But first, assessing assessments of the Miami Heat.
Are You Not Entertained?
We're a week into the season, and belief in the power and efficacy of the Miami Heat, shattered by a loss at Boston opening night, is beginning to return. Miami followed the Celtic defeat by running out to a huge lead on the 76ers before getting bored (but closing it out), and then killed the Magic at home and the Nets on the road. Despite a 3-1 record, all that anyone can seem to wonder is whether LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can co-exist and thrive when it matters. To date, the pair have played off each other by not playing together -- they almost alternate possessions, or stretches of possessions, instead of working to together. It's been Justice League, not Power Rangers.
That's typically a good thing, but we were promised more. We were promised some basketball Voltron stomping the world. We have a team that's figured out how to stomp the world -- a 20-point win over Orlando? are you kidding? -- but the fit hasn't struck awe. This opinion is presented most clearly in Bill Simmons' column, written after the Philadelphia game. Simmons argues that the Heat can't succeed until Wade takes a backseat to the clearly superior LeBron -- this based on a Michael Eisner anecdote.
The stance strikes me as completely uncreative and in diametric contradiction to the recent history of the NBA.
The idea that great leaders need a pecking order may hold for the corporate world, but why can't basketball skew more toward art, where the elite collaborate regularly? To compare basketball players to CEOs is to basically concede to the post-Jordan era of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and yes, Allen Iverson. Sure, LeBron and Wade have played like that, and done so successfully. But the Miami superteam was supposed to be about taking greatness to the next level, not just making the status quo style with greater-than-ever-before parts. That was the draw of LeBron + Wade: the reinvention of top-level basketball.
No, it hasn't happened yet, not in the Magic or Nets victories either. But did Miles and Coltrane just wander into the studio one day and lay down Kind of Blue? You think Gerardus Mercator and Abraham Ortelius just hooked up one day and pumped out the world's first atlas? What LeBron and Wade seek to do will take time; two games at the very start of their partnership are hardly indicative of where they'll be, health-willing, in April. Jumping to conclusions is, in large part, what we do as sportswriters. But defining an era a split-second into it seems rash by even those standards.
In the meantime, Miami happens to own the top defense in the league, which is a completely mundane fact once you remember that LeBron and Wade have five all-defense team nods between them, with each ones calling card being their ability to defend every position. So much has been made about the Heat's deficiencies in the middle, something Dwight Howard was to expose. But Wade has blocked more shots than any 6-4 or shorter player but Dennis Johnson and David Thompson, and LeBron's athleticism and power make him effectively bigger than most NBA power forwards and some centers. They are also both killer rebounders and regular thieves.
So the defense is there, and will be there as LeBron and Wade reach for the Heavens on offense. The Celtics won a title with defense and without any grand plan on offense; the Lakers last year depended on stifling defense provided by two wing stoppers (Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant) without the range of the Heat duo. Miami could very well lead the league in defense, and ride it to a deep playoff run, without Wade ever demoting himself or a beautiful New World Order ever coming to pass.
But to see it coming, you have to use a little imagination. With this, of all teams, that should not be in short supply. (TZ)
Will Jeff Green Ever Get His Money Right?
I know the Thunder are all fun and games and love and teddy bears. I also have learned to temper my view of Jeff Green. But no matter what you think of Green as a player, there's no two ways about it: dude is getting screwed, squeezed, and everything in between, by the unlikely combination of the franchise that cares too much and the inexorable forces of league history.
As we've discussed previously, the Thunder are in a pickle, cap-wise. Their cup runneth over with young talent, but the price you pay for having such a well-trained eye is that, when those rookie deals are up, and the team is just starting to coalesce as a real contender, all those kids want grown-up extensions. If they don't get them, you move on to next summer's awkward restricted free agency, and if for some reason that doesn't work out, there's a one-year tender followed by the free and open market. At each step, relations between player and organization fray a little more -- in the case of a team like Thunder, this means being reminded that it's a business -- so generally, you try and lock up your key pieces at the first opportunity.
Jeff Green helped get the Thunder where they are, but may not get any better, and very likely might be disposable. Now, there's another wrinkle. Last week, when the two parties broke off negotiations, it didn't only mark an important juncture in the Green-Thunder reality check. As The Oklahoman reported, the looming lockout adds a whole new wrinkle to what was already the first truly uncomfortable situation of the Thunder's feel-good reign. This is a team that put role players on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Kevin Durant so everyone would feel loved. And now, this.
Green could be injured and see his millions drip away. That's always a concern, though less of one now that surgery has ascended into the space age. But the lockout could drastically reduce the amount of money OKC can spare for Green, especially since Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will need their cash sooner rather than later. Even if Green does, as they, blow the eff up and suddenly command a far higher price-tag -- and prove himself invaluable to the Thunder -- the team simply not be able to pony up the dough. That's what franchises get for pushing hard for the right to be cheap.
So wait, does that put the onus on Jeff Green to take less money now, lest the new CBA drive down even further the amount the Thunder "can" offer him? Unless he wants to be the one who tears the Thunder apart. Whether or not he finds himself in that bind depends on how much progress he makes this season. Either way, it seems like he's being pressured to take less money now, the future be damned. At least it keeps him on the Thunder, and guarantees him a known quantity of cash (as opposed to this post-CBA world we all fear). Or maybe it's just his duty as a member of that team to, well, take one for the team. Wouldn't that be cute. (BS)
Brandon Jennings Gets His Groove Back
When the 2009-10 season jumped off, it was Brandon Jennings -- not Mr. 20/5/5 Tyreke Evans -- who was earning the Oscar Robertson comparisons. In his first game, Jennings was one board and one assist shy of a triple-double, which would have marked the first time a rook had notched one in his pro debut. Not that anyone would mistake the scrawny, streaking Jennings for the rock-solid Robertson, but it's an interesting footnote to BJ's inaugural campaign -- one defined, and marred by, his 55-point explosion on 11/14.
Jennings was never meant to be the one-dimensional, Jamal Crawford-lite player that he looked like through much of last season. Paired with veteran PG Luke Ridnour in the backcourt, and finding himself in an offense that ran a lot of isos for John Salmons, he was often called on to simply make something happen. It was, to say the least, a waste of his talents. Thankfully, it's looking like a newer, fuller Brandon Jennings has shown up ready to play this year. If Jennings's 2009-10 was marked by his scoring outburst, then Saturday's 20/10/10 -- his first career tripe-double -- just might set the tone for the wiry point guard's sophomore season.
Watching Jennings on that first night, you were struck immediately by his willingness to use his speed and court vision together as a single super-weapon, as well as his deadly nose for the ball. If that's the Brandon Jennings we can expect to see in 2010-11, Tyreke Evans might not be the runaway star from that draft class, after all (I have no idea where to put Blake Griffin anymore). As of today, he's averaging 9.0 assist per game, tied with Deron Williams for fourth in the league, and only .3 assists behind Chris Paul himself. Three games isn't much of a sample to go on. However, it's an encouraging sign, suggesting that a player whose scouting report has been put through the wash and folded into origami so many times now might finally be returning to the game that first made him famous in high school.
This will be a real measure of Scott Skiles as a coach. He clearly has a rare talent on his hands, albeit one that needs some nurturing and encouragement -- neither of which are Skiles's strong suit. For the Bucks to take another big leap forward this season, they have to distill their offense to an oh-so-timely Jennings-Andrew Bogut tandem. Until Jennings is really given the key to the team, and be told clearly that this all-around, playmaking terror is the player Milwaukee so badly needs, Jennings always runs the risk of sliding back into bad, limited, or just plain weird playing habits. Then again, maybe I'm not giving Jennings enough credit. It's entirely likely that, as he sees point guards all around the league blossom like never before, Jennings is all about showing the world the credentials that got him here in the first place. (BS)
Maurice Lucas, the legendary Blazers power forward, died Sunday after a long, tough battle with cancer. Blazersedge has become a clearinghouse of Luke thoughts and memories, and I encourage you to visit a couple of times today. In the meantime, as a guy born under Reagan, one of my lasting memories of Luke comes from (where else?) David Halberstam's The Breaks of the Game, when Portland coach Jack Ramsay thought so highly of Lucas he traded a rookie Moses Malone because he wouldn't have been able to play those two and Bill Walton enough minutes.
For a more visceral memory, check out Luke sonning Darryl Dawkins in the 1977 NBA Finals. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.