On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night

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Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.

That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.

Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.

They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.

Report: Knicks not interested in trading Kristaps Porzingis for Kyrie Irving

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With uncertainty around LeBron James‘ future in Cleveland — and good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he is staying; LeBron’s options are open, but the sense is he has one foot out the door — the Cavaliers are prioritizing getting a young star to rebuild around back in any Kyrie Irving trade.

At the top of the Cavaliers’ wish list: Kristaps Porzingis.

Except the Knicks have no interest in this trade, reports Steven Marcus and Mike Rose of Newsday.

The Knicks don’t appear interested in trading Kristaps Porzingis, including a possible deal for Cavaliers All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, according to a league source…

“[Knicks president] Steve Mills and [Knicks general manager] Scott Perry on the record were very clear that Kristaps was part of the future,’’ the source said in reference to comments made last month by both executives. “In all the discussions since then — there were other rumors before that Cleveland would want Kristaps — and it didn’t seem that [the Knicks] were interested at all in a conversation.’’

Nor should the Knicks give him up — even if they could dump the anchor Joakim Noah contract in the process.

Irving is a sure thing, an elite scorer and All-Star who averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists a game last season and shot better than 40 percent from three. Irving, entering his seventh season, can do more to help a team win next season than Porzingis. He can get more buckets.

But Porzingis could be better — and will be better suited to build a contender around — in the future. Entering just his third season and with the triangle gone, and maybe the shadow of Carmelo Anthony, too, Porzingis should become the focal point of the Knicks next season, and we can see what he will do. KP scored 18.1 points and grabbed 7.2 rebounds a game last season, shot 35.7 percent from three, and while still learning he brings more defense than Irving. Porzingis is a 7’3″ “unicorn” — there isn’t another player like him — and for many years he could be the future of the Knicks. He has the work ethic, he’s shown flashes, they just need to give him a real chance.

Also, the Knicks need to work starting this fall to mend the relationship that Phil Jackson tried to poison.

Bottom line, Irving is good, but the Knicks could build a contender around Porzingis if they handle it right. Not sure they can do that around Irving, and he is older. No way you make that trade if you’re the Knicks. That’s obvious… which is one reason Jackson needed to go.

 

Watch the best ball fakes from the past NBA season

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While we grind through the slow part of the NBA offseason — when even Kyrie Irving trade rumors come with “when we get close to the start of training camp” qualifiers — we continue to get our hoops fix from the best highlights of last season.

Like the top 10 ball fakes, as compiled by NBA.com.

You knew Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving would be on the list, but nice appearance and moves by Ricky Rubio and D'Angelo Russell, too.

Kobe, LeBron, other NBA players react to President Trump’s stunning speech

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When President Donald Trump doubled-down on his support of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who conducted a racist rally in Charlottesville, making a false moral equivalency with protestors of racism, it had television news anchors stunned, drew condemnation from both sides of the political aisle, and left most Americans queasy.

Count NBA players among those disgusted by the president’s comments.

That includes Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

(Note: As part of that press conference, Trump said he owns one of the largest wineries in the nation right near Charlottesville.)

On Monday and earlier Tuesday — before the president’s latest salvo of stupidity but after the “unite the right” rally to “protect” a statue of a man who fought to keep slavery in place, where violence the protesters courted broke out and left one woman, Heather Heyer, dead — the Bucks’ Jabari Parker took part in an anti-racism rally, and LeBron had said this about Charlotte and moving the country forward.

Chris Paul had this to say before the latest press conference.

Maybe the only good thing to come of all this, you can now own a T-shirt of vintage Team USA Vince Carter dunking over Trump.

Report: Grizzlies about to hire Tayshaun Prince for front office job

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Tayshaun Prince spent 14 years in the NBA as a long, defensive minded wing, one of the early “3&D” guys but one who, in his prime, could be more than that. He won a ring in Detroit in 2004 and was a four-time NBA All-Defense selection.

Now he’s stepping into the front office.

The Grizzlies, one of his former teams, is about to hire him, reports Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Retired forward Tayshaun Prince will soon be named special assistant to Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, according to several NBA sources…

Prince is widely considered a big influence in NBA locker rooms and operated as a calming voice with Grizzlies players.

The Grizzlies believe Prince will bring a unique voice to front office decisions.

Prince came to the Grizzlies in the Rudy Gay trade and made a real impression there — and elsewhere — as a locker room leader and rational voice. He was in the NBA until last season.

This could and should be a good hire for a Grizzlies team transitioning out of the “grit n’ grind” era (albeit slowly, they could still bring Tony Allen back). The best GMs don’t go it alone but get information and perspectives from a lot of sources, and a high IQ former player would be a good one.