Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Are the Heat good for basketball?

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bosh_wade_james.jpgAnother day, another edition of Crosstalk. Today’s topic: The Miami Heat.

Resolved: The Miami Heat (as we now know them) are good for basketball.
Rob Mahoney: It is better to be feared than respected. That’s the truism that LeBron James is betting on, as he single-handedly sabotaged his own image while creating one of the most intimidating teams in recent NBA history. The hometown(ish) hero who held press conferences at his high school is no more, and in his place is a narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar. 
A narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar that happens to play for the Eastern Conference favorites, a team that could conceivably shake the sport and the league to its very core.
The Miami Heat have a chance to be a truly transformational team in a lot of ways, and challenge a lot of what we think we know about the game. The unique combination of top-notch talent assembled on the Heat roster thus simultaneously acts as both basketball innovator and philosopher, ushering in the new while revealing the true nature of the old. That last part is particularly important, especially when we investigate the role the Heat will play in discussions of positional fluidity.
LeBron James may end up being the “point guard,” or maybe Dwyane Wade. Either way, should one of those two become the de facto point for Miami, the Heat would seem to be visionaries, driven by inspiration and necessity. However, is putting either LeBron or Wade in a position to make plays really anything groundbreaking? Wouldn’t either player really be going about business as usual, just with better teammates to share the load? In that way, LeBron or Wade as a point guard wouldn’t be re-defining the position or even blurring positional lines, necessarily. They’d just be spokesmen of the way that position has evolved, like Plato’s philosopher returning to the cave to assure us all that the images of traditional point guards on the wall really are just shadows.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both phenomenally talented and successful players, but they’re not stretching the limits of position in ways that haven’t been done before. Still, the sheer magnitude of the Heat’s season will likely do more for the positional revolution than so many of their positional misfit predecessors. Many consider Miami to be the championship favorite (or at the least, a contender), and the affirmation of the Heat’s unbalanced roster means plenty. This isn’t some experiment in an underground Oakland laboratory. Miami’s dabbling in a more fluid positional set-up will take place on the NBA’s biggest possible stage. With that in mind, exposure and success are both extremely important for whichever basketball norms the Heat will eventually come to challenge, and regardless of just how good the Heat end up being, the first is an absolute certainty.
The Heat make us think about things like position, and even if they don’t culminate in any widespread, institutional change, that’s still good for the sport. Plus, it hardly stops with positions. They make us think about how teams do and should execute their late-game offense. They make us think about what kind of players can be successful in which roles. They make us think about the optimal way to put together a contending team. Miami will challenge so many different aspects of basketball convention, and turn the sport into a never-ending process of hypothesis testing that’s great for everyone involved. 
The value of a team with the power to find and emphasize the truths of the game cannot be overstated.
John Krolik: Man, you went straight to “The Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment,” which was like the third or fourth point on my list. 
Anyways, putting aside the fact that I’m supposed to be a bitter Cavs blogger (which I am, to an extent), I think the Heat are great for basketball. Of course I wish LeBron was still in Cleveland, but I can’t deny that the Heat help the league as a whole. First and foremost, the NBA is still somewhat of a niche sport when compared to the NFL, MLB, college football, and even college basketball. And yet people have been talking about the NBA all summer long, and that’s because of LeBron and the Heat. 
Some people love this team, most people hate this team, but the important thing is that they care about this team. That’s important, especially when you consider the looming CBA dispute/lockout next season. The NHL got relegated to Versus because it went away for a year and everybody realized they didn’t really need it, even with Crosby and Ovechkin coming in — if the Heat help the NBA avoid a similar fate, then long live the Heat. 
Every possible scenario involving this team leads to more interest in the NBA. If they win the next three titles and become a dynasty, people won’t be able to keep their eyes off of them. I remember a Stuart Scott chat in ESPN The Magazine a while back that went thusly:
(Random Person): My friend thinks Tiger Woods is bad for golf because he wins too much.

Stu: I think your friend is stupid.
I tend to agree with Stu on this one: dominance is fascinating. We’re drawn to it, we love it. If the Heat can become a Bulls-like team that wins nearly every game, dominates every June, and become a team that makes every road game A Happening in whatever city they go to, that’s great. The only time we’re not drawn to dominance is when it’s associated with a Sampras/Federer/Klitschko-like lack of personality or national identity, and the Heat certainly don’t lack for that. Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the best technical boxer of his generation, didn’t become a pay-per-view draw until he embraced the “Money” Mayweather persona and started pissing people off — If “I’m taking my talents to Miami” is what keeps people interested in the aesthetic and technical brilliance of the best basketball players on the planet, then I’m all for it. 
And if the Heat lose, it might be even better for the NBA — the NBA keeps the eyeballs the Heat bring, a clear babyface/heel dynamic gets reinforced, and people get to keep believing that Truth, Justice, and the American Way always prevail in sports. In some ways, the current Heat are the best of both worlds for anyone marketing the NBA: they’re going to be dominant force, and they haven’t even won anything yet. For one season (at least), they provide something that might dominate, might lose, and everyone will want to see succeed or fail. Maybe they’re the evolution of the NBA; maybe they’re the embodiment of all the wrong ways to become true champions. They’re a Rorschach blot of greatness, and everybody is seeing something interesting.  
As to your point, I don’t see how you can deny that the Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment. You’re talking about a (runaway) two-time MVP hooking up with the best player on a championship while both of them are in their primes. Plus the best young power forward in basketball, who seems to be content with playing the Iago to LeBron’s Jafar. LeBron is the most versatile great player since Magic, and for the last seven years he’s been forced to play the role of the Alpha and the Omega for the Cavaliers. Now he gets to play an actual role with players that are close to his level, and the results should be absolutely fascinating. Forget
who’s going to be a man, th
e man, or THE MAN IN ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF STANDARD-SIZED HELVETICA FONT  — It’ll be fascinating to see who handles the ball, who sets the screen, who makes the cut, and who finishes the play on any given Miami possession. 
That Miami’s centers are Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony only make everything more interesting: their lack of quality size in the middle will force the Heat to beat teams with their game, as opposed to being able to out-talent everybody and beat them at their own. My general point is this: I don’t know how this Heat experiment will turn out, but can you imagine anyone not watching? 
RM: Of course not. Everyone will want to know how the Heat are doing, what LeBron is saying, how the Lakers match-up. Moves like this reach out to casual basketball fans in ways that aren’t fully measurable, and the collection of talent in Miami could do more for the NBA as a business than anything we’ve seen in a decade. 
Plus, on top of that, having LeBron James as a hated figure is a huge marketing boon. Kobe Bryant just wasn’t cutting it as the archetypal villain anymore, and the league needs some elite player to play the part. LeBron kind of stumbled into that role by way of his own remarkable PR failures, but he’ll do wonderfully as the big bad.
Dominance really is fascinating, but it’s even more so when a player of LeBron’s caliber is there to laugh maniacally from the shadows. People despised the dynasty Lakers. They complained endlessly about Tim Duncan’s Spurs through San Antonio’s best years. Even Michael Jordan’s reign left countless fans angry and impatient, enamored by his success but perfectly willing to put him at the center of their dart boards. The Heat have the kind of foundation to match those squads, to become a historically great team, and to bring home the ‘ships. Now, with LeBron as a public enemy, they also have that face at which everyone can take aim, even if it’s no more “his team” than it is Dwyane Wade’s. The only thing more fascinating than dominance is watching a dominant team or player fail, and you’d better believe that the Heat will have plenty of newly christened basketball fans rooting for their demise.
Odd though this may sound, that kind of negative fanhood is a huge positive for the league. Teams like the Heat not only bring in more fans, but also more invigorated fans. Suddenly everyone cares what’s going on in Miami, and they’re opinionated and heated, even if they needn’t be. The fact that this beautiful game devolves into a water cooler talking point may irk hardcore NBA heads, but infiltration into that level of the public consciousness is how the Heat could, as you mention, affect a potential lockout. 
The Heat will boost ratings. They will bring in more league and team sponsors. They’re not going to pull the owners and the players in for a group hug at the CBA negotiations, but they can make the game and the league a product too good to miss out on from a financial standpoint, even for a season. If the league as a whole sees an uptick in interest and fan consumption because LeBron, Wade, and Bosh decided to play together in a major market, then we — as followers of the game — all win.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.