Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Search for Patch: A Heroic Mission


Around 10:50 PM Monday night, while watching the college football national championship game at my parents’ house with my dad, I went to check on my mom’s two cats in the garage.  Normally they are outdoor cats, but with the temperature in the low teens and dropping, and winds of 12-15 MPH blowing throughout the night, mom had prepared a bed for them in the garage - a cushion, heating pad and towel placed atop a wooden bench.  When I checked in, one of the cats, Lexi, was there snuggling contentedly; the other, Patch, was not to be seen.  Apparently he had darted out at some point when the garage door was opened, and no one noticed.  I stepped outside and called for him for several minutes.  No answer.  I grabbed a can of wet food, held it up, cracked it open and pulled back the lid as deliberately as I could.  Surely that deliciously familiar sound would bring him running.  Straining my ears, I thought maybe I could hear a distant, whimpering meow, but I couldn’t be sure.  So, I called out to Patch a few more times.  Nothing.

Alright then, I thought, into the cold I go.  There’s a kitty out there that needs rescuing, and the mission isn't going to accomplish itself.  Let's do this, Smith.

It was my chance to become a hero.

I went inside and suited up.  Hoodie, scarf, heavy coat, leather gloves, etc.  Once I found a flashlight, I was ready to venture into the depths of the menacing wintry night.  As I headed for the door again, mom - concerned for my safety, as any decent mother would be at a time like this - pleaded with me, “Just fifteen minutes in weather like that and you can get frostbite!”

Immediately, the words of the immortal Han Solo rang in my head: “That’s right, and my friend,” or, in this case, Patch the Cat, “is out there in it!”

With that, I swung open the door and set out in the face of sub-zero chills, undaunted, prepared to capture my own piece of glory.  At that moment, invigorated by the rush of cold night air, I felt like I possessed the strength of Hercules, the bravery of the 300 Spartans, and the quietly dignified leadership style of Robert E. Lee.  

Oh, the night was angry!  The wind was merciless!  The cold was… freaking cold!  Anyway, by the time I’d put on all those extra clothes and other warmth accessories, found a flashlight and walked back outside, Patch had finally come near the garage again.  I just had to put him inside and shut the door.  

But that's not the point!  The point is I was ready and willing to do whatever it took.  I mean, again, 'whatever it took' turned out to be lifting a slightly overweight adult cat and transporting him into a nearby garage, but be that as it may, Patch the Cat is alive and well today.  Nobody can deny that fact.

I'm a freaking hero.

The End.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lakers Notes 11-6-2013: Oh, What a Year!

Last night, after watching about an hour’s worth of coverage of the Virginia governor’s race - which played out pretty predictably, with the Turd Sandwich narrowly defeating the Giant Douche - I turned my attention to more important matters: taking in the Lakers’ fifth game of the regular season and contemplating what it might mean to be a Lakers fan this year.  Some early, irrational optimism quickly gave way to the realization that… err, well, let’s just get into it here. 
 

(Just before tip-off):  Aaaannnd, I’m depressed.  Good golly is this Lakers starting lineup sad.  Granted, I’m one of the few remaining members of the Pau-Gasol-is-an-elite-level-big-man fan club, but even he’s not a franchise player by any stretch of the imagination at this point in his career.  And the other four starters?  Yeesh.  Steve Blake has been a decent backup point guard for the last few years, which doesn’t say much for the fact that he’s the starting shooting guard on this team.  He’s never played the 2!  Even in college!  Xavier Henry has had some nice moments in the preseason and early days of the regular season, but he’s been a completely inconsequential player his first few years in the league, and one can’t help but wonder if his impressive scoring games thus far have something to do with the fact that, you know, somebody has to score on this team.  As for Steve Nash - he looks like the shadow of Steve Nash.  He moves around and has the same basic form of Steve Nash, but he can’t really do the things that Steve Nash does.  He’ll make a play here and there that looks great, but for long stretches of time he seems to be laboring up and down and around the court.  His defense was sub-par when he was in his prime; now it is downright pitiful.  It hurts to say, but at this point, Nash is what he is: an old man.

And then, of course, there’s Shawne Williams.  In the starting lineup.  This feels like an appropriate time to point out the fact that Shawne Williams was not in the league last year.  The year before?  He was shooting 28% from the floor and struggling to get off the Nets’ bench.  (Cue Charles Barkley: “James Worthy is rolling over in his grave.”)

In spite of all this, I kind of like this team.  Some reasons (in addition to a total lack of rationality):

·         The bench is pretty solid: It’s strange to have such a below-average starting five and a bench that seems - on paper and after some early-season returns - to be a pretty dang competent bunch, at least offensively.  Maybe if the bench players were made the starters, they’d struggle just as much as or more than the starters do against opposing starting talent, but it still feels odd to have bench players who are better at their jobs than the starters are.

·         I still believe Pau can have a big year: It’s a contract year for him.  He has a lot to prove after such an up-and-down year last season, when he battled multiple injuries and struggled to fit in D’Antoni’s system (READ: when D’Antoni stupidly tried to make him a stretch 4).  He will get the ball a ton until Kobe returns, and will be the unquestioned second option even after Kobe returns.  He had a few games late in the season last year in which he looked like his old, skillful, gracefully dominant self.  And hey, we’re still only a year and change removed from the 2012 Olympics, when Pau pretty much ran roughshod over the US in the gold medal game.  I believe in Pau, baby!

·         This team has more athleticism and scoring from the wing than in the past several years.  Even if the past few versions of the Lakers were better teams, it has been so infuriating the last several years watching the utter dearth of scoring from the perimeter and/or athleticism on the wings (aside from Kobe, obviously).  Oh how I’ve grown accustomed to shouting “Nnnnoooooo!” every time Ron Artest/Metta World Peace lines up a triple - it's Pavlovian, to say the least.  I wonder if I will still do this even though he now plays for the Knicks.  This year, with guys like Henry, Wesley Johnson and Nick Young, I might lose most of the rest of my hair before the season’s over on account of some terrible decision-making and shot selection, but at least these guys look like NBA athletes.  **UPDATE: I wrote this paragraph in all seriousness last night as the game was starting.  Only today do I realize how horribly depressing it is.  But I feel like I have to include it here in spite of this.  Or maybe because of it.  Perhaps this should be the Lakers’ slogan for the 2013-14 campaign: “Ladies and gentlemen, at least these guys look like NBA athletes… your LOS ANGELES LAKERS!!!”

·         Lastly: it’s the Lakers.  And it’s the NBA season.  Whatever happens, I’m here for the ride, and happy to be.

(6:36 to go in the 1st quarter): Chris Kaman enters the game.  This somehow comes as a total surprise to me.  I think I want to forget he’s on the team, even if he’s been one of the few effective players early in the season.  He can still score a bit and take up space, but he’s a minus defender, and one of the ugliest basketball players to ever don a jersey.  His decision to shave his head in the age of HD television must have been some sort of sick joke.  Seriously, Chris, you’re scaring children.  Also, me.

(4:10 to go in the 1st): Mavs ball out of bounds underneath the basket.  The inbounds pass goes to an Israeli rookie named Gal Mekel at the top of the key.  Mekel takes two dribbles to his right with Lakers reserve Jordan Farmar guarding him, slowly spins back to his left, puts his head down and drives past Farmar straight down the middle of the lane for a barely-contested layup.

I rewound and watched this play four or five times.  I still don’t know how it was possible.  The Lakers might not have a top-10 defense this year.

(About 0:55 to go in the 1st): Indulge some basketball nerdery.  What happens at this juncture of the game could pretty much serve as the epitaph for the Lakers this year.  (And yes, I realize we’re one week into the season here.)

Dallas brings the ball up the court in a semi-transition opportunity.  Four Lakers are in good defensive position - Kaman guarding DaJuan Blair in the middle of the paint; Farmar guarding Mekel with the ball on the right wing; Nick Young sloughing off Vince Carter on the weak side; Wesley Johnson trailing down the middle of the court before retreating above the top of the key to pick up Dirk early.  Jodie Meeks, however, is aimlessly shuffling down the court between Johnson and Young, not in position to help should Mekel attack the middle from the wing, and really nowhere close to picking up his man (Jae Crowder).

Blair darts out from the middle of the paint to set a screen for Mekel.  When Farmar is overly aggressive in attempting to jump the screen before it is set (lunging to his right, the side from whence the screen is coming), Mekel instinctively eschews the coming screen and dribbles towards the baseline, leaving Farmar chasing behind him.

This forces Kaman to step up and cut Mekel off from taking the baseline, only Kaman is so slow-footed, and his hedge is so over-zealous, he has no chance to recover to his man, Blair.

As Kaman is hedging on Mekel, Blair is immediately slipping the screen he intended to set and darting for the basket.

With Farmar behind him and Kaman frozen in concrete, Mekel sees Blair cutting and neatly whips a one-hand bounce pass to him for an uncontested layup.  Meanwhile, Jodie Meeks is still meandering in the middle of the court, half-interested in what’s going on with the ball, and then at the worst possible moment turning his head completely away from the ball and the action to maybe try and find his man.  By the time Meeks turns back towards the strong side where the action is being played out, Blair is effortlessly tossing in the layup for two (essentially free) points.

Aside from the initial positioning in transition, everything about this defensive play is atrocious on the part of the Lakers.  It involves basketball players that aren’t naturally good defenders playing for a team that has not studied, worked on or talked about how to play basic transition or pick-and-roll defense.  This does not bode well for the season.

(Moments later): Meeks puts up an ugly elbow jumper that yields a long rebound and then a runout by Jae Crowder, who scores a layup with Meeks comically stepping aside to allow the layup, rather than contesting the shot or forcing Crowder to shoot free throws.  I guess Jodie was trying to stay out of foul trouble.  (Total PF for the game: 0.  Yeah, but still.)

(About 8:30 to go in the 2nd): Another complete breakdown on defense against a simple side pick-and-roll occurs - this time brought about by a stupidly over-aggressive attempt at a double-team by Jordan Hill.  The Lakers appear to have no game plan for guarding the pick-and-roll.  Supposedly - and I’ve read this from basketball insiders including opposing scouts and executives - Mike D’Antoni simply does not discuss defense.  Ever.  When your best player is 35 and currently rehabbing a torn Achilles, and your second-best offensive player on the active roster is Nick Young, and your starting point guard is 40 years old, and you’re starting guys at positions they’ve never played in a 10+ year career, AND your coach does not so much as discuss the topic of defense… Well, um, this, this might be a long season.

(Sidenote): As much as I want to believe in the Pau resurgence year, he has really looks off in this game.  He doesn’t seem able to assert himself physically in the post.  His baby jump hooks and sweeping shots around the rim appear to be off, as if he isn’t used to releasing the ball from the distance at which he’s shooting.  He just seems out of sorts.

(First play of the second half): Another pathetically defended pick-and-roll on the right wing, with Gasol making a herky-jerky, half-hearted attempt to seal off a Jose Calderon drive before recovering to Nowitzki at the top of the key, only Pau’s poor footwork leads to him essentially setting a second pick on Nash (who is guarding Calderon).  Calderon therefore comes off the screen (and unintentional second screen) to find about three square miles of open space between the right wing and the hoop.  He attacks the basket and the entire defense collapses on the paint, although Jordan Hill stepping up to stop Calderon just outside the paint, with the other players rotating accordingly, would have been the appropriate response.  Calderon whips the ball out to Shawn Marion on the left wing, who then skips a pass to Monta Ellis in the corner where, after his man (Steve Blake) has lunged helplessly at Marion, Monta is “wide, bless-ed open,” as my middle school coach would say.  Ellis drains a deep two to put the Mavs up 21.

(7-minute mark of the 3rd quarter): The Mavs announcers are wondering aloud if a) the Mavs will get to 100 points by the end of the third quarter, and/or b) every single Maverick will score 20 points tonight.  The second question is posed half-jokingly.  But only half.

(Last few minutes of the 3rd): The Lakers spring to life a bit, trapping and getting into passing lanes on defense, getting a couple of steals, converting on several transition and semi-transition buckets, and closing the quarter down 17 after being down 90-60 at one point in the quarter.  This mini-run was probably as much about the Mavs (inevitably) easing off the gas a tad as much as it was about the Lakers making a legitimate comeback.  But still.

(First play of the 4th quarter): Nick Young starts the fourth with a jumper to cut that once-30-point lead in half.  Could this get interesting? 

(SPOILER ALERT): No.

(10:00 left in the 4th): The Lakers bench is outscoring the starting lineup, 57-25.  This seems worth mentioning.

(4:44 to go in the 4th): With the score now at 120-95, I find myself doing something I expect to make a habit of this year: falling asleep as the game winds down.

(I don’t remember the time): A Ryan Kelley sighting!  Oh goodness.  Please help us.

As garbage time winds down, the Mavs play-by-play guy states that Kobe’s return will “turn the light back on” for the Lakers.  No it will not.  Not as far as I can see.  This team cannot defend, and apparently the coaching staff is not interested in addressing this issue.  Sure, they can run some nice stuff offensively, even putting on an impressive performance on that end from time to time.  (Note: I’m assuming everyone on the Clippers roster was drunk or stoned on Opening Night).  But a team that doesn’t play defense in this league is a team that doesn’t win in this league.  Maybe they get better when Kobe gets back.  But as far as I can tell, Kobe will not be a remedy for what ails the Lakers.  It’s going to be a long season.

 

BONUS PREDICTION:  Steve Nash will retire from basketball before the All-Star break.  He still has moments, but overall, he just can’t play at this level anymore.  Too slow, too old.  It’s one thing to give up a half-step to your opponent, which Nash has been doing for years (and making up for with his superior court vision, instincts, basketball IQ, etc.), but the game seems to have passed Steve by.  He doesn’t even look right shooting wide-open jumpers this year, as if he’s startled when he finds himself open and isn’t quite sure how to react.  He’s an all-time great, and of course it’s early, but man, it looks like the game is too fast for him now.  I legitimately felt sorry for him watching this game.  I don’t see how Nash ignores the degree to which he’s fallen off over the last several years, and I don’t think he has too much pride to admit it’s time to hang it up.  So yeah, I think my favorite team’s starting point guard is going to freaking retire before the season’s over.  If you’ll excuse me now, I’m going to gulp down a bottle of Drano.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

2013-2014 NBA Preview (Sort of)

The start of the 2013-2014 NBA season is only hours away at the time of this posting.  So first, let me just say, HHHRRRRWWWWAAAAAAHHHHH!  NBA Opening Night.  Best day of the year.

Secondly, I set out to write a blog post with a few observations about what might unfold this year: Five Things to Watch for This NBA Season, that sort of thing.  But the first thing I decided to write about came in at over 1,200 words and I thought, Oh, to hell with it.  Nobody’s reading more than that anyway.  So, here are a few thoughts on an off-court NBA topic for this season.

How Will ESPN’s Studio Show, NBA Countdown, Fare in Its Current Incarnation?

Countdown has undergone a significant makeover in recent weeks, which is nothing unusual - ESPN has struggled to develop a consistent NBA studio show for years.  Changes to this year’s show include, most notably, the loss of Magic Johnson, who decided to step away from the show in order to focus on his various other endeavors (and not because of a power play by Bill Simmons, as was reported at one point), as well as Michael Wilbon, who was not re-signed by the network to remain on the studio panel.

The only continuity between last year’s studio show and this year’s comes in the form of grantland.com columnist and editor Simmons, and former NBA player Jalen Rose. I’m a fan of Rose and especially of Simmons, although I feel the two are somewhat hamstrung on this show, given the restraint they must exhibit - they are, after all, appearing on a Disney-owned media outlet. More on this later.

Newcomers to the Countdown show include longtime SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, ESPN NBA and women’s basketball analyst Doris Burke, former Nets head coach Avery Johnson and NBA lifer Doug Collins.  This won’t, however, be a show over-populated with talking heads, because in addition to the changes in on-air personalities, there will also be a structural change for this year’s edition of the show.  The weekly Wednesday installment of Countdown will feature Burke as a hybrid host/analyst alongside Rose and Johnson.  The Friday and Sunday shows will feature Steele in a traditional studio host capacity, navigating commercial breaks and guiding the basketball discussion that will take place between Collins, Rose and Simmons.

This seems a bit confusing.  Really, the Wednesday show ought to be called something other than NBA Countdown.  It should be its own separate thing.  Only one analyst from the Friday/Sunday show (Rose) will be appearing on the Wednesday show.  And without a traditional host, the dynamic of the Wednesday show will be quite different from that of the weekend editions. 

I’ll tune in for a lot of the Wednesday broadcasts, but I’m most interested in seeing how the Friday/Sunday lineup - with a panel of host Sage Steele and analysts Jalen Rose, Bill Simmons and Doug Collins - plays out.  I think this cast has a chance to be really, really good together.  I also expect this panel, and this structure (traditional host + analysts), to be the one ESPN employs during meaningful playoff games next spring and summer.  Hence, I’m writing about the Friday/Sunday show and not its Wednesday counterpart.

This will be year 2 of Simmons and Rose being on-air together, and they've also had a ton of podcast time that has allowed them to develop great chemistry. Their team previews on the Grantland Channel have been great - insightful, colorful and often quite funny, with several consistently amusing segments. The pairing just seems to work, at least when the two are able to let loose a bit, as they are in the YouTube-aired team previews. Maybe the suits at ESPN/ABC/Disney/Whoever-the-hell-actually-runs-things-at-ESPN will give them a little bit of slack to push the envelope in 2013-14. The “Don’t get fired” running joke is fun, but maybe they’ll be able to actually breathe a little more now that they have significant screen time under their belts.

The addition of Collins feels like a no-brainer.  He’s been around the game his whole life; he has an eidetic hoops memory; and he’s spent a lot of time working in TV, where he comes across as an affable guy that really knows and loves the game.  Also, he’s good for the occasional salty quote.

But the biggest reason to be bullish on the quality of this year’s version of NBA Countdown over last year’s ultimately unsuccessful all-analysts-no-host experiment is the addition of Steele.  The most glaring problem with last year’s show was all the stumbling that went on, whether between segments, coming out of commercial or going to commercial, or the little gaps between comments that oftentimes felt just awkward enough to be distracting.  Putting a bunch of basketball people on a show about basketball and letting them run with it might seem like a great idea, except in this case those basketball people don't necessarily know how to host a television show.  They need a career TV person who’s been reading tele-prompters for years, someone who knows how to prevent the uncomfortable lulls by jumping in with the right question to steer the discussion in a new direction.   Steele is just that: an experienced, competent television anchor - in addition to being a seemingly stand-up lady - and with her providing a steady-handed influence as host, Countdown should run much more smoothly this year.  The TV pro will focus on doing her job, and that will allow the basketball guys to focus on doing what they do best - talk basketball. 

Ultimately, though, chemistry will determine whether NBA Countdown succeeds.  Just like a basketball team, a sports talk show team needs chemistry. Why was Inside the NBA the best studio show in all of sports for 10+ years?* Because the chemistry between EJ, Chuck and Kenny was so great.  Why has PTI been going strong for over a decade, with multitudes of other shows trying unsuccessfully to capture the same magic? Because TK and Wilbon are just so damned good together, and it’s hard to replicate that on-screen rapport. To offer another TV-related chemistry example, compare an episode of Letterman wherein the guest is a Tom Hanks or a Bill Murray or someone of that ilk - someone Letterman clearly has a ton of respect for and has interviewed numerous times - versus an episode wherein Dave is interviewing some bimbo from the latest reality dating show. Big difference.**
 
So we’ll see if the combination of Steele, Simmons, Rose and Collins clicks.  If so, it should be a really fun show this year. If not, it could be a train wreck. I’m hoping it’s the former, but I’ll be watching either way.







------------------------------
*It’s probably still the best studio show in sports, but adding Shaq to the mix has adversely affected it; Chuck was always the star of the show, but Shaq’s ego won’t allow him [Shaq] to play second banana. In other words, the addition of Shaq has fouled up the show’s chemistry, at least to some degree.

**Okay, fine. The episodes with the bimbos from the dating shows can be great, too, but only when Dave brings it heavy with the snark. Cranky, sarcastic Letterman grilling some poor girl who might not totally understand what’s going on is pretty fantastic television. But still, the must-watch Letterman interviews are the Murrays and the Hankses of the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

All-Time Hypothetical Top Five

I still get a few page views per month on this blog, which means that, incredibly, some poor souls still check in here for updates from time to time.  I find this amazing, considering pandas bone with greater regularity than I blog.  However, 1) some people do, in fact, still check in here, and b) I love nothing more than to engage in totally hypothetical basketball-related discussions and/or debates.  Why this player would have been great in any era, why that team would have beaten that other team from twenty years earlier, how great player X might have been had he never gotten injured... any of that stuff.  I love it.

So, what the hell?  Since some people are still checking in, why not use this platform to expound upon my favorite of all hypothetical basketball discussions:  If you had to pick five guys to play a game with your life on the line, which five players would you pick?  I’ll get started with a few guys I wouldn’t pick, even if I really wish I could.

Honorable Mention

Dennis Rodman - the hardest guy to leave off my list, if only because he was on my list for years, and my favorite part of revealing the list to other basketball geeks was when I got to Rodman, just because nobody could believe I would put a guy who could not shoot or dribble a basketball on the team to play a game for my life.  I loved the passionate arguments and Are you serious right now??? looks it inspired.  And I loved defending my choice to include him on my list.  He’s one of the greatest defensive players of all time, one of the best rebounders of all time, a guy who played with crazy passion and intensity every game, and a great teammate (on the court, at least), if for no other reasons than he played so hard, cared so much about winning, and would never hog the ball on offense (because, again, he could not shoot or dribble a basketball).  I love the Worm and always will.  It broke my heart when he decided to start playing buddy-buddy with Kim Jong-un, because it meant I could no longer wear my “Where Leaving It All On The Floor Happens” t-shirt, which features a picture of Rodman diving to save a loose ball from bouncing out of bounds, selflessly sacrificing his body to save a possession for his team.  Sorry, Worm, I love you, but I can’t be walking around in a t-shirt that glorifies a guy who plays buddy-buddy with a crazy dictator that rules one of the most oppressive countries on earth.  It’s just a rule with me.

Magic Johnson - One of the five greatest players ever, but I don’t feel comfortable having two defensive liabilities on the court (I can handle one, especially with good rim protectors behind him, but not two at the same time - not with my life on the line), and for reasons I will get into, I feel I can do without a point guard on my team.

Scottie Pippen - also used to be on the list; also used to inspire heated arguments, which I relished.  I would love having him on the all-time team for his defensive prowess on the perimeter and his versatility on offense.  I want my all-time team to be a defensive menace, and this guy held the “Most Destructive Defensive Small Forward Ever” belt for a long time.  A long time, that is, until the small forward on my updated team came along.

Shaq/Kareem/Wilt - Three of the best centers ever, three of the top 12 to 15 players ever (depending on how you rate Shaq - Kareem and Wilt are at least top 7), and three guys that almost have to get mentioned in this conversation any time it comes up because of their offensive dominance.  They’re three guys that - in their primes - could basically score at will whenever they touched the ball, and that’s a damned good asset to have on your side when a game for your life is being played.  All really tough snubs, but I’m happy with my choice of center.

Dwight Howard - If you know me, you know this is a joke.  If you don’t know me, um, this is a joke.  Dwight Howard is a joke.  YOU HAVE FUN WITH THAT NOW, HOUSTON.  (Just as an aside, I recently heard a clip from an interview Howard gave upon signing with Houston this summer.  The best part was Dwight describing his only season in LA by saying “I had a great run there.”  So, by Dwight’s standards, a “great run” is bbbaaaaarrrrrrelllllyyyyy making it into the playoffs, immediately receiving an unceremonious ass-whupping in the form of a first-round sweep, and then abandoning ship to join another team.  Again, Dwight considers this a “great run.”  No, seriously, Houston, have fun with that guy.  Real winner there, true competitor.)  (And for the record, I was rooting like hell that guy would bolt this summer.  I’m not bitter as a Lakers fan because Dwight jilted LA.  I’m bitter as a Lakers fan because I had to watch that gutless prima donna for a year, even if he is a really really really good player that would have made the team better this year.  Good riddance.)

Kobe Bryant - In a way, it’s incredibly difficult, and in another way, it’s not even a thought to leave this guy off the list.  He’s my favorite player ever, a basketball hero to me - faults and all - and one of the greatest to ever lace ‘em up, so it’s tough to leave him off, in that sense.  But at the same time, a nod to Kobe would pretty much have to mean a snub for Michael Jordan, because (Captain Obvious alert) there's NO POSSIBLE WAY those two could share the court as teammates.  (I almost feel silly for even writing that.)  And as much as I love the Mamba, well, I mean, let’s not get crazy here.
 
So those are the also-ran's.  On to the real deal.  Here goes:

My Five

1.  Michael Jordan - I’m thinking 1992ish Jordan.  Around that time he still had the athletic explosiveness that had begun to wane during his second stint with the Bulls (95-98), but he was also a more well-rounded player and probably a better teammate than the guy that was ripping the league to shreds athletically and individually - without achieving a ton of playoff success - in the late 80s.  So, a bit of the best of both worlds - at this point in his career he still had the crazy athleticism, but had started to develop other parts of his game that allowed him to stay dominant past his physical peak (like, for instance, his post game).

2.  Larry Bird - Mid-80s Bird.  What he would bring to the table: clutch shooting, savant-like passing, legendary trash-talking, intensity, decent team defense, if not great individual defense (he’s the one liability I am accepting on my squad that partially precluded my also selecting Magic), off-the-chart basketball IQ, rebounding, mullet.  I don’t know if the “vintage” of Bird I’d take was rocking the mullet.  I’m taking the mid-80s vintage - call it ’86, probably his best season and the best season his version of the Celtics ever had.  But whatever basketball version of Bird I would select, it would have to be cross-matched with the stylistic version of Bird that rocked the mullet.  (Since the hypothetical game we’re discussing includes guys from different eras, we already have the capacity to time travel in this scenario; surely we can work this Bird/mullet wrinkle out.)  Because, I mean, if we’re playing a game where the stakes are life-and-death, and my squad beats you, and one of my guys has a mullet?  Man.  Just, man.

3.  Bill Russell (mid-60s Russell, I’m guessing; obviously I’m reaching back before my time here) - With a caveat - I’d have him at the power forward spot, instead of center, where he spent his entire career.  At his height (6’11”, if I’m not mistaken), he still is a good fit to play the four, plus his athleticism and defensive ability (which is to say, the greatest ever) would prevent any mismatches with smaller, quicker forwards.  For whatever reason, I’ve always thought of the prototypical power forward as a guy who defends like hell, rebounds like hell, throws outlet passes like hell, and finishes on dunks in transition, off of offensive rebounds, and on the receiving end of alley-oops.  This doesn’t necessarily make sense, given that some of the game’s most talented offensive post players have been fours (McHale, Barkley, Malone, etc.).  But whatever.  My notion of the ideal power forward is what I just described.  And Russell fits that description perfectly.  Greatest defensive player ever, greatest-or-second-greatest rebounder ever, and the catalyst for the run-and-gun Celtics of the 50s and 60s with his outlet passing and lane-filling on the break.  Russell would be my team’s emotional and psychic anchor, even if Jordan would have to be the leader because of the sheer force of his personality.  Remember, my life is at stake with this game.  My team has to win this game in order for me to not die.  With that in mind, I’ll take the greatest winner in the history of team sports in my five, please.  (Also the greatest winner in the future of team sports, by the way.  Thirteen years in the league, twelve Finals appearances, eleven titles.  No professional athlete in a team sport is ever going to match that.  No one.  Not ever.)

4.  Tim Duncan (mid-aughts-ish) - Here’s another caveat, closely related to the first.  I would have Duncan play center, even though he’s technically been listed as a power forward for his entire career.  So yeah, on my Top Five, I’m taking the greatest center of all time and playing him at power forward, and I’m taking the greatest power forward of all time and playing him at center.  Some of this is just semantics, as Timmy’s skill set simply matches that of what I look for in my ideal prototype of a center more so than Russell’s does.  And these are two great, unselfish players that could have played beautifully together, regardless of the semi-arbitrary label applied to each of them.  Furthermore, most NBA coaches, executives and general geeks will tell you that, regardless of what goes on the box score, Duncan has been the Spurs’s starting center for the last ten years (since David Robinson’s retirement).

Individually, TD is spectacular.  I’ve always loved his post game, and that fifteen-foot bank shot of his is just money.  He’s routinely one of the best rebounders in the league, always capable of pulling down 15+ boards on a given night if necessary, even if he was never consistently a monster rebounder in the Russell-Wilt-Rodman mold.  Defensively, he’s one of the best to ever man the post.  He seems like one of these guys (Kevin Garnett being another contemporary example) that knows where each one of his teammates is supposed to be, based on where the ball is, where each player is, how many seconds are left on the shot clock, etc., at any given moment during a defensive possession.  Added to that defensive mastermind quality, he’s 8th on the all-time blocked shots list.  With Duncan and Russell both manning the paint on defense, it’s going to be nearly impossible to score at the basket against my squad.

But what I really love about him, why I really want Timmy D. on my five goes beyond his individual brilliance.  It’s because he’s one of the greatest teammates ever.  Have you ever heard or read a comment made about him by a current or former teammate that was anything other than gushing?  He makes other guys better.  He always looks to make the extra pass.  He takes on whatever his team needs him to, whether that means dominating the glass, looking to score in the post, letting the offense run through him and setting up teammates, or putting the clamps on an opposing scoring threat on the block.  He doesn’t care if expending so much energy on one facet of his game might mean a dip in stats somewhere else.  Above everything, he gives of himself for the betterment of his team; he gives of himself in the pursuit of winning.  That’s the kind of guy I want playing a game for my life.

5. LeBron James (current model) - 2010 Stuart is rolling over in his grave right now.  I didn’t care about The Decision (upper case), but the decision (lower case) infuriated me.  Yeah, The Decision was a PR nightmare and all, but whatever.  I don’t care about that stuff.  I care about history, about legacies.  And when LeBron made the decision to join forces with Dwyane Wade, one of his biggest rivals and a guy who had already been to the mountaintop - unlike Bron at the time - I just thought he was throwing away the legacy he could have had as one of the greatest ever.  I was fine with him leaving Cleveland; I wanted LeBron to go to the Knicks, bring a few championships back to New York and become a basketball god.  I wanted him to want that.  But when he made the decision to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh to form the Super Friends, it felt like he was taking the easy way out, like even if they did win numerous championships together, his legacy would always have to have that asterisk beside it: He wasn’t truly a killer.  He didn’t want to crush the souls of his competition like MJ and Kobe did.  He had to acquiesce to one of his rivals to get to the mountaintop.  He had to go to another star’s team to get his championships.  He wasn’t truly a killer.

But who knows?  Maybe when the story of LeBron’s career is finished, it will be written that while Jordan vanquished all the would-be challengers to his throne, LeBron joined a rival who had his own throne, and in just a few years subjugated that rival and claimed that throne for himself.  Jordan beat his rivals.  LeBron took one of his biggest rivals and made that rival a sidekick.  Maybe that’s an even greater vanquishing than Jordan ever pulled off.
 
Regardless of all that, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out, once again, that my life is hypothetically on the line here.  So, despite my mixed personal feelings about LeBron, I have to set that aside and do what I can to hypothetically save my life.

I wrote above that I love the notion of having Pippen on my team because of his defensive prowess on the perimeter.  LeBron has become a little like Pippen on steroids as a defender, with the same length, athleticism and ability to cover massive amounts of space, but he’s so much more physically imposing than Pippen was.  Unleashing Jordan and LeBron on the perimeter defensively would be incredible.  And with Duncan and Russell backing them up in the paint, they could be even more aggressive - going after steals, trapping, overplaying passing lanes, playing close up on good shooters, and generally wreaking havoc, because, hey, they’d only have two of the best defensive anchors to ever play the game backing them up. 

Offensively, LeBron is a maestro.  His physicality, athleticism, court vision, passing instincts, exceptional ball-handling, explosion to the basket, near-invincibility when finishing through contact and superior shooting make him the absolute beast that he is. 

Beyond that, please take a moment to imagine the mind-boggling passing this team would exhibit.  LeBron and Bird are two of the greatest, most imaginative passers in the game’s history, and they’re both 6’9”.  Duncan is one of the best-passing big men ever, and utterly unselfish.  Russell was a master of the outlet pass, and possibly the single greatest, most selfless teammate ever.  How many Oh my god did you just see that?! passing sequences would happen in a game with these guys playing together?  And, you know, one of the primary beneficiaries of this beautiful passing would be one Michael Jeffrey Jordan.  I feel like good things would happen for this team offensively.

True, I have no point guard.  But LeBron could bring the ball up and provide much of the playmaking, Jordan could share ball-handling duties, and with the passing of LBJ, Bird and Duncan, I don’t think I’d need someone to run the offense - it would run itself, through those three.

If it comes down to the nitty gritty at the end of the game, I’ve got Duncan if we need to go to the post, I’ve got Bird if we need a clutch three, and I’ve got MJ if we just need a bucket, at all costs.  Oh, and LeBron might be able to chip in here or there.

So I love my team on the offensive end of the court.  But I have to keep coming back to defense and rebounding.  As far as rebounding is concerned, we’ve got one of the two best rebounders ever on this team (Russell - career 22.5 RPG); we’ve got Tim Duncan (11.2 RPG); we’ve got MJ, a well-above-average rebounding guard (6.2 RPG); and we’ve got LeBron (7.3 RPG) and Bird (10.0 RPG), both good rebounders at their position.  Defensively, LeBron and Jordan would wreak havoc on the perimeter; they’d be backed up by Russell and Duncan, who’d also be able to lock their own guys down; and Bird would roam the passing lanes, constantly looking to make something happen off the ball.  This would be the rare collection of players that would actually be fun to watch play defense.  I’m giddy just thinking about it.

Simply put, these five guys would be magical on offense, and they would defend and rebound like mad.  I’d feel pretty damned good putting my life in their hands.  Hypothetically.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cats > Dogs

Yes, you read that title correctly.  Cats are better than dogs.  Here are a few reasons why.

Dog owners, like their beloved canine companions, are wildly insecure.  Ask dog owners what they love about their pet, and they go on and on about how the dog is waiting at the foot of the bed when they wake up in the morning, waiting at the door when they get home from work at night, always wagging that tail and happy to see them, always able to cheer them up at the end of a hard day... My thinking is, why do you need so much emotional reassurance from this creature that shits on your carpet twice a week?  Conversely, ask a dog lover what they have against cats, and he or she will act like cats are the most unpleasant, disagreeable and anti-social animals on the planet.  There's a widely accepted notion - propagated by the all-powerful Dog Lobbyists, no doubt - that cats simply dislike people.  Of course this is in no way based in reality, as most cats are very affectionate, and thoroughly enjoy human contact - is there a more satisfied, happy-sounding noise in the world than that of a cat purring while enjoying a good head scratch?  But because a cat has too much dignity, quite frankly, to go ape-shit crazy and start slobbering over any and everything it can get close to every time its owner so much as saunters through the door, they get labeled as cold.

Okay, fine, I'll grant that a dog's energy and constant playfulness make it more fun to have around for a day at the beach or the park.  But now let's go over a list of just a few of the many activities for which it would be much better to have a cat in the immediate vicinity than a dog:

  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Doing laundry
  • Knitting
  • Reading
  • Building model airplanes
  • Ice sculpting
  • Decorating a Christmas tree
  • Knife juggling
  • Practicing ballet
  • Defusing a bomb
  • Playing that game where you race while balancing an egg on a spoon, and finally
  • One word: Jenga.

You don't want a dog anywhere near any one of those activities.  They'll ruin everything.  You see, a cat will leave you the hell alone when you need to be left alone, while a dog can't stop trying to lick you to death no matter the situation.

That's my biggest problem with dogs - they are space invaders.  No, I don't mean they enjoy picking fights with aliens.  I'm talking about personal space.  For every well-behaved dog I've come across in my life, I've met ten more that jumped on me, licked me, put their dirty-assed paws all over me, pushed themselves up into my face, and just generally made me miserable every second I was around them.  I like dogs just fine if they're trained well enough to be respectful and allow you to pet them without going fucking crazy, but when you're sitting on your buddy's couch and there's some mutt trying to get at your face every four seconds?  Think about it.  If you're at your office Christmas party, and Stan from accounting has had a few too many to drink, and he gets a little touchy-feely, a little too much in your personal space, you're going to be wildly uncomfortable, desperately searching for a way out of the conversation.  We've all been in that situation, and it's nothing short of horrifying.  Yet it's perfectly acceptable for a filthy animal to engage in this very behavior?  Madness.

Why else are cats better than dogs?  Well, for one, they're incredibly clean.  This is an underrated quality cats have.  What other animal bathes itself so frequently?  That's really all cats do: eat, sleep, act incredibly hilarious whenever ping-pong is being played, and bathe.  And not only are they clean, they're potty-trained pretty much from birth.  I have no idea how this gets glossed over - or even ignored altogether - in the cats vs. dogs debate.  This is a huge deal!  So you're telling me this animal can do right out of the gate what it takes human beings like two fucking years to figure out?!  Wouldn't it be every parent's wildest dream come true if their newborn baby was exactly like cats, in this one respect?

Also, quietly, cats are bad-ass hunters.  I used to have a dog named Ginger who lived to chase squirrels.  It was not only her life's work; it was her passion as well.  And in seventeen years, having gone after no fewer than 32,000 squirrels, this dog may have caught three of them.  Why is this?  A dog's hunting technique is simple: see a squirrel, go bounding away after it with reckless abandon.  What's that you say?  The squirrel has a ninety-three yard head-start on me?  Don't care.  I'm going after that damn squirrel.  Meanwhile, cats are like snipers: once they make their presence known, it's already over.  Have you ever seen a cat attack an animal?  It's awesome!  When I was about eight, my brother and I were out playing in the yard when we noticed our cat Sparkles crouched motionless in the grass nearby.  We were puzzled at first, wondering why he was so still, but then we looked a few feet away* and saw a precious, frightened little bunny.  The rabbit was frozen in fear; Sparkles was as calm and steady as a champion poker player during a critical hand.  He stayed there, crouching, just staring the bunny down with an icy gaze.  It was a tense couple of minutes, a classic standoff.  Finally the bunny decided it had no choice but to try and make a run for it, but as soon as one leg muscle twitched, Sparkles was on him.  Don't worry; the bunny didn't suffer for very long.  Sparkles took him out brutally, but swiftly. 

Now, that should have been a traumatic event to witness as an eight-year-old boy, but honestly, I was impressed.  After it happened, my brother turned to me and said flatly, "That rabbit never had a chance."  Are you serious?!  That's like something out of an old Schwarzenegger movie.  Why do cats not get enough credit for being such bad-asses?  Or for all the other great qualities they possess?

Look, I could go on and on with this, but the point is I'm sick and tired of cats getting such a bad rap, while dogs are getting treated like god's greatest creation.  So to finish this off, on behalf of cats everywhere, I'd like to send the following message to all dogs:  Meow meow meow, meow meow, meow meow, bitches.