What’s the NBA’s hottest throwback trend in the playoffs? Iman Shumpert’s haircut? Jay-Z’s ownership of an NBA franchise being “zero” rather than “trace amounts”? No, it’s actually coaching. After several years of avoiding anything resembling relevancy, despite their enviable young talent, the Cavaliers and Timberwolves respectively brought Mike Brown (as a head coach) and Flip Saunders (as president of basketball operations) back into the fold with the hopes of restoring those franchises to the greatest glory they have known. Before we go any further, let’s just take time to appreciate what “glory” entails for these long and frequently suffering franchises — which is to say, an occasional sniff at a conference finals or a chance to be remembered along the lines of the 2002 Nets or the 2001 Sixers as one of the pre-eminent no-hopers in the NBA Finals. That might seem like a preferable alternative to the pedestrian awfulness that’s befallen them in the past, but it doesn’t speak well of the NBA’s current state, where something like 7 percent of its teams are truly capable of winning a championship, give or take 3.3 percent.
That being said, a retread coach might not be the worst idea. It saves a lot of time and money on the administrative end — the old guy knows where the parking garage is. But NBA teams should consider what it takes to be an NBA champion these days. If you can’t sign a marquee free agent — and something like 75 percent of the teams cannot — you’re going to have to lose and lose again until you luck upon a draft with the equivalent. So why waste time begrudgingly going blow-for-blow with the Pacers or the Grizzlies over the next three years? You need a coach who knows how to lose for your franchise. But which old flames burn dullest?
It was a year that provided plenty of personalities, story lines, and moments, but the question is, which of those moments got their due and which did not? Could LeBron James actually be underrated? Could the Olympics? They just might be.
Underrated: LeBron James's Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Indiana
Everyone remembers the 45-point evisceration of Boston on the road in an elimination game, and the ultra-efficient inside-out torching of the Thunder in the Finals. But Game 4 against the Pacers has sort of gotten lost in the shuffle, which can happen, I guess, when a game kicks off one of the greatest 15-game stretches in the entire history of a sport. Miami felt like it was on the verge of a franchise-altering crisis going into Game 4, down 2-1 to a feisty Indiana team and missing Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade had shot 2-of-13 and snapped at Erik Spoelstra during a Game 3 blowout loss. It wasn't an elimination game, but in that moment it was hard to imagine Miami coming back from a 3-1 deficit against a Pacers club that clearly didn't fear them.
And when Miami fell behind by 10 points in the first half of Game 4, looking a bit listless, it was tempting to start thinking about the consequences of a conference semifinals loss. Would they make a panic trade of one of the stars? Would they conclude James and Wade just couldn't coexist well enough to win a title? Would they fire Spoelstra before his extension — which was signed before the season — even kicked in?
Then LeBron and Wade went absolutely bananas, scoring 38 straight points for Miami in a second-half stretch for the ages. It wasn't just the production; it was the way it looked. Both were cutting actively off the ball and feeding each other for the sorts of semi-improv scores we all envisioned when they teamed up. Spoelstra began leaning on sets in which Miami cleared one side of the floor for LeBron and letting James go to work. He was dominant in those sets, which were rarely a major part of Miami's offense before, and they morphed into post-ups as the playoffs wore on — the post-ups for which Oklahoma City had no answer. It all just came together, at a startling speed. James finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists, numbers that no other player has ever put up in a postseason game since the mid-1980s. He hit post-up shots, jumpers, graceful floaters over Roy Hibbert in the lane — shots he just didn't quite have down even two or three seasons before. It was masterful, and the Heat needed every bit of it. — Zach Lowe
I spent about five hours on the highway this weekend, and before we get to the college basketball–related epiphanies for this week, I have three driving-related epiphanies:
1. In my mind, the worst breach of highway etiquette is when a driver in the left lane travels at the exact same (slow) speed as the driver in the right lane, clogging the highway and making it impossible for anyone to pass. It's selfish, stupid, and beyond infuriating. I used to deal with this problem by stewing in anger and shouting a few obscenities inside the safety of my car. Not effective. Eventually, I began tailgating in an effort to show that I hated the driver and would like to pass. More effective, but sometimes they'd become obstinate and refuse to move. But now, my evolution is complete, because I've reached a point in life where I just drive up, wait a few seconds to make sure I'm not being an impatient douche, and then hit the horn at reasonable intervals until they move. And the crazy part? It works, and I'm a lot less angry. I just sail by while the offender glowers at me from the slowpoke lane where he belongs. I'm pretty sure this new Zen-like approach contains the seeds of a great motivational book.
2. Things can get really, really odd when you're alone in a car. I once had a roommate in New York who told me he was looking forward to visiting his family in Kansas City for a holiday so he could "get in the car and just get weird." I knew exactly what he meant. And I'm not talking weird in any kind of perverse way. I'm talking, like, singing freestyle blues songs about highway signs. I'm talking about giving fake interviews in foreign accents. I'm talking about carrying on one-sided conversations with other drivers. Just letting the brain roam where it will, which is always some place bizarre. If there was a TV show that was just footage of people who thought they were alone in a car, it would be a smash hit. And if aliens ever considered invading, but that show was the only thing they watched ahead of time, they'd immediately cancel their plans, since we are clearly a planet of psychopaths.
3. If someone is exhibiting "dickish" behavior on the road, there is a 95 percent chance that he will be driving a pickup truck. Pickup trucks are the new 18-wheelers, and 18-wheelers are the new sports cars. I know a lot of good people who own pickup trucks, including my father, so please don't think I'm stereotyping. This is just a scientific conclusion culled from years of observation; among the thriving group of respectable pickup truckers, there is a group of renegade road terrorists. And if you bike? God help you, because then it goes up to 100 percent. Pickup truck people hate bikers and love to buzz them or scream out the window as they pass. Someday, I'm going to bike past a pickup trucker stopped for speeding, and I'm going to get my revenge by mocking them on the fly. And on that day, the driver will probably be my father. Sorry, Dad.
On to the hoops! Here's what we learned from the past week:
All this week, we'll be running college basketball team previews for the 20 (or so) Most Interesting Teams. Today we present the Royal Blues, and then we'll work our way up to the Big Guns.
Is it strange to anyone else that the five most legendary teams in college basketball all wear blue? When you look at the four winningest programs in history, it's blue all the way — Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke. Turn to national titles, and UCLA emerges as the fifth major power. (Yes, Indiana, you would be the sixth. And yes, you're red, but you can't be mad; you're the best team in the country this season, and the national title favorite.) This year, the Royal Blues are ranked from third to 13th, and since the NCAA landscape resembles 2009-10, when the absence of truly dominant teams opened up the race, they all have at least a hint of a title shot. We begin with last year's champs.
1. LeBron James: FEEL THE HEAT
LeBron James! Champion of the NBA! Champion of the late-night talk show circuit! And now — champion of Rankonia! Congratulations, LeBron. I know this means a lot to you. Rankonia Pal Chris Ryan has this week's top nomination:
Here's LeBron James doing the ceremonial David Letterman victory lap that comes with winning a major sports trophy. I love everything about this: Paul Shaffer throwing down some Power Station for the intro music; the genuine, beaming smile on LeBron's face when he walks, like he is genuinely chuffed to be getting a standing ovation; and of course his showing self-restraint by not going HULK SMASH when Letterman opens the interview by asking him if he's going to go back Cleveland. That, LeBron, is what we in the karma business call MARIO CHALMERS'S REVENGE.
1. Kentucky's Starting Five: DEUCES
It would be easy to be flippant about the starting five on Kentucky's national championship basketball team all declaring for the NBA draft, in unison, on Tuesday. You could mock coach John Calipari for building his program around one-and-done players, you could raise an eyebrow at noted NBA power broker World Wide Wes' presence at the NCAA tournament final as an obvious UK fan. Or you could just see the shared elation on the faces of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, and Marquis Teague, and let these guys live a little. I defy you to read this Kidd-Gilchrist quote and begrudge these guys a single thing in life: "I want to spoil my mom. I think I'm going to spoil my mom to death. That's one thing I'm looking forward to." They earned it. All of them.
He's still the king. For what feels like the 20th straight year, but is actually the fourth, Kentucky coach John Calipari has recruited the best incoming class in the country. There's no mystery to the burgeoning dynasty; before this season, he already boasted a long track record of producing successful NBA players. And as Chuck Klosterman pointed out before the Final Four, a national championship would eliminate the last real reservation a five-star recruit might have. Titles, prestige, a huge payday one or two years down the road why wouldn't you go to Kentucky?
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
In the first major league baseball game of the regular season on American soil, Kyle Lohse pitched six no-hit innings and lasted into the eighth as the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Miami Marlins 4-1. It was the first regular-season game in the new Marlins Park with the new Miami name, and it led to this conversation:
I was a teenage John Calipari recruit. You have not read about me on Rivals.com. There are no YouTube compilations of me going off against Oak Hill Academy. I never even played for the man. But, in a fashion, the commitment I made to him lasted longer than any of the stops Calipari has made in his professional life.
When I was a kid, I knew a lot about college basketball (in so much as I memorized Street & Smith's College Basketball Annual). But when you're young, your allegiances aren't as logical and geographically rooted as they are when you grow up. I liked Syracuse because of Stephen Thompson and Sherman Douglas. I also liked Villanova because of Rollie Massimino's championship team. These things had no rhyme or reason; I just liked who I liked.
There are lies we tell ourselves about the Kentucky Wildcats and John Calipari — comfortable fibs, supported by deceptive history, that help us sleep at night. They certainly make it easier to imagine a national champion from outside Lexington raising the trophy in early April, and they preserve a Manichean black-and-white simplicity that stifles the unpleasant nuances of truth. They are:
1. A team led by freshmen and sophomores can't win a national title. Experience trumps ability in the tournament, at least to some extent. Freshmen-heavy teams like Kentucky will always falter in the big moment because they're not suited to handle the intense pressure to which older players have become accustomed. That's why even the superlatively talented John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins-Eric Bledsoe Kentucky team of 2010 couldn't beat West Virginia and star senior Da'Sean Butler in the Elite Eight.
2. On top of that, Kentucky is perpetually full of great athletes who can't shoot. They lost to West Virginia after going 4-for-32 from beyond the arc, and it keeps them from being truly great.
3. John Calipari's success comes with a price. He's a dirty coach who had to vacate two Final Four appearances — one at UMass and another at Memphis — and he's more of a snake-oil salesman than a true leader. No one doubts his recruiting acumen, but his lack of strategic excellence (and maybe a dose of karma — see Memphis vs. Kansas, 2008) will always deny him the coveted title.
It makes me feel good, reading these words to myself. Unfortunately, they're bogus, and Kentucky is going to win a national championship.
Every year, when upset season begins, an article emerges from a well-meaning but staggeringly uptight writer who has taken time out of his or her precious days on Earth to lecture college kids about storming the court. There have to be rules, you see. We can't just storm for the love of the game. It's not dignified! You know the drill. The rigid enthusiasm cop chides the overzealous fans and sets up arbitrary guidelines, of which there are two mainstays. First, the victory has to be an upset against a top-ranked team or a bitter rival. Second, it should end on a buzzer-beater or something equally dramatic.
Top-ranked Kentucky and no. 5 North Carolina played the most anticipated college basketball contest of the young season Saturday and delivered a game that more than lived up to its hype. Kentucky came out with the one-point, 73-72 win thanks to Anthony Davis’ block on what would’ve been the game-winning shot from Carolina’s John Henson. With as many as 12 potential first-round draft picks playing in this game, there was certainly enough to keep viewers entertained. But here are the three things I couldn’t help but notice while I watched:
Obsessively combing through information on high school basketball players has never been the coolest of hobbies. Outside the fungal patches of obscurity that grow in the crevices of the blogosphere, it is the pastime of someone with too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to use it constructively. You could be memorizing digits of Pi or playing the air harpsichord. For most sports fans, those talented 17-year-olds are just names with exaggerated dimensions and statistical accomplishments that sound fictionalized. Did you hear how Darvious Smithstein had a quadruple-double in the Altoona Class D semifinal — and all in the second half?
When it’s all said and done, the history books could show that this Kentucky team was coach John Calipari’s best team ever. Well, the NCAA history books will probably show that Calipari coached for only five years and the 2002 Memphis team that won the NIT was his best team ever, but whatever. The point is, this year Kentucky’s roster looks like someone is playing a video game and either put all the best players on one team or edited the player ratings and turned Kentucky’s guys all the way up. Hell, you could close your eyes and throw a dart at a team picture of Kentucky and chances are the guy the dart hit would be the best player on 95 percent of college basketball teams. (I originally wrote that last sentence as hyperbole, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced it’s true. Kentucky really is that talented.)