For The Players
This Friday, the year 2010 -- remember when that number alone was enough to strike fear into NBA nation? -- will come to an end. Things will never be the same, the past is gone by, and it's time to forge ahead, fearlessly. That is why God invented New Year's resolutions, lists we make of all the things we wish we would do. They're a handy reminder, and, at the same time, the next best thing to actually improving ourselves. The first part of recovery is admitting you have a problem.
Here at The Works, we have put together three sets of resolutions: One players should make, one for coaches and general managers, and finally, those that we as fans and writers would do well to heed.
DeMarcus Cousins: As a rookie, Cousins has proven everyone right. His detractors can point to his clashes with coach Paul Westphal and problems with fouls. Those who sang his praises have his remarkable per-minute production, and the direct correlation between Cousins playing well and the Kings winning. Too bad for him, NBA players can't be ready to play and immature -- that's called "spoiled", something that's difficult to shake. In the New Year, Cousins needs to bite the bullet and make sure he's only noticed for his basketball. After all, Westphal's lucky if he makes it to the end of this season. (BS)
Chris Bosh: We've come a long way since Bosh was derided as Miami's weak link, a defensive liability who didn't like to rebound and provided precious little interior scoring. Bosh, along with the rest of the Heat, has come around. He's a skilled four who can get points in a variety of ways, will snag rebounds (key to a team looking to run) and can use his length on defense. But for the Heat experiment to truly coalesce, Bosh has to consistently perform at a level that made him so prized this summer. And it's not just about numbers; with Team USA in 2008, Bosh was down for whatever. That's why he was so impressive, and why he mattered. For 2011, Chris Bosh needs to resolve to matter. (BS)
Kevin Durant: It's been a blast to watch Russell Westbrook come into his own, and make us ooh and ahh with every other possession. The bottom line, though, is that Durant is this team's best player, and began this season expected to emerge as one of the league's true elites. He was supposed to make a leap forward this year after his amazing showing at the Worlds; the Thunder were expected to improve over least season's inaugural playoff appearance. Durant would become more of a playmaker, initiating the offense more often, and continue to improve as a defender.
Well, it's time he make it happen. As Rob Mahoney pointed out this week, the Thunder's unremarkable start may just mean that, like the Spurs in the past, they take their time getting it together. Durant has lately started to look more like the player we saw this summer; Christmas Day was certainly a good sign. However, we want to see the MVP candidate we were promised. And, if the Thunder are going to themselves move up in the league's rankings, they do, too. (BS)
The Spurs: Every year, the Spurs start slow, get hot just before the All-Star Break, and then coast into the playoffs with an air of inevitability -- and a much better record than anyone realizes. So far, we've seen a different narrative unfold.
The Spurs have been very good pretty much since the season started. And their record has been good to the point where it's impossible to ignore, or overlook. This is great for every San Antonio fan who has ever wanted their team to get more respect, and recognition, for something other than winning a title that no one saw coming. For the Spurs, it might spell trouble. Tim Duncan is no longer the focal point of this team, but he matters a lot more than David Robinson did toward the end; while Manu Ginobili may playing as well as anyone in the league, he's also no spring chicken. Bottom line: the Spurs need to slow their roll, lest this dream season turn quickly into a rangle-fanged nightmare. (BS)
Michael Beasley and Kevin Love (and maybe even Darko Milicic, too): This entry is to the tune of Bob Seger song. Which one, I'm not quite sure. Here's what these kids need to know: their team is bad. It will not win many games. David Kahn brought in a bunch of low-priced, overlapping talent in the hopes that some of it would pan out. It worked better than anyone anticipated, but not that well. However, the team does have a pair of forwards who could well be the foundation of -- gasp -- a respectable franchise.
Love needs no introduction; nor should anyone who wonders about his value as a player or human being be reading this column. Beasley could take this year's Most Improved, but that means nothing. Suffice it to say that he's turned into an offensive machine, with some versatility to spare, that provides the perfect, slashing complement to Love's rebounding and long-range game. And yes, even Darko might count in here. The former punchline has always been able to block shots, but now, he's proven himself more than capable of taking on a starting role, and responding with scoring and rebounding. What these guys need to do is never give up. The Timberwolves may be a joke, but their future isn't. (BS)
The Lakers: This one's simple: After a fast, nearly invincible start, the Lakers have slumped. Big-time. Kobe Bryant's looking older. Pau Gasol went from the team's de facto MVP to a little uncertain, the most he's been since the 2008 Finals. Ron Artest need to do what he was brought there to do. Andrew Bynum may be back, but he arguably causes more problems than he solves -- whether he's healthy or not. Lamar Odom is having his best season since 2003-04. Absolutely no idea what to make of that.
The bottom line is this: because the Lakers are the Lakers, not the perennially secretive Spurs, they wear their mindset on their sleeve. We all remember how, during the Kobe-Shaq era, the team got more and more leisurely about "rounding into form." Eventually, it would be their downfall. The Spurs have their own rhythm to the season; it's a luxury that they can get away with it. The Lakers are under a microscope, they know it, and dragging their feet is a sign of petulance -- not patience, or the luxury of being able to fly under the radar. To bring another three-peat to the land of Men With Wings, they have to get it together. The time is now, before it's too late. (BS)
The Works' New Year's Resolutions
Baron Davis: The Clippers are now must-see streaming video thanks to Blake Griffin, but his rising star occasionally overshadows the rest of the roster. It's now difficult to watch a Clips game without getting Griffin tunnel vision, casting off all other points of interest to avoid missing any bit of spontaneous magic. But Griffin's game practically yells at the viewer, so that shouldn't be much of an issue. Instead, I resolve to focus on Baron Davis, Griffin's top alley-oop partner and once the most athletic point guard in the history of basketball. There's been some talk in the season's first few months that Griffin's ascension has rejuvenated Baron, but it's as yet unclear if this just means Baron now likes to throw alley-oops more than ever. His game is worth keeping an eye on, because when he's committed, even at 31, there are few guards as electric in the league. (EF)
Charlotte Bobcats: In the long ago, the Bobcats were one of league's hidden gems, a ragtag bunch of weirdos who didn't hew to established basketball dogma. They lost plenty of games, but they also played the kind of style that opens the doors of perception. Then Larry Brown came along, added a real system, and made everything respectable. With Brown gone and Paul Silas in his place, the Bobcats probably won't be much of a playoff contender, but they can recapture some of the strange magic that made them such a valuable viewing experience. Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw can fulfill their destiny as one of the weirdest forward combos around, and Stephen Jackson can let his freak flag fly. I plan to recommit myself to cataloging their endeavors, because they could spontaneously combust at any time. (EF)
Rodrigue Beaubois ... : The Mavericks are an excellent team, but they're as predictable stylistically and structurally as any squad in the league; we can reasonably product what and how Dirk, JET, Kidd, and the rest will do on any particular night. Last season, though, there was a glimmer of stylistic hope in the luminous Rodrigue Beaubois, the rookie guard with athleticism for days and enough rough edges to provide a sense of danger to the proceedings. To put it another way, Beaubois is an x-factor on a team where most production is consistent. Sadly, he has missed the season up until this point with a broken foot, but he shall return in the new year. Beaubois can not only bring the Mavs to new heights, but also show you something you haven't seen before in a sea of Nowitzki jumpers and spot-up threes from Kidd. Beaubois has the chance to invigorate the entire squad and turn Dallas into a beastly outfit. I resolve to watch and learn a few things about a team I thought I knew well. (EF)
... Or The Rest Of The Dallas Mavericks: The Spurs, for a change, have people talking. They are never this good, this soon, which either means that someone is pregnant or the world is about to end. Also, it's finally Ginobili time, unabated, and everyone's always been fond of his game. And -- in case you needed another reason -- we're all getting sick of being told that the Spurs are underrated come playoff time. So there. The Spurs, we watch, even if it means having to tolerate Sean Elliot.
The Mavs, though, are a different story altogether. They're up there with San Antonio when it comes to teams tearing up the first half. But while San Antonio is changing in new and fascinating ways, the Mavs have been getting less compelling ever since Nellie left. Now, Dirk Nowtizki doesn't even shoot threes anymore. And the Mavs have a track record of coming up short, letting down expectations, and kind of wasting our time. The Spurs, on the other hand, are at this point mocking us with their continued excellence. All that said, I will watch the Mavs, because old as they are, they've got it together. And until something goes terribly wrong, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Just don't expect me to act surprised when it does. (BS)
Indiana Pacers: Since gutting their team of everyone associated with the Malice in the Palace, the Pacers have been the NBA's most anonymous franchise, having a star in Danny Granger who only the biggest hoops fans can describe and a bunch of solid, yet uninspiring secondary pieces best known as fantasy team players. Theoretically, though, there's a lot to like: Granger is a fantastic scorer, Darren Collison was one of the best talents in last year's loaded rookie point guard crop, and Roy Hibbert is a promising classic pivot at a time when the position hardly exists anymore. On top of that, they're the most entertaining team on Twitter, with Brandon Rush and Paul George providing constant humor and Hibbert as a dependable straight man. There's the chance for an interesting product here, but no one ever watches them, so who knows what's actually there. I, for one, intend to find out. (EF)
Anthony Randolph: Back when there was going to be a "coaches and general managers" section to this, I was going to insist that Mike D'Antoni -- who has now installed a system but is badly in need of further support -- is at a point where he could give everyone's favorite space marauder another try. Or, if only for my sake, the Knicks could trade him to the next team wiling to be captivated by Randolph's serpentine gifts. Hey, it worked for Darko, and I never even really gave a damn about him. But for once, I am willing to leave this one be. The Knicks have brought back Seven Seconds or Less, and given the East an incredibly exciting, fairly competitive franchise. Randolph, by contrast, isn't so much ill-behaved as he is incoherent. Am I going to spend my time fretting about his future when there's real basketball being played by athletes only slightly less bizarre and far more accomplished? No. Let him come to me, I say, and prove himself worthy of mine affections. Anthony Randolph, for now, I have to forget you exist. (BS)
Happy Birthday Shoals!
This Friday, when the clock strikes midnight, citizens of the world will celebrate the turning over the calendar year and all for which this moment of change stands. However, for our own Bethlehem Shoals, it's an extra special day: his birthday, as shared by rap legend Grandmaster Flash, actor Frank Langella, and deceased Jewish home run king Hank Greenberg. With this in mind, we chatted about this day, the ages of athletes relative to real people, and the future of the American health care system.
Eric Freeman: Happy Birthday! Any thoughts on turning 33?
Bethlehem Shoals: Gosh, thanks. Gosh, it has been so many years. Every year, as I add another ring to my trunk, and another notch on my belt, I think: Kobe Bryant and I are almost exactly the same age. That's why I feel so close to him. Also, I'm just getting started, while his glory years are drawing to a close.
EF: At the same time, he keeps learning new things as he goes along, and you learn new tricks as a writer. So maybe you are not different. He just has to use his body more than you do.
BS: That said, we make a clear separation between an athlete's playing days (when he uses his body) and what comes after. I can never decide if that means they always seem young, because they are in such great shape while I have a slight gut now, or older, because they accomplish so much so fast. Is there such a thing as "athlete-years?" I sometimes think in those terms, when I find myself using a player's retirement as the end of his life.
EF: It depends on the player. As I wrote last week, Yao will live on even after he stops playing because he's such an important cultural figure. The same goes for Larry Bird or other guys who go into management. Michael Jordan will presumably be young forever, since Nike feeds him the organs of young children to keep him fresh and marketable.
BS: Are you kidding me? Management is like becoming a mummy or a zombie. The players who most convincing stay alive are, to me, those whose games really start to seem, well, old, and then go on to have lives apart from sports. Dikembe Mutombo immediately comes to mind.
EF: That's a good point. By alive, I just mean that they maintain a presence. I would say they're less like zombies and more like people in a retirement home. But to what extent does someone like Dikembe really stay in the life of a fan? Yes, he sat next to the Baby Einstein woman at the State of the Union that year, but it's not like he's all over TV talking about the hospitals he builds. Isn't it more that we just assume he's doing worthwhile things?
BS: Basically, players turn into vampire mummies -- management, assistants who won't get chances as head coaches unless they're point guards, or broadcasters who are probably bad -- or they're invisible to you? Either they're on television, or they're nothing? You are such a jerk. I can't believe I celebrated my birthday with you. Once in real life, even.
EF: I just mean that we can think of them as alive and well without really having a clear idea what's going on. They're more like college friends you lose touch with.
BS: That explains why Charles Barkley is the most beloved ex-NBA player ever. We didn't lose touch with him, but he is still being totally awesome. He's like a college friend you actually stay friends with. I hope I hear from some of those on my birthday!
EF: They will probably be hung over, though. Just like Charles Barkley! By the way, just so our readers know, I think we should mention that the first time we met face-to-face was on your birthday a few years ago. We went to a bar in Oakland and an old Korean woman hit on half the group.
BS: It was a very special experience. The bar had posters of eighties NFL stars framed all over it. Let's get back on track. You are a fairly young human being. But in the NBA, you would be like a thousand years old and up for your second deal.
EF: Right, I am 25. I would be nearing my prime in the NBA. In the real world I am subsisting on 10-day contracts and very bad rookie deals.
BS: OK, but in your chosen profession, you could find success and eternal happiness at age 35 with the publication of the world's first Nobel Prize-winning set of Mad Libs. If you're an NBA journeyman at that age, you're over the hill, and the best you can hope for is your wife not making too much of a fool of you on "Basketball Wives."
EF: It's like we need to adjust every age when comparing to athletes. Juwan Howard is thought of as 142 years old even though he has most of his life ahead of him. Remember when there were rumors that Scottie Pippen might make a comeback with the Lakers a few years ago? He seemed like an old man at that point. Have there ever been any old players who have seemed young?
BS: Dikembe Mutombo? Just kidding. The central paradox is that anyone too outwardly athletic seems young. Even someone like Eric Snow, or Andre Miller, once seemed spry. Here's another wrinkle: players become "veterans," which as we know, pretty much applies to anyone who has been in the league more than four years. It's like "mature." It can keep us from really discerning what players are 26 and which ones are 32.
EF: Does anyone know Brandon Roy's age? Ask people not familiar with his time at U-Dub and you probably get answers anywhere from 25 to 32.
BS: Actually that's more in line with the idea of your twenties all blurring together, then last into your thirties, and then telling everyone "40 is the new 20." It's the subject of New York Times stories every few years, but as usual, it really began with the NBA. It's not just the province of hipsters and people who take forever to find their calling. Which is weird, seeing as athletes are nearly the opposite of that.
EF: And then once an NBA player retires he automatically skips over middle age and becomes 65. Maybe that should have been part of the Affordable Care Act -- all former professional athletes are eligible for Medicare. Incidentally, I bet "Logan's Run" would be really popular with athletes if they watched it. And not just because it was filmed in a shopping mall.
BS: That last joke you made might be funny, if not for the existence of football, which causes the body to break down at an advanced rate and leaves players in need of serious medical care well before any normal citizen should need it.
EF: I decided it wasn't a joke right after I wrote it. I now honestly think they should be eligible for Medicare.
BS: They have enough money. They can afford health care. Writers, though, work as contractors. We should be eligible for it prematurely.
EF: Plus we usually get very little sun. No one is in more need of medical aid.
BS: Vitamin D. Put that on your list. It will change your tune. Anyway, Happy Birthday to all! And Merry Christmas 2011!
EF: Have fun celebrating with all the other horses and immigrants.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.