I want to preface this post by saying that I am not much of a basketball player and never really have been. I had two poor attempts at organized basketball as a youth and it rendered me pretty uninterested in the sport (namely the NBA) in-between the ages of 12 and 19. My dad, on the other hand, was pretty good at it (6’0” athletic dudes were hard to come by in all-white Ridgewood, N.J. in the 1950s) so he had a grand time picking up the game and shooting skills in his youth and in high school. This was in stark contrast to my Norwalk, CT upbringing, which was not only in a surprisingly diverse Fairfield County public school system (which I’ve always appreciated), but a 90,000+ person town littered with pretty damn good athletes. Thusly, most of my youth was spent loving sports, playing sports and never being all that good at sports.
My first experience in organized basketball was in a youth league at age six, seven or eight. You see, I don’t remember much from this brief time frame mainly because my skills were atrocious. In addition, I was a sub par athlete until high school and I’m pretty sure something happened in the course of the first game (like being the slowest kid on the court and missing every shot…) that propelled me to black the whole experience out. Honestly, I only know that I played on a team because of a team picture I used to have. Needless to say, from this point forward the only organized youth leagues I became involved in were soccer and baseball.
My second experience was in an after school basketball club when I was in the 7th grade. I’d frequently messed around on the playground or played horse with friends and figured “this doesn’t seem so bad, I’m slow but I like to run, let’s give this a try.” I lasted one afternoon. Scratch that, I made it maybe 30 minutes. I never matured into an overwhelming physical presence for a college athlete (I’m a generous 5’11” now and probably weighed about 185 lbs at my most “in-shape”) and in 7th grade I was an awkward 5’6” white kid with baby fat to spare. Meanwhile all the black guys (and a couple of white dudes) were either mature 7th graders or 8th graders that had actually, you know, played organized basketball for years. Needless to say I got my ass handed to me (somebody definitely pulled a Dwight Howard in there somewhere by blocking my shot into the bleachers) and was pretty much done with any attempt at playing or following the game seriously for years.
Pick up games got better in high school when all I had to do was be out on the break and out run everyone for lay-ups (a 50/50 opportunity at best…). Still, I didn’t watch much of the actual game (occasionally I got into the NCAAs with a bracket, and I paid serious attention to the Nets in ’02 and ’03), and pretty much wrote off the NBA entirely. Remember I was 11 for MJ’s second retirement. My general impression of the league (which was admittedly skewed) was that a few teams dominated, everyone played selfish ball, there was zero defense and no indisputable superstar to follow after Jordan. By the time I reached college I got heavily into University of Texas basketball (mainly because my family consists of a lot of UT alumni), Durant’s emergence and the NCAAs in general, but still largely ignored the Association.
Three years later and I’m sitting here gobbling up the NBA Finals like I’m Charles Barkley at a southern buffet. Part of it is that my dad passed away in 2009 and I decided I wanted to better understand his love of the sport. I also got into reading ESPN’s Bill Simmons regularly, forcing me to not only pay attention to the NBA but transform my understanding of its history by reading his Book of Basketball. The final push towards NBA fandom was that I timed my interest perfectly. The Association is in a massive talent boon right now and has a foreseeable future (barring a lockout) that includes the primes, and in some cases entire careers, of a bunch of young superstars. I’ve also still gotten to witness a few seasons from great superstars like Kobe, Dirk, KG, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Duncan and even Shaq. It’s because of this effort that I now have something of a feel and understanding not only for how the league works, but for how it’s worked in the past. I’ve read up on its evolution (although I still have a ways to go) and I finally have some opinions on the state of the league and where it is headed.
So with the playoffs in full gear I’ve been tweeting quite a bit about the developments in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is far and away my favorite player and it’s been fun to watch a young team gel as quickly as this one. Unfortunately their collapse in the Western Conference finals left me somewhat perplexed with their other young super star (point guard Russel Westbrook) and I tweeted as such. Like a lot of people I thought he was playing selfishly, taking too many risky shots while subsequently taking away scoring opportunities for Durant (the two time defending NBA scoring champion). I had also tweeted before how impressed I was with point guard James Harden’s performance in OKC’s game 2 victory (their only of the series). When I tweeted this morning about Westbrook’s 39% field goal shooting in game 5 (the clincher for the Dallas Mavericks) I got a saavy response from an old high school friend Mike Eaton.
Mike simply tweeted that instead of playing the point guard spot Westbrook should move to the 2, or shooting guard position, allowing Harden (whose a better decision maker with the ball) to start at point guard. This would effectively give Westbrook the scoring opportunities (and large amount of shots) he craves without the added responsibility of having to run the offense. After I countered that Westbrook’s career shooting numbers (44% on field goals) weren’t terrific, he stated that a singular focus on shooting (and not all that comes with cohesively running an offense) would get Westbrook into that near 50% range that’s needed out of the team’s best shooter. Durant could stay at the forward spot and get his numbers every night while still starting alongside Westbrook and a point guard that would distribute without focusing on his own “shots.” It puts OKC’s three best young players on the floor and gives them (potentially) an added shooter dimension. Somewhere in there our buddy Andre stated how much he hates Miami and L.A., probably referenced a Knick’s dynasty and called us “cute” for discussing this OKC juggernaut. It was an awesome back and forth 144 character conversation and we were done, right? Wrong.
I want to take it a step further, because OKC started to eerily sound like a West Coast version of Miami. Only in this version the team logically built a team through the draft, surrounded it with good role players and handed the keys to competent young guys while not completely killing their payroll, cap space and trading abilities. Admittedly Miami’s in a better position right now (they’re up 3 games to 1 on the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals) but this conversation was always more about the long term possibilities than the 2011 post season. With two great, athletic, hard working young shooters that have relatively good chemistry and have already proven their ability to compete with anyone in the league OKC has an amazing foundation. Add a young point guard who has now proven himself in two Western Conference finals games, and they have an amazing team.
Not only that, but Harden gives them something that Miami won’t have; a pure point guard whose first job is to distribute to the two great shooters. Coach Spoelstra and Miami have done a great job getting Lebron to essentially play this (selfless) role while still getting him his stats. Still, it’s the kind of arrangement that can become untenable or alien to someone who is not doing it full time and then has to do it in a tight playoff situation. James Harden has already proven he’s capable and willing, now it’s just a matter of getting him the experience a guy like Lebron has without the added weight of carrying the team in other ways. After all, he has Durant and Westbrook to do that. KD is still the “alpha dog” as Bill Simmons and many others like to put it, but at least this way Westbrook feels like he’s sharing that limelight too.
All I know is this; while I’m going to love watching these playoffs (and these careers) play out, I’m very grateful I’m not the NBA’s ManBearPig to Kevin Durant or Russel Westbrook. I’ll leave that to Brendan Haywood.
That’s all for now folks. Tune in next time for: “Ichiro Update: .281 BA, 57 hits, 17RBIs, 18 BBs, 11 SBs and 8 2Bs,” “Maybe if OSU diverted some of Tressel’s millions his players wouldn’t feel the need for ‘extra-curricular activities,’” “I know it’s a crazy thought Auburn but Russell Wilson actually went to class at his last college…and graduated!,” and “Joakim Noah handled himself with class after a serious flub. That’s c-l-a-s-s Andrew Bynum.”