True Hoops

True Hoops

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Golden Age

Perhaps Chris Paul said it best:
"'08 was all good and well, but there was something about our 2012 team that was just special. I hate that this was our last game playing together. It's something that we'll never forget."

Special and finality seemed to be two words that came to mind after watching team USA win the gold medal. And I must admit I was a little emotional watching the medal ceremony (no, I didn't cry). Rivals mere months ago - now celebrating a universal goal achieved. All at different stages in their respective careers, all succeeding at the highest level. Some for the first time. Some for the last time.

Certainly we will never see this team again - with all it's unique permutations and blend of personalities.

Which got me thinking.

A special makeup
Yes. It was special to see LeBron and Durant celebrate so joyously after the gold medal game. How touching was their last embrace at the end of the Finals? Can a display of mutual admiration, especially at a moment of polar opposite emotions, be anymore genuine? So after that, how cool was it to see them be able to share success at the highest level together?

And throughout this whole process, wasn't it fun to see LeBron teamed up with three OKC players - each of which were the first to cheer LeBron for every play he made. How about LeBron standing between Durant and Westbrook on the gold medal podium? Each looking up to him like an older brother, following his every movement, trying to impress him - with LeBron willingly learning them how to be a champion.

Don't think that imagery was significant?
When was the Last time two (or four) players that had it out in the Finals joined forces immediately after for the Olympics?
That would be '96 - when Pippen teamed up with Gary Payton.
Doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
Certainly not when LeBron and Durant can be seen as the two best players in the world.

And speaking of the best players in the world - give this a thought: this team was the first and last time that Kobe, LeBron, and Durant ever will play together.

Think about that for a second.

We're talking about the past, present, and future best players in the world. Not even the original Dream team had that sort of generational spectrum.

Kobe's Twilight
While we're talking about Kobe, there was also something bitter sweet about seeing him play in his final Olympic game. I would still say Kobe is the best two guard in the NBA (Wade is right there). And Kobe is by no means old. But, he will be entering his 17th year in the league and has already starting talking about retirement. With this being his last international competition - in a way, the end has already begun.

I remember when Kobe came out of high school -  I was a freshman. He might be the first superstar that I can legitimately say that I've seen from beginning to......
Now that I think about it , he probably is the last superstar that I can say I am younger than.
During these moments you truly start to realize how finite every player's career is - and appreciate them. But don't worry, with all that's happened in the NBA over the last week - I'm sure Kobe has one or two last hurrahs.

Want to talk about imagery? How fitting was it that Kobe was in the center of team USA as they stepped onto the podium to collect the gold? For all the talk of comparing Kobe to Jordan, maybe Magic is more fitting. Didn't seeing Kobe on the podium evoke thoughts of Magic in '92?

The Olympics are the perfect time capsules of players at different stages in their careers. Of course 4 years ago, at a youthful 29 years of age, Kobe saved the US in the gold medal game against Spain. This time around, the self proclaimed 33 year old "OG" of the squad still made big plays when needed, but didn't seem to be needed as much.

But that's no knock on Kobe, it's just a testament to how much better his contemporaries and successors have become 4 years later. Want snapshots of a career? 8 years ago LeBron was 19 coming off his rookie year. 4 years ago he was 23, on the cusp of greatness. Now, 27 years old, with 3 MVPs, 1 championship and Finals MVP - he is undeniably the best player in the world.

Kevin Durant is only 23 years old himself, three time scoring champ. In 4 years......

The world has caught up
As great as Kobe, LeBron, and Durant are - what does it say that they only beat Spain by 7 in the gold medal game? Or beat Lithuania by 5 in pool play? And trust me, this isn't an aberration - the US only beat Spain by 11 in the gold medal game last go around (and only because they were saved by Kobe), lost in '04, only beat Lithuania by 2 in the '00 semifinals, and beat France by 10 in the '00 gold medal game.

Let's not kid ourselves anymore.
With the exception of perhaps a handful of transformative players that are better than everyone else - you know, like Kobe, LeBron, and Durant - international players are operating on a similar level.

This is evidenced by the fact that Spain has around 7 guys on their team that have either played or are currently playing in the NBA.
Argentina has around 5.
France has just about as many.
Brazil has several as well.
It seems that about every country has at least one of two.

And we're not talking about slouches either.
Manu Ginobli is a top shooting guard in the league.
Spain has the all-star Gasol brothers, Defensive force Serge Ibaka, and even Jose Calderon, who was fourth in the NBA last year for assists with almost 9 a game.

There is no doubt this seems to be a golden age for several countries - like Argentina and Spain. As the US continues to regenerate greatness, albeit at younger ages, it will be interesting to see if other countries get young crops of players that will continue to compete and perhaps close the gap even further. Ricky Rubio is a good start.

Before, the NBA could probably bring anyone to the Olympics and win.
Bringing their best at first meant total annihilation but soon became a requisite for gold.
Now, the US has to bring their best players and play with strategy to win.
And even then some games are close.

Pau to the People
Pau Gasol still has to be one of the best skilled low post players in the NBA.
24 points, to go along with 8 rebounds, and 7 assists in the gold medal game

And this guy has been on the trading block for the past year?

He seems to have gotten out of last year's funk  - you know a mundane 17 points and 10 rebounds a game as the third option for a team that tried to trade him -  and was playing with a new found sense of freedom and energy. It's as if he suddenly he realized things are looking up next season.  I wonder what it could be.

As skilled and perhaps underutilized as he is on the Lakers, how scary would it be if you set him up with a great pass first point guard and perhaps the most athletic and dominant defensive center in the league. That's assuming you could find two that would perfectly complement Gasol's strengths and make up for his weaknesses and put them all on the same team with Kobe.

Oh wait.......

It's good to be gold......and purple
How is it that the Lakers can make all the right moves?
How can they land Steve Nash out of no where, and then play all their cards right and land Dwight Howard - while still keeping Pau Gasol?!?

Conversely, how is it the Knicks can make all the wrong moves?
How is it they can get a gift in Jeremy Lin - someone who saved their season, can make them billions, and perhaps be the point guard to bridge Melo and Amar'e......and they find a way to screw it up?

Look no further than the Lakers and Knicks for Webster's definitions of class and crass organizations, respectively.

Why can't Carmelo play like this in New York?
While we're on NY......

It would appear obvious that this guy is at his absolute best - and in the same league as Kobe and Durant - when playing under the Team USA free flowing offensive scheme. You know, one where the ball moves and all he has to do is catch and shoot.

Why revert to that New York brand of isolation basketball where the ball stays put and some players (particularly Amare) get left out?

You could argue the the reason is because he hasn't consistently had a solid/true point guard during his tenure in NY. In fact, his best year with Denver was when they landed Chauncey Billups.

So obviously the solution for the Knicks to rectify this problem was to let Lin walk.

I hope Felton, Kidd, and Pablo can collectively get the job done.

USA point guard play is not dominant in international competition......
Speaking of point guards, was it me or did it seem like the US really didn't have a major advantage at the point guard position? At almost no point (no pun) during the tournament did I get the sense that the international point guards we over matched by Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or Russell Westbrook. Because they never really were.

And again - this isn't an aberration. I remember back in the '00 Olympics thinking to myself : "wow, this Steve Nash guy really is holding his own with Jason Kidd and Gary Payton." We know how that turned out right?

I'm just saying, there are plenty of guys that held their own and then some.
Most you never heard of before:

Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil. I saw him play twice (once agains the US) and was amazed with his game. He averaged 11 points and 6 assists per game during the Olympics.

Pablo Prigioni of Argentina. Led the Olympics in assists and will be on the Knicks next year.

Sergio Rodriguez of Spain. Didn't make it in the NBA but was adequetly competing with the best the US had to offer with the gold medal on the line.

How about Patty Mills of Australia. Rarely gets burn in the NBA, but was the leading scorer during the Olympics and the only player to average over more than 20 points a game (21.5).

Or what about Juan Carlos Navarro of Spain? Not really a point, but burned the US two gold medal games in a row after not making it in the NBA.

......Until USA points play to their strengths
Just as soon as I was contmeplating this fact during the gold medal game, Chris Paul straight up embarrassed Sergio rodriguez on the first two plays in the 4th to give the US a much needed cushion. It's as if he decided to take matters into his own hands and show that there is no way he could be guarded one on one.

And that's just it. If you allow US point guards to follow the international brand, solely orchestrating, it's to the advantage of the international teams. But, if you unleash the US point guards offensively and allow them to utilize their advantages in terms of power, athleticism, and one on one scoring capability -  then they will dominate.

But, is this in the best interest of the team? And, how sustainable is this style of play? How effective is it if you put them in the international style that focuses more on all five players on the court, running pick and rolls and other plays that doesn't necessarily require point guards to score?

It's an interesting conundrum.
NBA point guards for the most part are at their best when they are the best on their team - controlling the ball and looking to score. The problem is, teams don't usually win championships when their point guard is their best player - or at least highest scorer. But many NBA point guards are not as good when when not looking to shoot.

Think about what makes Rose and Westbrook special. Would you rather have Deron Williams pass or score? What about Kyrie Irving? But as great as these guys are, for team USA and international competition, the point guards are not the best players or top scorers on their team - that honor goes to LeBron, Durant, Kobe, and Melo. This actually plays into international point guards hands and ironically allows them to be more aggressive and attack US guards.

But it's okay.
The NBA caters to a different skill set, mostly speed and athleticism, which enables US point guards to better showcase their attributes and take over games. As far as NBA vs international brand, neither style or demand is right or wrong. It's not like comparing the Lakers or Knicks, more like apple and oranges.

Here is an interesting question with regards to style of play: What does it mean that the best pure point guard in the NBA, Rajon Rondo, wasn't on team USA and never will be (if you would like to argue as to whether Rondo is the best point in the NBA, please let's do so)?

But really, who cares.
Do you even need a point guard when you have LeBron running point center?

What a difference a year makes
Did someone mention LeBron?
They must have been mentioning the best basketball year in history.
Regular season MVP, NBA championship and Finals MVP, gold medal.
Of course by now you've heard the only other player to ever do that was Michael Jordan.
However, LeBron is the only player to do all that and get engaged.

Anthony Davis
How about college player of the year, NCAA championship and tournament MOP, #1 pick in the draft, and gold medal.

Not so bad either.

International marketing
But back to Jordan for a second.
I am not one to buy his products or sneakers, for numerous reasons.
But I have to give props to his creative marketing team in charge of his commercials.

One of my favorite basketball commercials ever is a Jordan one. And last year' lockout themed commercial was hilarious. But their recent Olympics/international themed commercial might have been better. It's a good look:

Disappear the Beard
Speaking of good looks.
James Harden - it's time.

You have just won your first major competition in the pro ranks. I think a shave is in order.
Sure, you were holding out till you won your first chip, then the thing took on a life of it's own and started to distinguish you from everyone else - I get it.

But, it's never a good look when you have to move your beard out of the way just so the gold medal can fit around your neck, and so that you don't poke the guy presenting you with it in the eye.

Just think about how much higher you will jump.

Just what the doctor ordered
As Coach K has stated this is his last tour of duty coaching team USA, it won't be long before a new coach has to take over the reins.

My pick would be Doc Rivers.

The guy is classy, cool, and most importantly one of the best coaches in the NBA. It's to the point where besides Rondo, he may be the biggest advantage the Celtics have. He is great at making adjustments on the fly, drawing up situational plays, and putting his players in positions to be successful.

Additionally, being a coach requires being able to relate to your players, managing egos - all while commanding their respect. Relating egos? Doc is able to keep a range of guys like Garnett, Rondo, and Avery Bradley all on the same page. Respect? Not sure if LeBron will play in the next Olympics, but judging by their long embrace after game 7 of the eastern Conference Finals - seems harder to find a coach LeBron has more adoration for - unless the guy just likes hugging opponents at the end of every series and is the most gracious winner of all time.

Although if you're going the respect route - maybe Doug Collins isn't a bad choice either. Did you see almost all of the team USA players seek him out after the game to shake his hand and give him a hug? This dude was an announcer for NBC and still at halftime he was giving LeBron instructions - and LeBron was listening too.

Of course there is coach Popovich - without question one of the greats. But his teams seem to be more veteran and I'm not sure how he would relate to younger players. Plus a lot of the times he seems either too strident, serious, or perhaps even arrogant (much like coach Larry Brown). But there is absolutely no way I can judge - I've never heard him speak live at a press conference and honestly maybe it's me that isn't keen to his methodologies.

But I have been to plenty of Celtics post game press conferences to hear Doc. He is always engaging and you always get the sense this guy really is passionate about what he does and is excited by not only  thinking the game but also conveying it - to any and everyone that wants to engage him in conversation. Collins gives off that impression as well - and he coaches young players in Philly (it will be interesting to see how he helps Bynum mature). Both guys seem to always speak in a positive light and talk matter of factly.

Plus as an aside, I remember when Doc was gully as a member of the Knicks.
Like the time when he chased down and tackled Kevin Johnson to start a huge halftime brawl between the Knicks and Suns back in '93. A brawl that saw Pat Riley rip his pants Grey Anthony get ejected - even though he was in street clothes.

Save the best for last
And finally, anyone who has read this blog or heard me talk NBA basketball in person might accuse me of being biased towards favoring LeBron James.

My response would be...... so?

To quote Doc Rivers after the gold medal game: "It's okay to root for LeBron James."

He is without a doubt the best player in the world right now, coming off the greatest single season in NBA history. And he is only 27!

He plays the game the right way, he makes everyone around him better - seemingly on and off the court. He is unselfish, and his overt joy for playing the game - and having fun while doing it - is infectious.

Case in point:
Seeing LeBron dance after winning the gold medal I couldn't help but smile and laugh...... and even freaking wanted to start dancing!
And you should too!

Did you see him play these Olympics?
Running all 5 positions, from center to point guard.
Guarding the Gasol brothers while setting up Durant, Melo and Kobe on the wing.
Facilitating but taking over when necessary.
Being clutch in their two most competitive games - the end of the Lithuamia game and scoring five points in the last 2:30 of the gold meal game.
Oh, and just for good measure, how about the first triple double in Olympic history?

Let me quote Jim Boeheim: "I'm glad we have LeBron James on our side."

How importance was he to team USA?
Let me quote Doc Rivers again. When asked what lineup he liked best for team USA his response was: "LeBron and four other guys."

You want to talk about golden age?
This is it for LeBron - the beginning, in his prime, from 27 till......
He's only going to get better - how great can he be?
I want to see!

So let's enjoy it all, as it happens.
Bring on Kobe, Nash, Howard, & Gasol.
Bring on KD and the OKC kids.
Bring on Doc, Rondo, and the Celts.
Bring on whoever.

The NBA is in good hands.