Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Basketball Happenings

There’s going to be a lot of attention paid to the late-game gaffes of the Magic this game, but that’s not where the true faults are. There may be some attention paid to the continuing struggles of Howard is the low post (Howard got his points on the move, off lobs, etc. etc.). But the truest statistical measure of where the Magic lost the game can be seen in Howard’s stat line: 8 boards, 0 blocks.

This wasn’t necessarily Howard’s fault. The Celtics Princeton-ized their offense, making Howard guard Garnett on the elbow while players cut off of it. Howard never got a chance to play the intimidator role he inhabits so well. Howard never got a chance to clean the boards like he usually does. And so there was no protection at the rim when the Celtics attacked relentlessly. The usual suspects deserve credit for the Celtics: Rondo, who torched Nelson, Pierce, who torched whomever guarded him, and the big men of the Celtics.

Besides the inversion of the Celtics’ offense, the other key factor in the game was Jameer Nelson. This was more subtle: Nelson simply is not a passing point guard, and doesn’t look for players when he should. He missed Howard for easy buckets two or three times today, and took difficult shots when he shouldn’t’ve.

Ultimately, if this game is the end of the Magic’s season this year, we have to wonder what the fate of the Magic will be. People have harped upon the Hedo-Vince swap, but let’s be honest: Hedo sucked this year for the Raptors, and it’s hard to imagine him being any quicker playing for the Magic. It was the right move: not only to acquire Vince, but also to acquire Ryan Anderson, a player who should and perhaps will get more burn in Boston. It’s difficult to see how the Magic get better. Who on this team will advance? Point guard instincts are inherited more than made, I think, and so it’s difficult to see Nelson working on those. It rests upon Howard, who must devote himself to rolling hard to the rim on every play. We’ve seen what he’s capable of in Game 2, and so you have to ask Howard: why can’t you do this more frequently? He’ll always be limited in the low post against the Kendrick Perkins of the world—the big-assed will win the battles in the post, as Moses Malone and Charles Barkley can tell you—but that’s no reason not to exploit his other, equally tremendous gifts on offense. This Magic can be a title team yet, if they want it.


The other note here is to deplore the officiating. It was notably awful for a league that seems to set new lows every season. The announcers declared five calls or so wrong on the spot, and I’d say three or four beyond those were pretty bad also. Consistency was a problem: witness the differing treatment of slips by Rondo, or the differing treatment a post-foul temper tantrum Vince Carter and Kendrick Perkins received. The defining moment of the officiating in this game was at halftime, where official Joe De Rosa tried to throw out a fan for giving him lip (and threw a ball at him). The referees are bad and hate being reminded of this fact. It’s a thankless job and officials should realize this by now.

That said, I don’t believe this is limited to the NBA. I’ve heard unfavorable reports of European referees (and the ones at the Olympics or World Championships are consistently loopy), but I don’t know how to evaluate this without much experience. I can tell you that the refs in college basketball are probably worse than the NBA, though unlike them, the refs there don’t show as much favoritism to star players (but make up for it by just being terrible). And I happened to be watching a lot of the women’s basketball tournament this year, because of Stanford’s season, and all I can say is that Stanford-Xavier in the Elite Eight was the worst officiated basketball game I have seen at any level. And, sadly, this was not an extreme outlier at the women’s tournament.

So it seems that incompetence in basketball officiating is more the norm than anything else, and yet we all know that it can and should be better. The epistemic issues are kind of fascinating—a test for your “gut” in terms of making decisions. And yet every basketball fan I know knows the refs are awful, and it’s part of the central narrative about basketball that isn’t true in baseball or football (it is, interestingly, in soccer).

So perhaps basketball referees are doomed to incompetence. Let’s debate how to make them less important. Ultimately, the best way to do that would be to remove the fouling-out rule, which gives the timing and circumstances of fouls disproportionate importance, such that 4 fouls might not affect your game very much at all, or might take ten minutes off of the game you play. Fouls are bad enough to commit without the playing time implications.


The most significant news of the night may have been the draft lottery, which should conclusively put to rest—as if we needed confirmation, but still—the conspiracy theories about the NBA fixing the league. If I might make a quick tangent here, let me note that conspiracy theories are never helpful. Our politics have been a study in conspiracy theories recently, and it’s not at all clear that they’re the better for them. Conspiracy theories stripped the health care bill of inoffensive provisions (e.g. end of life counseling, or immigration). Conspiracy theories have supercharged the politics of financial reforms, but have led to some goofy proposals in the Senate version of the bill. Conspiracy theories have led to far more Obama-is-a-Kenyan debate than was necessary. And conspiracy theories allow David Stern to write off complaints about the referees as coming from the same source as “David Stern froze the Knick’s envelope in the Patrick Ewing lottery” or “David Stern banned Jordan for a year”: the nutty fringe. And it’s an important issue.

Anyway, to return to the main point: the NBA lottery. Were David Stern fixing the lottery, it’d look something like this: Nets, Warriors, Wizards. The Nets get the first pick as a welcoming present to Brooklyn. The Warriors get the second pick as a boost to a depressed market (that should be one of the most profitable for the NBA) and a boost to the eventual sale of the franchise. The Wizards get the third pick as a thank-you present to Ted Leonsis.

It didn’t quite work out that way. What the NBA Draft lottery reveals year after year is the cosmopolitanism of NBA fans (except, of course, for Lakers fans.) NBA fans want good teams to happen, they want good players to go the right places, and they want rightness to be rewarded. By these standards, the results of the lottery were alright, nothing more. A Favors/Lopez combination in the frontcourt is highly intriguing, and I’m particularly invested in Brook’s future (btw, how many Brook going to Brooklyn puns will there be?), because of the Stanford connection, and because he persevered through a tough season.

It begins to get more dysfunctional at the one and two spots. The Wizards and the Sixers were trapped in the Valley of the Mediocre, and it’s uncertain whether either player has enough strength to get them moving up the slope towards a championship. The combination of Doug Collins and three ballhandlers (Holiday, Turner, Iguodala) is not something I’m particularly anticipating for the world, and it may be a shame to see Turner wasted like this—and I’m seriously getting this vibe, as of my feeling right now. Oh by the way, management—despite bumbling around (if you bumble for long enough in the NBA, eventually you will be stuck in mediocrity)—is still in place in _____. You can say this about the Sixers or Wizards. The latter team insists on trotting out its management team of Ernie Grunfeld, a man who has learned nothing and forgotten everything—including, it seems, such concepts as: acquiring good defensive players, acquiring players who don’t want to kill each other (on or off the court), acquiring passers, hiring good coaches, oh and the list goes on. Grunfeld has assembled one of those perplexing NBA teams whereby a lot of promising young talent is thrown together and hopes it will cohere. Maybe John Wall is the glue, but what a mess around him. Ted Leonsis could do worse than firing Grunfeld, buying out Arenas, banishing JaVale McGee to whatever nonpassing netherworld he was spawned from, and…oh geez, a long list. I want John Wall to succeed. I want all our point guards to succeed.

Including Derrick Rose! That’s right, LeBron! Scratch the Nets off your list! The only obvious place is Chicago!

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