Friday, June 27, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 6/27

Sorry it’s been so long since you’ve heard from me (or in some cases, you’re welcome!), but I’ve been in the process of moving. When the supposedly edgy, punk-y, and cheap East Village is renting studios at $1,800 a month that are smaller than my old Army barracks room, that's when it’s time to move to…Brooklyn! And because I knew very little about the borough other than to avoid any neighborhoods shouted-out in a Jay-Z song, there’s been moderate-to-very-little sleep 'til Brooklyn while we’ve searched for a place, preferably with at least one bedroom.

So we moved last week, and in a touching ceremony that really made my wife and I feel like family, our historic and beautiful old neighborhood promptly welcomed us with an ancient ritual: burglarizing my car. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this traditional native custom, it involves showering the sidewalk with tiny, intricately-cut shards of your car’s passenger-side window, followed by the delicate removal of your radio, and finally the spreading of your glove compartment’s contents to complete the coronation. In certain cases for those with a prized vehicle, the natives will also open your trunk as if it were a flower in bloom and set free whatever is inside; unfortunately, our 2002 Corolla (with manual roll-down windows) didn’t qualify for this treatment, but it was a special event nonetheless.

Anyway, before I make you all jealous, let’s get to this draft. “With the #9 and #20 picks in the 2008 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Bobcats select…a bunch of really angry fans no matter who they pick.” I thought long and hard about this draft, and early yesterday morning I came to the following two conclusions: 1) every one of these picks after the first two (and maybe even the first one) has at least one serious flaw, either in general or with the Bobcats in particular; 2) it’s the 9th and 20th picks, so there’s no real point in fretting about it.

If you concede that our two most pressing needs are a point guard and a rebounding center (and everyone except possibly the team itself has conceded this, considering they were also the same two needs before last year’s draft), then you knew going into this thing that we weren’t going to get a very satisfying pick either way, especially with our higher pick. The options at center were discouraging, as the only lottery-worthy 5 was Brook Lopez, who has a questionable attitude about anything other than Disney characters and—oh yeah, can’t rebound. The other possible center draft candidate was Kevin Love, whose physical fitness seems to fluctuate like Oprah’s and who seems more suited for the 4-spot, where Emeka Okafor is calling home, at least for now.

As for the 1, after Derrick Rose, four of the top five guards (OJ Mayo, Russell Westbrook, Jerryd Bayless, and Eric Gordon) were not even true point guards. This was worrisome, because last year we didn’t even know what to do when we DID have a true point guard: Raymond Felton played virtually the whole year at the 2-spot. The last thing we need is more “trans-guard” ambiguity. Thus, the fifth of the bunch and our eventual pick, DJ Augustin, was a serviceable choice.

Augustin’s size and defense are a concern, but even more alarming were the reports that our incumbent guard, Raymond Felton, is suddenly fighting for his job. Chad Ford even calls Augustin an “upgrade” over Felton!? Really? Size-wise, Augustin is barely an upgrade over David Stern! DJ is one of the few draftees Stern didn’t have to squint up at like he’s reading a billboard advertisement for Gossip Girl and trying to figure out what “OMFG” means. Everyone is asking if the Augustin selection (and some guy named Kyle Weaver with the 38th pick) means we’re now shopping Felton, but what I’m really curious is Earl Boykins. We can’t possibly be retaining Earl with Augustin now, are we? How’s that team practice going to look? For the 5-on-5 scrimmages it’s going to be Arnold Drummond covering Webster.

A clear-cut strategy of “guard-first/big man-second” was illuminated earlier in the day when the Cats obtained the rights to the #20 pick from the Nuggets, meaning they could use it to take from the pool of late-round 7-footers who are generally undeveloped and largely indistinguishable. Except…we STILL managed to throw a curveball-zinger in there by selecting France’s Alexis Ajinca over the more logical choice of Ohio State’s Kosta Koufos. Coach Larry Brown (sort of) explained the rationale behind the pick to the ESPN crew later by saying he “fell in love” with Alexis in a private workout. Besides being unintentionally funny and vaguely homoerotic, I’m not sure if this explanation did much for me. Exactly how bad was Koufos at Ohio State that he warranted a snub from a 5-point scoring Frenchman? Unless points in French convert to American points like Euros to dollars, this move seems a little batty.

And say what you will about Koufos, at least he was guaranteed to show up at training camp. Going that low in the draft puts Ajinca at risk to stay in Europe—let’s hope LB’s love for AA is similar to Andie MacDowell’s love for Gerard Depardieu in Green Card and convinces the Frenchman to come to the States permanently. But even if he does, are we now going to have a bench squad of Ryan Hollins, Jermareo Davidson, and Ajinca? That’s three 7-footers who can’t rebound, and who all shoot/peg the ball exactly like Kevin Garnett’s and-one just before half-time of Game 6, except our guys do it even if they’re wide open (and they miss). Finally, someone better make sure those three, Boykins, and Augustin are distributed evenly along the pine, otherwise we’re going to have a see-saw going.

But for everyone who's agonizing about what we did last night, just remember, all of this muck and angst is mollifiable if you go back to my Conclusion #2, which is, hey, it’s the ninth and twentieth picks. Forget about the 20th for a second, do you know who the last five ninth-overall picks have been? Joakim Noah, Patrick O’Bryant, Ike Diogu, Andre Iguodala, and Mike Sweetney. With the exception of Andre, none of these guys is destined to make much of an impact, so fretting over these picks is like fretting over which Combo Meal to get at McDonald’s: it’s cheap and it’s probably going to be mediocre no matter what you take, so just pick something and let’s go. And who knows, if either Augustin or Ajinca can do anything other than blow out an ACL, think of it as that rare Happy Meal with the cool toy.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 6/12

One of the many tragic elements of prolific author David Halberstam’s death last year is that right now would have been the perfect time for him to write another basketball book. Halberstam’s first take on hoops, the vaunted The Breaks of the Game, profiled the nascent League in the throes of its 1970s growing pains. In 1998’s Playing For Keeps, Halberstam analyzed in deft detail the Jordan-era League that was cresting in popularity yet already wary of the void soon to come with 23’s retirement. This year—an even decade later, with the NBA enjoying its first real post-Jordan renaissance, fueled by a new generation of stars and punctuated by a classic Celtics-Lakers Finals match-up—is screaming for a Halberstamian encapsulation to complete the trilogy. Too bad the legend can no longer provide one for us.

If by chance you haven’t read either of his two NBA books, I cannot recommend them highly enough. The Breaks of the Game is particularly edifying, because the reader has the chance to examine all of the ways the game has and hasn’t changed in 30-odd years. I found it fascinating how obsessed all of the players were with three things back then: their contracts, their race, and their knees. I'm barely exaggerating; regardless of the player, he felt he was signed to a contract that was too long, too cheap, or—on the flip-side—too burdensome. If the player was black, he almost always felt underpaid, unappreciated, and alienated, while if he was white, he was anxious to live down the rumors that he was overpaid or part of a “quota”-conspiracy, plus he was sensitive to stereotypes of being un-athletic. But above all—above the anguish surrounding contractual and racial issues—was the persistent fear of health problems, especially regarding knees. Every player was either suffering from knee injuries, getting over them, or worried about them, and therefore his career was constantly teetering on the brink. As a result of all this anguish, and for the turmoil in the front office over television rights and mounting expenses, 70s basketball was a grim landscape indeed. And we learn this through Halberstam, whose expert reporting of the NBA in its dramatic, Darwinian early stages, makes The Breaks of the Game an enduring classic.

(Side note: this third obsession with knees also revealed a profound shortsightedness of the era. For all of the paranoia, nobody (including Halberstam) seemed able to pinpoint the root cause of the pervasive knee injuries, a cause that is painfully obvious decades later: the feeble sneakers back then, which were woefully inadequate for the high-impact jumping that the game entails. Instead, players attempted to build leg strength through faddish exercises (there seemed to be a lot of “hitting the Nautilus,” which I must admit to not fully understanding—did the “Nautilus” start out as just one type of machine, rather than an entire brand of fitness equipment? If so, what was it—a stationary bike?), tried to ration out the amount of jumping they did, altered their diets, sought out specific surgeons, etc. It was kind of macabre, really—sort of like reading one of those first-person accounts of life in a frontier village in the days before it was understood that mosquitoes spread malaria, wherein the author concludes that all of the premature "fever and ague" deaths were a fact of life and probably attributable to “evil spirits.”)

If he were still here and composing a third book, I wonder whom Halberstam would have chosen as his muse? Each of his books has had a team or player serve as the vehicle for Halberstam to drive his narrative of the League as a whole. The Breaks of the Game used the 1980 Portland Trail Blazers as the conduit, while MJ himself was the apotheosis of 1990s NBA athleticism and commercial success in Playing For Keeps. This year, Halberstam would have had a few options. LeBron James probably best represents the new wave of NBA superstars, not just for his dominance on the court, but also for the influence he has on owners and coaches, and of course his image proliferation globally and in cyberspace (both of which are characteristic of the League as a whole). Kobe Bryant also would have been an excellent choice, for Halberstam could have used him as the symbolic bridge between “old” and “new,” plus The Mamba has the added advantages of being a) in the Finals, and b) one of the most compelling figures in all of sports. A third candidate could have been Commissioner Stern, who—for better or worse—has been the architect of the League’s past and present status, the erudite pilot at the helm of its fits and starts and triumphs and shortcomings for the past 25 or so years. Either way, Halberstam would have had a wealth of options.

Of course, these choices wouldn’t be exclusionary, for Halberstam’s books always thoroughly encompassed the entire landscape of the League. The players, the owners, the agents, the media, the style of play—Halberstam illuminated all of the NBA’s branches and tentacles. Halberstam wasn’t so much a genius as he was a consummate investigator and thoughtful sociologist. I grasped his true greatness about 2/3 of the way through The Breaks of the Game. There was a passage in which Halberstam was reflecting on the delicate balance between individual greatness and team success in the NBA, and how they often subtract from each other, and how this is unique compared to other sports, when it suddenly occurred to me: every single significant thought I’ve ever had about the NBA—its cultural significance, its comparative advantages and disadvantages with other sports—has already been taken by Halberstam. Not only that, he’d done it all some 30 years ago! I found this to be simultaneously humbling, daunting, and amazing. Halberstam’s ability to draw conclusions through research, inquiry, and critical exploration were his unsurpassed gifts.

Random epilogue: Officiating, officiating, officiating! The refs are ruining everything! After Game 2 in Boston, everywhere you turn, people are pissed that the refs are making bad calls, or too many calls, or not enough calls. Then Tim D. poured more gas on the fire. Some people even go so far as to say officials are holding back the sport as a whole.

Whatever.

Just remember all of this hoopla when the NFL season roles around again, and after each week there’s a firestorm about a bad pass interference call, or a QB who should have been ruled “in the grasp,” or an impossible-to-verify ruling about a receiver being pushed out (or not). Wait a second, you don’t even need to wait that long: how about the lack of instant replay in MLB screwing up outs, foul balls, even home runs—home runs! At least our officials can accurately determine when someone scores. And don’t get me started on the strike zone, which has shrunk to the size of Manu Ginobli’s bald spot. The NBA does not “suffer” from “subjective” calls any more than any other sport.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bobcats Thoughts, 6/5

Gee, if only Bob Johnson was as loyal to his own basketball team as he seems to be to the Clinton Campaign. According to the Observer, Johnson’s pressuring Congressman Jim Clyburn and the Congressional Black Caucus to back Hillary Clinton to be Barack Obama’s Veep. That’s pretty ballsy considering just a few months ago Johnson was openly lampooning Obama as a worthless drug addict. Now he honestly expects favors from Obama? This is like me asking Tim Duncan for a million bucks. Wait, sorry, Johnson’s not pressuring Clyburn; he’s "urging and encouraging." Whatever, BJ. I wonder if Johnson considers his bladder to be “pressuring” him or “urging and encouraging” him to take a pee after he downs a bottle of Chardonnay?

I don’t know what Billary’s got on old Bob, but I guess we should be happy that—unlike the rest of Hillary’s loony apparatchiks—Johnson’s at least accepting the fact that she lost. I see that she’s sort of (kind of, through third parties, etc.) conceded the election now (how benevolent of her), but Clinton’s refusal to admit defeat immediately after Obama secured the delegates is, is…spectacular, quite frankly. Imagine if sports teams did this? I mean, for all intents and purposes, the delegate count is to a primary election what the scoreboard is to a basketball game—it’s not subjective; whoever has the most, wins. So what if the Spurs—instead of just shaking Kobe & Company’s hands at the end of Game 6 and going quietly into the off-season—decided instead that they'd “think about their options and consult with their fans” and get back to everyone in a few days...And then Greg Popovich and Tony Parker reappeared a few days later, held a press conference, and “acknowledged” that LA did win, but only on the condition that, say, the Spurs get the Lakers’ draft pick next year. This is basically what Hillary did--"I'll only say you won if you consider me for VP and/or and/or a key cabinet member and/or a Supreme Court Justice." Couple this with her brazen claim to have won the “popular vote” (rhetorical fertilizer of the highest grade), AND the fact that practically no one’s calling her on anything, and I’m downright awestruck. At some point, I actually have to admire her.

Anyway, because I can’t bring myself to get too worked up over whoever ends up being our 9th round pick (Brook Lopez! Anthony Randolph! Pinch me!), I’m calling out someone else: The New York Times’ William C. Rhoden. For those of you who might not follow the Times (which, to the ultra-self-important Times, is utterly inconceivable), Rhoden is one of their regular sports columnist who focus primarily on racial issues. You may remember that he wrote a controversial book a few years ago with the subtle, bland title of Forty Million Dollar Slaves. I actually gave it a mixed review and thought that although he illuminates some worthy concerns, a lot of his arguments were questionable and supported by some pretty flimsy evidence (for instance, he had a problem with the way big-time colleges isolate black athletes and strip them of their cultural identity, yet he relied too heavily on a Sports Illustrated article from the late 60s to back up his claims--I'm pretty sure things have improved at least slightly since then).

So remember a few weeks ago when New York Mets manager Willie Randolph made some comments about being judged unfairly because he’s black? This was right in Rhoden's wheelhouse. Anytime something like this happens, you can bet that Rhoden’s going to follow up with a very sober piece on how far we still have to go in America before we’ve completely put racism behind us and truly do value each other as equals. Rhoden’s other recurring tendency, by the way, is to compliment whoever the athlete/coach is who made these inflammatory comments for bravely bringing the problem to light. This can actually be sort of comical at times, because Rhoden tends to do this no matter how non-sensical and/or farfetched the comments are; for instance, he was a huge believer in Larry Johnson’s profanity-laced tirade with the Knicks back in 1999 (in fact, it was the “inspiration” behind the Forty Million Dollar Slaves title). For the most part, I’m actually with Rhoden—I prefer athletes and coaches who speak their minds, and I believe that racism still plays a problematically large role in society.

But here’s where I think Rhoden is dead wrong. In that same follow-up article on Randolph, in which he predictably praised Willie for speaking out on racism and chastised the New York media for their subsequent backlash, he switched gears and began discussing what he believed to be a “quota system” in modern-day sports. Specifically, he referred to the globalization of the NBA over the past few years as a “code word for more white players on rosters.” I’m sorry, but if that’s what Rhoden thinks is the primary motivation behind expanding the League, he’s employing some pretty slanderous reductionism. And I think Ronny Turiaf, Tony Parker, Leandro Barbosa, Luol Deng (sense the pattern here?), and plenty of other foreign stars would agree with me. Whatever you think of David Stern, he’s a bottom-line guy; for better or worse, the color he focuses on more than anything else is green. If anything, “globalization” is code for “2 billion Yao Ming jerseys sold in China.”

I appreciate Rhoden for speaking up on these matters, just as he extends his thanks to the athletes whenever they do so. But Rhoden can be hard to support when he expresses hostility to further integration (he did this repeatedly in his book also)—in sports and in society as a whole. Call me na├»ve, but for all of its faults and missteps, I still believe in the benefits of integration, the melting pot, and everything else they taught me on Sesame Street. After all, it’s integration that allows me to spend the first two paragraphs ripping the moves of our team’s black owner just as if he were any other white, distant, disinterested, billionaire owner. And on that note, you’re doing great B-Jo, now pick us a winner at #9—Russell Westbrook! DJ Augustin! Kevin Love! I can’t wait!