One For The Land

a Lebron blockHoly shit, Cleveland did it! The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors 93–89, winning the NBA Championship and putting an end to Cleveland’s 52 year long championship drought. They have become the first team to come back from a 3–1 deficit in the Finals, and did so against the winningest team in NBA Regular Season history. Holy shit.

Whether you want to call it destiny, or call it brilliant planning by LeBron James and his off-court team, Mr James did what he told the world he was going to do last summer: he brought a title back to the land. Has there ever been a player under more scrutiny to win a title? Here is one of the leagues best players, putting up three of the greatest games in Finals history and doing it facing elimination every time. To think that just a week ago there were player openly questioning his fortitude seems insane.

LeBron James is the first player in NBA history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals for the duration of a playoff series. If you take anything away from this Finals let it be that fact. Of all the incredible moments in James’ career, I’m not sure any trump his block on Andre Iguodala down the stretch.

I’ve probably watched it 50 times by now and it is still giving me chills. There may be no play more James-esque than the chase down block, how fitting is it that this block will become his career defining play. LeBron was named Finals MVP after the game, which came as a shock to no one. Even before the game there seemed to be a general consensus that he deserved the award, win-or-lose.

There’s a lot that had to go wrong for Golden State to lose this series. The biggest scape goat in all of this will no doubtably be Draymond Green’s one game suspension that took place in Game Five, a game that could have ended the series had Green played. They had a chance to close out this series at home, with the Cavs reeling, but not having their best defender on the court cost them dearly. It was in Game Five that LeBron and Kyrie Irving really found their games, both scoring 41 points, and from then on they were both incredible.

For his part, Green was incredible in Game Seven, by far the best player for the Warriors on the night. His 32 points came off of 73% shooting and his six three’s were more than any other shooter on the court. He also pulled down 15 rebounds and dished out nine assists. Compared to the Splash Brother who combined for 12-of-36 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists, there was no doubt who the best player for Golden State was. For as spectacular as Stephen Curry has been all year, he was absolutely outplayed in these Finals by his counterpart, Kyrie Irving. The difference between the two was no more apparent when Curry missed a wide open three that would have given them the lead late, then badly missed a 26 footer that would have tied the game up with less than a minute left.

It was Irving’s three point shot with a little under a minute to go that would give Cleveland the winning lead. Kyrie finished the night with 26 points, a solid performance in the biggest game of his young career. Of all the players not named LeBron James, who showed up big in this series it was Irving who stood out the most. It easy to dismiss his game as too Iso heavy, and knock him for his lapses on defense, but when the games mattered most Irving was able to lock down enough on D to stay in games. He flourished on pick and rolls, and proved to be impossible to guard off of the dribble. There are times in the Playoffs when a team is going to need a player who can hit difficult shots when the shot clock is ticking down, and Irving is that guy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Harrison Barnes became a phantom in the last games of these Finals. From Game Five on Barnes shot just five-of-32 from the field. It got to the point where Cleveland stopped even contesting his shots, instead using his defender to help clog up the lane and really hamper Golden State’s offense. As many have talked about, Barnes is a free agent this year, I wonder how he felt the pressure to perform for a bigger pay day this summer. It’s painful to watch such a consistent player get mindfucked on such a huge stage. For all of the heat that Kevin Love has been under, at least he was able to show up in Game Seven with 14 rebounds and a couple of big baskets in the second half.

This series, despite the blowouts, ended up being incredibly close. In fact, the four points that the Cavaliers won this game by also represents the total advantage they had in the entire series. Think about that, a seven game series in which the two teams were only four points apart. That’s how close this thing was. It took every bit of a brilliant LeBron James performance, mixed with great showings from Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and everyone else on this Cavs squad — yes, even Kevin Love — to get the job done. I guess that’s what it takes to break a 52 year old curse on a city. If you are reading this in Cleveland I hope you truly savor this moment, I can’t imagine how great this most feel. I feel good for you, and for the players on the Cavs for doing something I didn’t think was possible. It turns Kevin Garnett was right.

Loveless: Cleveland’s Downfall

Let’s get one thing straight from the jump, I am terrible at predicting games. When I say that tonight’s game has the feeling of a season finale, it’s probably a good sign that you should bet the house on Cleveland. I can’t shake this feeling though. It feels like all of the great stories that were going to be told in these Finals have been told and now there is nothing left except the Warriors getting this last win and putting the cherry on top of the single greatest season in NBA History.

It was so much fun watching LeBron and Kyrie turn back the clock and play 48 minutes of pure, unadulterated Hero Ball in Game Five. To see LeBron James get their one last time in a Finals game was a real treat, and watching Irving ice the game with an incredible scoring binge felt like watching a young Kobe. Those two performances were enabled by Draymond Green’s suspension, and will almost definitely not be replicated tonight. The illegal screens that Tristan Thompson was setting on a regular basis on Andre Iguodala will not matter as much when Green is their to switch on to James. The impossibly difficult shots that Irving was hitting in Game Five will still be impossibly hard to hit tonight.

The Splash Brothers will probably be better tonight with Green back on the court. Curry is a not nearly as good without Dray, the Warriors main playmaker, on the court. Harrison Barnes is not the same kind of payer that Green is, he can not be relied upon to keep the offense moving when Klay and Steph are tied up. This has been my main argument against Barnes being a max contract kind of player. Barnes can hit open three’s and occasional go to the rim for a big dunk, but he does have the offensive tool box to orchestrate an offense. With Green back in the lineup the Warriors go back to being nigh impossible to defend.

Maybe I’d feel differently about tonight’s game if the Cavs had a third player that they could reliably count on to get baskets down the stretch. I don’t want to poor any more dirt of Kevin Love’s grave, but the fact is he has been horrible in these Finals. For a player of Loves ability to only shoot one of five in a Finals game is insane. Is there any chance that Love is still on this team come next May? There have now been two head coaches that could not find a way to get optimal efficiency out of Love in Cleveland. His defense has improved, but he will always be a target against teams that run a lot of pick and roll, which is most of the league at this point. Kevin only has one game in which he’s grabbed more than five rebounds in this series, which takes away about half of his value as someone who can spark fast breaks out of his outlet passes. He spends more of the Cavs possessions standing in one of the corners waiting for a pass that is not coming. He has only had 18 field goal attempts in the last three games he’s played. There’s a real argument that can be made that Love should not play if Cleveland is not going to make a concerted effort to get him shots.

I feel bad for Love. No kid grows up dreaming of being the scapegoat for a team losing in the NBA Finals. If the Cavs go down tonight or in Game Seven, Kevin Love will be the subject of hundreds of takedown pieces. I’m hoping that Love has a great game tonight and pushes the series to a seventh game. There’s no way that the Cavs are going to be able to get by with LeBron and Kyrie hitting over 60% of their shots tonight, and there is no other player on this roster capable of scoring on the same level as Love (no offense to you Richard Jefferson). This means getting Love looks in the post, and actually running plays through him. I’m not sure that Coach Lue has it in his playbook to do more than runs high screens for LeBron and Irving, which, to be fair, is a really strong play.

Against most of the teams in the league you can rely on the greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to win a seven game series, but when you are playing one of the best teams in the history of the league you have to find ways to get your other players more involved. I tip my hat to Tristan Thompson for being such a monster on the glass throughout the playoffs. He has proven himself a max level player as a 6’9″ player who can play as a Center in small lineups. His offensive rebounding and screening ability has singlehandedly kept Cleveland in some of these Finals games. It feels like the Cavs have three pieces of a championship team, but is one short. That fourth piece should have been Love, but in a world where the Warriors exist you just can’t have two defensive liabilities on the court at the same time. Kyrie and Love are both defensive liabilities. Irving has proven that he can get hot enough on offense to compensate for his decencies on the other end, Love has not. This Cleveland organization tried to jam Love into their lineup like it was a fantasy sports team. It didn’t work. As they watch the Warriors celebrate their second title they will no doubt be thinking about how important it is to make sure that all the pieces fit.

LeBron and Kyrie dazzle in Cleveland’s Game Five win

2016 NBA Finals - Game Five
OAKLAND, CA – JUNE 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with teammate Kyrie Irving #2 after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals with a score of 112 to 97 at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Dual Tsunamis hit the Bay Area last night in the forms of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The duo combined for 82 points in what was one of the greatest spectacles in NBA Finals history. Cleveland rode the wave of their two Super Stars to a 112–97 victory, sending the series back to Cleveland for Game Six.

It turns out when the Warriors have to play without their best defender, who is probably the best defender in the league, their defense goes to shit. Cleveland shot 53 percent from the field in Game Five, and Kyrie Irving decimated Golden State’s defense shooting 74% from the field and 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. Kyrie carried the Cavs down the stretch, at one point scoring seven straight points. This game will be the crown jewel in a Finals in which Curry already has games of 34 and 30 points. It seems like he is gaining more confidence with each game, and has been nothing less than formidable playing against one of the best defenders in the league in Klay Thompson.

LeBron was magnificent in this game, his stat line (41 PTS, 16 REBS, 7 ASTS) will go down as one of the most impressive in Finals history. This game was a reminder that you really shouldn’t talk smack to one of the greatest players in NBA History. This was the most aggressive James has been in these playoffs. Without Draymond Green on the court to switch on to LeBron off of screens, The King was hellbent on taking the ball to the rim against the likes of Maurice Speights and James McAdoo. What’s more, James found his range in Game Five, hitting four of his eight three shots from deep.

It wasn’t just on offense that James was dominant last night, he was also a terror on defense. He rolled back the clock on this chase down block of Steph Curry, leaving the Oracle in a state of shock and awe. James played 42 minutes, and if felt like he was all over the court the entire time. I’m beginning to think that James is actually some kind of basketball playing cyborg, because no one with as many minutes as this guy should be able to play impeccable basketball for this long of a stretch. He’s played over 40 minutes in his last three games, and will probably play over 40 in Game Six. LeBron and I are about the same age, and there are days when I can’t even bring myself to walk out of my place to get groceries. Meanwhile this guy is chasing down players ten years younger than him and sending their layup into the third row. He’s carrying the torch all of us 31 year olds who are trying to hang in their against the oncoming scourge twentysomethings.

This game became the worst case scenario the Warriors must have considered when Draymond Green got suspended. Not only did they not close out the series, but they also lost one their starters, Andrew Bogut, to injury. Bogut fell down awkwardly in the third quarter and was later ruled out with a left knee sprain. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI sometime later today, and status is unknown for Game Six.

Stephen Curry had another lackluster game, shooting just 8-for-21 from the field and had just four assists to go along with four turnovers. The Warriors offense was out of sorts against the Cavs. The only player who had a decent night shooting was Klay Thompson, but that offense was negated by how great Irving played for the Cleveland. The Warriors role players did not show up lat night, Marreese Speights was 0-for-6 from the field, Shaun Livingston 3-for-7, and no other bench player made more than one field goal attempt.

This was not a good close out game from the champs, but they can take solace in the fact that they only have to win one of the next two to lock up their second ring. With Draymond back in the lineup there will not be nearly as many open lanes for James and Irving to exploit. For as fun as it was to watch LeBron hit step back threes, I doubt that he will be able to replicate that kind of shooting in Game Six. It should also be noted that Irving was hitting a lot of contested shots in last night’s win, the same kinds of shots that cost the Cavs in Game Four. The way these playoffs have gone it would be no surprise if the Warriors blew the doors off of the Cavs in Game Six, leaving the cursed Cleveland fans to once again have to watch an opposing team’s trophy ceremony on their home court.

It was a pleasure to James and Irving turn last night into their own personal “Where Amazing Happens” commercial. There have not been that many definitive moments from these playoffs, and not only did they provide career defining performances, but they also gave all of us basketball fans at least one more night to celebrate the game we love. Let’s hope that Game Six has the same kind of energy as Game Five. The gauntlet has been thrown down, let’s see how Steph, Klay, and especially the returning Draymond Green responds.

Can we stop talking about LeBron James legacy, please?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Houston Rockets
HOUSTON, TX – MARCH 1: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game against the Houston Rockets on March 1, 2015 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

Of all of the hot takes that swirl around the sports world the one that I am most exhausted by is the question of LeBron James legacy. It seems like lazy sports writers started to tie every game James has played since his rookie year into a legacy themed column, and in the past handful of seasons it’s become impossible to escape the conversation. There are leeches out there like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith that have made careers out of bad mouthing players like James.

Now for a hot take of my own. Winning titles in the NBA is hard – like, impossibly hard. To win a championship you have to stay healthy enough during the regular season to get to the playoffs, then beat a number of the best teams in the league four out of seven times to advance to the Finals. During playoff series there are going to be games that you are going to win or lose because you were lucky enough to get a couple of loose balls that could have went to either team, or get a few calls that could have gone either way. Oh yeah, and there are going to be years when you have to beat a historically great team to win the title, see: this year.

LeBron James already has two championships under his belt. He has also done the seemingly impossible in making it to six straight Finals on two different teams. His career numbers are staggering. Over 13 season’s James has averaged 27 points, seven rebounds seven assists, two steals and a blocked shot. He’s been to the playoffs 11 of the 13 seasons in the league and his averages are even better than his regular season splits. He is currently second in career PER (27.65), trailing Michael Jordan by less than a point. He is fourth all time in points scored in the playoffs, third in assists, and – probably the most impressive all these playoff stats – tenth in rebounds. By almost any measure James is the best all around basketball player to ever play the game.

And yet… In this world of top ten listicles and all takes having to be served on a griddle in order to keep the masses interested, all people can talk about is how the King stacks up against the All- Time Greats. Most of the time these people refuse to take a look at the stats I just ran off. Which by the way took all of five minutes to find. Instead people like to spew hyperbolic statements about players like Michael Jordan and Bill Russell and how many rings they have, as if simply winning titles is the end-all, be-all of greatness.

Whenever a player in the post-Jordan era has a great career everyone’s first reaction is to measure it against Michael Jordan. I’m not here to argue whether or not Jordan was the best basketball player to grace this Earth, he certainly was the best player of his era, but basketball as a sport was just starting to fumble it’s way out of the stone age when His Airness was beating opponents over the head on a nightly basis. The measure of what made for a great basketball player in Jordan’s hey-day is exactly what the teams have tried to weed out of their systems in the last decade, and to compare any good basketball player in this day-and-age to Jordan seems insane. Nobody is looking for a player who dribbles the ball for ten seconds in the high post, looking to get off a turn-a-round, fadeaway from midrange.

LeBron James has the been the prototype player for a game that is in the midst of an evolutionary transformation. Here is a guy that has the build of Karl Malone and the vision of Magic Johnson. At his peak James could score 30 straight points in a playoff game, or average a triple double over the course of a series. The King was guarding every position on the court before Draymond Green was even in high school. Although he never developed a devastating three point shot, his understanding of player positioning and opposing defenses has allowed him to be the centerpiece of a team that is lethal from range.

All of this to say that LeBron James could have played in any era of the NBA and been the best all around player. His size and athleticism are unmatched in the history of the game, and he has set the standard for what it means to be a great two way star. It’s easy to look at what the Warriors are doing and come to the conclusion that the most valuable asset a basketball player can possess is a dead-eye three point shot, and to some extent that is true, but as we see with what Green means to this Warriors team, a player who can rebound, play multiple positions on both ends and be a great passer is priceless. Green makes the Warriors impossible to guard because he plays like LeBron James.

The Warriors are probably going to win these Finals. They are the next step in where basketball is heading. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, they are five years ahead of their competition. Still, there will be lazy pundits out there that use this loss to bash LeBron James for not having some kind of mystical ability to make his team play better against perhaps the greatest team in NBA history. He will be blamed for not finding a way to make Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving better defenders, or being able to somehow make Matthew Dellavedova a good basketball player, or even find a way to make Richard Jefferson ten years younger.

I’m not here to show pity to LeBron James. He has made hundreds of millions of dollars in NBA and sponsorship deals. He’s had more control over the destiny of his career than any player in the history of the game. With all of this comes crushing expectations and unfortunate honor of having to answer questions about your own legacy every time you lose a playoff series. James is one of the best basketball players to ever walk this Earth. Watching him play is evidence enough of this greatness. So go ahead and watch him play tonight, because, win or lose, his brilliance on the court is undeniable, and so much more entertaining than tired discussions about legacy.

Dray Day:Why the Cavs can’t emulate the Warriors championship style

dray day

Playing the Golden State Warriors means making tough choices. Last night Tyronn Lue and the Cavs decided to leave Draymond Green open coming off of pick and rolls. It didn’t work out so well. Green played like an MVP, scoring 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting, including five 3s to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. Green led all scorers in the Warriors 110-77 win. We’ve been waiting for this kind of performance from Draymond for awhile now, and Cleveland basically rolled him the ball and said, “go for it.”

Kevin Love exited the game in the third quarter due to showing concussion like symptoms after taking an elbow to the head from Harrison Barnes late in the first half. Love was not having a particularly good night up to that point, his 2-for-7 shooting and lackluster defense was big part of Golden State’s big, second quarter run which swung the game from the Cavs having a six point lead to the Warriors going up by as much as 15 before the half. Love will be looked at by the league and a decision about his playing status will be made later today.

 

It’s not just Love that continues to struggle in this series, Kyrie Irving had another subpar game Sunday, shooting just 5-for-14, and generally looking lost against the Warriors defense. How many times in these Finals do you think LeBron must have thought about having Love traded in the offseason, a hundred? A thousand? How valuable would having another dependable wing that could play D and hit threes be for this Cleveland roster, especially given the way the league is moving. I’m not saying that Andrew Wiggins is definitely that guy, but he’s much closer to that guy than Kevin Love is. I’m not saying this series would be any different if you took out Kevin Love for almost any player in the NBA (except maybe Kawhi), I’m just wondering how the King is feeling right now about his decision to come back to Cleveland.

 

It is easy to forget just how dominate Golden State has been all year. The Thunder made this team look human because they had a roster full of seven footers who could cramp the Warriors open court style. The Cavaliers have been trying to combat the champs small ball style by playing small themselves, the problem being they do not have a team filled with utility players like the Warriors do. When Cleveland tries to switch every screen Golden State throws at them, their players eventually get lost in the shuffle, creating wide open threes for the deadliest shooting team the league has ever seen. This is not a recipe for success. The Warriors hit 15 of the 33 threes they attempted in game two, compared to just five threes for the Cavs. If you are going to play small against the Warriors you have to be able to maintain defensive integrity along the perimeter or you are going to get killed by the three ball. This is a lesson Cleveland is learning the hard way.

 

The right way for the Cavs to play this series is to drag out possessions on offense, pound the offensive glass, and try to keep the ball away from Steph, Klay and Dray as much as possible. This is the strategy that got Cleveland wins last year in the Finals, and as much as Tyronn Lue wants to play with pace and space, it’s what they are going to have to revert to if they want to stand any chance of a comeback this year. Cleveland does not really have the option of going big against the Warriors, Channing Frye may be a seven footer put he is not nearly quick enough to be effective defensively, and Timofey Mozgov has not seen the court a whole lot this year, to ask him to play starter minutes this far into the Finals seems kind of crazy.

 

This series is obviously not over yet, and there’s a very good chance that the Cavs could find a way to win both games at home. Role players tend to be a lot better at home than on the road, and the Cavs are going to need their bench to step up in a huge way if they want to even sniff a win from here on out. You can make an argument that Richard Jefferson was the best player on the court for Cleveland last night, his 12 points on six shots, with five rebounds, a block and a steal were incredible, but the rest of the Cavs bench scored just 18 points compared to the Warriors 33. If those numbers don’t get flipped when the series moves to Cleveland then we can all start making our summer plans now.
The Cavs are a team that tried to retrofit their roster and play style to match the champions. Against the weaker Eastern Conference teams this paid off in a big way, but now that they are walloped by their muse it’s time for some real soul searching. There is a reason why Draymond Green can play center even though he is barely 6-7”. The Warriors go small because their guards are all tall dudes with huge wingspans and incredible basketball IQ’s. Draymond Green is one of the smartest players in the league, who has a nose for where the ball is going and can also play point guard. The champs play small because they have a roster that is built to play that way, the Cavs are merely a decent forgery of a great work of art. It’s time for them to start playing ugly, slow the game down, and pray that LeBron has a couple of All Time great performances left. The Warriors are putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game of basketball, and I’m not sure there is much the Cavaliers can do but stand by like the rest of us and enjoy the show.

Quick Game Two Thoughts

If Game One proved that the Warriors are indeed a complete championship level team, Game Two is going to test the coaching and depth of the Cavaliers. For so much of the playoffs Cleveland’s second unit has been a class above its competition but they were dominated by Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Mr. Finals MVP, Andre Iguodola.  In a game where Steph and Klay only combined for 20 points the Warriors still won by 15. This is a huge problem for Tyronn Lue to try to solve in Game Two. The Splash Brothers are going to start hitting shots sooner than later, and if the Cavs bench can’t hold their own against the defending champs then this series is going to be a short one.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Cleveland’s bench is the lack of a size when it comes to defending Shaun Livingston. Matthew Dellavedova is an incredible pest, and nut shot sniper, but Delly stands at just 6-4″ and stands no chance of being able to man-up Livingston, who is 6-7″ on a bad day. This series has to feel like a cakewalk compared to the gauntlet of big-physical defenders that the Thunder through at Livingston. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson are the Cavaliers most physical players, and neither one of them will ever match up on Livingston. When the Warriors bench lineup consists of Iggy, Livingston, and Thompson, you know that the defense is going to be there. This is not a lineup that will allow Jefferson, Delly and others like Channing Frye to fire up three pointers like they have been throughout the playoffs.

The pressure is definitely on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to up their games tonight, Irving scored 26 points in Game One, but only hit seven of his 22 shots. He played way too much one-on-one in order to get his shot, and the Warriors are more than happy to let Irving try to win the game by himself. The more Iso possessions Cleveland plays, the less their role players get a chance to participate. I thought that Irving and Love had a great two-man game going in the Toronto series, and I’d like to see them work the pick and roll a little more in Game Two. Love played decently in Game One, but he really struggled to take advantage of mismatches in the post. The Warriors are only going to allow you to do so many different things on offense, and when you get a chance to post-up Love against the likes of Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, you have to take advantage. This is what the Thunder were able to do so well against Golden State in the WCF, they would find mismatches down low and get easy points. Love has to step his game up from here on out, he is the only other player on the team outside of LeBron that can consistently get into favorable positions in the post.

Speaking of LeBron, who was one assist away from a triple-double in Game One, the King has to be every bit as dominate in this series as he was in last years Finals. Big series like this are usually won by the team who has the best player on the court, and right now there is this moment in which Curry and James are both at the peak of the NBA mountain when it comes to skill. Curry has been steadily climbing it for a couple of years now, and can see the summit. LeBron has been to the peak and is now trying to hold on for dear life. For all the match-ups and X’s and O’s that this series presents, it really boils down to how much dominance does the King have left in his tank. Can he reach deep down and come up with four, ultra-efficient, dominating performances against the one guy in the league that can seemingly shut him down?

I don’t like calling early games in a series a “must win” game, but there if the Warriors come away with a win tonight I’m not sure if Cleveland can come back in this series. For those who want to a see a championship for the Land, this game means a whole lot. I think we are going to see LeBron James play as hard as  he ever has tonight, it’s up to Love, Irving and the rest of the Cavs roster to follow his lead. For Golden State this game is a matter of staying the course, keeping up the discipline on defense and working to get Steph and Klay clean looks. They know how big a win tonight will be, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a special performance out of the Splash Brothers. It should be a fun one.

Boys Among Men

Last night I had the opportunity to show my fiance one of my favorite basketball movies, Blue Chips. In this movie Nick Nolte plays the head coach of a fictitious university that, after several years of losing, decides to break the rules and pay recruits to come play for them. The movie features an alarming number of professional players (Shaq, Penny Hardaway, LARRY BIRD!) and college coaches (Dick Vitale, Bobby Knight, Jim Boeheim) for the subject matter. The plot of the movie is pretty much what you expect. Nolte has to sell his soul to get the players he wants, but after instant success with the bought recruits, and learning of a point shaving incident that one of his former players was involved with, he decides to walk away from a profession that he no longer believes in. In the movies defining scene, Nolte gives a press conference in which he outs college basketball, and to a larger extent the exploiting of talented young basketball players by family, friends and youth coaches. It’s one of my favorite scenes in any sports movie.

This is a movie that came out in 1994, mind you, but it still feels vital today. It’s fitting that Blue Chips come on just after I finish reading Jonathan Abrams fantastic new book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. I first started reading Abrams when he was with the Grantland. His oral histories are the stuff of legend, see: his oral histories on the 1990’s Magic and the 2002 Kings. When I learned that Abrams was stretching out one of these oral histories into a book I couldn’t have been more excited.

In Boys Among Men Abrams painstakingly covers the entirety of the NBA’s prep-to-pro era, which spanned almost half a century and came to define the NBA in the early 2000’s. Growing up watching the entire careers of Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant has made my generation experts on the prep-to-pro movement, but what Abrams does better than other writers I’ve read on the subject is point a non flinching, non judging spotlight on both the success stories and the failures of the era.

If you follow basketball even a little then you are probably aware of the AAU scene in which talented young players travel around the country during the summer and play other talented squads. These days most NBA level players are playing each other when they are as young as 11 and 12 years old. These AAU teams are often play in tournaments sponsored by shoe companies and attract pro scouts and college coaches by the hundreds. Back when it was in the rules for players to skip college, young players had to deal with pitches from AAU coaches, high school coaches, college recruits, pro scouts, as well as representatives from a number of shoe companies hoping to lock them up while they are young and bargain priced.

Given that many of the players who skipped college to go to the pros came from very humble beginnings, often from broken homes, it’s incredible how many were able to make the jump to the professional game and have successful careers. In fact a vast majority of the players who skipped university had some form of success in the pro game, and many have parlayed their success in basketball into fulfilling lives outside of the game. For every bust like Korleone Young there is a success story like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant. In many cases the differences in being a good pro and and a failure had little to do with playing an extra year or two at a school and more to do with the players inner drive and the kind of professional tutelage they received from their peers.

It’s been over a decade since the NBA required that players be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school before they can declare for the NBA draft. The intent of the rule is to have players be more prepared for the pro game when they are drafted, but what has happened in these ten years is almost comical. Some players have chosen to take the year between high school and the pros to play overseas, but for the most part this path has led to little success as players have to try to adapt to living in a different country as well as the physicality of playing with men. Many of the pros drafted since the rule change have only played in college for a single season, and while this is great for the NCAA in terms of profit from cable packages and ticket sales, the idea that these kids are getting a real education is mostly laughable.

I’ve never been a fan of watching college sports because I can not get over the hypocrisy of schools making millions of dollars off of the work of young men and women without properly compensating the athletes. When people get all worked up about coaches like John Calipari I just shrug because at least some of these guys are up front with their intentions. They offer great high school students the chance to play for a school that is going to fully showcase their talents for pro teams in order to get drafted. Calipari seems to revel in the sliminess of his profession, and I can at least respect that.

I’ve followed the NBA closely for almost two decades now, and what most impresses me about the players is just how many of them turn out to be well spoken, genuinely great people given the immense pressures that they are under from the time they hit puberty all the way into middle age. To be a gifted basketball player often means carrying the burdens of your entire family and circle of friends as well as have to deal with agents, sponsorships, coaches and fans on a daily basis. Not too mention the business of being in the top .001 percent of your profession. It takes a special kind of person to be able to hold up to all of these expectations, and their certainly is no school I’ve ever heard of that teaches one how to live up to impossible levels of hype.

There will never be a good answer to getting a young athlete ready to play a sport professionally. You can force a kid to play in college in four years, but I think that does a disservice to both the player as well as the teachers of the school. The only people that really benefit are the ones who cash the paychecks. There has long been talk about creating a minor league for the NBA, or at least dumping more resources into the the development league that already exists, but that would require teams to have the patience to actually allow their players to develop for multiple years in a lower league while their pro team struggles. You could also make an argument that these young players will not develop fast enough against lower levels of competition to make a minor league truly worth it.

The system that we have in place right now for drafting kids into the NBA is a sham. If an 18 man wants to start his career instead of spending a a year or two pretending to go to school while working full time for no salary at a school, he should be able to do so. It should be the responsibility of the teams to do their due diligence in scouting and developing players out of high school. Let’s get rid of of this dumb rule and make the business of professional basketball more transparent and fair for the athletes.