The “Violence Against Blake Griffin” situation

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He’s asking for it.

OK, stop, that right there. That’s me trying to snag your attention with some sort of bombastic statement. I can assure you my position is more nuanced than this phrase, which by the way, in the context of violence of any sort — on-court, off-court, sexual, non-sexual — should never, ever be used, and that my use of it is only as a way to let you know this is actually a thing that’s going on and not just “oh, Jason Smith gave Blake Griffin a hard foul.”

The NBA is developing a problem for itself, and how it handles it will be a very delicate matter. Because Blake Griffin is asking for it, and that’s what the league wants.

Remember those halcyon days last year when Griffin was just creating highlights, detonating at 10,000 feet like the NBA version of a warhead, and everyone just thought it was awesome? Yeah, hi, welcome to 2012, where due to exposure, the life expectancy of your ubiquitous mass appeal is about 45 seconds. Griffin hasn’t been the same monster this year that he was last year. He’s still got a handful of absolutely absurd throwdowns, but his points, rebounds, and assists are all down per 36 minutes from last year. His efficiency is slightly up, both in field goal percentage and PER, but his free throw shooting is down. And while his free throw rate is down from his rookie year, you can tell that part of the drop in his productivity has to do with the fouls he’s taking.

Last year, it was cute. There were some who gave the hard foul, it got to be more of an issue, the Clippers certainly complained about it, but in reality, it was mostly just adorable that he tried so hard on every play. But this year, the cuteness has worn off. The book is out on Griffin. Hammer him, punish him, make it clear you will not stand for him putting you on NBC SportsTalk as a highlight. And since Griffin is so physical, so athletic, so aggressive, you have to do it fast. So you have fast, plus violence. Or, in the absence of fast, you can have reckless. Observe.

Now, Smith has already apologized for the hit, and knows it was reckless. In reality, this play isn’t indicative of what Griffin is facing on a night-to-night basis. This is an outlier, a sloppy combination of a player giving up on trying to make the play while not giving up on giving contact. This isn’t the type of player Jason Smith is, it was just a bad foul. But this, again, is the book on Blake Griffin. This is how you stop him. And he knows that, which is why he’s also driving fans nuts (and making them want those hard fouls given) by freaking out over every call.

This isn’t anything new for Griffin. He’s typically always had the same attitude. And if it seems familiar, here’s why, and I want to be clear on this so we’re going all bold: Every great player in the history of the NBA has freaked out over getting calls because it gives them an edge. Yes, Jordan. Yes, Kobe. Yes, Duncan. Yes, Malone. Yes, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Travis Diener. (OK, Travis didn’t do that, nor was he great.)

It’s part of it. It’s how you react. And it’s a two way street. Those players I mentioned above, the Trav not withstanding, they all take an excessive amount of punishment which the league cannot completely corral. Kobe Bryant gets a ridiculously high number of foul calls in his favor. He also has a ridiculous number of fouls calls missed. If you go through and watch a ton of highlights, you’re going to see guys being more hands-on with Kobe than they were with their dad’s stash of adult magazines when they were 13. And by they I mean you. Bryant takes bumps, scrapes, hits, whacks, thumps, shoves, elbows, and I think one time bites because he has the ball a ton, scores the ball a ton, and his defenders will do anything to stop him.

So Griffin’s reaction is annoying and overdramatic, but it’s not only trying to win to get that advantage, it’s self-preservation. The Clippers and Griffin honestly feel that he’s targeted, and that the abuse he takes is greater than that of the average player. And he’s probably right. And the reason for why that is what gives the league such a headache.

The NBA wants those highlights. It wants Griffin putting a ridiculous poster down on some huge defender to steal the spotlight from baseball on highlight shows across the country on the third night of baseball season. It wants to showcase this dynamic, explosive young powerhouse whose play seems like Thor himself raining thunder down on his enemies. But they do have, despite public sentiment to the opposite, a practice of letting the players police themselves. You’re allowed to target a guy as long as you do it within the bounds of play and you do not violate any of the specific rules set forth. You’ll be punished for such plays, whether it’s a personal, flagrant, or flagrant II foul. But they don’t specifically act to control such measures, because they can’t treat any one player as special. Just because Blake Griffin tries really hard doesn’t mean that they can involve themselves in protecting him from harm any more so than for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard or Sam Young or Drew Gooden. They can only respond to excessive incidents.

The nature of the game means they can only be reactive.

And that’s a trick for them. It’s why you see so many superstar young guys fade into less contact. Dwyane Wade was a contact-loving machine his first three seasons. A barrel full of injuries later and his game is much more predicated on slipping contact than creating it. Griffin’s already trying to diversify his game to be more deadly from range (and failing miserably). We want to see him drive instead of take that mid-range jumper, but the only way he can draw defenders out to create space and therefore not get beaten to a pulp when he drives is to knock down that shot.

Meanwhile the league is going to face this as a continuing issue. Because Griffin’s adjusting, but he’s not relenting. For all the complaints and the way defenses have adjusted to him, you have to give him that. He’s still waiting like a cobra to strike every time down the floor. But eventually the NBA may be put into a position where they have to intercede on the players’ own policing. And that’s going to get bad very quickly.

Addendum: You’re going to hear the phrase “back in the day” or “in the 80’s” a lot in relation to this issue. Please bear in mind two things. One, there’s a reason the game has evolved away from that and it has less to do with cultural values or an NBA image problem and more to do with the players not wanting to operate in an environment where their career can be threatened or their lives can be put in danger. It may make you feel like a man to talk about how tough things you used to not do were, but the reality has changed.

Two, the speed and violence capable at this level greatly exceeds what we knew in the 80’s due to strength and conditioning regimens and that means the dangers are that much higher. No one’s advocating getting rid of the hard foul here, or getting rid of the hard foul on Griffin. The point is simply that Griffin’s particular style means that the odds of injury continue to increase and that means the odds of a fight increase, and that violence at a high velocity, particularly in mid-air (which is why the Smith foul isn’t nearly as bad as others we’ve seen) is going to be problematic without intervention eventually.

Zion, Nash, Davis: Seven players, coaches who enter NBA season under pressure

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Every NBA season comes with pressure — the pressure to win, the pressure of fan emotions and expectations, and for players the pressure that this is their livelihood. There is real pressure to stick in the NBA and earn that handsome paycheck.

But some players and coaches enter this season under more pressure than others.

Here are seven players and coaches who are under added pressure this season.

Anthony Davis

“This is not going to work without AD. No disrespect to Bron, no disrespect to Russ. They’re going to be who they are… but AD, having AD available…. it’s going to be invaluable. He’s the centerpiece to that championship table we’re trying to build.”

That was new Lakers coach Darvin Ham talking about Anthony Davis — the lynchpin to everything Ham hopes to do in Los Angeles. As he said, LeBron James will be LeBron (read: elite, even at age 37), and Russell Westbrook will be Russell Westbrook (he’s saying all the right things, but…), but if the Lakers are going to be any threat in the West it starts with Davis. Ham needs the Davis from the bubble — healthy, elite defender, playmaker, solid midrange jump shot — because he plans to run the offense through AD.

More than just this season, the Lakers have to come to a decision: Is Davis the No.1 option they can turn the franchise over to after LeBron steps away? Can he physically carry that burden and not break down? Davis can be one of the game’s elites, but is he ready to carry the Lakers franchise? Their future direction depends on that answer.

Zion Williamson

The acquisition of CJ McCollum last season helped bring the Pelicans together. They made a push into the playoffs with a solid core of McCollum, Brandon Ingram, Herbert Jones, Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance, Devonte' Graham and others. Watching New Orleans you couldn’t help but think, “If Zion Williamson were healthy…”

Now we get to find out. Williamson is reportedly in the best shape of his life (take all offseason conditioning comments with a shaker of salt) and ready to resume his role as a No.1 offensive option and maybe the best interior scorer in the game. The pressure of getting paid is off Williamson — he got his max extension — but the pressure of living up to it is just starting.

Steve Nash

When your star player says “him or me” during the offseason — even if that ultimatum gets rescinded — you enter the season under a microscope. Nash would have been getting a close look even if Kevin Durant didn’t drag his name into his offseason drama — there are plenty of front office people around the league not convinced Nash is up to the task in Brooklyn. There is enormous pressure on this team to get things right — to avoid a meltdown — and if things go at all sideways in Brooklyn Nash will be the fall guy. His seat is already warm.

Kyrie Irving

While we’re in Brooklyn… Ben Simmons is the logical first name to pop into your head when thinking of players under pressure with the Nets — and with good reason. We haven’t seen him on an NBA court in over a year and his play and fit are critical to the Nets’ hopes of contending. But there is another player who faces real contract pressure in Brooklyn.

Kyrie Irving wanted a trade out of Brooklyn this summer, the Nets said “go ahead and find one,” and Irving found his market was not nearly as deep and strong as he expected (the Lakers were interested, and he reportedly was interested in them, but any trade would have involved Russell Westbrook and got too tricky). Irving is in a contract year now and there is pressure on him to remind everyone that, when focused and committed, he is an All-NBA point guard and game changer. But will he stay focused and committed this season?

Tom Thibodeau

Knicks president Leon Rose came out this week in a softball-filled interview on MSG Network and backed his coach. When asked if Thibodeau was under pressure, Rose said, “I don’t see it that way at all. The way I say it is we’re continuing with the plan.” Nothing went according to plan with the Knicks last season. While not all of that was Thibodeau’s fault — he didn’t cause Julius Randle‘s shooting regression — if things get off to another slow start after spending money on Jalen Brunson this summer, somebody is going to have to pay the price. Thibodeau’s job may not be as secure as Rose tries to paint.

James Harden

James Harden is positioned to have a monster regular season. He’s asked to be more of a playmaker, get the ball to MVP candidate Joel Embiid, put Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris in positions to thrive, and score a few points in there as well. Harden could be poised for an All-NBA level regular season — and then the playoffs start. That’s where the pressure is. Harden’s long history of playoff foibles (including some flat outings against the Heat last year) will be under a microscope this season because Daryl Morey has built a team of solid role players — this team is good enough. It’s up to Harden (and Embiid) to prove he can also be an elite player in the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard

Steve Ballmer has paid an enormous… well, it’s chump change to him, but it’s still an enormous amount of money to turn the Clippers from league laughing stock into a respected franchise (sorry, it’s true Lakers fans). These Clippers are contenders. But that title contention rests on the shoulders of Kawhi Leonard. He has to both be healthy and play like the guy who helped lift the Raptors to a title. If Leonard and Paul George are healthy and playing like their All-NBA selves come the postseason the Clippers are a massive threat — two-way wings win playoff series and the Clippers would have two of them. It’s just on Leonard (and Paul) to be that guy.

Westbrook says he’s ‘all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win’

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
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Welcome to NBA media day, when optimism overflows and everyone swears there are no chemistry problems, no fit questions, it’s all puppies and rainbows with their team.

The night before Lakers media day, Russell Westbrook got a head start on saying the right thing in an interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Trade? Not worried about it. Fit? Not going to be a problem. Everyone is good now if you ask Westbrook, and he was in trade talks all summer is irrelevant.

“I need to just do my job. Whether I’m wanted [by the Lakers] or not doesn’t really matter. I think the most important thing is that I show up for work and I do the job like I’ve always done it: Be professional and go out and play my ass off and compete…

Maybe [he is] as a starter or maybe it’s off the bench. “I’m all-in on whatever it takes for this team to win,” Westbrook said. “I’m prepared for whatever comes my way.”

Words are nice, but actions are what will matter. Westbrook reportedly said all the right things to LeBron James and Anthony Davis a year ago before getting traded to the team, but his not wanting to play a role and fit in was a big issue. Westbrook swears it won’t be this time, whatever Ham wants Westbrook will execute.

“There’s so much optimism on how we can be great, how AD, LeBron, myself — can be unstoppable in my opinion,” Westbrook said.

That’s optimism. Even if Westbrook fits in, Davis stays healthy all season, and LeBron continues to defy father time, these Lakers are not title contenders. A playoff team for sure, but not contenders.

These Lakers will face adversity — maybe early, Los Angeles has a rough first couple of weeks — and how the Lakers, under new coach Darvin Ham, respond to those challenges will define their season. Last season’s response from the Lakers was… not good. They rolled over. Ham has promised not to let that happen, but there will be things out of his control.

Last season Westbrook was one of those things for Frank Vogel, we’ll see how he responds this season.

Suns, Crowder agree he will sit out training camp while they seek a trade

Jae Crowder does salsa dance in Suns-Lakers Game 6
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Jae Crowder wants out of Phoenix and the Suns have been looking for a trade to accommodate that.

It hasn’t come together, so the Suns and Crowder agreed he should sit out training camp while they find one (this team does not need another distraction in camp).

We knew this was coming because Crowder himself announced it a couple of days ago. While he deleted the Tweet, nothing ever completely disappears online.

Two quick thoughts on this news.

First, it means Cameron Johnson will start at the four, something that was likely anyway as the Suns look to add shooting to help space the floor.

Second, this news does not help the Suns’ leverage in getting a trade. It’s understandable that Crowder didn’t want to be in camp and that the Suns didn’t want the distraction, but now everyone knows the pressure on the Suns to get a deal done and they will lowball their offer.

There are a few potential landing spots out there. Crowder hinted online he would welcome a return to Miami, and the Heat need help at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly. The Heat would base a trade around Duncan Robinson, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig or after Jan. 15  — and that seems unlikely.

Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, Boston (but it’s tough to make the salaries match up), and even a team like Minnesota could work. The challenge is the Suns are a win-now team and will want a player who can help them this season and all those teams are in the same space. Right now there may not be an offer available. As camps open and teams start to understand what they do and don’t have, a deal could come together.

Crowder will be home waiting for that to happen, not with the Suns team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says Stephen Curry is the best player in the world

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the top of pretty much every “best player in the world” list right now.

Except his own.

For Antetokounmpo, the best player in the world is the one that leads his team to the title, so today, it is Stephen Curry (hat tip to Lance Allen of NBC Milwaukee).

It’s easy to see where Antetokounmpo is coming from, but basketball is a team game. The best player may not be on the best team, despite his skill set, and that team may not win. Curry was spectacular in leading the Warriors to their fourth banner since he arrived, he’s near the top of the best in the world list, but it’s not all about winning.

The takeaway from what Antetokounmpo said is how much he wants to win — he wants a second ring.

The Bucks enter the season as one of the favorites to win that ring, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right for that to happen.

Including Antetokounmpo showing he is the best player in the world.