It has been quite a year for [clears throat] LARRY SANDERS!. He broke out last season, blowing away his previous minutes totals, cutting his once astronomical foul rate, cleaning the defensive glass, and scaring the hell out of any opponent who dared enter the lane. Milwaukee’s defense collapsed whenever SANDERS! hit the bench, and his rare combination of elite rim protection and deft footwork against the pick-and-roll earned him a monster extension that kicks in next season. He is now the face of the Milwaukee Bucks, as strange as that sounds.
The debut of the funky-as-ever Bucks did not go well Wednesday night against the Knicks. Brandon Knight tweaked his hamstring less than two minutes into the game, SANDERS! barely played because of foul trouble (that old bugaboo), and a feisty group of reserves couldn’t complete a comeback down the stretch.
After the game, SANDERS! sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
A review of two big moves that broke Friday evening:
Wizards Trade Emeka Okafor and 2014 First-Round Pick (Top-12 Protected) to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Malcolm Lee, and Kendall Marshall
This is what happens when an owner gives his general manager, in the final year of his contract, a very loud mandate to make the playoffs. The Wizards might have been able to make a run at that goal with their pre-trade roster — even though Okafor, co-leader of their surprise top-five defense last season, is out indefinitely with a herniated disk. Look at the Eastern Conference outside the top four teams. You’re telling me a core of John Wall, Nene, and Bradley Beal couldn’t snag the no. 7 or no. 8 seed, provided anything close to competent play from the supporting cast? The Wizards gave Wall a max-level extension, voluntarily took on Nene’s $13 million annual contract, and can’t stop talking about what a wonderful player Beal is going to be. But they’re not good enough to carry the Wiz to the last playoff spot in a top-heavy conference? Things are so precarious that a team that should still be building to the future has to sacrifice a first-round pick — and potentially a first-round pick in the most loaded draft in years — to acquire a league-average center on an expiring contract? All for the short-term endgame of losing to Miami, Chicago, Brooklyn, or Indiana in the first round?
Dwight Howard has been a Houston Rocket for three weeks. I sent him some text messages.
Me: yo, yo Dwight: hey Me: so, man, I mean are you really in the news this much all the time? Dwight: what do you mean? Me: well, right around the time that you signed up with Houston, I set up a "dwight howard" email alert and every day there are four or five stories about you Dwight: :) i have a dwight howard email alert also. Me: I figured. So there are always this many stories about you? Dwight: I also have one for "Houston rockets" and I also have one for "hotdog fistfight" Me: um, what? Dwight: What what? Me: what do you mean what what? Hot dog fistfight, bro Dwight: oh. it mostly just returns zero results but, I'm saying, what if a video pops up of a hot dog fistfight? I don't wanna miss that. Me: What's a hot dog fistfight though? Dwight: I DON'T KNOW THAT'S WHY I HAVE THE ALERT. Me: :/ Dwight: it could be something ordinary like two guys that get in a fight over a hot dog (I saw a video like that last year) but it could be something amazing like two actual hot dogs that fight each other Me: cartoon hot dogs? Dwight: real hot dogs Me: this is the most I've ever talked about hot dogs in my life Dwight: did you ever see that documentary The Golden Child? Me: not a documentary but sure I saw it Dwight: remember that part where the kid makes the soda can get up and start dancing around? Me: sure Dwight: what if that kid shows up one day and decides he wants to make two hot dogs get up and fistfight each other??? Do you really wanna be the guy that misses that video? Me: jesus christ
You may have heard about Steve Nash “trying out” for Inter Milan, the Italian soccer powerhouse competing, along with seven other teams, in the Guinness International Champions Cup starting next week. The tryout, which isn’t a real tryout, is among many promotional events scheduled in the lead-up to the tournament. Nash sat down for an extended one-on-one with Grantland a few hours before the tryout to discuss his basketball philosophy, the Lakers’ future, the Spurs’ near championship, Dwight Howard, and lots more. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
The 2013 free-agency signing period isn’t even over yet, but already the basketball world can barely wait for the summer of 2014, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony can all become free agents. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the Lakers will be armed with loads and loads of cap space, and consequently will be writing checks to LeBron, Carmelo, Thor, and anyone else they damn well please, according to various reports.
You can’t turn your head twice without seeing something about the Lakers’ grand 2014 plan, which is all well and good, except that the Lakers won’t have nearly as much cap space as people seem to think they will.
Let’s stipulate a few things before we break down the most possible room under the cap the Lakers can have:
1. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll use the projected $62.1 million 2014-15 salary cap reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein, Larry Coon, and others.
2. The only guaranteed salaries on the Lakers’ books for the 2014-15 season belong to Steve Nash and Robert Sacre, who are due about $9.7 million and $900,000, respectively.
3. The Lakers still own their own 2014 first-round pick, which will also count against their projected cap for the 2014-15 season. To calculate the maximum possible cap space Los Angeles can have, we’re going to assign it the 30th pick in the draft, which carries a first-year salary of $911,400. Note that the Lakers are extremely unlikely to actually have the 30th pick in the draft, as this is a team that just finished eighth in a brutal Western Conference, lost Dwight Howard, and may be without Kobe Bryant for part of the 2013-14 season, depending on when he returns from his Achilles injury.
4. Under the collective bargaining agreement, new contracts for James and Anthony can have a maximum first-year salary of 105 percent of the previous year’s (i.e., 2013-14) salary.
5. The Lakers are subject to the same rules as the other 29 teams and don’t have a special Laker Exception that allows the team to sign anybody it wants.
In case you were busy dancing like everyone was watching, because they are, and you should dance like they are unless you want to look like a fool, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Powered by a hat trick from Chris Wondolowski, the U.S. men's national soccer team hammered Belize, 6-1, in the opening match of their Gold Cup campaign. The Gold Cup, of course, is the biennial opportunity for teams of footballing prospectors from around North and Central America to quest for the lost city of El Dorado, with the winning country (Mexico in the last two competitions) allowed to plunder the city if it completes a series of culminating athletic challenges. While the early competitions are all based around soccer, the final challenge allows the winning nation's two most powerful explorers to enter the temple of El Dorado. After being given instructions by a talking rock, the two men must grab one of the city's famed artifacts in three minutes, while eluding the pursuits of temple guards. Of course, this final challenge is impossible and no team has ever succeeded, as the city of El Dorado itself languishes under the dictatorial control of FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Adrian Beltre smashed two home runs off of Zach Britton as the Texas Rangers grabbed Game 2 of their series against the Baltimore Orioles with an 8-4 win at Camden Yards. "I hate those colonial wankers," Beltre said after the game. "That's why I only play hard for [Rangers manager Ron] Washington, and will do everything I can to destroy Britton, or at least get him back on to his own soil."
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's playoff games.
1. Zach Randolph
Zach is back! Fourteen career playoff double-doubles! Lost his headband a couple of times! Clearly the beneficiary of a night spent in a hyperbaric chamber where you pump in 8ball & MJG mixtapes instead of oxygen! Steve Nash should try that. Right, Steve Nash?
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's playoff games.
1. Paul George
Danny Chau: Sure, it wasn’t a triple-double, but Paul George — with his 27 points on 11-for-21 shooting — was no slouch. After a dismal shooting performance in Game 1, George made a commitment to getting easy points around the basket, and he was unstoppable from 15 feet in. It was a night that inspired confidence in George's already bright future. When he has games like these, when it all comes so effortlessly, it’s hard not to dream of a time when these outings from George become the norm.
As with everything related to Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, there is the tendency to make a giant deal out of every game-to-game adjustment Bryant makes. Kobe finished with 11 assists last night, reigniting the debate over whether the Lakers are “better” when he’s in “facilitator” mode, or even whether Bryant consciously toggles between “facilitator” and “scorer” as a way to draw attention to himself and all he’s doing to WILL HIS TEAM to the finish line.
The reality is sometimes simpler: Kobe passed the ball so much and ran the offense against Dallas in a borderline make-or-break game because Steve Nash wasn’t playing, Steve Blake can’t really run a team, and not even Mike D’Antoni trusts Chris Duhon to sop up reserve minutes at this point. Kobe is a wonderful passer, and always has been. He’s such a fascinating player in part because so much of his passing ability stems from his almost unique selfishness as a scorer. A large portion of his typical assists come from post-ups and wing isolations in which Kobe holds the ball for SO DAMN LONG — sometimes as many as 10 consecutive seconds — that defenses almost feel like they must send an extra defender at him at some point. And when that happens, with the shot clock dwindling, Kobe is an expert at reading multiple layers of help defense and dishing to the Lakers’ very best option — the cutter, the player who comes open behind the cutter, or some other spot-up guy.
After a crazy night of NBA injuries, wild finishes, and resounding wins, a smorgasbord of random thoughts that don’t merit their own posts:
• The Lakers’ defense has been a disaster over the last 20 games whenever Dwight Howard sits, mostly because the Lakers have zero reliable big men beyond Howard, with both Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill injured. An Earl Clark-Antawn Jamison-Metta World Peace front line offers some interesting athleticism, but very little in the way of size or rim protection. It cannot survive against good offenses over extended minutes.
But now we might get to see the opposite challenge: Can the Lakers’ offense survive without its own crutch in Kobe Bryant, dealing with a severe ankle sprain suffered when Dahntay Jones stepped underneath him in defending a potential game-tying shot? (Note: Can you imagine if the Lakers rallied to win that game, with the Hawks missing a couple of late free throws and Kobe nailing a instant killer 3 on an out-of-bounds play to keep L.A. alive with about 20 seconds left? The Lakers were due for a close loss after semi-miraculous wins over the Hornets and Raptors in the last week, but they damn near pulled off another one.)
In case you were busy celebrating National Croissant Day by gorging yourself on refrigerated crescent rolls to spite the French, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Brooklyn Nets forward Reggie Evans raised some eyebrows before his team's game against the Miami Heat by saying he was "unimpressed" with Miami forward LeBron James. "He's no different than Joe Johnson or Andray Blatche," said Evans, who suffers from a rare illness where he mixes up names and faces within professional organizations. Evans went on to say, "I saw that white kid play at Florida, and he's a good shooter, but people talk about him like he's the best in the world, when obviously their real superstar is small forward Joel Anthony. That guy's a triple-double threat every night, like the reincarnation of Byron Scott and Toni Kukoc in a single body. Where's the Joel Anthony MVP talk? That's what I, Mikhail Prokhorov, want to know." The Heat went on to blow out the Nets, 105-85, in Brooklyn, as Evans missed every last one of his defensive assignments.
It’s bad for your health to care about All-Star selections. The selection process is flawed in minor ways, and with only 12 spots, deserving players will be left home every year. Still: All-Star selections matter, perhaps more than they should, when it comes time to assess a player’s place in NBA history. Rajon Rondo just made his fourth All-Star team. Here is the total list of point guards who have made at least that many All-Star appearances since the league adopted the 3-point shot: Magic Johnson (12), Isiah Thomas (12), John Stockton (10), Jason Kidd (10), Gary Payton (9), Steve Nash (8), Chris Paul (6), Chauncey Billups (5), Tim Hardaway (5), Tony Parker (5), Maurice Cheeks (4), and Mark Price (4).
So with four All-Star selections, Rondo has now zoomed passed most of the “very good” point guard crop of the past 30 years, and is a couple of appearances away from jumping into the “certain Hall of Famer” group. As Rondo ages and folks debate his Hall of Fame credentials, his number of All-Star appearances will come up as evidence of his Springfield worthiness.
When I gave last night’s Thunder-Nuggets game one of my coveted DVR slots, I knew I was probably recording a schedule loss. Denver was on the second night of a back-to-back, having traveled from Denver to OKC after an overtime win over Portland. Oklahoma City was coming off a rest day, and Serge Ibaka was back in the lineup after missing two games with a chest contusion.
Still: Games between these teams have massive entertainment potential, and there is some chippiness dating to an underrated first-round series — a five-game OKC win — in 2011.
Oklahoma City indeed blew away Denver with terrifying ease — transition buckets, enough offensive rebounds to push George Karl into using his two-center lineup, a festival of Russell Westbrook jumpers, and Kevin Durant being mean for a bit before doing some distributing. Durant is mean every night, but Westbrook’s shooting has been a bit of a wild card. His shooting numbers are slowly trending the right way after a horrid start, but he’s still at about 35 percent on mid-range shots after hitting about 41 percent last season, per NBA.com. The Thunder are so good at this point, on both ends of the floor, that on nights Westbrook makes even half his jumpers, the other team may as well forfeit.
Sports talk radio never changes. Kevin from Saugus is Leo from Bensonhurst is Robbie from Schaumburg is Carl on a cell phone on the 280 outside Daly City, and although each of those guys complains in a regional style about regional players, they all share a similar tone — the annoyed arch in the vowels when they pronounce a terrible quarterback's name, the self-righteous lilt whenever they talk about a linebacker who has been recently arrested. Here in Los Angeles, sports talk radio is really just Lakers talk radio. The Kings can win the Stanley Cup, the Clippers can win 17 straight games, UCLA can recruit the top high school player in the nation, but as long as Kobe Bryant is doing something at Staples Center, every Dan from Santa Monica, Jun from Cerritos, and Miguel from West Covina will call in to sing his praises. It's a weird, profoundly Southern Californian inversion of the usual sports talk radio formula — Dan, Jun, and Miguel might be the same guys as Kevin, Leo, and Robbie, they might still be nasty and paranoid, but they are nasty and paranoid about the greatness of Kobe Bryant.
This season, the unctuous positivity of Lakers fans has been stretched thin. November talk about 70 wins and a surefire championship quickly devolved into "It doesn't matter that we went 0-8 in the preseason because PRESEASON GAMES DON'T COUNT WHEN IT'S WINNING TIME," which, in turn, devolved into "The Princeton offense sucks. Mike Brown sucks, but Kobe rules!" This lasted for about a week until Mike Brown was actually fired, leading to a 4-1 stretch under interim coach Bernie Bickerstaff. For about 10 days here, the talk upticked to "We might not win the 1-seed, but we'll still win the championship and that's all anyone cares about here in championship town." But once Mike D'Antoni took over and the Lakers started losing again, even the most positive callers began to question the team's chemistry and makeup. After the Lakers lost to Cleveland last month, Armageddon seemed nigh. Nobody would come out and say that these Lakers couldn't beat anyone in the playoffs (except THIS GUY — sorry, I am right so infrequently that I sometimes feel the need to take a victory lap), but the talk about blowing up this current product and starting afresh with anyone but Pau Gasol had begun in earnest.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
Mason Plumlee had 21 points and 15 boards to lead no. 1 Duke to a 76-54 win over Elon on the same day that the nation's no. 2 high school recruit, Jabari Parker, committed to the Blue Devils. Parker is a Mormon, and sources report that his choice has given Mitt Romney a sliver of hope that someone else might take over the "Mormon Devil" nickname. Unfortunately, because Parker is a 6-foot-8 post player, it has already been confirmed that his nickname will be "The Hook of Mormon."