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Monthly Archives: February 2012

When the Timberwolves fell in overtime to the Denver Nuggets last night, they did it in a very unique way. Over the course of the game, each team looked pretty bad—you can even tell that from the final score. When an OT game ends 103-101, you know things were rough. Regulation ended at 93-93 and nobody from either team could score for the first couple minutes of the OT. There were any number of sloppy or loose plays in this game, but the only one anyone’s going to remember is Martell Webster’s dunk.

Here are the basic facts of it: With 4.9 seconds left in OT and the Wolves trailing by three (102-99), the Nuggets were running a sideline out-of-bounds play. The Wolves defense really stepped up, with Martell Webster reaching up to intercept the pass from Julyan Stone. Webster went streaking down the court, appeared to hesitate at the three-point line, then drove straight to the hoop for the dunk, the two points, and the (inevitable) loss. If you watch the play here—

—you can see Ricky Rubio throwing his hands up back at the three-point line in disbelief. Now, of course, this play ignited a firestorm of tweets about what a boneheaded play it was. To his credit, in an interview after the game, Webster said, “I just wanted to be aggressive, get to the rim, possibly get a foul … Most people probably would have pulled up for the three-point shot. Yeah, I can see why they would. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably pull up for a three. Why not?”

So why didn’t he pull up for the three? The answer is as simple as adrenaline and as complicated as the sum total of the moves that have made the Timberwolves what they are this season. But let’s get a couple things out of the way: any game is a conglomeration of good and bad decisions, of lucky and unlucky breaks. This thing could have broken a bunch of different ways such that this play never even happened, so to pin it all on one play is shortsighted. Secondly, the Wolves played a tough division rival into overtime and had a chance right up until the end. Thirdly, their defense on the inbounds play was spectacular. Without that defense, Webster doesn’t even get the chance to be the hero or the goat. I find it very hard to believe they would have even been in a position to blow a close one to the Nuggets last season.

Let’s also dispense with trying to parse exactly what Webster was thinking. Even based on what he said after the fact, in the heat of the moment after a big steal with just a few seconds left in the game, there’s very little actual thought going on. Webster’s split second of hesitation at the three-point line shows he considered the three and decided to drive the rim and hope for contact. In almost every other situation in the flow of a normal game, this is a decision to be applauded. Almost any time Wes Johnson has pulled up for a three this season he would have been better off driving.

Which brings us to who the Wolves had out there. With Love at center, Beasley at the four, and Rubio and Ridnour at the guard positions, Webster was guarding Al Harrington, who is 6’9” and 250 lbs. Webster is 6’7” and 230; he gives away height and weight, but not nearly as much as the other options. Given his recent struggles, there’s no way you want Wes Johnson in there on Harrington. Although Webster is a worse shooter based on eFG% this season (.408 vs. .415—not a huge difference), he’s a much better defender. He almost doubles up Johnson’s steal percentage and block percentages and is three points better in defensive rating. That’s a whole lot of numbers, but it’s also easy to see just by watching that Webster, while no Bruce Bowen, is simply a more engaged defender than Johnson.

But you also don’t want Webster taking that last shot. Up until that point in the game, he was 1-6 from three-point range. For the season, he’s only shooting 28% on threes. That’s a pretty wide gap from the guy not on the floor who you’d probably want to take that shot: Wayne Ellington. Ellington is hitting three at a 36% clip. But last night, Ellington hadn’t played a minute and he’s also a much worse defender than Webster, especially if he’s tasked with guarding a player as big as Harrington.

And that right there is the crux of the problem with the Wolves roster right now. The guy you want in the game to steal the ball is not the guy you want shooting the ball. In the wake of David Brooks’ abysmally bad column on Jeremy Lin, I joked on Twitter that Thomas Friedman’s column on Rubio was going to say that the Wolves small forward rotation was hot, flat, and crowded, but it’s actually sort of true. Amongst Johnson, Webster, Michael Beasley and maybe Ellington if they’re going small, which can you honestly trust? Webster stepped up and did his job on defense but gambled on offense and lost.

As a team improves, the stakes get higher. The emergence of Love and Rubio (and now Nikola Pekovic) as the pillars of this team only serves to highlight how rickety some other parts of it are. A trade this season might help, but I’m also willing to take the longview. The Wolves are in games now, often down to the wire, and they’re going to win some and lose some. If they’re sitting around .500, that’s not so bad.

Now: about Webster’s hair.

Steve McPherson

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Greg Oden deserved better than this. If you haven’t heard yet, during surgery to clear debris in Oden’s already-microfracture-repaired left knee, it was determined that Oden would have to have microfracture surgery again on that knee, ending his season and putting him on a rehabilitation track again for the next year. You can find the specifics about it here, on CBS Sports.

You can also find a comment by someone wondering who’s a worse draft pick, Ryan Leaf or Greg Oden. The comment itself is nonsensical: Leaf played and acted mostly terribly while Oden’s never really gotten a chance to play at all (in the five years since he’s been drafted, he’s only played 82 games). But this commenter is not alone in questioning why the Blazers picked him and why they chose to extend his contract once they already knew he was injury prone. I’m not looking to answer those questions. I just want a moment to mourn the loss of what could have been for Oden the man. Before he’s a draft pick, or a stat line, he’s a human being who wanted to play pro basketball at a high level more than anything else and this latest surgery (the fifth in five years) is another nail in the coffin of that dream.

So is it weird that I’m mostly going to talk about him as a videogame character? As I’ve written before, people might think making basketball into a videogame is just a matter of making it as realistic as possible. But instead, a basketball videogame toes the line between fantasy and reality, perhaps in no realm as much as with injured players. Between 2000 and 2004, for example, following his trade from Detroit to Orlando, Grant Hill played in only 47 games—four his first year, fourteen his second, 29 his third and ZERO in his fourth. This was the player who was supposed to be Michael Jordan’s heir apparent. Year in and year out, though, the NBA 2K series rated him highly, in spite of the injuries. While the Magic struggled through carrying his contract in the real world, anyone picking to play as the Magic would get a healthy Hill kicking ass and taking names.

A similar alternative reality followed Oden, who entered the league in 2007. He appeared in NBA 2K8 rated an 80, dead even with the number two pick from the same draft, Kevin Durant. But in the real world, he underwent his first microfracture surgery in September of that year and missed his entire rookie season. When he finally saw the court in the 2008-09 season, he started living up to what we’d already seen from his videogame counterpart. On January 19, 2009, he pulled down 15 rebounds and scored a career-high 24 points—the kind of numbers his digital doppelganger had been putting up for a year and a half already. That season, he was rated an 83.

In these first couple years, Oden anchored the teams I built. A monster rebounder, a great scorer down low—the kind you just can’t find nowadays, even compared to Dwight Howard. But then, in NBA 2K10, Oden was rated a 74. In 2K11, 75. And now, in 2K12: 70. Is it right to punish digital Oden for something so far beyond the control of even the real Oden? What is the digital version of a player if not a best-case agglomeration of stats, measurements, and ability?

When it comes to players like Michael Beasley, J.R. Smith, or others with scads of potential but no clear idea what to do with it, a game can show us what they could be with clear eyes and full hearts. Within the confines of the TV screen, without everything else that makes up a life, these often-problematic players can become true stars.

But it was never Greg Oden’s basketball IQ or desire or heart that betrayed him. It was his body, the knees forced to carry a titan of a player through the real world, not the digital world. It’s entirely possible after this surgery that Oden never returns to pro basketball; he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season with no way to play his way back onto a team for at least another year. Greg Oden deserved better than this. He deserved the kind of career we’ve been making for him on Xbox360s and PlayStation3s for years now, free from the restrictions placed on him by his own body and free to live up to that potential we all saw in him.

The speculation about Dwight Howard and will-he-or-won’t-he stay in Orlando has been raging since before the season. It’s even become something of a running gag, with Howard letting it be known which teams he’d like to play for. There was Los Angeles and New Jersey. Then the Bulls. And tomorrow it will be somebody else, perhaps the Harlem Globetrotters. LeBron James’ flex when it came time for him to make “The Decision” has imbued every high-profile player contract negotiation with a new kind of flavor and when Chris Paul forced his trade to the Clippers, it put the entire idea of “the players play and the GMs manage” at risk.

While Howard holds the Magic hostage, on the other coast, Pau Gasol’s good name is being bandied about willy-nilly in all sorts of trade rumors. There are several intriguing (but probably doomed) scenarios in play, per Zach Lowe at SI. Some of them even involve the Timberwolves, where Gasol could come to play with Ricky Rubio in an Iberian Peninsula pairing that would result in more dishes than a tapas course. Lowe is right, though, to point out that none of them are tremendously likely.

Bottom line? Howard seems destined to move on from Orlando, either in a trade in the next couple weeks or at the end of the season. Gasol seems likely to stay in Los Angeles. What’s really fascinating, though, is how people are talking about each situation, and what each reveals about the way we talk about things.

Ben Golliver reported on Kobe Bryant’s perspective on the Gasol rumblings, and his line is just about what you’d expect from a loyal teammate: “[Y]ou got to be able to have all of yourself in the game and invested in the game … [I]t’s hard for [Gasol] to kind of invest himself completely … when he’s hearing trade talk every other day. I wish management would come out and either trade him or not trade him.”

What he’s saying is that all this trade talk is hurting a Lakers team who currently sit at 18-13 in the fifth spot in the Western Conference. That’s pretty good, but it’s not championship good, and championships are what L.A. does. The team is widely seen as underperforming this year. Unless a trade involving Gasol involves Howard, it’s going to be hard to find a trade that will improve the Lakers this season (as opposed to making room for more moves down the line). So what does Kobe do? Paint management (and also the media, clearly) as being behind all this, with the team unified behind the beleaguered Gasol.

Meanwhile, Howard, in an interview broadcast during the Magic/Heat game on Sunday, said, in essence, that none of the trade talk matters. I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t find the clip itself, but what he said was that there was business and there was the game, and that his teammates were with him 100% and that they understood what he was going through. Jeff Van Gundy found that laughable, and most viewers were probably inclined to agree. But it’s also hard to see how Howard saying anything else would help his team. His openness about wanting out of Orlando can’t be a plus for the team (who are 20-12 and sitin the fourth spot in the East), but it’s also probably the case that it’s not as damaging as we might like to believe.

Anything any player says is going to have several audiences, and each of those audiences is going to respond in a different way and with a different understanding. The interviews are conducted, manifestly, for the fans, the viewing public. Some will hear Kobe defending a teammate and Howard shutting out distractions to focus on the game. Others will hear Kobe demonizing the team’s management and Howard lying through his teeth. Management for each team will hear different things in it, as will each player’s teammates. On the surface, Bryant and Howard say almost completely opposite things—trade talk is a terrible distraction that takes away form team unity vs. trade talk is something that doesn’t even enter into the game—but really, each is talking in order to try and pull the team together.

Even more than contract negotiations, trade talks are where the commerce of the game collides headlong with the game itself. It is the place where our desire for a team that feels, works, and performs as a unit must wrestle with the bartering of athletic talent measured in cold hard stats and dollars. We’re never going to stop feeding the Trade Machine any more than the players are going to stop using rumors as fuel, as wounds, as motivation. In the end, what they have to say about them is less interesting than how they talk about them.

Steve McPherson

I didn’t watch the Grammys. As a musician, I’m sure there was a point in time when the Grammys somehow mattered to me, but it may have pre-dated my learner’s permit. To sum up, I think Eddie Vedder said it best when he accepted Pearl Jam’s Best Hard Rock Performance Grammy for “Spin the Black Circle” and said, “I don’t know what this means. I don’t think it means anything.”

But I was aware of it via Twitter, and professor Steve Dittmore wrote a blog post about how much better watching the Grammys was with Twitter along for the ride. I know what he means: I’ve wrung more enjoyment out of State of the Union speeches, the Oscars, and presidential debates through Twitter. But Dittmore says something I couldn’t disagree with more. Quoting the ever-awesome Ann Powers, he believes that Twitter “makes us crave the next amazing thing just after we’ve consumed the last one” and he believes this means Twitter will never have the same impact on sports viewing that it did for him with regard to the Grammies.

There are a couple holes in his argument. Firstly, he further cites Powers, who wrote, “Any pause to absorb unfolding events offers a chance for observers to turn away.” He goes on to say that sports are filled with pauses where we might change the channel but that “[t]he Grammys … did not allow us to shut off the show.” Wait, what? The Grammys had commercials, just like sporting events, right? If the pull of Twitter was what kept him transfixed through the commercials, why can’t Twitter do the same for sporting events? I would say the very same thing has happened for me watching basketball games. This argument he puts forth is the (actual) definition of begging the question with regard to Twitter’s potential.

He also asks, “How great would it have been for the NBA if Jeremy Lin’s clutch 3-pointer last night was followed by 10 more minutes of playing?” This is about as nonsensical a question as you could ask, I think. If Lin’s 3-pointer were followed by ten more minutes of basketball, it wouldn’t have been a clutch 3-pointer. There’s a reason they put Album of the Year last on the Grammys, and it’s the same reason they play the last minute of the game at the end of the game. Would the Grammys have been improved with ten more minutes of show after Adele’s win? Endings give meaning.

To me, Twitter reaches its ultimate potential during compelling games, such as the wonder that was the NBA playoffs last year. The people I follow on Twitter are some of the smartest, funniest, most astute observers of the game, and their interjections and commentary are some of my favorite parts of following basketball. When their discourse collects around one great moment, it’s something wonderful.

Take, for example, Kendrick Perkins’ evisceration by Blake Griffin. I wasn’t watching the game, but as soon as it happened, my Twitter feed erupted with exclamation points and all-caps. Blake Griffin had just killed a man with a basketball. There were calls for video, calls that were answered within minutes, and then the commentary began in earnest. It branched off into discussions of the best dunks of all time, accompanied by video. People discussed the definition of “dunk.” It was a great chance to relive Vince Carter’s dunk on Frederic Weis.

Or consider Kevin Love’s buzzer beater against the Clippers. I was watching this game, and even though my brother, father and I jumped up at that moment, what was maybe even more fun was watching the reactions over Twitter, including maybe my favorite tweet of the last couple months from Zach Harper: “IT WAS NICE KNOWING YOU, TWITTER! BURN IT DOWN!”

What made that comment from Zach stand out to me was that it wasn’t even about the shot itself. It was an observation about what was about to happen to this shared communicative space over the next few minutes. It expressed both the giddiness of the shot, the win, and all that, but also the joy at how all of us on Twitter were about to go bananas trying to outdo each other with humor or wit or incisive comparisons.

During a game, Twitter is an ideal place for pithy observations that can liven up an average contest. But at the end of a fantastic game or at the moment of something spectacular, Twitter can turn into a glorious reverberation, a vibrating echo chamber that lets us reflect and relive moments that are all too often fleeting.

Steve McPherson

You can accuse me of search engine baiting, but there’s something fascinatingly parallel yet also contradictory about the recent rise of two young stars in two completely different arenas: New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin and kinda indie songstress Lana Del Rey. If you want to close this browser tab after reading that, I can’t blame you. Both have been written about exhaustively, so let me do my best to explain why I see these things coming together.

There should be no dispute over the fact that in both pro basketball and pop music, there’s an emphasis on precocious talent. This reached a place in the NBA where the league itself felt it had to enforce some kind of age limit to prevent athletes from jumping straight from high school to the pros. Never mind the fact that the many of the most successful athletes of this last generation and a half came directly from high school (Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James). Even Tyson Chandler, who came from the draft class that’s seen as largely responsible for NBA commissioner David Stern’s age limit, has grown into his early promise. What Eddy Curry’s grown into, that’s another story.

Pop, likewise, has long placed laurels on musicians from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber when acting their age meant acting their shoe size. You can throw it all the way back to Mozart. Basketball’s youth movement is a considerably more recent phenomenon (Moses Malone made the high school to pros jump in 1974 for the ABA’s Utah Stars), but in both pop music and sports, this emphasis on youth comes along with a whole host of judgments about whether these young stars are ready for what comes along with growing up so fast.

Now, neither Lin nor Del Rey is stunningly young, precisely. Lin is 23, a second-year player who went undrafted when he graduated from Harvard. By way of comparison, Michael Beasley is the same age and a four-year vet. When LeBron James turned 23, he had been a professional basketball player for five years. Del Rey is 25, an age at which Britney Spears had already gone up the charts, fallen down, given birth and was readying a comeback. For an even more ridiculous perspective, The Beatles broke up when youngest member George Harrison was 26. Think about that one for a moment.

So neither Del Rey nor Lin are prodigies, yet both have seen an explosion of cultural currency over the last month, one for his heretofore apparently dormant skills and the other for her lack of seasoning as a performer and hand-wringing over how she got where she is. This is where our perceptions of these areas of human endeavor get interesting, though, because on the one hand, basketball thrives on numbers, on skills that are quantitatively measurable, whereas the kind of numbers musicians generate—sales, concert sellouts, Grammy awards—have relatively little to do with the music itself.

Or rather: the public at large admires million sellers and scoring champs while bloggers admire undiscovered artists and guys with a high Player Efficiency Rating or Win Shares per 48. Such measurements have little to do with Lin’s appeal, though, which has been chalked up to everything from his Chinese-American heritage to his Ivy League credentials. Lin was not a statistical diamond-in-the-rough just waiting for the right chance to show his stuff off; all that stuff about his heritage and his Harvard degree were good fodder when he broke into the league with the Golden State Warriors and had a New York Times profile written on him. But the Knicks were more or less ready to cut Lin until his incredible first three games as a starter, where he’s averaged 25.3 points and 8.3 assists. Up until the moment he became a phenomenon, Lin was being judged on potential; Golden State, Houston, and New York all thought enough of it to give him a roster slot. But now, he will be measured consistently on how he plays, based largely on numbers that will accrue night in and night out for the rest of his career. There can be debate about how important or accurate different stats are, but they’re definitely numbers.

All that gets a lot more nebulous in dealing with pop stardom. Someone has no doubt put a lot of money and effort into turning Elizabeth Grant into Lana Del Rey. Forget the controversies about plastic surgery or her rich father and just listen to her album, Born to Die—that kind of sound takes serious scratch. It will rack up millions of sales and downloads, just as her YouTube video for “Video Games” racked up millions of hits before she even signed her record deal. She’s got the stats. But when she graced the Saturday Night Live stage a few weeks ago, it became glaringly apparent that she’s not ready for at least one aspect of a music career: live performance.

If Lana Del Rey were a basketball player, she’d be a volume shooter. Someone like J.R. Smith who needs a lot of shots to score the heaps of points he can if he gets those shots. She’s just not well-rounded at this point in her career; give her the spot-up three off a drive and kick and she’ll knock it down. But make her put the ball on the floor and she might dribble it off her foot. Despite Lin’s numbers (including 38 points against the Lakers last night), there’s every reason to believe that he will regress to the mean over the long haul. But there’s also reason to believe he’ll be a very solid point guard for a long time. Maybe he’s like Aimee Mann, who got a rush of attention with ‘Til Tuesday, then got relegated to the bench until Paul Thomas Anderson threw her back into a starter’s role by putting her on the “Magnolia” soundtrack. Ten-plus years later, is she going to sell out arenas? No, but she’s putting in solid work by capably running the offense and creating opportunities.

What the phenomena of both Jeremy Lin and Lana Del Rey point to is how much more complicated our values are than simply elevating the successful and scorning the failed. We will root for perceived underdogs, even when they have a Harvard degree, and we will find fault with meteoric success when it suits us. We crave good stories, not just good results measured in numbers. Our comfort, our sense of who we are is bound inextricably not just to success and failure in our own lives and the lives of others. It is found in the twists and turns of plot or fate or whatever you choose to call the narrative sense we’re all trying to make of life. Ultimately, whether they succeed or fail, what Lin and Del Rey give is good narrative.

Steve McPherson

Let’s begin our series on the newest Twins with a look at the player with the best chance to make the biggest impact relative to the players he’s replacing: Jamey Carroll.

“Relative to the players he’s replacing” is the important part of that sentence, because at first glance Jamey Carroll isn’t much to look at, stats-wise or otherwise (he’s a scrawny 5’9” with eyes so wide-set he looks like Rango, which I hereby nominate as his new nickname). Carroll is a career utility infielder who came up with the Expos, made a short-lived splash with the Rockies, spent a little time in Cleveland, and underwent a late-career resurgence in 2010 and 2011 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’s a fine fielder, though he turns 38 next week so his range likely isn’t getting any better. He gets on base, but also hits for so little power that there’s a real chance that he’ll never hit a homerun in a Twins uniform despite the team giving him a two-year contract and a starting job as their everyday shortstop out of the gate.

Aside from what I can only assume is a 180-degree range of vision, Carroll’s main asset is what he isn’t—namely, the players he replaces, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Trevor Plouffe (whose last name rhymes with “oof”—onomatopoeia for what it sounds like to watch Trevor Plouffe play shortstop). Which is to say he can field a groundball cleanly and throw it from shortstop to first base, both big steps up from his predecessors. The fact that he walks nearly as often as he strikes out and finagles his way to first base 35 times out of every 100 plate appearances is merely gravy.

Carroll can play a variety of positions—he even plays some outfield, though you’ve got to be in pretty rough shape to trot him out there these days—with decent enough defense, and he gets on base at a high-enough clip to warrant batting him second, where his right-handed bat falls neatly between lefties Denard Span and Joe Mauer. His versatility means he can play second, which is nice considering you really never know what you’re going to get from Alexi Casilla, as well as third, which is also nice because ditto Danny Valencia. I’m sure the Twins will also have all kinds of nice things to say about his “veteran presence” as well, if you care about those things. Just remember, they said the same things about Tony Batista.

Barring injuries—I know, hilarious!—Carroll will spend most of his time at shortstop, and most of the things you’ll hear about him throughout the season will be in the key of “he battles his tail off” and “he really gets after it,” Mr. Gardenhire’s favorite attributes in a ballplayer, particularly skinny, light-hitting middle infielders (his favorite type of ballplayer as they all remind his own playing days).

So: He’s Punto with bat skills. And he’s a goofy looking dude–all baseball teams need one of those. Not bad for $3.5 million per year while he warms the shortstop gig for Brian Dozier, the hot-ish prospect most likely to assume the position in 2013. And if Dozier flames out, hey, there will probably be another aging, no-power veteran shortstop on the free-agent market to plug that hole. The good news: Punto himself is slated to be a 37-year-old free agent when Carroll contract expires. Twins fans, I’m sure, are counting the days.

Chuck Terhark