The long game in the NBA is fickle. Luck intertwines with talent to determine long-term success in a 30-team league in which having at least one of the top 20 players (and preferably one of the top 10) is required for championship contention. The luck + talent + decision-making equation tilted against two local lightning rods on Tuesday, one coach and one GM. Some words on each:
The Clippers Decline to Offer Vinny Del Negro, and Del Negro’s Hair, a New Contract
Del Negro is by some measures the most successful coach in the sad history of the Clippers, but 56 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances were not enough to earn a new contract — not after the Clips dropped four straight games, each more dispiriting than the last, to a very good Memphis team in the first round. It’s hard to evaluate this decision without first acknowledging four realities so basic they are almost boring:
• Del Negro would still have this job if Chris Paul wanted him to have it.
• Del Negro may well still have this job had Blake Griffin not suffered a serious ankle injury between Games 4 and 5 of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Grizzlies.
• With Del Negro out, and probably unlikely to get one of the head-coaching jobs currently open (or soon to come open), there is a vacancy atop the “Best Coach at Screaming at Opposing Shooters and Stamping His Feet” rankings. Del Negro really redefined this skill. He was like a sixth defender on some possessions, and if you edited out the basketball game happening around him, he’d have looked at times like an adult going through a child’s tantrum. Lawrence Frank was a solid no. 2, but he’s also out of a job for now. The door is wide-open, Erik Spoelstra.
• Del Negro might still have this job if the Clippers played defense in the second half of the season, and in the playoffs, as they did over the first 30 games. The Clippers finished ninth in points allowed per possession, but they ranked just 21st from February 1 through the end of the season, and the slowpoke Grizzlies absolutely sliced them up in the playoffs. The Clippers were bad defensively almost the whole season when the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo shared the back line, and they just never showed enough growth or systemic coherence on that end. The Clippers’ bench was mostly very good defensively, and both Griffin and Jordan showed fits of progress — Jordan protecting the rim and defending the post, Griffin using his speed to disrupt pick-and-rolls far from the hoop.
You know how at the beginning of every NFL season, everyone is 0-0 and has a chance at the Super Bowl? That is not true in the NBA. For fans of five to 10 teams every year, the NBA draft lottery is the Super Bowl.
No other sport decides its future like this — with an uncomfortable, surreal 30-minute raffle, basically — and that's what makes it so great. In the span of 30 minutes, jammed in before some conference final game every year, the directions of entire franchises can change one way or the other. For instance, 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the most insane lottery night of all time ...
... when Memphis nearly landed LeBron James, only to end up with nothing (its pick was protected as no. 1 overall but otherwise the Grizzlies had to send it to Detroit). Instead, we walked away thinking Cleveland had just fallen into a dynasty, Detroit was about to extend its dynasty another decade with Darko's frosted tips coming to the Midwest, and the Nuggets were getting Bernard King 2.0 for the next 15 years. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies were destined to remain in NBA no-man's-land, wondering what might have been.
The NBA playoffs are upon us, with 16 teams competing for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But what about the other guys? What about the teams we wish were in the playoffs? We may know, in our heads, that they didn't do enough to get into the postseason, but that doesn't change how we feel in our hearts. We'd like to see these teams competing in Bill Simmons's Entertaining as Hell Tournament, but until that day, we'll just have to write longingly about why we wish they had made it to the promised land.
Portland Trail Blazers
Sean Fennessey: This isn't exactly a song for the Blazers because the Blazers were hard to watch this year. Nic Batum was long and lean and aggressively French, J.J. Hickson played like an exploding can of soda, and Weber State's Damian Lillard was a revelation to those who enjoy tiny-man dunks but don't much care for consistency. (He is only the Rookie of the Year because Anthony Davis hasn't totally figured out how to play basketball yet. He will.) I won't miss those Blazers and I certainly won't miss their bench, mostly because their bench doesn't exist beyond the many terrified faces of Meyers Leonard.
Injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried have George Karl understandably scrambling for healthy rotation parts, but I’m not sure the world is ready to watch the Wild Child front line play heavy minutes. On their very first possession as a duo against Houston on April 6, Jeremy Lin blew by McGee’s overly aggressive and off-balance help defense on a pick-and-roll and launched a layup that Anthony Randolph, helping from the weak side, blatantly goaltended.
Randolph and McGee have combined for at least a dozen moments of sublime chaos since, including a half-dozen alone in Denver’s wild and very necessary win Monday night in Milwaukee — more silly goaltending infractions, two completely out-of-control offensive fouls by a stumbling Randolph, and at least one McGee into-the-stands rejection so dumb McGee expressed immediate regret that he didn’t just catch the ball.
I have a ton of cool information from the Raptors’ analytics program that didn't fit in yesterday's original big-picture piece, so I wanted to share at least some of it here. A roundup of leftover thoughts on analytics, the evolution of the NBA, and the Raptors:
• The two most common responses I got from both league executives and fans were versions of:
1. Holy cow! The Raptors are way ahead of (Insert Team X) in gleaning useful data from the SportVU camera systems.
2. If Toronto’s front office is so savvy, and so determined to combine traditional “eye test” analysis with the most advanced data available, why are they still a mediocre team? And why did they trade for Rudy Gay, an inefficient player whom a new, analytics-savvy front office in Memphis dumped within months of its ascension?
In case you were murdered on the steps of some forum or another Friday, here's what you missed in sports this weekend:
The NCAA tournament field is set with Kansas, Indiana, Louisville, and Gonzaga your four top seeds for March Madness. Expect upsets this year, as Louisville, despite being named the top overall seed, was drawn into the presumptive "group of death," featuring such dangerous teams as Duke, St. Louis, and Michigan State. Also, Gonzaga faces a potentially tough early round game against Pittsburgh oh, god, I'm talking myself into it who, based on advanced statistics, could actually be a slight favorite over the Zags DON'T DO IT; DON'T PICK PITTSBURGH making Pittsburgh my upset special of the tournament NOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Surprisingly omitted from the top line of the NCAA Tournament were the Miami Heat, who won their 22nd consecutive game Sunday, beating the Toronto Raptors, 108-91. "Who needs this NCAA crap," Miami forward LeBron James said after the game, before teammate Shane Battier handed him an economic study on the long-term earning effects of college educations that he had co-authored during the offseason with Duke economics professor Arnaud Maurel.
In case you were busy making a fool of yourself mixing up the accomplishments of Franklin Pierce and James K. Polk, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The NBA All-Star Game pitted the best players in the game against each other in Houston this weekend, with the West coming out on top, 143-138. L.A. Clippers guard Chris Paul, who was named the game's MVP after getting 20 points and 15 assists, said, "I'm just so excited to help secure home court in the Finals for the West, because this time it counts!" When told that the game in no way counted, Paul went on to say, "Really? Is that why no one else was passing or playing defense until the end? Damn, I could have scored so many more points if I had known that."
Toronto Raptors rookie Terrence Ross won this year's NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest with his throwback tribute to former Raptor Vince Carter. First, he amazed the crowd with a display of world-class dunks. Then he limped off the court, petulantly burning bridges with his teammates and the people of Toronto. He plans on returning to next year's competition to complete his performance by not competing at all. "I can't believe it," said runner-up Jeremy Evans, who dunked over a painting of himself dunking over a painting of himself. "How the hell did I got out-meta-ed?"
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.
Pure and Easy
Today marks the start of my 24th month as an Angeleno. Much of that time has been spent in an office about 50 yards from Staples Center, where last year, a lockout-shortened NBA season meant a different basketball game just about every night. Of all the sports memories I’ll take from these two years, what I’ve gotten to see there will be at the top. I’ve seen LeBron James three times, and Kevin Durant one more than that. I’ve watched one of the 10 best players ever play his home games, often enough that it almost feels routine (it never quite gets there). Years from now, though, when I talk about my favorite part of seeing the NBA so close, I’ll talk about Chris Paul.
In case you were busy finally figuring out the trick to seeing the hidden image in those Magic Eye posters, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points on better than 60 percent shooting from the field in six consecutive games as the Miami Heat beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 117-104, at home. "What's with these newfangled statistics?" asked elderly Miami resident Saul Zinman. "Points? Shooting percentage? When I played, we only had two statistics in netball — bouncy passes and bloody noses, and I led the Staten Island Pantaloons in both. Also, all the teams used to be named for types of pants: The San Francisco Denim Men, the Columbus Corduroys, the Weehawken Torn Trousers. I bet you three nickels there's not a single team left named after a type of pants."
In case you were busy deciding who to eat first in case this whole blizzard thing gets out of hand, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
The Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors are reportedly exploring a trade that would send Carlos Boozer to Toronto in exchange for Andrea Bargnani. When Bulls general manger Gar Forman came down to practice to address the exploratory trade rumors, Boozer responded, "Oh, I didn't know we were exploring trades." Boozer then brought out a pile of furs and silks, and began to barter aggressively with reserve power forward Taj Gibson. When Gibson passed on Boozer's textiles, Boozer began hawking his wares to Kirk Hinrich, using his signature catchphrase, "Can you smell the Booze stank in the room?! Because I must be drunk to have prices this low!" Boozer wound up trading three silk scarves, a knit shawl, and a beaver pelt to Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin in exchange for a side of goat, which Boozer then roasted for his teammates as a traditional offering to show he wasn't concerned with the rumors. The Bulls, overfull with goat, then lost to the Nuggets, 128-96, in Denver.
What makes the Grizzlies-Raptors-Pistons blockbuster so exciting is the air of mystery about the long-term, on-court implications of the deal. And those issues almost all surround Rudy Gay: Just how good is he? Within what sort of roster might he jump up a level as a player and become something closer to the All-Star he probably thinks he is? And can Toronto provide that roster?
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.
In case you were busy explaining to your family that you aren't a "doomsday prepper," you're just ready for anything, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Tiger Woods secured his first victory of 2013, easing to a four shot win at the Farmers Open at Torrey Pines. "Winning big tournaments — nothing's better. This is the best feeling in the world," Woods said, before snapping a rubber band on his wrist really, really hard. "Yup, no feeling in the world is better than this one."
In case you were busy watching a yule log DVD in a misguided attempt to stay warm, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
The Miami Heat stormed back from 15 points down against the Toronto Raptors, winning in overtime, 123-116. LeBron James, who got his 34th career triple-double in the win, said afterward, "I used to be completely terrified of dinosaurs, so this sort of comeback wouldn't have been possible even a couple of years ago. But for some reason spending a lot of time around my boy Ol' T-Rex Bosh made me pretty comfortable with the idea of dropping a big game on some scary looking lizards."
The Toronto Raptors gave up a likely lottery pick, now property of the Oklahoma City Thunder, to make Kyle Lowry their starting point guard of the present and future — the dynamic off-the-bounce creator that boring old Jose Calderon could never be. Lowry had worn out his welcome amid lineup uncertainty in both Memphis and Houston, alienating coaches and rubbing some teammates the wrong way. But he'd also grown into an above-average starting point guard playing on one of the best bang-for-the-buck contracts in the league. He’s Philly tough, and his fast-paced style and defensive intensity figured to mesh nicely with Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
But like the anointed Calderon Replacers that came before him (T.J. Ford, Jerryd Bayless), Lowry now finds himself backing up the 31-year-old Spaniard — a perfectly suitable veteran who also happens to be playing on an $11 million expiring contract that stands as Toronto’s best trade asset in their on-again, off-again pursuit of building blocks like Rudy Gay.