The men behind the curtain want to pull the string on decertification

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“Let the poets write that he had the tools of greatness, but the voices of his better angels were shouted down by his obsessive need to win.”

The West Wing

This lockout is perceived as two sides in a standoff with one another, owners and players. In reality, it’s six sides. You have the rich owners, the poor owners, the moderate owners, the superstar players, the role players, and… the agents. When it gets down to it, the agents are the men behind the curtain in this little play. Those escalating salaries that the owners themselves agreed to with ridiculous, long contracts? The owners are on the hook for them, those were the product of the owners’ decisions. But they were created by the work of agents, forever raising value, forever edging the bottom line (and subsequently their cut) higher and higher. It is the agents advising the players on their money to prepare for a lockout, it is the agents keeping the players in line to whatever degree they can.

Let’s be clear, this is not to vilify agents. If we’re making a list of “money-grubbing” and “reasonable” we’ve got everyone involved on one side and pretty much no one on the other. That’s how this works, and how it would work with any group of people and if you think you and your cohorts wouldn’t do the same, then let’s have a long drawn out conversation about the value of financial success and philanthropy. But let’s not because this is a sports blog and that’s boring.

The agents are simply doing their job. The problem is, they’ve begun to get antsy. See, they don’t like this patient, reasonable waiting game Billy Hunter has decided to pursue. They want to get aggressive. They want to use the guns they have. And the one gun they have? Is decertification and a pursuit in the courts. Doing so has two effects. It represents a remote but distinctly aggressive threat against the owners to coerce them into surrendering the high ground and opening up a very real negotiation that will result in the middle ground the players are pursuing. It will royally tick off both David Stern and the ownership group, settling in for a tense, vicious, and deeply personal conflict, even more so than the lockout currently exists in.

And that’s totally the cabinet they want to open. From Yahoo! Sports:

The owners are counting on panic to take over the union once the players start missing checks. That’s when the owners want to cut a deal, when the players are most vulnerable and fearful of losing a full season’s salary. The players risk getting the same lousy deal next year after already losing a year’s salary.

Essentially, it’s come down to this: Hunter is still selling diplomacy, but the agents want to commence fighting. No one expects the league to seriously negotiate issues until they fear the courts could rule against them. The owners want what they want – hard cap, rollback on salaries and guaranteed profits – and they aren’t interested in compromises. The longer the union waits to decertify and file an antitrust suit, the less chance there is of getting a reasonable agreement and saving the season.

via NBA agents want union to decertify – NBA – Yahoo! Sports.

Woj’s article has all sorts of wonderful news, like that the agents are losing faith in Hunter, which causes a fracture and could move Hunter to the fringes of the fold. Think of that as if the old war hawks had captured the President’s ear during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The good news in that scenario would be that none of you would be complaining about the Miami Heat right now since it would still glow in the dark. The bad news is that it would have meant World War III. Hunter is the voice of reason. He’s being patient and keeping lines of communication open.

Hunter’s taken a beating because in how this has rolled out, he looks like a punching bag. He’s not actively attacking the owners, simply holding the line on the barricades and keeping the siege at bay. The agents think the best defense is a good offense. But Hunter’s way is a long-term approach. It favors reasonable discussion and business negotiations, the core of this debate which has moved sadly towards dramatics and ideology. Eventually, the owners will cease rabble-rousing and come back to the table for a real conversation, and if the union’s efforts to gain employment overseas or through other means of generating income are successful, the players will be stronger for it.

The players need to be Johnny Cash. Steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor. The owners want them Bombs Over Baghdad. But as Chris Ballard pointed out when discussing Michael Redd (the exact kind of contract the owners are trying to protect themselves from) in “Art of a Beautiful Game,” that means sometimes you hit the enemy, sometimes you hit civilians.

The length of this unnecessary lockout depends on cooler heads prevailing. If these agents, who run this world more than is let on, storm the gates and stage a coup, the fans might as well flee for the neighboring nations of “Other Sports Land.” Because we won’t be seeing the league outside of a courtroom for a good, long time.

 

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

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Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

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It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.