JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

Chicago Bulls’ Jimmy Butler Wants To Create His Own NBA Legacy

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 25, 2016

Jimmy Butler is not interested in small talk. Which, depending on whom you speak with, makes him either the most difficult person to interview, or the most interesting. What he definitely is not, though, is boring; much like his 2016-’17 season.

The six-year veteran two-time All-Star forward will be playing in his sixth Christmas Day game when he leads Chicago Bulls against Kawhi Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs, who, ironically, have been struggling at home.

It is not far-fetched to compare the two mid to late first round picks in 2011, who came into the league with the ceiling of being effective role players at best. The two forwards, however, had other plans, becoming two-way threats (both at the offensive and defensive ends) and legitimate stars in the league.

“He’s (Leonard) a great player overall.” said Butler who made himself available to global media in the build up to the Christmas Day matchup. “He plays both sides of the ball extremely well and I just think that the amount of work that we both put into it in the summer and every single day, is the reason our careers have taken off the way that they have.”

While Butler’s resumé is not as colourful as Leonard’s, he will have none of the comparisons that fans and experts thrust upon the two stars. “I don’t compare myself to anybody else,” he clarified, “I have to play well and do whatever it takes for my team to win. It’s not who’s better than who…it’s all about the team winning the game.”

No beating around the bush

That team, the Chicago Bulls, came into the 2016-‘17 season with no one being able to make sense of their offseason moves. The Bulls faced much scepticism, most notably when trading away All-Star point guard and Chicago favourite, Derrick Rose. The No. 1 pick in the 2008 season and the 2011 Most Valuable Player carried the hopes of the Windy City for eight seasons.

Those hopes stood on shaky ground for four of those seasons (2012-‘2016) after Rose tore his ACL (anterior Cruciate Ligament) in the 2012 playoffs, never quite recovering to full health until last season. Sensing that his value could only drop, the Bulls pulled the trigger on a trade that saw five players and one draft pick change hands.

“I can’t say that I was surprised,” said the straight talking Butler, who often walks the fine line between the truth and diplomacy, “but I knew that it had to be one of us to tell you the truth.”

With Rose gone, the responsibility that ought to have shifted to Butler, the 2015 NBA Most Improved Player, who was coming off career highs in points (20.9), assists (4.8) and field goals made/attempted (7.0/15.4), was marginally threatened when three-time NBA Champion and 12-time NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade shockingly decided to bring “his talents” back to his hometown Chicago.

Any doubts, however, about whose team it was were immediately addressed by Wade in his introductory press conference.“This is Jimmy’s team,” Wade said. “It won’t be a tug and pull whose team it is.”

“He’s been amazing. He’s been great.” Butler remarked about his teammate and fellow Marquette alma mater, Dwyane Wade. “He knows what it takes to win a championship. The young guys and me, we are paying attention how he takes care of his body, because that’s how you get to play as many years as he’s played. Everybody knows him for the person and the basketball player that he is, but off the floor, with his family and his community, he gives so much love to everybody, just a great human being. He can then flip a switch and be a fierce competitor on the court. That’s what makes Dwayne Wade Dwayne Wade.”

Even 2008 NBA Champion Rajon Rondo, brought in to address the gaping hole at point guard left by the departure of Derrick Rose, echoed Wade’s sentiments when asked who the leader of the Bulls was.

Which brings us back to Butler, who is touching career highs in nearly every statistical category this season, some of those highs leading all Bulls players. Already an elite defender, Butler continues to grow as a scoring threat, scoring 24.4 points per game (10th in the NBA), trailing only Durant (25.9) among players who average 17 or fewer field goal attempts (shots) in a game.

He is, however, quick to caution, “I’m not perfect in any aspect of the game (and) continue to work on all aspects of my game. I want to be really, really, really good at everything, so the only way to go about that, is continue to work on everything as much you can.”

The work he’s put in, though, has not reaped favourable results for the team just yet. Chicago have been lurking in the middle of the Eastern Conference and at the time of writing this, are ninth behind the equally mediocre Indiana Pacers. “Some games, we come out flat.” said Butler about the team’s struggles. He’s optimistic though. “We’ve proven that we can win games even with just one 3-pointer in the whole game. For us, it’s all about on the defensive end. If we guard the way that we guard on the premier teams. I don’t think we’ll have a problem beating anybody.”

Creating his own legacy

His rumoured feud with coach Fred Hoiberg last season aside, Butler also does not mince his words when asked why how he feels about calling out his team that has faltered against younger, faster opponents this season.

“I think we’re all grown men within this locker room, so you know, if you criticise somebody, hopefully they take it for the right way. You got to do your job and play your role, but if you’re not doing that, somebody needs to tell you because if nobody does, you don’t know that you’re doing anything wrong. You’re a grown man. Nobody feels sorry for you, so we all got to go out there and do our job.”

And what about the responsibility that has fallen squarely upon Butler’s shoulders; the responsibility that the de facto leader of the Chicago Bulls has to give the city its first NBA Championship since a certain Michael Jordan brought home the trophy in 1998?

Butler stopped us right there. “I damned sure would never compare myself to Michael Jordan. I want to win a championship here for this city and we’re very capable of doing so, but I want to have my own legacy and write my own story. I want to be known for me winning games, not just being in the same organisation as Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman. I’m trying to be the best version of myself that I can be.”

And in true Jimmy Butler style, he reminds us, “I’m not living in the MJ shadow.”

Is This The Year The LA Clippers Get Chris Paul His NBA Ring?

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on December 18, 2016

“The turnovers,” the Los Angeles Clippers’ 32-year-old point guard said. “That’s the first thing I look at every game.”

To be precise, there were not any.

The 12-year veteran, tallied 20 points and 20 assists with zero turnovers in a 133-105 blowout win over the New Orleans Pelicans last Saturday. The first time that feat was achieved in over four decades.

Paul’s numbers over the past decade tell you the story you already know; that he has been one of the most reliable and consistent players the NBA has seen. This season, he is averaging 17.8 points per game and 9.4 assists per game (fourth in the NBA) and a league leading 2.4 shots per game while shooting 46% from the field, including a near career high of 40% from three-point land and 89% from the free throw line, with a career high +/- efficiency of +9.3 (eighth in the NBA).

Led by Paul, the rest of the Clippers are also putting up numbers consistent with (if not slightly better than) their respective career averages.

And they are clicking like never before.

A brand new team

With the defensive-minded Luc Mbah a Moute permanently moving into a starting role, the Clippers have finally turned into the two-way force that head coach Doc Rivers wanted them to become since he took up the job in 2013.

Offensively they continue to play classic Clipper-ball. They are scoring the ball at 109.6 points per game (sixth in the NBA) getting to that mark with just 39.1 shots (fourth best among teams scoring at least 105 points per game). They are still in red-hot form three-point territory shooting 38.2% (fifth). They pass the ball at a 10th best 22.3 assists per game, thanks largely to Paul’s 9.4 apg and Griffin’s 4.6 apg.

Defensively, though, they look like a brand new team that is holding opponents to a very respectable 101 points per game and 44.1% field goals (both eighth in the NBA). Not only that, their transition defence has taken a massive turn for the better with opponents scoring just 13.6 ppg (fourth) off turnovers against them, but they are defending second chance attempts far better this season holding opponents to 11.8 ppg (5th). This enables them to possess the second best defensive rating in the NBA at an enviable 101.3 behind league leaders the Memphis Grizzlies.

All this has led to the Clippers having a +/- efficiency of +8.6 just three points behind league leaders the Golden State Warriors.

They still turn the ball over nearly 13 times a games and have just above average rebounding numbers, which by playoff standards means they are woeful. And as improved as their defence has been, they are too dependant on Moute, and threatens to come crashing do if he were to sustain an untimely injury.

All this, of course, falls apart without their floor general, Chris Paul.

Make no mistake; Paul understands the position he is in and the short window he has as an elite level point guard in a fast changing league. And while he is not suited to play the part of the most important man in the NBA (he is President of the National Basketball Players Association), he continues to cement his legacy on court by doing what he does best, helping his team succeed.

“He is a legend, man.” DeAndre Jordan gushed after the aforementioned win over the Pelicans.

Indeed, he is. But a legend without a rig will forever have that asterix against his name in the annals of NBA History.

Just ask Charles Barkley.

The Grizzlies Mockery Their Injury Troubles, Piling On The Wins

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on December 11,2017

The Memphis Grizzlies continue to eke out wins. Just how are they doing so is a mystery to fans, and unsuspecting opponents.

Well, it’s a mystery to their leading scorer Marc Gasol too.

“I wish I could tell you,” said Gasol said when asked how Memphis’s stayed sharp to close out tight games. “We just keep fighting. You’ve seen it in many games now where we just don’t let go of the rope.”

The Grizzlies are 4-0 on overtime games this season, and are 6-0 in games decided by 3 points or less. Tally that up and the Grizzlies are 12-0 in OT games or games decided by 5 points or less.

More importantly, they are 9-3 in the three weeks since they lost Chandler Parsons (only the Golden State Warriors have more wins with 10 in that period) and 5-1 since they lost Mike Conley.

Conley, who was averaging a career high 19.2 ppg while shooting a career high 47% from the 3-point line, went down in the 104-85 loss against the Charlotte Hornets. He was later diagnosed with transverse fractures in the vertebrae effectively ruling him out for at least six weeks.

This wasn’t easy news for the Grizzlies who not only lost their floor general and highest scorer, but also a player who capped off the teams’ offseason by signing the richest contract in NBA history.

Add that to the deal Chandler Parsons signed, a 4 year / 95 million max deal, and the Grizzlies came into the season with nearly all their money and all their hope on two players, who since the opening game have suited up for just 23 games total (Conley 17, Chandler 6)

Those hopes though, now rest in the hands of Marc Gasol and bunch of role players that surprisingly are springing wins on unsuspecting opponents.

Gasol, who has stepped out of his comfort zone, both literally and figuratively, has now attempted over eighty 3-point shots after having attempted just 66 in the first eight seasons of his career. He is averaging a career high 19.9 points, but his rebounding numbers taken a beating where he is averaging a mediocre 6.1 rpg.

This is where due credit goes to due credit goes to rookie JaMychal Green who has stepped up to the challenge of filling Randolph’s shoes in the starting line up. Averaging 9.4 ppg and 7.8 rpg, the 6’9” Green is perfect complement to Gasol’s new found outside game.

However, consider for a moment the starting five that the Grizzlies have suited up in the last few games JaMychal Green, Troy Williams, Marc Gasol, Andrew Harrison, Tony Allen. Not exactly a playoff contender. As a matter of fact, it can be argued that, with the exception of Marc Gasol, none of the other four will realistically start for a playoff team in the West.

Tell that to their record though. At 16-8 and tied for 5th in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies are 10-3 against their western opponents and are currently one of just two teams on a 5-game win streak, the other being the Houston Rockets.

Then, there is their defence.

Slowing down teams to a bump-and-grind style that suits the Grizzlies perfectly. The dynamics have changed a bit since coach David Fizdale chose to bring Zach Randolph off the bench to power the second unit, instead of trotting out the two-headed monster that was the Gasol-Randolph frontcourt for the last few seasons.

They lead the league in defensive rating* at 99.9 and holding opponents to 36.8 points in the paint, while rank 7th in opponents’ 2nd chance points with 12.1. They rank 9th with 8.5 steals per game, and while their opponents make just 43.1% of their FG’s (4th)

Still, Memphis are far from a perfect team, and have gaping holes in their game that have yet to be addressed.

Parsons, who will likely return this week is the answer to one of Memphis’ most pressing needs, a reliable scorer who can create his own scoring opportunities when the team loses its way on an offensive possession.

Memphis also need a reliable presence at the point guard position, which for now has been addressed by using the injury / hardship exception to sign Toney Douglas. But Douglas isn’t Conley, and the Grizzlies will have to wait another excruciating 5-6 weeks to get their floor general back.

Conley will likely be back in January, by which time, hopefully, Parsons will have integrated himself into the the team’s offensive flow. If all falls into place, Memphis is poised to peak at the right time and make the Western Conference Finals for the first time since their 2012-13 campaign.

*Defensive Rating: Calculated as (Opponents Points Allowed / Opponents Possessions) x 100

When The Freak Met The King: Giannis’ Rise In LeBron’s League

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on December 04, 2017

Earlier this year, ESPN’s True Hoops’ Kevin Arnovitz attempted to make sense of the freak of nature that is Greece’s best import to the NBA this far, Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced Yah-niss Andh-deh-toh-koon-boh). He succeeded. Somewhat.

Now the league is attempting to make sense of “The Greek Freak’s” numbers.

As of the date of writing this article, Antetokounmpo is averaging a beastly 22.8 points per game 8.5 rebounds per game, 6.1 assists per game, leading his team to wins in half their games this far in a young season. He is also firing away at 52.5% from the field, second only to Kevin Durant’s 57% for players who attempt at least 16 shots a game. What’s more, all that offensive efficiency does not hamper Antetokounmpo’s production on the defensive end where he averages 2.1 steals (sixth in the league) and 2.1 blocks (seventh) per game.

Let’s add some more perspective by comparing his numbers to Player X.

  • GA: 22.8 points per game / 8.5 rebounds per game / 6.1 assists per game / 2.2 shots per game / 2.1 blocks per game
  • Player X: 23.5 points per game / 8.1 rebounds per game / 9.3 assists per game / 1.1 shots per game / 0.5 blocks per game / 49.8 Field Goal percentage

Oh yes, Player X is LeBron James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA Champion and is seriously knocking on Michael Jordan’s legacy as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Most basketball fans would deem it blasphemous placing James, with just three Championships in seven Finals trips, alongside Jordan’s six Championships and perfect Finals record. James’s fans will rightly feel the same way about placing Antetokounmpo in the same conversation as the King just yet.

Yet, against Cleveland on Tuesday, that is exactly what Giannis attempted to prove. That he deserves to be considered the Heir, the Prince, if you may.

“He’s getting better with hard work,” Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd said after the win against Cleveland “He was going against the best player in the world.”

And make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play.

Antetokounmpo matched his career high 34 points shooting a blistering 68% from the field, pulling down 12 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists finishing with a +/- rating of +20. But his most important contribution came at the defensive end, where in addition to stealing the ball five times (also a career high) and blocking the ball twice, he orchestrated the dance of the defensive hydra that is the Milwaukee Bucks’ defence.

Under Kidd’s guidance, and led by the freak-of-nature force that is Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have carved themselves into a match-up nightmare on defense, and the numbers or the past two weeks stand as evidence this rise.

The rise of the Bucks

En route their 4-2 record since November 19, Bucks have allowed teams 101.3 points per game (eighth in the NBA) on just 42.5 FG% (fourth). They have dominated a paint-snatching 75.4% of defensive rebounds (third) while allowing teams only 37.7 points per game in the paint (fourth) and blocking 5.7 shots a game (ninth). They have bullied teams at the half court game by forcing their opponents into committing 15.5 turnovers a game (eighth) and stealing the ball 9.3 times a game (second).

“You can’t simulate how long they are in the passing lanes,” LeBron James said after the loss.

This top-10 defensive grind does not compromise their offence where, in the same two weeks, the Bucks have shot 48.2% from the field (fifth), scoring 107.7 points per game (eighth), and those points coming as a result of 25.3 assists per game (fourth). They are also firing away at 38.7% from beyond the arc (sixth in the NBA), which if adjusted to include teams that attempt at least 26 threes a game, ranks them third behind the San Antonio Spurs (41%) and the Toronto Raptors (48.6%). All these numbers balance out to a healthy +6.3 plus-minus rating (fourth)

But what does all this have to do with Antetokounmpo?

‘The Greek Freak’

No one will readily admit it, but this is undeniably his team. Offensively and defensively, the Bucks look to him for leadership and he, with a calm demeanour and resilient play, shoulders this responsibility, leading the Bucks in nearly every traditional and advanced stats category, both offensively and defensively.

Jason Kidd, a 19-year veteran, accomplished stat sheet filler, and an NBA Champion who finished his career, ranked second all-time in career steals assists, said, “You have special players that we come across, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. You’ve got different players that are rare and I think Giannis is one of those rare birds that we’ll be able to enjoy for a long time.”

Kidd may be biased, though. He is after all Giannis’ coach. So let us give the last word to a 20-year veteran, five-time NBA champion and one of the 10 greatest NBA players ever?

Here’s what Kobe Bryant had to say: “He has the potential to be a great player. He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”

And if anyone knows anything about why talent should work hard, it is Kobe Bryant.

When The Cubs Become Wolves: Minnesota’s Rise In The NBA

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 13, 2016

“This is a unique opportunity for us to go for the championship again. Not for one year. Not for two years. But over many years if we can put this together right”: Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

If.

Things are not right just yet.

This past summer, while other teams were in the hunt for a meeting with Kevin Durant, or maybe even Al Horford, the Timberwolves shook things up by strengthening their sidelines. Taylor dished out a whopping $10 million to lock up Tom Thibodeau as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. The move, he believed, could lead them to the Promised Land, an NBA Championship, especially with the incredibly young but exceptionally talented roster they put together.

Karl-Anthony Towns has three double-doubles this season and has breached the 30 point mark twice (32 vs Denver and 33 vs Oklahoma City) this season. His decision making ability has matured, as he moves the ball around at 2.9 assists per game and is shooting 52% from the field. He has also added range, lighting it up at an unreal 44% from beyond the arc.

Andrew Wiggins, with the exception of the outing against Oklahoma City, is averaging 24 points a game while shooting a blistering league-leading 64% from beyond the arc, and doing everything right this season to hit the All-Star All-NBA ceiling that both experts and NBA personnel have raised for him, well in time.

Minnesota is ranked fourth in offensive rating and are scoring nearly 107 points a game (ranked 11th). They lead the league in 3-pt percentage (41%) and shooting 46% from the field. On the flipside, they rank 19th in defensive rating with opponents dropping 104 points per game against them (ranked 17th). They have a -1.9 plus-minus rating and, most worrying of all, are allowing opponents to shoot 47% from the field, nearly tying them with Indiana’s league-worst record.

Therein lies the problem. And the confusion.

The inexperience is hurting

Tom Thibodeau, the defensive savant who relied on airtight defence to help Boston to its first championship in 22 years and who made the Bulls relevant again, has not been able to get his young core to buy into his defensive philosophies.

This should not have been hard at all. After all, as President of Basketball Operations, Thobideau assembled the roster to suit his vision. With all the length and versatility they possess, and nearly every player on their roster capable of switching defensive assignments with relative ease, turning the Timberwolves into a defensive juggernaut should have been easier.

Not that this glaring failure is lost on Thibs.

“Unless we correct the defensive end, it’s going to be a struggle,” he said in a 110-119 loss against the Nets. “That has to become a priority by everyone, otherwise nothing positive is going to happen.”

So what is the problem? Well, experience. Or rather the lack of it.

Minnesota’s most used line up of GorguiDieng/Kris Dunn/Zach LaVine/Towns/Wiggins, does not feature a player who has played more than three seasons. Switch Dunn for Ricky Rubio (who is struggling this season, both with numbers and injuries) and you still have a five-year veteran at best.

Not only does this manifest itself on the defensive end, but also on the offensive end. Minnesota averages just 19.7 points in the third quarter. That average was helped greatly by the 35 points they put up against an underhanded Memphis team, the only third quarter battle they have won this season.

“The third quarter is haunting us right now,” Wiggins said after a narrow 99-102 loss against Denver.

Nikola Pekovic, their most reliable veteran who is out for the season, is sadly, not the answer. While Dieng does not bring the quality that Pekovic does, he is not a pushover. He is averaging career highs in every category, and whatever he leaves off the table can be chalked up to Towns’ and Wiggins’ stats column.

To be fair, we are seven games into the season. And save for Denver, Milwaukee and (maybe) the Sixers, no other team has a better young nucleus to build upon for the future. League veterans know the dearth of teams with young legs and eager hearts to carry them to a ring, and also know the toughness and experience that Coach Thibodeau brings.

All that is needed is to turn some of the chips that Minnesota has, into a couple of reliable battle-tested veterans that help this immensely talented roster to stand their ground in tough game situations.

Safe to say, Thibodeau is not done, and if the management manages to keep the core of Wiggins/Towns intact, the Timberwolves are not way off to becoming the title contenders Taylor said they would.

Is DeMar DeRozan Taking Over Toronto?

This article originally appeared on The Field at scroll.in on November 6, 2016

Micheal Jordan. DeMar DeRozan.

Odd, isn’t it? Something does not quite fit. What has DeRozan done to be mentioned in the same breath as His Airness?

Well, everything. So far.

MJ was the last player to begin a season scoring 30+ points in five straight games. The season he did it in? The 1986-‘87 season where Jordan finished with an average of 37.1 Points Per Game, the fifth highest scoring average for a single season in the history of the NBA.

DeRozan has opened his 2016-‘17 campaign by carving up five NBA defences, including the reigning champions Cleveland Cavaliers, for 40, 32, 33, 40 and 34 points, respectively. This, while shooting a wild 55% from the field (he shot 63% in the season opening game vs. the Detroit Pistons) and just one three-pointer. Yes, one.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said the eight-year veteran when informed that he had scored himself into the same conversation as arguably the greatest player ever. “I’m just trying to go out there and win. When you hear something like that, you cannot believe it”

Drafted ninth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the 2009 NBA Draft, DeMar DeRozan, a native of Los Angeles, caught the tail end of the Chris Bosh era during the 2009-‘10 season. Bosh, an All-Star who never quite became the franchise cornerstone the Raptors hoped he would, parted ways in a sign-and-trade with Miami Heat to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

While Bosh embraced his new role, reinvented himself and went on to win two championships in the next three seasons, DeRozan and the Raptors were in rebuild mode. It took them two more miserable seasons, muddled with an oversized roster of role players, to finally catch a break on the trade block.

Just as DeRozan was coming into his own, the Raptors landed him a running mate in Kyle Lowry for the 2012-‘13 season. The duo and the Raptors have not looked back since.

Best Raptor ever? Not just yet

Barring an injury, DeRozan will finish this season as the Raptors’ all time leading scorer and atop nearly every conceivable offensive category. It is hard to surpass the overall impact of Chris Bosh who contributed at both ends of the floor, or even Vince Carter who, in addition to his dynamic scoring, left this memory etched in everyone’s mind. The argument can be made, just not yet.

Not that it bothers DeRozan. “I’m just a student of the game,” he humbly reminded us. “I just try and put everything together, be a student of the game while working, always feeling like I’m new to the game, so I can soak up as much as possible. I try to release it once I get out there on the court.”

Kyle Lowry, his running mate in Toronto’s now starry backcourt, gushed, “He’s playing on another level right now. He’s saving possessions, he’s creating possessions. He’s creating offence.”

While Lowry and DeRozan both, had break out seasons in 2015-‘16, it was Lowry that inadvertently (but not undeservedly) became the face of the franchise. This, however, is Lowry’s last guaranteed year on a four-year $48 million deal that has an opt-out option after this season. Armed with tons of money from the television deal, there are more than enough NBA teams that would gladly take a 30-year old All-Star with no discernible history of injury, and who has at least four good years left in the tank.

Lowry is 30 and has most likely hit his peak as a player, which means this season until next summer is when his trade value will be at the highest. Nothing about Lowry’s personality indicates that he wants to leave Toronto, and LeBron “The King” James even endorsed the city’s passionate loyal fans. But we all thought the same, or better, of Kevin Durant, and see how that went.

DeRozan is just 27, and is just as good as, if not better than his running mate. More importantly, his loyalty was rewarded with a big payday this past off season: a five-year deal worth approximately $145 million that took a chunk off the Raptors’ books.

It is obvious the Raptors will have to find a way to pay Lowry immediately. But in the likely scenario they cannot, they have on their hands a 30-year-old two-time All-Star de-facto franchise player who has reached his max trade value. The decision to trade Lowry is a bit too obvious, and one they have to take soon to avoid a disaster.

In the meanwhile, let us enjoy this Raptors back court thrive, and DeRozan aim for greatness in the annals of NBA history.

The Mighty Warriors Will Be Just Fine

This article originally appeared in The Field at scroll.in on October 29,2016.

It’s understandable. Folks are worried. No one said this was going to be pretty.

The Golden State Warriors are 4-1 in their last five games since imploding in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals against eventual NBA Champions the Cleveland Cavaliers (No, the pre-season does not count). This would have been just another story, except that the 2015 NBA Champion Warriors were coming off an NBA record 73 regular season wins and rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference Finals against Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Yes, the same Kevin Durant who, weeks later, signed on the dotted line to fortify the Warriors’ front line.

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia.

Now that is an enviable frontline. Question is, who holds the fort in the second unit?

There isn’t an argument about upgrading a slipping Harrison Barnes with one of the purest scorers the NBA has ever seen in Kevin Durant; and while Zaza isn’t as polished an offensive presence as Andrew Bogut, he doesn’t take anything off the table. Where the Warriors failed, and miserably so, is the inability to assemble a second unit that took care of business while the starters rested.

Shaun Livingston and Andre Igoudala are the only two bench players of any significance that remained in Golden State once the summer frenzy died down. Gone is veteran leader Leandro Barbosa and his playoff chops. Gone is the hustler and rim protector in Festus Ezeli. Gone is the enforcer and floor spacing of Mareesse Speights. More importantly though, gone is the camaraderie that held that championship winning, record breaking core together.

The modern NBA game has spread out even more

The pace and space era is putting more miles on NBA players. NBA coaches now spread out and stagger their stars’ regular season minutes, saving their legs for the playoffs. This shift places greater emphasis on second units that can stand their ground while the starters catch their breath.

Golden State has a unique problem. They have a loaded first unit. Extremely loaded.

Although their bench got drubbed (they were outscored 54-16) against the Spurs, Kerr has enough firepower between Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green to ensure at least one, if not two, All-Stars are on the floor all the time. This may not work in the playoffs, when firing on all cylinders (or All Stars) becomes crucial. And that’s why we have the regular season.

Unlike in the English Premier League where every single game matters in a 38 game season decided on wins / losses / points, the NBA’s regular season games, while critical for that coveted playoff seed, are a playground for coaches to figure what works and what doesn’t, until things get real in during the playoffs.

This is an ever so slight deviation from our high expectations of the 2016-‘17 season for Warriors. Golden State will be just fine. They have two former NBA Most Valuable Players in Durant and Curry, the NBA’s third best two-way player in Thompson (behind LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard), and the NBA’s most versatile player Draymond Green. Most importantly they have a student to two of NBA’s greatest coaching minds, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, calling the shots: Steve Kerr.

If you still are worried, go ahead and find solace in this video of Durant’s shoot around on Thursday night as he was preparing to face the Pelicans. He sums up the Spurs’ loss it best: “It’s one game of 82 and you f***ing guys make me feel like the world’s going to end.”

Kobe vs. Duncan. Let Us Lay This To Rest

It is an age old debate, this one. Kobe Bryant, a fierce competitor molded in the likeness of Jordan, versus Tim Duncan, a freakish athlete, who even at 39 continues to lead one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history.

The arguments seem fairly identical: 19 vs. 18 seasons, 5 vs. 5 titles, never got traded from or left the team that they started their career with.

No debate, however, is fair if the arguments do not dig deeper. Detailed and researched comparisons, such as this article aims to be, are important because 40 years from now we do not want a 13-yr old seeing Robert Horry’s name next to Jordan with six titles and wonder, “Wow, Horry was good, eh!”.

Ummm…yeah sure.

RINGS.

The Kobe vs. Duncan discussion, while fairly old, only ever simmered at best. There are a few reasons for this: Kobe is a guard, and Duncan is a forward; Kobe got a head start by entering the league at 18, while Duncan was 21 when he suited up for the Spurs; both have fundamentally different styles and personalities. However, as soon as Duncan won his fifth ring in ’14, tying Kobe in the process, there was renewed vigor and reason to resurrect the comparison.

Considering that the relevance of the number of rings is debatable (refer to aforementioned Horry example), the way to solve this is by establishing how critical either player was in winning the Championship(s).

In Kobe’s case, it sure is easy for his detractors to say that Shaq brought him his first three Championships. But let’s step back for a moment and consider: maybe Kobe brought Shaq the ’01 and ’02 Championships? As dominant as Shaq was, he wasn’t the best option if the team was down two points in the waning seconds of a close game. He was woeful from the line, could barely dribble to save his life, and could not spot up from anywhere beyond 6-8 feet. Kobe covered all those bases for him. Before Kobe’s rise, Shaq led the Lakers to a Western Conference Finals spot at best. As soon as Kobe found his zone, he and Shaq unleashed hell on the league, trotting three Championships back-to-back. With a happy* (hold this thought for Legacy) Shaq and Kobe on the floor, it didn’t matter who else suited up for the Lakers…the trophy might as well have been gifted to them every season.

Two legendary (for the wrong reasons) “What If?” seasons later, Shaq decided to part ways with the Lakers, moving to Miami and promptly wining a ring in ’06 with the Heat. Kobe’s never could quite take the team over the hump post-Shaq. The Lakers failed to make the playoffs the year Shaq left and did not hit 50 wins for (the first time since Kobe’s rookie year) for three consecutive seasons.

An increasingly frustrated Kobe began showing his displeasure publicly, with insiders strongly hinting at his exit from LA. It didn’t help that the Lakers foolishly traded away one of Kobe’s all time favorite teammates Caron Butler, who instead of teaming up with Kobe and Lamar Odom (then just off his career peak) to create a terrifying Big Three, was burning it up in Washington with the Wizards where he became a legit All-Star. It also didn’t help that Phoenix or Chicago, both considered Kobe destinations, had the pieces and picks to make the trade.

Then…

…in one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NBA, the Lakers made a mid-season trade for Pau Gasol (Feb 2008), sending Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Marc Gasol, two 1st round picks and one second round pick to Memphis.

After losing 2008 Finals to a historically great Boston team, Kobe and the Lakers would have none of the losing that had become characteristic over the past three seasons as they went into overdrive and trotted two back-to-back titles, the first team to do so since well, the ’02 Lakers, once and for all cementing Kobe’s case for the greatest guard since Jordan, a legacy he cherished since the day he suited up for an NBA team. Pau Gasol’s presence helped, but the ’09 and ’10 Championships were unmistakably Kobe fighting his way to five rings and the Jordan-esque legacy.

Tim Duncan, the Wake Forest phenom, was the most sought after prospect in what was believed to be a poor ’97 draft. So after nearly a decade of top tier dominance in the NBA, the Spurs were the last team anyone would have considered to be in the mix for the Duncan Sweepstakes, Daivd Robinson’s back however had other plans, giving out in the ’97 preseason and rendering Robinson useless for the season ahead. Robinson did try, suiting up for six games under new head coach Gregg Popovich who replaced Bob Hill after a 3-15 start. The Spurs finished with a franchise worst 20-62, the worst record since their 21-61 record in 1988-’89 that netted them, you guessed it, David Robinson. Armed with the third worst record in the NBA a 21.6% chance at landing Duncan, the Spurs became the topic for a fairly insubstantial claim that they tanked for Duncan. Against all odds and the Celtics who had a League worst 15-67 record (technically the expansion Grizzlies were worse at 14-68, but waived their draft rights), the Spurs landed Duncan at number 1, and the rest as they say is history.

Duncan’s insurmountable legacy, which we will leave for later in the article, cannot be tarnished or doubted. Yet, the ’99 NBA Championship, which came amidst the worst NBA season: a shortened 50-game season, with players woefully out of shape and teams in disarray due to the uncertainty of the impending season following the 1998 lockout, carries an asterisk whichever way you look at it. Yes, all teams had the same situation to deal with and the Spurs dealt with it the best, but with all due respect to Coach Pop and Duncan, both of whom I have the highest respect and admiration for, it is hard for an NBA fan to take this season and the consequent Championship seriously.

The championships in ’03, ’05 and then ’07 present a total different story. At no point in time during their tear of 3 championships in 5 years could you count the Spurs out of the race. (actually, it’s been two decades since the arrival of both Pop and Duncan, and you STILL cannot count them out. But that is for another time). As long as Duncan (and Pop) was around, the Spurs were title contenders.

Can it be argued that Duncan needed both Parker (drafted in ’02) and Ginobili (drafted in ’03) to take him over the Championship hump? Sure…if we lived in a world where elephants could fly. While the timing of their arrival coincided with ’03 Championship, that two European rookies, a point guard and a sixth man, were critical to the ’03, ’05 and ’07 Championships, is the same as Rick Fox and Horry being critical to the ’00, ’01 and ’02 Championships. Yes, they were cogs in the wheel, but to even suggest that the above four players were crucial in Kobe’s and Duncan’s Championships is arrogantly ignorant to the greatness of both players. Oh by the way…the team that beat the Spurs twice between their ’99 and ’03 Championships? The indomitable Lakers.

That brings us to the ’14 Championship. In my opinion, the greatest comeback season in the history of the NBA. To fully understand why, we have to trace our steps to the 2010-’11 season.

Duncan was 34 and put up his worst career numbers (13.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.9 bpg) since his rookie season. Ginobili put up solid numbers (17.4 ppg, 49. apg) but turned 33 and was a shadow of his efficient acrobatic self. Parker was also solid (17.5 ppg, 6.6 apg), but was coming off a long, lengthy, difficult and very public divorce with TV Star Eva Longoria. Their next three best players? George Hill (a solid backup guard who played 28 productive minutes a game), Dejuan Blair (drafted in ’09 and fairly effective at best) and well, Richard Jefferson (at least two seasons off his career peak and declining fast). That’s it. That is what Pop had to work with. And work he did, until they ran into the up and coming hard-nosed tough-as-nails Memphis Grizzlies and lost 4-2. It all went downhill after that…or so it seems.

The season following the Grizzly defeat, the Spurs were counted out of Championship contention. Every leading “expert” felt the Spurs were too old, too injured, not motivated enough, missing the right pieces, too dependent on the aging Big Three, and (insert every conceivable reason why they should not be considered serious contenders). The Spurs? Well, they had other plans, silencing doubters by destroying the Jazz and the Clippers 4-0 each, before taking on an losing to a much younger and more resilient Thunder team in a slug fest that lasted six games.

Losing to a younger team was all the fodder that the “experts” needed to once again count out the “old” Spurs from contention in 2013, declaring their window for a championship “closed” for good. This was the Thunder’s time to shine (despite losing their third best player in one of the worst trades in NBA history), and there was no way the Spurs could keep up with the running gunning Thunder and the record setting defending Champions Miami Heat. Well, not only did they keep up, trotting out a 58-24 record, second best behind the Thunder in the West, but proceeded to wreck havoc in the post season trampling their opponents with a 12-2 record through the first three rounds, and making their first Finals appearance since their ’07 Championship.

Unless you were living under a rock, you know what happened. Ray Allen hit one of the greatest shots in the history of the game to cap off one of the greatest quarters in Game 6 of the series. The Spurs, just 7 seconds away from their 5th title, came back to fight a terrific Game 7 (so valiant in fact, that Pop said this was the first game towards the quest for the 2014 championship) , but this was LeBron’s year, and he wasn’t going to lose.

So how does an “old” team that suffered one of the most devastating losses in the history of the NBA, comeback the next season? In classic Spurs fashion. They dust off the loss and proceed to win a league leading 62 games during the regular season, hold off a surprisingly feisty Mavericks team in a 7 game 1st Round series, tidily take care of business against Portland and OKC, before unleashing a can of ass whopping, a crushing 4-1 defeat, on the defending champs Miami Heat and the best player in the NBA that season, LeBron James.

So what does ALL this have to do with Duncan?! Stop ranting Jonathan!!

Ok.

In 2011-12, Duncan earned US$ 21.1 million making him the third highest paid player behind Kevin Garnett (US$ 21.25 mn) and of course Kobe Bryant (US$ 25.24 mn). Sensing an impending run at a 5th title, Duncan renewed his contract at LESS THAN HALF his previous salary (US$ 9.6 mn), becoming just the fourth highest paid player on the Spurs. With this cut, the Spurs could re-sign both Danny Green and Diaw, and prepare for Manu’s extension in the coming season. Simply put without his sacrifice we would not have had the privilege of seeing this Manu dunk, this Green shooting performance, this Diaw passing clinic, this Mills introduction on Kawhi Leonard, and most importantly this beautiful two part series (Part I & Part II) of a video tribute made for the Spurs by super fan Colin Stanton

Don’t think taking a pay cut is a big deal? Well Kobe disagrees.

Kobe Bryant (5 titles) 1 vs. Tim Duncan (5 titles) 1

STATS.

Comparing Kobe’s stats with Duncan’s is like comparing apples and oranges. but as a wise man Ronny Chieng put it, you can.

Kobe Bryant

Career – 19 seasons (till 2014-15): 25.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.0 st’ocks* (*blocks + steals), 443384 splits (FG%-3P%-FT%), with a 22.9 PER averaging 36.5 mpg for 1280 games

Tim Duncan

Career – 18 seasons (till 2014-15):  19.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 2.9 st’ocks, 511870 splits with a PER 24.5 avg 34.4 mpg for 1331 games

Since both have been playing only sporadically this season due to injuries, and because teams are letting up on Kobe since it is his last season (yes, they are…don’t kid yourself, Kobe fans), I felt it would be fair to consider their careers till last season, i.e. 2014-’15. At first glance and without any analysis, the numbers seem to be in favor of Kobe. Kobe has more points, Kobe shot 3’s, Kobe averaged more assists. Of course Duncan was a better rebounder, has better defensive numbers and shot better from the field. (all of which can be easily attributed to his position. But it is impressive that Kobe’s career average is still 25 ppg, thanks to averaging 25 ppg or more in 12 seasons and 20 ppg or more in 15 seasons, whereas Duncan averaged 25 ppg just once and 20 ppg just 9 times.

Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 1

Let’s dig a little deeper, though…

CAREER PEAK.

KOBE (2003-’04 to 2008-’09): 29.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 453585 splits with a PER of 25.0 avg 39.2 mpg for 452 games

DUNCAN (2001-’02 to  2006-’07) : 21.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 3.3 st’ocks, 512268 splits with a PER of 26.2 avg 36.6 mpg 458 games

Conventional yet universally accepted knowledge and research peg a player’s peak between the ages of 25 – 30. Kobe edges out Duncan here ever so slightly. At his peak, Kobe was a better offensive player as much as Duncan overshadowed him defensively. Kobe did have the advantage of his 3-pt shot, while Duncan had the advantage of being the last man standing on defense. So is there anything that sets them apart? Yes. Something called championships. At his peak, Duncan won 3 championships, while Kobe won zero. Even adjusting the comparison to provide for the fact that Kobe had a three year head start over Duncan (18 vs. 21), pegging his peak from 22-27, not only do his numbers actually DIP by a fraction, but his title tally is still 2 compared to Duncan’s 3. Duncan wins.

Kobe Bryant 2 vs. Tim Duncan 2

CHAMPIONSHIP SEASONS. (Reg. Season vs. Playoffs):

KOBE (’00, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10):

Regular Season: 26 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 463183 splits with a PER of 23.1 avg 38.5 mpg for 369 games

Playoffs: 27.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2 apg, 2.1 st’ocks, 453581 splits with a 23.3 PER avg 41.4 mpg  for 103 games

Bill Simmons’ 42 Club Appearances: 1 (’01)

DUNCAN (’99, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’14)

Regular Season: 20 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, 3.2 st’ocks, 511869 splits with a PER of 24.9 avg 35 mpg 351 games

Playoffs (Championships): 22.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 3.2 apg, 3.1 st’ocks, 510.471 splits with a PER of 25.4 avg 38.58 mpg for 107 games

42 Club Appearances: 2 (’01, ’03)

I hate how close this is getting, only because the calculations make my head hurt and finding an edge is harder than finding Leo an Oscar. Oh wait…

I digress.

Again, too close for comfort. Kobe’s improvement from regular season to playoffs, is marginal compared to some aspect of Duncan’s improvement. What most most people ten to miss though, and the reason I mentioned the years of the championships, is that 37 and 15 years removed from his last championship, Duncan’s number are still pretty solid to maintain a competitive match up against Kobe’s number that span over  10 years. That being said, Kobe was an absolute beast in the ’09 and ’10 playoffs averaging close to a 30-6-5 for both playoffs. Those kind of numbers in back-to-back championships counts over longevity anyday, so..

Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 2

TEAMMATES.

The popular consensus is that Duncan had better teammates throughout his career. This comparison is dicey, so let me make clear my assumptions:

  1. I will only consider seasons where they played together, so no 1996-97
  2. Am not a fan of All Star spots. Why? Tell me Lillard was snubbed for this year’s All Star list, and then watch this.also, feel free to read my take on All Star Games.
  3. Greatness of players will be accounted for against All-NBA Teams, Hall of Fame induction, and other NBA rewards, i.e. Rookie of the YEar, Defensive Player of the Year, etc.

Most of their careers and supporting cast can be argued either ways, that is, both Kobe and Duncan have fair arguments, except in three seasons:

2002-03: Armed with both Kobe at his peak and reigning (3-time) NBA Finals MVP and at the peak of his career Shaq, the reigning CHAMPION Lakers could not make it past the second round, whereas the Spurs with Tony Parker (just one season old), Stephen Jackson (solid but hardly spectacular), Malik Rose (who scored at a career high 10.4 ppg that season. Yes. 10.4 was his career high), Manu Ginobili (honestly, All Rookie 2nd team does not count) and a fast fading Robinson went on to become Champions. This was both Kobe and shaq at their peak.  Advantage Duncan.

2003-’04: Despite Kobe and Shaq making it to 1st Team All NBA, getting Gary Payton and Karl Malone, respected veterans with some gas left in the tank taking huge pay cuts for rings, and with very solid role players in Devean George and Stanislav Medvedenko, the Lakers got a beat down at the hands of an underdog Pistons team, losing the NBA Finals 4-1. Again…this was BOTH Kobe and Shaq at their peak! Advantage Duncan. (more like Disadvantage Kobe)

2014-’15: The Spurs, reigning Champions, kept the core intact and improved their second team and bench strength significantly, Yet fell in the 1st round. Yes, this was one of the five greatest frist round match ups ever; yes, this ought to have been a Western Conference Finals matchup; and yes, Chris Paul was not going to lose this seriesAdvantage Kobe. (more like Disadvantage Duncan).

Kobe Bryant 3 vs. Tim Duncan 3

LEGACY.

This is it right? This is Game 7. Coming down to the wire. The two greatest competitors of my generation face off for one last time.

Kobe Bryant a.k.a. KB24 a.k.a. The Black Mamba. After Jordan left the game in ’98, the NBA and the world of basketball as we know it seemed ready to collapse. The game’s biggest star has just hung up his boots, the league went into salary negotiations followed by the dreaded lock out in 1998. We did come back to a shamble season in 1999, mooching off a 50-game season as legitimate. Yet, there was no solution to the NBA’s dearth of stars. Allen Iverson had potential, but between his cornrows, tattoos, baggy jeans and practice rant he became the poster child for everything the NBA wanted to distance itself from. Grant Hill was touted as the Heir Apparent, but his ankles could not bear that burden. And, Vince Carter was electric unlike anything the League had seen, but he still had to prove eh could win. Same was the case with Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber. Duncan was Mr. Consistent, but hardly possessed any emotion.

And then there was Kobe Bryant.

A guard, standing 2 inches taller than Jordan, he had a body type reminiscent of Jordan. But that was hardly where the comparisons ended. Over his first three seasons Kobe displayed a maniacal desire to improve and become alpha dog on the League. his work ethic was Jordan-esque, and his climbing numbers in his first four seasons are stark indication of this.  Make no mistake, it was this very work ethic that was one of the bigger reasons for the Kobe-Shaq feud. Kobe could not stand that Shaq showed up out of shape every season, used the regular season to whip himself back in shape, only to dominate and cruise to the Championship.

Kobe aspired to be counted in the conversation with Jordan. But no one player in the past two decades put in the kind of brutal work in the gym and on the court like Kobe did. And I’m afraid no player ever will.

You see, basketball was always a business. And as that business gets bigger players are getting savvier with business pursuits off the court. Carmelo could’ve gone anywhere in pursuit of a championship, but chose New York for its business potential. LeBron James left Miami to Cleveland because he was worried that the Miami Heat stint and The Decision hit his personal brand hard; does not matter that he won two championships. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have adopted OKC and have become superstars in the a small market, and despite all rumors to the contrary, I do not think will ever leave OKC. Stephen Curry is just now arriving on the big stage, and while he leads an organization that cares to surround him with the right players and staff, it is undeniable that he plays for one of the biggest markets in the country.

All this makes me wonder. Will there ever be a Kobe Bryant again. A fierce competitor that has unparalleled focus on his goal to a championship. A player who, before teams hired trainers and specialists, sought to improve his game just by being the first on court and the last off court during practice, making sure he added a new element to his game every season. A player who, on an 2008 Olympic team filled with super stars, shows up to breakfast at 8 a.m. drenched in sweat with ice bags on his knees and full three hour practice under his belt. A player about whom His Airness said “He wants it so bad, he’s willing to go to the extreme, guarding points guards at the age of 34 playing 38-40 minutes a game. It’s ludicrous. This is what he is battling…he is just as cursed as me (referring to the burning desire to win)”

Duncan’s legacy is yet to be written. Save for a few games off due to injury, he is still starting games for the Spurs alongside LaMarcus Alridge, morphing into the older brother that David Robinson was to him.

Even if Duncan hung up his boots today, there should not even be a discussion on the greatest power forward ever. Karl Malone and Barkley never won a championship; Nowitzki, Garnett and Elvin Hayes won just one championship each but not at their peak; Kevin McHale won three but had one of the ten greatest NBA players ever Larry Bird by his side; Gasol won two championships but has played with three different teams in his career and Bob Petit won just one championship at his peak.

Duncan has won five championships over two decades. In fact he was so dominant till the ’09 season, that it seemed ludicrous anytime the regular season MVP went to anyone not named Duncan. His first and last championships coming FIFTEEN years apart! In fact, Duncan alone could guarantee a 50 win season and that could be said about just three other players in the past two decades, i.e. Jordan, Shaq and (a healthy) Dirk Nowitzki.

Here is the clincher though…

Kobe who has missed four playoffs during his career and more importantly one during his peak at age 26 where, despite having Butler and Odom on his team, the Lakers finished with the 6th worst record in the League that season and the eighth worst record in the 68-year history of the franchise. In his 18 seasons as a professional NBA player, Duncan never missed a single playoffs. Never. Yes, his role has “diminished” (I use the that word with extreme caution here) over the past 5 seasons, but that still leaves us with 13 seasons of Duncan leading the Spurs as the alpha dog.

Alpha Dog for 13 seasons. Five Championships 15 years apart. That is all that should matter.

Now for the last possession…

As good as Kobe is, the Kobe-Shaq feud will always hang over Kobe’s legacy. We will always wonder what could’ve and would’ve happened had Kobe and Shaq set aside their differences in the pursuit of Championships. Why, for instance, couldn’t two grown men keep their focus on the bigger picture? If Shaq was as casual as Kobe claimed, why couldn’t Kobe find a way to get to him and bring him on board. Why, after that whirlwind from 2000 to 2005 would one of the greatest practitioners of stoicism and mindfulness, Phil Jackson, pen a whole book in a tell all about how difficult it was to coach Kobe.

Now ask yourself…have you, or will you ever hear a story like this about Duncan. It’s too late now. In his 18 years as a dominant pro player, there has never been a negative story about Duncan. As a player, as a teammate, as an opponent. Kobe’s greatness, cannot entirely overshadow his difficult times with teammates, coaches and management. 19 seasons is a long time, so some friction is expected. But that expectation is decimated in the case of Duncan. He rose above it all. Basketball was of primary importance; but more important that that? Basketball played the right way. The Duncan way. The Spurs way. Maybe Pop has more to do with this than I am willing to admit. But give yourself a few minutes of quiet, and think to yourself…knowing all you do, if you had to pick a teammate to play ball with you for 20 years, who would you pick. I know who I would.

Duncan wins.

 

 

Ranking My Top Ten NBA All-Star Games

Fresh off the heels of the 2016 NBA All Star Game in the lovely city of Toronto, I decided do something I hate. Make a list. “Why?” you may ask. Short answer, “Hmmm…”. Long answer, the All Star Game is an exhibition bonanza to entertain the NBAs well wishers and sponsors. It is the NBA’s marquee event second only to The Finals, which aren’t nearly as elaborate, and unlike the NFLs marquee event the Superbowl, it does not hold any significance to the current season. It does reflect in a player’s career achievements, but ever since Yao Ming got voted to start at the 2011 NBA All Star Game without playing a minute that season, I stopped taking it seriously enough as a point of contention in the argument of the greatest players ever. So that makes the NBA All Star Game a mela. A multimillion dollar, everybody-who-is-anybody-needs-to-be-seen-there, let’s-not-play-defense-and-give-the-fans-what-they-came-for mela. And I don’t mind making lists about melas, because lists about melas ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of things.

Number 10: 1951 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Beginning

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BOSTON – 1951: Ed Macauley #22 and Bob Cousy #14 of the Boston Celtics pose with Celtics’ owner Walter Brown in 1951 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2002 NBAE (Photo by Basketball Hall of Fame/NBAE/Getty Images)

The game that started it all. This may come as a surprise to the young twenty somethings, but basketball wasn’t popular in its early days. In fact it was quite unpopular as allegations of point shaving in college basketball were making headlines. Sensing the opportunity to turn things around in favor of the game, then NBA President Maurice Poldoff, NBA publicity director Haskell Cohen and Boston Celtics owner Walter Brown decided to hold an exhibition game featuring the league’s best players. Players were selected by sports journalists across the country without regard to position and the coaches were those whose teams had the best records in their respective conferences, a practice that continues to date. Brown was so convinced about its success that he agreed to bear all costs and losses, if any. He was right. The game drew a then record 10,094 fans in a league that averaged just 3,500 per game.

MVP: Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley who not only scored 20 pts but held the great George Mikan to just 4 pts.

Other Notable performances: Bob Cousy 8 pts, 9 rebs, 8 asts.

Number 9: 1964 NBA All Star Game, Boston Garden, Boston: The Strike (almost)

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Cincinnati Royals Oscar Robertson (14) in action vs Boston Celtics Sam Jones (24), Boston, MA 4/10/1963 (Photo by Rich Clarkson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X9146 TK1)

Any All Star moments list that omits the 1964 game is being disrespectful to the very principles the league has come to rest on in the years following the 1963-64 season. The players union, founded in 1954 by Bob Cousy, was saturated from ten years of expressing their concerns (Saturday night-Sunday noon back-to-back games, no pension / insurance, poor pay and terrible playing conditions among others) and presenting their demands to Commissioner Walter Kennedy, but not getting the ear, time or respect of the team owners and league officials. The 1964 NBA All Star Game was to be the first All Star game televised live, and sensing an opportunity the league’s biggest stars led by Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Tom Heinsohn and Jerry West (a huge deal in the midst of race tensions, especially in a city like Boston), threatened to strike by not playing if their demands were not met. Long story short, the league and owners could not risk giving up a potential a TV contract, especially since basketball was still a fringe sport, and gave in to the demands of the players. It signaled a shift in the attitude of the league and team owners towards the players, and brought NBA players the respect that is commonplace nowadays. Strangely enough yet understandably so, the recap of the game on the NBA site as well as Wikipedia barely mentions the strike. There are two fairly elaborate pieces describing the events of the 1964 NBA All Star Game here and here.

MVP: Oscar Robertson 26 pts, 14 rebs, 8 asts.

Other Notable Performances: Bill Russell 13 pts, 21 rebs; Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Petit with 19 pts each and 20 and 17 rebs respectively.

Number 8: 2016 NBA All Star Game, Air Canada Center, Toronto – Scoring Galore and The Black Mambas Last Hiss.

TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant of the West team in the locker room prior to the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 14, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Charlie Lindsay/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA – FEBRUARY 14: Kobe Bryant of the West team in the locker room prior to the NBA All-Star Game as part of the 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend on February 14, 2016 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Charlie Lindsay/NBAE via Getty Images)

The only reason this game makes the list? The scoring. The first NBA All Star Game to travel outside the US, possibly encouraging talks for another team in Canada, was also Kobe’s last All Star game. Unlike MJ, Kobe did not bring anything close to his A-Game, and this turned out to be more a farewell for him. None of that characteristic competitiveness that Kobe brings to every game he plays, which was disappointing. What did happen though, was scoring. Lots of it. Tons of it. Both teams barely scratched the surface of what would be considered below average defense. The total number of blocks was two consequently resulting in an offensive display for the ages. The sheer quantum of points scored was staggering, 369 points between the two teams, with the leading scorers Paul George and Westbrook scoring 41 and 31 points respectively. This game was toying with being boring, because frankly no played defense. But competitive play from Paul George, MVP Westbrook, Chris Paul who had 16 assists and cannot turn off his competitive switch, DeRozan and Lowry who were playing in front their home crowd and in their first All Star, John Wall and Kevin Durant kept the game as interesting as it could be.

MVP: Russell Westbrook 31 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 5 stls

Other notable performances: Paul George 41 pts, 5 rebs, Chris Paul

Number 7: 1986 NBA All Star Game, Reunion Arena, Dallas – Zeke Coming of Age; and 1987 NBA All Star Game, Kingdome, Seattle – Goodbye Doc, Hello MJ.

With 30 points, 10 assists and five steals in the 1986 All-Star Game, Isiah Thomas was named MVP. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

As hard as I tried, I could not find a way to feature both these games and still make sure the other nine stayed put. So I did what every confused All Star MVP Awards does, kept them both, tied at the 7th spot.

By his own admission, his performance in the 1986 game drove Isaiah Thomas to push his game to the next level and pursue championships. He was already one of the league’s premier point guards and well on his way to crafting an eventual Hall of Fame career. It was this game, however, that saw him mature into the leader that eventually led the Pistons to back-to-back titles in ’89 and ’90. Finishing with 30 points and 10 assists, K. C. Jones’ one guard offense ran amok and erupted for a 39 point quarter led by Thomas en route his 2nd NBA All Star MVP.

MVP: Isiah Thomas 30 pts, 10 asts, 5 stls.

Other notable performances: Larry Bird 23 pts, 8 rebs, 5 asts, 7 stls; Moses Malone 16 pts, 13 rebs; Magic Johnson 4 pts, 15 asts.

 

Tom Chambers was on fire in the 1987 All-Star Game, scoring 34 points as he was named MVP. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

It may be hard to fathom, but before the 70’s, basketball was a game largely played below the rim, with only bigs like Russell, Chamberlain, Petit and Baylor holding dominion above the rim. Dr. J changed all that paving the way for guards playing above the rim and the high flying NBA action we see as commonplace these days. He scored 22 points in his last All Star Game fittingly handing over the reins to a young phenom named Michael Jordan, who idolized Erving. But the story of the game was Tom Chambers, who made it into the game only thanks to a knee injury to Ralph Samson, and ending up crashing Dr. J’s party by scoring 34 pts, stealing the ball 4 times and leading the West to a win en route his against-all-odds MVP Trophy.

(against-all-odds) MVP: Tom Chambers with 34 pts, 4 stls.

Other notable performances: Moses Malone with 27 pts, 18 rebs; Magic Johnson with 9 pts, 13 asts, 7 rebs, 4 stls.

Number 6: 1962 NBA All Star Game, St. Louis Arena, St. Louis – The Record

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Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia (13), goes up high to snag a rebound in the NBA All-Star game, St Louis, Missouri, January 16, 1962. Below him are (l-r) Bob Cousey, Boston (14); Jerry West, Los Angeles (11); Tom Heinsohn, Boston (15); Bob Pettit, St Louis (9); Walt Bellamy, Chicago (8) and Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles (22). (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

I never liked Wilt Chamberlain. I still don’t. But we cannot deny that the physical presence he brought to the game was way ahead of his time. Chamberlain did set the record for most points scored in an All Star Game by dropping 42 on the West, and flirted with the record for most rebounds falling shy by just three to finish with 24 for the game (the record? Set in the same game by Petit with 27! Go figure.), but it was the West’s balanced attack with Baylor, Robertson, West, Petit and Bellamy that dominated the East that was no pushover with Russell, Cousy, Schayes and Heinsohn rounding up a stacked team. The West was devastatingly good, with all starters scoring 18 points or more and pulling down 79 rebounds, a record at the time. Petit deservingly took home MVP honors pouring in 25 points to go along with a monster 27 rebounds, a record that stands till date. Another significant fact about this game: It would be the last time Chamberlain and Russell would be on the same team.

MVP: Bob Petit with 25 pts, 27 rebs.

Other notable performances: Wilt Chamberlain 42 pts, 25 rebs; Elgin Baylor 32 pts, 9 rebs, Walt Bellamy 23 pts, 17 rebs.

Number 5: 1998 NBA All Star Game, Madison Square Garden, New York, and 2003 NBA All Star Game, Philips Arena, Atlanta, a.k.a. His Airness vs. The Black Mamba Part I & II.

NBA All-Star Game: Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (8) and Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) on court during All Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden. New York, NY 2/8/1998 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
NBA All-Star Game: Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (8) and Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) on court during All Star Weekend at Madison Square Garden. New York, NY 2/8/1998 CREDIT: Manny Millan (Photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

I could harp about how MJ was so ill before the game, he allegedly would not be playing the game, let alone start it. I could harp about how he passed on the torch of greatness to a young rookie named Kobe Bryant, then the youngest rookie to start the NBA All Star Game. I could write about how Kobe was far from shoddy scoring 18 points and pulling down 6 rebounds to Jordan’s 23 points, 8 assists and third All Star MVP, just the third player since Oscar and Petit to do so. But since hindsight is 20:20, I’ll just leave some of the post game press quotes here:

Larry Bird, coaching his first NBA All Star Game: “Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens.”

Jordan: “I’ve been in bed for three days, basically. I didn’t really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn’t dominate me. He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who’s sick, or whatever, you’ve got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude.”

Kobe: “That’s all about competitive nature, I came out aggressive, he came back at me he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like ‘Cool, let’s get it on!”.

And my favorite…Bryant: “As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don’t know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine.”

Who woulda thunk! Hindsight is always 20:20.

MVP: Michael Jordan 23 pts, 8 asts, 6 rebs, 3 stls.

Other notable performances: Kobe Bryant 18 pts, 6 rebs, 2 stls.

ATLANTA - FEBRUARY 9: Kobe Bryant #8 of the Western Conference All Stars talks with Michael Jordan #23 of the Eastern conference All Stars during the 2003 NBA All-Star Game at the Phillips Arena on February 9, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. The West won 155-145 in the first ever double-overtime All-Star Game. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2003 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
ATLANTA – FEBRUARY 9: Kobe Bryant #8 of the Western Conference All Stars talks with Michael Jordan #23 of the Eastern conference All Stars during the 2003 NBA All-Star Game at the Phillips Arena on February 9, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia. The West won 155-145 in the first ever double-overtime All-Star Game. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2003 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Fast forward five years.

Kobe is now the alpha dog and halfway through the number of rings MJ has won. MJ, now 39, seems to (I repeat: “seems to”) be shadow of his former self. They get mic’d up for a video that has become a Youtube sensation since and will remain so forever. But nothing about the game stands out more than the second last play of overtime. With just over ten seconds left and the game tied, Jordan, guarded by the West’s best defender the 6’8” Shawn Marion who happens to have a 7’0” wingspan, receives a pass on the right wing, posts up Marion on his left, switches to his right, drives to the baseline and pulls up about midway between the 3pt line and the paint to unleash one of the deadliest shots in NBA history over the stretched-out-to-max hand of Marion, and sinks what could’ve been one of the greatest shots in the history of the All Star Game, and a reminder to Kobe of who’s his 40-yr old boss. Just imagine… a (nearly) 40 year old Jordan comes out of his second retirement, scores 20 points in the All Star game AND hits the game winning jumper with 5.2 seconds left! How is that NOT a fourth MVP for Jordan?! Alas, sadly we all know what happens next. Jermaine O’Neal has the idiotic audacity to foul a 3pt shooter, who just happened to be Kobe freakin’ Bryant!. Kobe calmly sinks two of three taking us to the first double overtime game in the history of the NBA All Star. Amongst all this madness, my favorite player of all time Kevin Garnett took home MVP honors, putting on an offensive clinic scoring 37 points on 71% shooting from the field! Add that to him filling every stat on the sheet except 3pt and you had one deserving MVP. If only Jermaine kept his freaking hands to himself!

MVP: Kevin Garnett 37 pts, 9 rebs, 3 asts, 1 blk, 5 stls and 71% FG%. Told ya…stat sheet stuffed and how!

Other notable performances: Allen Iverson 35 pts, 5 rebs, 7 asts, 5 stls (stat sheet stuffer alert!); Tracy McGrady 29 pts, 5 rebs; Kobe Bryant 22 pts, 7 rebs, 4 asts, 3 stls; Jordan 20 pts, 5 rebs, 2 stls.

Number 4: 2013 NBA All Star Game, Toyota Center, Houston. The Black Mamba bites The King

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 17: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference drives on Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX – FEBRUARY 17: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat and the Eastern Conference drives on Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference during the 2013 NBA All-Star game at the Toyota Center on February 17, 2013 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This was special. Because I was there. But more on that later.

This, in my humble opinion, was the last ever competitive All Star Game.

As with every All Star Game, the media creates a storyline, and this time, fittingly so, it was Lebron vs. Kobe. Lebron and his Miami Heat were in the midst of what would become the second longest win streak in the history of the regular season. Appearing invincible, the media began to wonder if Lebron, who before the All Star Game became the 1st player to average 30+ points while shooting 60+ pct from the field in six consecutive games, was finally ready to take on the mantle from Kobe. (This seemed ridiculous, even at that time, not only because Lebron had won just one championship, but he did so leaving Cleveland and joining another alpha dog’s (Dwayne Wade) quest to win a few more rings. Something Kobe would’ve never done, no matter what the rumor wines said. Even Jordan chipped in, picking Kobe over Lebron because well…five is better than one). Kobe disagreed, and Kobe being Kobe decided to take it to Lebron and his budding legacy. While the numbers do not reflect this (Kobe 9 pts in 27 mins), the last 5 minutes of the game do. With 5:37 left in the game and the West up by 5, Kobe turned up the heat (pun intended) playing Lebron full court, and doesn’t let up for the rest of the game. But the drama begins in earnest around 2:57 when Kobe crosses Bosh over for a lay up finishing on the left of the rim.

2:42: West by 8. Kobe picks up Lebron full court, sticks with him and locks in at halfcourt. Lebron runs towards the Bosh screen, looking to come off the screen and pull up for a shot. Kobe goes over the screen and blocks his shot clean, leading to an open Durant layup.

2:30: West by 10. Kobe is still chasing Lebron around forcing him to give up the ball and stand around watching Wade, Anthony and Bosh play ball.

0:56.8: West by 6. Lebron brings the ball into the half, is hassled by Kobe as he reaches the top of the key, tries to split the screen but dribbles it off his leg into KD’s hands who passes it to the Griffin for the off the board slam.

0:47.7: Wesy by 8. Griffin gets in on the action and double teams Lebron receiving the inbound pass followed by Kobe chasing him full court. Lebron’s had enough and decides to take Kobe all the way to the rim. Kobe stays with him and blocks the shot! Reggie Miller says “Kobe’s making this personal”

0:40.9: West by 8. Both teams clear out as Lebron posts up Kobe on the right side. He spins right, thinks he’s lost Kobe and goes up for the shot, only to get swatted hard by Kobe. Foul. Two shots for Lebron. He makes the 1st, giving him his FIRST point of the 4th quarter. Kobe swings over to the West bench loudly proclaiming to Kerr “He can’t score on me!” Lebron misses the second.

0:33.2: West by 7. Harden gets the rebound off the miss and goes by Lebron, who has lost all will in this game. Visibly distressed that Kobe is coming at him so hard.

And that’s it.

None of the players currently in the NBA, except for maybe Chris Paul, will ever do this in the NBA All Star Game. None. I’d like to be proven wrong. I’d love it, actually. But I know I won’t be. As much as I dislike Kobe, he will always have my respect for being one of the most competitive players to have ever stepped on hardwood.

MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.

Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.

 

Number 3: 1992 NBA All Star Game, Orlando Arena, Orlando. The Magical Farewell.

There’s everything he did on court, and there’s everything he did off it. But nothing exemplifies the place Magic had in the hearts of fans more than being voted to start in the 1992 NBA All Star Game. Upon learning he contracted HIV, Magic decided that he needed to focus on treatment and hung up his jersey for good before the 1991-92 season began. Remember that this was a time when HIV was terribly misunderstood and the harshest judgments were reserved for those who contracted it, especially vile when it came the individual’s personal life. Magic was one of the biggest celebrities to come out openly about his condition. The media went nuts speculating, especially since the Lakers were known to indulge in the good life. Fans fed off the speculation for a while, fueled by Magic’s decision to retire just as he was coming off the peek of his career. But almost immediately, the fans felt a void. Magic was more than just basketball. He was a global ambassador of the game, and much unlike Jordan, he was just as brilliant off the court as he was on it. His mega watt smile, coupled with his magnetic personality had the fans pining for one last Showtime Show, voting him to start the NBA All Star Game that season. The League bent the rules, Magic complied to play, and what followed was a few of hours of pure blissful magic as the world was watched Earvin Johnson weave his “Magic” into the 1992 NBA All Star Game. He barely missed a step all game, and played his heart out, sky hooks here, no look passes there, 9 assists and 25 points on 75% shooting while being a perfect 3-for-3 from 3pt land, panting at half time interviews, knocking down threes in his good friend Zeke’s face. He closed out the game successfully defending Zeke and Jordan on consecutive possessions, and put an exclamation mark when with 16.3 secs left and Zeke guarding him he launched and awkward looking but fundamentally perfect three that touched only the bottom of the net going in. It was a blowout with the West winning 153-113 and Magic was the heart of that win, deservingly taking home MVP honors for the second and last time in his career.

MVP: Earvin “Magic” Johnson 25 pts, 9 assists, 2 stls, 75% FG%, 3-for-3 3PT

Other notable performances: Clyde Drexler 22 pts, 9 rebs, 6 asts; Michael Jordan 18 pts, 5 asts, 2 stls.

Number 2: 1988 NBA All Star Game, Chicago Stadium, Chicago. – His Airness Micheal Jordan arrives.

Having received the mantle from Dr. J the previous year, it was Jordan’s time to shine. And the NBA could not have chosen a better venue. Whether the move was strategic knowing Jordan’s draw on fans and his impending blowout game, we will never know. What we do know, and have as a memory for ever, is Jordan exploding for 40 pts in one of the best All Star Games ever played. Both the East and the West were stacked with Hall of Famers, and Jordan saw this as the perfect coming out party. He felt he was sidelined in the games from 85-87, hinting that the older players were threatened by his presence and his abilities, and gave him the cold shoulder. Jordan decided to take matters in his own hands and dominate the All Star Game like no one has ever done and will ever do. In just 29 minutes on court. Jordan single handedly kept the East in the Game pouring in 40 pts (impressively this did not include a single 3ptr) and filling nearly every stat on the sheet. His running mates included his dunk contest nemesis, Dominique Wilkins and two NBA Finals nemesis Isaiah Thomas, with Bird and (Moses) Malone rounding up the East. The West was just as stacked with Magic, (Karl) Malone, Olajuwon, Alex English and the incredibly talented but streaky Lafayette “Fat” Lever. The two teams battled furiously, and remember, this was when teams actually played defense and treated the All Star Game with the utmost respect. Jordan scored 16 points in the final 5:30, but had to share his thunder with Kareem, whose sky hook took his All Star Game points total to 247 points, a record at that time.

MVP: Michael Jordan: 40 pts, 8 rebs, 3 asts, 4 stls, 4 blks.

Other notable performances: Dominique Wilkins 29 pts, 5 rebs; Isaiah Thomas 8 pts, 15 asts; Magic Johnson 17 pts, 19 asts, 6 rebs, 2 stls, 2 blks, Karl Malone 22 pts, 10 rebs.

Number 1: 2001 NBA All Star Game, MCI Center, Washington D.C. – The Comeback

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The Game simply known as The Comeback.

My research for this article involved watching, pausing and re-watching All Star Game highlights and specials on Youtube. None though, gave me goosebumps the way the 2001 NBA All Star Game did.

I fell in love with basketball watching the 2000 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and the Blazers. So nearly everyone in the 2001 NBA All Star Game got me jumping out of my seat! “Damn! A young McGrady running with cuz Carter!”… “Look at that…Marbury when he actually played basketball and wasn’t eating jelly!!” “Holy crap Iverson was freakin insane!!!” … “ Ray Allen with the Bucks…young cats forget!!!” And my favorite “Holy Savior of the World…its Antonio McDyess!!!!”

Just so I could save my energy, I stood up and watched the whole video. Sitting down wasn’t an option. This was beyond incredible. These are the guys that got me hooked on to a game that has become the Purpose of my Life.

The East were almost puny in comparison to the giants of the West who, believe it or not, did not even have Shaq. This mismatch reflected in the score, with the West dominating just about every aspect of the game from the opening tip. Alley oops, rebound putbacks, dominating post play, incredible interior defense and just about everything you’d expect when a team as physically imposing as the West took on the comparatively puny East. Every one was in on the party…Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Webber, MdDyess, while Iverson, Carter, Marbury and Allen tried to keep the East in the game.

So when they found themselves up by 21 with nine minutes left to go in the game, the West thought they had nothing to worry. Well, they were wrong.

The East, led by Iverson, suddenly caught fire and rallied to stage the biggest comeback win in the history of the NBA All  Star Game. The West looked lost and frazzled by the East’s feisty defense during this stretch. The look in Iverson’s eyes was unmistakable, he wanted no part of a loss, possibly due to the sorry state that the media cut of the East, claiming that they stood no chance against the bigger West lineup. Scoring 15 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter, Iverson willed the East back into the game and was helped by Marbury whose two late threes in response to Kobe’s baskets at the other end, sealed the deal.

We may indulge in a pointless debate of why this list isn’t right, and I may even let you change my mind on games from 2 – 10. But for its relevance in my life, and what it means to me till date, the 2001 NBA All Star Game will always be number one in my books. And you cannot convince me otherwise.

MVP: Allen Iverson 25 pts, 5 asts, 4 stls

Other notable performances: Dikembe Mutumbo 6 pts, 25 rebs; Kobe Bryant 19 pts, 7 asts, 4 rebs; Tim Duncan 14 pts, 14 rebs.

Before I finish:

The All Star Game, while still an exhibition, used to be fairly competitive when it started, picked up in intensity in the mid – late 80’s and early 90’s, and stayed fairly competitive till late 00’s. That’s all gone now, and the game has turned into a dunk and trickery fest. There were two block the entire game in 2016! And one was by Kyle Lowry!! While offense wins games, defense wins championships, making it a vital part of the game. That’s what sets basketball apart from other team games, in that you have to play both ends of the floor as a team at all times. As much as fans idolize these players, they also remember great performances and pay good money to watch these guys play a decent game of basketball. Instead, the highlight of the 2016 game for basketball purists was Popovich’s face every time the camera panned on him. He seemed like he did not want any part of the dunk fest. Or maybe that’s Pop just being his stoic self.

It is sad that the casual and new fans of basketball do not take the All Star Game more seriously. Actually most of us serious fans do not as well anymore. And there’s good reason… even the players themselves barely take it seriously.

When watching highlights and re-watching earlier games, three things stood out:

  1. The All Star game meant something. Starters played their best, because they felt they owed it to the fans who voted them in. Benchers played their best to prove to the coaches and journalists they made the right choice.
  1. Everyone played Defense. Plays were called on Offense. Yes, it was made fancier with slick passing and theatrical dunking. But they were still solid offensive set plays with a purpose of “beating” the other team. Not cruising for uncontested lay ups and dunks. That’s what the Dunk Contest is for.
  1. Teams played hard. They went at each other. Players wanted to show up their opponent. You went after your opponent, because you knew he was coming back the other way next possession. There has to be a winner and there will be a loser. None of that “everyone-is-a-winner” bullshit. That’s what the game of basketball is about.

I fear that with Kobe, the last of the legends that took the All Star Game fairly seriously has gone.

A final thought:

I spent every waking hour from 2000 till 2012 dreaming of one day attending an NBA Game and meeting with players who were demi-gods to me. The only basketball I had access to till then was two live games a week on TV (no highlights), highlights on Youtube (only from ‘06 onward), and the two of most important influences in my life, Scoop Jackson for SLAM Magazine and Bill Simmons also named the Sports Guy. I devoured every letter of every word of every article they wrote, including Simmons’ The Book of Basketball which I read once at the beginning of every year.

And then the 2013 NBA All Star happened. And I was there. (you can read my running blog here)

To have come this close to actually playing hoops with Simmons at a closed game for the media (Thank you for the media creds Akash Jain), to pass by Greg Popovich in the player tunnel and have him promise to come back around after the pregame press conference (he didn’t come back, but I ain’t mad…I shook his hand. Greg. Popovich’s. Hand.), to be the only media representative from India ask both David Stern and Adam Silver what plans they had for India, to try and meet Magic Johnson only to have his bodyguard palm my chest and say “No.”, to promise myself that one day Magic will know my name, to bring in my 30th birthday a day after His Airness brought in his 50th, to have spent an hour going absolutely nuts talking hoops with Scoop over beers, and the best part of the weekend…to stand two feet away from my all time favorite player Kevin Garnett asking him when does he plan to come to India again and hear him say “Soon, man. Soon”, is a feeling that cannot be expressed in words, no matter how eloquent my language. So yes, the All Star Game has turned into a bunch of grown men playing aimless basketball. Yes, the All Star Game is just about the NBA calling its big guns to impress the corporate world in the hopes of more sponsorship, partnerships and money. Yes, the All Star Game isn’t something serious basketball fans take seriously anymore and neither do the players. And yes, the All Star Game doesn’t count for anything in the argument of who is the greatest of all time after Jordan (see what I did there?).

But for a starry doe eyed dreamer so far away from the action, those four days meant the world. They meant everything. They make living worthwhile.