Basketball


This is what a rivalry looks like, remember?


When one thinks of the Celtics and the Lakers, images of a still youthful Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul Jabbar talking trash in the paint. Though no memory of the Lakers Vs. The Celtics can ever be quite complete without what was one of the greatest rivalries in sport in Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson.

An old friend at ESPN.COM once told me that the sign of a rivalry of epic proportions in the world of sport divides millions of fans, not mere thousands. Bird and Johnson had plenty of dividing features too for its time, words like black, white, east and west are a few that come to mind.

The sad truth is that while some of us might be able to re-live the good ol’ days having watched the Lakers and Celtics rivalry at its peak, this generation is somewhat understandably disappointed with whatever little the match up brings to the table in this day and age.

The problem is, Micheal Jordan spoilt us with those two three peats. It’s really that simple. After MJ retired, there has been a somewhat serious loss of interest and gloss off of what was once one of the biggest draws in sports. Now that he is gone, the same excitement cannot possibly be derived from the prospect of Kobe Bryant winning a second or the Celtics winning, just to send a message that there won’t be any dynasties being made in Los Angeles this generation.

The sad truth is that this series actually has a lot to offer. Firstly its no secret that the Celtics play an incredibly physical game, testament to their choice of acquisition in Rasheed Wallace, who is somehow dwarfed in the grinding it out school of thought by his team mate Kevin Garnett. Then we have Kobe, a man the whole of Chicago and most of the east coast don’t want to accept is probably the best player to ever play the game, even better than MJ. Names like Gasol, Pierce, Rondo and a few others probably come to mind but honestly they are nothing but a mere sideshow in this showdown.

One thing is for certain in this particular series, the longer it goes on the more people will start to reminisce about the good ol’ days, the Larry Bird behind the board shot, why magic deserved the nickname with those passes and everything else that made this rivalry great. In which case, lets hope it goes to seven and captivates the interest of a new generation of young basketball fans, instead of doing what the finals do best these days. Disappoint.

I’ve just paid too much money for online coverage of the NBA Playoffs. Needless to say, I’m very excited. There are problems with the structure of the NBA season – its too long for a start (IPL take note) – but the playoffs are fantastic.

(Also, in Pakistan, if you are studying for exams, you can conveniently wake up and get some NBA action before revision; or if you work the other way around, it can be a nice post all-nighter diversion)

7 game series allow the storylines and intrigue to develop in a way which you don’t get in single elimination tournaments or a league format.

Is there a particular match-up which gives one team a big advantage? Can a star player overcome this deficiency through persistence, innovation and skill? Is a player choking? Are the coaches choking? Can teams hold on to their home-court advantage? These are all issues which feed into the ebb and flow of the series.

So what should the casual NBA fan be looking out for?

1) Lebron James – The undisputed best player in basketball. NBA players are often compared to others, especially when they are coming into the league. For Lebron, it was a combination of Magic and Jordan. Usually its impossible to live up to this type of impossible hype.
Lebron has managed to exceed it. He has the athleticism of MJ and the passing and vision of Magic. His shooting improves almost every year – he is a great player.
His team’s not stacked though which means the Cavs might not win. There’s also the drama of his free agency and the possibility he changes teams this summer. If you want to watch greatness and drama, tune in.
2) The Western Conference – All 8 playoff teams won 50 games. The Lakers are favourites but only just, and its not impossible for the 5,6,7 and 8 seeds to cause upsets in the first round.Unfortunately, some of this might come down to injuries which would be a shame. However, no matter what happens, its going to be intense.

3) The Orlando Magic – The dark horses. Statistically they were the best team in the regular season and have the best big man in Dwight Howard. A Magic/Cavs Eastern Conference Finals is almost certain which will be terrific.The Magic won last year, so there is already some rivalry. Also, the whole ‘if Orlando wins, they could be sending Lebron to another city’, will have the feel of a WWE storyline, but in a good way.

4) The Basketball Jones These guys are terrific. If you want a daily podcast to recap all of the previous night’s happenings in an intelligent and humorous way, these guys are the place to go to. Also, they’ve made some legendary comedy videos in the past.
5) The Truehoop and SBN Networks Truehoop is the undisputed Blogfather of the NBA and will be sure to have great material throughout the playoffs. The Truehoop Network, which is a collection of team blogs and the SBN team blogs are great if you want to follow a specific team and get immersed in that experience. Check it out.

A while back a reader to Truehoop made some interesting points about OJ Mayo matching up with Kobe Bryant. He said that in terms of style and character, it reminded him of a young Kobe going up against Jordan. In terms of play though, Kobe liked his jumper more than Jordan and Mayo likes his jumper more than Kobe.

Implicit in this is the idea that someone who attacks the rim is a more valuable player than someone who prefers his  jumpshot. A lot of people have commented on how Kobe is a more diversified scorer than MJ, in part due to his better 3 point shooting, but almost no one suggests that Kobe is a greater offensive player. Another obvious example would be the criticism that Vince Carter received when he started settling for his jumper.

An interesting parallel to this is the arguments that started to arise when Roger Federer started emulating Pete Sampras’ achievements. In arguments over who was the greater player, a lot of Sampras fans made the argument that although Federer had a more varied game, Sampras’ dominant serve, solid volleys and killer forehand overpowered Federer’s excellent serve, dominant forehand, skillful backhand and touch returning.

Now of course, there isn’t really a debate over who is the greater player. Sampras himself has declared that Federer’s the greatest player of all time. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, and instead have Federer replacing Sampras’ place in the triumvirate with Laver and Borg, but the point remains that Federer v Sampras is almost as conclusive as Jordan v Kobe.

Sometimes we get too caught up in genres and deciding if a particular style is more effective than another, rather than assessing the overall quality of the player. Bringing this back to basketball, another good example is the debate between whether Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett is the greatest power forward of all time. Except there isn’t really a debate because Duncan has 4 titles, while Garnett kept losing in the 1st round of the playoffs before finally getting his ring in Boston.

From this a lot of people, including myself, have argued that the reason for Duncan’s dominance is because his superior low post scoring and post defence outweigh Garnett’s face up offence and all-world defence. But maybe if Garnett had played with David Robinson, Ginobli and Parker, Garnett would retire with the greater legacy, or at least there would have been a more rigorous debate.

Another way of illustrating this point is by throwing the 3rd great power forward of Duncan and Garnett’s generation – Dirk Nowitzki, into the mix. People have discounted his play somewhat and placed him beneath the other two because he is a jump-shooter. But what if Dirk was a slightly better shooter, or slightly more athletic. He almost won one ring, and its not unreasonable to think that he could have been in contention for more, if he was slightly better and played in more conducive circumstances.

Overall, I think the lesson to draw from this is that its easy to make categorisations when looking at both a player’s potential and his legacy. However, most times, the answers are always a lot more nuanced than they seem.

I don’t think I quite believe it yet but Shaq just got traded to the Clevland Cavs.  This means that Lebron James will now have some serious help, it will also mean that Shaq will get to exact a little more revenge on his arch nemisis now best buddy Kobe.

If Shaq and Lebron stay healthy and perform at even average, they will lift the title next year. I’ll post on the same around a year from now to gloat.

On an unrelated note I hope Spains bus gets diverted to the same stadium as Brazils so that we can finally see Spain V. Brazil. USA Vs. Brazil is going ot be an agonizing game. If you saw the Copa America, remember what I said earlier, the B Team are watching, waiting to take their rightful place.

The month in review:

Roger F wins the French Open

Tommy Haas slaps around the insolent young ruffian Djokovic to win the Halle grass court tournament

Australia gets kicked out of the 20-20 world cup

India get kicked out of the 20-20 World Cup

Phil Jackson trashes Red Auderbach’s long standing record and Kobe sees light past Shaq’s shadow

Mayweather cannot fight and make his big comeback yet

In order now……..Shut Up Nadal Fans!, Shut up Haas doubters!, Shut up Aussies!, Shut up Indians!, Shut up Shaq!, Shut up Floyd!, R.I.P Red. That felt great.

Iraq Vs. the USA would be ALMOST as good as the following two fixtures:

Operation Disaster Vs. Operation Disaster II ( Afghanistan Vs.  Iraq)

or my personal favorite WWIII:  Iran Vs. Isreal

I’ll take Iraq Vs. USA any day the week though. Come on you seemingly oppressed Iraqi’s!

Brazil will lift the Confederations cup. Just watch.

It seems weird to say this about a guy who has won 13 slams and who many people already regard as the greatest of all time, but as everyone seems to agree, a victory today will be truly historic. However, I don’t think we should fall into the trap of viewing this match as ‘career defining’, especially if he loses. If Soderling continues his unbelievably good form and manages to win, that won’t change the fact that Federer is one of the four greatest players of the open era (Laver, Borg, Sampras, Federer). I don’t like inter-generational comparisons which is why I hesitate to say greatest of all time.

Career moments were throttling Hewitt 6-0 7-6 6-0 in the US Open Final and defeating Nadal in that epic, second Wimbledon final. Those results are neither invalidated or vindicated with what happens today; they stand on their own merits – a bit like how Barca losing in the Champions League Final wouldn’t have invalidated their team – although that’s slightly different because the European Cup seems to be necessary for a team to call themselves great.

Having said all of that, it would be incredibly awesome to see Federer win and I’m desperately hoping that it happens! Also going back to Barca, what a couple of weeks it will have been for sporting aesthetes to see Barca win the Champions League and Federer complete the career grand slam. All that would be left would be for the Lakers to win the NBA finals (although Orlando play nice ball as well), Rohit Sharma to be the best batsman in the World T20 with Roelof Van der Merwe being the worst. (although I don’t mind his bowling)

Some Words on Kafelnikov

Kafelnikov can not in any way be described as a relic of the cold war. Making his professional debut in 1992, he reflected the moral ambivalence of many Russians of the post Soviet era. Rather than being driven by glory as players of earlier and future generations might have been, Kafelnikov seemed to care mainly about the pursuit of money. Unlike Sampras and Agassi who would ‘peak’ for the slams, Kafelnikov played seemingly every single week (singles and doubles), picking up as many appearance fee cheques as he could.

This isn’t to say that he was a greedy pig. Its instructive to note that after finally obtaining the World Number 1 ranking he lost his next 7 matches, relinquishing the ranking in only 6 weeks. There was something about being No.1 that didn’t sit well with him. Also, it should be noted that he really got himself motivated for Davis Cup and that he probably regards winning the Olympic Gold and Davis Cup as more important achievements than winning the French and Australian Opens.