Thunder/Clippers Series: The Intangible Aspect

Having split their regular season series 2-2, stocked with conference stars and playmakers, and each recovering from grueling seven-game series, the Thunder and Clippers commenced their 2nd round clash earlier this week with neither squad appearing as a clear-cut frontrunner. To amplify the unpredictable nature of this matchup, both teams experienced and found themselves caught within significant off-the-court situations which, thus far, have proved to generate positive effects during their respective playoff runs. So as if the series had not been fraught with uncertainty enough, the added presence of an intangible factor–usually a decisive edge for the one team that possesses it, but only now functioning for both teams–even further leaves the fate of this series as a tossup.

The Clippers staged a unified protest in response to their owner's racism-laced audio recording.

The Clippers staged a unified protest in response to their owner’s racism-laced audio recording.

For the Clippers’ situation, which involved much more controversy and outrage, it was the Donald Sterling fiasco that unfolded two days before the start of the team’s fourth game in their 1st-round battle against Golden State. Though suffering a harsh 21-point blowout, the severity of which most likely a result of their minds being preoccupied with the off-the-court instability, the Clips reacted to this precarious circumstance by deciding to bond together as a team; if their owner was not in their corner, then their ensuing plan of action would be to support and stick up for each other in a closer way than ever before. The Clippers, as well as the NBA front office, quickly resolved this dilemma, but most importantly, the seed of unity had been planted in the LA locker room. Following the Sterling controversy, the Clips–with emotions at hand and an intangible force in full effect–surged to triumph in two of the next three games against the Warriors, and advanced to the second round. If this powerful response to any off-court drama–the foundation of which derived from the team’s solidarity–did not sway onlookers enough to believe in an intangible unifying factor, then a stunning 122-105 opening-series rout of the Thunder surely did the trick.

Even prior to this thumping before its zealous home crowd, the Oklahoma City found itself in a state of uneasiness. Concluding the regular season schedule with a 5-4 April record certainly did not dispel the doubt surrounding the Thunder, as to whether they were primed for the looming postseason action, or whether stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could play cohesively in order to succeed in the brutal Western Conference playoff layout. A 1st round date with the Memphis Grizzlies, in which OKC stood on the brink of elimination twice and had to scratch out a seven-game series victory, raised even more concern. Only two days after knocking off Memphis, the exhausted Thunder team–as mentioned before–suffered one of its worst home defeats ever to Los Angeles, and moreover, did so in an utterly discouraging and unresistant fashion.

Yet for a team that appeared disjointed and dejected, the remedy to its woes came from the most unlikeliest of sources: Kevin Durant receiving the 2013-14 MVP award. It’s important to keep in mind that in any sports, and for any type of award–especially one deeming a player the best in his sport–and even more so during or near the postseason, the effect of the award has the popular notion of producing a negative impact; in short, it often jinxes the player and his team, perhaps by diverting necessary attention away from the task ahead. So despite Kevin Durant deservedly receiving this title that he heavily sought after, it would not necessarily appear to be of any good, particularly a day after getting blown out at home.

Durant's MVP award and acceptance speech served as a unifying factor for his team. (Photo by Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports)

Durant’s MVP award and acceptance speech served as a unifying factor for his team. (Photo by Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports)

But it was the acceptance speech Durant delivered, with fellow teammates sitting beside him, that really mattered. Durant, in a display of courage of strength considering the situation, described his life leading up to his NBA prominence and MVP award, focusing on those that influenced him most in the past as well as in the present. Durant touched on how he had to overcome adversity throughout his life, especially in his youth, and identified everyone from his mother, Wanda Pratt, to OKC newcomer Caron Butler as sources of motivation in his life. Durant conveyed that this esteemed trophy was more of a product of working with those close to him than anything, and that without the help of and cohesiveness with others around him, this type of success–and perhaps any for that matter–would be unattainable. At the very least, his teammates sympathized greatly with his journey, and at the most, they even shared a similar one. So while inspiring and heartwarming for outsiders, the weight of Durant’s words had an even greater impact on his team: they made his teammates reconsider what they were fighting for during their current playoff run, and whom they were fighting with. Otherwise, what else could explain their reaction the following day, when an emotional and forceful performance–and above all else exhibiting a newfound sense of unity that so interestingly parallels that of the Clippers and their situation a short while ago–paved the way for a dominant 112-101 Game 2 win?

Once again, the peculiarity of this intangible factor that fosters unity does not originate in the fact that a playoff squad carries it, but in the coincidence that the two teams affected by it now go head to head. And with the characterization of intangibility in sports–something that is not definite and cannot be measured–one hardly predict what could arise as a result from both teams possessing the trait. If anything, it makes the Thunder and Clippers more formidable and empowered than at any previous point in the season, which could only indicate that this series will not settle itself easily, but rather in the most taxing and grandiose of NBA ways: a full set of seven games.

Questions Surrounding the Hiring of Brad Stevens

Stevens was an unexpected hiring, but could make perfect sense in the future.

Stevens was an unexpected hiring, but could make perfect sense in the future.

How much of a positive force will Stevens be in Boston’s rebuilding effort?

There may not be a better model for rebuilding in the collegiate level than Stevens’ teams at Butler. Prior to him undertaking the head coaching position, the Bulldogs were in the midst of a three-year NCAA tourney drought. Furthermore, from 1962 to 2003, Butler had only made it to the postseason six times during that span. Evidently, Butler’s basketball reputation and success drastically changed for the better upon Stevens’ arrival in Indianapolis in 2007. For the next six years, Stevens would lead the Bulldogs to five tournament appearances, as they gradually built upon their successes from the previous year. What first was early round and Sweet Sixteen exits eventually led to shots (2) at the national championship, feats Butler University would never have dreamed of a few years ago (it amounted to a 14-6 record in tourney play). The team’s success stemmed from the gradual progression Brad Stevens initiated–an effort the Celtics have chosen to commit to by hiring the Butler coach.

Stevens also fits the idea of the future of sports, and how every movement within an organization will be decided upon: statistical analysis. During his time at Butler, Stevens was a huge advocate and employer of advanced stats to benefit his team. He expressed the importance of how these stats factor into success to his team, and instructed his players to always take into account these numbers and their significance. The future, to which the rebuilding effort Stevens will embark upon leads towards, will certainly coincide with the rise of advanced analytics. Therefore, there’s plenty of reason for optimism regarding how the Celtics will be built back to power, as the overseer of the effort essentially embodies the future of sports.

Can a relationship between Stevens and Rajon Rondo work?

As I wrote, I thought the best way to handle Rondo and extract the best effort out of him was to hire a bold, no-nonsense, assertive locker room persona. Stevens, who lacks an imposing sense of firmness, does not fulfill this character. But there is another way to foster a connection between Rondo and Stevens: by means of closeness in age. Perhaps all the mercurial point guard needs is a higher authority that doesn’t necessarily act like one–Stevens allows an uninhibited freedom for his players, and being just nine years older, could find relating to and communicating with Rondo uncomplicated.

Of course, there is another course of action that adheres more to the Celtics’ rebuilding mode: trading Rondo altogether. Not only would Boston bypass potential strife or difficult dilemmas, but Stevens would begin his work with a clean slate–a situation perhaps more suitable for a coach not hesitant to tinker with his lineup.

Does hiring Stevens give the Celtics an identity?

Stevens’ coaching is best described as calm, perceptive, and astute. He focuses entirely on what his team does before and during a game–preparation, readiness, and composure–while not worrying about everything else. His modesty and humility translates perfectly into the mold of the basketball teams he coaches: they’re based on team unity and chemistry, valuing each player the same, and putting forth full effort at all times. At his time at Butler, he would rather have had a team-oriented player with high intangibles than a top-notch recruit ready to leave for the NBA after one year. Stevens’ composed, yet competitive quality can best be depicted by his time on the sidelines. He rarely gets too emotional during games and never shouts after referees or players; rather, he quietly observes and analyzes the game. Stevens certainly won’t be able to establish all these coaching principles he utilized in the college game in the realm of the NBA, but overall shows the general style he will bring.

Can Stevens transfer his success from the collegiate level to the NBA?

During his 6-year tenure as head coach as Butler, Stevens could not have done more for a mid-major school: his Bulldogs went to back-to-back national championship, and the school name experienced a massive burst in popularity. But he won’t go about attaining success through having an overly-passionate, polarizing personality, and using his power as coach to institute sweeping changes. Whether expressed to the media during press conferences or to his players in the locker room, his calm and observant demeanor–making him be meticulous in all he does–best describes him. Stevens focuses on the “little things”, and how he can tweak and alter facets of his own squad’s game to better place themselves in a chance to win.

Will Stevens be able to reinvigorate the franchise and fanbase?

If to recall and recognize his pedigree and history as a coach, then Stevens will bring a breath of fresh air and some excitement to a Celtics team on a decline. The best attitude towards his tenure is one with patience: fans must accept the team is rebuilding, and not hold championship aspirations from the start. But over time, Stevens methodical, unique, and calm approach to the game will make him quickly likable.

Dwight Howard Sweepstakes: Thoughts and Potential Destinations

Irritating, disturbing, and completely unnecessary.

That’s the only way to describe the prolonged, attention-seeking sweepstakes Dwight Howard has generated, whose swollen-up image as the league’s best center came quickly crashing down last season–he’s barely considered to be among the five best playing at the center position.

I’ve written about my displeasure at how Howard has carried himself in the past, as his actions now just seem as another impetus to feed his starving ego. He did the same a year ago, and now once again he’s made it publicly known that he will test the free agent market in the most ostentatious of ways.

But of course, since Howard landing on another team–or staying put in Los Angeles–changes the entire landscape of a conference, it’s worthwhile to examine his potential destinations, albeit further promoting this carousel of futility.

It's been cut down to 5 jerseys Howard could wear next season.

It’s been cut down to 5 jerseys Howard could wear next season.

Los Angeles Lakers

For the most nonsensical of sweepstakes to conclude with the most nonsensical of decisions would only seem natural for Howard. Upon superficial examination, Howard appears to fit perfectly in the Lakers lineup: he provides the only true post presence, and complements the flash and finesse the other Laker starters exude. But he’s simply not compatible with the team. By not being the “alpha dog” and most crucial piece on the roster, his ego is slighted and he becomes inactive on both ends of the court–an huge detriment to the Lakers. In essence, this “marriage” has been proven to gruesomely crumble–so why give it another whirl, while this time having a more bitter, uneasy feel?

Golden State Warriors

If to acquire Howard, the Warriors would presumably have to dump Bogut–and blindly ignore his revival experienced during the playoffs in doing so. The defensive prowess lies in both of these centers, but while Howard swats away shots for dramatic effect, Bogut’s blocks lead the way for fast breaks the other way–something Golden State can’t get enough of. Howard may be the better overall option at center now and down the road, but the Warriors won’t want to risk any damage to a close-knit locker room, or subtract any units–in trading for Howard–from their cohesive roster.

Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta may be the least appealing city of the bunch here, and with starting center Al Horford in the middle of a 5-year deal–and not as far off from Howard in skill as most would think–the Hawks would be a very unlikely destination for Howard. The only possible aspect Howard would regard favorably is that he would instantly become a full-fledged superstar again, playing in his hometown, and would not feel the suppressing pressure of bigger markets.

Houston Rockets

If Howard longs for attention, he’ll indirectly find some in Houston. The Rockets’ former longstanding center, Yao Ming, was part of Houston’s pitch (via Skype) to Howard. It’s well-known how Yao’s home country of China follows their hero’s lead, and his former team. So it wouldn’t be far-off to believe the new Rockets center–a star already–would experience an even greater burst of popularity.

But of course, the sought-after limelight Howard receives will be severely limited: Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, and especially James Harden have already established their celebrity figures in Houston, something Howard will have to compete against.

Furthermore, there’s the added difficulty of dealing away current center Omer Asik, who could not possibly split time with Howard at the shared position.

Dallas Mavericks

Howard might be lacking of responsibility or “high-character”, but he would inevitably fill the vital role of becoming the face of the Mavericks franchise–whose prior one, 35-year old Dirk Nowitzki, nears the end of his playing days.

The center position is free for the taking, and by playing alongside the seasoned veteran Nowitzki–who still has a few formidable years ahead of him–will aid in Howard’s development, and the two will complement each other nicely in the frontcourt.

The Next Celtics Coaching Successor? Lionel Hollins

Hollins would serve the Celtics best during this rebuilding stage.

Hollins would serve the Celtics best during this rebuilding stage.

Perhaps Doc Rivers and his strong-willed character would’ve been the best equipped to confront the challenges the Celtics soon face. But after an acrimonious departure from a franchise he loyally stood by for nine years, Boston is left scrambling for a sideline leader capable of juggling the imminent, tremendous expectations.

To begin, the consensus on why Rivers left Boston was because he chose to not be on board with the C’s next stage of development: a wearying, rebuilding stage. The original “Big 3” are now out of sight and long gone, as well as the basis for this franchise’s image and formula for success. The foundation now rests upon the more youthful shoulders of Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Jeff Green. And with the influx of the likes of Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, and Kris Joseph, the new Celtics coach will have to acknowledge he won’t preside over a contender.

And as daunting as it may seem to progress through a rebuilding stage while in the realm of scrutiny of a needy sports hub, the difficulty for the new Celtics coach will ultimately concentrate in the handling of one player: Rondo.

After much deliberation by Danny Ainge and the Celtics brass, the enigmatic Rajon Rondo has been essentially chosen to permanently guide the team through this new era. Of course, betting on the fickle character of Rondo’s would not be so clear-cut a choice for other franchises, much less a favorable decision. The unique star point guard has to finally stash away his pettiness for good, and must minimize his occasional idleness (Rondo sometimes shrinks during contests that bear less meaning than the classic “Sunday primetime clash”, a time where he’s most known for his fantastical eruptions).

There’s no questioning Rondo has the talent on the court, and the assertive, no-nonsense personality at every other time, to take actively take a leadership role in the C’s locker room. But his comprehensive performance on and off the court must be effectively managed, supervised, and directed by the right coach.

Doc–through his approach towards Rondo–has established himself as the prime overseer of the point guard; despite any recently reported animosity between the two, their relationship appeared productive for the most part. Now, whoever will be the new headman of the Celtics will have to replicate a connection with the star point guard that apparently is hard to come by: coaching Rondo has been reported to be rather difficult.

So what’s the solution in approaching this fragile situation, where rebuilding an esteemed franchise must be properly balanced with carefully incorporating/handling a player like Rondo? Hire Lionel Hollins, the former Grizzlies coach that was inexcusably overlooked by the Memphis organization in not renewing his contract.

During his coaching tenure in Memphis, Hollins made the most out of situations that weren’t necessarily perfect. Despite the Grizzlies organization toughening his job with constant money-saving moves, he effectively squeezed the most out of every player he had at his disposal, utilizing guys like Quincy Pondexter, Jerryd Bayless, and Darrell Arthur to their highest potential. Hollins will certainly not inherit an overflowing amount of talent if he takes the Celtics head coaching position, but his track record shows that in similar situations he will not be out of ideas in making use of each member of his squad.

When Hollins did enter the scene at Memphis as head coach, he did not start out with many resources–similar to the starting point he’ll have with the Celtics, if he does take over the reigns for the 2013 season. Hollins methodically cultivated a contender over his 5-year stint with the Grizzlies: a progression that began with seasons ending in missing the playoffs entirely, eventually grew to advancing to postseason play, culminating in reaching the Western Conference Finals this past season.

But most importantly, of all these “free agent” head coaches on the market, Lionel Hollins seems best fit to institute a sense of authority on the Celtics–an action necessary if he wants to handle Rondo’s peculiar character, and gain crucial respect from the star point guard. It just feels that Hollins and Rondo would click, since as a head coach Hollins will not become too overbearing, while still will maintain a semblance of command and control.

And if to further extend this attempt to simulate Rivers’ special connection to Rondo (once again, for the most part, and especially considering any other HC would lose his head after a day with the point guard), consider this: perhaps their relationship was fostered by the fact that Doc was a respected NBA player himself who sustained a lengthy career. Lionel Hollins would have nearly the exact same background as Rivers did, and therefore could potentially aid relations with Rondo.

Rapid Reaction: 2013 NBA Draft Picks 11-15

The T-Wolves took a gamble picking Muhammad at 14th.

The T-Wolves took a gamble picking Muhammad at 14th.

8:42 Bilas tries to explain the 3-way trade involving Noel and Jrue Holiday…and it’s not going anywhere. Apparently Noel will be headed to Philly, while Holiday will team up with Gordon, Rivers, and Davis in the Big Easy. Some draft picks involved as well.

8:43 Broussard confirms that the Burke pick by Minnesota was made for Utah, who will give up their 14th and 21st picks in return.

8:44 The 76ers pick Michael Carter-Williams, supposedly to replace Holiday who was recently traded away. MCW brings a unique size for the point guard position, but will have to improve on his shot to succeed in the NBA.

8:50 OKC selects a project in Steven Adams with the 12th pick they got from the James Harden trade.

This pick certainly address the Thunder’s concern in the post. Adams did not necessarily establish himself in terms of point-scoring, but has a strong defensive presence and great rebounding ability. Adams might not even have to wait for playing time down the road–he could take Kendrick Perkins’ spot starting this season.

8:55 Simmons reinstates how much of a bad decision it was for Oklahoma City to essentially take 3 young players in exchange for a franchise player in James Harden. I second that premise.

8:58 And the Gonzaga superstar Kelly Olynyk, who’s not in the Barclay’s Center, is selected by Dallas…who, according to Andy Katz, is being traded to Boston for a few 2nd round picks.

This is part of the effort by Dallas to avoid adding to their salary cap, while the Celtics get much-needed help in the frontcourt: both for scoring and rebounding.

9:05 Shabazz Muhammad has been selected by the Jazz, and will go to Minnesota through a prior trade.

Personally, I don’t really like an egotistical person like Muhammad entering the NBA. He unquestionably has the talent, but with poor character, as well as displaying a mediocre defensive effort in college

9:09 Simmons ruins the draft for everything by saying there’s a 10% chance these next guys become starters. Thanks.

9:11 Giannis Antetokounmpo goes to the Bucks. There goes our first obscure foreign player.

Note that the Greek will have to develop over the years, and might not even play NBA basketball for some time. Jalen Rose puts it best I think: for the small market that doesn’t attract free agents that Milwaukee is, the organization must pick players that will succeed right away–and that’s not the case for Giannis.

Rapid Reaction: 2013 NBA Draft Picks 6-10

Detroit snatched KCP a pick before Minnesota could.

Detroit snatched KCP a pick before Minnesota could.

8:11 Bilas insinuates that Rece is insane to think that Noel and Anthony Davis can work together on the same team.

8:12 “The New Orleans Pelicans–yes, the New Orleans Pelicans”–select Nerlens Noel.

So the Kentucky Wildcat finally is selected after an anxious wait. The Pelicans address uncertainty at the center position, and essentially express that Robin Lopez is not the answer at the position.

Just a side note: there’s a chance opposing teams won’t be able to even touch the rim with the unibrow and hi-top hovering over their basket.

8:16 “[The Kings] are running to the podium to select McLemore”. And Simmons’ confident assertion is validated! The Kings will certainly put forth an intriguing lineup, as Isaiah Thomas, Tyreke Evans, and now McLemore will prove the team won’t be at a lack for offense.

The mentoring of McLemore while in Sacramento will be essential to his success–someone has to communicate to him that he has the talent to boldly assert himself as a team leader and superstar in this league.

8:23 The all-knowing Andy Katz reports that Nerlens Noel is on the move to Philadelphia–who is familiar to big men with knee problems.

8:25 Kentavious Caldwell-Pope goes to Detroit. He’s my guy in this draft. KCP plays with a sweet smoothness, and is one of the best shooters in this draft. Coupled with his explosiveness and defensive potential, the Bulldog will surely make his impact felt at the next level.

The Pistons’ selection might have also broken the hearts of Minnesota Timberwolve brass: the organization became attached to the guard, and would have filled the need for shooting and simply a shooting guard.

8:29 I don’t think there’s a single mock draft that will be correct after tonight’s draft. The turmoil in the first 10 picks really speaks to the mediocrity with respect to other drafts–no projection and forecast is truly definite as no player/s stand out from the bunch.

8:30 The T-Wolves choose Trey Burke…but will he actually end up in Minnesota? Rubio is already there, so I assume Burke will soon be sent elsewhere.

If he does in fact stay in Minnesota, the Spaniard he’ll be teaming up with in the back court is a pass-first point guard…but so is Burke to an extent. Regardless, he’ll have a chip on his shoulder coming into the league, which will aid his play and development.

8:34 Mother Burke acknowledges that the Utah Jazz are a likely destination for Trey in a trade.

8:36 Another mid-major star will be headed to Portland: scorer C.J. McCollum is a Trail Blazer. McCollum can play point guard, but will act more as a combo guard/shooting guard in working with fellow backcourt teammate Damian Lillard. A solid pick, and even better considering the Lehigh guard is polished after playing all 4 years in college.

Rapid Reaction: 2013 NBA Draft Picks 1-5

Bennett going to the Cavs was a surprise to everyone.

Bennett going to the Cavs with the first pick was a surprise to everyone.

With ESPN’s coverage of the NBA Draft, we have a solid and mixed panel of Jay Bilas, Jalen Rose, and Bill Simmons, moderated by Rece Davis.

7:39 All 3 of the analysts continue to suggest stretches in awaiting the announcement of the 1st pick. Just trying to fill the air time.

7:40 Simmons stupifies everyone with his trade possibility: Cavs take Noel, the Suns take Len five picks later, then they swap big men with some extras included. The Grantland founder also suggests that Stern, who comes out after a few minutes past the end of Cleveland’s clock, is trying to milk the moment.

7:41 Stern announces that the Cavaliers select…Anthony Bennett? Half the Cavs fans ESPN shows are stunned. Some are jubilant. The crowd in the Barclay’s Center exclaims a collective “ohhhh”. Simmons needs “medical help”.

If the Cavs were going to draft a post player–a part of the team they didn’t need to fill–it would be out of picking the “best available”. But Bennett does have somewhat superstar potential, and fills the void for a wing player in Cleveland. The pick really shows how uncertain this draft is.

7:47 Victor Oladipo! As Noel watches in dejection.

This is a fantastic pick, and decision, by the Orlando Magic. Oladipo has few if any weaknesses, and with his work ethic, he will only continue to improve and develop. He says that he “will come in and help the program”. That states his potential effect efficiently and concretely. Oladipo’s biggest impact will be on the culture of the franchise: his arrival is an influx of humility and diligence.

7:52 Wizards select “hometown” kid Otto Porter. This was a safe pick by Washington, and fills a spot at the small forward position. Porter’s versatility and all-around game will tremendously help a developing Wizards team.

7:55 Shane Battier, after only a couple of draft pick interviews, has already confidently established a sense of humor.

7:56 According to Porter’s father, we have another “solid work ethic” and very diligent kid (along with Oladipo). Personally, I enjoy hearing a player such as Porter growing up in a family that holds the importance of athletics and academics on equal footing.

7:58 Bilas explains how much a slap in the face it is that 2 of the top 3 picks are players that WEREN’T in the Top 100 coming out of high school. All that work went down the drain. Ouch.

7:59 ANOTHER Hoosier is selected, and it’s Cody Zeller. The Bobcats get a guy that is very athletic for a post player, and was indeed overly picked apart at the college level.

This may be the first, true “bust” of this year’s draft. Or at least Nerlens Noel will show how he should have been picked ahead. By picking Noel, Charlotte would get a lot more talent and potential for the future, despite any lingering injuries. Also, they’d get a player in Noel who would be pissed off–since he dropped so steeply–and motivated to destroy all these teams who passed up on him.

8:07 Stern walks out stunned once again at the hostile Barclay’s Center crowd. He announces the Suns select a post player…and it’s Alex Len. Huh. You would think Nerlens would be the next post player to come off the board, albeit the fact that Len is more polished offensively. Len is the more complete player: he has a reliable jumper, and with his stature, his defense and rebounding effort will be solid.