Coaching news has rudely interrupted the endless stream of first-round playoff games, as both Charlotte and Cleveland came to major decisions about their head-coaching positions on Tuesday. The Bobcats’ semi-surprising decision to fire Mike Dunlap with one season left on his contract marked the fourth departure of a head coach since the end of the NBA regular season, which happened just one week ago. That round of firings followed four in-season dismissals, and three of the teams that made in-season changes — Milwaukee, Phoenix, and the Nets — are at the very least going to think very hard about making new hires in the next month or two.
Amid the buzzer-beaters, heartbreak, and drama in the NCAA tournament, NBA teams are using college basketball’s biggest stage to fine-tune their evaluations of some of the league’s future stars. For someone like Ben McLemore of Kansas or Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, a brilliant stretch in March will allow them to stake their claim as the no. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. Regardless of where they are selected, both McLemore and Smart — should they declare — will move on from successful college programs to teams in the professional ranks that aren’t exactly synonymous with winning. During the past two seasons, no team has represented this perennial lottery dweller quite like the Charlotte Bobcats.
After a historically bad season that was partially obscured by a lockout-shortened schedule, the team has continued its futility again this year. In 11 of its past 13 games, Charlotte has been blown out by 14 or more points, an embarrassing stretch that has helped make the team owners of the league’s worst record. Or, in other words, things are going exactly as planned in Charlotte.
Welcome to life in the NBA, where every spring brings not only the excitement of the playoffs, but the unsavory notion of tanking. In a league that rewards losing and incompetence with valuable high draft picks, it pays to be bad. So with organizations like Charlotte, Orlando, and even Portland actively looking to avoid respectability, it’s time to restart the conversation about what tanking does to the competitive nature of the league.
There was a time, about a month ago, when the February 26 game at the United Center would have been appointment viewing. The Bulls were 24-16 and, somehow, without Derrick Rose, just a game and a half back of the second seed in the East. Rose’s return seemed imminent, and in a season where no clear challenger for Miami’s conference throne had emerged, Bulls fans held out hope that a retooling process that was supposed to take two years wouldn’t exist at all.
Along that road would be last night’s tilt against the Cavaliers, what would be the first clash of Rose and Kyrie Irving since the latter’s ascension to the fraternity of the league’s elite. That Rose didn’t end up playing comes as no surprise, given news of late. The Bulls have elected to bring him along slowly, and given what’s happened in the past few weeks, it’s hard to blame them. Chicago was 4-7 in February as of yesterday afternoon, with the average loss coming by almost 16 points.
Irving’s absence, on the other hand, wasn’t expected. He’d tweaked his right knee in practice last week but had managed to play in two games since. When the team announced yesterday morning that its star guard would be taking the night off, the month-long road from anticipated to unwatchable was complete. With the blessing of A Fate Worse Than Death architect Rafe Bartholomew, it was decided that there was no better time to resurrect Grantland’s dedication to the NBA hate-watch.
In case you were busy winding down all of your Italian business interests, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Trevor Mbakwe and the Minnesota Golden Gophers upset top-ranked Indiana, 77-73 in Minneapolis. Mbakwe, who started his college career playing for Indiana head coach Tom Crean at Marquette, said, "Something about Crean brings out the best in me. Maybe it's his smile that says at once, 'I care,' and 'I know this isn't forever.' Maybe it's that 'come-hither' stare, in which worlds are created and destroyed in his irises every time he blinks behind his wire-framed glasses. Maybe it's his lyrical name, 'Tom Crean.' All I know is, when I see his face, I'm compelled to be at once my best and worst self."
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
RIP, King LeBron James, 1984-2013
As the minutes trickled away during last night's game, a relative non-fan of the NBA asked me the ages of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
"I think Kobe is 34."
"Oh, I thought he was 40!"
"And LeBron is 28, pretty sure."
"What? I thought he was much younger than that."
On cue, age evaporated. With three minutes remaining, Kobe recovered a missed James Harden layup, crossed Drunk Chris Bosh over, and scored an easy, slicing-away basket. Then he pressed LeBron in the backcourt, hounded him across half court, looked for a steal, and then recovered and blocked a 19-footer. The deflection poked ahead to a streaking Kevin Durant, who dunked. He jutted his chin in that way, and then grinned. "Forty-year-old Kobe" — at his 15th consecutive All-Star game, tied with Shaq for the second-most to Kareem's 18 — checked the Boy King and embarrassed him. Two minutes later, he did it again, stealing the ball with less than a minute to play and the game on the line. (One play later, he did it again, cleanly blocking a LeBron drive, though a foul was called erroneously. LeBron, thunderstruck, missed one of his two free throws.)
On our first full day in Houston, Jacoby, Zach Lowe, and I had the pleasure of talking with a few of the NBA's brightest stars. Jacoby spoke with Kyrie Irving about video games, 3-point shooting, and Uncle Drew. I got a chance to talk with Chandler Parsons about the Rockets' rivalry with the Warriors. I also chatted with comic-book fan (and Nets center) (and All-Star) Brook Lopez, who told me about who hogs the stereo in the Brooklyn locker room and where The Dark Knight Rises stands in the Batman canon. Finally, Zach Lowe got an incredibly detailed account of who sits where on the Blazers' team plane from LaMarcus Aldridge and heard from Warriors guard Klay Thompson about what it was like to give up 140 points in one game. Check out the full podcast, as well as the video clips, below.
So, it’s All-Star weekend and the teams have already been chosen. But, I want to use this symbolic time on the NBA calendar to pay tribute to the guys who are having the most efficient shooting performances this season. I’ve selected my own all-star teams on the basis of shooting efficiency. The CourtVision all-stars are the guys who are scoring much higher than league averages at their most common shooting locations. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of overlap with the “real” all-stars here, but there are also some interesting differences. Let’s start in the backcourt.
People realize this is happening, right? That the Cavaliers have a real chance of finishing with the league’s worst record this season, after finishing with the second-worst record in Year 1 of the Post-LeBron Era and the third-worst record in Year 2 of the PLE?
Their chances got better today, when the team announced that Anderson Varejao would undergo surgery this week to repair a messy problem around his right knee. Varejao, Cleveland’s second-best player by about 10 miles, will miss at least six weeks, meaning his minimal recovery time would take him just past the trade deadline. He’s effectively off the market for solid playoff teams who could use an extra big man — Boston (lacking the assets, barring a continued jones in Cleveland for Jeff Green), Oklahoma City (no confirmed interest despite endless trade machine proposals), Miami (stop laughing), New York (no realistic package), Denver (always a wild card), San Antonio (what they’d send is unclear), and perhaps one or two others. Cleveland’s GM, Chris Grant, reportedly loves Varejao, and it’s unclear if he was ever seriously interested in dealing a guy who still isn’t old and could serve as a nice role model for all the young guys here.
It’s a refrain we’re hearing now from Mike D’Antoni’s harshest critics: The Lakers are banged up, yes, but any team with Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant should be better than 9-13. Even worse, they're 4-8 since D’Antoni took over on the bench.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the bounty-related suspensions of four Saints players, in effect saying that despite any wrongdoing on their part, the team's coaches were responsible as the leaders of the organization. In a desperate move, Sean Payton retroactively named Jonathan Vilma head coach of the Saints, and demoted himself to kicker.
You know those commercials in which Kyrie Irving dresses up like the Unabomber and hustles some local playground dudes while sideline folks cheer him on and enjoy diet soda? Well, those are far-fetched; everybody knows the Unabomber is an awful basketball player. Kyrie Irving is not an awful basketball player. In fact, at 20 years old, he is quickly emerging as the league’s youngest superstar.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Unscramble the anagram to decode the WACKY HALLOWEEN COSTUME.
LeBron James scored 26 points and grabbed 10 boards despite missing most of the second half with cramps, and the Heat opened the NBA season with a 120-107 win over the Celtics. To spite the Celtics, James will dress up as an: CRAWLEN 'N HEL
Dwight Howard's first regular-season shot as a Laker was a missed two-handed dunk, and the Mavericks started their year with a 99-91 upset win over L.A. To the horror of Lakers fan, Howard dressed as a: LEGIT LAM CUB
Kyrie Irving’s quest to win the Internet continued on Thursday. A couple months removed from dressing up as an old man and hustling dudes in pickup games, Irving came back to YouTube yesterday — this time challenging Kobe Bryant to a $50,000 game of one-on-one after a Team USA training session. Word out of Vegas is that Irving has torn it up in scrimmages against the Olympic squad. That makes sense. I’m not sure what other sort of feat could inspire this much chutzpah. The back-and-forth was so good that we decided to bring you the five best moments.