Shaq retires and will be missed

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I’m going to miss having Shaquille O’Neal around the NBA.

It’s the end of an era — Kyrie Irving, the top pick in this coming draft, was born the year Shaq entered the league. But it feels like more than that.

I’ll miss him in part because he was a reminder that this is a game and we should all be having fun with it — players, fans and media alike.

In a league where often players treat basketball like a desk job, where the players practice speaking in clichés like out of Bull Durham, where the media can take itself too seriously, where there is a wall between players and fans (and media), Shaq broke all that down. This is hoops, it isn’t Navy Seals storming an armed compound in the Middle East. This should be fun. Shaq’s persona was the counterbalance to Michael Jordan in the 1990s.

You played practical jokes on teammates, and laughed with them. You tweet with fans (social media was made for Shaq and is part of his legacy). You just show up and pretend to be a statue  and let fans come out and hang out with you. Or you conduct the Boston POPS! Or you ride the subway dressed like a woman.

He was a big kid who got to play a game for a living, and why shouldn’t he love that? Why shouldn’t practice have some jokes, why shouldn’t the locker room have laughter? And we were all along for the ride. This was supposed to be fun.

I remember Shaq and Gregg Popovich joking around during the first game of the season and thinking they really got it.

He was a big kid, and maybe that carried over to a lack of responsibility about conditioning at times. Some may remember that and the injury-plagued end of his career. Or the feud with Kobe. But not me. I choose to remember him as dominant force he was a decade ago as a player. There have been few centers better. Ever.

He brought plenty of strength and thunder to the court, but there was lightning there too. Guys who were 7’1”, 325 should not be able to drop lighting quick spin moves to get around their defender, or run the floor with the break. Shaq could do all that in his prime and more. He was a very good passer out of the post. He was a good all around player (save free throws).

He also will forever be at the heart of one of my greatest sports memories.

I lucked into tickets for Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. Someone I worked with at the time was a Lakers season ticket holder and had playoff tickets, but he had to fly back to England for his sister’s wedding and so he had to sell his Game 7 seats (well before anyone knew there would be a Game 7).

As a Lakers fan, with obnoxious Blazers fans right behind me, there was nothing like that game. The lows of missed shots. The highs of the comeback (which was fueled by so many Blazer misses of shots they had not missed for six and three quarters games).

Then the ally-oop.

And the explosion of noise in Staples Center. A building where now everyone was hugging and high-fiving everyone, whether you knew them or not. You were now there with your 19,000 best friends. Los Angeles is not like that, you don’t talk to your neighbors, or the guy in the next seat. But on this day we all knew we were witnessing one of the best sports moments of our lives. Los Angeles felt like a family.

Shaq did that. I’m going to miss him for all of it.

Could the Knicks get a first-round pick for trading Marcus Morris?

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What are the New York Knicks going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s not a simple question, not with team president Steve Mills is on the hot seat — there’s a long history of GMs/POBOs making bad trades looking for a short-term boost to save their jobs. Will the Knicks trade veterans looking for picks and young players to be part of the future? On top of that, the Knicks are starting to get healthy and have won two in a row. Management may want to let this play out for a while.

The plan is not to make any sudden moves on Sunday — the day most players signed over the summer (nearly 40 percent of the league) can be traded — or early in the trade season. However, the offers are going to come.

Particularly for Marcus Morris.

The veteran forward is leading the Knicks scoring 18.6 points per game, and he’s spacing the floor shooting 48 percent from three. He’s gritty, physical, defends well — exactly the kind of player that can help a team make a playoff run. The Knicks are going to get calls about him, it will be one of the most discussed rumors out there.

Will the Knicks trade Marcus Morris (who is on an expiring contract)? That could come down to can they get a first-round pick, something Mike Vorkunov broke down at The Athletic.

The market for Morris, according to opposing scouts and execs, is probably a team that believes his addition could help push them further into the playoffs. Morris is likely the only player on the Knicks who could get dealt this season who could get a first-round pick back in return, those sources believe. The Knicks could also ask for a young player with upside.

It’s not unanimous, though, that the Knicks would definitely get a first-rounder back for Morris, those scouts and executives say. Drawing a first-round pick is difficult. Last season it was only done by teams willing to take on bad contracts to free up cap space ahead of free agency — something the Knicks were unwilling to do this summer and may not be willing to do now either — and by the Knicks when they traded Porzingis.

This trade season is different from last year because the NBA feels wide open. While there are teams that have separated themselves — Lakers, Bucks, Clippers — those teams have flaws and the gaps to them are not insurmountable. There are teams out there such as Denver, Boston, and others looking at the trade market and thinking one player could make a real difference. Plus, with a very down free agent market next summer, teams feel they may have a better chance of adding now as opposed to waiting until July.

Will those teams throw in a first-round pick to the Knicks for Morris? It seems possible, but it depends on how a quiet market right now starts to heat up and shake out.

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months coming up in New York.

LeBron, what sparked your second half turnaround? “My teammates got on my ass”

David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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In the first half in Miami Friday night, LeBron James scored 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, and he had seven turnovers. The Lakers were down eight points at the break and LeBron was -6.

In the second half, LeBron looked more like the guy in contention for an MVP: 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3-of-5 from three, and just one turnover. He was at the heart the Lakers come-from-behind win, 113-110 win.

What sparked that turnaround? From LeBron’s walk-off interview on ESPN with Israel Gutierrez:

“My teammates got on my ass. They told me you’re playing too passive, thinking about the game way too much instead of read and reacting and doing what you do… [Anthony Davis] got on me, Boogie Cousins got on me and they told me to just be me. So I was like, ‘Thank god we have two halves in a basketball game,’ where I can flush the first one and then come back and try to help us win.” 

After the game, Anthony Davis said it is the entire team’s willingness to accept constructive criticism has been a key to the Lakers’ fast start.

For most of the season it has been LeBron getting on his teammates’ asses that has fueled the 23-3 Lakers. Not only is he playing at the highest level we have seen from him this early in the season since Miami — 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and a career-high 10.8 assists a game — but he’s pushing his teammates defensively and not letting them take plays off.

The Lakers have won six in a row, four of those on the road where they are 13-1 this season. The road tests continue this week, including Friday night against Milwaukee. Also looming out there in 11 days, a Christmas showdown with the Clippers.

LeBron can’t have an off first half in those games, and he knows it.

Toughest player to defend in NBA? Jonathan Isaac votes for James Harden

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Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac is turning heads this season. He has turned into the defensive backbone of the Magic, a long, switchable player who can protect the rim and make plays out on the perimeter.

In the past week, coach Steve Clifford asked Isaac to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and LeBron James. So who was the toughest to guard? (Via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.)

Harden dropped 54 on Orlando to lead Houston to the win. It was his second game in a row with 50+ points and hitting 10 threes.

Nobody should be arguing with Isaac here. For one thing, he’s the guy who had to guard them all this week, his opinion is informed. Harden has six points while Isaac was matched up on him Friday night, but the Rockets scored 14 others. Harden did most of his damage when Evan Fournierwas on him, scoring 18. (Via NBA.com matchup data.)

One could make the case that Antetokounmpo and LeBron contribute more on the defensive end and that makes them more valuable (a debate that will come up again at end-of-season awards time), but as a pure scorer there is nobody like Harden. Ever. He has ridiculous shooting range and the best stepback in the league, he’s physically strong and finishes through contact on drives, and he has turned drawing fouls into an art form. Defending James Harden is next to impossible (and incredibly frustrating for those tasked with it).

Houston has built its entire offense around Harden, and they are contenders because of it.

 

Kevin Knox with an high-flying putback dunk… into his own basket (VIDEO)

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Give the Knicks credit, they have won two games in a row for the first time this season after knocking off the Kings. The return of Elfrid Payton at point guard — meaning they don’t have to play rookie R.J. Barrett out of position in that role — has given New York some floor balance and they look much better.

But there are still moments.

Such as this one from Kevin Knox, with the putback dunk — into his own net.

Mike Breen wanted to credit Buddy Hield there, and to be fair, Hield did come flying in and force the action. But that was Knox. (Hield got the bucket in the official scorebook).

Well, at least Knox is contributing something here.