Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Not Wise To Bet Against LeBron James

LeBron James appeared on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, but before the episode aired you had probably already seen the clip of his miraculous circus shot. In it, James - while filming a segment with Steve Kroft at The House The King Built, a.k.a the gym of his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School - effortlessly tosses a one-handed, underhanded shot into the basket from 60 feet away.


If you or I were to make a shot like that, we would have no choice but to celebrate; it would be an organic reaction to making a miracle shot that we didn't really expect to make. But LeBron doesn't treat it like a lucky shot; in fact, he even shoots it like he knows it's going to go in. His response to its tickling off the net is both cocky and causal. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, LeBron has a reputation for making such trick baskets. These seemingly trivial feats make James seem like a mythic figure walking the earth, the kind of athlete my generations kids will tell their grand-kids legends about, fact mixed in with fiction. They make him seem like a modern-day Babe Ruth.

Which he pretty much is.

Should he win the MVP? Pfft. Don't insult him. Of course he should win the MVP. It's his birthright. He was literally put on this earth to collect Maurice Podoloff Trophy's. Sure, I can think of several reasons for both Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant as to why those two gentlemen are deserving of the award. But I can also think of one major reason why they are not: LeBron James. The "King" has learned to dominate on both ends, he's led a much improved (by the single acquisition of point guard Mo Williams) but still not great collection of teammates to the league's best record (61-14 through Thursday, a full two games ahead of Kobe and the Lakers), and he's having one of the best all-around statistical seasons anyone has ever had. He is the MVP. Just hand him the damn trophy now.

The real question should be, Can he walk on water?

By the time LeBron James was 16, he was already the best high school basketball player in the country, the only sophomore ever selected first-team All-American. As a junior he made the cover of Sports Illustrated, the venerable magazine dubbing him "The Chosen One." As a senior, he started the trend of ESPN airing high school games showcasing the nations best prep ballplayers. He entered the pro game amid an unprecedented level of scrutiny and expectation, which he couldn't possibly live up to, everyone thought. Afterall, he was only a kid.

And so in his very first NBA game, he put up a 25-6-9 against a championship-contending Sacramento squad. Thus began the legend of LeBron James. Everything that has followed since has been an extension of that night: One of the ten best players in the league by the end of his rookie season; top five by the end of his second; 31-7-6 in his third year, at 21; leading an otherwise horrific Cavs team to the Finals at 22; putting up a 30-8-7 last season; and this season, taking his game to yet another level and establishing himself as perhaps the best NBA player since Michael Jordan, even though he's still several years removed from the onset of his prime.

The moniker given to him by SI is now also a tattoo spread across his upper back, and I have already in this article given an effort to properly define his greatness by making an allusion to a feat accomplished only by Jesus. James does inspire sacrilege. As far as basketball players go, he may be the most God-like we've seen. His physical makeup, when conjoined with the nature of his athleticism, seems unreasonable. That someone so big and burly could also be so fast, quick, agile, and explosive does not seem anatomically possible. But through James we see that it is.

It would seem unlikely that a team as humbly composed as the Cavaliers of James' first five seasons could challenge, step for step, such superior (on paper) squadrons as the Chauncey Billups-led powerhouse Detroit Pistons and the current Boston Celtics. But they did.

Even this season, with the addition of Williams, Cleveland has overachieved. Williams is a very good point guard, but ideally, you'd want him as your third best player, not your second, especially if you planned on winning 65-plus games. And yet the Cavs march on, the best win total in team history and counting, more than any other reason because LeBron is, by his lonesome, better than many teams' two best players combined.

Here is the point: At Cleveland's media day back in September, James said of the Cavs championship aspirations, "There's not much of an excuse now." They have cruised through the regular season, and now the playoffs approach rapidly.

So, James' exploits being what they are, is there any reason to believe that his preseason stance will not result in a Cleveland championship?

As a Lakers fan, LeBron's words worried me. I took them as an ominous warning. Eight months later, I'm still scared, even though I think the Lakers have the best team.

The Cavs put the fear of LeBron in me.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The (Relatively) Neglected Legend

He was arguably the greatest high school basketball player who ever lived - three consecutive New York City Catholic championships at the fabled Power Memorial High School in New York, New York, and certified phenom status.

He was almost certainly the greatest college basketball player of all-time - three Player of the Year awards and three national titles in three years playing for John Wooden at empirical UCLA (sorry, Big Red Head - you only won two titles).

And while Michael Jordan was the best NBA player to ever lace them up, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was perhaps the most accomplished, with his 19 All-Star game appearances, 6 MVPs, and 6 championships, etc.

And yet, the basketball legend born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. remains more than a tad bit underrated, and in his retirement, he has been something resembling blackballed.

Abdul-Jabbar was elegant and unstoppable on the court, and thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate off it. But he was also shy and moody - his mood tending to lean very heavily in the antisocial direction for most of his career, which led to his adversarial relationship with the media.

Abdul-Jabbar hasn't played basketball in 20 years, but that aspect of his personality still lingers and haunts him to this day, even if he has changed. And it hurts him on at least a couple of fronts.

Alcindor arrived in Westwood in 1966, to much fanfare. He was LeBron James before LeBron James. In his college debut (and the inaugural game at the brand-new Pauley Pavillion), Alcindor led the Bruins freshman team to a 15-point victory over the preseason no.1 ranked UCLA varsity, who had won the first two of Wooden's ten national titles in 1964 and 1965.

In each of his three seasons on the varsity, the Bruins would win the NCAA title, amassing a total of 88 wins versus only two losses during that span, with Alcindor averaging more than 26 points and 15 rebounds per game. In his senior year of 1969 Alcindor was awarded the initial Naismith Men's College Player of the Year Award, after winning the AP award the previous two seasons.

So awesome was Alcindor that the NCAA banned dunking after his freshman year, in a useless attempt to curb his dominance.

Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the first overall selection in the 1969 NBA draft, Alcindor entered the pro ranks at an auspicious moment: on the heels of Bill Russell's retirement and at the toe's of Wilt Chamberlain's 33rd birthday. A window was on the verge of widely opening for a new giant to enter through and dominate the game, and carry on the tradition of great centers.

Alcindor did not disappoint. In his rookie season he averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds per game. In his second season he led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only NBA championship, winning the Finals MVP for his efforts in the 4-0 sweep of the Washington Bullets. The day after winning the championship, he officially changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as part of a conversion to Islam that had taken place years prior.

But only the name on the back of the jersey would change, as Abdul-Jabbar would continue to play at his usual dominating level. During the 1970s, he won five regular season MVPs, and developed his signature move, the unblockable sky-hook, which would carry him to more than 38,000 points. In 1975 he would be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he led a group of good, but not great, ballplayers to the playoffs several times with no championship success.

However, this would change in 1979, when a rookie guard named Magic Johnson joined the club. In their first season as teammates, Abdul-Jabbar, now 33, would win his final, and still record, sixth MVP award, and the Lakers would win the first of five titles during the 1980s. Six years later, he was still averaging more than 20 points per game. In 1985 he had won a second Finals MVP award, as the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics for the first time ever in the championship series, highlighted by Abdul-Jabbar's famous 30 point, 17 rebound, 8 assist, 3 block performance in a huge Game 2 win at Boston Garden - a direct response to a poor showing in Game 1's 148-114 loss, commonly referred to as the "Memorial Day Massacre."

Today, Abdul-Jabbar stands as the game's all-time leader in total points, field goals made, minutes played, and All-Star game selections, and being the complete player that he was, he also ranks in the top-five in total rebounds and blocks. Furthermore, he is the sole inventor of the most unstoppable shot in basketball history, as well as the only man to ever use it, let alone perfect it. His pro career was an achievement in longevity and conditioning; no one else has ever played so well for so long. And few were as great in their primes.

Which creates the contradiction.

In 2003, SLAM Magazine did a list ranking the 75 best players in NBA annals. And in this list they ranked Abdul-Jabbar...seventh. Seventh? How can someone with Abdul-Jabbar's resume be ranked only seventh? Fundamentally, it makes no sense. Sure, Magic was really the most indispensable player on the Showtime Lakers, and sure, Magic and Co. sort of carried him to those last two titles. But that is nitpicking. This was a clearly distinguished basketball player. Obviously, the list was in no way definitive, but it is consistent with the persistent undervaluing of Abdul-Jabbar's career.

My opinion? Despite his obvious greatness, Abdul-Jabbar was never beloved. But more importantly, he was never even liked by the media, whom he distrusted and avoided. And the fourth estate is the most powerful in all of sports. They are the ones who burnish the reputations and make the myths. At All-Star weekend, Phil Jackson, speaking of his once feuding former superstar duo, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, said, "The last man standing writes the history." This is so true. But here's the thing: The media will always be the last one's standing. They will outlast any athlete. And so they write the history. And so while they have not actively sought to sabotage Kareem, they also have not actively tried to pimp him, to cultivate his legend. He has never truly received the proper amount of attention, the kind of attention his exploits would seem to demand.

Which is why SLAM, a magazine founded in 1992, driven by writers who belong to the hip-hop era and the urban culture of the 1990s, ranked him at no. 7: not because they have any personal biases against a man that none of them likely ever covered or got to know very well, but because they have been impacted by the lack of recognition given to him by their older colleagues, who reported on him during his playing days and had the power to cultivate his legacy and ensure that he receive his just due, but did not.

In actuality, no basketball player, living or dead, had a more stellar overall career. But how often is that truth spoken?

What I cannot blame the media for, though, is Abdul-Jabbar's middling coaching career. He has been an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Seattle SuperSonics, and a scout with the New York Knicks. His only head coaching experience came in the USBL, where he led the Oklahoma Storm to the league championship in 2002. Since 2005 he has occupied a special position as a tutor for Lakers centers, specifically youngster Andrew Bynum, whom he has helped develop into one of the game's best pivots.

And yet, NBA teams remain reluctant to give Abdul-Jabbar a head coaching position, fearing that he does not have the requisite people skills for the job. He has mellowed considerably since his playing days, but the past is a hard thing to shake.

No one is to be accosted for this. Abdul-Jabbar cannot be faulted for his once distant nature, nor can any NBA general manager be faulted for having the doubts that they have about him. But it is unfortunate. Magic got to be a head coach in the NBA, as did Larry Bird, and Jerry West, and Bill Russell. Kareem wants to be a head coach in the NBA, but no one will hire him. And for that I feel sorry for him.

You'd think his illustrious list of achievements would have earned him a shot, just the respect that they signal for, but they haven't. But this shouldn't be surprising, because they also haven't earned him the recognition he deserves as basketball's all-time most decorated player. This congruence can be traced back to his personality. His star can't help but shine, but it doesn't shine as brightly as it should.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be getting a better deal.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Revenge of Dwyane "Omar" Wade

The way Dwyane Wade has been playing this season, he reminds me of Omar in seasons 1 and 5 of "The Wire." Offended by Baltimore's most prominent and ruthless drug dealers, his crew depleted, HBO's likable stickup artist goes on the hunt for revenge all by his lonesome. He more than held his own, did his share of killing, but was ultimately gunned down.

After two injury marred seasons, in which he missed a combined 62 games, you could almost say people had forgotten Dwyane Wade's name, or at least the way it made them feel only three years ago. And so, a chip on both shoulders, Flash set out this season to refresh memories. He has succeeded. His body leaner than ever, with hops and quickness fully intact and a new weapon - a perfected 20-foot jump shot, his version of Omar's trusty shotgun - at his disposal, Mr. Wade is having one of the best year's of any player this decade.

The one man on a one-man team, Wade has dragged the Heat into contention. They are 33-29, fifth place in the East and only a game and a half out of home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Bet on Wade getting them that spot. Coming into Saturday's game against Cleveland, he was averaging 29.5 points (first in the league), 5.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists (third), 2.2 steals (third) and 1.4 blocks (21st). The points, assists, steals, and blocks are all career-highs. He has scored 40 or more points in a league-best nine games. He is on pace to record the most swats ever for a player 6-4 or shorter.

On February 22nd, he scored a career-best 50 against the Magic in Orlando (albeit in a 23 point defeat). In the nine games heading into Saturday, he was averaging 36.4 points and 10.6 assists on 57.8 shooting from the field! When's the last time anyone put up numbers like that over two weeks?

Always a fearless competitor, Wade has been downright bloodthirsty this year. He's been on a mission. The Heat have a rookie head coach. They start a rookie point guard. Their second leading scorer is a rookie, and he only averages 14 points per game. Their second best player for the first half of the season was Shawn Marion, who's either past his prime at the age of 30 or was simply of greatly diminished value to them in their half-court style of play. Near the trade deadline he was dealt to Toronto in exchange for Jermaine O'Neal, also 30, who is about half the player he once was.

And yet, the Heat remain above water, all because Wade has ascended to a level of play matched by few guards in the last 30 years.

As a pure scorer, Wade, 27, now most closely resembles a first-three-peat-era Michael Jordan. But while MJ was a true two, Wade is a throwback to the 60s, when there was no such thing as "point guard" (well, other than Bob Cousy, I guess) or "shooting guard" - backcourt players were simply called "guards." Thus, we'd have to go back further than 30 years to find the last time a pure "guard" was playing as well: Jerry West, when he was wreaking havoc with the Lakers.

But here's the thing: As we inch closer to the playoffs, we get nearer the time of year when Wade does his best work. He's been a killer since way back, especially in the postseason. He put himself on the map during his sophomore year in college, when he dropped a 29-11-11 on top-ranked, top-seeded Kentucky to advance Marquette to the Final Four (it was only the third triple-double in NCAA tournament history).

His rookie year in the NBA he led a young Miami team that had gone only 42-40 during the regular season to the second round of the playoffs, where they gave a 61-win Indiana team all they could handle and he authored his famous facial on Jermaine O'Neal, one of the best postseason posterizations of the decade (you may also remember the game-winner he hit against the Hornets in the first round - sorry, Baron).

The next year he (along with Shaq) got the Heat within a game of the Finals, and the following spring he would take down all comers - his performance in the championship series against Dallas one of the greatest of all-time (35, 8, and 4 in a 4-2 win for Miami). 'Bron, Howard, Paul, even Kobe - none of them has a Finals MVP trophy. He does.

In other words, if you are an East playoff team, you should have a healthy fear of Mr. Wade this spring. He may be outnumbered, but as he's been showing us all year, he's still got it. In fact, he's more dangerous than ever. Wade's been kicking ass all year, but what better way for him provide exclamation for his mini-comeback than to win a series in the playoffs, then make one of the East's big dogs sweat some in the second round.

It'd be like watching Omar terrorize Marlo Stanfield and crew by himself. Maybe the odds would beat him in the end, but it would nonetheless make for some riveting TV.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Ongoing Disgracing of Allen Iverson

First, the Pistons traded for him, and asked him to fit into a system that is not meant for him, that has never been meant for him, that is the polar opposite of a system that he could ever fit into. They were asking him to, at 33 and in his thirteenth season, become a player that is the antithesis of the player he has always been.

They struggled, a perennial powerhouse fading into mediocrity.

Then, Allen Iverson got hurt.

The Pistons have now won three in a row without him, with Rip Hamilton reclaiming his starting position in The Answer's absence.

When he comes back from a back injury, Allen Iverson will accept a role off the bench, per the request of his head coach, and the sake of his team.

Four-time scoring champion, owner of the third highest scoring average in NBA history, former MVP, and he's being treated like some kind of chump.

If you asked Allen Iverson to speak with an honest tongue (meaning if you just asked him a question), he'd probably tell you this has been the most unfair season of his career, as well as the one in which he's felt the most disrespected.

How was he ever going to fit in in Detroit if they were going to use him like they have? When the deal was made, I thought the Pistons would be the perfect fit for him. But I assumed the Pistons brass, namely new head coach Michael Curry, would be cognizant of the fact that they had to tailor their structure to accommodate Iverson, not the other way around.

Iverson has always been a player who dominated the ball in his team's offense, and his most accomplished season came in 2001 in Philly, when he was surrounded by one great defensive star (Dikembe Mutombo, acquired halfway through the season for shotblocker Theo Ratliff) and a bunch of role players (Tyrone Hill, George Lynch, Eric Snow, Matt Geiger, Todd MacCullough, Jumaine Jones, Raja Bell, and Kevin Ollie) who not only weren't scorers, but embraced the fact that none of them were going to have many opportunities to be one. Iverson accounted for about a third of the team's shot attempts, and everyone else picked up the scraps and did the dirty work. And A.I. won his only MVP as Philly won 56 games and made the Finals.

Now, he was going to the team long acknowledged and praised as the most cohesive in basketball, because of the ability of their key players to perform their roles so well, always within the framework of the team. The Joe Dumars Pistons of this early 21st century will always be remembered as a fiercely strong unit of five, who eschewed the notion of any superstar pecking order and stood as a shining example of basketball in its most idealistic form. In other words, they were all unselfish.

Three of the Pistons famed starting five remained - Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, and Hamilton. Prince and Wallace are just like the people Iverson played with in Philly, only much more talented. Both of them are capable of more impressive individual statistics, but neither of them has the personality to even assert themselves (sometimes to the detriment of the team, actually), let alone put their own interest over that of the team. They just want to do the little things.

Hamilton is a scorer, but not a one-on-one player - he thrives off of his ability to score without the ball.

Here's what the Pistons should have done: started Iverson and Hamilton at the guards, with Prince, Wallace, and whoever up front, then play Prince at the point forward and make him responsible for finding Rip on those curl screens and feeding Sheed for the occasional post-up.

Instead, the Pistons are 30-29, and A.I. is looking like the fall guy.

Granted, we don't even really know how good Allen Iverson is anymore. Playing in the Detroit system, where they ask you to be one of five, has obviously hindered Allen's scoring average. And his shooting percentage is the lowest it's been since 2004. And his quiet accordance with his pending demotion to substitute status suggests that maybe he realizes he is past his prime. Or maybe he's just desperate and willing to do whatever it takes to win as he understands that time is beginning to work against him in his quest to win a championship. But something tells me Allen Iverson could still average 25 points a game, given the green light.

And sure, he may prove to be a huge asset to Detroit as their sixth man. Afterall, at least on paper, few players have ever been better suited for the Barbosa-Gordon-Microwave super-net-soaker role than Iverson. He's overqualified for that role.

But the fact remains that he's Allen Freaking Iverson - to paraphrase Mark Jackson, Don't you know his name? You know his work - and at the very least he's still good enough that he shouldn't have anyone even asking him to come off the bleeping bench. He deserves better. But I guess Snoop was right when she said deserve ain't got nothing to do with it.