Lessons learned: MLB Trade Deadline 2014

Yesterday, baseball went on the kind of run that everyone in Las Vegas hopes to go on.  When the morning began those of us unfortunate enough to be tied to our Twitter accounts were awakened by Alex Speier’s report that Jon Lester had been traded to the Oakland A’s.  A moment passed before I read the next tweet which read “…for Yoenis Cespedes”.  It was the kind of swift kick in the butt that the trade deadline needed.

What followed over the next 7 hours were teams responding, teams waving the white flag, teams staying pat and teams deciding that they weren’t going to dip their toe in these crazy waters.

We will get to the New York teams in a minute.  But there’s much to learn about the changing landscape these days when Detroit and Oakland are the two teams waging war and raising armies in the North and the South, shooting out warning shots undoubtedly in preparation for their matchup in the ALCS.  After the Lester trade was finalized, I imagine Detroit CEO, GM and overlord of the car making province Dave Dombrowski reading the report on one of his sports apps and looking up at his team and muttering some phrase equivalent to “let’s get busy boys.”

The Tigers then made a huge trade in a three team swap to pick up the ace that had a reported 8.9% chance of being traded.  The Tigers picked up their Scherzer insurance.  The Mariners got an everyday center fielder.  The Rays got their bundle of team controlled prospects that will undoubtedly lead them on their second run.  Much of the surprise is somehow on the Rays side.  Most thinkers of baseball believe they could’ve received an equivalent trade in the offseason.  Why settle now in the midst of a race the Rays are quickly getting themselves back into?

One can never seem to doubt Andrew Friedman, but looking at the landscape this move can only lead one to believe that he saw his team incapable of sustaining such a run over the month of August and September and decided to cash out now.  But did they cash out with the biggest hand they could’ve had?  Who knows?  Drew Smyly has produced the best numbers of his career.  Nick Franklin has been shuttled between Triple A and the major leagues but has potential.  A most dangerous adjective that can lure GM’s into a trap.  Then there’s Willy Adames, the SS who is 18 years old and has shown an advanced bat for his age.  Those three shouldn’t net a David Price but this is the reality in which the Tampa front office operates in.  They must always keep an eye to four years from now while maintaining what they have today.  In a market that is not advantageous and doesn’t offer the revenue stream to change their thinking, they must always look ahead rather than gaze at the now.

But not Billy Beane.  Ol Billy decided when he traded away his best prospect to land two starters from the Cubs that this would NOT be the year that he stands pat and looks ahead.  This year he was putting his chips to the middle of the table.  Ultimately these moves will be judged by the end result in October but one can only applaud Billy as he makes his run at that championship he has so cleverly tried to get by selling his home made lemonade in his stand while he competes with the big boys in all things beverage.  By trading Addison Russell his star SS, he made an announcement to the world that he was going for it.  When he traded Jon Lester for home run darling Yoenis Cespedes he made sure to remind us that he was dead serious about his aspirations.  Lester represents about as sure a thing in the playoffs as you can get.  A hired gun bought for a single reason: to pitch those games that the Oakland A’s have never been able to win.  The Game 5’s and Game 7’s that Oakland has had to rely upon lesser talented players.  Now they have a bona fide tried and true ace that has been there and done that.  Again, his trades will ultimately be looked at through the prism of October results, but we should all applaud Billy the kid for deciding to take out the twin guns and fire away.

Of course if you’re Dave Dombrowski and you have a pitcher who decided to reject a 6 year $144 million deal the writing is in the stars.  When Max Scherzer decided to say no to an extension offer, the wheels had to start turning for GM Dave Dombrowski.  He has an aging owner who wants to win now and is willing to spend money but doesn’t have the endless pockets the Yankees do and at some point you get the sense that with each start, Scherzer is pricing himself into a different stratosphere.  Don’t take for granted Mike Illitch’s will to spend to keep a championship capable roster.  But with David Price in tow, they can weather Scherzer’s departure.  But this is also about  Rick Porcello’s advancement as a pitcher.  The Tigers bet on Porcello getting better when they dealt Doug Fister to the Nationals.  Now that his stats have all shown a major jump, one has to wonder if Detroit looks at those stats as an unsustainable leap from a pitcher who doesn’t project as a front line starter.  For me, this is also a Rick Porcello insurance move.  In case these stats are unsustainable, they have enough frontline starting pitching to help Porcello toil away and figure things out.  The Tigers have been stubborn about his development and it seems as though they will see this to the absolute end before they give up on him.

The Red Sox are an interesting case.  They sent away Jon Lester and John Lackey in separate deals that netted them serviceable major league players.  So it wasn’t a total destroy and rebuild like in 2012, but it bears a striking resemblance.  When the Red Sox traded away all their horrible contracts to the Dodgers they took advantage of a team with new ownership desperate to make a splash.  Now, there are no bad contracts, but a ton of young players the Sox brass are hoping will develop enough to become a core that can be competitive at a decent price while having the financial flexibility to add star players to support them.  I can’t be totally sure that the two moves were with an eye toward the future or making sure to have pieces in 2015.  The A’s were smart to trade Cespedes, a star borne out of the Cuban craze that has produced two legit superstars in Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.  Cespedes, if you will remember had the amazing scouting tape that made him a cross between Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio and Ken Griffey Jr.  But he hasn’t had the kind of career that Puig and Abreu have.  Aside from the two home run derby titles and the occasional amazing display of the gun from the outfield, Cespedes has been a clean up hitter in name only.  Yes, he has a year left on his contract, but if the Sox catch lightning in a  bottle, they have inserted themselves into the Cuban pipeline of talent by bringing in one of their better prospects.  We won’t get a good idea of where the Sox’s thinking is until the offseason.  If they make a run at Lester, who can be a free agent and is well liked by both Boston’s fan base and by the ownership group, this will be a huge win for the Sox.  But based on earlier negotiations, the Sox have a price in mind for their staff ace and won’t go beyond that number.

The NL East all made incremental moves with one team making the most interesting one.  I’ve always been jealous of how ruthlessly efficient the Miami front office is.  Historically, they haven’t mastered sustained success, rather banking on their scouting and farm development to give them a good nucleus and then building through some major splashes, much the way they attempted to do so in 2012.  Then as soon as they win, they get out blaming a public that doesn’t support the team to give them revenue streams to spend.  But when Miami sent a few well thought of prospects for Jared Cosart, it was the kind of low level go for it move with a look towards the future for both teams operating with a time frame in mind.  Cosart is a former number one pick and no matter what the circumstances are that led to his trade from the Astros, its always a good bet to trade for talent.  Changing his surroundings may allow Cosart to start over and reach his potential.  If they manage to tap into Cosart’s potential, they could have added another frontline starter to a rotation that includes Jose Fernandez.  In a vacuum let’s presume that when Fernandez comes back next year, he will need a majority of the season to get back into the form we saw from him last year.  Cosart will enter a rotation with Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi, gives them enough young talent to slowly build the same way they built their championship teams.  This is the kind of move that won’t immediately pay dividends but ultimately is the kind of forward thinking move that sets the table for a major run in a year or two.  Smart.

So what if anything can the local teams learn from all of these moves?  The Mets and the Yankees operate in two different tax brackets.  The Yankees, did the smart thing at the trade deadline.  Rather than sacrifice their top prospects, they dealt from their endless welt of cash.  Nowadays, prospects are the currency of choice for GM’s, but that’s a matter of circumstance.  It just so happens that the Yankees can and can’t be begrudged for operating from that advantage.  So rather than make earth shattering moves which GM Brian Cashman is expected to always do, they made incremental moves to add depth.  If the A’s taught us anything its that having depth at IF and OF can always be a plus.  Having multiple options for a roster that is riddled with older players who are getting injured way too often, how is adding Martin Prado, Chase Headley, Chris Capuano, Jeff Francis,  Stephen Drew, David Huff, and Brandon McCarthy for cash, Vidal Nuno, C Peter O’Brien, Yangervis Solarte, Rafael DePaula, Kelly Johnson and a player to be named later.  To recap, they got a guy who was asking for $15M a year this offseason, a former Gold Glover, a player who was the centerpiece of the Justin Upton trade, for a guy they were going to option, a guy who’s hot start they parlayed into someone useful and a bunch of other pieces that were ultimately expendable.   That’s called making the most of what you have and more importantly recognizing what you don’t have.  They have enough talent, that once healthy, they know they can piece together a run.

But the Yankees also operate in a changing landscape.  There aren’t enough legit superstars in mid prime entering the free agent market that the Yankees can devour like they used to.  Teams are starting to be smarter about the Super-2 status and convincing prospects with potential to give up one or two years of their free agency in exchange for financial security.  Thus, free agents are entering free agency on the opposite side of 30.  Not only that, the Yankees aren’t the automatic suitors for the in their prime stars, anymore like they used to be.  The Dodgers with their new ownership group, the Tigers with an owner who’s advanced in both age and desperation to win a title, the Angels with a threatened Artie Moreno, and of course the Boston Red Sox.

Playing in New York comes with its advantages and disadvantages.  Cashman operates from the must do something mandate where its not just about the number of moves but the number of moves that make a splash.  So every offseason the Yankees will be linked with the biggest free agents and during the trade deadline the best trade chips are also somehow linked despite the Yankees not having the treasure trove of prospects with which to deal from.  The Yankees will never be in rebuilding mode.  Not with a new stadium that needs to be paid for.  Not when the team seems to be entering a deep decline with the final member of the Core Four retiring.  If anything this calls for an even more aggressive show of force by the Yankee front office.  A moment to puff out the chest and remind everybody who the Yankees are.  So naturally for those fans who looked at the Yankees tenuous position and thought they would just pack their bags and call it a season, just don’t know how the machine works.  It never stops. Or rests.  It continues manufacturing a relentless mentality to chase what may be out of their grasp.

The Mets however, have had to operate from a different point of view.  Though they call New York home as well.  Though they have a brand new ball park as well.  They compete with the monolith Yankees and against a reality they would rather not admit to the public because of what the feared reaction from the public is.  However, the Mets have always made the mistake that the public won’t understand: they’ve been with you this long stupid, they will continue to ride with you through this crap too.  With their finances a big question mark to everyone but the Wilpons’ accountants, the Mets have cut costs, and payroll since 2006, their last playoff run, to sit comfortably in the middle of the pack; a weird place for any team from NY to be in.  The Mets do however have something the Yankees don’t: young, high end, cost controlled pitching.  The Mets could have made a move to send a signal to the landscape that they were ready to overtake the Yankees but one thing is clear: they aren’t ready.  Not that they couldn’t make a run to the postseason or the 90 win goal GM Sandy Alderson set.  But the Mets also didn’t make a panic trade to make a run that nobody thinks is a guarantee.  What the Mets can take away from this deadline from the other teams is this: that they aren’t ready to trade for a David Price or Jon Lester.  But they are also close enough to be realistic.  This may not be the year, but they are close to making the kind of moves that send shockwaves throughout baseball and announce themselves as legit contenders.


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Pay day is here.

The New York Mets are 2-4 on the young season and already several early trends are forming that are cause for concern for any die hard Met fan.

There’s this middle infield that continue to play hot-potato with the baseball anytime a double play is in order.  There’s the young stud catcher who’s right now hitting a number lower than one but hey let’s keep being ok with it because he’s got a track record in the minor leagues.  We’ve got a pitching staff that has quality starts, which means atleast 6 innings pitched and 3 or fewer runs, but two wins as a team to show for it.  We’ve got a bullpen that was an unmitigated disaster during the Opening series and seems like they have about 90-100 more of those kind of performances in store for the fans.  We have a 1b platoon that sounds like it will either motivate all three cadets OR irrevocably damage their intestinal fortitude altogether. Finally we have a team consistently beating the crap out of the air and giving cold Met fans a stiffer breeze everytime they flail at a live baseball.

And yet, the Mets are 2-4 and struggling to stay relevant in a season that is six games old while having 156 more to play.  That’s the kind of pessimism that sticks to you like gum to a shoe.  Why?  Because the Mets, the NEW YORK Mets as you will remember, operate their payroll like a kid operates a lemonade stand.  Nickel and dimes will get your thirst quenched for meaningful baseball but just know its going to cost you five bucks for a glass.

The prevailing wisdom around these parts are that the season is young and there are reinforcements on their way.  What they won’t tell you is that those reinforcements are scheduled to come around May when they will have earned enough time OUT of the actual games that count to be playing for pennies for a longer period of time.  What’s amazing about the Mets this year though is that they are operating under the guise of this “90-win” edict that their GM may have mistakenly put them under.

I’ve been thinking about what Sandy Alderson was actually thinking when he had to answer for the 90-win goal?  How tough was it for him to know that a snitch in his operation had leaked it to reporters who love poking the Mets with every snarky headline and column they can write?  How many times did he want to finesse the story so that it wasn’t so much a demand as it was a fantasy of his?

Right now, the starting pitching is doing a decent enough job.  Six games have gone by and there hasn’t been one pitcher who completely bombed.  The Mets starting five is averaging a 3.82 ERA good for 17th in baseball while their SP have gone a respectable 37.2 innings thus far in the season.  That averages out to 6.2 innings a game which is decent, except when you hand it off to the 28th best ERA crew of a bullpen.  The Mets aren’t just a badly constructed group of relievers its almost  become a thing with Sandy Alderson and once stuff become “a thing” for a GM its very hard to deconstruct that narrative until you destroy it.  And while the Mets have 156 games to destroy that, its funny how the guy who is demanding a 90 win season out of a team no one expects to is content on letting the losses pile up while waiting for his team to bring up the young studs everyone swears the Mets have.

That is the line that Sandy Alderson walks everyday.  We’re supposed to believe that he is the GM of a baseball team in NY while operating the budget of a team outside of Tulsa.  No disrespect.  He’s got to be small market minded while handling big city politics.  What Sandy says and does this year will be weighed against the 90-win expectation he set on himself.  And while I am NOT opposed to any GM throwing his team a spark to get fire going, let’s help it along by throwing in some huge logs to help the flame build.

This will be the year that Sandy Alderson will be judged on his work fairly.  This is after all his team.  This is the year he predicted the Mets would be on their way or showing signs of becoming relevant.  But as Sandy is finding out, not all plans work out the way we want.  A simple life lesson for a man who seems to operate under the premise that every angle must be investigated or its not worth proceeding with the plan.  The plan was to be competitive by this year.  That the Mets would start showing signs that the years of losing were worth it.  But there is no set expiration date for youthfulness.  One day young guys who need to learn are forced to step out from the shadow of “oh he doesn’t know any better” to “what the hell have you been doing this whole time?”  That is where Sandy and plenty of Met players find themselves.

Travis d’Arnaud is no spring chicken.  He’s 25.  Still young enough to believe that there is a spike in production coming and old enough where if he doesn’t do anythign this year legitimate worry and doubt will creep in to all the heads that have been assuring us that he is a stud. Matt Harvey went from potential stud, to superstar ace, to partying rockstar that has a digital mind all its own.  Noah Syndergaard, Rafael Montero, Jake deGrom and even Zack Wheeler are just question marks.  We don’t know what Brandon Nimmo is capable of but we know what the guy picked after him is doing.  Shit like this.

For Sandy the allure of the prospect is over.  Now is the coming of age.  Either they are or they aren’t.  Either the Mets ARE a team with no payroll restrictions OR they aren’t.  While its smart to milk as much arbitration clock as you possibly can from what could be frontline starters, at what cost?  Sandy is likely going to lose his job if they send a xerox copy of 2012 and 2013 this year and have 74 wins.  In that respect Sandy will find, and i’m sure is reminded everyday, it is New York.  There is no time for lollygagging.  Met fans have been patient enough.  Its not time to hide the gifts under the Christmas tree.  Its time to open it up.  That fine bottle of wine you’ve been saving for that special occasion?  Its tonight.  Because this is the night you’ve been waiting for and yet you’re still keeping that bottle of wine locked in the cabinet for some mythical day that doesn’t exist.

Its time to stop hiding behind the premise of Super-Two statuses that fans don’t care about.  Its time to own up and pay up to the fans who have stood by and waited.  Its time to demand out of your pitchers and hitters the support you are asking from the fans.  You want the fans to come out?  Bring the players we want to see and then perhaps we will shell out the 40 bucks.  Until then you can have all the pet days you want.  You can give out as many David Wright posters as  you would like.  Nobody will care until the fans get what they want: a winner.

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Talking up Phil and seeing if he’s down

So it has come to this.  In an attempt to bring some relevance to this team and legitimize its operation the Knicks have attached its most famous wandering son to a front office position.  Not that any deal is finalized, but something is in the works according to a Daily News report.  If Phil Jackson were to accept the offer made by the Knicks to come back to the team that introduced him to winning NBA championships, it would send several ripples throughout an organization that has been mismanaged from top to bottom for far too long.

To be clear, I don’t know if Phil Jackson would make a great executive.  We know he can coach.  We know he enjoys being in the spotlight.  We also know that he loves LA.  But my personal hunch is, from my detached far away from success standpoint, that people like Phil don’t just suddenly give up the opportunity to win.  Its why management often throws piles of money at guys who have seemingly past their prime as if there is a cut off age for everyone to stop what they are doing.  They know that while money is motivation, its the love of winning and perhaps just as important, the stench of losing that drives these men.

Larry Brown, Knick fans remember him, is 73 and he’s currently leading the SMU Mustangs to its first NCAA tournament appearance in more than 20 years.  Guys like Brown don’t just love the fame and the money, they love basketball for reasons that go beyond the superficiPhil_Jackson_3_croppedal.  I’m not waxing poetic on a guy like Larry Brown who’s been known to leave one place for greener pastures elsewhere, but one thing can’t be understated: don’t think its all about the money.

I sat thinking about three things in regards to this Phil Jackson rumor:

1. What would it take for Phil Jackson to come to the Knicks?

2. What would be the reason Phil Jackson took this position?

3. Why are the Knicks constantly coming to the well of the old master Phil everytime there’s uncertainty going on about the organization?

Let me preface this by saying I have no insider information and this is just one man’s humble opinion but Phil would need to be given certain guarantees in his contract to consider working for the Knicks.  Let’s first start with control.  If Phil were to come, it would be under the condition that he would have complete unilateral control of the Knicks which would be a huge give by James Dolan, the owner of the Knicks.  Its also a well known fact that CAA, the agency who has almost every big superstar in basketball signed to their company, has the ear of the owner of the Knicks as well.  More on them later.

No one knows who else has Dolan’s ear but its clear to almost every Knick fan that whoever does has zero interest in building a solid product here in the “basketball mecca”.  I always joke around that if the Knicks had an iota of intelligence in that front office, superstars would be lining up to play at the Garden.  Say what you will about how overblown the concept is to today’s NBA player, but the Garden is a recognized commodity within the basketball intelligentsia who saw more than its fair share of great high school and college games played here.  It was also the home to many sporting events outside of basketball that are forever a part of America’s storied sports past.  Basically the name rings out in the streets.  It is however, painfully clear that there are far too many voices in James Dolan’s head talking at once and he has to cede his control to someone he absolutely trusts.  Phil Jackson, for all we know, may be friends with Dolan and there may be a level of understanding between the two that go beyond just basketball.  But if there isn’t, Phil would need assurances that he would not be effed with when making a basketball decision.  And why shouldn’t Dolan cede control?  Its clear that even in the last decade of futility the Garden was making money hand over fist so there shouldn’t be a fear of losing money even if, at first, the Knicks may have to reset.

Phil’s health is also a major concern.  We don’t know how many surgeries Phil has had and whether he would consider relocating from Los Angeles where he lives with Jeannie Buss.  Would Phil give up 70 degrees year round for a foot of snow every so often in the Northeast?  More on that later.

The idea of Phil taking the position makes a ton of sense.  Like I stated earlier, guys like Phil Jackson don’t take jobs like this at this stage of their lives for the money.  Jackson’s legacy is set.  He’s won 11 championships as a head coach and won two as a player in New York.  If anything he could say that he achieved the task of winning in New York.  But for guys like Phil maybe the idea that his legacy isn’t complete eats up at him.  Maybe going back to New York would energize him and give him purpose.  I mean how long can you fly fish in Montana or ride your Harley in LA in perfect weather for?  Even if that sounds like a slice of heaven?  Ok, I’m not helping I know.

Finally, we all know why the Knicks are approaching Phil.  There’s plenty of reasons.  Look at the current Knick three game winning streak?  Maybe the players are under the illusion that Phil is coming and are viewing this time as an audition?  The Knicks aren’t a good team and yet are showing glimpses of the 54 win team they were last year.  There’s that Carmelo Anthony guy we’ve been hearing attached to Miami and Chicago recently.  His decision this summer will ultimately guide what the Knicks do next year.  If he leaves, they will definitely trade Tyson Chandler to a contender and try to carve out more cap space for 2015 even though merely letting Amar’e walk and not having a $23M cap hit on Carmelo would probably do the trick.  But if Phil comes Carmelo will feel like the Knicks are moving in the right direction because that’s what Phil represents.  He represents championships and winning and Carmelo can get down with that.  And you know who else can get down with that?  Other superstars who still view Phil in high regard.

While there are a ton of reasons why this would be good for the Knicks one thing is clear, the Knicks are star gazers.  Wishing on any shooting star that passes, hoping that their wish will come true.  This shooting star has a ton of questions surrounding his health and ultimately the power he will be given to make decisions.  Maybe he won’t be good at being a GM.  Look at Michael Jordan?  The power with being that good at one thing is that you start believing you’re good at everything and Mike fell into that trap.  He’s the guy who drafted Kwame Brown number one ahead of guys like Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Joe Johnson etc.  He’s the guy who has never produced a .500 or better team in his tenure as GM or owner.  Nothing is promised to guys who go on to try things other than what they are known for.  I truly believe God put us all on this earth for one thing, and one thing only.  Some, like Mike and Phil found their niche.  They worked hard and achieved the impossible.

In the end, I don’t think God put Phil on this earth to run the Knicks.  The devil put James Dolan here to mock all of us Knick fans for believing the rumors.

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Harvey Day’s ray of hope

All was well in the recesses of spring when this little tweet exploded on to my timeline:

photoWhile it may not seem like much, these are the kind of things that get people all worked up in February.  These are the kind of words that play on people’s emotions.  These are the kind of things that social media was made for.  Matt Harvey reintroduced into every sick, crazy Met fans head (I don’t know if there’s another type of Met fan left at this point), the idea that he can beat the laws of modern day sports medicine and return to the mound at some point this season.

For those of you who don’t know what Harvey day is, let me say briefly that its like a moment of zen spread across seven to hopefully nine innings where nothing wrong happens and everything right seems to play itself out.  Harvey day is like Friday of a busy work week: nothing can bother you because its Friday baby and the work week is almost done.  Its the kind of place that exists only in our heads and is nowhere based in reality.

For Met fans post 1986, there have been very few days or events that have made us truly this giddy.  The last pure, unfiltered moment of joy was when Endy Chavez leaped and made that catch in Game 7 of the NLCS to rob Scott Rolen of a homerun.  That was seven years ago.  Since then its been one tumble down the path filled with thorns after another and there is no stopping it but there is hope.  The famous four letter word that gets everybody in trouble.

Hope isn’t available to all but it is to those who seek it.  So those of us who require hope to continue moving forward live for moments like this.  Moments where nothing else matters except the idea in your head that something amazing is coming or about to happen.

Nobody really knows whether Matt Harvey will pitch except God himself and even he read that tweet like every single Met fan: “no Matt, don’t rush this.  We want years not moments.”  Because hope is only worth it in the end if it isn’t fleeting.  If it isn’t taken from you the moment you feel like the payoff has happened.  And when is the payout?  A world series?  Cy young?  No-hitting the Yankees and throwing a perfect game against the Braves?  Throwing high at Jimmy Rollins to knock an even bigger gap between his teeth?  Throwing a flying kick into Bryce Harper?

That’s all dependent on the person and the idea that they obsess over.  Hope is the currency of any sports team.  They operate on selling it to you as a fan. What the Mets have is a golden goose egg.  A trio of pitchers that many within the organization and within the game believe will blossom into aces.  Three pitchers who have the ability in their arms to restore faith into a fanbase and make ownership go public with foolish ideas of exceeding realistic goals of winning.  They say its a process to develop aces but its a process also to win back fans you lost.

The Wilpons will field the seventh lowest payroll in the major leagues.  I remind everyone reading this that the Mets play in New York, the number one TV market.  The Wilpons also own their own television network which means they make a ridiculous amount of money on highly valuable television rights.  Recently they refinanced their loan with Bank of America and its believed that there are no financial restrictions holding them back from increasing payroll.

But despite all the rollbacks in contracts and all the failed promises of regimes of old, there is Harvey day.  There are tweets at 8 am that invite the kind of hope that is absent in reason.  Met fans know that despite this tweet, the best course for Matt Harvey to take is to rest his surgically healed arm.  To allow the process to work in the time its meant to work in.  But its the spring.  Its the time where hope springs eternal.  Its not the time for reason or to judge whether rushing a franchise ace back in a season that more than likely will end like the last five have is a good idea or not.  Its the time where you get excited and lose all the logic you have left because nobody has time for that.  They do have time for hope though.  Eternally.


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Knicks Pistons Postgame

The Knicks lost to the Detroit Pistons 92-86 for their third consecutive loss.  Here are some thoughts about the game.

1. The Knicks started their fifth different lineup of this young season.  Beno Udrih and Kenyon Martin were the 9th and 10th different player to be in the starting line up.  As Coach Woodson said after the Atlanta game “we don’t have an identity.”  It gets boring having to repeat or find new ways to say the same thing:  the Knicks are a lost team and they need to figure it out quick.

While the season is still young, the lineup shuffling is a massive indictment on the structure of this current team.  If this stretch continues, you have to wonder if last year’s run was a mirage and an everything-went-right-for-us scenario that played out.  The team looked as though they had never practiced with one another- a byproduct of having to work another guy into the rotation.  Beno Udrih had totaled a whopping 20 minutes over the last 9 days.  And that’s only because he played all 20 minutes in a Spurs blowout loss.  That’s right, Mike Woodson started a guy who had not played a single minute in the last three games despite having Pablo Prigioni on the team.  That’s borderline irresponsible on Woodson’s part to try and pull something like that off and attempt to get away with it.

Again its early but there’s tons to touch upon in regards to improvements so let’s see where I can start:

2. Some people asked me what benefit a zone defense would bring to these Knicks and I said its a system that fits this current roster.  Especially if you want to give Amar’e a bigger load of minutes.  Especially if you don’t have a Tyson Chandler to mask Carmelo Anthony’s bad one-on-one defense against fours.  The zone is a bend but don’t break defense which means when played right it can limit the number of wide open shots which is what has plagued the Knicks these last few games.

The fundamental problem with the Knicks is communication.  Guys fight through screens, yet find themselves doubling on a guy that they don’t need to.  I counted four times in the first half that the Knicks unnecessarily doubled a Detroit big man 20 feet away from the basket.  For what?  To go even further, if you give Josh Smith space he will gladly chuck the ball with absolute glee.  The law of percentages say that he won’t hit more than 40% of those shots.  Why even try and pressure a guy who will shoot his team out of a game and force him to do the unselfish thing?  The Pistons are full of guys who struggle with the concept that there is only ONE basketball in play at one time.  Why force guys to pass when they will gladly shoot their team out of a game when they are given daylight?

This game was a tailor made streak buster and the Knicks screwed that up by playing undiscplined and allowing the Pistons wide open shots by not playing their opponent rather than playing the scheme.  The good teams understand their opponents and have a sense of their weaknesses.  Brandon Jennings was clearly not himself because he wasn’t trying to beat the Knicks by himself.  Will Bynum was out.  There were any number of reasons to believe the Knicks could win this game, but once again their team defense and specifically their help defense wasn’t just a step slow, it was non-existent at times.  Guys were no where near the rim as Detroit players were streaking to the hoop at will.  It was embarassing.

The zone defense allows bad one on one defenders to play a specific area of the floor and make teams hesitant to drive into the lane because there will always be someone there.  With the three second rule, you are asking whomever is playing center to be quick enough to enter the picture to deter an offensive player from getting an uncontested look at the basket but at this point its worth trying if only for the sake of “let’s try something different than the current scheme that is clearly NOT working.”

In that scenario, you would have to hide Amar’e and Bargnani because they are just bad help defenders and keep Kenyon Martin on the floor.  At this point the Knicks would probably have to look into Cole Aldrich for a steady diet of minutes IF ONLY for the reinforcement he would provide.  And besides, like teams used to say about playing Shaquille O’Neal, “we need guys who can play six (fouls).”

3. The Knicks are regularly getting beat by a second, third, and fourth option.  Like on the regular these days.  Rather than play the team, the Knicks prepare for the starting five and almost throw up their hands in disbelief when they realize teams have a bench player who also can score.  Its almost beyond belief how terribly overmatched the Knicks seem to be.  They exert so much extra energy into the defensive end on overhelp and over-switching that when the team does swing it to the open man they basically get down on their knees to pray that an NBA player misses a wide open shot.

I know we like to clown a lot of players but most of those guys will hit those shots.  And last night, it was Rodney Stuckey who burned the Knicks.  On four straight possessions he forgot that he was a middling player on a destined to be 30-35 win team.  He must have felt like he was back in high school, doing what he wanted against an overmatched JV squad.  Stuckey bruised the Knicks for 21 points and with each made shot he gained more and more confidence that by the time they decided to stick Stuckey, he was in heat-em-up NBA Jam mode.  Turrible as Sir Charles would say.

4. Losses like last night can make players get frustrated and you saw it in Carmelo’s play.  This was a four play sequence for the Knicks on four consecutive possessions:

Carmelo Miss
Carmelo Technical
Carmelo Offensive foul
Carmelo turnover.

The very next play, Greg Monroe fouled him and replays showed Melo should’ve received the continuation but the referees refused to give him the call because guess what?  Melo had pretty much spent the last twenty minutes of real time complaining to the refs that they weren’t doing a very good job.  Instead of going for a three point play the Knicks left with an extra possession.  The result of those four turnovers?  7 points for the Pistons who went from up one to up eight and a comfortable enough cushion to withstand a minispurt by the Knicks.

Amar’e later picked up a technical himself because Amar’e feels he should never be called for a foul on defense even if half of Detroit can hear him slap somebody’s wrist playing defense.  Add in the fact that you saw players visibly pointing at parts of the paint where Detroit players were routinely blowing by their defenders and having zero resistance at the basket and you have the obvious recipe for disaster.  A team in disarray.  Pick any starry headline you want.  The optimist’s optimist would tell you that its a good sign that the players are visibly upset over their performance because it shows they care. Of course who cares if they show they care if we don’t see tangible results?  We will see if the caring will play out on the court and manifest itself in better overall play.

5.  I’m not ready to place all the blame on coaching and Woodson because he seems as mystified as we all do but it isn’t to say that he shouldn’t have the finger pointed at him.  Woodson’s second full season (if he’s even afforded that) has been symbolized by mismanagement and a severe lack of direction.  Woodson isn’t sure who he trusts and he’s equally clueless about how to fix the issues the team has on defense which tells you that he had no back up plan in the event that Tyson Chandler went down.  The Knicks are an imperfect roster that can only win if their three point shots are going down and the players show a willingness to play coherent defense.  The Knicks have decent defensive players but on the most part they don’t have the personnel to run a system that asks players to know where they should be in the event that one of their teammates will leave their man to help on another player.

Woodson has shown an almost borderline unwillingness to adapt.  Who knows if he’s stubborn or truly believes he can make it work with this roster but the evidence is being played night after night: these guys can’t keep playing this way night after night.  Last year’s experiment of Melo at the four was brought on by injury, not by Woodson having an epiphany to try something different.

It could be that Woodson wants to beat the system into the players and have them work it out on the court rather than switch everything up on defense and then switch back once Chandler comes back.   Again, its early but let’s see what Woodson does to solve the issues that plague the Knicks.

6.  You have to wonder how long a leash Woodson is going to give J.R. Smith who’s had one idiotic dope-head move after another.  I won’t blame the knee surgery after the contract because that falls squarely on the Knicks shoulders.  But the twitter feed, the beef with Brandon Jennings continues the leaguewide rep that he has of a troublemaker and not worth the headache for good teams to have.  It could be that Woodson is trying to be supportive of JR much like he was last year by continuing to run him out there even though he’s playing poorly.  But the fact remains that Smith can not possibly continue to shoot at 28% and expect to keep logging 30-35 minutes a game.  Woodson can’t afford to play him those kind of minutes.

It bears watching though if Woodson is trying to coach him through this rough stretch by continuing to believe in his ability to snap out of it.  Like any streaky shooter you ride the waves of good with the bad and hope that the highs stay longer than the lows.  One thing you have to wonder about though is how the arthroscopic knee surgery is actually affecting his ability to drive to the basket.  JR has been more than content at pulling up for jumpers and playing the perimeter jump shooting game.  He was successful at that last year but only after establishing his ability to drive to the basket and he was always best when he was being aggressive.  He has his bouts with the one on one, over dribbling but it bears watching that as his health returns he will begin to be more aggressive towards the hoop.

7. An interesting point raised by Mike Breen was the void of leadership on this current Knicks team.  Last year’s team had wise sages like Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd.  Kidd left to coach the Brooklyn Nets to the ground (good looks Jason!).  Sheed is player/coach-ing the Pistons and Kurt Thomas is a mall cop somewhere.  I’ve always been a guy who believes in that team camraderie/things-you-can’t-quantify stuff that stat geeks like to say they don’t believe in yet are forever to prove using numbers.  This year’s team leader flowchart would have Carmelo Anthony at the top by virtue of calling players only meetings (always a fave of mine, five games into a season), and frankly he’s not ready to lead.  He leads by hoisting up fifteen shots.  You saw it towards the end of the game where Melo was hellbent on taking on the entire Pistons team to bring the Knicks back- heroic yes, but its the biggest complaint Melo detractors have about him.  He doesn’t make his team better, he only betters his stats.

Last year’s team had older players but they had players who could keep guys like J.R. in line and be professional.  If you are looking for Melo to do that, its putting him in a role he’s not fit to play.  I’m not saying that Melo can’t become a better leader, heck anything’s possible, I just think like Michael Jordan trying to run a professional basketball team, he can’t teach his skill to people around him.  He will stand around and expect them to get it and that’s not how to be a leader.  The Knicks could use a few old guys to keep players in check and manage tempers because its showing.  Just another thing the Knicks are lacking this year.

8. And just in time for this big stink-fest are the Indiana Pacers who roll into town with a 9-1 record and the memory of knocking the Knicks out of the playoffs last year.  If the Knicks had any pride, they would compete their hearts out based solely on the memory of being beaten by the Pacers.  But anyone expecting them to protect their home court with their glowing 1-5 mark is almost foolish at this point.  There will be plenty to write about dissecting the Pacers roster construction when compared to the Knicks in my next post but let’s just say that if this whole Melo thing doesn’t work out this year- looking at the Pacers model wouldn’t be so bad.  But who knows, when you expect the Knicks to lose, they pull off a mini-miracle and remain competitive against a good team.

9. Finally, among all the things the Knicks have gone through their front office and owner have reverted back to their old meddling ways and begun to ruin the Knicks from the inside as they love to do.  I can’t tell you strongly enough how much I want James Dolan to sell which probably means he equally wants to keep the team.  I imagine him sitting in his office reading fan mail and crying…..because he’s laughing so hard at all the heartfelt emails asking him to step down or stop fooling around with the personnel guys long enough to allow them to do their jobs.  From hiring someone to tail Woodson to guaranteeing wins in November to sending a cease and desist to his own Knicks cheerleaders (probably because they make people feel good at the Garden and Lord knows we don’t need that) to making a GM change on the eve of the NBA season, its been one thing after another that has kept the constant black eye on the franchise.  At this point what’s the expectation of any kind of normalcy at this point?


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Knicks Hawks postgame

If some of you thought that watching the Knicks/Hawks on Saturday was rough, consider this cruel and unusual punishment: knowing what happened, I still went to the DVR and dug out the game and watched it.  Of course I did that to give you all the crucial 10 random thoughts about the game so let’s get to it.

Melo driving on the Hawks via yahoosports.com

Melo driving on the Hawks
via yahoosports.com

1.  The Knicks fifth straight loss at home, came in probably the most embarrassing fashion yet.  In a game against a team they had beaten just three days prior the Knicks looked unable to stop the Atlanta offense from doing whatever they wanted.  Which brings us to Carmelo Anthony’s postgame assertion that the Knicks are not showing the effort necessary to cut it.  I think every Knick fan sees it in the lackadaisical way they go about it on defense and how teams are so easily able to get into the paint where many times you will find one to zero defenders commandeering that valuable piece of real estate.

Melo’s “lack of effort” rant came on the heels of one of his better performances.  Smart.  You can’t watch Saturday’s game and say that Melo was the cause.  He fought for rebounds.  He went inside and he truly battled out there.  He was not the guy lacking in his effort.  I’m not saying that Melo’s accusation is off base, I just find it curious that he be vocal about his team’s effort in probably his best “effort” game.  Carmelo was the only player on the Knicks starting five to NOT record a +/- in double digits.  Rebounding last year was a huge problem and an even greater cause for concern with Tyson Chandler out but Saturday’s concerted effort on the glass was the lone encouraging sign for the Knicks.  Its clear that the Knicks are going to have to start collectively doing things that they left for Tyson to handle like rebounding and protecting the rim.  For a team with a collective group of bad one on one defenders, the Knicks can not afford to lose a guy like Tyson for an extended period of time.

2a. In the latest bit of Daily News vs. New York Knicks drama unfolding on an almost daily basis comes this little nugget: Apparently the Daily News knows what Iman Shumpert did this summer.  In the second such move the Knicks elected not to disclose for public consumption, Iman Shumpert had a second arthroscopic procedure on the same knee that he injured.   This will obviously effect any trade value he may possess which is important because it seems as though the Knicks are determined to trade him for two reasons:

A. He’s their only asset that teams will be interested in.

B. The Knicks are tired of waiting for his offense to develop and some within the organization feel as though his defense may have regressed.

While it may be true that he is one of the few assets the Knicks have that teams would think twice about, his value isnt anywhere close at this point to being able to bring back something meaningful.  According to the latest, the Knicks are trying hard to get Rajon Rondo from the rebuilding Celtics.  Its a nice thought but I doubt Danny Ainge, the Celts GM, will budge on the package that is rumored to be on the table of Shump, Ray Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire.  While Shumpert’s early stats don’t show vast improvement the eye test says his form has vastly improved and virtually every wide open look has seemingly been a make.  Eventually his 40.1% rate will improve but that has more to do with the changes the Knicks must make to the offense, and not anything Shump is or isn’t doing.

Secondly, the problem with the development argument is that this iteration of the Knicks have been unwilling to wait for young players to grow and more or less have treated draft picks like goodies to wave in front of teams looking to get younger and rebuild.  James Dolan feels this team can win a championship now and that means they need to get better players in here and the only way to do that is via trade.  Even if Shump were to show the improvement necessary to make that leap the Knicks brain trust would like, it seems like the Knicks have talked themselves into trading Shump away.

2b.  While most Knick fans are fiercely loyal to Shump- and there’s a lot to like- Shumpert is one of those players that are overrated and underrated at the very same time.  He’s overrated by a fan base that looks at Shump- the only young player that can play defense which happen to be the two things the Knicks don’t have much of- as a homegrown talent they envision being a superstar.  Last year the Knicks had the oldest collective roster in the NBA which made Shumpert’s absence sad and return a much needed gift.  New York basketball fans are split into two warring camps: the group of snarly veterans who wonder where the 1970’s Red Holzman style of basketball went and the group of fans who bring the playground mentality to the professional game.  Shump pleases both segments of the population but I wonder if they both overrate his ability as a defender.

His wingspan allows him to invade passing lanes just by having his hands up or spread wide.  His size allows him to defend multiple positions.  He rarely leaves his feet and does a good job of staying in front of quick guards.  Those are the positives.  The negatives are that he hasn’t played like that guy yet.  The obvious go-to excuse is that he’s another Knick  recovering from injury and that’s a major part of the equation.  The other part is that Shump seems to take more responsibility for the defense on his shoulders because of Tyson Chandler’s absence.  He wants to be the anchor but its not easy for a perimeter defender to be the defensive anchor.  Shump lost a bit of athleticism that we can’t be sure he will ever recover after his ACL tear.  And for a guy who uses his freakish athletic ability to defend other players, its going to take some time for Shump to get back to where we thought he would be.  Call this a case of a guy who has put a ton of added pressure to be the man on himself and by a team that probably views him as expendable.

3.  I hate to say it but Amar’e Stoudemire has a point.  Prior to Saturday’s game he voiced his displeasure at the minutes distribution he was receiving by Coach Woodson which to be fair is what he should say.  Remember, he’s a $20 million player with a ton of pride and it can’t be easy to be playing five to nine minutes a game when he was once a cornerstone player.  No matter what you think, one day we may look at the Amar’e tenure as one of promises not kept but not the way in which you think.  Amar’e was the sole prize of the two year tank job that Dolan was somehow convinced to go through in hopes that Lebron James would come to New York to rescue basketball here.  But when the smoke cleared it was Amar’e standing in front of the Mecca screaming to the basketball world that the Knicks were back.  And the first half of his first season as a Knick he played his heart out and was a MVP candidate.  Then came the trade for Carmelo Anthony and since that time its been one lowlight after another and its been a steady decline for Amar’e.  Yes, injuries have decimated and destroyed the remaining bits of athleticism he once had but the Knicks haven’t done him any favors.  Their personnel decisions have done him no favors by tying up their salary cap with guys  who either need the ball all the time (Melo) or need someone to create for them (Tyson Chandler) leaving Amar’e as yesterday’s news.  Think about it, even Andrea Bargnani is a higher priority in the Knick offense than he is and he just walked in the door five minutes ago.  A far cliff to fall off for a guy who just three years ago was the Knicks.

This falls on Woodson.  His coaching decisions have bordered on horrible this year and he now needs to rectify this.  I don’t think Amar’e is done but I do think he needs to rest Amar’e till he’s fully healthy and regains some explosion  (he had a few instances where old Amar’e came back which holds promise) rather than throwing out the ghost of Amar’e past for five to nine minutes a game.  Its not fair to Amar’e who’s right, you can’t expect a player to gain any type of continuity by being put on the floor for such limited reps.  It does him no good and does Kenyon Martin no good, the other guy sentenced to playing time time-out.

4. Speaking of coaching that needs to happen, Woodson needs to begin to entertain the possibility of going to a zone defense.  The current scheme of having players rotate and switch on the pick and roll isn’t working because a lot of the Knicks aren’t good individual defensive players which makes it tough for them to excel with such a physically demanding defensive scheme.  Simplifying the defense to a zone for the time being while Tyson is out may have to happen for the sake of the Knicks defense and the players who have to play it.  I’ve spoken to Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal via Twitter timelines about Woodson’s stubbornness and lack of willingness to adapt to his team’s situation which is frankly troubling and sad.  Last year’s success had a lot to do with Woodson’s second half adjustments and that just hasn’t happened this year.  Its still early but another few more games of the same matador D as Clyde likes to call it, and Woody may need to think up something.

5. J.R. Smith is in the midst of a historically bad shooting slump.  Last year he was magic off the bench and many times carried the Knicks through large swaths of Carmelo-less time.  This year, inserted into the starting lineup, his effectiveness has been limited.  Add to it his ineffectiveness during playoff time, his increasingly annoying twitter feed, and his start this year, its easy to see why even Coach Woodson easily his biggest supporter (clearly not in the organization- thanks Chris Smith) has said that nobody will want to deal with him.  The problem is, with shooters you ride the highs and lows. While he doesn’t have the rep of a great high volume shooter he is judged by those standards and so I expect him to get out of this rut.  One way to do it may be to get him back in a familiar role so he can rediscover his big play potential.

6. I want every Knick fan to stop dreaming of a Rondo deal.  Its not going to happen.  You hear me?  Not.  Gonna.  Happen.  The Celts would never deal a former franchise star to the Knicks.  The Knicks dont have anything past Shump and Hardaway Jr to offer.  And frankly, I don’t know how Melo and Rondo would play nice with each other.  Also, why would you want to trade an asset like Amar’e Stoudemire who will turn into a $20 million expiring which could be used to make a massive trade deadline deal (hey Kevin Love) next year.

7. Who would’ve thought that Andrea Bargnani’s one on one defense would actually be impressive?  True story.  He did a pretty solid job on another elite big man in Al Horford.  He once again bodied up a big man who thought Bargs would just relent, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Obviously his reputation as a lackluster defensive player and his European background (black players look at Euro players as soft- right KG?) make players feel as though they can abuse Bargs but he’s been giving it as good as he takes.  Horford had 12 points and 2 rebounds while Bargs dropped 16 and grabbed 9 rebounds, (4 offensive!!).  Steady improvement.

8.  Again, I’m not overly concerned with the recent losing streak as most are.  I see good signs.  The offense is still stagnant and it has too many one on ones but that can all be worked out.  The Knicks will have a run this season in which they look competent.  The stuff in the background that’s happening is good.  Melo and Bargs seem to play well off each other.  Woodson just needs to put Amar’e in there for more minutes and use Kenyon Martin in the middle to impede the foot traffic through the painted area and the Knicks will start seeing a lot less paint jobs and force teams to play for perimeter shots.  Tim Hardaway Jr is getting valuable playing time and he’s not disappointing- as cocky as his father was.  Thinks he can make every shot.  J.R. will make his shots as the season goes on.  If you get the Melo that was setting up shop under the basket like he did on Saturday the Knicks will be good.  Expecting that on a daily basis is a bit much but Melo is such a talented offensive player that some nights he won’t need to work so hard for shots underneath the basket, the greater return on his hard play will be the impact it has on his teammates to exert similar effort.  Just please, ABORT the hideous orange unis.  PLEASE!

9. The Nets lost, which means the Knicks are one game out of first place in the Atlantic Division.




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Knicks/Rockets postgame

A few thoughts about the Knicks following yet another narrow loss to the Houston Rockets:

Howard and Bargs battling

Howard and Bargs battling
Courtesy of Washingtonpost.com

1.  I fully expected this game to be a blowout considering Tyson Chandler’s absence and a true legitimate big man at the 5 playing across from Bargnani.   So pardon the collective surprise of the NBA viewing republic when the stat sheet came out and Bargs was outplaying the “last real center alive”.  Dwight ended the game with 7 points and 15 rebounds while Bargnani finished with 24 points and 5 rebounds.  While points and rebounds won’t completely tell the tale, consider that Bargs was a +7 for the night while Dwight was a -1 on the all important +/- scale of measuring one’s importance to a team’s outcome on any given night.  Bargs was not shy of bodying up with Howard who seemed surprised by Bargs aggressive and effective play.

2. I’m a fan of Chandler Parsons as are any folk who know anything about basketball.  Parsons has an innate sense of cutting and passing and has a great ball fake that almost always causes defenders to leave their feet.  On this team he’s a perfect third and even fourth option on most nights.  He’s also a willing contributor, a term I give to players who are happy to be around better players and completely understanding of their position on the pecking order.  While Parsons usually gets stats-heavy geeks frothing at the mouth, any NBA fan can tell you that you need one of those guys on your team.  His ball fake and extra pass on the final HOU possession (not counting the last two where they had to hit free throws) led to the James Harden foul on the three point shot.  He easily could’ve shot that after the ball fake pried him loose of the defender but he knew to get the ball to the open star of the team because that’s what you pay them to do: hit big shots when it counts.  Parsons wont ever earn a max extension but he’s a vital cog on any team hoping to contend.

3. Which leads me to the guy who fouled Harden on that fateful play.  Ray Felton has taken a step back in his defensive ability this season; an ability that was played up too much last season.  Felton has deceptive speed for a guy who looks like someone who walks into the gym and sits by the juice bar the entire time.  Felton fell straight into Harden when all he had to do was to do a swing by.  This is the problem with the switch-happy, help heavy defense that Woodson employs.  It forces players with bad defensive reactions to make you guessed it, bad defensive reactions.  To fall straight into Harden, a guy who will fall to the floor if a breeze blew hard enough, gave him the authority to initiate the contact necessary to force the zebras to blow the whistle.

4. Bargnani has played three consecutive good games which leads to the eventual fateful decision that Woodson has to make when Tyson Chandler returns.  Does he stick with the big frontcourt of Chandler, Melo and Bargs?  Or does he make Bargnani the sixth man and keep only two of Melo, Bargs, and Chandler, on the court at once?  It would make sense that they not combine the three.  I’m not going to fault Woody for going to the super big line up for a few more games before making an astute decision but there’s still almost 4-6 weeks to go before Tyson is slated to come back so there’s plenty of time for Woodson to stew and make up his mind.  In the meantime consider that since Tyson went out  in the home loss to the Bobcats, Bargs is averaging 21.3 points, 6 rebounds and a +1 rating.  If you take out that atrocity of a Spurs loss his averages would look even better: 23 ppg, 7.7 rebounds, and a cumulative +27 rating or a +9 rating average.  Many would blame it on the spacing that a defensive minded center like Tyson takes away from the Knicks offense (the same reason that many thought the Amar’e, Tyson and Melo front court couldn’t work), but its worth wondering if this four game sample is indicative of how this offense will continue to go if you remove ONE of the three from the line up.

5a.  Metta World Peace continues to struggle offensively that its difficult sometimes to watch him with the ball without

Knicks and Rockets get testy

Knicks and Rockets get testy

screaming at the television to pass the ball.  At the end of the day though Metta’s impact on the floor won’t be offensively, though whatever he gives will be a plus.  Metta’s impact will be on both establishing a tougher mindset by being an intimidating presence on the court, and also being a defensive presence.  In years past the Knicks would’ve raised arms and admitted defeat by the second quarter of that T-Wolves game when after the first quarter the Knicks were down 41-19, but the Knicks made a game of it once Metta came in the game.  I’m not saying he was the reason the Knicks almost won the game but he was a big presence on the court that slowed the Wolves down and forced some turnovers.  His +17 in that game is eye opening.  Even in games like the ones with the Bulls where their physicality would’ve normally forced the Knicks into submission they hung in there until D. Rose hit that impossible floater over two Knicks to give the Bulls a one point game.

5b. Last year the Knicks were 22-17 in games decided by five points or less.  Which was good for 15th in the NBA.  This year they are 2-4 which is good for 17th in the NBA.  Last year most observers would agree was the best of almost every possible scenario for the Knicks which led to their 54 win season.  This year their early season struggles are being attributed to regression to the mean.  While its still early one of the things I expect to happen is for the Knicks to win more close games.  Of course this has as much to do with health as anything so in the next 4-6 weeks they may pile a few more losses without a defensive presence like Tyson Chandler who says this year he’s healthier than he was last year.  Call it more of a guess based on a gut feeling rather than any statistical measure.

5c.  Which brings me to the recent conversation started by Matt Barnes in-the-heat-of-the-moment tweet with the n-word included.  Barnes expressed frustration at his teammates and having to constantly come to their aid and in a roundabout way called his teammates soft.  Which, if you wanted to make the case about the Knicks- was also true last year.  Teams often played aggressive with Melo hoping to take him out of the game with no real enforcer to tell them to knock it off which necessitated the Kenyon Martin grab at the end of the season.  The Knicks doubled down with Metta this year and though the record may not reflect it, have reaped some reward out of Metta and Kenyon’s presence.  With Chandler out teams may see fit to treat the paint like the runway at JFK, but having guys like Kenyon and Metta can atleast be some point of resistance for lesser tough guys to just use and abuse the painted area of the court.  While most celebrate KG’s toughness as a necessary component for the Nets to really make noise this year, its important to use Metta and Kenyon in spots where necessary- like now.  To play zone and have them guard the rim and let people know that if they must drive to the paint, expect a few hard fouls.  If you’re foolish enough to repeatedly absorb that kind of punishment do so at your own discretion.  The record may not show it, but time will ultimately prove these two free agent acquisitions right.

6. Tough losses early in the year are a little easier to stomach for a number of reasons.  Usually teams are nursing stars back from injuries so their usage stats will show that they aren’t really playing a high volume of minutes.  Despite having a pre-season teams are still figuring out lineup configurations like the Knicks.  Players who aren’t physically ready for the season need time to round themselves into shape.  Bad teams don’t know they are bad and jump on good teams who aren’t expecting it.  The Knicks really only fall into one of those categories but its easy to get caught up in an early season swoon given how quickly the Knicks jumped out of the gate last year.  Their quick start helped them weather the expected mid-season swoon and ultimately led them to a solid stretch run-run.  It will be interesting to see if the Knicks catch fire in the middle of the season and still have a late season surge.

7. James Harden doesn’t seem like the most popular player on his team.  While he was down on the court not too many teammates came to check on him.  Add that to Dwight Howard’s fake ass routine you can see why the Rockets haven’t jumped out the gate.  Clearly the OKC/HOU trade worked out more for Houston because it helped convince Dwight to choose the Rockets over the Lakers last summer.  But one has to wonder if Harden’s ability to win championships wouldn’t have been served better by being on OKC’s roster.  Both front offices are forward thinking organizations who don’t operate under burdensome ownership groups.  Both have several assets at all times to make a huge trade and both teams are not shy at making big deals if it serves the interest of winning a championship.  Houston’s game plan of accumulating assets has now worked in their favor again.  Omer Asik is demanding a trade and according to the sage Adrian Woj, the Rockets are shopping Asik for either “an impact player or a lottery pick”.  If they get either consider it a steal but its worth noting that its the right move to make.   You have to ask for the sun, moon and the stars when you have an asset the likes of Asik- a young cost controlled defensive center.   Imagine they get a 2014 first round pick from a team that may wind up in the lottery thanks to an ownership group desperate to make a run at the playoffs?  Think Charlotte who have two 2014 protected first round draft picks (they traded their own to Chicago- Lord help them), or Memphis who have opened the season rather sluggish and may need to reconfigure their roster and send a bad contract out (think Zack Randolph).  Keep an eye out.

8.  Speaking of the Dwightmare, its almost inexcusable how much he struggled against the defense of Andrea Bargnani.  Don’t adjust your screen you read right!  Dwight wasn’t able to muscle in the paint and very rarely plays aggressive.  He plays mad and usually that leads to inexcusable turnovers or very poor decisions.  Charles Barkley’s disbelief that now playing for an organization that has Hakeem on the payroll and Kevin McHale as his coach was a tad bit early though.  McHale and Hakeem had more post moves than a mailman working during Christmas time, but that kind of foundational training takes time.  But now this would make those two the third and fourth Hall of Fame post players who Dwight has had access to on a daily basis since he came into the league and he’s STILL this bad?  Patrick Ewing (Orlando), and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lakers) haven’t helped Dwight realize his potential.  At some point the whispers and rumors that Dwight is as bad and overrated as we are seeing off the floor as on the floor may in fact be coming true.  He has to get something going.  In my opinion, he and Lebron James are the only two players who can physically overwhelm opponents.  It took time for Lebron to figure out how and when and it may be that Dwight just needed the right complement of superstars around him.  Lets see if Dwight figures it out when we check back in later this year.

9. I would be remiss and not fulfilling my journalistic duty if I were to ignore the return of Linsanity to Madison Square Garden.  Look, I’m on record as saying that letting Lin walk was dumb for virtually every reason you can wonder.  But let’s not rehash the past.  Its nice to see him develop at the old age of 25 and mostly its his jump shot that has developed.  Looks pure and just so much more polished.  He also saved his best for last shooting 4 of 6 in the final quarter to help lead the Rockets to the win.  Lin is out of the starting line up and ultimately it will be the best thing for him to develop his game playing with either Harden or Howard rather than in tandem for now.  He’s shooting better than 50% from three which will eventually come down but if his 3pt FG% steadies at over 40%,  it will be much tougher to clog up lanes and defend both Lin and Harden who’s first inclination is to drive to the basket and score.  If you keep Lin, Parsons, Harden and Howard, all you need is a competent 2nd big who can grab rebounds or have soft hands to collect easy passes in the paint that will result when the defense collapses to close on one of Harden or Lin driving to the hoop.  The home run move would be Houston picking Phoenix’s pocket for Channing Frye a big who can stretch defenses even further because of his ability to stroke the three.  Of course that would be a perfect scenario for Houston but not that unrealistic.  Phoenix’s GM Ryan McDonough is doing what Darryl Morey would in his position: accumulate assets, draft well and stock up for a big move.  With potentially four first round picks in 2014, a draft being  compared to the one in  2003 draft in terms of depth of impact talent the Suns are positioned to really rebuild very quickly.  Getting an Asik for Frye deal would be great but that won’t happen because McDonough is looking to shed salary rather than take on more.  Frye for a 2014 first round pick would be glorious for McDonough but I doubt Morey is looking to trade out of this draft of all places.  Doesn’t seem like a match but based purely on basketball, it makes all the sense in the world.

10. And still i say #KNICKSTAPE

More coming later….

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The Indecision. The Dwightmare. Pick one if you can

Dwight Howard is a Houston Rocket after an almost four year dance about where he would sign a long term extension ended via a Twitter announcement. It was the right move for Howard despite the fact that his trade to the Lakers was seen in much the same way.

When Howard was traded to the Lakers it was viewed as a matter of destiny. The Lakers are supposed to have superstars clamoring to go there. They are like that guy that seems to have everything going for him and on top of that nonchalantly comes back from Vegas saying they won 5 grand after finding a $100 bill on the floor.

But since that day, something went awry. Somehow Dwight went from franchise reinvigorating superstar to pariah and scapegoat for everything that went wrong. A franchise that usually has everything go right for them had the worst possible scenario play out. Turns out Dwight and resident Staples center superstar Kobe Bryant didn’t get along. Turns out Steve Nash was 39 years old. Turns out that the replacement for Mike Brown didn’t make them better, it made them worse because he steadfastly refused/didn’t know how to alter his system to fit the personnel he had. You know, the obvious skill set for a head coach

Even worse, the Clippers became the best team in Los Angeles acquiring the superstar PG the Lakers thought they had acquired in one of those deals that the Lakers always seem to be involved in. It was as if God, by proxy of David Stern, altered the direction of the Lakers and gave the magic the Lakers and their fandom seemed to enjoy to the Clippers.

So, it didn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that a superstar would entertain the thought of leaving Los Angeles even though a few years ago it would’ve drawn sharper eye brow raises than the Rock in his heyday. As some sort of last ride memorial to his waffling personality, Dwight through his team kept sending mixed signals while claiming that he wanted to be wooed because he never experienced a college recruitment process. It was classic Dwight: bogus reasoning to try to make people forget his indecisiveness. Of course no beat writer/columnist will let Dwight’s crimes go unpunished. And so the deconstruction of Dwight, a process that began the day his lies were publicly called out to in the press by former Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy in an unprecedentedly awkward media session, continued till his smile was seen as deceiving and his motives for every move had naysayers galore.

It got to the point that he was labeled a soft, coach killing, sensitive “superstar” that had to have his own way even though even if his ideal situation doesn’t exist because he was worse, a chronic complainer.

The backlash to Dwight and his needy act was such that even before Dwight made his decision Laker fans were not only resigned to his eventual spurning of the Lakers but openly applauded it. Fans took to comments sections in blogs and major sites to say they didn’t care and that he was washed up.

But nothing beat the fan hat (read franchise microphones) that legends like Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar wore to denounce Dwight and downplay the actual shift happening in Los Angeles. They reminded everyone how much of a privilege it was to play for the Lakers, an admission that the new generation cared not for tradition but for who could advance their own brand.

Which brings us to the real issue at hand. This isn’t a referendum on all the players in today’s game but the reality is every superstar athlete has more people in their crew/posse making their super friend aware of the extra possibilities that exist outside of the basketball court. Never mind that it behooves the handler/friend to create some sort of partnership with the star to keep his hooks on him, but its changing how teams are approaching negotiations with these stars.

Now players are more aware of the double standard that front offices use. They ask for players to chase championships while on discounted contracts on account of cementing legacies with the community and fan base as well as the team. But should the player leave scorned ownership may use its multitude of resources thru back channels to express disappointment and invite resentment. As if a player should be thankful to the owner for giving him the opportunity to even play in his multimillion dollar cash cow arena when in reality the reason they have them is because in some form or another they got their riches by figuring out how to spend less and get more. The board room mentality never leaves the owner especially with today’s ownership who are much more involved in their teams day to day operations than ownerships in the past. Majority of owners used to sit back, hire “basketball people” (think Rod Thorn) and let them run the franchise. Nowadays, front offices are being given marching orders by owners who want to be Mark Cuban 2.0. They love the attention of it all, ya know, adding another feather to their billion dollar Stetson.

But players aren’t fond of the okie doke. They are more aware of their influence to the bottom line. They know how those new arenas are coming from. The first superstar to ask those questions from a hands on owner was Magic Johnson. You know, business savvy Magic who hung with Dr Jerry Buss who schooled him on the business side of things and taught him how to leverage his fame to make millions which is why when he signed the 25 year $25 million contract it was a lifetime pact between two equals. Both keenly aware of what the other could do for him.

Michael Jordan was the first billion dollar superstar who went with Nike instead of world leader at the time, Adidas and played their brand right to the top. It was a mutually beneficial opportunity. Nike staked their future on the right athlete and won. It was dangerous for sure, but one who’s reward was huge. Jordan won championships, starred in flossy commercials that exaggerated the image and allowed him to ask and receive the highest salary in basketball.

But Jordan’s symbiosis with Nike and magic’s likewise relationship with the Lakers are rare cases of an individual brand becoming a successful offshoot of a larger one. Dwight like most players in his position want to duplicate the formula even though the marketplace evolves and won’t let him have the same success.

Dwight should take comfort in Lebron’s cautionary tale. Lebron created his own lane with “the Decision” creating that deeper schism between owners and players. That move was a calculated risk that went horribly wrong for him P.R. wise because of factors he failed to consider like he was screwing over his hometown, fallout from whether profits from “the Decision” went to support needy kids, etc. But Lebron proved that any brand can survive even the worst blows if you win a ring. Fulfilling his destiny was enough for most people to forgive Lebron and forget that summer of 2010, where he read the intense interest in his free agent process wrong, and when he signs with Cleveland after next season he will get the other haters back into his fold too.

Dwight isn’t in the running for the best ever title like Lebron is but he can hold another otherworldly title in the NBA. He is the best big man in the game when healthy. He has won 3 defensive player of the year awards. He is a force down low offensively and until last year was developing a set of impressive moves. He now goes to Houston where big man guru Hakeem “the Dream” is available at any time and his coach just happens to be a PF who played like a center and can teach him one of his 80 moves.

For his development as a center and his career this is probably the better decision. The Lakers can lure free agents by virtue of the brand. The Rockets counter that with a very smart front office who always seem to pile up assets to make their next big move. Also, playing in Houston he won’t be under the duress he would have been in LA where the need to win titles is great. He can relax and play his game. He will play for a coach who will cater the gameplan to his strengths and he will play along side a superstar nearing his prime, not beyond it like Kobe.

But the biggest thing Dwight has going for him is his size. Height is a skill by itself, which helps to explain how George Muresan, Shawn Bradley and Frederick Weis were ever given jobs in the Association. The NBA loves to market skilled big men, a group that has seen its numbers dwindle since its golden age in the 90’s where you had Ewing, Mourning, Hakeem, Shaq just to name a few off the top of my head. The league longs for a dominant big man to take the reins and run with it. Roy Hibbert showed how tough it can be to play against a team that has a big man patrolling the paint. Dwight has been and can still be that guy. Its his 10th year in the league but he’s 27. The shelf life of big men isn’t as long as smaller players but Dwight looks to be in phenomenal shape. Yes he is coming off back surgery and shoulder surgery but I think he isn’t comfortable playing under the bright lights of Hollywood and him being in a laid back place like Houston will help.

If he wins a title or two and reasserts his place as the best player at his position we will look back on these days and forget the slandering like it was some made up part of his story. But if he doesn’t the last four years will be a permanent red ink on his résumé that no amount of smiling and posing will erase. At this point Howard has positioned himself in the best place for him to succeed and where he MUST succeed.

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Knicks/Hawks recap 4/3/2013

The New York Knicks defeated the Atlanta Hawks by a score of 95-82.  The high scorer was Carmelo Anthony with 40 points, 5 Rebounds, 3 assists and 1 turnover.  That was the Knicks 10th win in a row.  Thought I’d come back and share some thoughts on the win last night against another quality opponent.

- Let’s first start with Carmelo’s play, which if you’ve been catching Sportscenter, you’ve seen Knick highlights a little bit higher up on the sports queue.  A 50 point night, regardless of who’s on the court, will do that.  Melo, since having his knee drained and talking up how healthy he’s feeling since that, has done nothing but dominate offensively.  Tuesday night’s jump shot clinic against the Heat was an example of a player feeling no pressure, and showing no lack of confidence.  I am almost certain that regardless of Lebron or Wade’s presence, Melo would’ve had a big night.  That’s just how it is with jump shooters.  Once they hit their first 7 or 8, (Melo hit his first seven jumpers on Tuesday) they get hot.  Melo began the opposite, by missing three of his first four attempts, but his Tuesday performance was special because of his almost allergic reaction to anywhere near the restricted area.  It was raining jumpers for Melo on tuesday and when its raining, the points were pouring in so why go anywhere that’s a ray of sunshine for Heat defenders.  As all of you astute NBA observers know, the Heat like to pack the paint and attract some extra bodies in there and allow the confusion to befuddle wanna be scorers, leading to bad possessions and ugly outlet passes that ultimately will be deflected and lead to the Heat’s bread and butter, fast break opportunities.  Melo never gave them that chance and kept hitting jumper after jumper in any and every Heat defender they threw at him.

Last night’s game featured all around Melo.  The guy that has about a hundred moves at his disposal.  In honor of Opening Week in baseball I’d make the comparison that Melo is like a pitcher with about 15 different pitches he can use at any time.  His one dribble-then fadeaway-jumper was devastating tonight.  His dribble penetration was excellent.  His read of double teams allowed open corner threes for Steve Novak, who obliged by hitting all three of his attempts.  During this recent stretch, its been important to note that Melo’s passing has gotten far too little praise.  Yes, his offense is often awe inspiring but his ability to read and react to a defense, and the crisp passing that has resulted leads to wide open shots and usually makes by his mates.

- Playoff match ups are a hot topic of discussion on most blogs and last night’s opponent is a team that the Knicks may potentially face depending on the outcome of the final 8 games (4 home and 4 road).  The Hawks have been getting underground praise for being competitive despite shipping off Joe Johnson (his contract), and not making any major moves.  First year GM, Danny Ferry’s major task is to field a competitive team (easy when you still have a decent young pg in Jeff Teague, a vastly underrated player in Al Horford and the enigma that is Josh Smith) and also set up a much better cap situation and he did that while robbing the Bulls of a perimeter shooter in the process in Kyle Korver.  Korver’s absence on the Bulls can be seen on a nightly basis when they turn to the bench and see Nate Robinson’s arm waving in the sky trying to get Tom Thibodeau’s attention so he can put him in the game to get somebody who can score the basketball.  The Hawks have a decent offense but absolutely NO answer to Carmelo Anthony.  You saw it yesterday.  When a team doubles as often as the Hawks did with Melo, it means they have no one that they can trust one on one to guard Melo.

One small caveat about that, Melo was lights out scoring so that may have had something to do with it, but Melo wasn’t jump shooter Melo.  He wasn’t one pitch Melo.  He was 15 pitch-selection Melo.  Using his vast array of moves to get into the restricted area, invite contact and get to the free throw line (he made 5 of 6 from the charity stripe).  Melo’s passing was the difference tonight but having an extra shooter like JR Smith and guys like Steve Novak who can hit the corner three gave the Hawks problems all night.  I dont care how many times I have to repeat this but the NBA playoffs are all about match ups.  The Knicks would welcome with open hands a first round match up with the Atlanta Hawks.

- Not to get overly excited but an underrated aspect of the Knick offense that we haven’t really seen till now and it bugs me out is that corner three.  They have made it a team wide edict that every person who has dreams of wanting to get a green light on shooting a three had better be stationed at either corner and Novak and Shumpert have done an excellent job of doing that.  I dont know if its something the Knicks have talked about doing more of but its clear that its working and its gotten Shump’s 3 point field goal percentage up and has helped Novak regain a more steady touch from beyond the arc.  One of his threes was such a quick twitch release that literally a milisecond after he got the ball from Shump on the baseline he threw up a corner three and it went in.

- If you had to rank the number of surprises that the Knicks have had this season, one of them would most definitely be JR Smith’s mature offensive game.  Yes, his reputation is feast or famine on a nightly basis but its clear that JR has turned a corner thanks to Mike Woodson’s tough love and his new found love for using his tremendous dribbling skills not to set up the step back fadeaway jumper, but to go forward and get closer to the rim.  Its been interesting to see how the conversation has changed during the broadcast itself where Mike Breen, like every talent evaluator, has talked up JR’s natural ability but plays up the knucklehead factor.  Yes, he makes boneheaded decisions.  When he got a technical for what seemed like a small nudge towards Ivan Johnson, to me it was more of a product of reputation more so than what he actually did.  The referees hoping to avoid any escalation decided that it would be best to hit Smith with a technical, and get him away, but Smith remained calm.  He walked away and came back into the game.  That was a result of Smith’s reaction to the technical in Woody’s eyes.  Usually coaches like to let players cool off after a technical but this wasn’t the case and it had a ton to do with how JR reacted.  His maturity has been the real engine for his turnaround.  Hopefully it continues.

- A small little note on the Hawks who I’ve been surprised by.  If there’s one free agent I would pick to be a buyer beware candidate I can’t see how Josh Smith doesn’t top the list.  No one doubts his talent.  But last night’s game was the kind of head scratcher that makes you wonder if anyone can untap that huge reservoir of talent on a nightly consistent basis.  There were stretches of that game where he probably had no idea about the set he was in and would loft these 22 footers that made zero sense in the scheme of things.  There are those nights where it seems like he’d rather be anywhere else but a basketball court and there are those nights like the one in Milwaukee where he can score 12, grab 16 rebounds and throw 6 assists.  I’m convinced that there’s literally nothing he can’t do at his height that if he put it together he wouldn’t be one of 10 most terrifying athletes in the game.  But you have no idea where his head is at most times and it has to be frustrating.  Im not going to guess where he ends up but if I were any GM other than Danny Ferry I would monitor how he handles it.  If Ferry raises his hands and does nothing and lets Smith go, it will tell you everything you need to know about him.  The organization that knows him better than anyone wants nothing to do with him.  If I were Ferry, I would let Smith go.  I would’ve let Smith go during the trading deadline but its possible that the deals he was receiving for him probably didn’t make him budge.  But I would let him walk and use that cap space to make a run at Dwight OR keep signing players to one year deals and build around Al Horford who is clearly the most underrated player in the NBA.

- To expound on that point about Horford, there were stretches where it seemed like Teague and co, were playing keep away with the big man.  I may be reading into it but there were times where I was wondering to myself why the Hawks weren’t utilizing him when the Knicks, known for over-switching, would have Pablo Prigioni guarding Horford which is a mismatch that a PG like Teague has to recognize quickly and get him the ball.  I’m befuddled by Teague who’s also a hot and cold candidate on a nightly basis.  You can tell that Teague still has very little handle of Larry Drew’s playbook as he’s seen carelessly throwing passes and doing the old point to a spot like the man who was supposed to catch that was supposed to be there routine.  Teague, to me, has that extra burst at times that can play in an uptempo offense but Drew likes his half court sets that love to swing the ball around.  The Hawks average the second most assists according to NBA.com’s database and that’s why Kyle Korver was able to get so many easy buckets.  The Hawks offense really doesn’t rely on too many one on ones but on a lot of movement and cuts and screens and pick and rolls.  Its like a fast break team but in a half court set.  They love to move, a ton and it works for them.  How Horford doesn’t get more involved is beyond me but last night’s game had to be frustrating for the big man who was yelling at times for the ball when the Knicks would over-switch.

- Is there a more scarier player than Ivan Johnson?  He looks like Deshawn Stevenson’s bigger, scarier brother.  And that dude is scary as hell too.

- The third quarter had to be the toughest for Mike Woodson to watch.  Continuous over switching led to numerous open looks to the one guy that can hurt the Knicks from deep on the Hawks: Kyle Korver.  Korver’s three point barrage led to numerous shouting sessions aimed at Shumpert and anyone who had the responsibility of guarding Korver.  Korver kept getting open and Woodson kept getting more and more upset and it showed.  Its clear if the Knicks want to keep this stretch going, they will have to do a better job in minimizing missed assignments and have the five guys much more in synch.

- Is there a much more professional guy than Jason Kidd who came in the game and instantly closed any passing lanes for Kyle Korver with which to get him the ball.  Amazing that he’s still playing an effective brand of basketball on muscle memory and basketball IQ gained over a 19 year NBA career.

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Where is this all headed?

lebron-james-heat-1280x1024Its been a while but I just had a few thoughts on the Miami Heat and their streak going into Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls where everyone has these grandiose dreams and expectations.

The Lebron conversation has been one of the most fascinating in all of sports over the last three years going back to the final game in a Cleveland Cavs uniform where he walked off the court, scratching his head, taking off his Cavs jersey and entering what would end up being the single biggest PR disaster of an offseason that anyone of his ilk has ever undertaken.  Since that time, Lebron has been to two Finals series, won an MVP, on his way to what should be a unanimous second consecutive MVP, won a ring, been humbled, has gone on the longest streak of consecutive wins since the ’71-72 Lakers who won 33 consecutive, and has regained his status as the most popular athlete alive.

Nike recently released an ad stating the obvious and perfect summation of what those much wiser and those who had spent more time on earth said way back in those early months: “winning takes care of everything.”  And win he has done.  You can read Zack Lowe of Grantland fame for the nitty gritty details about how Miami’s offense has evolved into the crisp machine that it was.  Lowe’s recent article detailing the Miami juggernaut says that the Heat stumbled upon the Lebron as the 4 in the most productive of Heat line ups as the single biggest reason for it but I think mentally a hurdle was jumped over that number crunchers even as great as Zack Lowe can’t quantify.

There’s something to be said to how much confidence one can gain from passing your greatest test.  A sense of relief?  Sure.  A confidence that is soaring and unable to be restrained? Definitely.  But what happened on that night that Lebron realized he was NOT going to win an NBA championship to secret rivals, the Dallas Mavericks had to have been the turning point.  The summer of 2010 was one of turmoil and constant roadside attractions that did more to take away from Lebron’s brilliant decision to team up with good friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to form the super Trio, than actually enhance it.  Why was the public so aghast at the idea that Lebron needed help?  Michael Jordan admits on nearly every occasion that he wouldn’t have been as successful if he didn’t have Scottie Pippen.  Magic and Bird had stocked teams to the max.  Isiah Thomas won with one of the five greatest rebounders in NBA history, Dennis Rodman, and Shaq won with Kobe, and Kobe won with Pau and Bynum.

His summer of 2011 was vastly different.  He went into a hole, some had surmised brought on by his humiliating defeat at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.  The Mavs partied on their turf all into the wee hours and for a majority of the NBA fandom who had grown tired of arrogant Lebron who had promised not five, not six, not seven rings in a parade that the Heat threw to announce the arrival of impending doom on the rest of the NBA (Which i’m sure 29 other fan bases and teams saw and didn’t really appreciate), it was a sweet victory for everything that is good.  Bad guy Lebron left that building understanding one thing: he needed to work harder, and keep his mouth shut.  So we didn’t hear a peep from him or the Heat during that summer of the lock out.  They would tweet out workout pics on occasion.  They would put up quotes of inspiration, more for themselves.  And when the season opened, nobody was more prepared for the grind of a lockout shortened season than them.  They played at a pace that was vastly different and superior to a majority of the competition.  But they still weren’t the dominant team that everyone expected and feared.

Then something happened in the playoffs.  I call it the Neo moment.  The Neo moment happens to a player in every generation in each sport or walk of life.  Its that part in the first Matrix movie (the only one really worth watching, though I give a thumbs up to the second Matrix movie too even if its not cool to do so), when Neo having been shot, gets up and stops the bullets and finally understands and takes on the responsibility of his immense talents instead of running away from his potential.  That moment happened in Boston, in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals when Lebron, tired of losing to the Celtics in every big spot and moment since 2008, decided that the Heat were not going to lose.  He dominated the game in the same way that Magic Johnson announced himself to the NBA world in 1979 when he led the Lakers to a championship by playing center and scoring 42 points in a game six win.  He scored 45 points pulled in 15 rebounds and the Celtics had virtually NO SHOT from there on out and neither did the rest of the league.  For the first time, Lebron let himself know that he was the best player on the court and he could dominate when he wanted to.  When his team needed a basket he could pull up and hit a three.  When his team needed him to facilitate, there he was to throw the right pass.  When his team needed him to crash the boards and eliminate second chance opportunities there he was again beasting and flying way above the heads of anyone and everyone to pull the loose balls down.

He was a man possessed and nobody, and nothing was going to stand in his way.  This season’s consecutive wins streak is a manifestation of that belief.  If this isn’t impressive to the casual NBA fan, then nothing will do it.  If this doesn’t signal that Lebron is competing against ONLY his own shadow at this point then nothing will do it.  Its not just his belief, its his teammates belief that no matter what the situation, being down double digits in Boston late in the 3rd quarter or being down 17 against the Knicks in the third quarter or going down by 20+ in Cleveland, where even their vitriol seems to have slowed to a halt (it may have something to do with the fact that Lebron left the door wide open for a reunion with his home town in 2014 when he may have accomplished everything he wants to in South Beach), it doesn’t matter.  At this point, Lebron does what he wants when he wants.

Tom Haberstroh another wise sage of the stat kingdom, spoke about the vertical spacing that Chris “Birdman” Anderson gives to the Heat.  But the point is, it all starts with Lebron.  It all ends with Lebron.  He’s the single greatest athlete alive in sports and everyone that doesn’t believe that is just foolish.  I’m old enough where I’m not as anti-greatness as I was back when Jordan was around.  I hated MJ for the routine beat downs he would put on my beloved Knicks and though my fandom overtakes me from time to time where I’m foolish enough to think that my Knicks have a chance against Lebron’s Heat, its just dumb.  Its the kind of talk that’s reserved for a few beers in me, while watching the Knicks dispatch the Celtics in Boston talk.  Its just all talk.  Lebron is a man amongst boys and when athletes come along and dominate on this kind of level you just wonder how anyone can compare?

Like most people my age, we hold on to this memory of Michael Jordan as the single greatest player ever, but I can say without any hesitation that we’ve NEVER seen anyone like Lebron.  Never.  Not a single person has combined his athletic gifts with a superior knowledge of the game in such a package.  And that package is rolling.  Its steamrolling through what looks like diluted NBA competition.  Its not making any pit stops, its just coming to a town near you, taking care of business and moving on.  Seeing the eternal glory that history can give to his team, Lebron has done the right thing.  He’s set his sights even higher.  He sees Michael’s six.  He sees his legacy and the player he’s always compared to for whatever reason we choose to do it, and he wants to beat it and good for him.  I’m tired of stubbornly refusing to engage in that conversation.  I’m ready to say it.  I’m ready to do it.  Lebron James is heading towards that lone spot on the mountain top.  Good for him.  Its time that a successor came to the Jordan reign.  We though we’d never see another Russell or Wilt, then Kareem came.  We thought we’d never see another Oscar Robertson and Jerry West till Magic and Bird came.  We thought we’d never see another Jordan and then Lebron came.  Yeah I’m saying it.  No hesitations.  If he continues down this path, he WILL BE THE GOAT.  PERIOD.

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