Archives For NBA basketball

You probably already know that Kevin Garnett called Charlie Villanueva, who has alopecia, “a cancer patient.” And that Villanueva responded by tweetering about the encounter, which is, like, a total violation of macho baller ethics. And that KG then rejoined by dissembling terribly. You may also have seen this moment of malicious taunting. Or this this weird and terrible thing right here. Any way you look at it, these moves of KG’s are strictly for suckers. (Now would probably be a good time to confess that in my very first post as an NBA blogger I made a joke about Charlie V’s appearance.  I thought it was funny, but it wasn’t. I didn’t yet know he had alopecia, but I should have. Pure class over here.) In the wake of this madness, Jay Caspian Kang posts the definitive evisceration of the KG mythology over at the Freedarko. Wolves fans, read on if you can take it. Not pretty:

Anyone who has played pickup basketball has come across the guy who compulsively and needlessly bullies other players. These guys always force you into that ugly headspace, wherein you must calculate what is more debasing: to endure their abuse or to fight back. On Tuesday night, Charlie Villaneuva made a bad compromise by tattling via twitter, when the more appropriate response might have been to punch Garnett in the mouth and let the public decide whether or not it was justified.

I heard that. As a guy who knows from bullies (believe me), I have no doubt that these KG explosions are evidence of some gnarly, ugly bullying. I agree with Kang that the obsessive discourses of power, domination and violence are probably the worst things about sports and are (almost) enough to ruin one’s fanhood.  And, sad to say, Garnett’s mean, ridiculous antics do seem to reveal that his single-minded ecstasy has been infected by these discourses.

What’s interesting, though, (and this is something that Bethlehem Shoals alludes to in the comments of the FD piece) is that when he was here in MN, bathed in frustration and futility, KG’s extreme-o moments seemed really, soulfully moving (is that just the fan in me talking?). In those days, Garnett’s intensity radiated with desperation, and desire.  And desire is most compelling and sympathetic when it’s unfulfilled, when glory is just an abstract, burning fact of the imagination. Just ask Biggie or the Stones.

But things can quickly get boring and gross when folks attain the power they’ve been dreaming of, when strength and authority become the guiding principles. That’s when we get crass and arrogant and cruel. That’s when we start humiliating the weak. There’s more:

With Garnett, there’s always a sense of insecure theater, of a man who hasn’t quite convinced himself of the virtues and authenticity of his passions. We all know people like this in our daily lives—the sneering indie snob, the violently overprotective mother, the religious blowhard. When Garnett started crying in front of John Thompson in that famed TNT interview, I remember feeling bad for him, not because he was sick of losing, but rather, because he, in true Jimmy Swaggart style, felt the need to imbue such wild theatrics into his caring.

Yes I know these impossible people.  And I have to agree that there is something strangely theatrical about KG’s passion–the bellows, the tears. But I don’t think that necessarily casts doubt upon its authenticity; at its best this theatricality reflected a desire to embrace his audience, to pull the spectator into his ecstatic forcefield.

Indeed, I’ve written before that in many ways KG strikes me as the most authentic of athletes. What I mean is that when Kevin Garnett is completely engrossed in his game (that is, when he’s not distracted by his own competitive mania), his energies, his abilities and his purpose are perfectly aligned. Watching–and in some small way participating in–this passionate involvement has been one of the great joys of my sports-viewing life. That these energies do increasingly drive him to distraction is a testament not to some calculating self-awareness, but to an utter lack thereof. Garnett shows us something maybe even more frightening than Kang’s insecure overcompensation: an overflowing of blind competitive hunger so frenzied, so manic as to become performance.

Photo by Chris Wild

Well maybe you can’t call 31 foul, 43% shooting night an “explosion.” As Andrew Bogut remarked, “it was pretty boring.” But the Wolves did beat the Bucks in their final preseason game, 119-118 and raise their exhibition record to a sparkling 6-2. Light them fireworks.

  • Highlights and box score of the whole torrid affair are here. I like the fact that a highlight clip of a Wolves overtime win includes two clips of Bogut absolutely demolishing Wayne Ellington.
  • I bet you’re wondering, as we have been, just what meaning this fine record holds for the regular season. Well, Ethan and Beckley at Hoopspeak rapped about just that topic (or, more accurately, the media discourse surrounding that topic) in a recent episode of their transcendent “Mama There Goes That Meme” series. I am not too proud to admit that I am jealous of nearly every element of this idea; that title is so good it makes me want to cry. Here’s the snippet of their conversation that aligns most closely with my own personal opinion on the matter. There’s also a line about “the sound and fury of this ‘Emo-Gil as a SG’ meta-narrative” which is really great and I wish I had written:

Former child star and TruthAboutIt.net head honcho Kyle Weidie told me the he watches the preseason carefully, but never consults the scoreboard to see how the Wizards are whirring. His theory is that the results of preseason play are meaningless, but to the trained eye, the content of each game is rife with significance.

  • And if you were interested in some actual data that might shed some light on the subject, we’ve got some of that for you too. 48 Minutes of Hell recently examined some studies on just this topic and left us with this:

The preseason is a significant factor for predicting regular season success. In fact, preseason performance is comparable to regular season performance for predicting future wins and losses. After accounting for the number of starter minutes played, the difference becomes even smaller.

I have no doubt about the accuracy of this conclusion in general, but in the case of our Wolves I’m gonna have to file this in the “isn’t it pretty to think so” drawer. I think this calls for a mood of cautious optimism.

  • Speaking of which, here is our friend Britt Robson’s Northwest Division preview at SI.com. Yes, he picks our Wolves to finish fifth in the division. That’s because its close to an inescapable fact and he would probably never get to write about basketball again if he did anything different. But he still has some nice things to say:
This year’s roster is longer, quicker and much more to coach Kurt Rambis’ liking than the 15-win squad of a year ago. Stealing Michael Beasley from Miami, drafting silky scorer Wes Johnson and belatedly giving Kevin Love the minutes and respect he deserves are on-the-court positives. Now if only Darko Milicic, Love and Serbian rookie big man Nikola Pekovic can offer up a semblance of resistance when defending the paint.

I’d say we’re agreed on all counts.

  • Aw dang, here’s a nasty little word for MN sports fans. David Stern recently floated the idea that contraction is a possible result of the NBA’s next collective bargaining agreement. No names were named, but I distinctly heard the city of Memphis shifting awkwardly in its chair. Strangely, though, the commish all but admitted that talk of contraction was little more than a negotiating ploy. “It’s a good word to use,” said the little man, “especially in collective bargaining”.

If the Wolves do not become the world champions of the NBA pre-season, they will have the Indiana Pacers–who just dropped our Pups for the second time this exhibition year–to blame. And by “the Indiana Pacers” I, of course, mean some maundering, semi-NBA-ish group that does not include Danny Granger or Dahntay Jones, and that allowed Josh McRoberts and Solomon Jones onto the floor for a combined 42:41. Its a damn shame too; I was really looking forward to that parade.

Easy Pieces

Last week we wondered aloud whether and how Michael Beasley’s goofy temperament would affect his play–specifically, whether the young fella’s sweet, almost child-like nature would lead to, let’s say, unwise shot selection.  Now, things are clearly too fresh and new to know anything definitive, but I’d say the early signs are a little troubling.

Beasley started the game cold, missing a couple of jumpers and getting hit with an offensive foul. And this is obviously fine, except that Beasley’s way of understanding this problem was not to focus on defense, move the ball, play with maximum effort, let the offense come to him, maybe try to get to the line a little.  What he did instead was to take ever more contested, ever more wrong-footed, ever more ball-stopping jumpers. He finished with 14 scuffling points on 16 shots, which–I don’t have my calculator handy or anything but–is bad.

To his credit, once Beasley came out of the game for a long second-half rest, he manfully played the supportive teammate, shouting advice and encouragement from his perch on an end-of-the-bench exercise ball. From what I could hear, the content of his patter wasn’t exactly earth-shattering but, y’know, positive jams are positive jams.

Except that when he finally returned to the court in the fourth quarter he looked as lost as a baby deer. First airballing a contested jumper, then losing Mike Dunleavy on a back-cut and finally, allowing Roy Hibbert of all people to walk past him to the hoop like he (Beaz) was suddenly in ponderous thought about the sad fate of the cap-and-trade bill–this was not what you might call an inspiring performance. Did I mention that he hit five of his 16 shots?

Still Waters

Kurt Rambis has said that the Wolves’ offense is not yet where he’d like it to be; this was evident in the second-half on Tuesday, when things became terribly stagnant. It would be wrong to blame Beasley for all of this, although his off-balance performance certainly disrupted the continuity something awful. In fact, Wes Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Sebastian Telfair, Anthony Tolliver and even Kevin Love all took turns forcing shots in the second half. And Bassie was certainly reminiscent of his very own self of two seasons ago with his macho overdribbling and pristinely confident gunning (can he possibly not know that he shoots only 37% from the floor for his career?)

But the offensive problems seemed to stem, not from any one player, but from simple unfamiliarity and indecision. Especially without Luke Ridnour and Martell Webster on the floor, the Wolves looked tentative in executing the complex matrix of reads, reactions, cuts and passes required by Rambis’ offense.  It’s plain that these young players still don’t really know each other, don’t yet really understand themselves and their places within the team.

St. Vitus’ Dance

I’m loving me some Nikola Pekovic. I realize he fouled out of this game with seven points and two rebounds after just 12 minutes and 37 seconds. But this guy is  battling for boards with a righteous fervor (this is where he picked up most of those fouls); he’s showing like a maniac on pick-and-roll; he’s straight crushing people at both ends of the court. Poor, skinny Solomon Jones; all he ever wanted to do was jump really high and play basketball. Now he has to deal with a mouthful of this swarthy hunk of man:

And on top of that, after receiving his sixth foul, Pekovic returned to the bench, walked up to Darko Milicic, extended his ample rear end, flexed his arms, thrust his hips and smilingly performed an instantly recognizable “they did me in the butt” pantomime. I wonder when he’ll figure out that there are TV cameras at NBA games.

Finally, Big Pek has some truly astounding tattoos. On his shoulder is a caped, spear-and-shield wielding medieval warrior standing on…a pile of skulls! Spanning his back is the scene of, like, an ancient burning church with the superimposed face of a bearded wise man. Is Pek a member of a black metal band that I’m not aware of? Is this some epic Vidovdan homage? I’ve got to figure this out.

Friends, the Wolves are 5-1.  Attempts to plumb the depths of this strange statistic for hidden meanings and portents will probably be futile. When we look back on this season in June, after the Wolves have either won 45 games or 14, have either blossomed with promise or collapsed into a quivering husk, we’ll say we knew which way the wind was blowing back in October. But that will be a lie: at this moment, we have no idea what this means. Best to simply, calmly inhale, exhale and accept it. Onward:

  • Here is a recap of the Wolves’ 99-88 comeback win over the Prince/Wallace/McGrady/Hamilton-less Pistons in Syracuse. Love that low angle:

  • And here are some equally cinema verite highlights of their 114-109 win over the Bucks in South Dakota. Check Darko’s dream-shake early in the clip:

  • In case you hadn’t noticed, in his past 53 minutes of play, Kevin Love has hit 21 of his 29 shots and pulled down 23 rebounds. That mythic 20/20 game is on the horizon.
  • Here in the Strib, Kurt Rambis reinforces our thought that depth and interchangeability in the lineup were major goals this past off-season:

“One of the things we wanted to have is a deep roster and the ability to change things around,” Rambis said. “I think we have enough flexibility with this team. With as many young players as we have, I don’t feel like I’ve got to lock myself into something, particularly at this stage of who we are as a ballclub.”

[Stern] generally comes out on top, or at least brings the league through unscathed at the end of the day. (Donaghy? Who?) He does so by making extreme overtures and overreactions that seek to nip public opinion in the bud. But down the road, almost all of these lunges prove to be just that: stunts to keep the heat off of this most vulnerable of pro sports leagues…It’s a game, one where blowhards get the hot air they so badly want, and players know that in the end, everything will even out.

Say these words out loud: “the Wolves are 3-0 in the preseason.” What enters your mind?  Do you maybe sense a faint welling of hope in your heart? Do you give a weary little chuckle, telling yourself, “hey relax bro, I’ve heard that song before”? Are you perhaps reminded again of the inherent emptiness of all language? Coach Kurt Rambis, can you help us out?

“It means at some point it won’t mean anything.”

This isn’t working. Left to our own devices again. (That is an actual quote, by the way).  Here are some things we can say:

Defend Brooklyn (Park, I mean Center)

It’s been observed by many that the Wolves are already more competitive defensively this pre-season than at any point last year. Many will tempt you to ascribe this to some kind of moral renewal, an inherent spiritual superiority over last year’s lackluster squad. I’m here to tell you not to give in to that temptation. Do you really think that Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Ramon Sessions, Damien Wilkins and the rest didn’t want to compete, that they just weren’t trying hard enough? Nope, not true. The difference is that these players are, as a group, simply quicker, more explosive, more energetic than last year’s crew.

Try this on. A Wolves second unit in the fall of ’09 may have looked something like this: Sessions, Wilkins, Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic, Kevin Love. On Tuesday it was more like: Luke Ridnour, Martell Webster, Wes Johnson, Nikola Pekovic, Anthony Tolliver. See, not everything is getting worse.

No matter the cause, against Denver there were long stretches of sustained, aware, active, NBA-ish defense. Big guys protected the rim. Players rotated to open shooters. They got their hands in passing lanes. They helped each other out. Did it help that for much of the game the Nugs trotted out Shelden Williams, Gary Powers and Eric Boateng? Yes it did.

Luke’s Side

While we’re discussing the topic of the newfound spring in the Wolves’ step, the team also looked much more comfortable and fluid in the open floor. Part of this has to do with the aforementioned influx of length and quickness. Part of this was that (tentatively, hopefully) revitalized defense. But part of this was also the presence of one Luke Ridnour.

Now, I remain skeptical of the de-facto exchange of Ridnour for Sessions. But Ridnour–who is very pale and very thin and yet has a lively little bounce to his step–seemed wholly fluent in the offense, comfortable and poised in the open court, willing to attack the defense as a means of opening up passing lanes (rather than, say, blindly and recklessly). Which reminds me: Jonny Flynn hasn’t even set foot on the court yet. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Also, Ridnour’s name is like a combination of Luther Campbell (aka Luke Skyywalker of 2 Live Crew) and Chuck D. (real name: Carlton Ridenhour). This is important to me.

Eazy Duz It

Just yesterday, our friend Myles nicely contextualized this Sebastian Pruiti/NBA Playbook post on Michael Beasley. The gist of the Pruiti post was: Michael Beasley is super-talented but, thanks to spotty concentration and maturity, rather inconsistent.

Against Denver, Beasley improved somewhat on his poor shooting night against New York, but a lot of that inconsistency was still in effect. He did manage to attack the basket from time to time, putting the defense on its heals and drawing contact. But he also spent some time eased back into the driveway mode that Pruiti leans on him for: the ball-stopping, contested flat-footed jumpers; the carelessness with the ball; the fading, off-balance shots.

Beasley, as has been oft-noted, is goofy. He likes a good laugh. He likes to shoot half-court shots during warm-ups. He likes to yell at the Gremlins on the rim when he misses. Does this mean that he’s destined to hoist up the occasional wrong-footed, floating behind the backboard jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock? I don’t know, it might.

Hey, Zach Harper, I think its time for a new bees-related Michael Beasley video. How about this one?

We may be through with ’80’s (and early-mid-’90’s) hip-hop, but it is not through with us.

If the Wolf Among Wolves comments section is any guide, it seems that Kevin Love is a polarizing figure; somehow I’m not surprised. Our last few posts on Mr. Love have raised a number of deceptively tricky questions. First: just how good is he? Is he, in the words of commenter Hayden, a “future star”, or is he simply an elite role player, as I suggested (um, and anyway, what exactly does it mean to be a “role player”? More on this later). Does Love’s unselfish, blue-collar image reflect reality or is it actually a function of his racial profile? Are perceptions of race even still salient in today’s NBA? See how quickly things got heavy?

Let’s take the last part first. Commenter W rightly points to Wally Sczerbiack, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and JJ Redick, among many others, as white American players who are not typically described as “smart,” “unselfish,” or “hard-working,”–the classic “white guy” profile.  My point, when I brought this up, was not to argue that these stereotypes are still so baldly dominant in the League (the college game is a slightly different story…), but merely to point out that, on the surface, Love seems to fit the mold so perfectly and, moreover, that the media tend to articulate their fawning over Love in this ancient, coded language. Love fits perfectly into a certain vision of a lost, pre-Iversonian era in which players played the “right way”, in which effort and coachability triumphed over sheer ability (check that old SI article on Hubie Brown, or just read “The Breaks of the Game” if you don’t believe this conception exists. Or just talk to any number of a certain kind of Minnesota sports fan). He gives anachronistically workmanlike effort; he practices lost arts (the box-out, the outlet pass). Race isn’t explicit in any of this, but its just beneath the surface in all of it.

Clearly, though, the most interesting things about these narratives are the ways in which they unravel. If assists are resonantly among the stuff white people like, then what’s to be done about Magic Johnson or Chris Paul? If churlishness and trash-talk are thought to be in the classic “black guy” repertoire, then how do we deal with Larry Bird? What about indulgently flashy guard play? I give you White Chocolate himself, Jason Williams. How do we deal with these intertwinings and contradictions? Can we even identify definitive notions of “white” and “black” playing styles without giving ourselves a headache? Do the above counter-examples disprove the rule or simply reinforce it? This gets complicated pretty quickly.

What’s compelling about Love is that he both conforms and diverges from the idealized picture.  True enough, when he is at his best, Love appears to be out-hustling every other player on the floor, to be compensating for his lack of size and leaping ability with a dogged work ethic. His passing skills and patience within the offense seem to speak to a willingness to share the ball, to unselfishly and intelligently play within systems. But, contrary to mythology, these skills are not simply moral achievements, the products of a well crafted, blue-collar soul. Kevin Love is a tremendously gifted natural athlete: his hands are terrifically strong; his vision and hand-eye coordination are preternatural. Moreover, we Wolves’ fans are well aware of his shortcomings as a teammate: his willingness to publicly criticize coaches; his 30-odd game flirtation with sulky, middling effort last season.

So even if you do believe that the NBA is a fallen world, filled with selfish, disloyal ultra-athletes, Love’s particular mix of talents and attitudes don’t easily fit the narrative. The league is filled with strange, oddly shaped players like this: the cerebral, Italian-speaker with the classic mid-range game; the West Virginia white boy with the And-1 handle; the slow-footed, wild-haired, face-the-basket, seven foot German scorer; the gleefully, aggressively weird lockdown defender from Queensbridge . I could go on like this forever.

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

ESPN’s panel of experts has been speaking for nearly two weeks now. So far, they think the Heat will win lots of basketball games, that Amare Stoudemire will be a disappointment and that Lebron James will be good. Nothing all that controversial there. Today, though, the panel pronounced that our Timberwolves would be the most tumultuous team in the NBA this year. The Pups narrowly beat out the Cavs and Hornets but still, I thought, our honor needed some defending. So over at the ESPN NBA page, I did just that. Here’s the nuts and bolts of the thing. As you can see, they caught me on an optimistic day:

I realize it seems questionable to brazenly flout the “best player available” maxim by drafting Wesley Johnson over DeMarcus Cousins, and then immediately duplicating Johnson’s skill set by trading the 16th pick for Martell Webster.

It’s strange to trade Al Jefferson, the team’s best player over the past three seasons, for two draft picks, and then bring in Michael Beasley to replace him as your go-to scorer. And even stranger to sign two Serbian centers for a grand total of $34 million over the next four seasons, especially when one of them is named Darko Milicic.

And maybe you’re also amused and/or exhausted by the knowledge that in the first year of Kahn’s tenure, the Wolves have acquired no fewer than seven point guards, some of them more than once (although, to his credit, not all at the same time).

And that teenage prodigy Ricky Rubio — the fifth pick in the ’09 draft and maybe the best player of all of those PGs — currently runs game in Barcelona with no guarantee of ever setting foot in Minnesota…

It’s fashionable at the moment to ridicule Kahn as an abrasive, unqualified hack. It’s clear the man has had some awfully low moments this summer and that he and Rambis haven’t yet found that transcendent player who will give meaning to their long-suffering franchise. And it’s equally clear that the Wolves are going to lose a lot of games this season.

But if you scan this lineup — Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, Corey Brewer, even Darko Milicic and Michael Beasley — you’ll find a lot of young, smart, athletic, hungry players. These are players who want to learn, who want to run, who want to move the ball and play defense. Aren’t these just the type of players who would seem to fit well into Rambis’ up-tempo-and-triangle offense? And when you consider the Wolves have roughly $10 million in cap space, doesn’t the picture look a lot less ridiculous than this chaotic offseason might have suggested?

Am I just being naïve? Is it wrong for Wolves fans to hold on to even these tiny shreds of optimism? Let me tell you a story.

For the three years beginning with their six-game Western Conference finals loss to the Lakers in 2004 and ending with the Kevin Garnett trade of 2007, the Wolves slowly melted down. With very few exceptions (KG among them), the team became a nightmare of ball-hogging, extravagant contract demands, intentionally careless defense and mediocre effort. As the front office hemorrhaged draft picks, this collection of aging jump-shooters and corrosive personalities contributed to the firing of both Flip Saunders and Dwane Casey and helped hasten the KG era’s sad, pathetic end. What I’m saying is: We’ve seen turmoil and this isn’t it.