Golden State Warriors, Basketball’s Dirtiest Team, Marches To NBA Finals

The Golden State Warriors finished off their 4-4-4 last night, sweeping the San Antonio Spurs after having swept away the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trailblazers. The initially interesting series turned into a laugher after Zaza Pachulia, a big man that Golden State picked up for cheap in the off-season, intentionally injured Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio’s best player, and the only player capable of keeping an otherwise aging Spurs team competitive.

That play was as ugly a thing as it is possible to imagine:

Leonard, who had unexpectedly lead San Antonio to what was then a 21-point lead in the series’s first game, went up for a jumper. Pachulia slid over to contest the shot and then took one final bunny hop, sliding his left foot underneath the returning-to-earth Leonard. As was Pachulia’s intention, Leonard landed on that left foot, badly twisting an already injured ankle. Leonard ended up missing the rest of the series, and whatever competitiveness had potentially existed evaporated. Onward march the Warriors.

The lingering question is one of Pachulia’s intent, and the defenses of him accounted for this, essentially arguing that the step-under simply that it was an unfortunate accident resulting in a terrible outcome. There were those disinterested in issues of intent though. Gregg Popovich famously described Pachulia’s play in the following way, “Who gives a damn about what his intent was? You ever hear of manslaughter?” Popovich was focused on the outcome, obviously, as he was left helplessly watching his team’s only chance writhing around on the floor.

Here’s the thing about though: Pachulia intentionally injured Leonard. There’s simply no denying this. Watch the above video again. The stepback is unmistakeable. That Pachulia has a very long history of doing precisely these sorts of things should also be taken into account. Hell, Pachulia has a history of intentionally trying to injure Kawhi Leonard.

Pachulia has inexplicably asked for sympathy in all of this, claiming that fans have threatened his family after he intentionally injured Leonard. (It should go without saying that fans should not do this sort of thing, but it should also go without saying that intentionally injuring another team’s best player does tend to result in angry fanbases.)

In a juster world, and regardless of intent, San Antonio would have exacted a price from Golden State for that team’s blatant headhunting. Golden State’s best players would have been hit repeatedly, cheaply or otherwise, until one of them was knocked out for a game, or a series, or the rest of the Finals. That would have been the fair outcome. The worst that the Warriors’ endured was Dewayne Dedmon appearing to go into Steph Curry’s knee:

Golden State’s fans don’t want to be seen as cheering for a dirty team. Few fans do – although these sorts of people are out there, and they wear their team’s dirty play like a badge of honor – and so they were ecstatic to find the Dedmon video embedded above. It was their absolution and it wasn’t hard to find Warriors fans using the Dedmon video as an implied justification for what Pachulia had done. “See, SEE!” these fans screamed. “The Spurs are JUST as dirty!” This was a narrative that the Warriors themselves were also happy to glom onto. Here’s Steph Curry calling the Dedmon’s play dirty.

Let’s ignore that to see this Dedmon’s play in its very worst form requires watching it in super-slow motion. Let’s also ignore that the play being referenced here didn’t knock Steph Curry out for the playoffs, the Western Conference Finals, or even the game. Hell, let’s even ignore that Dedmon’s alleged targeting didn’t go after one of Curry’s known weaknesses: his ankles. Let’s take a super-slow motion video at face value, and also accept Curry’s explanation of it, and also ignore that it wasn’t targeted toward one of Curry’s weaknesses. What then?

Hold onto that answer, because it is also worth noting that Golden State fans also pointed to Bruce Bowen, a long-time Spur known for his dirty play. He was the player who famously perfected the art of the “closeout,” the nice name for stepping underneath a landing player, risking that player’s health. The Spurs defended Bowen’s play after all; how could they possibly object to Pachulia’s?

In response to one of the dirtiest plays in the NBA’s recent history, we have Golden State (both the team and its fans) doing everything imaginable to deflect attention away from the Pachulia’s play. “But he didn’t mean to do it!” and “But Pachulia’s family was threatened!” and “But Dedmon went after our guy!” and “But Popovich previously defended his own player!” are all great attempts at deflection, but none deal substantively with the heart of the matter: that Golden State targeted their opponent’s best-player and, upon achieving their desired outcome (his injury), then put their hands up as if to say, “But we’re innocent!”

They’re not innocent though. They’re a team that played very dirty to win, and no matter the Finals outcome, that should never be forgotten. What was once a team that won with the beauty of its basketball is now a team that wins playing the dirtiest game imaginable, all while having the outright audacity to demand that everybody look at anything else instead.

 

 

On Blowing The Call, Then Doubling Down

Last Saturday, Northwestern University – a school that in every other context deserves absolutely no sympathy – found itself playing in the NCAA tournament’s second round. Whether or not they should have been there is beside the point. What matters is that they were. And at the end of their first half of action against Gonzaga, they were getting the absolute hell kicked out of them, down 18 at half-time against a Zags team that appeared to be, in every possible way, Northwestern’s better.

This was the end of the team’s cinderella story. This was Northwestern’s first NCAA tournament appearance. The team earned its trip with a stunning last second victory against Michigan and then won a game in the tournament itself after a shock win against Vanderbilt (that owed as much to a catastrophic Vanderbilt blunder as it did to anything done by NU). But reality comes for everybody and after one-half of play, it was knocking on the door for NU.

Sports is sports though. The things that we expect are not always the things that we get. In the second half, NU battled back, narrowing Gonzaga’s 18-point lead to five and suddenly making everybody think about the possibility on a truly enormous upset. Gonzaga is 34-1, its only loss coming in its final game of the season against BYU, a loss that confounded all observers. Although not necessarily a well-known school otherwise, Gonzaga is a relative giant within college basketball, owing to a remarkably successful program under head coach Mark Few. But again, here was NU, knocking on the door, threatening to defeat one of Few’s greatest ever teams, inexplicably back in a game that it appeared entirely out of an hour earlier.

And then this happened:

That would be Gonzaga’s Zach Collins putting his hand though the basket to block a dunk attempt by Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon. This is goaltending and would usually result in Northwestern’s basket being counted regardless of whether Pardon had actually make it, but the “usually” here is predicated on the referees actually seeing the goaltend. Those referees did not see the goaltend, ruling instantaneously that the block was clean. Those same referees were then confronted by Northwestern’s incredulous coach, Chris Collins, who rightly told them that they had badly blown the call. In response, they whistled him for a technical foul, giving Gonzaga two technical free-throws and possession of the ball afterward.

To recap: Gonzaga, leading by five, illegally goaltended a basket that should have cut their lead to three, and were then given two additional points, as well as possession of the basketball, when Northwestern objected to the goaltend. Gonzaga’s lead, pushed to seven instead of cut to three, proved to be enough, as the Zags ended up winning 79-73. After the game, the NCAA acknowledged having blown the call, issuing the following statement:

“With 4:57 remaining in this evening’s second-round game between Gonzaga and Northwestern, the officials missed a rules violation when a Gonzaga defender put his arm through the rim to block a shot. Rule 9, Section 15 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Book covers Basket Interference and Goaltending. Article 2.a.3 states that basket interference occurs when a player reaches through the basket from below and touches the ball before it enters the cylinder. Replays showed the Gonzaga defender violated this rule, which should have resulted in a scored basket by Northwestern.”

There was nothing to be done at this point. Northwestern had been screwed twice, badly, but the game was over. Gonzaga marched on. Northwestern went home. But because the NCAA can never just be the NCAA, it also clarified that the technical foul call was the correct one, because even though the officials had screwed Northwestern the first time, this was insufficient justification for Chris Collins to have been angry about it.

“Subsequently, with 4:54 remaining in the game and based on bench decorum rules outlined in the rules book, a technical foul was assessed to Northwestern head coach Chris Collins for coming on to the floor to argue the non-call while the ball was in play.”

This lead, predictably, to one of the oldest arguments in sports: is it reasonable to get angry about how the referees call a game? This argument tends to break down into two camps:

  • In the first, there are the fans who have benefitted from the call. They’re the ones who forcefully claim that the referees have had no impact whatsoever on the game’s outcome and that fans of the losing team are simply upset about having endured the loss.
  • In the second, there are the fans who have suffered from the call. They’re the ones who forcefully claim that the competition itself was unbalanced by the refereeing of the game and that the fans of the winning team are only dismissing what happened because they benefitted from it.

If only there were the tidiness of an explicit answer.  There isn’t. We cannot, and can never, know the unknowable of what would have happened had a call gone differently. Northwestern’s comeback might have sputtered at closing to within three after all, and what then? This is true of course. This though only addresses the first of the two calls. Had the referees only missed the goaltend, the Gonzaga lead remains five points. But they then whistled Collins for his response to their mistake, and this is where the true perniciousness begins.

At issue is the expectation of the thing. The referees hold Collins to a higher standard than they hold themselves to. They are allowed to make a catastrophic, game-altering mistake, albeit one they do not understand that they have made. He is not allowed to object to them even if he is correct about their error. In other words, the victim of the first is victimized a second-time by being asked to stand idly by after having been wrong.

…record scratch…

There is something buried deep within this example applicable to our broader political and cultural world, one in which aggrieved people are expected to not only endure specific injustice, but are then expected to object to that injustice in a manner palatable to those who caused the first one.

This is about basketball though, and not society, and so this point will be left here to marinate, not because it isn’t salient, but because there is something gross about comparing referees getting something wrong to society getting something wrong, even if the one illustrates the other in a lighthearted fashion.

But before getting back to the basketball, a final thought: the people who insist that Collins was obliged to endure the referees screwing him and his team over are generally the same people who insist that those objecting to society’s wrongs do so in the “appropriate” fashion. This is one of those things that makes sports so goddamned awful to be a fan of.

…record scratching back…

One of the worst problems in sports – in all sports, frankly – is that these miscarriages of athletic justice almost always occur to the underdogs. Northwestern, although an overdog in every other cultural regard, was last Saturday’s underdog, and it was the one victimized by the referees. Here is Louisville against UC Irvine. Here is UCLA against SMU. Here are five of them from this tournament (the Northwestern call is, predictably, at the top of the heap). In every case, the lower ranked program is the one paying the price for what the referees decide and it is difficult to find any examples of the opposite scenario occurring, one in which the referees hand a huge advantage to the underdog.

Is it that referees always prefer the better team? Is it that better teams so rarely find themselves in losing situations that their opportunities to be victimized by bad whistles are so rare by comparison? Is it some combination of the two, plus a healthy dose of something else?

The Sweet Sixteen begins tonight.

Cousins To Davis Is Full Of Potential

Several weeks ago, the New Orleans Pelicans traded for DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins. The idea is simple: putting Cousins next to Anthony Davis gives the Pelicans, arguably, one of the most talented frontcourts in NBA history, and from that foundation, only good things can happen.

“Good things have not happened,” said the Arrested Development voiceover.

Boogie and AD have played 10 games together thus far and have gone 4-6. One of those four wins came in a game that Boogie didn’t play (he was suspended one game after getting whistled for his 18th technical foul resulting in automatically missing his next game). This means that practically speaking, the Pelicans are 3-6 since pairing Boogie with Davis. Those performances have been ugly, as the team has gone from having one source of incredible gravity (Davis) to having two of them and the team hasn’t immediately adjusted perfectly.

This has lead to people wondering if the trade was wrong-headed, and if what we’re witnessing is the beginning of an incredible disaster. Or, for those who have ever spent any time watching the Pelicans, the worsening of an ongoing disaster.

Here’s the thing though:

That’s Boogie Cousins throwing a perfect pass from beyond the three-point line to a cutting Anthony Davis, who, while spinning, catches it mid-air and throws it down. Put aside how awesome that dunk is – but, seriously, that dunk is awesome – and focus instead on the idea of a 6’11” hulk throwing alley-oops to a cutting 6’10” scythe.

“That’s great!” might be the reply, “But how often can they do that?”

Because our modern times demand that we rush to drawing immediate conclusions – which is obviously a good and healthy thing for all of us – the thought continues to be that this isn’t going to work out. But basketball players, even professional ones, do not adjust to one another immediately.

Anybody who has ever played the game knows this. I’ll take five guys who know each other over five strangers in any pick-up game we can imagine, not because those five strangers are necessarily worse players, but simply because they do not have the familiarity with each others’ games. Cousins and AD are both incredible players (and they both went to Kentucky) but that being true does not mean that they are capable of being immediately incredible players when it comes to working with one another on the basketball court.

But acknowledging this lack of an immediate gel does not then necessarily mean that they are incapable of ever achieving that greatness. It simply means that such cohesion takes time. Players have to learn what their teammates want and how they want to get it.*

So let’s revisit last night’s alley-oop. Cousins, the biggest player on the floor and the one being guarded by Portland’s Meyers Leonard, is at the top of the arc. Leonard having followed Cousins out to the three-point line opens up the lane for activity. Meanwhile, Portland’s monstrous Jusuf Nurkic is guarding Davis out on the baseline. This is the beginning of a problem, as Nurkic, while great, is huge and slow and fundamentally incapable of sticking with a cutting Davis. So now the Portland defense has to pick its poison: it can clear out the lane to keep players on Cousins and Davis (both of whom are competent shooters) or it can pack the lane to prevent what is about to happen. It chooses the former, both Cousins and Davis recognize this, and both are savvy enough to immediately take advantage of the opportunity.

It should be acknowledged that Portland’s defense is laughably bad, that Leonard and Nurkic are “defenders” in as much as they’re both on the court in jerseys for the team without the ball, and that other teams will be more defensively competent. But the point is that Cousins, with the ball beyond the three-point line, and Davis, in position along the baseline, realized what was available, realized what each were capable of, and realized how to make it happen. This is what happens as players slowly become accustomed to one another. This is what the Pelicans are hoping for.

Critics who declared that the Pelicans missing the playoffs this year were evidence that the Cousins/Davis pairing was doomed to failure are, frankly, missing the point. The rest of this season is about getting these two players familiar with one another. Next season is about figuring out if it can actually work, especially if New Orleans makes some practical personnel moves that put the sorts of players around Cousins/Davis that might make the team a more cohesive whole.

 

*In this, basketball is very similar to other activities involving human beings including…cooking each other dinner. Ahem.

Conspiracy Theory: Trash The Process

Sam Hinkie was and is an alltime weirdo. It barely takes any digging at all to confirm this plainly obvious thing. Hinkie is the man who developed the years-long Process, a scheme to repeatedly tank entire seasons in an attempt to stockpile top draft picks.

Hinkie’s argument was simple enough: there are only so many great players that teams can actually sign, and so in an attempt to avoid the inevitable bidding wars that result from pursuing those players, an organization’s best bet to get better is to find players in the draft. So began Hinkie’s The Process, which involved getting as many picks as he could in an attempt to assemble a young superteam.

The results were…underwhelming.  Hinkie’s picks included Michael Carter-Williams (who isn’t good), Joel Embiid (who is great but constantly injured), Ben Simmons (who is an unknown, and injured), and Dario Saric (who actually plays and contributes and who isn’t routinely injured…yet). Hinkie also routinely made trades – twelve-thousand of them, by some estimates –  that netted the team players like Nerlens Noel (who is good, but also routinely injured) and, uhh, other guys too.

But the problem with young players is that they are very rarely NBA ready, something that, under Hinkie, the 76ers took took inability to the absolute extreme, losing everything all of the time, and if there is any actual doubt about that, here are the team’s win totals under Hinkie: 19, 18, 10. That is not good.

Eventually, the 76ers brought in The Colangelos to fix the team. The popular explanation for this having happened is that Hinkie needed help running the team. The understood meaning of that explanation is that what Hinkie was doing – although entirely legal within the game’s rules – was embarrassing. His team wasn’t drawing on the road, and opposing owners were beyond horrified at the absurd gate receipts that resulted from such a non-entity coming to town. His approach was also cynical, in that he seemed to be pulling back the curtain on the lie that is the NBA’s free agency market, and that he was embracing losing (literally the antithesis of competitive sport) as an end-around.

But it seems entirely possible that The Colangelos were brought in to do something else entirely: to make sure that The Process never actually had a chance of working. Because one of the biggest problems for The Process’s critics was what appeared to be the potential for significant success at the end of this season.

All of the following are true:

  • Joel Embiid, although frequently injured, is in fact as good as advertised, and perhaps even better.
  • Nerlens Noel, although oft-injured, is a potentially beastly defensive presence.
  • Dario Saric can play.
  • Jahlil Okafor remains a player that other teams are interested in, even if his ability to substantively contribute in the modern game is more questionable.
  • The team has oodles of cap room available to go and get people.
  • And oh, by the way, the team still has draft picks stockpiled in what is being described as a very loaded draft (including the possibility of getting two top-ten picks if the Lakers do not end up in one of the draft’s top-three positions).

In other words, the 76ers are a young team stocked with thoroughly good/okay/decent players, and with money to spend, and with draft-picks remaining. They are in a perfect position to actually become something, but if that happens, then The Process actually worked, and if The Process actually worked, there is a legitimate threat that other teams would attempt the same thing.

The NBA (the league or its owners) cannot have that. This, perhaps more than anything, explains yesterday’s tremendously awful Nerlens Noel trade.

Noel was traded for literally pennies on the dollar, going to Dallas for all of the following: Justin Anderson (who nobody has ever heard of), Andrew Bogut (who is injured and will be immediately bought out), and a 2017 first-round draft pick. That seems like a slight haul but there is, in fact, a catch: the first-round pick is protected for the draft’s first 18 positions. What this means is that Dallas has to be one of the league’s last 12 teams standing for the pick to go to Philadelphia. But Dallas sucks, and isn’t going to make the playoffs. Its pick will be much, much higher than 18; Philadelphia ain’t getting it. What Philadelphia will be getting is two second-rounders in next year’s draft instead. Which means that the 76ers traded a prospect full of potential for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and two second-round draft picks.

The 76ers got screwed. Intentionally.

As did the team’s fans. Those fans are worth noting, as they have been the ones also enduring The Process. Their beloved team has been craptacular for a very long time, but they have remained loyal, and now, on the very precipice of a five-year promise coming to fruition, The Colangelos trade a significant piece of that promise away for nothing. Making things worse, they’re lying about it, telling fans repeatedly that they’re getting a first-rounder for Noel when in fact nothing of the sort is true.

Why? It cannot be that the 76ers actually believed that they were getting fair value on Noel – they are implicitly admitting as much by lying about what the team is getting in return. And it cannot be that they simply got fleeced by a better front office – The Colangelos have been doing this a long time, and had to know that what was being offered was insufficient to make the trade fair. So then there must be another reason for it.

That reason is undermining The Process in such a way as to make sure that nobody ever knows if it was every actually going to work. That lack of knowledge is what will make other teams more skittish in making their own attempts at it, and will save the league from simply rejiggering how the draft actually works (Hinkie only instigated The Process because drafts are, to a certain extent, gameable).

The organization and the league could no longer count on injuries doing the team’s work for it. It had to make sure that a team led by Embiid and Noel – and boosted by incoming draft picks, having signed available free agents, and filled out with players like Okafor and Saric – never actually saw the floor. Because that team might have worked out. That team might have done something. That team might have shown that The Process, although a very ugly thing, actually was capable of producing dividends worth the cost of investment.

Freaking Millenials

Several years ago, my father had a very mild heart attack. The doctors asked if he had a family history of heart trouble. He replied in the following way, “No, I don’t think so. I mean, my father had a heart attack, but he smoked, and his brother had a heart attack, and his father had a heart attack, and my great-uncle had a heart attack,” and while he was continuing to list every single male family member of his who had, in fact, had a heart attack, the doctors were turning to look at me.

“You’re next,” they said, which was worrisome.

As a result, I have continued to stay…well…passionate isn’t exactly the word…involved in my own health. I go a gym M-F and try to stay active on weekends. My father goes to the same gym – after a triple-bypass, he is likely healthier now than he was before the very mild heart attack.

Anyway, this is a gym at the local university, and it is staffed by both faculty and students. The students are young(er) (than me) which is by itself a criminal act but they are very nice and very helpful and I like going there very much.

Today, I went in wearing an NBA shirt that I happen to own and my student helper asked me, “Hey, are you a Clippers fan?” I said no, but that I loved basketball. “I only asked because I’m from California. I’m a Warriors fan!”

He was understandably very excited about his team. Any Warriors fan should be. The Warriors are great, even if they did blow a 3-1 lead in last year’s NBA Finals. I said as much to him. He said, “We didn’t have much to celebrate before that.”

I said, “Well, that’s true. You did have the Run TMC team, which was one of the all-time great What-If teams, but you’re too young for that, but you also had the Baron Davis Dunk and the Mavericks upset. That must have been pretty cool?”

This is the Baron Davis Dunk:

It is one of the greatest dunks in NBA history. It includes all of the following: an awesome dunk, over an awesome defender, in a playoff environment, in front of what was arguably the most-hyped NBA fanbase ever, with an announcer’s perfect call.

That dunk came after the greatest upset in NBA history.

This one:

Here is more about that upset.

His response to me having cited two of the greatest things about the Golden State Warriors? “Nah man, I don’t really remember any of that.”

So I killed him for being aggressively, unacceptably young.

Two 2nd Round Draft Picks Each Get Historic Triple-Doubles

The rarest players are the ones whose transition to the NBA is a sure thing. Shaquille O’Neal was a sure thing. Tim Duncan was a sure thing. LeBron James was a sure thing. The overwhelming majority of most basketball players are not sure things.

This is part of what makes basketball such an incredible sport. Players who excelled at previous levels can flame out spectacularly at the game’s highest level; players who merely whelmed at previous levels can become literal phoenixes. Within the last week, we have received two remarkable reminders of this second phenomenon.

Draymond Green

Does Green famously kick his opponents in the testicles? Yes. Is Green arguably the most important piece in Golden State’s juggernaut? Also, yes.

But unlike Kevin Durant (2nd overall pick), Steph Curry (7th overall pick), and Klay Thompson (11th overall pick), Green was selected 35th overall. Scouting didn’t see his rise, arguing that he compared favorably to players like Jared Dudley and Luke Harangody. Look at this evaluation of the man:

Weaknesses: One of those great college basketball players that doesn’t excel in any one particular area … Tweener, undersized for a physical forward yet lacks the athleticism of a wing … Lacks explosiveness, agility, elusiveness and quickness off the bounce … Under the rim finisher, which is troublesome when you consider his size … Not a threat to shake his defender off the dribble … Minimal upside … Vulnerable defending quicker guards on the perimeter … Could stand to drop some weight …

Are scouts dumb? No. But they were limited in their ability to imagine what Green might be able to accomplish which, to this point, is an NBA Championship, two All-Star teams, and two runner-ups for the NBA’s Defensive Player Of The Year.

Part of what those scouts were unable to imagine is just how effective a player willing to minimize scoring can actually believe. Green proved the point Friday night, posting the NBA’s first ever triple-double that didn’t involve points. His line – a staggering 4pts/12rbs/10ast/10stl/5blk – is simply unheard of and, to boot, it was one point shy of a 5×5, one of those odd statistical anomalies that only the most multi-tooled players are capable of achieving.

If Green’s triple-double underwhelms, perhaps the only other thing worth noting is this: only one other player has ever gotten double-digits in rebounds and assists and steals, and that player was in the process of producing a quadruple-double. Needless to say, Green’s achievement was exceedingly rare.

Nikola Jokic

Jokic was drafted even later than Green – he was taken 41st overall. Draft experts talked predictably about the Serbian:

 Weaknesses: An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability … Foot speed is a big liability. He may struggle to stay in front of NBA athletes at the center position … Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength and develop a repertoire of back to the basket moves … Defense is a real weakness at this point due to lack of lateral speed and lack of strength. His length is a big plus, but he’ll need to continue to work on becoming stronger and learn to anticipate in order to overcome his lack of quickness … Despite being a younger guy, his upside appears limited by his lack of explosiveness and foot speed …

And again, the issue here is imagination, because Jokic achieved his own unheard of triple-double the other night. In an absolute evisceration of, oddly, Green’s Golden State Warriors, Jokic posted 17pts, 21rbs/12ast, making him the only guy who has managed do that. (If you ignore the points, his achievement is still worth celebrating, as he is also the only guy to get 12 or more assists and grab 21 or more rebounds in a single game.) To look more closely at what Jokic achieved, a broadening of the search terms to players who achieved 10pt/20reb/10ast triple-doubles reveals a predictable who’s who of great players: Charles Barkley, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Garnet, Pau Gasol, Dennis Rodman and (website favorite) Fat Lever.

Conclusion

In both cases, scouts and their teams failed to imagine a player’s maximal possibilities. This is understandable of course, especially considering how many players fail to achieve even a quarter of what Green and Jokic both have. But if their drafts were redone today, and given perfect vision, it seems quite likely that both of these players would have been top-five picks at the minimum, as both of them have proven value well beyond what was originally imagined. They have also each achieved a little bit of something that this post’s first three players never did.

Charles Oakley Banned From MSG, James Dolan Not Banned from MSG

Here is the sum total of everything James Dolan has ever achieved in his life:

Not that such an inconsequential existence would slow the man. He was born into incredible wealth and, because somebody had to inherit all of it when his father died, he finds himself still fabulously wealthy. So he owns the New York Knicks, not because he ever did a goddamned thing to deserve it, but because parents decided to have him.

Dolan assumes that the world owes him respect by virtue of his birth’s happenstance. This probably tends works in his world. There are plenty of shameless suck-ups willing to offer seemingly endless praise to those who have money and Dolan has no doubt surrounded himself with precisely these types of people. Lampreys are generally considered unwelcome parasites; to Dolan’s, they are evidence of the world’s rightness.

But not everybody considers the merest possession of inherited wealth to be evidence of a person’s inherent goodness. One such person is Charles Oakley. Have you heard of Charles Oakley?

Here he is in a preseason game – a preseason game – throwing punches:

Here he is breaking Paul Mokeski’s nose after being fouled:

Here is his throwing a Sam Perkins off of the court after Perkins attempted to intentionally foul him:

It is tempting to look at these videos and draw a conclusion: that Charles Oakley is the NBA’s version of an NHL enforcer. But Oakley is more complicated than that. He was the 9th overall pick in a halfway decent draft. He played in the NBA for 19 seasons. He scored 12,000+ points and grabbed 12,000+ rebounds. The list of NBA players who finished their careers with 12,000+ in both categories is a slight one, and even though Oakley finishes near the bottom of it, there is simply no denying that the man could play the game.

Oakley is a man who spent 10 years playing for the New York Knicks. That is – *quickly does the math* – more than half of his career at Madison Square Garden. He did so at a time when basketball, by virtue of its rules, allowed for a more violent, aggressive version of the game to be played, and because the Knicks perennially lacked the game’s best players (Patrick Ewing was great, but he wasn’t Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon), they found that the next best thing was dragging the game down into the gutter. Which the team did. Constantly.

Everybody else might have hated the Knicks for it, but the fans loved it, and why not? The team’s ugly, brutal basketball got them as close to a return to a championship as anything had, before or since. Oakley was a big part of that and remains beloved to this day.

But he will forever be the man he was: one who backs down to nobody and nothing. This includes the aforementioned James Dolan, a man whose family once signed contracts with Oakley, and a man whom Oakley loathes, which is just so weird what with how hard-working people usually love the spoiled children of fantastically wealthy families.

Which brings us to last Wednesday. Oakley wanted to see the Knicks play, and apparently got himself a ticket that was not only near the court, but several rows back from Dolan himself. If you’re imagining that things ended up going well, there is some bad news. And some more bad news. And some very funny bad news. And some more bad news. (That Dolan would have the temerity to suggest that Oakley has a drinking problem is, uhhh, rich, all things considered.)

The remarkable thing about all of this is that the Knicks organization (under Dolan’s orders) apparently believes that it can turn the team’s fans against Oakley. “Yes, we banned a player that you love,” the team seems to be saying, “But once we tell you all about the bad things he said to our beloved owner, surely that will have you siding with us!” That only works when teams give their fans anything to believe in, but for the second decade in a row, the Knicks are positively terrible, at 23-33 in a terrible Eastern Conference, ranked 12th out 15 teams, and seemingly getting worse by the day. Adding insult to injury is this year’s team being saddled with incomprehensible contracts, as well as an ongoing dispute with its best player, as well as a steadfast refusal to embrace the team’s future, and a GM whose primary hobby is creating bonfires, so when all of that gets coupled with attacking a beloved legend, this ends up happening:

There is absolutely no way that Knicks fans are going to side with Dolan on this. Frankly, Oakley could have Mokeski’d Dolan’s nose in front of the crowd and not lost their favor. And yet, Dolan continues to comically insist on doubling down, and doubling down, and doubling down. This weekend’s double-down – that former Knicks not named Oakley still love Dolan – was understood immediately be yet another attempt to save face with fans who would rather never see him again.

Even the New York Post, a publication that usually loves to worship at the altars of people like Dolan, knows the score. Here’s a write-up describing Dolan in its second paragraph:

In an attempt to show his strong relationships with Knicks alumni in the wake of the Charles Oakley ban, a desperate Dolan sat between the mercurial Sprewell — with whom he formerly feuded — and Bernard King during Sunday’s 94-90 matinee stunner over the Spurs at the Garden.

Here is an obvious piece of advice for a billionaire who is incapable of listening: Dolan needs to just take the loss already. Doing so shouldn’t even be that hard for Dolan. The team is 595-783 since he took over.

The Wizards Are…Hold On…Good?

Twenty games into their season, the Washington Wizards were sitting at a very Wizardian 7-13. It would have been entirely understandable if the team’s fanbase – comprised entirely of my friend Justin – had abandoned ship. But he stuck it through, mostly because if there is anything that Justin has gotten used to in his time as a fan, it is the Wizards being simultaneously underwhelming and tantalizing.

Since that poor start, the Wizards suddenly rewarded Justin’s fandom with a 22-7 run, pushing their overall record to 29-20, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference and, given the ongoing struggles of the Toronto Raptors, the possibility that the team will climb even higher.

What is going on?

The most obvious place to begin is the team’s health. Previous seasons have seen the team routinely undermined by the fact that its arena and practice facility are built on an abandoned graveyard full of broken mirrors and black cats. But this year’s team is currently healthy. It’s a funny thing but as it turns out, having all of your best players available to actually play in the games turns out to be hugely beneficial. The Wizards have been built around a ferocious backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal – easily a top-five NBA backcourt, and for even more funsies, maybe a top-two NBA backcourt – but the team has rarely been able to put the twosome on the court together, owing to Beal’s body having been built out of balsa wood.

Beal has only missed four games this season* and, after a relatively unimpressive start to his season, one in which he was likely playing himself back into the shape necessary to contribute at a routinely high-level in actual NBA games, Beal has cooking. He is averaging 22pts/3.5ast per game since the start of the new year, and he is looking like every single bit of the player that fans have thought possible.

And then there’s Otto Porter. Long the subject of “What if this guy gets better?” type conversations, the former third pick’s fourth season has seen him getting career highs in points (14.2 per night), rebounds (6.5 per night), and three-point shooting percentage (a staggering .463, up from a previous high of .367). This is the kind of development that gets fanbases excited, especially because he is still relatively young.

Which brings us to perhaps the team’s most important piece: John Wall. Although Colin Cowherd (a bag of utter garbage) would have his listeners believe otherwise, the fact of the matter is that Wall is one of the NBA’s best players and, perhaps more importantly, one of the league’s fastest players. He is, simply put, a blur.

Speed isn’t everything of course – Wall’s shooting is…uhh…well, it could be better, let’s say – but his ability to get to the tin in the blink of an eye makes the missed jumpers slightly more tolerable. Meanwhile, like Beal and Porter before him, Wall’s game is sharper than ever: he’s averaging career highs in points (23), assists (10.3), steals (2.1) while fouling at a career low. Dude is good.

What this means for the Wizards’ outlook is hard to say. This team functions so well when all of its pieces are operating at full pace, but that happens so rarely that it is impossible to imagine the team being able to maintain its momentum if an injury inevitably occurs, especially since we have seen what happens when all of its players aren’t available.

But thinking of the bad is no fun at all. So for the time being, let’s not do that, and let’s instead a Wizards team that finally – FINALLY! – looks like a genuine threat to be as good as the one that we have all imagined for so long.

* -knocks so hard on a piece of wood that it literally turns into sawdust-

For No Reason: Ricky Rubio’s Passing

Although it is absurd to imagine that Ricky Rubio’s career is over – he is 26, only just now approaching the peak of his career – there’s no getting away from the creeping fear that are witnessing a player who will never be all that we imagined that he might be. His problem, in a word, is shooting; it is not simply that he is bad at shooting, but that he is awful at it. Not only has he never shot better than 40 percent, he has only once shot better than 37.5 percent.

His problem, in a word, is shooting; it is not simply that he is bad at shooting, but that he is awful at it. Not only has he never shot better than 40 percent, he has only once shot better than 37.5 percent. He is such a shooting liability that teams are willing to let him shoot from almost anywhere, thus allowing them to focus their defensive efforts elsewhere, thus depressing the Timberwolves offensive output. It is a truly grisly situation.

The truly awful part about all of this is how good Rubio could potentially be. That he still managed 8.1 assists without his defenders having any reason to stay near him is staggering. That he passes into what are essentially five-man defensive front while averaging only 2.2 turnovers is equally impressive. His assist-to-turnover ratio is good for third in the league, lagging behind only Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala. He is among the league’s very best distributors. On top of that, he is also a league-leader in steals, taking the ball away almost as often as he turns it over.

But his shooting undoes him. It always undoes him. If he could crack even 40 pecent, we’re not having this conversation, but he can’t. Sigh.

One possibility for the man’s rebirth is a new team. Although Minnesota hasn’t been able to fix Rubio’s shooting woes, another team elsewhere might be able to.* It is for that reason alone that he remains so tantalizing.

Well, that and getting to watch him distribute the ball:

So here’s hoping that help is on the way, be it epiphany or a new location or, if neither of those, then literally anything that unlocks the man to be the fullest player that he can possibly be.

*That team should be San Antonio. They turned Kawhi Leonard into a sharpshooter. If they can do even half of that for Rubio, he is a brand new player with a brand new career. My fingers are very tightly crossed.

Some Coaches Are Not Good

Steve Masiello is the head-coach of the Manhattan Jaspers. He has a bone to pick with the younger generation. Here is that bone, in full:

We’re a fraudulent society from top to bottom. Our society’s fraudulent. Everything about our society is edited. Everything about our society is prearranged so this generation is a fraudulent generation. And what I mean by that is they put their Instagram picture the way they want. They put their tweet out the way they want. Nothing is interactive. Nothing is real so when things don’t go the way people want them to, people really struggle with if it’s not 75 degrees and sunny and the stars aren’t aligned, if it’s not exactly 4 p.m., they didn’t get exactly eight hours of beauty sleep… young people today struggle with it. Our society struggles with that, and for me–I can’t speak for other coaches–I see it more than ever. When adversity comes in, people struggle. They’re not bad kids. This might be one of my favorite groups I’ve ever had. They struggle with adversity. They struggle with–that’s a byproduct of our society today, so I think we’re a reflection of our culture a little bit, not to get too deep.

Masiello let loose with that after his Jaspers – an oddly-named team that he is paid $237,536 annually to coach – lost a not particularly close game against Siena. The loss dropped the Jaspers to an incredibly unimpressive 7-14 overall, and although one would think this is the sort of record that would reflect poorly on the team’s coach, the issue is actually the coach’s players, at least per the Masiello himself, a man who definitely has no ability whatsoever to influence the situation.

This rant will be coming soon to a Facebook wall near you. It will almost certain be posted by somebody who also firmly believes that the only problem with our society today is the fact that it has young people in it, and that these young people today are much, much worse than young people were before. For those wondering, these rants always involve “before” being implicitly defined as when the ranter himself (or herself) was a younger person.

Masiello is not alone in his fury. Earlier this season, Louisville’s women’s coach Jeff Walz lost his mind along similar lines, insisting that his team’s struggles (the Cardinals were 6-2 at the time, with its only losses coming to top-five teams) were the direct result of young people today being worse than young people were before.

“You’ve got to have a will. You’ve got to have a will. Right now the generation of kids that are coming through, everybody gets a damn trophy, OK? You finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me? I mean, what’s that teaching kids? It’s OK to lose. And unfortunately, it’s our society. It’s what we’re building for. And it’s not just in basketball; it’s in life. You know, everybody thinks they should get a job. Everybody thinks they should get a good job. No, that’s not the way it works. But unfortunately that’s what we are preparing for. Because you finish fifth, you walk home with this nice trophy, parents are all excited.”

Walz, for the record, is paid $775,000 annually for these allegedly penetrating societal critiques. And for coaching a team that is actually pretty good, despite his histrionic meltdowns.

Is it worth noting that both of these men are denigrating not only their own players, but also their own players’ parents? Probably. Is it worth noting that both of these men are each making hundreds of thousands of dollars on the backs of their players’ unpaid labor? Probably. Is it worth noting that both of these men are excusing themselves for having any responsibility whatsoever for how their teams performed, essentially insisting that even though they are literally being paid to coach, the very best metric of their ability should be ignored? Probably.

There are two things absolutely worth spending our time on. The first is that both of these coaches are spectacularly guilty of the things that they are claiming to be so deeply concerned about. Take Masiello’s rant: he insists that his players’ problem is that they are unwilling to work hard enough, in the way that he advises and demands, and that because of this, they are not succeeding at the level that they would be otherwise. But Masiello is doing exactly the same thing. Instead of figuring out how to coach his players – instead of, you know, earning his money – he is demanding that they do whatever he demands, whenever he demands it, and when they do not, he insists that they are ones refusing to work hard enough. It takes unbelievable stones to refuse to do hard work, and then to blame other people for not working hard enough. Walz does it too when he implies that his own coaching is exquisite, and that it is his players who have simply failed him.

To put that in much simpler terms: good coaches figure out ways to get through to their players. These two are insisting that they are in fact obliged to do no such thing, and that their inability to is merely a reflection of a younger generation’s failures, rather than their own inability to do the work necessary to get through to their athletes.

But the second thing to spend our time is perhaps the more important of the two. Masiello’s rant might be a classic, but let’s look at it again. This time, I have highlighted the particularly important passages:

We’re a fraudulent society from top to bottom. Our society’s fraudulent. Everything about our society is edited. Everything about our society is prearranged so this generation is a fraudulent generation. And what I mean by that is they put their Instagram picture the way they want. They put their tweet out the way they want. Nothing is interactive. Nothing is real so when things don’t go the way people want them to, people really struggle with if it’s not 75 degrees and sunny and the stars aren’t aligned, if it’s not exactly 4 p.m., they didn’t get exactly eight hours of beauty sleep… young people today struggle with it. Our society struggles with that, and for me–I can’t speak for other coaches–I see it more than ever. When adversity comes in, people struggle. They’re not bad kids. This might be one of my favorite groups I’ve ever had. They struggle with adversity. They struggle with–that’s a byproduct of our society today, so I think we’re a reflection of our culture a little bit, not to get too deep.

Funny thing about Steve Masiello: he lost his job at the University of South Florida after he was discovered lying about having graduated college. One wonders how many of his “fraudulent” players for whom “nothing is real” who “struggle with adversity” can claim the same.