Tag Archives: NBA

A Warrior’s Path

The Golden State Warriors completed one of the most successful seasons in NBA history, culminating with a Finals victory in six games. No player on the Warriors had any previous Finals experience, but that was hardly apparent based on how well they all competed. They overcame slow starts in the first quarter of multiple games. They made lineup adjustments, putting MVP Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup to rejuvenate an offensive slump and dial up the defense on LeBron James. They withstood occasional stretches of poor shooting and found ways to win close games. They dealt with outside distractions: hearing how Klay Thompson was not shooting well, or how they would not be able to stop LeBron, or how Matthew Dellavedova’s defense was changing the outlook on the series. (Admittedly, he played very well during the Finals, but the idea that he would completely shut down Curry for an entire series was a ridiculous notion from the start). The Warriors did not play like they were just happy to be in the Finals. They played with energy and determination, embodying the “Strength in Numbers” mantra that adorned their apparel. Now they are the NBA champions, and with most of their core roster intact, will likely contend for a few more.

Most importantly, the Warriors were led this season by a point guard who, although rarely espouses his personal accomplishments, finally saw his own basketball journey come to fruition this season. Stephen Curry burst onto the international scene over the past two seasons, building a well-deserved reputation as one of the best young stars in the NBA. He has also been a hit on social media, although his daughter Riley is likely equally responsible for that. By now everyone has heard his long story: the son of Dell Curry who would tag along to the Charlotte Bobcats arena and shoot a few jumpers with his father; the late bloomer who had to retool his entire shooting stroke when he became strong enough to hoist the ball from above his shoulders; the high school star who was passed over by nearly every major college program and found his way to Davidson, where he would lead them to the Elite 8 during his sophomore year in one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history. Despite this, many scouts and fans still doubted whether Curry would be able to make it in the NBA, especially when compared to other supposedly-superior point guards in his draft class. He was drafted after Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. The Timberwolves alone took Flynn and another point guard, Ricky Rubio, while Curry was still on the board. That year he finished behind Tyreke Evans in the Rookie of the Year voting. Then, injuries and ankle surgery hindered his early professional career, leading to widespread concern that lingering ankle problems would prevent him from reaching his potential. In his fourth season he began to emerge as one of the league’s premier shooters, but was overlooked during selections for the All-Star Game.

Look up Curry’s story and you will hear everything about his improbable journey, but there is something else nearly as distinctive: his shot. Most shooters release the basketball at the highest point of their jump, but Curry’s shot looks different. As depicted by “Sport Science” on ESPN, Curry releases his jump-shot earlier, while still ascending in the air. This quicker release can create accurate shots amid tight defense, which has set him apart from other NBA stars. Fans are captivated by his pinpoint accuracy from the left corner and his ability to make shots on a fast break. Any game could be one in which he makes ten from behind the arc or hits from half-court (or really anywhere). He frequently attempts shots that would be dismissed for their degree of difficulty, yet he gives every shot a decent chance at going in, and many of them do. In the NBA, we have grown to expect the plethora of playmakers, big dunkers, and defensive stalwarts, all without argument. Yet it is the skill of shooting that appeals to the nostalgia and purity of the game. A brilliant shooting display can ignite a crowd in the mere second the ball swishes through the net. It gives us buzzer-beaters and memorable moments. Many are willing to work to improve every year, but not everyone can become a master of the craft. Every generation there are one or two players who demand our attention, who simply make us want to watch (and replay) every shot. And right now we are watching one of the best of all time.

Stephen Curry was not a top recruit out of high school. He was never considered a number one draft pick. Not everyone thought he would even succeed in the NBA. Now he is a perennial All-Star and the MVP of the league. He is the best 3-point shooter in the game right now, and perhaps the best of all time. He combines skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting that are individually mastered by many players, but rarely displayed by one superstar night after night. At first embracing the underdog role, he has blossomed into one of the classiest and most exciting players in the NBA. He has already accomplished enough to fill a successful career, and yet it seems like he is just getting started. He is the kid that people thought might not even make it; now he is an NBA champion. Stephen Curry’s career, just like his shot, is on the up.  AN

This article was concurrently posted at NoCoastBias.com on June 25, 2014.

“Sports Science” is a TV series owned by ESPN.

A Cavalier Task

There’s a new guy in Cleveland, and he is faced with the tall order of leading a team amid a completely re-tooled lineup and instantly high expectations. And it isn’t Lebron James, the top draft pick, or the sharp-shooting big man. His name is David Blatt.

Thanks to their perennial losing ways, the Cleveland Cavaliers once again landed the top pick in the NBA draft, nabbing precocious talent Andrew Wiggins, a franchise player. Wiggins already represented a marked upgrade in Cleveland, but it was not long before the Cavs would bring home the off-season’s biggest prize. LeBron’s anticipated “Decision 2.0” capped a summer of free-agent highlights that changed the course of the upcoming season. Suddenly the Cavs became instant contenders in the depleted Eastern Conference. Although LeBron’s previous team, the Miami Heat, struggled with point guard play as the weakest part of the team, LeBron now was teamed with one of the game’s best young point guards in Kyrie Irving. A highly anticipated trade sent Wiggins to Minnesota in exchange for the shooting and rebounding combo in Kevin Love. A new team, a new “Big Three.”

David Blatt was hired to a Cavs team that had seen the ups and downs of the past decade. NBA head coach is one of the most competitive jobs in the country, complete with a short leash and constant scrutiny. There is no one single formula for ascending the coaching ranks of pro basketball. Many are former players (some less than two years out of retirement). Others work their way up as assistant coaches. Highly successful college coaches might get a shot too (but not all will take it). For every Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, there are dozens of others who last a year or less, or who are fired after missing the playoffs too many times, or simply cannot win enough games to placate a fan base demanding a championship. This makes a coach’s first year in the NBA extremely important, not just for the sake of future job security, but also for adjusting to the stressful, complicated behemoth of the job that goes far beyond standing in front of the bench 82 times a year. And this makes David Blatt’s case much more intriguing.

Unless you went to Princeton or spent time following the Israeli basketball circuit, you probably did not know much about the former point guard who studied English literature when he wasn’t learning the Princeton offense from coach Pete Carril. Successful in European basketball, his coaching career also led him to a bronze medal with the Russian national team at the 2012 Olympics. But he had yet to coach in America when Dan Gilbert picked him to lead the Cavaliers. He may have had his doubters at first, but the focus was quickly shifted to bigger news (Hint: it involved some guy named James). A team with a completely new lineup had just got a brand new coach. David Blatt has begun his first job in the NBA, and it happens to be coaching a team with a very good shot at making it to the finals. Not many people get a chance to coach in the NBA, and fewer get to inherit a team that will contend for a championships many times in the next few years. Not many people get to coach one of the best players in history, who just happens to be in his prime and more determined then ever to win a championship for his hometown. Blatt also gets one of the league’s best point guards in Kyrie Irving, and a dependable 20/10 big man in Kevin Love, who can also hit 3-pointers. Cleveland also has some young talent in Dion Waiters, Matt Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson.

Coaching at any level is not always easy; coaching in the NBA is a full-time headache with a chance for redemption when the playoffs roll around. Blatt has the tough task of managing a new lineup and a fan base that has bought into the idea of “NBA champs 2015.” It won’t be easy, given the increased expectations and media scrutiny that will follow LeBron and Co. all season. If Decision 2.0 doesn’t pay off right away, Blatt’s likely to be out the door long before LeBron. A team with all-stars doesn’t always mesh right away, and the Bulls and Spurs certainly are not afraid to stand in their way. When life offers you chance to audition on the big stage, you ride it all the way to the top. Many first-time coaches have to struggle with inexperienced lineups or a take on a team from the bottom of the standings. Blatt is starting with a leg up, and this new Big Three might just take him all the way to the top. Only 5 head coaches in history have won more than 2 NBA championships. Blatt has been a head coach for less than a year, but you can’t already help but like his chances to join that list. As an English major, David Blatt read his share of great stories; he’s a part of pretty big one that’s starting right now.  AN

Sterling Silver

Less than three months after assuming the role of NBA commissioner, Adam Silver was faced with a challenge that may very well be the defining moment of his likely long tenure as commissioner. LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling became the top headline across the country when an audio recording of his racist remarks were released to the public. Immediately the NBA clamored to respond appropriately amid widespread public outcry. Because this emotional issue affected so many players, coaches, and fans, the entire image of the NBA was at stake. Silver’s stance on what exactly the NBA would or would not tolerate would likely become the precedent for how these matters are handled. Silver understood that resolving Donald Sterling’s association with NBA will not automatically prevent future issues, nor could change an entire culture overnight. However, what is more significant than the magnitude of this issue, was the response by those in positions of leadership. The steps that Adam Silver would take to address this matter proved extremely important, and he responded to the situation in the best way possible.

Silver took this issue very seriously. By his own admission, he was disgusted with the comments made, and reiterated they had no place in the NBA. Silver could have flown off the handle, could have jumped to every possible conclusion. He could have tried to make sweeping changes too fast, could have allowed everyone’s opinion to shape the NBA’s response. But he didn’t. What did he do? He respected the process. No matter how confident anyone claimed to be that the voice was indeed Sterling’s; no matter how distasteful we found the recorded comments, Silver promised “due process” and a thorough investigation. Not just for the sake of fairness, but to preserve the integrity of the matter, lest an appeal be claimed on the basis of a lack of due diligence.

He was efficient. Silver emphasized that the investigation would be completed in a timely manner. Coaches don’t want to answer questions about owner’s comments; they want to address strategy for the next game. Players don’t want to think about boycotting games; they want to think about winning games. Off-the-court issues are even more distracting when a team is competing for a championship. In the first round of the playoffs, there are already some tremendous matchups and great games. Silver gave a timely response, allowing the focus back on basketball.

He understood that specific individuals were personally affected. Silver apologized to those targeted by any of the recorded racist comments. He stood up for the players and coaches, and understood that issues of race are extremely important and should not be taken lightly.

He recognized the limits of his power. Silver made a bold decision; any lifetime ban is a monumental move. But he knew the limits of the NBA constitution which set the maximum fine at $2.5 million. He did not try to personally remove Sterling as the Clippers owner, but instead called for the support of league owners to support him in forcing the sale of the team.

In making his decision, Silver affirmed that the NBA is bigger than the sum of its parts; that as an institution, the NBA can enforce expectations for its membership and association. Anything less would have weakened his support from players; anything more would have overstepped his role as commissioner. It will take more than this one incident to change the culture of sports and society, but we can learn how to effectively deal with these matters in the future. Fans, coaches, and players called for a fair decision presented clearly and effeciently. That’s exactly what Adam Silver delivered.  AN

Another round of Heat and Pacers

The rivalry between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers developed quickly and intensified even faster. When the two teams met in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals few thought that the Pacers would hold their own against the Heat. Naturally everyone was shocked when the Pacers jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. Although the Heat would eventually win the series, the roots of a new rivalry were planted.

Nearly two years later, the rivalry is in full bloom, both on and off the court. The Pacers made public their goal of clinching the best record in the East, thus ensuring home court advantage during the playoffs. No doubt they are still stinging from a Game 7 loss on the road during the 2013 conference finals. In fact over the past two seasons the home team has won 14 out of the 19 matchups between the Heat and Pacers.

Yesterday’s 84-83 victory by the Pacers wrote another chapter in this passionate, physical rivalry. A game that featured multiple hard fouls, trash talking, and even an ejection, displayed the toughness and determination that has exemplified this rivalry. Over the past two seasons, the teams have played each other close, with Miami holding a slightly better head-to-head record at 10-9. Heat fans are quick to (correctly) point out that the playoff series count is 2-0, but the Pacers are hoping to narrow that gap this season. Each team has made specific roster adjustments. The Heat signed Greg Oden to give them a stronger inside presence.  The additions Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley didn’t hurt either. The Pacers upgraded their bench, trying to get more offensive production from Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Evan Turner.

Many expect the Heat and Pacers to meet in the Eastern Conference finals. Brooklyn, Chicago, and Toronto are trying to stay in the mix, but the conference’s top two teams are focused squarely on each other. ESPN has capitalized on this, and #BeastsOfTheEast soon was trending on Twitter, not to mention showing up on every television screen. The disparity between the East and West doesn’t help either, since 9 Western Conference teams have a higher winning percentage than the current 3-seed in the East. While Boston is in rebuilding mode and Chicago adjusts to the length of Derrick Rose’s injuries, Miami and Indiana have risen to the top of the East. Don’t expect them to give up any ground. Miami’s health and endurance have come under question this year (refer to Dwayne Wade’s hamstring exit after futilely chasing Evan Turner’s breakaway layup at the end of the 4th quarter), but they always know how to turn on the intensity come playoff time. If the goal is to keep the Big Three together, they will still be in the mix for championships. Meanwhile the Pacers have assembled a strong core of players, coupled with the league’s top defense. Paul George has blossomed into a superstar, and his cast of fellow starters have improved every year. This young team is about to reach their prime, and their eyes are set on championships. The Heat and Pacers should meet in the conference finals, not just because they are clearly the two best teams in the East, but because they simply will not let anyone else stand in their way. Both want their chance to send a message: the Heat to remind us who are the defending champs, Pacers to prove they belong with the league’s elite. After one more regular season matchup, the two will gear up for what promises to be an outstanding playoff series. It shouldn’t be any other way. In fact, why not have it out right now: a best of 7, neutral court, half Miami fans/half Indiana fans, winner gets whoever survives the battle for the West.

Every play from last night’s contest displayed the high intensity and passion that it takes to win a championship. Just look at the last two minutes. Evan Turner, replacing the ejected Lance Stephenson, makes two critical layups. An injured Wade has to leave game (which also cost the Heat an important timeout, given their clock management down the stretch). After James barely misses on a go-ahead 3-pointer, David West(?!) of all people connects from outside the arc, sending the capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse into a frenzy. Not to be outdone, Chris Bosh cuts the lead the one with a 3 of his own. George Hill somehow misses two critical free throws, and Bosh heaves up the would be game winner that didn’t even touch the rim. How’s that for a two-minute warning? The Heat and Pacers have as many as 8 more matchups this season. If you want a preview, just watch the last 2 minutes of last night’s nailbiter. Then think of what they will do with another 384.  AN