But first, the season's first big question about the Minnesota Timberwolves, featuring their one good player.
New Dawn Fades
The season is exactly one game old for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Kevin Love is already getting disrespected by his coach. Fitting that Love's new blog for GQ is called Love Will Tear Us Apart, because he's doing just that to the Twin Cities. Wolves coach Kurt Rambis sat Love for the final 8-1/2 minutes of Minnesota's tight opening night game against the Kings (who were without star guard Tyreke Evans). Why, pray tell?
He told reporters he liked what Anthony Tolliver was doing defensively. So he sat his best player.
The opponent Rambis needed Tolliver for was Carl Landry, who ended up dropping seven points in less than nine minutes in the fourth on Tolliver. The supposedly great defensive team Rambis wanted to put on the floor when Love came out allowed 18 points in 16 possessions (before the Wolves were forced to foul with 23 seconds left). Again, Landry had seven of those and rookie center DeMarcus Cousins added another five. That's 12 of the 18 points through the critical stretch of the game against Rambis' defensive frontline that Love is apparently too poor a defender to be featured in.
In the end, Tolliver played 28 minutes to Love's 24, and I'm sitting here wondering how long it will be until K-Love is run out of town the way Al Jefferson was. Think about it: Minnesota traded Big Al for two mid-to-low first-round picks and Kosta Koufos because Al and Love couldn't play together. In the first game of the post-Al era, Love is benched because he can't defend Carl Landry. Meanwhile, the replacement has trouble guarding Carl Landry because -- surprise! -- Carl Landry is a pretty good scorer.
There's a really weird vibe with the Wolves, and Rambis in particular. It's his second season on the job, and his roster has been remade by GM David Kahn completely ... for better or worse. Yet it's almost as if Rambis is searching for excuses. By benching the player almost everyone agrees is the team's most polished if not most talented asset, Rambis is detaching himself from this version of the Wolves. Most coaches in Rambis' situation -- at the head of a completely overmatched, young roster -- would embrace the heck out of Love, an altogether likable, hard-working player. But on Wednesday, Rambis looked like he was distancing himself from Love and the Love era.
It's gonzo, and speaks to the vast problems within the franchise. Perhaps most bizarre of all is the fact that Kahn and Rambis seem to have the local media believing a new era is here -- in the lead of his recap, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's Jerry Zgoda notes what a difference a year makes. Well, sure: a year ago, the Wolves were 1-0 after an opening night win over the Nets. Minnesota then reeled off 15 consecutive losses. This year, the Wolves are 0-1, losing to a 25-win team missing its best player, and with a tough schedule ahead.
And briefly, on that manna from Heaven, Mr. Darko Milicic. You'll remember that Kahn told NBA TV's Chris Webber that Darko passes the ball like Vlade Divac, Webber's longtime Kings teammate. Milicic had one assist in 24 minutes Wednesday night. You'll recall that the Timberwolves passed up Cousins in June, possibly because he was too similar to Jefferson (who they traded shortly thereafter), possibly because of his temper, possibly because they knew they would be able to keep Darko. Cousins had 14 points, eight rebounds and -- Vlade Part II -- five assists. Darko had six points, four rebounds and -- despite iffy defense overall from everyone -- four blocks. Oh, and temper? Darko earned a technical for slapping the ball after a foul call. Cousins jawed a little, but never got rung up.
The kid Kahn took instead of Cousins (Wes Johnson) looked great, but c'mon now. If Darko had anything to do with passing up on Cousins, Game 1 should have made that a fire-able offense. (TZ)
Big Bank Take Little Bank
It's not that everything is about LeBron James, it's that LeBron James contains everything. That's why we can't stop talking about him -- and why he's leading this segment about labor relations.
In large part, what made this summer so polarizing was that, while James acted like a self-important, power-hungry, well-moneyed jerk, there were others with far more money, who behaved far worse. Dan Gilbert, I am looking at you. Or, by implication, anyone who felt that James' self-promotion and desire to build his brand up into the heavens was tacky, but looked the other way at owners who badly mismanage their teams, hiring mistake-prone fools and then spending much of their time whining to Stern. Where's the new tech rules on this, Commish!?!?!?
(Essential reading on this subject: Dave Zirin's Bad Sports).
Where I come from, it's called rank hypocrisy, if not a bizarre, race-tinged form of class warfare. Players can be lambasted for their wealth, egos and ambition. Owners, and the organizations they oversee, though, are insulated from criticism -- if not the victim of the far less powerful players. I love my commissioner, and have even done my best to understand his strong-arm tactics. But if the owners are going to insist on crying bloody murder to Stern, it's almost inevitable that, as we hurtle toward a lockout, the visible millionaires whom fans cared about will lose out to the invisible billionaires -- who, naturally, know their business.
That's why you would do well to look over this Kurt Badenhausen post at Forbes.com, which pretty much calls B.S. on the owners' claims of poverty, insolvency and need to lower salaries, lest they all lose the pants they have worn so nobly for the love of the game. The underlying logic is simple: some teams make money, others don't, and how these teams are run has a lot to do with that -- i.e. what contracts they give out. These teams don't build themselves, you know.
The league didn't lose money as a whole last year, it gained it, and this season is the most anticipated in a decade. The real kicker, though, comes when Badenhausen addresses the question of owners, and their mo' money, mo' problems letters to D-Stern: "There are 10 NBA teams owned by billionaires including the latest addition to the club Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov who is worth $13.4 billion. Really! How did these guys all get so rich? By buying money losing assets? Really!"
Everyone takes a hit in a recession, if indeed there is one afoot in the NBA. To claim otherwise -- that somehow the players' money is the only belt to tighten, and teams need to be tended to in order to create jobs, or something -- is some far-right propaganda that Stern, a rabid Democrat in his spare time, shouldn't be able to stomach. Unfortunately, it's a strategy that feeds into the public's fears and anxieties, which is why it's hard to have an owner/player standoff with some very ugly stereotypes getting thrown around. I, for one, find overpaid athletes, playing on contract that they didn't have to beat out of anyone, far less offensive than shiftless bums who feel they're entitled to make money hand over fist because some of their friends are.
If, as Badenhausen suggests, there is no recession, well, the emperor has no clothes, the jig is up, and we might be spared a lot of unnecessary strife. That doesn't mean Stern isn't still going to push hard for whatever streamlines operations. But if we can topple this whole "the NBA is failing!" rumor, then at least the run-up to this offseason won't make you want to throw up on the logo. (BS)
Through 16 games, 15 players have been rung up for technical fouls including notable hotheads like Kevin Martin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jose Calderon. Last season, the league's players racked up 730 techs in 1,230 regular season games, or about 0.6 per game. We're at nearly one per game so far this season. Will it hold, or will Martin not receive another tech until the next time David Stern cracks down on complaints? Stay tuned. (TZ)
Carmelo Still a Nugget
The running joke of last night? Carmelo Anthony is still a Denver Nugget. Really?
A real howler, I know. But it does give you some sense of both how inevitable, and low-key, Melo's presumed exit from Denver has become. Granted, last night everyone was more focused on George Karl's return to the sidelines, and with a convincing win over the Jazz -- a team projected to rise as the Nuggets fall -- the future did look especially rosy. Yet there's no way around it: 'Melo still refuses to sign an extension. That means Denver has to either deal him for something at the deadline, risk losing him for nothing next summer, or convince him to stay.
If the situation seems decidedly less volatile than, I don't know, another Class of 2003 free agent and his career decisions, it's because everything about Carmelo Anthony's pending free agency is so ... normal. He signed an old-fashioned max deal, not one of those new-fangled, short-term devil's bargains. He has delivered on everything he was projected to be, and his Nuggets have had some impressive seasons. What's more, there's no perverse sense of duty or honor being projected onto 'Melo.
As much as some have tried to tie Anthony situation to that of LeBron, this slowly unfurling saga is both indicative of a time when these things were so much more innocent, and perhaps -- post-"Decision" -- of a longing to see free agency become, once again, just a business decision based on the needs of the player and situation of the team. The Nuggets aren't perfect; nor is 'Melo. On paper, they're getting old, but with youngster Arron Afflalo stepping up, and Ty Lawson ready to inherit Chauncey Billups' starting slot, maybe things aren't so dark, after all. Anthony not signing was a disappointment, but fans didn't boo him last night.
If Denver gets its house in order, and we get a better sense of George Karl's long-term plans, then Anthony might change his tune. Granted, we don't know how much he does or doesn't want out, because to do so publicly brings fines and a firestorm of bad press. And yet if the Knicks struggle, and no other team with cap space or players to burn offers that rosy a situation, maybe 'Melo stays on a few more years. At the same time, the team itself -- having recently deposed personnel aces Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman -- must gauge what to do with 'Melo as a bargaining chip. Know when to hold, fold, pass along, and all that.
Out of necessity, it's a gamble on their part. Whatever Anthony does, too, carries a similar weighing of risk and reward with it. Then again, this is a business. Balancing the sentimental side with this harsh reality has long been a fact of sports. The only disruption comes when someone dares confuse the two. (BS)
League Pass Cup Under Way
The inaugural League Pass Cup, in which the seven teams on national TV the least compete for eternal glory, tipped off on Wednesday. The opener matched up the Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets, with proud Nets papa Mikhail Prokhorov in attendance for the historic occasion.
The Nets pulled away and tallied a 101-98 victory thanks to 25 and 9 from Brook Lopez, 22 and 9 from Devin Harris and some key threes from Anthony Morrow. Nets coach Avery Johnson called it a "beautiful ending."
With 13 games on Wednesday, several of them exciting matchups, it's reasonable to assume almost no one outside of Jersey, Michigan and possibly even Brooklyn stopped to watch Nets-Pistons. That's pretty darn perfect, and fits the ethos of the Cup to a tee.
The other five teams eligible for the Cup are the Pacers, Raptors, 76ers, Timberwolves and Cavaliers. The next Cup game is Friday as the Cavs visit the Raptors.
While we're here: many thanks to Derek Li (on the web at http://derek.li and on Twitter at @derekdli) for our League Pass Cup logo.
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.