Tag Archives: Kobe Bryant

Candid Kobe

By BJ

As much as I hate Kobe Bryant the Laker, he seems like a cool guy off the court as evidenced by recent postgame comments with players and reporters.

Last week with Ricky Rubio:

Last night on Jeremy Lin (Hilarious. You can tell a lot about what Kobe thinks of himself from talking about another player.):

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NBA Predictions

By Chris Le

Is there any way this season lives up to the hype?

For that to happen the majority of the following would have to occur: Chris Paul is 100 percent healthy and reenters the “Best Point Guard in the League” debate, the union and owners agree on a CBA, Yao Ming and Greg Oden play full seasons, Jeremy Lin ignites the Bay Area and becomes the Asian-American Jackie Robinson, Carmelo Anthony goes to the Knicks, LeBron enters the dunk contest, Blake Griffin and John Wall shoulder their respective teams to the playoffs, Kevin Durant averages 37 points per game, LeBron averages a triple-double, Beyonce performs at both the All-Star game and in the Finals, the Heat win 73 games and win the title after beating the Lakers in triple overtime of Game 7.

Will any of it happen?  Here’s my take:

1.  Carmelo Anthony will be a Knick. He wants out of Denver so badly that he ignored 65 million convincing reasons to stay.  The question is of where he’ll go.  As reported, it’s either Chicago or New York.  I’m crossing out Chicago because Denver would likely want Joakim Noah in the deal and the Bulls would be idiots to agree.  Noah is Chicago’s best defender, their emotional life vest and one of my top 5 favorite players.  And I want him to stay a Bull.  So this is more a wish than a prediction.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Chicago and Derrick Rose need Joakim Noah.  Carlos Boozer, rugged as he is, would not fill his void.

That leaves the Knicks.  They have Eddy Curry’s and Kelenna Azubuike’s attractive expiring contracts and could include Anthony Randolph, Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas or Ronnie Turiaf as a throw-in.  It’s the utilitarian deal: the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, including Melo’s wife.  Lala is in the entertainment business (kinda—Hosting VH1 reality shows barely qualifies as “in the business.”) and Melo loves the celebrity lifestyle.  New York just makes sense.  It also preserves the possibility of another Super Team if/when Chris Paul joins the Knicks.  It’s inevitable.  As Bill Simmons says, this is the worst-kept secret in the league.

2.  The Rookie of the Year race will be more entertaining than the MVP race. I haven’t been this geeked about a Rookie Race since Durant vs. Oden in 2007.  (Let’s ignore how that one ended.)  And there haven’t been two rookies this obviously talented in seven years.  Two top overall picks.  Two athletic freaks.  Two of the most exciting players in the league; you can already see it.  The only way to describe Griffin’s game is “violent.”  He’s never seen a rebound he can’t put back for a dunk, and he goes after every rebound like he’s a bench player vying for playing time, only he’s already the best player on the team.  The kid’s a beast.

Expect at least one of these every three games:

And a dash of this:

He’s so good I was this close to predicting the Clippers making the playoffs.  Then I remembered they’re the Clippers.

But there’s a star quality to John Wall.  There’s a confidence to his walk. There’s a self-assurance that matches his considerable talents.  I’ve already stated that he’s the best prospect I’ve seen since LeBron, and now that I’ve seen a few preseason games, Wall somehow looks faster.  The combined over/under on the number of “holy shit” moments for Wall and Griffin has to be at 50.  At least.

Rookie of the Year
1.     John Wall
2.     Blake Griffin
3.     DeMarcus Cousins (Mark him down for a double-double, and 34,59,685 fouls)
4.     Who cares?

3.  The Spurs aren’t dead yet. No one besides me cares about the Spurs so I’ll keep this short and go to bullet points.

  • Manu is rested, back in the starting lineup and ready to overtake Duncan as the Spurs’ best player.  Watch out for the Gino and DeJuan Blair combo.  There’s chemistry there.  They know each other’s games and can read a situation, especially the pick-and-roll, on a dime.
  • Parker is in a contract year.  He’ll be playing for a raise.  Even if it’s not from the Spurs.
  • Richard Jefferson is no longer hesitant.  He finally looks comfortable.  No more looks of confusion that scream, “Should I drive or pull up?” which, last season, translated to an awkward hybrid of both, resulting in a turnover or bricked shot.  He’ll be more decisive this season.  Whether his shots go in is still a question … but at least he won’t look lost!
  • Tiago Splitter is exactly what the Spurs need.  A legit 6’11”.  Rugged back-to-the-basket scorer who likes to defend.  A Luis Scola-type.  Splitter along with Blair’s semi-emergence will alleviate a rapidly aging Timmy (L).

4.  The Miami Heat probably won’t win over 69 games. As if that’s a disappointment.  But let’s temper some expectations.  It’ll take a few weeks for them to gel.  Talent means nothing without chemistry (see the Clippers), and no one outside of Magic Johnson can instantly create a connection with teammates without a warming period.  LeBron, Wade and Bosh have a total of three minutes of game time together.  It’ll take at least 10 full regular season games to learn each other’s tendencies.  And as the preseason shows, health is never a given.

If healthy, here’s how I see the Heat season panning out: After a hobbled start of 6-3 including losses to Boston and Orlando, the Heat discover an identity, find a comfort zone with each other and go on a roll like Genghis Khan in 13th century Asia.  Expect 12-, 15-, 18-game win streaks, regular 20+ margins of victory, a whole lot of butt-slapping and a cheesy pre- or in-game gimmick or three, culminating somewhere in the province of 65-69 wins.

Bill Simmons almost guarantees under 70 wins, noting that the Heat lack a mental linchpin like Jordan with the ’96 Bulls.  Steve Kerr says his ‘96 Bulls won 8-10 games they should’ve lost because Jordan willed the team to victory.  I agree the Heat lack a Jordan-like security net, but I’ll stop short of saying 70 wins is impossible … because they might not need one.  The ’96 Bulls didn’t have the horsepower of the Heat.  Secondary options Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc were never pure scorers, the starting frontcourt of Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley was an afterthought, if not completely ignored on offense, and the burden to score was solely on Jordan.  The Heat have two pure scorers in Wade and Bosh and then LeBron, who can drop 30 while still facilitating.  Unlike Jordan, either of them can “take a night off” to little negative effect.  If Miami somehow builds a connection out the gates, 70 wins is entirely possible.

5.  Dwight Howard will be the MVP. The usual suspects will be out of the race this year.  Kobe won’t be as productive: The back-to-back-to-back seasons of non-stop basketball will catch up, and he’ll show evidence of age (watch his lift) while fighting through the usual nicks.  He’ll still be brilliant, but only in short bursts.  Pau Gasol is likely to up his production and steal some of Kobe’s thunder.  I know I’ve said Kobe has the “Best Player in the League” title until Durant or LeBron go further in the playoffs, and I stick by that, but it’ll be tough when both are more productive and healthier.  Speaking of which…

LeBron will be historically efficient, scratching at a triple-double average (My projection: 23.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 10.1 assists). *  But he’ll suffer from the Kobe/Shaq syndrome: having two of the league’s top four players on one team makes winning an MVP nearly impossible.  Kobe and Shaq, the dominant players of their era, have two combined.  It’s a travesty.  A travesty likely to repeat itself in Miami.  Wade will have a campaign of his own, taking votes from LeBron, fueling the fire of the haters (of which there are many) arguing that LeBron and the Heat’s brilliance are a result of osmosis.  Which, of course, will be bullshit. **

That leaves Durant and Howard.  Here’s how I see the two-man race breaking down.

Durant’s projected resume:

  • 32.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and improved defense
  • League leader in scoring—by far
  • Three or four “wow” moments that you will remember at season’s end: buzzer beaters, maybe a 55-point game, a shootout with Melo/Wade/LeBron/Kobe in which Durant comes out on top, perhaps he embarrasses one of them in a game.
  • Extra points for being the most feared player in the league.  Who else can so demoralize a team with 50 points on any given night?  Will he dethrone Kobe and Kyra Sedgwick as the best closer?
  • Second seed (possible first?) in the West
  • Increased vocal leadership

Howard’s projected resume:

  • 21.1 points, 13.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.9 blocks and improved offense
  • League leader in blocks, field goal percentage, dunks
  • Best defender in the league—by far
  • One of the better two-way players in the league?
  • Second (possible first) seed in the East.  And the East has better top-end teams than the West.
  • Possible signature wins against the center-less Miami Heat
  • Does more than Durant with a weaker supporting cast

It’s close.  But I expect dividends from the three days Howard spent with Hakeem Olajuwon, in the form of improved footwork, a better sense of spacing and touch, a drop-step move or any semblance of a post game.  Then again, Dwight might be an incapable student; for two years, Patrick Ewing, the most prolific jump-shooting center, mentored Howard, and he still can’t hit a jumper to save his life.  Maybe he just doesn’t have the scorer’s DNA.  So I have no grand delusions: Howard won’t be Dream-shakin’ anyone, and he’ll still clang more 12-footers than anyone in the league.  But he will be an offensive threat.  No more games where he takes under 10 shots.

Look at it this way.  Durant will be the best offensive player in the league, Howard the best defensive player.  That cancels out each other’s strength.  It boils down to their weaknesses: Durant’s defense and Howard’s offense.  At this point, the way I’m projecting it, I prefer Howard’s impact on offense.

*The wildcard: LeBron is angry.  His eyes have the glow of a scorned lover.  He remembers the reactions to “The Decision”: the burning jerseys, Dan Gilbert’s rant written in Comic Sans, the angry tweets, the racial slurs.  LeBron has a fire under his ass for the first time in his career, and he’s out to make the haters look stupid.  If he channels this rage and clicks into Jordan mode, I’m not betting against him.  But that’s if he channels his rage.  If LeBron doesn’t show the mental switch this year, he never will.

**And I don’t care what anyone says: This is LeBron’s team.  It may be Wade’s town and he’s got the history, but the better player always shines through.  Through sheer force of play and personality, LeBron will be undeniable.

MVP
1. Dwight Howard
2. Kevin Durant
3. LeBron James
4. Dwyane Wade
5. Pau Gasol

6.  The Miami Heat will win the title. In 2008, the Boston Celtics won 66 games and the title in the first season of “The Big 3.”  Winning a title in a new team’s inaugural year isn’t unprecedented.  Skeptics, however, point to two supposed Achilles heels: defense and the center position.

Defense shouldn’t be a problem.  Wade and LeBron could be a poor man’s Jordan and Pippen, two wing defenders so good that they compensate for a missing stalwart around the rim.  The mid-90s Bulls were great defensively, even with a plodding frontcourt of Luc Longley and Bill Wennington.  The same could happen in Miami.  LeBron showed glimpses in 2009 of a lockdown on-ball defender, a role I hope he fully embraces in Miami now that the offensive burden is lifted.  And Wade will wreak havoc in the passing lanes, leading to innumerable fast breaks.  Plus, teams should worry about outscoring the Heat more than the Heat should worry about stopping them.  They’re a tougher defensive assignment than the D’Antoni-, Nash-led Suns at their height.

(Lakers Nation, cover your eyes.)

The Heat’s biggest hurdle won’t be the Lakers.  After another long season and a possible WCF war against KD and the Thunder, it’ll be hard for Kobe to be Kobe.  He’ll need at least two Jordan-type efforts against Miami and with injuries and weary legs, I can’t see him taking over a game that late in the season (see Game 7 against the Celtics).

(Okay, you guys can look now.)

The biggest threat to Miami is Boston.  The Celtics have the team defense, veteran leadership, unselfish offense and most importantly, the size to exploit the Heat’s only weakness.  The wave of Perkins, Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal could prove insurmountable for Big Z and Joel Anthony.  But at this point, Garnett, Pierce and Allen are more likely than Kobe to dwindle.

The title is ripe for picking.  And all signs point to Miami.  Can they live up to the hype?

Post-NBA Finals Thoughts

By Chris Le

What a season.

Removing bias (that is, my man crush on LeBron and the Spurs and my hatred for anything Lakers), this was a season that genuine basketball groupies will remember for a long time.

Drama, unpredictability, history—all there in hefty doses. Which made for a season of simple, childhood-like fun.  So fun, in fact, I’m erasing from memory accepting that it ended with the Lakers hoisting the trophy.

From an analyst/writer’s perspective, what’s most appealing about the NBA year is that it provides and answers its own questions.  Throughout the course of the eight-month season, opinions are verified (like, which is the best team?), some amended (who’s the best player?) and others left to be determined (who’s the best ever?).  And it keeps us guessing.

This season was especially fickle: LeBron raped the regular season, the Lakers faded with Kobe looking old and beaten, ditto with the Celtics; then in the playoffs, the Magic looked invincible, then vincible (which is an actual word according to dictionary.com.  I’m willing to overlook its omission from the more credible Merriam-Webster because it’s probably the most apt description for the 2010 Magic that could ever exist—unless the Oxford English Dictionary approves “Rashardible.”), the Celtics rode the Delorean back to 2008, and Kobe clicked into Jordan mode.

Each turn of event, at its respective moment in time, altered the basketball landscape and, in my mind, projected a different Finals matchup.  Between LeBron and Kobe, the Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Cavs, I vacillated about 745 times.

And yeah, I realize the irony with my last post, in which I bemoaned the tendency to overreact.  Yet here I sit: a prisoner of the moment, a hypocrite, even worse, the dreaded flip-flopper.

But I couldn’t care less.

Whenever I’m accused of hypocrisy, I think back to junior year of high school, Mrs. Marc’s class, English 11 Honors: American Literature—the first time I laid eyes on the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Emerson, in the essay that changed my life, once wrote:

Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.

If the pimpest of all Transcendentalists (sorry, H.D. Thoreau) supported waffling, then I can do the same without indignity.

So, summoning my inner Emerson, here is—in hard words—what I think today.  But ask me again tomorrow.

Before the Playoffs: Deron Williams is the best point guard in the league.

After: Deron Williams was the top dog during the regular season and throughout the first round.  As the most consistent, and at times most dominant, lead guard all year, the race wasn’t close at all, really.  And once he finally convinced me, I stayed convinced for about, oh, five seconds.  Rondo then went into “Fuck around and got a triple-double” mode.  Followed by Nash decimating the Spurs, displaying a ruthlessness and a will to win on par with the legends—only to be dismissed by the Lakers.

So, to recap: I went from Williams, to Rondo, to Nash, and back to Rondo.  I’ve flip-flopped more often than Derek Fisher, Ron Artest and Vlade Divac combined.

Have I learned my lesson?  Have I finally grown a pair and stuck with Rondo?

Not quite.  Like George Clooney, it’s up in the air.  Because I’m still waiting on my boy Chris Paul, who, once healthy, will run a train on the league worse than the one given to Edward Norton in the shower by that big Nazi guy in American History X.

Before the Playoffs: The two-month-long NBA postseason is the most entertaining stretch in sports.

After: Confirmed.  More than ever, perhaps.  With this year’s unpredictability—from the demise of the Cavs to the Celtic phoenix rise—and the added theater of free agency and a looming draft, it’s bar none.

The playoffs can, however, be improved.

How?  Show more crowd reactions.  Aside from the game itself, it’s my favorite part of watching the NBA on television, really.  Nothing makes me smile like an entire section of people—always of jumbled demography—erupt in spontaneous orgasm after a play, or seeing the team bench rolling on the floor and holding each other back, with faces of something filthy like they witnessed an emcee lyrically murder another in a freestyle battle.  Grown men with potbellies jumping like children after a LeBron tomahawk slam, the pure joy on their homely faces is immediately transferred to anyone watching at home.

More shots of Kim Jong Il's sister at Lakers games!

Sixty percent of today’s reactions, I realize, would consist of frat boys chest-bumping, flexing biceps and lifting their Affliction T-shirts to reveal their not-really-but-maybe-at-the-right-angle-and-in-the-right-lighting six-pack abs.  It’s a risk, but a risk worth taking.

That’s why I miss the old days.  Check out any highlight reel from the mid-80’s on back and you’ll see balding middle-aged white guys who look like accountants awkwardly high-fiving or cupping their faces in awe.  (Like this.  Or this Zach Galifianakis-looking dude.)  White people are awkward.

Before the Playoffs: Katy Perry is annoying and can’t dance.

After: She still can’t dance (which, for a pop star, isn’t a career death warrant; look at Rihanna and Mary J. Blige), but “California Gurls,” an irresistibly charming paean to West Coast hotties, has momentarily saved her from my immediate criticism and maybe even bolstered her mass appeal.

Despite the ebbed novelty, my ears show minimal fatigue from its looping replay, and because of that, “Gurls,” followed by Drake’s “Find Your Love,” is a strong candidate for Song of the Summer.

Third in line?  I’m surprised—almost ashamed—to say I like the Black Eyed Peas’ “Rock Your Body.”  Their electro-infused brand of hip-pop—a sound once reserved for trashy, Euro discothèques—has finally kept my attention, and not my disdain.  And just in time for the biggest sporting event in the world.  It’s not the official song of the ’10 World Cup (this is), but Black Eyed Peas, musically, are made for the Cup.  Their brew is simple: energetic beats with lyrics of cheesy bonhomie that don’t clog the brain.  A mix that aligns perfectly with international sensibility and is gobbled on the world’s stage.  (See: Ricky Martin’s “Cup of Life” for the ’98 World Cup in France, which, I think, should be the official song for every World Cup, now and forever.  It’s perfect.)  It explains their overseas success, but not the inexplicable domestic obsession.  Will.i.am is, otherwise, the worst emcee in the business.

What does this have to do with basketball?  Absolutely nothing.  I’m just riffing on my previous blog.

Back to basketball …

Before the Playoffs: LeBron is the best player in the league.

After: Kobe.  Hate the guy, hate the team, and I hate to say it.  But it’s the truth.

I’ve always argued that, while Kobe is more skilled, LeBron’s overall impact on the game and teammates makes him more valuable, in the sense of being indispensable.  That may still be true, but I can no longer dismiss Kobe’s closing ability—a skill in which LeBron is proficient but has yet to master—and his insatiable will to be great.

That last part is important.  When Kobe lost to the Celtics in 2008, I could picture him at home replaying over and over in his mind Kevin Garnett’s “ANYTHING IS POSSIBBLLLLLEEEE!!!” war cry (which trails off into a high-pitched, incoherent ramble).   I could picture Kobe seething in his seat, eager to be better, thirsting for another ring, hungry to prove that he’s as good as he thinks he is—and believe me, no matter what Kobe says, he thinks he’s the best ever.

I don’t get this feeling from LeBron.  He’s probably at home right now watching SportsCenter, more worried than angry.  Worried that he has that much more to prove.  Worried that he might disappoint.  Worried, most of all, that he might fail.

And that’s the difference between him and Kobe.  Kobe is motivated only by his own hunger to be great; and LeBron, it seems, is motivated by the fear of losing.

Looking back, I was blinded by LeBron’s numbers.  Could you blame me?  They’re historic. Never have we seen such an exemplar of physical evolution, or such production, which is comparable only to the luminaries; LeBron is amazing on both television and paper.  Which made me forget that, while stars are made in the regular season, legends are made in the playoffs.  And the playoffs are one territory King James has yet to conquer.

But the gap is slim—slimmer than the media makes it out to be—and I’ll stop short of saying the pecking order is solidified for the next few years because age creeps furtively and suddenly.  Kobe turns 32 this summer, with battle-worn knees from some 1,200 games and 45,000 minutes.  Youthful legs are a finite gift, as Tim Duncan and KG can attest, and the end is always sooner than expected.

But otherwise, no more premature anointment.  Even if next year LeBron drops 30-10-10 a game during the regular season.

Kobe is in the lead until LeBron goes further in the playoffs.  It’s the only way to decide this debate.

Before the Playoffs: Kobe is the third best guard of all-time behind Jordan and Magic, and sits outside the 10 greatest players ever.

After: The first statement remains true … but not the second.

Kobe now has five rings, two of which he can claim to have earned “on his own” (whatever that means), and once again, displayed a brilliance reminiscent of Jordan.  With that, Kobe cements himself as the sixth greatest player ever.  Yes, the sixth greatest player ever.  Ahead of West, Robertson, Olajuwon, Shaq, Wilt and (sigh) Tim Duncan.  Those are some big-swinging dicks who are not easily unseated.  But on pure skill, years as Best Player on the Planet, sheer numbers and total times he makes you say “Fuck, this guy is just too damn good,” it’s hard to argue against Kobe.  Dude has earned it.

However, he remains looking up at Magic, Bird, Kareem, and of course, Russell and Jordan, both of whom likely will never be supplanted.

So, why do those five rank ahead of Kobe?

First of all, it’s not like Kobe had an all-time great series against Boston.  Aside from a brilliantly balanced Game 1 and a few jaw-drop moments here and thereafter, Kobe didn’t impress me—not by his own lofty standards.  He routinely disappeared in the 4th, was saved by Derek Fisher in Game 3, looked lost at times against the Celtics defense and had his worst offensive performance in the deciding Game 7.  You think Jordan would’ve gone 6 for 24 in a Game 7?  (Oh yeah, Jordan never needed a Game 7 to win a title.)

But what it boils down to is, I don’t think Kobe is as good a teammate.

I know, I know: blah, blah, blah—this rant again?  Didn’t Kobe prove last year that he’s unselfish?

He’s made improvements, sure.  But not a quantum leap.

Leadership-wise, Kobe has the look of young Jordan—the Jordan before he fully accepted “team ball” and won a title.  Which, obviously, is still enough for Kobe to win a championship.  But this is the Greatest of All-Time debate; it’s all about picking nits.  The inability of Kobe’s team still visibly weighs on him (kinda like LeBron), with frustration setting in and affecting his play.   After a brainfart three by Artest, for example, or a Vujacic missed rotation, Kobe will glower, showing disgust and disappointment—a look that screams, “Idiot!  Do I have to do everything?!”  Then he’ll turn into me-first Kobe and force the situation, though, to his credit, this tendency has waned of late.

When things are good, Kobe is the greatest teammate in the world: high-fives all-around, butt pats for everyone, even poor Adam Morrison, he’ll even bust out the “heartfelt” forehead-to-forehead motivational speech.

When times are bad?  Not so much.

Russell, Magic and Bird were always their teammates’ biggest fans, or, when upset, vocal in a constructive manner.  Latter-day Jordan was always cool and even deferred to 7th man Steve Kerr in the pivotal moment of the 1997 NBA Finals.  Call me when Kobe heads into a game-deciding situation with the intention of finding Jordan Farmar or Lamar Odom to take the last shot.  Yeah, I thought so.

It’s been a while since I last sat down, studied the résumés and made a list, but this is how my All-Time list currently looks:

  1. Michael Jordan
  2. Bill Russell
  3. Magic Johnson
  4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
  5. Larry Bird
  6. Kobe Bryant
  7. Wilt Chamberlain
  8. Tim Duncan
  9. Jerry West
  10. Oscar Robertson
  11. Hakeem Olajuwon
  12. Shaquille O’Neal

Kobe jumped from outside the top 10 to number 6, leapfrogging six demigods in the process.  Overreaction?  Am I, once again, just a prisoner of the moment?

We’ll see.  But that’s the great thing about basketball: Kobe has next season to prove me right or prove me wrong.  And that’s why I love the NBA—you just never know.

NBA Awards

By Chris Le

The regular season is finally over.  Now it’s time for the greatest months in all of sports: the NBA Playoffs.  Where the difference between regular and postseason play is the most drastic in all of sports.  Where intensity is ratcheted up to nosebleed levels.  Where rivalries are born.  Where legends carve their legacy.  Where (cue dramatic piano) … amazing happens.

(SCREEEECH.)

But before that, let’s recap the season with some awards.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cavs.

There’s only one question when it comes to this year’s MVP race, and it isn’t “who?” — it’s if LeBron will be a unanimous choice.  He will.  Or, he should.  That is, unless some Kobe apologist or a jingoish Orlando columnist bombs the ballot.

There are two approaches to MVP voting, both of which are valid but fundamentally different.  The first chooses the best player on the best team.  With historic numbers (29.7 ppg, 7.3 reb, 8.6 ast) on a 61-20 team, that’s LeBron.  You groaning, Laker fans?  Well, keep on groaning.  LeBron has supplanted Kobe as the world’s premier player (no longer debatable), and the Cavs have been consistently more dominant than the Lakers.  Kobe and co. may be the most talented team, but they haven’t been the best.

The second approach goes with the most indispensable player, for which I only see three candidates: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and LeBron (Kobe is disqualified in this category because, as previously noted, the Lakers are too talented, and they were 5-2 without him, and, well, screw Kobe.  Just kidding.).  But the Thunder and Magic have been too up and down, tempering long winning streaks with inexplicable losses.  The Cavaliers, conversely, have been brilliant throughout – and their path hasn’t necessarily been painted with gold.  There was the slow integration of Shaq in an offense that’s best on the run, and his subsequent thumb injury; the late arrival of Delonte West; the acquisition of Antawn Jamison; Varejao’s bum wrist; and the trade and re-signing of Z.  The only constant has been LeBron.  If you’re surrounded by constant uncertainty and the team is still dominant, you’re not only good but stabilizing.  Now that’s value.

Any and all justification points to the King.  Let us bow down.

Ballot: 1.) LeBron James, Cavs 2.) Dwight Howard, Magic 3.) Kevin Durant, Thunder 4.) Kobe Bryant, Lakers 5.) Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs

Defensive Player: Dwight Howard, Magic.

I wanted to go with my mid-season pick of Varejao.  But as tenacious as he is, he’s not an anchor.  The entire defensive burden is not heaped on his shoulders alone.  He isn’t the last line of defense.  Dwight Howard is.  While there are better man-to-man defenders, no one is more adept at helping teammates and erasing points at the rim.  And I’ve said for years, a big man who clogs the paint is always more valuable than a lockdown perimeter defender.  Look at the Magic roster.  Mickael Pietrus is nice.  But Vince CarterJ.J RedickRashard Lewis?  I just named three defensive liabilities, three ghosts who are as easy to pass as remedial math.  Dwight is the difference between the NBA’s best defense (the Magic hold opponents to a league-leading 43.9 percent) and, well, the Knicks.  And Howard has yet to reach his potential — even as a defender.  What the fuck, right?  Is there anything scarier or more awesome than raw dominance?  It’s like watching a young Eddie Murphy killing it in small stand up venues, before his refinement and maturity into a full blown superstar.  Except Howard is precociously dominating grown professionals.  D12 has this award locked up for the foreseeable future.

Ballot: 1.) Dwight Howard, Magic 2.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 3.) Gerald Wallace, Bobcats 4.) Josh Smith, Hawks 5.) Andrew Bogut, Bucks

Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Kings.

Stephen Curry came on strong (like “Lezak on the French“-level of strong), and he just might finish as the best player in this draft.  But Tyreke was better for a longer period of time, and I like to reward consistent excellence.  Curry can have the future; I’m giving Evans the here and now.  Don’t get me wrong though.  Evans earned the ROY award.  He did so by being damn-near unstoppable attacking the rim and by being the best defender in the rookie class (Do freshmen even realize they can defend in their first year?).  All of which Evans can attribute to his man’s body.  He’s like LeBron in that sense.  They both physically matured before reaching age 19.  And, they both had eerily similar rookie statistics.  Almost to a tee.

Pts Ast Reb FG% 3-pt% Stl Mins
Tyreke Evans 20.1 5.8 5.3 .458 .255 1.5 37.1
LeBron James 20.9 5.9 5.5 .417 .290 1.60 39.5

Not bad.  Historic, even.  But I can’t help but be more excited about Curry.  Sorry, Tyreke.  Hope this award is of consolation.

Ballot: 1.) Tyreke Evans, Kings 2.) Stephen Curry, Warriors 3.) Brandon Jennings, Bucks 4.) Darren Collison, Hornets 5.) Marcus Thornton, Hornets

Sixth Man: Anderson Varejao, Cavs.

He’s the quintessential “guy you hate to play against but would love to have on your team” player.  He’s the basketball version of an annoying splinter you can’t quite pluck out.  I love players like that — Dave DeBusschere, Dennis Rodman, Bruce Bowen and now, Joakim Noah and Sideshow Bob — pesky defenders who are willing to sacrifice their first-born for a loose ball, who break their back boxing out and setting bone-jarring screens.  Varejao, like his hustling predecessors, is the everyman.  He does the dirty work, the plays stars don’t want to make.  He grinds how you and I would if given the blessed chance at being in the league, seemingly knowing what a real job is like without the millions, fame and gorgeous women.  He plays like Rudy.  As if every possession is his last.  His hustle and general havoc on offense and especially on defense makes him the Cavs’ second most valuable player.  What does that say about the Cavs?  It says that LeBron is really, really fucking good.

Ballot: 1.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 2.) Jamal Crawford, Hawks 3.) Manu Ginobili, Spurs 4.) Jason Terry, Mavs 5.) Lamar Odom, Lakers

Most Improved: George Hill, Spurs.

I watch the Spurs — a lot.  I’ve closely followed how the team has transformed over the years since their 1997 drafting of Tim Duncan, from good to great and now at old, slow-to-gel but ever-scary threat.  Players have come in and flourished in the team’s unselfish offense and left to fade into obscurity.  But, I always know who’s truly valuable and who’s expendable and who’s only good because of Popovich’s system.  Second-year point guard George Hill is truly valuable.  He wasn’t last year.  He was pretty much invisible, especially when the playoffs rolled around.  But he improved his offense (now confident in running the team and a legit threat from deep) and most notably, his defense.  Hill is often assigned to guard the opposition’s best scorer, and he hasn’t looked foolish, even against premier players like Kobe Bryant.  Hill has improved so much that many in Spurs Nation are questioning if he should permanently start over Tony Parker.  That’s saying something.

Ballot: 1.) George Hill, Spurs 2.) Andrew Bogut, Bucks 3.) Joakim Noah, Bulls 4.) Aaron Brooks, Rockets 5.) Josh Smith, Hawks

Coach of the Year: Scott Brooks, Thunder.

With building blocks of Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s future was bright.  Everyone knew the Thunder would be good.  But this early?  Their transition from precocious youngsters to full-blown threat came one or two years ahead of schedule.  Thank Scott Brooks for that.  He got his players to care about defense and extracted the best from left-field players like Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor.  Along with Durant detonating on the league, Brooks is why the Thunder are in the playoffs.

Ballot: 1.) Scott Brooks, Thunder 2.) Scott Skiles, Bucks 3.) Larry Brown, Bobcats 4.) Nate McMillan, Blazers

Block of the Year: Manu Ginobili on Kevin Garnett.

Everyone is enamored with LeBron and his chase-downs.  But most of the time it’s on pipsqueaks too absentminded to dunk the ball — come on, you know LeBron is creeping behind! That’s what makes Ginobili’s blocks so astounding.  It’s a slightly balding, 6’6” Argentinean on his last legs going head-on against a 6’11” juggernaut going hard to the rim — though, Garnett nowadays has about as much hops as a watered-down Coors Light.  Still, the sequence really was a sight.  Ginobili caught all ball and Garnett dropped to his back as if he had been dropkicked by John Cena.  And Garnett didn’t even argue for a foul!  He knew it was clean.  And really, Ginobili had the three best blocks all year.  Number one is his murdering of KG, second is his recovery-and-swat against Kevin Durant, and last but not least, BatManu.

Dunk of the Year: Dwyane Wade on Varejao.

Even after five months, it’s still nasty.

Ballot: 1.) Wade on Varejao, 2.) Amar’e Stoudemire on Tolliver 3.) Corey Brewer on Fisher, 4.) J.R. Smith’s 360 alley-oop, 5.) Derrick Rose on Dragic, and one that doesn’t count but is still sick LeBron’s alley-oop

Shot of the Year: Kobe’s game-winning three-pointer runner.

It’s a near impossible shot.  Time running out, jumping off his left leg, facing decent defense, heavily fading to the left, off the glass.  I won’t argue if you call it lucky.  But Kobe did his part, squaring up his body while maintaining perfect form with shooting arm perpendicular to the floor.  The amazing part is, as tough as the shot was, I expected it go in.

Midseason Awards

By Chris Le

The All-Star game is around the corner.  You know what that means: awards.

Biggest Surprise: The rookie class.  That it isn’t horrible is as unexpected as Tiger Woods turning out to be an adulterous nympho.  Talk about coming from left field.  Brandon Jennings went from spoiled brat to enigmatic pariah to being the next Allen Iverson (Trust me, that last one is a compliment).  Scouts were unsure of which position—point or shooting guard—to play Tyreke Evans, but he ends up being one of those indefinable players who “just knows how to play.”  Stephen Curry has dispelled the stigma of being too slow to play point and too small to score.  And Omri Casspi, who the hell saw him coming?  Keep in mind this is without Blake Griffin, who I think could be the best of the bunch.  The ’04 rookies it ain’t, but I’d stack Evans & Co. against most of the decade’s freshmen classes.

Ballot: 1.) The Rookie Class 2.) Zach Randolph not destroying but improving the Grizzlies 3.) Charlotte Bobcats

Biggest Disappointment: Injury of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin.

Two likeable big men.  Two worrisome injuries.

It’s hard not to be a fan of Oden.  One interview is all it takes to want to be his friend.  He’s light-hearted and naturally affable and equipped with a winning personality, even if his Trail Blazers aren’t.  Oden’s appeal is Shaq-like, except Oden doesn’t come off quite as oafish, not as childish.  That’s what makes Oden’s injury such a downer.  You want to like him, you want to see him succeed, but he hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to make a dent in the league, and this latest injury hints that he won’t—ever.  Oden now has nothing to do but take naked pictures of himself (link is SFW).

Griffin’s injury is a double-edged sword.  You feel for the kid—that his exploded knee (happened on a dunk in which he was untouched) threatens his athleticism, which is the basis of his entire game—but you also feel for the Clippers.  For a while, the Clips looked like a borderline playoff team.  Then, you imagined how good they’d be with the year’s best rookie.  Exhibit X that The Other Los Angeles Team is a star-crossed franchise.

John Wall better be careful because the number one pick is shaping up to be the NBA’s version of the Madden Curse.

Ballot: 1.) Greg Oden/Blake Griffin Injury 2.) Washington Wizards 3.) The Richard Jefferson trade 4.) New Jersey Nets (No way they should be 4-41—a pathetic .089 winning percentage.  Not with their talent.  I realize Devin Harris is overrated, but Brook Lopez is a budding All-Star center, Christopher Douglas-Roberts is a MIP candidate, and Yi Jianlian is displaying some legitimacy.)

Dunk of the Half: Wade on Varejao.  No explanation needed.  Just watch.

Ballot: 1.) Wade on Varejao, 2.) Delonte West on Josh Smith 3.) Derrick Rose on Greg Oden 4.) Will Bynum on Tyson Chandler

Defensive AND Intangible Player of the Half: Anderson Varejao, Cavs.  Aside from looking like Sideshow Bob, Varejao’s claim to fame is hustle.  And it’s not hustle for lack of talent a la Mark Madsen.  No, it’s hustle where it matters most.  It’s hustle to win games and for the genuine desire to make life easier for teammates.

Varejao is the guru of the “Stat-less” play—defense in the post, sealing off an opponent, taking a charge, dishing out a message-sending foul, diving for loose balls—you know, being the most annoying guy on the opposing team.  But Varejao’s inherent value to the Cavs, the effect of his intangibles once thought to be unquantifiable, can be measured in—irony of ironies—statistics.  Just don’t look to rudimentary box scores; doing so will only bring confusion because of his relatively unimpressive stats: 8.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.0 block, 1.0 steal.  Outside of watching the games, his worth is evident only in the deceptively simple On court/Off court category.  The Cavs are +15.6 when Varejao is playing, and -4.9 when he’s on the bench.  That’s all you need to know.  When Varejao is on the court wreaking hell, his team plays better than the opponent; when he’s sitting, they don’t.  His net points of +349 lead the league—that’s 24 points more than teammate and MVP candidate LeBron James.  Why?  It’s in large part because of his defense.

Ballot: 1.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 2.) Dwight Howard, Magic 3.) Ron Artest, Lakers 4.) Josh Smith, Hawks

Rookie of the Half: Tyreke Evans, Kings.   Before the season started, I predicted this award would go to Blake Griffin.  Who was second on my ballot?  Tyreke Evans.  And since Griffin will sit out the season, he’s ineligible for ROY honors.  So I’m counting my preseason pick as a correct guess.

The uncertainty surrounding Evans’ game was baffling (I had him as the second best player in the draft).  I didn’t care if he played the point or the two—I just knew he could play.  Forget his height and physical ability—which are considerable—his court presence just screams Natural Feel for the Game.  He’s just savvy.  Evans doesn’t need a drawn-up play; he can create for himself and others on the fly.  He’s the athlete with an internal clock (like Peyton Maning) that tells him when to take over a game.  And did I mention he’s the best defensive rookie in the class?

Ballot: 1.) Tyreke Evans, Kings 2.) Brandon Jennings, Bucks 3.) DeJuan Blair, Spurs 4.) Stephen Curry, Warriors 5.) Omri Casspi, Kings

Coach of the Half: Lionel Hollins, Grizzlies.  Memphis sputtered out of the gates with a 1-8 start.  But once they dropped some dead weight (Allen Iverson, never a good fit), they’ve been steadily climbing the power rankings.  After the dismal start, the Grizz are 24-11 and now eyeing a playoff spot.  Let me say it again: this is the Memphis Grizzlies.  Not only that, it’s a Grizz team headlined by the Yoko Ono of the NBA: Zach Randolph.  Hollins pulled some voodoo and turned the once-cancerous Randolph into a team player, a defensive presence and a lead-by-example hustler.  That alone almost qualifies Hollins for sainthood.

Ballot: 1.) Lionel Hollins, Grizzlies 2.) Rick Adelman, Rockets 3.) Scott Brooks, Thunder 4.) Larry Brown, Bobcats

Sixth Man of the Half: Carl Landry, Rockets.  Landry is a tough son of a bitch.  He’s been shot in the leg and missed only 8 games.  He lost three teeth to Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow, but you wouldn’t have noticed it by watching the video.  He nonchalantly walked to the bench, looking bothered more by having to leave the game than by his toothless smile.  Kinda makes you feel like a wimp, huh?  It’s this toughness, along with Rick Adelman’s superb coaching, that motivates the hardest working team in the NBA.  No group hustles like Houston, and no team does more with less.

Landry’s physical toughness extends to the mental side, as evidenced by his 4th quarter scoring.  His 301 points in the final quarter is second only to LeBron’s 322.  Wait, what?  Yup, as Houston’s go-to guy in the 4th, Landry has been more prolific than Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, et al.  Not bad for a third-year player who comes off the bench.

Ballot: 1.) Carl Landy, Rockets 2.) Jamal Crawford, Hawks 3.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 4.) Jason Terry, Mavs 5.)  Al Harrington, Knicks

Most Improved Player: Joakim Noah, Bulls.  The MIP is an interesting award.  Year in and year out, it’s the hardest to determine.  There’s never a shortage of viable candidates, which is great for the league, but I find it doesn’t always go to the most improved player—in the truest sense of the term.  Instead, it goes to the player whose numbers get a big hike from increased minutes.  Player X, once a bench player behind an All-Star, is traded and now finds himself in the starting five.  Naturally, his numbers will climb but not as the result of any particular refinement to his game.  Like Channing Frye, who played 11.8 minutes in Portland behind Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge.  He comes to Phoenix and takes Shaq’s empty spot at center, starts and plays 29.8 minutes a game and sees a 7.9 jump in points.  Did he really improve?  Or is the point increase the natural result of minute inflation?  Probably both, but I’m giving more credence to the boosted playing time.

Joakim Noah is legitimately better than he was last year.  A Tasmanian Devil on defense (1.8 blocks and 0.7 steals), second in rebounding (12.2), improved scoring (11.4 points from 6.7) and a surprising 2.2 assists per game.  He’s pretty much the second coming of Varejao—tough as all hell, disruptive to the opponents and a pure energy source for his team.  Noah may have reached his ceiling, but he reached it with one huge and sudden jump.

Ballot: 1.) Joakim Noah, Bulls 2.) Carl Landry, Rockets 3.) Zach Randolph, Memphis 4.) Aaron Brooks, Rockets 5.) Kevin Durant, Thunder*

*Durant has been up for this award three years running.  How scary is that?  It’s kinda like Jamie Foxx’s run toward the top.  He went from successful comedian to Oscar-winning dramatic actor to Grammy nominee, before people started to realize he might be the most talented man in Hollywood.  Durant keeps on improving, showing you something you didn’t think he could do, and he just might end up the league’s preeminent force on the perimeter.  Has anyone ever been the MIP and MVP in the same season?  It’s possible with Durant.  Hopefully, he doesn’t turn into an insufferable malcontent like Foxx after winning the Oscar.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cavs.  It’s not often that the best player on the best team is also one of the most indispensable players in the league.  A top team prerequisite is at least three viable scoring options.  One dynamic player is insufficient in reaching the top record.  It’s all about talent and depth in the NBA.  So the best player on the best team isn’t completely necessary to be successful—he’s not the be-all and end-all.  Championship contention is impossible without a franchise player (’04 Pistons aside), obviously, but they wouldn’t be bottom feeders either.  Does that make sense?  I’ll explain.  Here are two examples from opposite sides of the spectrum:

On one side is Chris Paul.  He redeems a wretched New Orleans Hornets.  Like a gorgeous face on a chunky body.  Their entire offense is pick-and-roll and lane penetration to open corner shots.  In other words, their entire offense is Chris Paul.  And he makes role players of journeymen and All-Stars of latent talent.  Without CP3, the Hornets would dissolve.  He is the epitome of value.  But his team won’t make any noise in the postseason.  He only checks off one category.

In the other corner is Kobe Bryant.  He’s got the most feared game in the league, but is he the most valuable?  Does Los Angeles sink without him?  I’m looking at the Lakers’ roster, and it’s talented enough—with help from the Zen Master, of course—to win 46-48 games and make the playoffs without Kobe.  Again, only one category.  Okay, one and a half categories—Kobe is pretty damn valuable and good for about 10-12 wins on his own.  He’s just not indispensable like LeBron.

LeBron is Cleveland’s everything.  He’s the game-managing quarterback and the deep-threat gunslinger when needed.  He’s the free safety who protects the perimeter and in transition.  And he’s the cheerleader.  All wrapped in one frighteningly evolved body.

No one bears a larger burden, and no one is better at making lemonade out of lemons.  His best sidekicks are (in this order) the currently injured Mo Williams; Anderson Varejao; Shaq, a defensive liability in the pick-and-roll and, let’s be honest, he just sucks on some nights; and either Z or Delonte West, who’s been trying to exorcise some personal demons.  Not an All-Star in the bunch.  And that’s the best team in the league?  That LeBron lifted the Cavs to 38-11—and is undefeated against Kobe, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade—is a minor miracle.

It’s a mark of LeBron’s physical brilliance, but it can also be attributed to his demeanor.  LeBron might be the best teammate ever.  Would you doubt such a claim, especially seeing the way his team rallies behind him?  The way they fawn, like the lucky dork in high school who’s best friends with the prom king/quarterback because they grew up living next door.  They know they lucked out with the golden ticket, and they’re willing to kill in order to protect it.  (See: the LeBron and Wade duel on January 25.  On the critical play, Wade dishes a hard foul on LeBron, who lied motionless on the floor for minutes.  The entire squad came onto the court to support their fallen leader.  It was genuine.  Would Kobe clear the bench like that?  Nope.  By the way, in that game, LeBron also had the game-winning steal and free throws, which is a perfect microcosm of LeBron and his effect on the Cavaliers.  The way his teammates would go to war for him, and LeBron’s all-around game, not needing to score to alter his team’s fortune.)  He even has Shaq and his superego content being relegated to a tertiary role.

Take away LeBron and witness the implosion of the Cavaliers.  But imagine if the Cavs had as much talent as the Lakers?  Scary.  Still, even as is, LeBron is carrying his team to heights no one else can achieve.

Check and check.

Ballot: 1.) LeBron James, Cavs 2.) Kobe Bryant, Lakers 3.) Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets 4.) Kevin Durant, Thunder 5.) Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs

Kobe in the Clutch

By Chris Le

On December 16, 2009, Kobe Bryant nailed a clock-beating jumper in overtime to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 107-106.

It was an example of what is—at this point in his legacy—expected of him. Having seen it time and again, the basketball world has come to believe that when the ball is in Kobe’s hands, it will eventually find its way through the net, and never a second too late. It’s a similar expectation bestowed upon game-winning luminaries of the past: Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

And since expectations are such, that particular shot over Charlie Bell as time expired was, if you ask me, pretty ho-hum. A rather quotidian score that serves only as fluff for an already lengthy highlight reel.  (When you’ve accumulated enough game-winners and clutch shots to produce an eight-plus minute video, you’re on another level. And the video is from 2006. Here’s another, this one a seven-plus minute highlight of clutch Kobe circa 2007-09.) I figure that shot—which, let’s face it, will prove meaningless in the larger picture of the season—would be wedged somewhere in a YouTube montage’s beginning alongside preseason daggers and other clutch instances within the season’s first 82 games. It was nice, but not worthy of constructing monuments.

Then the internet blew up. Followed by the deathless prattle of sports radio and television.

Judging from all the talk engendered by that—I must emphasize once more—regular season shot against the Milwaukee Bucks, I would’ve guessed it ended a triple-overtime Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The populace was wild in debate. Everyone from Kobe Chauvinists to Kobe Despisers to Statistics Geeks to the venerable Skip Bayless himself came out of the woodwork and gave their two cents.

Most proved to be idiots.

The biggest of these idiots, however, were the stat enthusiasts. The Henry Abbotts and John Hollingers of the world, the box score-loving boobs who see situational field goal percentage as scripture and who eulogize the virtues of “offensive efficiency”—whatever that means—and create formulae in hope of finding truth in numbers.

And the numbers—or their numbers, I should say—don’t point to Kobe Bryant as who you’d want in the clutch. Far from it.

Check out these clutch stats. Clutch stats, as defined by 82games.com, being production in the “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.” Stat heads and Kobe haters alike point to clutch field goal percentage, in which Kobe ranks 91st at 45.7 percent. “That’s a lot of missed shots,” detractors say. “You sheep”—which I’m almost positive internet trolls would call any Kobe supporter—“only remember the attempts he makes, and forget all the clunkers.”

It’s hard to rebut these trolls, though, when looking at this chart. It indicates the most field goals made in the final 24 seconds of a one-possession game, since 2002-03.  Kobe comes in at third with 21 made shots, but brings it up the rear in field goal percentage.

Final 24 Seconds, One-Possession Game (since 2002-03)

Player FG-FGA FG%
LeBron James 23-47 48.9
Dirk Nowitzki 18-41 43.9
Vince Carter 22-70 31.4
Kobe Bryant 21-69 30.4

Again, this is the king of clutch?

But wait, there’s more.  This study.  Same definition of clutch situation, but this chart measures the esoteric True Shooting Percentage, which accounts for trips to the free-throw line. Kobe ranks 38th. And when stacked against the class of 2003, Kobe is still stuck looking upward.

Clutch Situation

Player FG% TS%
LeBron James 0.478 0.598
Carmelo Anthony 0.427 0.573
Dwyane Wade 0.439 0.558
Kobe Bryant 0.439 0.542

And for kicks, here’s one more.  It examines True Shooting Percentage in clutch situations in the last five postseasons, and in what they call “Ultra-Clutch” (!!!!) situations. Ultra-Clutch situations refer to the following conditions: “less than one minute to go and a scoring margin of three points or less.” Kobe, once more, doesn’t look so hot.

It’s not often that I’m compelled to defend Kobe Bryant—never, almost—but the permittance of such mathematical sensationalism needs to end.

Let’s get one thing straight: Kobe Bryant is the NBA’s premier clutch performer. End of story. Roll the credits. Have a nice day. There’s no convincing me otherwise. I’ve heard all the arguments and seen the stats—I don’t care. Especially stats that say world-beaters like Ronnie Turiaf and Keyon Dooling are better options.

There is, I must admit, some truth in statistics.  But they can only bring you so far.  Past a certain point, they begin to deceive.  It’s believed in the universe of numbers, much like what is said in the realm of legal litigation, that it isn’t a lie if you can prove it. But statistics, like trial evidence, can be manipulated and prodded and twisted to prove anything. (Like this Maxim poll, which says Beyoncé is the 52nd hottest woman in the world. When we all know it’s a metaphysical constant that she holds the number one spot.)

So I say: view statistics with a big chunk of kosher salt.

Would you trust a formula that regards Mehmet Okur, Corey Maggette and Kyle Korver among the ten most clutch players in the league? Doing so is akin to trusting money with Bernie Madoff. Having Okur and Maggette and Korver in any top ten list immediately eliminates credence—unless it’s a list of has-beens, underachievers and never-weres. The architect of the True Shooting Percentage formula, once he saw Okur was number two, must’ve felt like the Schwab when he gets stumped—his only validation of life destroyed.

So as you can tell, I’m not a big statistics advocate. I am, however, a big fan of needless hypotheticals that illustrate a point.

Example:

Say the Yakuza break into my home, bag my head and take me to a basketball court somewhere in the heart of south Tokyo (I’m sure they’re basketball fans—who isn’t?). I owe a gambling debt, which I blindly squandered on LeBron’s Cavaliers in the 2009 playoffs. But these are a quasi-benevolent bunch of Japanese mafia, and they give me an out. Instead of an immediate beheading, they—being basketball fans and believers in chance—lay my fate in the hands of the NBA player of my choice.

The rules are simple: If the chosen player makes the shot, I live; he misses, and I become sashimi.

Right then and there, Hatori Hanzo blade indenting my neck, I’m picking Kobe. And I’m betting you would too.

In your heart of hearts, you know Kobe is the only logical choice. He’s proven it, and no one else has. Not LeBron, not Wade, not ‘Melo, Dirk or Ginobili—not the way Kobe has.  And they definitely don’t have his skillful game.  Not yet.

I’ve covered Kobe’s extensive arsenal before.  He’s got it all, combining the best attributes of the aforementioned performers and unsurpassed split-second judgment. Kobe’s virtuosity has earned my confidence under any permutation—double-teamed, hand-in-face, double-clutching, six seconds left, one second, broken finger—doesn’t matter, Kobe is getting his.

But the real kicker is Kobe’s intelligence. He knows when and to whom he should pass the ball.  It’s not just that Kobe has learned to trust his teammates, but that he’s learned to pass to players he trusts (i.e. Only to other clutch players and only in their sweet spots, like Derek Fisher on the perimeter and Pau Gasol in the post). Kobe not only knows his game, but the tendencies and strengths of his teammates. Which makes him the most dangerous man when the game is in balance.

But wait, knowing when and where to pass the ball? That sounds like LeBron, whom many mouth-breathing statistics apologists say is the league’s clutchest player.  Just look at his field goal percentage in clutch situations!

I, however, view LeBron in a slightly different light. Yes, he will pass to an open player, any open player, but he will do it for better or for worse.  He will do so because it’s the right basketball move—but common sense doesn’t always make the best decisions.  Textbook strategy says an open player has a higher chance of making a shot, therefore the ball-handler should pass it.  LeBron follows this rule religiously.  He’ll pass to, say, Donyell Marshall on a game-deciding possession against the Detroit Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals (video).  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But with my life on the line, I want a frozen-blooded killer on my side, not someone who plays by the rule book.

I doubt Kobe makes that play to Donyell Marshall, and I’m not sure I’d want him too. The ultra-clutch realize their status, or maybe it’s their unbridled murderous instinct, but they’re not giving up the game-winning possession unless the second option is close to a sure thing. Then again, Michael Jordan did pass to John Paxton and Steve Kerr, and Jordan was lauded for it. But Jordan and Kobe began as selfish players, mentally unable to pass up the final shot. That’s why them finally passing to trusted teammates was a sign of growth and eventual evolution into an all-around threat.

LeBron, on the other hand, doesn’t have that reputation. He’s a selfless player—perhaps too selfless. And the burden of turning selfish, developing that me-first killer instinct, is on him.  The greats can see and analyze variables on the court.  (e.g. That Paxton, Kerr and Fisher were/are proven performers in the waning seconds, far more reliable than Donyell Marshall.)  They understand the situation and can gauge how their teammates will handle it.  LeBron hasn’t learned to make this clutch calculation yet. Kobe has.

But what makes Kobe the wheat and everyone else the chaff isn’t just his analytical skill under stress; it’s that he isn’t afraid. He isn’t just confident he’ll make a shot; he’s assured of it. Confidence implies the possibility of failure—that doesn’t factor with Kobe; he knows it’s going in before the ball is released.  At this point, I doubt the pressure of balancing my life would rattle Kobe’s cool. His mental state has moved passed brazen confidence into calm assurance, into Jordan and Bird territory.

But how do you explain the stats?

I’ll say this: LeBron is probably better overall in crunch time—in the final five minutes. He always makes the correct play, whether it’s bulldozing towards the hoop to get a foul or passing to an undefended teammate. And Kobe does frequently turn over the ball or take and miss bad shots in the 4th quarter. Hell, others are probably more efficient even in the last minute, when one possession doesn’t decide the outcome, and there is time for amends. But no one, not anyone still playing in the NBA, is better than Kobe at the game’s event horizon, that point of no return: the final ten seconds.  Nobody embraces those moments like Kobe, and nobody comes through like him.  And there’s no one I trust more.

You can have LeBron and Wade. Give me Kobe.

Looking into the Crystal Basketball: 2010 NBA Predictions

By Chris Le

So you want to know about the NBA future?  This is what I see …

Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Clippers.  It’s Griffin, somewhat by default.  This freshman class blows.  Griffin and Tyreke Evans and Jonny Flynn are the only rookies worthy of being in a starting five, and they might be the only rookies to make any impact whatsoever.  But Griffin, to his credit, is a peg above — a legitimate star among the first year sludge.  His turbo button is always at full tilt, whether it’s chasing a loose ball, boxing out or setting a pick.  He only knows one speed: all-out.  He probably goes to sleep flexing.  And with a workman’s mentality, even a klutz can make an impact (Mark Madsen made an unwarrantedly publicized career of it.)  But Griffin is also a freak athlete with burgeoning potential.  And he’s the only post scorer on an offensive-minded team, so expect big numbers (15 points, 10 rebounds per game) but with few wins.  That’s the price of being a Clipper.

Ballot: 1.) Blake Griffin, Clippers 2.) Tyreke Evans, Kings 3.) Jonny Flynn, Timberwolves 4.) James Harden, Thunder

Most Improved Player: Greg Oden, Trail Blazers.  Oden was my pick, last season, for rookie of the year.  I expected a 70’s era big man — ungraceful on offense, but swatting away 4 and pulling down 10 a night.  Who would’ve thought 4 would be his fouls per game average, and 10 the number of minutes until he doubles over from fatigue?  But I still expect the Oden I foresaw; my prediction was just a year off.  2010 will be his NBA cotillion.

Ballot: 1.) Greg Oden, Trailblazers 2.) Channing Frye, Suns 3.) Roy Hibbert, Pacers 4.) Anthony Randolph, Warriors 5.) Kwame Brown, Pistons (yes, you read correctly – Kwame Brown)

Sixth Man of the Year: Leandro Barbosa, Suns.  I’m sporting a big hard-on for the Suns.  Gone are the pesky back-to-basket big men who like to rebound and protect the rim.  Goodbyes were said to their best perimeter defenders.  Last year, Shaq and the half-court Suns felt forced, against nature.  Like Asher Roth trying to be a rapper.  This year will be different.  It’s back to the run-and-gun, baby.  And Amare Stoudemire, Channing Frye and sixth man Leandro Barbosa are ready to detonate on a lot of defenses.

Ballot: 1.) Leandro Barbosa, Suns 2.) Manu Ginobili, Spurs 3.) Rasheed Wallace, Celtics 4.) Lamar Odom, Lakers

Coach of the Year: Greg Popovich, Spurs.  Coach Pop wants to preserve his geriatric team for the postseason.  That means a bushel of DNP’s for Timmy, Manu, Finley and even McDyess, particularly in tail-ends of back-to-backs.  But that won’t result in more losses.  Popovich is the league’s Tony Robbins — a master of motivation, milking talent from a marginal player and knowing when to cap an overexerted and in the Spurs’ case, aging star.  Pop will jumble the starting lineup throughout the season, determining who mixes well with whom, to eventually finalize a steady playoff rotation.  But like I said, despite the lineup experiments and his studs occasionally wearing street clothes on the bench, the Spurs will be near the top.

Ballot: 1.) Gregg Popovich, Spurs 2.) Alvin Gentry, Suns 3.) Phil Jackson, Lakers 4.) Mike Brown, Cavaliers

Defensive Player of the Year: Ron Artest, Lakers.  With the intrigue of how his volatile psyche will adulterate/reinforce/mesh with the defending champs (not to mention the Los Angeles glamour), the national media spotlight will be fixed square on Artest’s forehead.  And, as any publicist will attest, media coverage = a free campaign.  He’ll be the most ballyhooed defender this season.  But there will be substance to match that ESPN flash.  The Lakers will relieve Kobe of work, reducing the wear on his tires.  Enter Artest, who, still a premier stalwart, will be assigned to defend the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.

Dwight Howard, the funnel-bottom of a top-three defense, sporting ample rebounds and blocks, is always a threat for the award.  But he’s a stats candidate.  It’s high time a man-to-man defender got the award.  Shane Battier, anyone?  I love him and his wrinkled head, but he won’t have the media love on a forgotten Houston Rockets team.  Additionally, his increased role on offense may diminish his on-ball performance.  Kevin Garnett is also a strong contender, but only if he can stay on the court.  And with his age, you can’t count on that.

Ballot: 1.) Ron Artest, Lakers 2.) Dwight Howard, Magic 3.) Shane Battier, Rockets 4.) Kevin Garnett, Celtics

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cavaliers.  “Anyone but LeBron,” I told myself.  I tried to not give LeBron the award.  Predicting him is just too predictable.  I wanted to be avant-garde with at least one of my picks.  There has to be another contender, right?  Perhaps Kevin Durant from an uprising Thunder squad.  Not a bad choice.  “Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul will do most with the least,” I said, trying to convince myself.  And I’ve always thought Kobe Bryant is the most skilled player in the game.  But, with everything boiled down, I couldn’t shake the fact that Cleveland will most likely have the league’s best record, and LeBron will post somewhere in the precinct of 28-8-7.  It’s back-to-back for The King.

Ballot: 1.) LeBron James, Cavaliers 2.) Kobe Bryant, Lakers 3.) Chris Paul, Hornets 4.) Dwyane Wade, Heat

First Team All-Defense

G Dwyane Wade
G Shane Battier
F Ron Artest
F LeBron James
C Dwight Howard

First Team All-NBA

G Chris Paul
G Dwyane Wade
F Kobe Bryant
F LeBron James
C Dwight Howard

Eastern Conference

1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Boston Celtics
3. Orlando Magic
4. Atlanta Hawks
5. Washington Wizards
6. Chicago Bulls
7. Philadelphia 76ers
8. Miami Heat

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Denver Nuggets
5. Dallas Mavericks
6. Phoenix Suns
7. Utah Jazz
8. New Orleans

East Champions: Boston Celtics
West Champions: Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Champions: Los Angeles Lakers