Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Fate of Nate

I must say I find it very interesting the amount of people that are so surprised by how long it took Nate Robinson to find a new home in free agency. Living in the New York area when he broke into the league, as a Knicks fan, I got to see Robinson's act everyday. Granted he was much younger at the time but I was glad as a Knicks fan when he was finally traded. While I didn't always agree with Mike D'Antoni's approach to handling players he has issues with, I couldn't fault him either for not wanting anything more to do with Robinson.

During his years in NY, he was constantly making a name for himself with things that had little to do with being a mature winning basketball player. He won three Dunk Contests while in NY & many younger fans' hearts in the process. NY fans loved seeing a guy his height show toughness & grit. Then there's the other side of Robinson that drives coaches & organizations crazy like him tweeting about getting pulled over by the police, while he was in the middle of getting pulled over by the police. After a couple of coaching changes in NY he ended up with Mike D'Antoni & they went through a difficult stretch together which was exemplified by his being benched for 14 straight games. His best moment as a Knick may have come on January 1, 2010 when he redeemed himself by coming off the bench following that 14 game benching & scoring 41 points in a Knicks victory. 

Therein lies the crux of my point though. In all the years since that game, his next best moment was perhaps last year's playoffs. He had flashes here or there in between then but, let's take a look at some things. Since he left the Knicks, he's played for Doc Rivers, Scott Brooks, Mark Jackson & Tom Thibodeau. All coaches whom their players seem to love playing for yet none of those coaches brought him back after more than 1 season of coaching him. His play last year in Derrick Rose's absence was phenomenal yet Thibodeau & the Bulls didn't even make him an offer of any sort. All of that to me, speaks volumes about how he wears on a coach & how he's perceived by franchises.

Whatever that perception is, right or wrong, he only has himself to blame. He still is a highly emotional player which can inspire fans & teammates at times but can also get him in trouble as he lead his team with 11 technical fouls last year. Now you can argue that his size on defense is a liability & that may have been a factor in all of this but what team doesn't need a guy who can come off the bench & be instant offense? For a team like the Knicks, with reigning Sixth Man of the Year JR Smith out for a stretch from knee surgery, they didn't even make him an offer when they had a chance to financially. It seems they'd rather take a look at guys like Toure Murry & Bobby Brown both of the D-League & Euro League respectively, than deal with Nate. With the job Mike Woodson with Smith, you'd think the Knicks would be confident that Woodson could have a similar affect on Robinson, but we'll never know.

I'll be curious to see how new Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw deals with Robinson. I can't help but think that every team that had Robinson before, including the Knicks, must've felt like their head coach could handle him. Bare in mind, when the Knicks drafted him, Larry Brown was their head coach who once famously dealt with Allen Iverson. As I said though, all of those coaches & teams either traded him or allowed him to walk in free agency without ever making him an offer to come back. For Shaw, with a point guard rotation of Ty Lawson, Andre Miller & Robinson, there's a definite lack of size defensively beyond Miller who they seem to be moving on from. Both Robinson & Lawson are capable of playing the SG position but will Shaw dare to match them together & go with an under 6' back court?

My point to all this is, when you take a long hard look at Robinson beyond his skills & what he brings to a team on the court, you can't escape the fact that evidently teams are not convinced that giving him a long-term deal won't prevent him from turning back into the immature younger version of himself. Truth be told the only real aspect of his behavior that appears to have grown is his ability to lead a team as a shoot-first PG. The problem is though, in today's NBA, that type of PG is usually the starter, but if you're bringing Robinson in to be your starter then you have deeper issues than just having to cope with all of his antics.

It used to drive me crazy talking to people whose opinions I had come to respect trying to convince me that the Knicks somehow needed a guy like Robinson both then & now. I don't argue that Nate is a tough gritty player when focused, but I guess I saw the same things so many coaches & organizations did as well. When you take all of that into consideration, I don't believe it should've come as a surprise to anyone at how long it took him to find a new home.


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Houston Is Ready For Takeoff!

Well as hard as it may seem to believe, the Dwightmare or The Indecision as some would like to call it, is finally over. Dwight Howard finally made a decision on his future residence based purely on basketball. Granted, he could've gotten to this point a few years ago had he not signed an extension while in Orlando & he might've actually gone to the team he originally said he wanted to play for, the Brooklyn Nets. But alas, it wasn't to be so a few years later, here we are finally.

I will admit to being one of the many people who accused him of being a flip-flopper & indecisive decision maker. He seemed to focus too much on trying to make everyone happy. But as we all know, you can't make everyone happy all the time. Unfortunately for Dwight he found this out a few years too late. Not too late for his career, but too late to avoid a public relations nightmare. Which brings us to the Dwightmare.

When LeBron James declared his free agency decision with, "I'll be taking my talents to South Beach" on national TV, the fire storm that ensued turned him from being one of the most beloved NBA players, to one of the most vilified, virtually overnight. It seemed like Howard was taking note to how quickly people turned on LeBron. However, he made the mistake of thinking he could make too many people happy instead of focusing on what was best for himself & his career. It sounds selfish but ultimately it is his career & his life, not the fans' or even the organization's. You can take multiple factors into consideration but the most important one is, "where do I want to spend my career?"

Fans only care about their team for the most part. Most fans don't think about the personal aspect of a player's decisions. If you look beyond all the glitz & glamour of playing professional basketball, there is a human aspect that has to be accounted for. Guys have families & especially children that are uprooted or left behind. There are certain comforts that a player develops playing & living somewhere for a stretch of time. Now Howard's time in LA was obviously a short one but he still had personal life choices to take into consideration when making such a huge decision. His child-like behavior at times is viewed by many, myself included, as a sign of immaturity. Some of that immaturity has been seen in the way he made his decisions as well as the choices he made.

So Dwight Howard may have made some missteps over the past few years before getting to the point where he finally decided to join the Houston Rockets. His journey to the Lakers wasn't his first choice but when he re-upped in Orlando he essentially made the mistake of cutting off paths to other more desirable destinations for himself. But when you put aside all of the talk about his maturity, his relationships with both Kobe Bryant & Mike D'Antoni & his alleged habit for flip-flopping, what you ultimately have is a basketball player who when given the opportunity to decide where he wanted to play, made a wise, well thought out decision.

If you take a look at his options solely from a basketball stand point, in my opinion, he made not only the right move but the only logical one. The only other team besides Houston that was able to offer a current winning environment with a bright future was the Golden State Warriors. With young talented players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes & head coach Marc Jackson, they did offer him an excellent chance to win immediately while also potentially getting even better over the next few years. Problem there was, they had no cap space, so in order for it to work they would've had to move a number of players or do a sign & trade with the Lakers, which would've meant losing at least one of those young desirable pieces. The Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks & Los Angeles Lakers could not offer him that type of situation. As I stated in a previous post about his impending situation (see: What To Do With Dwight Howard? ) the Rockets had a little bit of every attribute a player like Howard should have been looking for.

When you list all of the things the Rockets could offer him it was a no-brainer. They have a young stud in James Harden while the only other team that could say that was the Warriors with Curry. Kobe is still a stud but young is one thing you can't say about him any longer. The Rockets do have a rich tradition of winning that goes back many decades & only the Lakers can exceed them in that category. Even the Mavericks winning is a much more recent occurrence. Prior to winning the title a few years ago, they had had a run of embarrassing playoff losses. The Rockets have a head coach in Kevin McHale who was one of the greatest low post players in NBA history & none of the other teams can say that. They also have a legacy of dominant centers in their team's history with guys like Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon & Yao Ming. It doesn't hurt that Olajuwon still resides in the Houston area & from what I hear, as a part of their free agency pitch to Howard, Hakeem vowed to work with him even more on his low post game. One other thing to keep in mind, last year in LA showed, Howard's jovial personality is probably much better suited for a younger team. His laughing & joking can rub some vets the wrong way. I'm not saying I know for certain that it did, but it's a fairly obvious assumption to make.

All of those reasons are legitimate & completely validate his decision. As great a player as Kobe Bryant has been in his career, even he has said he has about 3 years left in him. After that there is no telling what that team will look like. Kobe also doesn't have the personality that will allow him to take a backseat to someone like Howard while he's still there. Harden just had his break out season, & there was a heavy burden on him to carry that team. Howard takes a tremendous amount of pressure off of him so it's logical to think that he won't mind deferring to Howard more than Kobe did or would going forward. The Lakers are Kobe's team until he leaves. The Rockets just became Harden's team so it should less of an issue for him since Howard is the more accomplished superstar at this point in their careers.

Now, if you're Dwight Howard why should you be made to wait a few more years for Kobe to retire & possibly end up in a situation similar to the one you just left in Orlando? I tell people all the time, you can't build a team on hope. For Howard, the Lakers pitch was more about the hope that they make the right moves going forward. The Rockets will have more tinkering to do while the Lakers will have some major moves to make. Plus, when you look at the Lakers recent history, there's evidence that shows they haven't been making the right decisions as of late. The hiring & firing of Mike Brown & replacing him with Mike D'Antoni, a guy who's system doesn't compliment Howard's skill set.

Players nowadays though are more savvy than they used to be when it comes to these types of situations, especially in the NBA. You're starting to see more & more guys making decisions based largely on the opportunity to win. Of course money is a factor, but enough can't be said about a guy walking away from millions of dollars to go someplace where he feels he can win. LeBron & Dwyane Wade were the two biggest name to do it & now Dwight Howard has done it. He will still make millions of dollars to play in Houston, especially since there's no state income tax, but the certainty of an extra year that the Lakers could've offered still wasn't enough to bring him back. Nor was the allure of playing in Los Angeles for one of the NBA's winningest franchises.

Had he chosen to return to LA, what about that team would make him or anyone think they were going to compete next year for a championship? Kobe is returning from a torn achilles, Steve Nash is a year older & Mike D'Antoni is still the head coach. Sure they both could somehow find the fountain of youth & maybe D'Antoni tweaks his system to cater to Howard's strengths but again, that's all hope. If they had signed him, they still would've needed to make some other tough decisions on guys like Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace & even a guy like Earl Clark, who played well for them down the stretch. There are far fewer uncertainties in Houston.

Going back to LeBron James' handling of The Decision compared to Howard's. He did something that must be lauded. While James informed all of the teams that had been chasing him, including the Cavaliers, via The Decision, according to reports, Howard himself, not his agent or his handlers called each team's GM to personally inform them that he wasn't joining their team, except for the Hawks as one of his reps called them. Honestly though, I don't think anyone, including the Hawks thought he was going there. Then he jumped on a plane from Colorado where he was holed up while contemplating his decision, flew back to LA to meet with Lakers' GM Mitch Kupchak. Unfortunately, the story had already broken about his decision so he called Kupchak & informed him. All of this before he even formally told the Rockets he was choosing them. He didn't call a press conference, he didn't host a TV special about his choice, he just proceeded to conduct himself in the most professional manner possible. He finally announced it via Twitter that he was choosing the Rockets. For that, people must respect him.

How he handles himself moving forward remains to be seen but if the choice he made & the manner in which he conducted himself are any indication, perhaps he has learned his lesson & will become a more focused player. He will always have his critics, especially in La-La Land as evidenced by both Shaquille O'Neal & Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's comments about him,. In Houston however he doesn't have to be a savior. He can be Dwight Howard & play his game. Of all the criticism he's received, Abdul-Jabbar probably had the most accurate of them all when he said, "we (the Lakers) played them in '09 (NBA Finals), & when I saw him this past season, he was the same player." Ouch. Stinging criticism but still accurate. He's at that point in his career where there's no more excuses, he got what he wanted & he's where he chose to be. He's surrounded by teammates & an organization that are fully invested in his success & it's up to him to make the most of it. Will they win a championship? Only time will tell but if they way he chose to make his decision is any indication, he's off to a great start.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Public Enemy #1...NBA Refs

This is a subject I've been wanting to touch on for quite some time now but I wanted to wait until the end of the season before broaching it. As a fan of the NBA I have to be honest about something. In my opinion, the NBA is the worst officiated league by far of all the major sports & it doesn't help that it's arguably the most heavily impacted by the officiating. Some would argue that baseball can be because of an umpire's calls, but both hitters & pitchers can adjust to an umpires strike zone. There's little adjusting that an NBA player can do when it comes to an NBA ref's calls.

One of the most frequent complaints you hear players & coaches say is, "you gotta call it both ways". In other words, if you're going to make that call on one end of the court, you have to make it on both ends. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, especially if the team getting the call on their end of the court is the home team. For as far back as I can remember, fans have been complaining about the amount of calls the home team gets. Growing up, it always seemed that was the case especially if the home team was the Celtics. To some extent, it is understandable. Refs are human beings & I'm sure it's not easy for them to not get swept up in the emotions of the home team's crowd. That's a legitimate excuse but not an acceptable one. You are a paid professional & it's your job to NOT get swept up in that emotion.

The other aspect is the affect star players have on the refs' whistles. While star players have generally gotten more calls in their favor, it wasn't until Michael Jordan started dominating the league that it seemed to go to another level. Perhaps it was more difficult to referee a Jordan game because of his high-flying super athletic style of play but, there have always been superb athletes in the league. What many people felt, myself included, was that the league was protecting it's investment. He took the NBA to worldwide popularity so it appeared the league wanted to make sure he was always on the court at the crucial times instead of on the bench in foul trouble.

Now in defense of the referees, it is probably the most difficult game of all the major sports to officiate. The size & speed of the players makes it difficult to see everything so what naturally happens at times is a ref can make what's called an anticipation call. They anticipate a foul was made based on experience & what they see from both players & the movement of the ball. It makes sense on some levels but here's my biggest issue with that: why are the same anticipation calls still being made after all these years? As more & more of those calls are made there should be an adjustment, not just in-game, but year-by-year.

Growing up learning to play basketball, there was one small technic that I was taught defensively. I remember being told over & over again when you reach in for a steal, swipe the ball up not in a downward motion. When I asked why it was explained to me that if you swipe the ball down, it's a difficult call for the ref to make accurately whereas if you swipe the ball up, it's easier for the ref to determine if you got all ball. Again, that made perfect sense to me. But what that showed me was, coaches & players were making adjustments over the years to the way refs were calling games.

What seemed to have happened though was that instead of NBA refs making their own adjustments, they just begun making the newer calls more frequently, like the charge/blocking call, while sacrificing fundamentally basic calls such as traveling. You hear it every year about 100 times, "is traveling still a call in the NBA" from people old & young. The league however just ignores that talk as though if they don't address it, the chatter will somehow go away. Well, as long as traveling is allowed, fans will question the refs' integrity.

It almost seems crazy to think that for much of its history, they were actually using a "two-person" system as opposed to the "three-person" system they use nowadays. They may be approaching a time though real soon where they need to go to a "four-person" system. The obvious concern is more calls being made which means longer games & less action. The biggest concern though should be about getting the calls correct. If there's an additional referee on the floor, each ref can focus on certain calls, which should create better angles. One result would hopefully be an end to the outside official making a call that the ref standing 3 feet from the play on the baseline doesn't make. Those calls are mind boggling to say the least.

As as fan, one of the most annoying calls is the proverbial "make-up call." Anyone who follows basketball knows what I'm referring to. What makes them even more frustrating is when you hear NBA league officials try to sell you on the idea that make-up calls don't exist. The refs are human & as humans when we make a mistake, if we can fix our mistake, to some degree we often will. In the case of an NBA ref, fixing a mistake may mean making a call that rarely gets made but allows the ball to go back to the team that was wronged.

You often hear on sports shows after a controversial game for the refs, the number of fouls called as well as the amount of foul shots taken by each team. Very rarely are those numbers lopsided even in what the eyes see as a one-sided game from the refs. The problem with that is, there is no statistic for non-calls or missed calls. That also hold true for momentum calls. What I mean by that is, calling a foul or missing a foul call at the right time that can lead to a 4 or 5 point swing for one team. It happened way too often in this year's playoffs & even in the Finals. When somebody finally comes up with an accurate accounting for fouls with those variables included, then I'll take that stat seriously.

One step I believe they can make to lessen the impact of the referees is to remove the disqualification of a player upon reaching 6 fouls. Let the player stay in the game but if subsequent fouls are called on him, they can do something like a technical foul shot or 2 free throws & possession of the ball for the opposing team. There has to still be some kind of punitive penalty for leaving a guy who is fouling too much on the court in order to avoid taking advantage of such a rule. Also, as I said before, they may need to go to a 4th official in order to get better angles & less responsibilities for each individual ref. This way each ref can focus more on specific calls which in theory will allow them to make more of the correct calls & fewer anticipation calls.

I don't envy the NBA referees because again, it is perhaps the most difficult game to officiate but the bottom line is, it is their job. The game has evolved over the years but it is still relatively the same. The best adjustment the league has made in my opinion is the defensive 3 seconds call. The problem is however, they seem so focused on making the newer call that offensive 3 seconds is not called nearly as frequently. Some of that may be because of the lack of post players in the league but make no mistake, there's still plenty of guys hanging out in the paint. Also, there is NO WAY anyone is going to convince me that the league did not make it a point to cut down on calling the traveling violation as the game moved more & more out on the perimeter. There have been players over recent years who travel on nearly every possession where they put the ball on the floor. I'm not going to name names but I'm sure anyone reading this right now is yelling out someone's name.

The most controversial call & in fairness, the most difficult of them all to call accurately is the
charge/blocking violation. The charge is another one of those calls that has come about from players & coaches making an adjustment to what they see referees doing. It's been around for almost as long as the league itself but players began noticing the refs were apt to reward the defender for putting his body
in harms way, so they started looking to take more charges. Then a tactic probably first introduced as a strategic move by Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons was, the flop. Soon guys like Dennis Rodman & Reggie Miller were mastering how to flop & get the charging call.

The league finally took steps this past season with the anti-flopping rule but the horse is already outta the barn as the saying goes. The fines they levied were minuscule but as David Stern himself said, they really couldn't start with hefty fines until they were able to test it out properly. That too made sense. Problem being though is, all of the fines & possible suspensions are taking place after the fact. So that flop that decided a game in the 4th quarter & the subsequent fine or suspension is too little too late. The players who are great floppers are not going to stop because they may get fined if it means a possible win for their team. To most the flop is an annoying cop-out to standing up & playing solid defense. Seeing guys resort to fooling referees & referees continually fooled by it is disconcerting to say the least.

What the league should do is change they way a charge is called. One of the worst ones is the guy making the pass & his momentum takes him into a defender & it's called a charge. Get rid of that please. If the man with the ball is able to make a pass before running into the defender than it's either a no-call or a block, whichever the league wants. My next favorite charge call is the most common one. Right now if a player goes up to the rim & the defender's feet are set & he's outside of the restricted area, it's a charge unless he's in the lower box on the baseline then he doesn't have to be outside of the restricted area. Too many times though I see a guy get called for a charge when he lands on the defender. That needs to change. If the defender isn't there with his feet set prior to the offensive player taking off, then same as the last call, it's either a no-call or a block. The offensive player should have a right to his "landing spot" we'll call it.

In the playoff series this year between the Indiana Pacers & NY Knicks, the refs were making the correct calls on many of the Knicks players' drives to the basket but it was a call they hadn't been making all year & maybe not in the past 20 years with any consistency. The Pacers were getting blocks or no-calls by going straight up as the Knicks player went up to the rim. There was often contact but because the defender went straight up, it was very often viewed as incidental contact & a play-on. It was a brilliant defensive strategy by the Pacers & as I said, was actually the correct call but when as a league you have established a pattern making a call a certain way to change that call in the middle of the playoffs is very difficult to adjust to. Shockingly however, in the next round against the Miami Heat, for whatever reason, the Pacers were no longer getting the no-call, now it was a foul.

That's the biggest issue with the NBA referees. The level of inconsistency is alarming to say the least. Last year during the lockout shortened season, that may have been the worst officiating I had seen in all my years. This year was slightly better but come playoff time, it became inconsistent again. They had been letting way more contact throughout the season so players should've been prepared but I almost feel like before each game they need to do something similar to boxing where the referee goes into each locker room & lets the fighters & their staff know what they will allow & what they won't. For whatever reason, the refereeing seemed to be a lot better years ago.

NBA officials have reputations amongst players, coaches & even fans. Players also have reputations amongst the refs, reputations which open the door for scrutinizing particular players. A guy like Metta World Peace has a reputation for odd behavior so he gets less rope than most players which is understandable to a point. However, very often younger players get called for way more fouls than veterans whether or not the player has a reputation. As a fan it can drive you crazy watching a guy from your team constantly getting called for ticky-tack fouls meanwhile you see a vet, committing far more egregious violations & they don't get away with it. Point is, there's too many times when you can tell the personality of the referee is what seems to be the driving force behind some calls.

Which brings me to my final point. While I understand the premise behind hiring ex-players as referees as the NBA has done with Haywood Workman & Leon Wood, I think like the league unnecessarily, opens themselves up to all the conspiracy theory stuff when they have someone like Workman, who was an Indiana Pacer at the height of his career, doing Knicks/Pacers games! I mean, he was a pivotal role player on those teams that went head-to-head with the Knicks during the Patrick Ewing/Reggie Miller years. Then you take a guy like Joey Crawford who famously once ejected Tim Duncan for laughing while he was sitting on the bench & then challenged him to a fight, refereeing NBA Finals' games. There was even a stat floating around the internet that LeBron James was 23-3 in his playoff career in games that Crawford refereed while he was under .500 in the rest of them for his career. Now, if that statistic is even close to being accurate, then come on NBA, just let him stay home if you don't want your integrity questioned. Otherwise, you're either ignorant or naive.

Personally, I think the league is ignorant, naive & also a bit arrogant when it comes to the level of disgust that fans have for their referees. It seems at times that they think they can just ignore those fans & their thoughts. If that is the case then they need to get their head out of the sand because as great of a league & sport as it is, the current state of NBA referees can cause more fans than they realize, to become turned off to the sport just as easily as a troublesome player could. Maybe now that Stern is stepping down the new NBA Commissioner will make fixing the referees a priority, because as I said before, fans are loyal to players and/or teams, they have no loyalty at all for the refs. It's time the league stepped up & admitted they need to overhaul how their game officials function & finally do something about it.