Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lodo Grdzak's Sportin' Life: NBA Playoffs; Political Affiliations; and the Importance of Coaching:


Regular readers know I’m a big fan of NBA basketball and professional boxing. Those are the sports in which I’m invested--least until the Olympics; but due to the pathetic state of boxing these past two to three years, basketball’s taken on added significance. 

I began this season excited to see my man Chauncey Billups play for the Knicks. He’s my personal favorite of all NBA players, though I’ll admit he’s no longer the best at his position--and may never have been the singular best point guard in any season. But he’s got a ring and has played in more big games than almost anyone. 

After the Knicks lost Chauncey my interest in the team began to fade; and when he blew-out his achilles in L.A. I was genuinely sad. For both of us. I’d blown my achilles out too, right around that same time; and when I saw it happen to Chauncey on TV I had the immediate sense the injury marked a certain physical turning-point in both our lives.

Wish I could say I was wrong.  

This year I’ve got two teams--New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets that I’d like to see in the Finals. That said, both will probably lose in the first round; so of the teams that actually have a chance to win, I’d like to see Chicago Bulls go all the way.

I think most NBA fans (at least those outside of Miami or San Antonio) will root for Chicago this year. Chicago or Oklahoma City. They have the deepest teams and most humble superstars in Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. Not just nice guys, but guys with their own style on the court. I like the way the under-sized Derrick Rose tucks the ball under his arm as he storms the paint; or the unique look of Kevin Durant’s loped-out frame when he dunks. The guy’s 6’ 11” but moves like a guard. The league’s getting away from the Kobe or Michael Jordan clones, and I like it.

Course Lebron James has his own style--and I like him too, even though a lot of fans won’t root for him since he bailed on Cleveland. Personally, I say fuck Cleveland just like I’d say fuck Detroit or fuck Denver.  I love those places--they’ll always be where I’m from. 

Just not where I’m at.  

Anyway, I think NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said it best about Lebron: 

“...just going back to James' decision, the other part is, wouldn't every working American want to choose where they want to work and who they work with if they could?And yet we resent the thing that we would want in our own profession."

Couldn’t agree more. The guy gets to do what we all wish we could do--stick it to the man and decide our own fate, yet all he gets from fans is sour grapes of envy. Come on Cleveland! 26 or 27 years old; biggest sports star in the country; buddies with Jay-Z and Kanye West. You’d want to get out of Ohio too--especially if you’d lived there your whole life. Even Elvis got to see the world.

But there’s a lot of hate generated towards the NBA. And the players. The tattoos. The ridiculous money. Some of it’s racism, but it’s also true that the pace and flow of an NBA game (or lack thereof) can be maddening. Fouls seems to be called in a rather arbitrary manner; and the subsequent free throws slow the game down. I suppose those big guys need time to rest, but I wanna see ‘em run like in soccer or hockey. Really test their endurance. But the players are so big and the painted lane so narrow, the refs could call a foul on every play. And they practically do. That’s why I think fans of other sports sometimes don’t respect the toughness of the NBA players--because of all the called fouls and timeouts. 

One of the things I liked about this strike-shortened season was watching the players work hard. At least, hard for an NBA player (which may or may not be difficult for those guys--I don’t know!). Most players entered the season out of shape, then had to play back-to-back games. Even a few three-game stretches. You could see ‘em breathing hard as they jogged up and down the court, which made it difficult to tell which teams were good ‘til the season really developed. Then an obvious pattern became evident--all the elite teams that stayed intact from last year (Miami Heat; Oklahoma Thunder; Chicago Bulls; and Boston Celtics rose to the top). 

Of the teams that made big personnel changes, only NY Knicks actually got better. I was a big proponent of the Carmelo Anthony trade with Denver, and rank him as one of the top three offensive players in the league. His shot’s pure when he gets it going; and he can drive to the rim if he has to. And he’s not afraid of the big moment. Why should he be? 

But the Carmelo story highlights another aspect of the NBA. A more abstract and perhaps overly analytical view of the league on my part, yet something I believe holds true; which is that the NBA is a liberal man’s sports league. That's why so much of America hates it. 

Football requires loyalty not just to the team, but to the system--or the scheme as they sometimes call it. Plays are run as designed, executed on a mechanized schedule, and are carried out as written. In fact, that’s the sign of a successful play--it unfolds as designed. The coach relays the plays to the QB; the QB leads in the huddle; he maybe sets the receivers in motion; the front line moves in synchronized fashion. There’s a militaristic aspect to it. A top-down, Republican-type command structure that’s required. All eleven guys have to work together to run the simplest shit. 

That said, the NBA’s a lot more...liberal, with more dependence on the individual stars. A team's best player oftentimes commands as much fan loyalty as the franchise they play for. And the stars are easily as powerful as the coach. When ‘Melo Anthony got into a disagreement with Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, it was D’Antoni who resigned. That wouldn’t happen in football. But in basketball you only start five guys--and the Knicks traded four players to get Carmelo. So who’s more important? And its obvious Dwight Howard can’t stand his Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Hell, who can blame ‘em? Van Gundy should have quit instead of crying to the press. But his dumbass will be fired at year’s end. 

I’ve been a basketball fan practically my whole life, yet I’m still not convinced coaching is all that important. Least not at the NBA level. By the time players reach that plateau I have to believe they’ve already played a million basketball games and mastered the subtle intricacies of defensive rotation and the pick and roll. You’d think they would anyway. And I’ve never heard an NBA coach say anything I couldn’t have said myself in a huddle. Even at crucial times in playoff games they still yell the same moronic crap: “We need more energy!” “Crash the boards!” “Box out!” "Play the full 48 minutes!"

“Uh coach...”

“Yeah Grdzak, what is it?” 

“I was thinking of playing 47 minutes and 30 seconds. Is that a good way to win?” 

“Well of cour--wait whaaa?!!!...”

If history’s taught me anything, the key to being a great basketball coach is having Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, or Magic Johnson on your team. That’s the secret--not just in basketball, but in every sport. Great players. Former Yankees manager Joe Torres was allegedly great. He won 4 World Series titles managing that team and won the American League pennant almost every year he was there. That said, he’s also the only coach/manager in the entire history of baseball (which is long!) to lose a 7 game playoff series after being up 3-0. In fact, no professional baseball or basketball team has ever lost a 7 game series under those circumstances. So how good or important could Torre really have been to those great Yankee teams? And how many championships has he won since he left Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera back in New York? 

In fairness, I've never played organized baseball (or basketball for that matter)--yet I have to say nothing seems easier than being a professional baseball manager. Particularly an American League manager. What tough, split-second decisions do they really need to make? Hell, if I were an owner I’d keep a laptop in the dugout, let the players type the given scenario into the machine. Have ‘em wait for a response.

But I guess that wouldn't be a fun way to play America's game. 

"If an NFL football offense is like a classical orchestra, executing a pre-written piece as expertly as possible; then an NBA basketball team is more like a jazz combo. They know the turnarounds, the key signatures, and melodies; but the real interest is in the spontaneity when all that’s thrown out the window. That’s what fans want to see--steals, fast breaks, blocks, shots taken in rhythm. Not a mechanical, 12 play, scripted drive that ends in a 2 yard run into the end zone. That’s football."-Lodo Grdzak

Miami Heat are probably the only team to have improved since last year. Not only did they acquire Shane Battier and Ronnie Turiaf in the off-season; but Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller are healthy. If Lebron's ever going to win the whole thing, this should be the year. Unfortunately, the Heat still don’t have a point guard; still have no depth should one of their big 3 players gets hurt; and I don’t like their coach. 

Chicago Bulls have the deepest team and the league’s best defense; but their offense can get very stagnant and Derrick Rose looks worn down. They need a minimum of 15 points a a game from Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Rip Hamilton--along with some big numbers from Rose, and I have doubts whether they can do that against Miami.

I really haven’t seen Oklahoma City Thunder play too much this year (west coast games go on at 10:30 PM here in New York). That said, if I could pick any player in the league at this moment in their career to start my own franchise, it’d be Kevin Durant. The guy’s offense is off the chart and he’s the perfect defensive compliment to Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Plus everyone seems to like him. Go Thunder! I wanna see you in The Finals. 

My niece Jaybird's two favorite teams: Celtics and Spurs--Go figure! (No comment from me).

You know I’ll be rooting for the Knicks ‘til they get knocked out (most likely in 1st round). Its too bad that Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire both got hurt; but Knicks have a very potent offense, Tyson Chandler is literally a champion, and ‘Melo Anthony has never played better. Go for it New York!!  

"He's never gotten into any type of scandal, all he decided to do was to go to a different place to work. And it just shows you that we celebrate athletes who go through addictions, go through problems with the law. This isn't what LeBron James has had problems with..." 
--Jeff Van Gundy


* NOTE: All pics stolen off Google Images, with the exception of the photo of me taken at Madison Square Garden. All rights reserved on my pic (like you really want that!). Other pics may be copyrighted by their owners.