Author: Rob Mahoney

US Kevin Durant (C) celebrates with his

Kobe in for 2012 Olympics; USA roster remains dynamic


Team USA Basketball — as both a B-side to the NBA brand and a prestigious, standalone entity — exists in a strange place, lockout or no.

Participation in the program brings its own potential reward, but a gold medal will never be an NBA title. It’s an achievement that is entirely separate from the highest domestic accomplishments, and to most NBA players, is by definition lesser than hoisting the Larry O’Brien. Winning in international competition is great, but it just isn’t the same; it’s a nice way to train and play basketball deep into the summer, but to most, involvement in the Team USA program is considered a career supplement — and little more.

Selling the league’s biggest stars on their continued involvement in Team USA basketball has proven difficult enough since Beijing. Though there were handfuls of valid and semi-valid excuses for the almost full turnover of the roster between the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 FIBA World Championships, one can’t help but wonder if Team USA’s reboot has already exhausted its opening salvo. The biggest marketing opportunity on the horizon is gone, the nation’s basketball dignity has been returned, and the league’s best have their Olympic gold. That could mean that most of Team USA Redux’s first generation is more or less done with international competition, a reality made clear by the younger squad that took gold in Turkey in 2010.

The incarnation of the team that takes the floor at next year’s Olympic games could again be significantly different from the previous model, but the roster will assuredly be filled with NBA talent, regardless of the possibility of a prolonged lockout. According to David Aldridge — in a column posted on the skeletal remains of — a few notable program alumni can be penciled in to lead the charge, even if the entire team probably shouldn’t be expected to return:

Still, the 2012 roster will be comprised solely of NBA players. Kobe Bryant is a yes whatever happens, according to a source close to the 34-year-old; Bryant badly wants a second gold medal to go with the one he won in ’08. Kevin Durant, who led Team USA to the gold medal at the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, would probably go if selected even if the lockout were still in place, a source close to him said Sunday. The source added, though, that circumstances could change in the next year. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have yet to have discussions about what they would do in case the lockout is ongoing, according to a source; ditto for LeBron James, according to another source with knowledge of James’ thinking.

James and Wade were dominant in the 2008 Olympics, but the USA Basketball program is deep enough to compete without them. USA Basketball was structured with this kind of flexibility in mind; even if James, Wade, and Bosh opt to stay home, a squad spearheaded by Durant and Bryant would still be the clear favorite in 2012, bolstered by other rising NBA stars hungry for their first Olympic competition. Derrick Rose, Andre Iguodala, Russell Westbrook, Rudy Gay, Kevin Love, Steph Curry, and Eric Gordon could all look to follow up their FIBA World Championships success with another round for Team USA, and that’s to say nothing of the oodles of other talented players who weren’t included on the 2010 roster.

The beauty of USA Basketball’s new (if you could call it new, at this point) infrastructure is its continuity, an attribute which has less to do with the players’ continued involvement and more with the sustained system in place. The players aren’t going to be able to return for every competition, but the program remains, young talent continues to flow in, and the roster renovations come in stride.

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

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers

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.

Ersan Ilyasova reportedly agrees to play in Turkey, may skip out on the Bucks

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The possibility of Deron Williams and the league’s top tier crossing the Atlantic to play their professional ball has all but consumed the day-to-day NBA chatter, but even the most solid bits of news on the subject come with a lack of permanence. Williams isn’t going to play in Turkey for the rest of his career; he’s playing ball, making some money, and applying pressure on the NBA’s owners, but his aspirations are to come back to the good ol’ US of A and pick up where he left off as soon as the lockout is resolved. There’s no real threat to the NBA product we’ve come to know and love because the domestic and foreign basketball products are functionally non-competitive.

However, a select group of NBAers, most of which are European or at the very least have experience playing professionally overseas, may potentially play the lockout waiting game by different rules. Such is the case with Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova, who reportedly has agreed to a three-year deal with Fenerbahce Ulker that could keep him in his native Turkey without a contractual out to return to the NBA anytime soon (link via BrewHoop).

The reports detailing Ilyasova’s deal are still a bit shaky at this point, and as they’re confirmed and clarified we should have a better idea of his long-term intentions. His potential departure wouldn’t leave the Bucks in a particularly bad spot from a positional standpoint (Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Drew Gooden, Jon Brockman, and Larry Sanders are all capable of filling minutes at power forward), but Ilyasova is nonetheless a young, solid rotation player. It does the Bucks no good to lose him outright, and though his production can largely be replaced, this would still be an unfortunate development for a franchise that can’t afford all that many bad breaks.

The Bucks aren’t a team with a ton of luxuries; they’re coming off of a terribly disappointing season, and though a healthy Andrew Bogut would do Milwaukee a lot of good, the team is still in a bit of a tough spot. Their pre-draft trade for Stephen Jackson, Beno Udrih, and Shaun Livingston helped to brighten the Bucks’ financial outlook, but they’re still a team without many clear avenues for immediate improvement or spare assets. They don’t need Ilyasova per se, but it sure couldn’t hurt to have him around, either as a player or a trade chip.

Chad Buchanan could stick around as Blazers GM

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The Blazers are in the process of selecting a long-term general manager after their inexplicable firing of Rich Cho, and it’s apparent that they’ll search high and low for possible candidates who fit best with the organization’s sense of itself. Why Cho didn’t fit with that vision is beyond me, but all of our second guessing doesn’t make the GM seat in Portland any more vacant than it currently is, nor does it make the ongoing search for Cho’s replacement any less of a reality.

As a part of that reality, Chad Buchanan has filled in as the interim general manager, and apparently, he’s done a commendable enough job to warrant some serious consideration for the position on a more formal basis. From Joe Freeman of the Oregonian (via Blazer’s Edge):

The person who assumed interim duties when former GM Rich Cho was unexpectedly fired has more than held his own in the eyes of owner Paul Allen and president Larry Miller. So much so that he has become a candidate to keep the job permanently.

“Chad has done a really good job for us up to this point,” Miller said. “As we move forward and start finalizing what we’re looking for in a GM, Chad would definitely be considered in that mix.”

Multiple people have reached out to the Blazers about their GM job, but the team has not contacted or interviewed any potential candidates, including Buchanan. Further, the Blazers have indicated they probably will not consider any of the finalists they interviewed last summer before settling on Cho, including Danny Ferry and Randy Pfund.

The Blazers’ scouting efforts — which Buchanan played a prominent role in — have been a mixed bag over the last few seasons. It’s hard to properly credit or fault him for any of the decisions made by the Blazers’ various regimes without knowing more about Buchanan’s various individual advocacies on a play-by-player basis, which is to say that we know very little about his track record in evaluating talent. He could be an excellent potential general manager or a disappointing one, but there is something at least a bit admirable in Portland’s process. Freeman’s report indicates an open search for an optimal candidate, and even if the Blazers end up with an experienced general manager, they’ll likely only do so after a process of evaluating prominent names and unheralded managers alike.

While supplies last: Decorate your walls with the life-size image of Dan Gilbert’s son!

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The fact that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert also happens to own Fathead, monopolizers of the vinyl wall decal industry, became NBA relevant last summer. As you may recall, Gilbert marked down the price of all LeBron James decals immediately after he chose to leave the Cavs, and worked in a Benedict Arnold zing in the process. Good for a giggle and an internet high five, no doubt.

But now that little bit of Gilbert/Cavs trivia comes back to our NBA circle once again, as Nick Gilbert — Dan’s son and the team’s memorable, bow tie adorning rep from this year’s draft lottery — has been immortalized in Fathead vinyl.  The Children’s Tumor Foundation will benefit from all of the profits from the sale of the young Gilbert’s wall-decorating likeness, but even that worthy a cause doesn’t make it any less of a bizarre purchase. Then again, is the prospect that much stranger than covering your walls with the likes of Anderson Varejao or Boobie Gibson?

(via Deadspin)