But first, looking ahead to the rumored Carmelo Anthony trade.
The Melo Relocation Plan
Bethlehem Shoals: So as we conduct this chat, on a cold Sunday night, rumors abound about this Carmelo Anthony deal. Supposedly, parties are talking, and a basic framework is in place. One of the league's best players could be changing cities. How pumped are you?
Eric Freeman: Not very, honestly. This has been rumored for so long that it feels like it happened four months ago, plus the secondary pieces like Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton are past their primes. I'm not entirely sure what the impact is, particularly considering that it feels like the first in a line of major moves from Mikhail Prokhorov.
EF: What the hell are you writing?
BS: Sorry, I had to go look over the trade 10 more times and read it out loud. It's a shame that we won't get to see Derrick Favors and Brook Lopez grow up together; that could have been a frightening tandem. Look how awesome Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been for the Clippers. What's really confusing is the inclusion of Billups and Hamilton. Billups can be let go for salary relief this summer, and yet he's the better of the two vets. So the Nets have room for more moves, I guess. At the same time ... shouldn't getting Carmelo Anthony feel like cause for celebration in itself? And what if he's not interesting in signing on after the summer?
EF: I think the assumption here is that Melo will sign, or else I have no idea why you make this trade. As for his own stardom, I think there is a growing sense that he is not quite in the top tier of superstars and needs another great player next to him for his team to win a championship. On the other hand, the Nuggets were arguably the second-best team in the playoffs in 2009, although that was an odd season because of injuries to the Celtics and the general lack of strong competition for the Lakers. So while I do think this trade is only great if the Nets acquire some more players, finding a capable supporting cast probably isn't quite as difficult as many think.
BS: Keep your eye on the bouncing ball here ... we're looking at Melo and Chauncey Billups, again, plus Brook Lopez, who might soon be as good as Nene, and Rip Hamilton. I guess that's a team that can be competitive, for a couple years. Maybe that's why I just don't care: If this locks in Melo, it also consigns him to a situation that quickly dwindle away to nothing, and then will leave Melo on a rebuilding team.
EF: Right, but that's why I think you have to look at it as a first step if it means anything. If Billups leaves this summer (which seems likely), they need to get someone quickly. They need to try to flip Rip soon. The biggest question, I think, is if Billy King can carry out the plan effectively. The next few months are also going to tell us a lot about Prokhorov's approach -- does he think one star is enough or is he a little more realistic about what's needed for a contender?
BS: I'm a little surprised that Melo's so sure it will work. It was only last summer that he had dreams of teaming up with Chris Paul and Amar'e Stoudemire. Now he's gambling on the Nets to build a team around him ... based on flipping an overpaid vet.
EF: Maybe the pull of Brooklyn will prove to be enough. Except it's not like any NBA stars are going to live in Williamsburg, so why wouldn't they just go to New York? They're the hot team now, anyway.
BS: Maybe they don't want him and he knows this. Let's speculate some more! Can we talk about some other teams? It seems like the Nuggets would land like 50 players, including Devin Harris and Derrick Favors. That's quite a haul, if you're talking Halloween candy.
EF: J.R. Smith is the razor blade. Also, I assume they are going to make another trade to clear out some guys, but I have no idea who which assets they can get back for someone like Chris Andersen. It feels like they're just the Nets now, but in a better conference.
BS: And the Nets are like the Nuggets, but a little worse, and in a worse conference. We don't need to bother with Detroit. And Denver is clearly going into rebuilding mode. The question is how three teams can make a blockbuster and all come out looking like they still have some work to do. Shouldn't someone be the clear-cut winner? Or a clear-cut winner?
EF: I assume one of those should be loser. The Pistons are always the losers no matter what they do, so at least we have that. I still think this is a great deal for the Nets even if they eventually screw things up. How often can a team get someone like Carmelo Anthony? Success is closer than it was when they were relying on Devin Harris to become one of the league's best point guards.
BS: This really tarnishes Melo, in my opinion. He can't save a team by himself, or else people would be more excited (by "people", I mean us); and he couldn't end up with some other fancy friends on a super-team. I honestly don't see how this is so much better than being in Denver.
EF: Never underestimate the value of a fresh start. Even if his future is now in the hands of Billy King, who is terrible.
BS: That's also key. When has he done anything right? What a terrible waste this will all be! Where will we be in a thousand years?
EF: I don't know, but LaLa Vasquez will be more famous. And isn't keeping your wife happy the key to a successful marriage? Remember, the secret of basketball is that it's not about basketball.
BS: We may be grossly underestimating just how huge the Brooklyn Nets will be. Carmelo is from BK, of course. I don't know, I just don't see how, at the same time, he acknowledges through a deal like this that he's not going to single-handedly win a title, but then -- by the standards of today's NBA -- "settles" when it comes to teammates.
EF: Again, I think we have to assume he's been promised certain things by the Nets. Otherwise I think he demands another trade to an even bigger media market in a few years. Which will be the moon, I guess.
BS: Derrick Favors would be a good player to put on a team that calls the moon home.
EF: David Stern has always wanted teams in other parts of the solar system.
The Dunk Fix Is In
The dunk contest succeeds in large part because of the element of surprise. "I can't believe he just did that" is a common exclamation after a particularly great contest dunk, but the reaction is as much about how the audience didn't expect the dunk, too. The point here is that the dunk contest is memorable for its moments, not the contest as an event. Even when you get a career-defining contest, such as Vince Carter's greatest-ever performance in Oakland in 2000, the championship is more about the dunks within than the trophy itself. To put it another way, dunk contest don't make stars, they just verify things we already knew about them by way of memorable highlights.
Anyway, this is all prologue to the news story here, which is that the dunk contest is rigged. Take it from Nate Robinson, who talked to Steve Aschburner of NBA.com:
If you saw the dunk contest lineup last week and thought things were set up for Griffin to win, then congratulations, you were right. Also, you should come up with more interesting conspiracy theories. I suppose there's room to doubt Robinson here considering the three-time champion isn't involved in this year's competition -- he retired to little fanfare -- but the man should know from experience. Think back to 2009, when Nate toppled defending champ Dwight Howard with his infamous "Krypto-Nate" dunk over the all-too-willing prop Howard. Earlier in the competition, Howard had changed into a very nice Superman outfit in a prop phonebooth. It's almost as if the NBA had guaranteed that these two would meet in the finals, especially since J.R. Smith and Rudy Fernandez arguably had better dunks than Robinson in the first round."Of course. They set it up like that. They set it up for Blake to win it like that," Robinson said before the Boston Celtics faced the Chicago Bulls Saturday night at United Center. [...]
"Everything. It's all set up," said the Celtics' guard, who "retired" from the dunk contest after winning in Dallas last February. "But we'll see. I'm not saying he can't dunk, because he can. Though we'll see how it goes. Hopefully the guys that are in there with him will give him some competition and put on a show. Because that's all it's for - it's a show. That's the whole meaning of the dunk contest.
So, the dunk contest is riddled with nefarious dealings and likely planned in advance, things most commonly associated with professional wrestling. Honestly, though, this revelation should not be considered a big deal at all. While the NBA is usually considered more legitimate than the WWE, the dunk contest is essentially the definition of sports entertainment, not sports itself. The competition exists to promote stars and give the fans a show, and it usually does those things quite well. Last year's '80s-style competition was an exception, but that might just be because there were no stars involved.
The dunk contest is exciting this year because Blake Griffin is involved, and the NBA wants to market him on as big a stage as possible. More specifically, it's going to be must-see TV because Griffin will be doing things we've never seen him do. When the dunk contest is at its best, it's not because someone rewrites the rules of dunking, it's because a star fulfills his dunking destiny. Carter's dunks were amazing, but they were an event because Vince Carter was doing them. No one likes the dunk contest for creating new stars -- we like it because it provides a showcase for their skills.
So, yes, Blake Griffin is almost guaranteed to get to the finals at All-Star Weekend, most likely in a "Battle of the Giants" face-off the likes of which we've never seen before. If that turns out to be the case, there's no need to fret, because it's what the fans will want to see. In an event that's about having fun, why wouldn't the NBA want to let everyone enjoy themselves 'til their hearts explode? It's a harmless exhibition, not the NBA Finals. (EF)
Feeling T-Mac's Pain
We call players soft. I've never understood where this comes from, other than some misguided belief that we live inside their bodies and understand what it's like to play the game. But regardless, we do. Miss too much time with injury, and you start to affect a team's record. You can't really expect fans to worry about whether a player is in pain, unless it's one of those dramatic, YouTube-d like crazy or broadcast nationally injuries that becomes a charity case.
We have a tendency as fans and media, though, to make judgments of character based on what, if you believe anything your team tells you, is a medical fact. Softness is equated with cowardice, lack of effort, and an inability to deliver. Who knows if all of these things correlate in any real way; certainly, being frequently injured will, over time, erode a player's abilities.
If it sounds like I'm talking about Tracy McGrady, well, I probably am. Although he is experiencing something of a broke-down renaissance now, T-Mac is now nothing like the high-scoring wing who took the league by storm in 2000-01. McGrady put up a ton of points for a so-so Magic team in the unforgivable Eastern Conference, but eventually, their overall crappiness of the Magic caught up with them -- and McGrady's patience. He then went to the Rockets, where he earned the reputation as a choker, someone who vowed to deliver playoff victories but never advanced past the first round. As soon as he left, his old buddy Yao Ming delivered, and with a collection of spare parts as his back-up band.
While T-Mac may be a more sympathetic figure than his wastrel of a cousin Vince Carter -- who, time and time again, has managed to convince us he just wasn't trying that hard -- his reputation is at least partly his own fault. When he was on, McGrady was relentless, unstoppable; unlike Vince, this happened with some regularity. What's more, he embraced the role of leader, leaving Toronto (and Carter) so he could have his own team, and demanding that he be held accountable for the disappointing losses. Selfish, maybe. But certainly not a coward.
All of which brings us back to T-Mac and injuries. Everything about the way McGrady handled himself in the league was at odds with a player looking to avoid pressure or responsibility. He insisted on conducting himself like Kobe Bryant, and for a very brief period, some (including the late Ralph Wiley) felt they might be equals. McGrady's mortal sin, then, was the disconnect between being injured all the time and then writing checks his body couldn't cash. That, however, is far from being soft or lacking in determination. Just because he refused to acknowledge his limitations or give up, doesn't mean that we have to look on his injuries as negligible.
On the contrary, McGrady -- like Allen Iverson, who famously played through every single broken bone, muscle strain, and contusion known to man -- deserves plaudits for toughing it out. Granted, AI didn't have as many picture-perfect missteps as T-Mac, and did make the Finals that once. But it's odd that, while we loved Iverson for playing hurt, we look at McGrady as a study in human frailty, hubris, and an unwillingness to get it together.
Of course, it comes down to time missed. Iverson rarely missed games; T-Mac sat out huge chunks. This distinction, though, seems rather academic. Is always playing the gold standard, such that any missed time becomes anathema? Isn't it possible to sit out some time with a serious injury, only to come back well ahead of schedule?
Another problem here: our views of injured athletes fail to differentiate between, well, different kinds of injuries. This past week, I've been dealing with back spasms. I've had them before, down around my tailbone. It didn't hurt, mostly just felt weird. This time, up by my shoulders, they've come on hard, and ruined my life. I can't lift my arms higher than my armpits; can barely steer the car; and had to buy a new chair just to get something cushier. Don't cry for me too hard -- between a bunch of pills, and rest, and heating pads, and more pills, it's manageable now. But for the last week, I have been a useless, poisonous cloud of anger, frustration, and half-assed-ness. I apparently made a receptionist cry when I got mad that my appointment had accidentally been canceled.
The point of all this: I cannot for the life of me going through life normally with this kind of persistent condition, much less playing basketball. Let's not forget that, for T-Mac, this meant playing NBA-level, and in an elastic, soaring style that puts tremendous strain on the back. So yeah, what a total wuss. I've always felt it was strange that injury-prone players were criticized for being hurt, as if any time missed was faking it or wasting taxpayer money. In McGrady's case, I've never understood how his being hurt a lot made him a worse person -- rather than mitigate, or qualify, his failings.
This week, though, I've come to a crystal-clear conclusion: it's a wonder that, once Tracy McGrady first started dealing with back spasms, he was able to even remotely return to form. Maybe he should have accepted that he was no longer the same player, but then again, often he did a darn good impression of his former self. He's not a hero for it. But I find it harder than ever to turn Tracy McGrady into a punchline. This isn't just a brilliant career cut short. It's a freaking miracle he ever managed to make it part of the way back.
When you watch McGrady with the Pistons -- if you ever do -- just remember that, really, he should have looked like this a long, long time ago. It may not be a sky-high dunk over Shawn Bradley, but that McGrady survived at all is about as remarkable a feat of athleticism as you'll find. At least that's how it feels to me this week. (BS)
More Hope For Cleveland
The Cleveland Cavaliers were dealt yet another cruel blow last weekend, when it was discovered that Anderson Varejo could be out for the rest of the season. In the spirit of the Ted Williams job offer, which warmed the hearts of many, it's time for Dan Gilbert's minions to come up with a worthy, and attention-grabbing, substitute. We beat them to it, with a few suggestions of our own.
Turtle from "Entourage": Turtle may not be all that tall, or the most popular character on "Entourage", but they love him in the streets. The show has featured Lamar Odom, and maybe soon, Amar'e Stoudemire. It's only right that it's foremost sneakerhead get a chance to give back to the league that has brought his program so many fascinating guest stars.
Speaker John Boehner: He's the third or fourth most powerful elected official and he's from Ohio. Talk about synergy! Boehner is relatively active, and very emotional. He's also not above playing dirty, and then acting like nothing happened. In short, the ideal hard-hat power forward, and a much-needed source of strength on this team. Warning: his love of tanning might lead him to follow you-know-who to South Beach.
A Trained Bear: Hey, he would be trained, so Coach Byron Scott could get him to do whatever he wanted. Also, bears are very large -- and lovable -- which means he would be both effective and instantly popular with the fan. Actually, forget the "he"; let's make it a she-bear and strike a blow for gender equality. One problem: Let's hope this bear doesn't come with a history of balancing a ball on its nose, since that's illegal, or dancing, since that could constitute traveling.
Ray Cash: Other than Bone Thugs, the most famous rapper to come out of Cleveland. I think.
A Puppy: Homeless people can warm hearts, but puppies are even bigger crowd-pleasers. They're also especially ideal for rebuilding teams, since their current cuteness can distract from losses and they will eventually mature into stars when they get older. I have seen "Air Bud" roughly seven times, so I know what I'm talking about there.
Drew Carey: For years, Carey's eponymous sitcom served as the best advertisement for Cleveland around. While Carey has lost much weight over the last few years, he has still maintained his working-man charm; he's someone the fans can identify with even though he wears glasses. As a bonus, Carey can strike up an enjoyably antagonistic relationship with a teammate (most likely Christian Eyenga), just like on his show.
John "Big Dawg" Thompson: Cleveland's most famous fan patrols the Dawg Pound for the Browns and even had his middle name legally changed to prove his love for the team. With the Cavs most likely heading for a few seasons in the cellar, they need to do everything possible to identify themselves with Cleveland's other lovable losers in a show of citywide solidarity. There's no better way to do so than by bringing Thompson into the fold.
A Cauldron of Soup: Cleveland gets cold in the winter, so fans will come into QuickenLoans Arena seeking the comfort that only a loved basketball team can bring. This is a team that cares about community, and the best way to show you care about your fans is by giving them what they want. Instead of spending money on an overpaid benchwarmer, Gilbert can offer everyone in attendance a hot bowl of soup courtesy of their friends in wine and gold. With the added sense of moral superiority, this chicken soup will soothe the soul and body. (EF & BS)
The Works is 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.