But first, Lauren Jackson and the WNBA's spirit of innovation.
A New Aesthetic Is Born: Revisiting Kwame Brown and the 2001 Draft got me thinking about the way scouts thought about their job at the time. In the wake of Kevin Garnett, all prospects -- especially the ones from Europe -- were expected to be unprecedented weirdos.
Have you read Herodotus? It was like that. Foolhardy, and naive, and yet indicative of an impulse to discover a new frontier of basketball. That's what I feel is behind all this Positional Revolution business: we want to understand, maybe even predict, where the game is headed.
I am done trying to convince people that the WNBA is closing the gap with the men's game because the fact remains, women just don't have the size, speed, and athleticism that men do. I see a league that feels a hell of a lot more like the NBA than it did when it started, something that comes across when you compare the game of an OG to one of her younger peers. That's half-full; to many, the WNBA remains half-empty.
That is, unless you're someone who still believes in the dream of 2001.
I would never say that the WNBA has somehow evolved beyond the NBA; in a column I wrote for Sporting News that now no longer exists, I compared it to basketball of the 1950s and 1960s. But the oft-mocked slogan "We got next" does hit on an aspect of the WNBA with significant crossover appeal.
In its ranks, you'll find players who really have no easy comparison, or point of reference -- in the women's or men's game. And no one fits that bill like the Seattle Storm's Lauren Jackson.
Jackson is the league's most dominant player, a tough-as-nails, strong, athletic center whose garish make-up and terrible red dye-job are somewhere between war paint and a kabuki mask. She's 6-foot-5, nimble, and is equal parts length and power. This LJ is filthy around the basket, cursing up a storm and dishing out as much punishment as she can -- that is, when she's not in motion. While the WNBA's best pivot isn't a perimeter player, Jackson certainly roams freely, working her way in and out of the lane to either find the right spot to post or fire away from long-range.
This same approach holds on defense, where she'll alter a shot down low, only to leap out to pick up a guard who has found some open space. Ever seen a center get beat after trying to make a help steal on a point guard at the top of the key? I have with Lauren Jackson. And the scary thing is, she usually pulls it off. Jackson, who entered the league from Australia at age 19, is exactly the kind of athlete Chad Ford thought he was discovering back at the beginning of the century.
Jackson's Storm just finished up a 28-6 season, going a perfect 17-0 at home. Wednesday night, they beat the Los Angeles Sparks -- the team that has defeated a Jackson-less Storm in the playoffs two years running -- in a 79-66 contest that was far closer than it should have been. Seattle came out possessed only to fall flat in the second half. Lucky for them, the Sparks never put together a run, and Storm pulled out the win. Jackson finished with 17 points, nine boards, two steals and a block, on what was basically a two-quarter game for her.
Jackson isn't the only player in the WNBA playoffs who brings something new to the sport. The Sparks' Candace Parker, perhaps the most impressive talent in the league, is described by many as everything we wish Lamar Odom could be. It's a shame that she's out for the season; otherwise, seeing her and Jackson face off would be a major event. Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings both defy category, mixing up familiar elements of style in new and fascinating ways.
That's not to say that every player in the WNBA is a revelation, or that all the best ones are. Cappie Pondexter, a dynamic guard who can slaughter anyone off of the dribble, should be familiar to anyone who has watched the NBA in the last decade or so. But like I said, there are certainly enough of these players to make you suspend any and all comparisons of the two leagues.
Or you can make bad jokes and assume the league hasn't changed since 1997. If you care about basketball beyond LeBron James and March Madness, it's your loss. (BS)
For a more extensive breakdown of Lauren Jackson's greatness, check out this piece on SB Nation Seattle.
Rondo Revisited: What if Rondo's foot-dragging on Team USA wasn't, to coin a phrase, Rondo being Rondo? Suppose someone, like an agent, finally conveyed to Rondo that playing in Turkey was a good idea. Meaning, the guard never really wanted to be there in the first place.
So either Rondo's heart wasn't in it and he just plain quit, or he didn't want them before they didn't want him, which made him not want them. That's certainly less chilling than Rondo being run out of Greece by a Colangelo-headed mob, or evil directive from on high. But I'm not sure it changes anything.
Eric Freeman posits that Rondo resented having to face any competition along the way. Would you rather have Rajon Rondo on the team, or the very similar Russell Westbrook, who was more than happy to earn his spot, and had previous, quite willing, involvement with USA Basketball as a pro?
So Westbrook had that great exhibition game against Lithuania, while Rondo hasn't excelled on television. But players say otherwise about practice, and really, are we now letting exhibitions determine who is boss? Any argument that can be made for Westbrook as better suited to the international game -- such as, say, that he gets to the basket easily -- applies equally do Rondo. About all he does better is get up over the rim and turn the ball over (3.23 to 2.43 assist/turnover ratio on the season).
At some point, it becomes a question not only of what sort of player USA Basketball prefers, but which one would be better for it. Say Rondo had misgivings. Why couldn't Colangelo, the Great Convincer, make him a believer? This "company man, not the outsider" mentality may be great for USA Basketball's image, yet once again, we're back at the question of who owns this program.
To have Rondo this summer might not be worth it, and might even be actively discouraged. In 2012, though? Then, you take Rondo over Westbrook every time. (BS)
If Not For Those Meddlesome Seniors ...: Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley came cross across like a real schlmiel in a Monday radio spot in which he defensively defended every decision he's made with respect to his basketball team, which has lost more games than any team but the Clippers over his 10-year tenure.
One part of the backlash was in Heisley's tone, which was completely unprofessional and something you just wouldn't hear from the league's other owners (Donald Sterling and James Dolan excepted). But another, more telling undercurrent of the extended reaction is that Heisley could very well be hurting his team by getting involved in the day-to-day basketball operations of the Grizzlies.
To wit, Heisley admitted he makes many of the big basketball decisions these days. He chose Hasheem Thabeet with the No. 2 pick in 2009. He withheld a qualifying offer for Hakim Warrick and let him leave. He brought in Allen Iverson (against the advice of his general manager Chris Wallace). He decided to play hardball with Xavier Henry over rare performance-based bonuses on his rookie scale contract.
Yet Heisley has never seen the collective bargaining agreement, and lists the fact that he's been watching pro basketball since the original Washington Capitals were in business at the top of his "I have expertise!" rundown. (Never mind that the Caps folded in 1951, when Heisley was 14 years old. Who knew my days watching Walt Williams and Mitch Richmond would make me GM material in the future?)
Heisley cuts those checks, and that's all the justification anyone needs. That said, imagine an athlete flipped the script. Imagine Heisley's All-Star, Mr. Zach Randolph, had bought Newsweek magazine. Randolph's expertise? He flipped through a Newsweek once while waiting for the dentist. Now, a lack of expertise shouldn't preclude ownership. But what if Z-Bo started making serious, day-to-day editorial decisions? Like changing the copy font to Comic Sans. And commissioning a series on the best suit designers for big and tall men. And taking a page out of Oprah's book by putting himself on every cover.
We defer to experts in these times -- that's what we do. Brian Williams isn't telling you about the troop drawdown in Iraq -- he's letting his expert, who lives and breathes the topic, tell you. Heisley shouldn't be making basketball decisions. He should be deferring to his experts, who live and breathe basketball.
Unless, of course, he wants to educate himself, which honestly isn't that difficult, especially for a self-built billionaire. But there's no excuse for being stupid and proud, which is exactly how Heisley has come off this summer. (TZ)
They Come From the Old World: There remains a certain fascination with oddball European players. The language barrier, which often results in hilarious quotes, is part of it, as is the wonderment and disbelief Euros seem to have in the standard-issue NBA lifestyle. The cars, the clubs, the women. Maybe it's not new to them -- Peja Stojakovic already had a nightlife rep by the time he came to Sacramento -- but it's more. It's bigger and badder and better.
As such, a lot of Euros become cult favorites. No one will forget the horse-drawn carriage ride Andris Biedrins, Zarko Cabarkapa and Nikoloz Tskitishvili shared in Manhattan, or Darko Milicic's frosted tips, or when Jason Williams was teaching Hedo Turkoglu how to speak English. But time moves on, and the hits keep on coming. Might I nominate Thunder prospect Tibor Pleiss of Germany to the Society of Hilarious Euros?
Pleiss talked to German sports mag Spox recently, and EuropeanProspects.com translated parts of it. The money quotes:
For the NBA Draft day in New York, I was not nervous at all, and this because of a simple reason: I did not know anyone of all those college players; also this guy called Wall, I have never heard of him before. ... I was only nervous because of the things going on around the ceremony. Knowing that millions of people in front of their TV can watch me when I eventually fall down walking up the stairs. Additionally, it was extremely cold and I was freezing. I did not really feel well in the Madison Square Garden.If "This Guy Called Wall" doesn't catch on, we should all be disappointed. (TZ)
We Talking 'Bout Luol Deng! Luol Deng!: Tim Franks of BBC Sport accompanied Bulls forward Luol Deng to Southern Sudan in the player's first visit to his homeland since his family fled to Great Britain 20 years ago. The resulting print and broadcast piece is breathtaking, and you won't see anything as affecting anytime soon. Check it out.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.