The NBA Returns

November 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

In a month nobody will care who called the last bluff in the battle that pitted NBA owners against NBA players, the former locking out the latter in a 149 day labour dispute that saw negotiations go from sweet to sour over the course of much longer than that. People will forget that too because as of Saturday morning news spread quickly that the owners and players had reached a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement that should save the 2011-2012 season. The condensed 66-game schedule is being pushed to begin on December 25, which should mean stellar opening day numbers for the league and its broadcast partners. Christmas Day is already a traditional jump-off point for the NBA when national broadcasting and extensive coverage really kicks in from their major partners.

Negotiations between the owners and players had begun to narrow at the top of the year but it was a slow melt to the inevitable as the two sides bickered mostly about the split on basketball related income (BRI) and then player movement, contract lengths and dollar restriction issues. Mud began to fly through NBA commissioner David Stern and Union head Billy Hunter over a month ago as the season start date at the end of October drew nearer then passed. It was perhaps the most drawn out emotional transition in the history of negotiating, a molasses-like crawl to the brink. That it was all sort of predictable was besides the point, though no less annoying. Was it the owners’ increasing bullying tactics of final offers and acceptance deadlines or the players threat of decertification and their war of the worlds like launch of lawsuits across the country? A pre-emptive legal strike by the suits early on? Accusations against top player rep Derek Fisher sketching him as a David Stern pocket dweller? A perceived slight? A slight of hand?

They will forget. The game is back. The game is beautiful.

OK, so it can be ugly too. Make no mistake, this was an ugly and nasty little piece of work by most involved (though quietly I marveled at its dramatic arcs and employed business tactics). It made a 30-point blowout look like an instant classic. It was irritating in its ever-threatening manner and it feels more defeated because the monster that it was has already broken off a piece. A big bite out of the ass of the league and it constituents. A broken season. Another 1998-style asterisk campaign. Still, even if it returns limping (this is Stern’s second shortened season as commish), without some of it’s stars (where are you J.R. Smith?) and with a sell-job to fans that probably already kicked in the damage isn’t extensive. Not in the long run. Because people will forget.

Training camps have been outlined for a December 9 start creating a two-week team conditioning crunch and roster trimming period. The week and a half lead up time will be the executive playground as a free agent window will be opened that should also include trades and other transactions. There have been no in-depth details on the expected amnesty clause that will allow teams to cut one high-priced (overpaid) player from their roster and remove the contract as a cap hit (they must still pay the play the remainder of salary owed). Expect names like Rashard Lewis and Gilbert Arenas to enter an interesting free agent pool under those terms giving the build up to the return of the league some more punch. NBAPA executive Roger Mason told Sports Illustrated‘s Sam Amick “I think the guys will be satisfied.”

Early talks suggest the BRI split is a 49-51 take in favour of the players. With owners tweaking some system issue concerns a 15-hour Friday night meeting came to a furious finish as the parties announced the news with a red-eyed 4:00 AM press conference. Both Stern and Hunter called the vote to pass the new deal a simple formality.

Yet it remains a believe-it-when-I-see-it moment for fans who rolled out of bed across several different timezones Saturday morning like a domino succession to the news. The wave of excitement could be felt across informing social media sites, televisions, radios and the inter webs. Excitement replacing the standoffish satire and a dwindling anger-turned-boredom sentiment that had existed until Friday night. The amnesia has already begun. It isn’t all bad and it isn’t all good and how much of either won’t really be decided until details of the new pact are released in full and the product returns to the floor.

For now a strong word has been enough to shoot a shocking surprise turn into the basketball sky and as the good news rains down upon the populace it has already begun to wash away the bad taste and stain of what almost wasn’t. Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe it isn’t for them to remember. Maybe it’s for them to hope that the ones who mucked about here never forget, however unlikely that may be. As unlikely as an NBA season looked a week ago? Just maybe.

Hoop Dreams Finally Hit Home

August 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

IT WAS ALREADY 10:30 AM when Kevin Francis and Sherone Edwards arrived at the final day of the National Basketball League of Canada’s first ever pre-draft combine. Though Francis was the more heralded player it was he who kept reminding Edwards during their workouts that his buddy still had what it took to roll and so they had decided to attend the event. From the pool of over 200 free agent hopefuls that showed up over two days only 50 of them would be invited to attend the inaugural league draft Sunday night at the Rogers Centre. Out of those only 21 would be picked up by the NBLC’s seven franchises over three rounds of picks and of those selected (without the luxury of a guaranteed contract) only a portion might make the cut for their team come training camp in October. In fact, there isn’t much about this new league that doesn’t feel like a long-shot but it hasn’t stopped the NBLC from going full bore with a quick succession of impressive personnel announcements, franchise erections and a sleek draft night production that formally introduced them to a doubting public.

It also didn’t stop Francis and Edwards from showing up to the combine two hours late. The previous night had been fraught with indecision. Francis was fighting a bad ankle sprain and did not want to show up at the combine in hobbled form. The next morning Edwards, his training partner and best friend, was lying in his bed and eyeing the clock at his bedside. It was after 9:00 AM, past the check-in time at the combine and he figured Francis had decided not to attend the camp, had decided his ankle was too weak to perform. The final decision was Francis’ though and he was a no-show. Edwards resigned himself to a similar fate and went back to sleep. After all, he and Francis had decided to take this journey together, or not at all.

Meanwhile, Francis was receiving a text message from his girlfriend and mother of his two-month old daughter. The text was urging him to attend the camp. It told him that she had prayed and that God would take care of the ankle if he just went out and played. Play. Just like he had in Finland, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, France and China for most of the years since he left Cleveland State University. None of his family had ever gotten to see him play in those far away lands and now he was flirting with passing up a chance to play at home in this new Canadian league. Then something clicked.

“I wasn’t even going to go,” recalls Francis shaking his head. He’s sitting at the back of a suite in the Rogers Centre at the end of a roller-coaster day. “Then I knew I had to.”

Edwards wasn’t exactly surprised when Francis burst into his room and woke him up but he sure was happy. There wasn’t much to be said except that they were going to the combine and the two men rushed away like a Derrick Rose blow by to make it in time for the afternoon scrimmages. If the odds were long before, showing up late and throwing his hat into a field of over 60 others who were warmed up and already familiar with the drill seargants stretched them even more. Francis was going to have to make up ground, ankle be damned.

********************

THE SENECA COLLEGE GYM was alive with basketball when they entered and geared up for the evaluation games. League founder and president Andre Levingston paced the floor with his established glare, sizing up each entrant like a hawk. As team president of the Halifax Rainmen as well, he was pulling double duty as league overseer and team scout. His other team owners and their coaches sat and stood around a table squeezed between the gym’s two courts where the action would play out. Many of them moaned about the difference in hunger between Saturday’s participants and Sunday’s show ups (the Americans only camp was held on Saturday, Canadians only on Sunday).

“The guys on Saturday were more physical, more passionate,” noted one team official. “I don’t know how many guys today really want this.”

Then there was Francis who, despite showing obvious signs of pain, pushed through his ankle injury and performed “on one wheel”. There were times when it seemed to slow him and on at least one play, rob him of the lateral quickness he uses to let loose his mid-range game, but he stood out as a pusher. His 6-8 frame muscled through the paint for rebounds and he ran the floor on breaks effortlessly with the guards. Orders barked from behind his long, grown out beard directing traffic and demanding the ball in the post from where he delivered a couple of noteworthy finishes. His defense was noticed and added to a good enough performance to make it through the first cuts, which left the field at just 20. Joining him was Edwards who had turned some heads of his own during play to boost his stock. During the scrimmage of 20 Francis further established himself as a force with a steady jumper and more defense. Not long after the game had ended both he and Edwards were asked to be in attendance for the draft. The long-shots had made up some ground indeed, but with a total of only 21 picks to be made out of 50 invitees there was still all lot more to cover.

*******************

THE SUMMIT SUITE at the Rogers Centre overlooks the domed major league baseball field below, which on this day was in a state of transition while the hometown Toronto Blue Jays finished up an away set against the A’s in Oakland, California. The long panes of glass which encase and divide the room were lined with spectators, media and team executives in the standing room only affair. Young Jerry Maguire-esque agents darted back and forth from their clients to sportswriters to the buffet table with equal zeal. Team owners mulled by the alcohol-free bar in the back, greeting their picks after they made the long walk from their podium greeting with Levingston then through a gaggle of reporters and cameras. The players and their families created a thick sea of seated bodies directed towards the main stage, its mass lowering with each name called while the remainders shifted more and more uncomfortably in their chairs.

Through the first round of picks Francis and Edwards sat side by side. They watched as 21 year-old and fellow Toronto native Kevin Brown was chosen fifth overall by the St. John Mill Rats. Both 27 years-old, Francis and Edwards were like elder statesmen compared to the younger hoopsters and Edwards, a product of the University of Prince Edward Island, didn’t have quite the resume of travel his friend did to help his chances. As Levingston took to the stage to commence the second round the two didn’t know what to think, not that they would have much time to do it. The Oshawa Power had been on the clock and Levingston was preparing to announce their selection.

Kevin Francis. Cleveland State University.

Francis would say later that the feeling was indescribable, one that carried him up to the podium to shake Levingston’s hand, through the long walk of media and wallflowers offering their congratulations and finally to a seat at the rear lounge. He ordered a cranberry juice to go with his ear to ear smile as he talked excitedly with his quasi-agent, a reporter and earlier draft picks that had congregated by the bar.

“I always wanted to play at home,” Francis told SWAY Sports. “Never had a chance to play at home except (for) high school basketball. That’s the last time my mom really saw me play.

“Just had a daughter, she’s two months. Now I’ll be around more often instead of gone for eight months of the year. It’ll be good to be able to raise my daughter.”

Still, in all his joy Francis’ mind seemed to be pulling elsewhere. He wrestled between heading out for celebrations or going home to see his little girl and his lady. He recalled that morning’s craziness with an interested scribe. Power president Gary Durrant even stopped by to high-five his newest pick but Francis seemed to be waiting on something more. In the background, while he sipped his virgin cranberry, Levingston was getting set to announce the 14th overall and final pick of the second round owned by the Quebec Kebs. The din of the audience died down as he voiced the Kebs’ choice.

Sherone Edwards. University of P.E.I.

Francis’ ears perked up and then, as if on a delay of disbelief, he jumped to his feet and pumped his fist in the air.

“Yes!” Francis exclaimed proudly. “Yes, yes, yes!”

He watched anxiously as Edwards approached the stage to receive his handshake and hat before taking his own walk down media alley.

“A lot of guys don’t get this opportunity,” said the 6’5” Edwards. “To be honest, as I was sitting there I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity myself. A lot of things were going through my head because this is brand new to me, this is a first for me.

“I feel like I should have been somewhere within a system a long time ago, however, it takes time and things happen. I’m just glad, especially for Kevin Francis… that he’s in my life and that he brought me this far. We’re just going to see where it goes from here, man.”

For Francis, being a part of the NBLC means an end to a nomadic basketball life, at least for now. If the league manages to find some footing in the sports landscape this season it may be for good. With a family to raise the timing of being able to finally play professionally in his own backyard could not have been better. Of course, making the final roster is the next challenge for both he and Edwards but the odds have been considerably shortened and their hoop dreams have been given room to breathe. For friends, training partners and basketball junkies this is a scenario they never thought possible. Fitting that if not for each other none of it would have happened.

“I just showed all my skills,” said Francis. “And believed in myself.”

It was all still running through his mind as he continued to watch Edwards make his way to the back, a chesire grin spread across his face as he hopped up the steps into the lounge where Francis greeted him.

“Thanks for having faith in me,” Edwards told him when the two were finally close enough to talk.

“Hey,” Francis replied. “It’s our time to shine.”

Anzuluni to Sign First Contract in League History

August 17, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

As far as big name signings in sports go it’s a reach but the new Basketball League of Canada will take another significant step towards tipping off their inaugural season by announcing the signing of the first ever player contract under the NBLC banner later today.

Yannick Anzuluni, a 6’8” small forward from Ottawa, Ontario, will sign a reported three-year contract with the Quebec Kebs, one of the three founding franchises of the new league. Along with the Halifax Rainmen and St. John’s Mill Rats the Kebs last operated in the Premiere Basketball League where Anzuluni debuted last year for the team. During his rookie season with the Kebs he averaged six points and four rebounds on 59% shooting.

The three original franchises disassociated themselves with the PBL after tainted officiating marred that league’s playoffs and without delay Rainmen owner and league commissioner Andre Levingston worked quickly to establish the NBLC. It has been a remarkable race to set up shop, an impressive, well-stepped effort that has gelled so fast that the three clubs won’t even miss a season. They’ll be joined by four expansion franchises in London, Oshawa, Prince Edward Island and Moncton bringing the total of first season teams to seven, all in eastern Canada.

With the pre-draft combine and NBLC draft set to go down this weekend in Toronto player personal has become a priority for team executives. In a league that will struggle to sell star power in these early days, they must sell moments and the Anzuluni signing is an important one. As clubs power to fill their rosters with the first game of the season just two months away fans can expect a flurry of signings and announcements as the next phase of the build up begins.

However untested, Anzuluni represents a crop of Canadian content that will be expected to add excitement and a local connection to the league. Still young enough to be considered emerging, the Kebs hope he is the type of talent ticket buyers can grow with.

Colangelo Takes Risk with Valanciunas Pick

June 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

The Toronto Raptors went against the popular (local) thinking and drafted Lithuanian centre Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas is another big body for the Toronto Raptors, who traditionally load up on draft day beef, and will join signed and sealed Andrea Bargnani, Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans in the frontcourt… but not yet.

Valanciunas was not expected to join the NBA this season due to contract issues but with the Raptors in full rebuild mode there should be a serious push to get him into the mix this season. Still, the team is reportedly making inquiries about a buyout arrangement that could see the 20-year old in Toronto sooner rather than later. The worst-case scenario would have him fulffilling the full three-year length of his overseas contract but that would leave his current team with nothing, an unlikely course of action. NBA teams are only allowed to commit a maximum of $500K towards the buyout of a contract. The club has already talked to both of Valanciunas’ agents and the representative of his Lithuanian team in order to get the ball rolling on discussions.

Head coach Dwayne Casey addressed the media following the trade and said that they were shocked when Valancius was still available at the fifth spot and admitted the biggest reason why was the general fear of his contract status. For the Raptors it was more about balance.

“The decision was made according to our roster,” Casey told the assembled media following the pick. “We have a million guards. You’re looking at the young man Knight, you’re looking at the young man Walker, you’re looking at the young man Leonard (and) we have a lot of players at that position. What we don’t have is rim protection, length and athleticism in the middle. Amir (Johnson) is a good player but he doesn’t have the length that Valanciunas has.”

Adding another big man to throw alongside the previous mentioned three is tricky long-term and the thinking is that Valanciunas is seen as the eventual successor to Bargnani as the centre of choice. If his arrival is indeed delayed general manager Bryan Colangelo – who acknowledged Bargnani will move to power forward as Valanciunas develops – would be under less pressure to make a quick deal to ease the frontcourt congestion. It also means Casey will not have to find and cut minutes in order to throw Big V into the fire now. it may also effect the way the Raptors go about the business of attacking the free agent and trade markets. However, with Colangelo under a shorter than expected contract extension it is hard to imagine a scenario where he would want to wait a full season before getting his prized pick in a Raptors jersey. Going by social media sites, tools and street sentiment the reaction to the team selecting another European big man has been mostly negative, especially for one they may not see immediately. Give Colangelo credit not playing the self-preservation card and for seeing beyond the length of his own contract if not the narrow, mossy tightrope he now finds himself walking with Raptors fans pacing ferociously in the gully below.

“I can’t worry about where they’re from,” Colangelo said when speaking to the media Thursday night. “I can only worry about how they play and how they fit into the plan and what they bring to the table. I can’t worry about me, I can’t worry about my contract situation. I’ve got to worry about this franchise. Winning basketball games and becoming better as a franchise will ultimately sell.”

Valanciunas, who is scheduled to arrive in Toronto tomorrow, was hopeful that buyout arrangements will come quickly.

“I expect to play in the NBA as soon as possible,” said Valanciunas on a conference call with reporters. “I think it should be done this year.”

Valanciunas played last season for Lietuvos Rytas of the Lithuanian LKL, the country’s top league. He averaged 11.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 31 games and is considered part of the new school movement of more athletically based, extended-range centre’s being produced overseas.

“I just came from having Tyson Chandler,” said Casey of the Dallas Mavericks defensive force. “Tyson Chandler at the same age was not as good as this young man. I know how important length, athleticism, speed and quickness is. He’s not a plodder, he’s not robotic (and) those things excited me as a coach. What didn’t excite me is that I may not see him for another year.”

Since his hiring five years ago Colangelo has made it a point to draft and acquire European bred players to execute his brand of basketball, a movement that has come under much fire as the team has continued to wallow in the basement of the NBA. That said, his American-born draftees and acquisitions have been equally responsible for the slide. So has he.

“I know that there has been some angst out there already with respect to reaction,” said Colangelo. “I can’t worry about that. I can only worry about the short-term and long-term growth of this franchise. The direction is clear.”

Before the draft began Raptors players DeMar DeRozan, Sonny Weems and Ed Davis expressed a desire for the team to select a ready-to-go impact player to help them back into the playoff conversation for next season. Depending on wether or not Valanciunas gets to Toronto in time, the young core may have to continue to hold down the future and wait. Even if Valanciunas does join the Raptors in time for training camp he will be another youngster on a team full of them and devoid of strong veteran presence. Both Casey and Colangelo talked about acquiring help through trades and free agency, a task that will be made more difficult should they need to readdress needs they fulfilled with the Valanciunas get.

“No one wants to put too much on him too quickly,” said Colangelo. “I’ve always said you’ve got to get the young guys out there. You’ve got to get them experience. That’s the best way to improve not only them individually but as a group and as a franchise. We do want to win. We want to win now and we’re working on that.”

Countdown for Canuck Draft Hopefuls

June 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Features

When Texas Longhorn teammates and Toronto natives Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph declared themselves draft eligible following their solid college freshman seasons one was a sure bet to be an NBAer while the other had much to prove. Judging by the reactions of general managers and team executives league-wide both Thompson and Joseph have improved their stock considerably.

Thompson has always been considered a lottery pick in what is being panned as a weak draft. However, regardless of the general assessment of talent level there are always stars born out of the annual June passage and Thompson is considered a strong candidate to become one of them. The Washington Wizards hold the sixth pick overall and are clearly intrigued with his potential after a stellar freshman season for the Longhorns as their starting centre. Thompson has been most widely linked to the Detroit Pistons (8th overall pick) who are trying to enter rebuild mode and see Thompson’s growth potential as something that falls in line with the plan. The Golden State Warriors own the 11th pick and are also searching for some beef to go with their high-scoring backcourt of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis.

Joseph has had a more interesting process and was widely criticized for leaving college after just one season. His was a quieter campaign than Thompson’s statement season and while his numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch he did help quarterback a young team that surprised most on their way to a NCAA tournament appearance. With many top prospects pulling out of this year’s draft, in part due to worries about an NBA lockout, Joseph decided to test the waters and his gamble seems to be paying off. The Chicago Bulls have expressed a strong interest in Joseph and could select him with their 30th pick although they would prefer to nab him with their 43rd slot. The Miami Heat also have Joseph on their radar and are in the market for guard help. The Heat own the 31st pick in tonight’s draft and seem set on selecting a point guard from a pool of Reggie Jackson, Charles Jenkins and Joseph. The other mention regarding Joseph is the San Antonio Spurs who are hopeful he falls into their lap at the 59th spot, the second last pick in the draft.

Whatever happens June 23 is set to be a monumental night for Canadian basketball. Thompson could become the first ever lottery pick to be born in Canada and Joseph seems poised to surprised a lot of observers with a higher than expected selection, perhaps insuring that the duo continue along this most unexpected path together. A hopeful Joseph is in the stands in New Jersey to take in the draft ceremony while Thompson was a green room invitee. Currently the highest Canadian pick ever was Steve Nash, plucked out of the 1996 draft by the Phoenix Suns in 1996.

SONOFAGUN: Future of the East is Heat vs. Knicks

May 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Features, Son of a Gun

“This is the series everybody wanted,” said Miami Heat forward LeBron James when it was determined that his team would be facing the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Not so fast prince.

Nobody was secretly wishing for a Heat versus New York Knicks match up? Is that like asking who farted?

Everybody who eye-rolled, bad-mouthed or straight up goddamned the various ways that James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony chose to abandon the cities of Cleveland, Toronto and Denver respectively over the past year were suspiciously quiet on the matter during the first round. It wasn’t because the stories were old (that won’t happen until the Miami Heat or New York Knicks win a championship) or because people had forgiven them (that won’t happen until NEVER). They were quiet because what could have possibly happened in the second round of this year’s NBA playoffs is exactly what the basketball God might have had on her conniving mind when she ordered the hands of fate to deliver James and Bosh to South Beach and Anthony to the Big Apple.

I suspect that quietly, under many safe predictions, a Heat/Knicks series might have possibly been the most anticipated guilty pleasure second round match-up of the last decade. It would have also rekindled one of the most vicious rivalries in the history of the league, a classic 1990’s period piece that saw Patrick Ewing’s Knicks wage war against Alonzo Mourning’s Heat, which left each team just bloody enough to eventually stumble and fall short of championship bids. That war was made more personal with ex-Knicks coach Pat Riley working the Miami sidelines as demonically as he does the Heat’s front offices now. As he did when putting James and Bosh alongside superstar Dwyane Wade. The Knicks are copying the blueprint and while owner James Dolan and President Donnie Walsh haven’t yet completed their project (Chris Paul is still highest on their list of additions) Anthony and underrated big man Amar’e Stoudemire were enough to get the Knicks back into the playoffs, already a victory of many sorts in Gotham. If fans were delighted at the renewed vows of hate between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics over the past few years they would have loved this. While the Celtics/Lakers history is storied and cinematic the book on the Heat versus Knicks is short and nasty and translates just as well.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who wisely stood on the sidelines while charges of collusion and tampering flung forth from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors up and down the eastern seaboard all summer and season, was no doubt rubbing his hands with glee along with the rest of his brass at a possible Heat-Knicks head-to-head. That it might have happened in the very first year of their respective star-studded alignments was too good to be true and as much as hoop fans across the globe recoiled at James’ televised execution of hope in Cleveland, boiled at Bosh’s flippant social media toying and free agent feigning and were soiled by the drawn out and unecessary ‘Melo drama (a fault equally shared by both Anthony and the Nuggets) this is the closest thing they were and are ever going to get to payback – some good, maybe even great, players playing great basketball in great cities with more subplots than a day in the life of Charlie Sheen is good product.

It really is about winning and everybody but the Celtics would have found a happy place here. Groan about the commercialism of it all but it absolutely adds to the home viewing experience. With the most marquee of names involved on the court the scene would have played like a mini Superbowl production and here’s to betting that the commercials would have been just as entertaining as that pigskin classic. So would the going rate for 30 second spots next year after review of that series’ numbers and projections. Halftime features getting Avatar hype, post game pressers a wonderful mess of hollywood script caliber quotables by everybody not named Eric Spoelstra, Air Jordan product placement grotesquely pushed and in all probability Spike Lee spontaneously combusting. Ratings would soar. Dwight Howard would have been forced further to seriously contemplate leaving the Orlando Magic – a Cavaliers franchise clone if there ever was one – to team up with billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov along with the dazzling Deron Williams in hard and cold New Jersey or Brooklyn to ball with the Nets. Oh yes, the series would have had that kind of ripple effect. Turns out the Magic’s six game first round ouster at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks took care of that.

Poof!

The NBA, already riding high from a compelling and competitive first round of the postseason, would have seen a boost in interest. Knicks fans are worldwide, the world loves New York. In many ways New York is the centre of the world. This much star power and, more importantly, population power in the postseason playing for high stakes is the best-case scenario for any sports league’s playoff roll. The attendance list boxes of the top NBA stars are all checked. Yao Ming no longer counts, Andrea Bargnani might not ever, Blake Griffin is going to be – but not yet. Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose? Present! We would have gladly subbed Danny Granger and the Pacers for Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks for excitement. Maybe Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns for the starless Denver Nuggets if the Nugs hadn’t been such tormented survivors.

Alas, it was a fleeting and clearly selfish dream to see the subjects of everybody’s discontent try to kill each other on the court. It would have been like a battle for public opinion and perception, one I don’t think the Heat could win no matter what the outcome. Apparently though, Celtics versus Heat is the series to watch, with both having made quick work of the Knicks and Pacers respectively. The Heat’s surprising 4-1 series victory over the Celtics was fun but fleeting. Rajon Rondo’s one-armed Larry Bird moment almost outdid Bird and in Beantown it will play like a Bird concussion story (check the replay of his unnaturally bent left limb and his return shortly after and try to question his legend). Subplots were thick there too, but none were of the magnitude to match and amalgamate the events of the past year like Heat vs. Knicks would have, when three of the league’s biggest stars angled their way to what they hoped to be stacked and sacrificing star unions designed to superpower their way to glory.Yes, James finally defeated the Celtics, something he was never able to do in Cleveland and a factor in his move to Miami. If Shaquille O’Neal could have returned to some sort of form it would have been against his old Heat club, the one he helped guide to a 2006 championship on a team that included Mourning. Didn’t happen. O’Neal, old teammate of James during that ill-fated final campaign for the prince. O’Neal versus Chris Bosh? The man he once dubbed the RuPaul of NBA big men? Bosh’s deer-in-the-lights performance in Game 3? Didn’t even register.

The most intriguing plot line was Boston’s old big three versus Miami’s new big three, which James admitted prompted initial talk of Miami’s unholy union. The old big three is responsible for creating the new big three, like how fire inspired the fire extinguisher. Fortunately for the Celtics their old big three has since evolved into a big four. That fourth is Rondo who the Heat snuffed out for two of three games in the series, which was enough to turn the tide. So there’s that I suppose.

For now, true fate will have to wait. But for how long? With the C’s aging core propping up the window of opportunity on bended knee, the Magic on the verge of blowing up and Prokhorov ready to spend, spend, spend to build around Williams things are definitely on the change in the eastern conference. The Knicks, on a mission to snag Paul, Williams or any other golden third wheel, will be spending and reconfiguring as well and are at the forefront of that change. After all, we’re living in a time where the Bulls are arguably the best team in the east, the Knicks and Pacers are in the playoffs, Shaq is still a relevant topic and the possibility of a lockout looms over the NBA.

Yep. Tomorrow will have to wait.

SUNS: Gortat Escapes Orlando in Search of Shine

February 28, 2011 by  
Filed under Phoenix Suns, Team Reports

Marcin Gortat was lost in Orlando. Even after signing his first major NBA contract last year he knew his opportunities would be limited in with the Magic, a team that features big time player and big minute eater Dwight Howard. He was destined to be stuck behind those big bowling ball shoulders, fated to be a low-minute back up to an unfadeable superstar.

“I always believed,” said Gortat at his locker after a 17 point, 11 rebound road performance versus the Toronto Raptors in late February. “ I always believed that I was a guy that was going to get some double-doubles. Obviously, I gotta still get better and work on my game but like I said before – I’m going to get boards, I’m going to get some points if I’m going to play consistent minutes. If you play 7-10 minutes a game you might end up with 2 and 2 or 4 and 4 (points and rebounds) and you never know. When you play 30 minutes and you have this feeling that you’re going to play 30 minutes you’re just getting a lot of confidence. You can prepare yourself for the game and just be patient and everything is going to roll fine.”

After a mid-December four-player deal delivered Gortat (2010-11 STATS: 7.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG) from the Magic to the Phoenix Suns along with guard Vince Carter the Suns didn’t exactly about-face their uneven campaign. In fact, there are still major bumps in the road and their current 11-game road trip will go far in determining their season. While the biggest hopes rest on the shoulders of franchise point guard Steve Nash as usual, much of the remainder will depend on the bench play now led by Gortat.

“We’ve been real happy with him,” said Gentry. “This is really the first time he’s ever been a rotation player. When you play behind Dwight Howard you’re either playing when your team is up 20 or when he’s in foul trouble and the foul trouble thing doesn’t happen a whole lot. Here I think he’s been real happy with the fact that he knows he’s going to play 20-32 minutes every night. He’s gotten progressively better as he’s done that and we’ve been really happy with the progress that he’s made.”

No doubt Gortat has slowly started to make his mark and not just in the box-score. A week and a half after his arrival in Phoenix he publicly criticized the team after what he deemed a soft defensive performance in a late December loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. It didn’t sit well with some in the organization – and it took some dust-settling before better understandings prevailed – but Gortat makes no apologies for his approach to team improvement.

“Well, I’m going to be vocal every time when we have to,” said Gortat, a native of Lodz, Poland. “A lot of people told me that I’m not supposed to do this right at the beginning. People told me I said too many things in the media. That’s how I am. Honestly, I don’t give a shit. (If) there is a reason I have to say we don’t play defense then that’s what I’m going to say. I ain’t gonna lie. I’m not going to come in and say ‘Listen, we gotta make more shots.” No, we’ve got to play defense. We’ve got to play better defense because that’s how we’re going to get better and that’s how we’re going to win games. There was a point where I had a dinner with a couple of guys and I just said that I’m going to try to be productive and show on the floor first then we’re going to talk about this. Right now I’m starting from the point where I’m going to show on the floor, try to be productive on the floor, help the team on the floor and then when I come to the bench or when I come back to the locker room I’m going to be vocal and try to help everybody else.”

It’s as much of a compromise from Gortat as you’re going to get. Luckily for the Suns his off-court grit exists on game nights too where the son of a former bronze medal-winning Olympic boxer bobs and weaves his way to the ball.

“It’s positioning,” said Gentry. “He’s a pretty good doggone athlete. For a guy his size he runs, jumps, has good hands so when he goes up for a rebound (and) he gets his hands on it he’s pretty good at clearing the ball.

“We’ve been really surprised with him in the double-double department. When you go back and look, we play him 30 minutes and he usually comes up with a double-double. I think he’s done it seven out of 10 times now where he’s played over 30 minutes and two of those games that he didn’t get a double-double I think he had eight rebounds one game and nine one game. He’s been really efficient for us.”

Gortat mentions his age, 27, a lot when he talks, preceded most often with the words “finally at”. It’s the show of confidence by Gentry and his staff that has him excited about his vision for himself as a member of the Suns. He is fully aware of the chance he has to finally show and prove.

“Huge, huge, huge, huge. Huge,” prefaced Gortat before outlining the difference between Orlando and Phoenix. “Big time, big time. I can’t even describe it. When you don’t have a green light on a team to do certain things it’s really hard to play. Especially when you get into the game and you’re playing these 5-6 minutes a game and after three minutes you have a couple rebounds, couple put-backs, blocks, good stops and all of a sudden you have to come out of the game. It’s frustrating as hell, I ain’t gonna lie. Now everything has changed. I’m mentally free. Nobody’s actually sitting over my head now so I’m just going out there and having fun. Steve is a guy who is always going to find you. It’s fun to play now.”

CHEAP SEAT: Perkins Worth as Celtic Overblown

February 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Columns, The Cheap Seat

Did the trade that sent big man Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma Thunder for bigs Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green make the Boston Celtics better? Probably not. Did it make them worse? Probably not. Though Celtics nation is up in arms over the surprise dealing of their best and grimiest front court defender this was a move based on a lot more on the future than the present. Nobody likes to hear that when a championship is in sight, particularly when it is being viewed through a shrinking window.

Remember that few gave the Celtics a hope in hell of getting back to the NBA Final last year before they started a dominant run through the eastern conference playoffs, even with a fully healthy Perkins anchoring the defensive middle. They eventually blew a 14-point lead in an epic Game 7 battle versus the Los Angeles Lakers, a game they played without Perkins after he sustained a serious knee injury that kept him out of action for 43 games to start this season. In his absence the Celtics beat the Miami Heat (twice), Chicago Bulls (2-1), San Antonio Spurs and his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Impressive, But that’s not what prompted them to ship out the eight-year Celtics veteran.

While acquiring oldies but goodies in Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason to make up for the loss of Perkins in the early going was sound insurance, it wasn’t just a policy plotted to buoy the front court while he rehabbed, it was also to keep some beef in the bucket in case Perkins didn’t fully recover in time to be his old self. With the O’Neals hobbled all season following various injuries Perkins’ January 25th return was essential to the Celtics current success just as the impending return of the O’Neals will be to their playoff ride. Beefing up their front line with a more than servicable Krstic and young, underrated stud in Green is nothing to sneeze at but that wasn’t what prompted this swap either.

Wax all you want about the value of sports loyalty but its roots are most often found curled around a large cheque. The bighest bidder. That wasn’t likely to be the Celtics. After all, they reportedly offered Perkins a $22M deal, about $8M less than the 26-year was apparently seeking. If he had performed at an even higher degree than he has for the last three seasons during the Celtics’ big run he could have demanded even more. He priced himself out of Boston at $30M. Was general manager Danny Ainge supposed to watch that number inflate to the point of getting nothing for his defensive star at season’s end?

Like Denver and Utah the Celtics were not prepared to be left empty-handed as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors essentially were last summer when LeBron James and Chris Bosh flamboyantly left for Miami, leaving their former teams to recover in a “what happened?”, drunk-tank kind of way. Perkins is no James or Bosh or Carmelo Anthony or Deron Williams but with the O’Neals looking more like the one-year rentals they were expected to be and Kevin Garnett valiantly playing in the twilight of his career, Green represents a present and a future more stable than one with Perkins may have started to look like. Lost in the tears being shed for (and by) Perkins is the fact that he shunned a reasonable extension while injured – fully in his right to do – and then took it hard when the Celtics, who are paying Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo a combined $51M this season (and another $56M in 2011-12) balked at his suspected price tag.

Also lost in all the huffing and puffing about Perkins is the potential of the incoming Green, a younger building block forward who scored twice as many points but clocked three less rebounds than Perkins in 11 more minutes a game. His 43.7% shooting mark is concerning but he’ll be forced to be more efficient in less opportunities playing among the Celtics’ top four. Green’s player efficiency rating (PER) was a +14.5 to Perkins’ +11.4 at the time of the trade and with no falloff in quality support in Boston a drastic change in impact is unlikely. Not so fast for the Thunder though, who announced that Perkins would be missing three weeks due to an injury to his other knee. That was followed with his untimely comments that Oklahoma was one of the situations he was really pushing his agent to explore when the season ended and his free agency tour began.

“God works in mysterious ways,” was Perkins’ cliche summary of the trade. So the Celtics actually did him a favour? Spin or spiritual? Bewildered Celtics fans, don’t cry too much for your beloveds. Cry not for the departed. Cry maybe for Green, who could have said something like, “I was looking forward to leaving everything we built on and off the court in Oklahoma and the joy of playing alongside two of the leagues top 10 players. I was telling my agent that whenever I become a free agent, I want the Celtics to be first on my list.” but didn’t. For a man considered to be the worse end of the deal – and the dispensable part of the Thunder’s big three behind Kevin Durant and the emergence of Russell Westbrook – Green will still be expected to be a big contributor on a real contender. How he responds could spin this trade further.

The truth is, with durability issues in the front court the Celtics will only go so far as Rondo, Allen and Pierce take them. The trio will be pushed harder in the playoffs without Robinson on board and rookie Avery Bradley having a low-impact first season. Guard Delonte West, out since November with a broken right wrist, is still in rehab for the injury and is without a firm return date. On the other end front court fragility now has solid support in the Glen Davis, Green and Krstic combination. Perkins was known for being able to check Dwight Howard but the Celtics are less concerned about the Orlando Magic this season than they are the Miami Heat and at full health they still possess a deeper well of quality big men than any contender in the eastern conference and perhaps second only to the Bulls in collective talent.

At worst the Celtics gave up 50 extra pounds of handy beef, the weight difference between Green and Perkins. That weight allowed Perkins to do some very impressive things to opponents in a very muscular way. The straight outta high school rock will ultimately do the same for the Thunder and if he can return to full health they should be considered legitimate contenders to the western conference crown. Can you honestly say that they Celtics don’t still hold that rank in the east?

TRADE WINDS: Knicks, Nets Fire Shots in Battle for N.Y.

February 23, 2011 by  
Filed under Features, NBA, Rumours

MADISON SQUARES
The Trade:
DENVER sends Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Sheldon Williams and Renaldo Balkman to New York. They also land and send Minnesota Timberwolves guard Corey Brewer to New York. NEW YORK sends Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton and cash to Denver along with two second-round draft picks as well as a 2014 first-rounder. They also send Anthony Randolph, Eddy Curry and cash to Minnesota. MINNESOTA sends Brewer (who is moved on to New York) and Kosta Koufos to Denver for a future second-rounder.

The long-awaited pairing of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in New York came at a hefty price for the Knicks but they will be fine. They are better even without Felton, Chandler, Gallinari and Mozgov who now end up in Denver as part of the big question mark hanging only a little less brightly over that franchise. The Knicks will have cash to make another superstar free agent run in 2012 if required (when Billups is off the books), likely for New Orleans Hornets free agent to-be Chris Paul. Hanging on to rookie Landry Fields was nice and Brewer is a serviceable reserve that can do well in head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. The Knicks are the winners here because they got the best player in the deal with Anthony.

So the Melodrama is over but has claimed its share of victims. How could it not? Felton was hurt if not surprised by the trade. His own resurgence coincided with the Knicks’ and with Ty Lawson billed as the future in Denver Felton has once again been left to fight for his respect. Knicks owner James Dolan was so bent on completing this pact he reportedly consulted heavily with friend, ex-Knicks GM and current NCAA coach Isiah Thomas during negotiations. Thomas has refused to confirm this but given the surly nature behind team president Donnie Walsh’s response when he was asked about Thomas’ influence.

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“I could care less,” Walsh told the press during his presser on Tuesday. He added that he had not considered his own future though there is a team option that must be activated by April 30 if the team wishes to retain his services, a self-described consulting gig. Denver should recover from the circus it became during the Melodrama but that has always been the vibe in media mafia New York and though it has been churning at an eclipsing pace during the drawn out negotiations that is nothing compared to what’s to come. Seven months of premature hype has elevated this pairing to Miami Heat-like proportions, which it is not.

If Thomas has indeed been allowed a voice in this process then it will serve as minor justification for Dolan bringing him back, probably around the time the Knicks get very good. Make no mistake, Thomas is only brought back in some capacity – as he almost was last summer when the Knicks began their superstar searches – if the deal is working out extremely well. Then he will be reintroduced as one of the architects of the modern Knicks’ success, which even in the present has got to irk Walsh, who once hired and fired Thomas as head coach of his Indiana Pacers, a team he ran for over 20 years.

Alas, the nature of the beast in N.Y. is to build and destroy and the media and fans will ride the fence that divides them until the championship or bust identity once again prevails with the club. Acquiring Anthony and Stoudemire in the same year has made that a certainty, just as it has Walsh’s impending exit.

PROKHOROV’S PROMISE
The Trades:
1. NEW JERSEY sends Derrick Favors, Devin Harris to Utah along with two first-round draft picks and cash. UTAH sends Deron Williams to New Jersey Nets.

2. NEW JERSEY sends Troy Murphy to the Golden State Warriors. WARRIORS send Dan Gadzuric and Brandon Wright to Nets.

After a year of gearing up, pitching, bowing out and teasing then ultimately abandoning his pursuit for the tunnel-visioned Carmelo Anthony New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov shocked and awed the basketball world by working out a deal that landed him arguably the best point guard in the NBA. Deron Williams, who was virtually a lock to leave the Utah Jazz after this season, has been traded to the Nets just a week after taking the brunt of the blame for the exit of legendary head coach Jerry Sloan. Having lost his running mate Carlos Boozer to the Chicago Bulls last summer Williams would have been hard to sell on the future of the Jazz who will undergo their first change of culture since the late 1980’s.

Sloan loomed that high over basketball in Utah. Williams was supposed to take his place. The organization essentially chose Williams over Sloan even after giving the coach an extension a week before he walked out and more than a year before they could offer Williams an extension. The Nets will take on that headache now, a headache the Jazz did not want after seeing how the Carmelo Anthony situation unfolded, which still paled in comparison to the LeBron James/Chris Bosh drama of last summer. Many fans who believed that Williams was mostly responsible for Sloan’s retirement have tuned on him and there was never going to be a smooth transition between eras. It appears as though the conservative Jazz shied away from that task too.

By landing Williams on the day Anthony was to hold a press conference in New York celebrating his arrival Prokhorov, who last summer rented a massive Manhattan advertising spot across from Madison Square Gardens that featured his face along with New York rapper and minority owner Jay-Z, continues to declare war on the Knicks. From the day he took over the Nets franchise last May Prokhorov has worn no disguise in challenging the Knicks’ supremacy over basketball in the region. The Nets are scheduled to move to Brooklyn inside of two years and his lead up battle will turn into a quick rivalry once his on-court product improves. The addition of Williams has jump-started that effort.

It also means that Prokhorov has delivered on his promise of securing a superstar talent to build around. With his both his interest and hopes waned in the Anthony situation, credit Prokhorov and GM Billy King – whose friendship with Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor was critical to the deal – for moving on quickly and securing a player just as good as the one that got away. Nets fans both present and future should rejoice in the fact that they appear to have the richest single owner in the NBA willing to spend and deliver on promises. They can only hope he promises and delivers to ink Williams to an extension after next season. His other promise, the one that has the Nets winning an NBA title in the next four years, depends on it.

EASTERN CONFERENCE BOOST
Forget that the entire Eastern Conference got a competitive boost this February with trades the brought Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams to New York State. More specifically the Atlantic Division has powered up. With Anthony finally traded from the Denver Nuggets – signed and sealed to pair with last summer’s biggest Western Conference defect Amar’e Stoudemire – and the Williams’ trade from the Utah Jazz to couple with Brook Lopez and owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s deep pockets in New Jersey now official, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers (whose window reopened slightly with a surprise 27-29 record) are forced to play more urgent basketball. The only team in the division truly treading water today is the Toronto Raptors who are banking huge on reluctant team leader Andrea Bargnani and improved sophomore DeMar DeRozan to right the ship. The Raptors are one of only four teams in the east without a maximum contract guy on board or a bonafide future ace in the hole (you’re not counting max-ish guys Rip Hamilton and Antawn Jamison still are you?). The others? The Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Bobcats. Only the Bobcats are playing out of the bottom five in the east and they escaped only after firing head coach Larry Brown as their major move.

The Raptors seem like the biggest losers today or it might just be the city of Toronto itself. The NHL’s Maple Leafs suck and the Blue Jays of Major League baseball have been stuck in a no-win situation for years trying to keep up with the free-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL’s East Division. Without an NFL football team to ride that league’s “any given Sunday” mantra the Raptors were the real competitive hope. Teams will flock to Jersey and Boston as long as young All-Star point guards Williams and Rajon Rondo reside and the Big Apple is enough of an attraction itself, never mind the presence of an all-star combo. Philadelphia’s winning history plays a part and their young supporting cast is ahead of the Raptors rebuild.

A lot of pressure will be on general manager/team president Bryan Colangelo to figure out a new winning formula in the T-dot. When speaking with the media Wednesday night he said the Raptors would continue to “grow organically” meaning in-house development and draft prowess must improve. He did swing a deal with the Chicago Bulls Wednesday for small forward James Johnson who will get an honest look with the squad. Still, with the team still reeling from the departure of Chris Bosh and a 16-year history of striking out big on the free agent market the philosophy will be a tall, tall order to fill and execute in time to be competitive in the near future. Word around Raptorland last week was that extension talk was hanging in the air for Colangelo, who called the topic “unresolved”. If the offer materializes and he signs it patience won’t be as readily available as it was last season when he allowed Bosh to slip through his fingers, teaching the Nuggets and Jazz a lesson they clearly learned quite well from.

Johnson Steals the Love

Playing his first game since his initial snub from the All-Star weekend Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love had money on his mind. Fitting then that his first shot against the reeling Toronto Raptors Friday night was a three-pointer that set the tone for what many expected to be his showcase night. Even without an All-Star snub most nights have been a bit of a freak show for Love, whose rebounding prowess has started to grown in legend and his ability to pass and score becoming just as valuable to the future in Minny. In the end it was a 111-100 loss earned on the back of Love’s counterpart on this night, Amir Johnson. The combination Love’s 20 points and 15 rebounds along with Darko Milicic’s 15 and seven wasn’t enough to extend Toronto’s 13-game losing streak,
iphone 5s refurbished a spell they busted out of thanks to Johnson’s help in containing Love.

In this battle of basement dwellers the Raptors were looking to end the slide while the Wolves were looking to pop one of the few teams they have a shot at dumping, just as they did the week previous in a 103-87 win in Minnesota over the Raptors. With an interior that has been picked apart during their losing streak the Raps were staring down one of the most feared rebounders in the game and were in tough to minimize the impact of the emotional Love.

Love didn’t burst out in a “look at me” game. Not his way. Instead he did what he always does and has done for most of this season in staying level. Even when ESPN cameras followed assistant coach Bill Laimbeer into the visitors locker room about 20 minutes before tip-off to inform Love that he would be replacing the injured Yao Ming in February’s All-Star festiviites in Los Angeles Love was cool.

Early on it looked as though Love was still in rejection mode. With three minutes left in the first quarter Love had five of a possible 13 rebound opportunities for his team and combined with Milicic to shoot 6 of 7 in the opening frame for a 16 point tag-team effort . With the Raptors bigs showing some streak-busting initiative and point guard Jose Calderon displaying solid ball distribution the homers held a 33-31 lead after the first 12 minutes led by an impressive 10 points on 5 for 5 shooting from emerging shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Calderon chipped in with six first quarter assists to lead Toronto’s impressive 14 dimes on 15 made shots. On the other hand Love’s six rebounds matched the entire Raptors total in the stanza.

The second quarter started off with an extension of the T-Wolves’ first quarter ending run and a mid-quarter three-pointer put them in the lead. Alas, this affair was built to be a shoot ‘em up battle and as the quarter progressed the score remained tight as the Wolves dropped a chain of three-pointers on the Raptors while the home side attacked inside.

Then came an extended stretch of minutes where Love went carom-less while the red hot shooting from a suddenly peppy Sonny Weems and Andrea Bargnani paint game added to the Raptors’ assault. Despite being held off the boards Love still boosted his point total to 14 in the half. The two teams combined to put up 89 first half shots and Toronto entered the half time break with a 59-55 halftime lead.

Love’s second half started out slower than the first but his three-point shooting mark was the light in his rod.. His three of four shooting from the arc through six minutes of the third Q and a tidy 17 points and 10 rebounds by quarter’s end were key in keeping his squad in the mix. With all the hype Love has garnered this season the fourth quarter, when big plays and small mistakes make the difference, has been a struggle. How would Love’s unique brand of ball overcome the offensive show?

With the Raptors bigs finally finding some success after playing the beating stick for most of their season-sabotaging stretch the stage was set for a win. Through three frames Bargnani led all scorers with 24 points – finishing with 30 on the night – while front court mate Amir Johnson had clocked 19 points and 12 rebounds in 36 minutes in the contest while working admirably against Love.

In fact, Johnson stole the show and put another sock in the mouths of many who continue to question the lavish contract awarded to him last summer.

As Love’s low impact night continued Johnson’s hustle-man work complimented big shots from Bargnani and and a devilish 19-assist night for Calderon as ball movement and big plays from the front court feuled the Raptors’ drive. Efficiency was the word of the day and the bottom line in the eventual victory.

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