounded like how people like Charles Barkley and other more traditional NBA voices discuss the Warriors and the play of their star, Stephen Curry. I've discussed this issue of the Warriors and how they are discounted because they do not conform to our more traditional notions of masculinity but some of these elements were already in the NBA discourse already, though it's interesting to consider these things alongside the racial elements in play (and that, in some ways, are still in play with the Warriors and teams often contrasted with them like the Cavaliers, but in a much more subtle way).

Though I did have my issues with it, Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies was a very entertaining and interesting piece of sports documentary filmmaking and another example of the great work that's been done under the heading of the 30 for 30 series at ESPN. Even if you didn't have any rooting interest in this rivalry, you'll find yourself getting caught up in the story and enjoying the story that's being told.

The Warriors and Masculinity

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors Practice

I wrote this earlier in the regular season for a different blog on basketball but I'm moving it here because it's still relevant, particularly in the wake of the Warriors winning the 2016-2017 NBA title. One of the chief criticisms you hear about the Golden State Warriors from basketball traditionalists like Charles Barkley is that they play "girly" basketball. Because much of why they're successful is predicated on making jump shots, ball and player movement, and a premium placed on intelligence rather than brute physical strength. Though you hear this point of view being articulated by many different people, especially older players from eras that did not feature as wide-open of offenses as we see today, Barkley is perhaps the best and most well-known representative of this line of thinking, owing to the fact that so much of what made Barkley such a great player is contrary to this style of play. This seems very foolish to me for two big reasons and I believe that both of them have to do with the persistence of traditional conceptions of masculinity. Masculinity is at the heart of most professional sports as the players are seen as being prototypical men, the epitome of what it means to be a man. Those notions of masculinity have changed in the culture at large and we've moved slightly away from those constructs that defined masculinity so rigidly and turned it into a prison or straight jacket for those who could not or did not conform. However, they have not changed within the world of professional sports and a league like the NBA. I believe that the persistence of these reductive and oversimplified notions of masculinity that persist amongst many NBA commentators and pundits, particularly those of an earlier era, colors much of how they see the Warriors and their players, particularly the newest addition, Kevin Durant.

The first of these things have to do with very practical, on the court matters. What you hear from those who rebuke the Warriors is that their style of play does not lead to intimidation of other teams the way that other teams can do. They don't strike that fear in the heart of the opposing that a team with a dominating, physical inside presence would. They lean too much on the light things-- jump shots, passing, three pointers-- to be "tough" enough to really scare an opponent. That line of thinking holds no water in my mind. While there is something to be said for the bruising, physical style of play and the mental edge it can give you over an opponent if they know that's what they're in for, that's not the only way to engage in psychological warfare on a basketball court. There's also something terrifying about an offense that can go from a small lead (or even a deficit) to a twenty point lead in the blink of an eye. The swiftness and immediacy with which Steph Curry can start making open three pointers, contested three pointers, and threes taken from just over the half court line, would put the fear into me if I were an opponent. In sports, the "thunder," the loud and booming, is appreciated far more than the "lighting," the quick strike, and I don't think that should be the case.

This is something that does relate back to our notions of masculinity, particularly in athletics. Because the court is this very masculine space, the gladiatorial arena, we assume that to be good at it you must embody these masculine characteristics (at least masculine as we've conceived of it in the pasts). Those masculine traits manifest themselves on the court as brute physicality and strength, whether a bruising post presence like the Grit 'n' Grind Memphis Grizzlies or LeBron's power from the SF position. The Warriors, because they are led by players who excel due to skill, work ethic, and practice rather than pure physical ability, don't seem as "tough" or "manly" as those other teams. Being skilled or working hard is not as closely associated with the kind of masculinity that persists in the NBA (and professional sports) as raw physical strength. Steph, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green are all non-traditional in their own ways and defy our expectations what a basketball player should be and how they should play. For some who watch and talk about the game, they can't handle having their expectations and assumptions challenged and thus they feel as though they must denigrate the Warriors and what they do.

The second Kevin Durant was much maligned when he decided to come to play for the Warriors with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala, as the talking heads and former players from prior eras lined up to accuse him of being soft, for taking the easy way out, for giving up by choosing to sign with the defending Western Conference champions Golden State Warriors. Durant made a point of noting how they came to meet with him in the Hamptons together, as a team, and that there was clearly a relationship, a friendship, that existed between the players. This wasn't the only time that this idea has been broached, from the Warriors' famous group text to the things that head coach Steve Kerr has emphasized in his tenure as the man in charge, but it brought it to the forefront. But in the eyes of so many, shall we call them, NBA traditionalists, KD choosing to play in an environment that emphasizes friendship and with the friends he'd made (he'd become friends with Draymond, Steph, and Andre over the past couple of years) was him being not tough. He was soft, he was taking the easy way out, and saying that you wanted to play in a different environment in a location that's appealing to you (there are many more non-basketball opportunities in the Bay Area, something that is of interest to Durant) and be with people you're friends with and become close with, none of that was an acceptable justification.

At its heart, there is this return to a more traditional way of things, especially masculinity and what men do. Saying that friendships are important, that relationships are important, that leading a fulfilling life beyond your work, these things are not done by "real" men. They shouldn't be concerned at all with being happy or having fun or feeling satisfied. This thinking is another one that's indicative of a bygone era and does not reflect how much more we understand now about life and what is important and what actually makes someone happy. Kevin Durant made a choice to do something different, to enter into something with people he really enjoys playing with on the court and being with off the court, to do what he wanted to do and what was going to make him happy. Yes he could have stayed in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and they could have won a championship or two, but there would not be the satisfaction that KD sought beyond/off of the basketball court. Also, the move made basketball sense too as the Warriors are probably the team best designed to most fully utilize KD's specific skills and talents. So Kevin Durant made a smart basketball decision and a decision that was going to make him happy and get to live the life he wanted, and yet somehow that is bad or wrong? Those who take that attitude are stuck in the past and need to, quite frankly, get with the times both in terms of how the game is played on the court as well as how the players live off the court.

I really love this current Golden State Warriors team. OK it helps that they're amongst the best teams in the league, have set numerous records, won a championship, and play an incredibly fun brand of basketball. But one thing I especially love about them is that they are bucking these more traditional notions of what's important and instead reflect what really matters.  Kerr has placed a premium on joy, on having fun (within reason) on the court, and the members of the team value the relationships they have with their teammates and seem to genuinely care about one another. In that regard, they are great role models for young men, and for all of us, regarding how to act and approach life. They're showing us that these more traditional and conservative conceptions of masculinity and what it means to be "manly" or "strong" are incredibly flawed and should be modified. They're showing us what's really important.