Sunday, May 23, 2010

Some Basketball Stuff

The characteristic basketball mistake is being made…oh, right now. The praise is flowing in earnest for Amare Stoudemire’s wonderful game—deservedly so—and a supposed contrasted is being drawn with his first two games. And that’s true too—his first two games were bad, but not for the reasons you’ve been led to believe: he was awful on the defensive end, not the offensive end. Criticizing him for his defensive lapses and calling them terrible games then flipping and praising an inspired offensive game as a great one is an unfortunately typical basketball error: not recognizing defense.

What made Amare’s game so special today was not merely his use of all the different tools in his offensive toolbox—his footspeed and hangtime (he floats and adjusts in midair like a guard)—but the fact that he wasn’t a liability on defense. He wasn’t Dwight Howard out there, but he wasn’t like a kid lost in the grocery store looking for his parents either.

The other rejoicing we hear is that we finally have a series. Let’s wait until Game 4 for that, shall we? Unfortunately I have to agree with the moralistic take: the zone defense unveiled today probably can’t last. The moralistic take (e.g. Kenny Smith calling it a “junk” defense—apparently Jim Boehim has won 700 games on the back of a gimmick defense) is wrong because it’s closeminded, but it has an essential truth here: the Suns couldn’t really rebound in Games 1 and 2, and zone defenses generally give up more offensive rebounds than the man-to-man defense. So at some point you’d expect the Lakers’ unique combination of height and athleticism at the 4 and 5 positions to reassert itself.

Speaking of that combination, Andrew Bynum was frequently defended by Channing Frye and rarely scored off of that matchup. That is the surest indication that, in fact, he is badly injured and it’s affecting his game. If Bynum is ineffective, the complexion of the series changes: Odom and Gasol are a great lineup together—probably the most effective big man combination versus the Suns—but there’s not much behind it. Is Josh Powell or D.J. Mbenga supposed to stick with Amare? Probably the most egregious miss of a late game development by the announcing crew—besides the obvious fact that Nash broke his nose—was Ron Artest guarding Amare Stoudemire. That’s a matchup that should never ever happen—like Frye on Bynum—and that it did happen suggests unpleasant things for the Lakers, should it return.

And a oh-by-the-way: the reffing tonight was terrible as usual. Think about that jumpball called in the fourth quarter: Odom elevated with three seconds; somehow the jumpball shot clock started with 5 seconds. An awful decision. And, weirdly, also, though Stoudemire took a ton of free throws, the refs missed several opportunities: perhaps part of this is that Stoudemire is so lithe and strong around the basket that fouls don’t really look like fouls, just obstacles for Stoudemire to insinuate his body around.

****

There are accidents and then there are accidents. Major accidents, I mean. By these standards, it’s no accident at all that the first foreign owner of a team in a major U.S. sport was in the NBA. It was a minor accident that said foreign owner happened to be Russian. And, of the real accidental kind: it was an accident that said foreign owner appears to be very shrewd and an accident that the Nets happened to be available at a cut-rate price.

Yes, Mikhail Prokhorov is an interesting guy who happens to have landed at the right moment, right place and right time. You could do worse.

Let’s discuss the major accidents first, shall we? It’s not exactly a secret that many NBA owners are not particularly shrewd. While he has some moments of lost-in-translation goofiness, he’s also self-evidently smart. A minor example: remember that tea time with Mikhail Prokhorov interview I posted? Turns out the guy is a very local blogger just out of J-school. And by just out, I mean, graduated three days before the interview. So, at once, he establishes savvy by appreciating and cultivating new media…appears generous to give a young guy his break…and gets tons more clicks. Let’s just say that Donald Sterling, Chris Cohan, Jerry Reinsdorf, et. al. wouldn’t have thought of this move.

The major savvy? Buying that dirt-cheap asset, the Nets, for $250 million. Actually, this understates the move somewhat: he gets 80% of the team and 45% of the Brooklyn area. Consider this: the Lakers, Knicks and Bulls are worth around $600 million each. What does this say? As the real estate agents say, location, location, location. Because it’s not exactly contemporary on-court success that’s driving those valuations. If Prokhorov builds a team with more highs than the Clippers, then he instantly makes money simply by being in Brooklyn. And if he builds a winner, so much the better. And if he delivers on his idea to make the Nets a global team….well then, who knows what the ceiling to that is? The closest thing the NBA has to a Manchester United—a team whose appeal crosses national borders—is probably the Lakers, and even then.

So I think the minor accidents are a little more interesting. While potentially any nationality could’ve broken that barrier, it makes sense that it’s a Russian. Sports team owners need tons of money, and the commodity boom has enriched a lot of rich people—meaning a lot of Russians have a lot of money to consume conspicuously. And the Russian basketball tradition has always been fairly strong; stronger, certainly, than the major global sport, soccer.

This, by the way, is our other non-accident: why it had to be basketball. American sports are a curious counterpart to British sports: namely, the latter is more popular. Consider the dualities: Cricket-baseball; Rugby-football; soccer-basketball. Each of these games are—spiritually if not conceptually—perfect counterparts for one another, and yet the English version is typically more popular.

Is it all first mover advantage? English sports spread because of English preeminence during the Victorian era: if they didn’t introduce their sports directly (i.e. by ruling a place—see India/Pakistan and cricket), they introduced it through soft power. In fact, it seems—if I’m remembering the book The Ball is Round correctly—that it was typically university students who wanted to seem modern and with the times and hence adopt soccer.

At any rate, American sports haven’t seen the same popular distribution. Baseball basically only spread to a few countries—the Caribbean, Venezuela—through direct imperialism; certainly you didn’t see a lot of people otherwise trying to imitate the Yanqui. Canadians play football, but it’s second place to hockey in their hearts. About the only place that rates football number one besides the good old U.S.A. is American Samoa, and well, you see what’s going on there, don’t you? That’s right, imperialism.

Basketball, then, is America’s answer to soccer and the only game to achieve a modicum of global popularity without, you know, having to invade or something of the sort. At least, I don’t recall having invaded Spain.

In fact, while the initial hype of “every country a Dirk” has died down, we haven’t appreciated just how good the world has gotten at our game. Of the two major teams of the previous decade—that is, the Spurs and the Lakers—foreigners were the second best player for several incarnations of the team. And they keep on coming. It’s really quite cool, don’t you think?

So that’s why it had to be basketball, the owner would probably be Russian, and it’s really quite good for the league to have shrewd owners. Can’t have too much abject dumbness running around.

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