Friday, January 27, 2012

The Week That Was: Jan 23-29, 2012.

On tap for this week: small-market allegiance and/or love of money, burgeoning rivalries, and the NBA season's least surprising development, thus far.  Let's get to it.

1.  A Different Breed of Star(s)? 

Weight-Wallet Size Reversal

January 25, 2012 marked the deadline for teams to offer 2008 draftees extensions, and by and large, the day passed quietly. The big winner of the day was Diss favorite Kevin Love, who secured a 4-year, $62 million dollar deal with the Timberwolves. Assumedly, Love left some money on the table so the Wolves could continue to improve their roster, so this looks like a fairly amicable agreement between front office and player.  Meanwhile, forward Danilo Gallinari, who has averaged 18.7 points per game since being traded to Denver in the Melo blockbuster, signed a 4-year, $42 million dollar extension with the Nuggets.  There was one strange signing -- 3-years, $9 million to Kosta Koufos? -- but nothing that strikes me as extraordinary.  That said, a number of 2008 draftees didn't get paid today.  As a result, there will be a very interesting restricted free agent pool this year.  Brook Lopez, Nicolas Batum, Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Michael Beasley and Anthony Randolph are among some of the more likely candidates to get overpaid by someone.  I'm honestly surprised Timberwolves GM David Kahn didn't extend Beasley and Randolph.  The guy's showing some restraint!

What struck me about both these signings and non-signings was the allegiance these players showed to the small-market teams that currently pay for their services. This even goes for those who failed to negotiate an extension.  Both Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook expressed excitement to be remaining in Minneapolis and Oklahoma City, respectively, with Westbrook even saying that OKC was "the spot" for him.  Gallo, whose diverse offensive game would certainly command a hefty salary on the open market, chose to resign with Denver, because the franchise has the "best chance of winning games, which is [his] first priority."  Meanwhile, Brook Lopez expressed unhappiness about not being resigned, as did other talented 2008 draftees like Batum, Hibbert, Anderson, Gordon.  None of these guys play for large market teams, and a few of them (Lopez and Gordon) aren't even on winning teams.  So one has to applaud the class of 2008 for their loyalty to the clubs that they play for, and finishing the jobs they started with their smaller market teams.

That, or for their insatiable love of money.  One or the other.

2.  The Return of the Classic NBA Rivalry.

No, we can't do it here -- World Peace is watching.

The best part of being an NBA fan from 1994 to 2004 was the prevalence of rivalries between excellent teams.  Whether it was Bulls-PacersKnicks-HeatPacers-Knicks in the mid to late 1990s, or my personal favorite, the Laker-Kings of the early 2000s, my childhood is filled with happy memories of awesome playoff teams throwing hard fouls, jawin' like crazy, and every once and awhile, starting a brawl that sucks a coach-turned-commentator in the undertow.  These were the games that drove the NBA narrative -- the logical trajectory after the Bird versus Magic rivalry recaptured a national audience in the 1980s, and after Jordan's seemingly unbeatable dynasty prematurely ended with his first retirement in 1993.  Windows of opportunity were short, and the competition was fierce.  Indeed, many of the iconic images of that era were born from some of these great rivalries.

Then, something happened.  As guys like Jordan, Reggie and Alonzo retired, a new class of stars, like LeBron James, Amar'e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony became the standard bearers for individual excellence. And, following the examples set by Shaq in 1996, or even Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in 2000, these players decided that it was easier to join forces with your rivals than beat them outright.  So seemingly, as the stars have realigned, so too have the rivalries that used to delight the imaginations of both casual and dedicated NBA fans alike.  Jordan is now famous for saying, when asked for his opinion on LeBron's decision to join Wade and Bosh in Miami, that he would've never joined Larry or Magic on the same team, because "[he] wanted to beat the best, not join them."  This is no longer true.  So, while we may get some testy playoff series, we are not treated to the rivalries that used to make nationally telecasted NBA games so fun.

That is, until this week rolled around, and I realized that rivalries were back.  Two games in particular caught my eye.  The first, a six-tech slug fest between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers -- the third chippy game between the Staples Center cohabitants -- had all the classic features of an old-fashioned NBA rivalry.  There were scowls and long, hard stares.  There were words exchanged, and angry shoving.  The fouls were hard, and the two teams jawed as they left the court.  In the end, it was the Lakers over Lob City, with tempers between Chris Paul and Pau Gasol flaring up hilariously at the end.  It was great television.  The second game, which featured old rivals the Indiana Pacers at Chicago Bulls, looked an awful lot like a playoff game.  Boozer and West battled down low, and Derrick Rose and Darren Collison flew up and down the court.  In the end, Indiana prevailed 95-90, giving Chicago their first home loss of the season.  The next day, the normally quiet Derrick Rose expressed his displeasure over the Pacers celebration.
"When you're walking off the court, you're in the same corridor..And we were walking into our locker room, and you could hear those guys celebrating, cheering, screaming, and that kind of hit home with a lot of guys on our team. We're all competitors. They're in our division. Every time we play them it's a tough matchup. And especially in front of our fans, you don't want to have a letdown and lose at home. To hear them do like that adds a little fuel to the fire. We talked about it after the game."
This makes me happy.  I'm excited to see how these rivalries develop over time.  I may not get another Lakers-Kings, but Lakers-Clippers ain't bad either.

3.  Flip Saunders, Who Always Looks Stoned, Now Looks Stoned and Unemployed.

Guys, it costs $60 for a sack of shake here.  I'm not too broken up about moving.

Well, Flip got fired on Tuesday.  His former team, the Washington Wizards, were 2-15. Big surprise.

A lot has been said about this subject, so I don't have much to add. The general consensus seems to be that Flip got fired because deadbeat GM Ernie Grunfeld can't fire himself, so somebody had to take the fall for the mess.  Wages of Wins lays out the sad tale that has been Flip Saunders' career in the NBA: a very talented coach who gets stuck, after awhile, with an imbalanced team created by an imbecile GM.  He dealt with Kevin McHale in Minnesota, Joe Dumars in Detroit (who at the time was a decent GM, though he fired the guy after they lost to the 2008 Celtics, who Wages of Wins calls "the best Celtics team in history"), and finally, Ernie Grunfeld in Washington.  Not the greatest line of bosses, there.

As for the Wizards team, this, too, has been well chronicled.  John Wall, the #1 overall pick, has vastly underachieved in his second season, and he's getting little help from running mates Nick Young and JaVale McGee.  Kelly Dwyer from Ball Don't Lie may say it best:
"This is the dumbest basketball team I've ever seen. I've seen rebuilding outfits chock full of high school draftees (back when you could play players out of prep school) and international flameouts. I've seen teams playing out the string. I've seen the needle and the damage done. I've seen Stephen Jackson.  This Washington team, and I'm not on some cable-addled hyperbolic turn here, is the dumbest basketball team I've ever seen. They really are leading the charge, and not for the purpose of some random column posted in late January."
In the roughly 24 minutes of Wizards basketball I've watched this season, I can say this only borders somewhat on hyperbole.  This really is a terrible, terrible team.  But everything's gonna be okay now, because Flip Saunders is gone.


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