Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you...Andrew Bynum on myspace

Basketball Hell

Pardon my absence. In addition to being away coaching at the FreeDarko Summer League for Slovenian youth, I have been steeped in a puddle of NBAnger. I'm not going to lie to you. The Spurs winning the championship really effed with my head. (Quick disclaimer that this is not a fair and balanced look on things. This is the post of an angry Timberwolves fan). Having to listen to Ginobili being called "Jordanesque" and "the best player in the world" (thanks Walton) was mindnumbing. Wading through the "Duncan is the best PF of all time-wait, no he's not-wait, wait, after that 6-for-18 he threw up in the second half of Game 7, YES! Yes, he is the best PF of all time, phew" was painful. Robert Horry being snubbed for Finals MVP was outrageous, and having him being dubbed a hall-of-famer even moreso. On top of that, 'Sheed pulled a choke job by taking himself out of game 7 in the first few minutes with foul trouble. See, people always talk about the pressure getting to players in the last few minutes. I believe the Pistons came OUT shook, played overanxiously, and committed stupid fouls in the first few minutes, dooming themselves for the rest of the night.

Then there are those Wolves. Forget the fact that the one standup guy on the team, Fred Hoiberg, just underwent career threatening heart surgery. This team is a mess. They engaged in one of the most pathetic coaching searches of all time, didn't even put Eric Musselman's name on the table, and got well, an unproven guy who at least is not PJ Carlesimo. By the way, there is a ton that I like about Dwane Casey, mostly the fact that he once gave $1000 in cash to Chris Mills while at Kentucky and is strongly affiliated with one of Minnesota's most scandalous heartbreakers, Clem Haskins. On top of that, he dresses like a pimp (THIS IS A LEAGUE OF STYLE):

Then, there's the enigmatic draft pick. There's too much TarHeel blood on this website to really raise a fuss, but I wanted Granger. I'll just leave it at that. These are trying times for my soul. I'm also pissed that Greg Oden has committed to Ohio State and that Nate Robinson got traded FROM Phoenix. I would have bought season tickets and moved in with someone's grandmother to see that team in action.


FreeDrafto Post-Mortem: Style points

One of the major rules of draft worship is that the night itself is pure catharsis, the fulfillment of a thousand wasted internet hours. Afterwards, there is thankfully very little to say, reality sets in and you realize none of these picks matter much anyway, and you're ready to get on with your life.

That said, I feel it is my royal obligation to share with the FreeDarko/FreeDrafto/FreeFreeAgento (stay tuned) community a few pertinent morning after thoughts.

-Spiritual highlight beyond all earthly reproach: Martell Webster's grandmother's hat.

-Close second:

(I know I had some description of it up earlier today, but for some reason it's very difficult to explain in one sentence or less.)

-The big secret: May and Felton to the Cats is nice and all, but Charlotte already has a valiant academic All-American and a Slovenian dart manufacturer of unimpeachable naivetie holding down their frontline. Further proof that almost no one in this draft was taken to start.

-The real advatange of college players dominating the draft: they have personalities and histories, some of which we know, all of which we believe to be worthwhile. As breathlessly as I, in principle, support high schoolers and Euros being the zany stuff the draft is made of, it's better television when you've got young men, not babies or weirdos, standing front and center. They interview better and watching them go through the night actually means something, since you know a thing or two about them as people. Not trying to be on some "you followed their college career, so you care about their professional future"—that's NFL Draft all the way. But if the Draft is first and foremost human drama, better it be populated by the likes of Hodge, Wright, Paul, Warrick, the Tarheels, etc—you know them, they know you, and, paradoxically, it is only seasoned, mature prospects steeped in NCAA platitude that can make it a thing of style. And don't forget, this is a league of style.

-I don't think this really even needs to be said, but Vitale does not belong on there at all. It's like getting a strict creationist to yell in the background during Nova.

-Wire photo from last night most likely to win a Pullitzer:

(Monta Ellis and fam suffering through the insufferable)

-Danny Granger made a late entry into the ongoing "draft pick most resembling Pharrell" sweepstakes, though nothing that was going to unseat all-time champion Drew Gooden. But Gerald Green has got the "pre-pubescent Juvenile look-alike" category ON LOCK!

-New vaguely racist NBA draft trend: all Euros are indistinguishable from one another. Our beloved Vazquez and that Russian kid taken right after him might as well be zygote-sharers and I think they wore the same suit and frequent a similar barber.

-There are probably some useful things to be said about which picks are destined for greatness and who got the S.O.D. but quite frankly I just don't care. We have a saying at FreeDarko: "once a stone is set, it can never be repealed." As I end my FreeDrafto coverage, I would like to offer a slight variation: "the setting of the stones ends the twitter of reheating."

-Simmons in top form today in his draft diary. As usual, we agree on almost everything, and even his pop culture references come off well this time.


Fran Vazquez - LOTERIA

Words cannot express the pride I have at this moment. 11th overall. Only 10 better.

Now Dick Vitale is saying that the May, Grangers and Green should not have been bypassed.
My agent tells me he is a homoerotic for college basketball.

I will show Vitale and all that not only am I the 11th best, but quite possibly the 5th best.

Orlando is great. I see the Mouses, but I also see Jessica Simpson, Britney Sears, Annika Sorenstam and *my favorite* the Backstreet Boys. Translator tells me Shaq lives there sometime. Him and Tiger Woods. I don't care, I am secret racist.

I hope Steve Francis will take me to get a haircut. Good cover.

I want to pray with Dwight Howard. Good cover.

Did you like my suit?

Three pieces.

I am sorry. I am speechless. So happy.

God Bless,

Fran Vazquez
(Sean May is Fat)

Fran Vazquez Draft Diary - ¡Ostras! ¿Quien es Chad ford?

This is the second entry in draft prospect Fran Vazquez's draft day diary.

Iñaki, my fat little brother who just sits on the ordernador (editor's translation: computer) all day and eats mountains of chorizo, just sent me the following:

Vazquez's stock has dropped like a rock since rumors surfaced two weeks ago that he wants to stay in Spain next year. Combine that with two so-so group
workouts for NBA executives and he's in trouble. Still, he has way too much
talent to slip too far in the draft and would be a nice complement on the front
line to Pau Gasol. Jerry West is also a huge fan of Julius Hodge, so he could be
the pick here if Vazquez goes earlier. The Grizzlies have also been shopping
this pick. The Cavs, Pistons and the Blazers (who are looking for a second No.
1) are in the mix.

I do not know who this Chad Ford gentlemen is, but he has the ugly smile of a Cheshire Cat. His casual demeanor in just referring to me as "Vazquez" is also incredible. My name is Francisco Franco Maria Vazquez De La Santa Espiritu. I have made unusual allowances in referring to myself as "Fran" instead of Francisco (another suggestion on David Stern video), but there must be a limit! Many Americans have no respect for outside culture. Case in point: forcing Paul Gasol to drop the "L" for a little foreign flavor. I will not allow myself to be pigeon holed similarly. The letters of our names are not spices that can be eliminated from a delicious paella.

Iñaki says these Grizzle Bears will draft me overall 19. If that happens, than I will most likely stay in Spain next year - and possibly beyond. You see, dear friend, Paul Gasol is from Barcelona, or Cataluña. I am from the King's Lands - surrounding Madrid. I am a true Spaniard who loves his country so very dearly, meanwhile Gasol and his people wish to secede. I have nothing personal again Paul, but given the behavior of his wandering tribe of anarchists I refuse to play with him or any Catalan, for that matter.

I hope that straightens the record. Not the Grizzle Bears. I have heard they have rainbows and hearts on their bellies and use them as weapons of mass destruction. Who has ever heard of destroying with love? Not Francisco Franco Maria Vazquez De La Santa Espiritu. ¡Ostras No!

God Bless,

Fran Vazquez
(Not Pau Gasol)

FreeDrafto, Pt. 6: 2005 Draft Official Mascot

"Between his attitude problems and his stomach issues, there's a lot to be concerned with."-Chad Ford

Fran Vazquez Draft Diary - pt. 1

Fran Vazquez will pen a draft day diary for FreeDarko.com throughout the next 24 hours.

My name is Fran Vazquez! Mi nombre es Fran Vazquez!

I say it in both languages because at a seminar on Rookie Media, David Stern appeared in television and said we must speak in both our languages for international appeal. A funny thing happened: Bogut turned to me and asked me why Stern wasn't also speaking in Hebrew.

Andrew Bogut is obnoxious. Only Europeans are allowed to be so very arrogant. We earned that right... es nuestro derecho... not Australia or New Zealand. That's where we sent our criminals, right? Did you see on SportsCenter how he gave Milwaukee a packet of what he would do if selected? Ridiculous. He has no sense of style or design.

Francisco Garcia told me he thought it looked like a Lisa Frank Notebook. Garci is amusing. He told me his ancestry dates back to Asturias, but even so I am positive he has some moorish blood in him. I don't know why he keeps following me around. "We have the same names Fran," he says. "We should ball together. My mother says I could learn something from a guy like you."

Garci needs to face facts. He's from the Bronx. I am from Xantada.

Speaking of Xantada, I hope my home town is reading this column. FreeDarko staff told me they have large following in Europe. If so, I wish to say hello to my little brother Iñaki. I will have more to write for later. It is a very exciting time.

God Bless,

Fran Vazquez
(Not Pau Gasol)


FreeDrafto, Pt. 5: Sit tightly, then SPURN

Only a handful of time remains before the names are called and the enthusiasm feigned, as we among the faithful get set for an NBA Draft telecast that should be an exercise in over-extension. One of the great laughs of this modern institution is watching the commentators get uncomfortable and confused as the thing itself languishes on; I forgot who it was that last year, when yet another high schooler had just been taken, lost it and decried the entire evening's proceedings. Look for the flipside of that this time, as the gang struggles to find NBA-friendly things to say about a bunch of players we already heard superlatives for throughout the college year (thank god I barely watched it). And grimace on the rare occasion that they might be telling the truth, for the same reason there is not a tremendous market for "loving relationship porn."

I have been wondering about a few issues that, while they will not be answered by the flurry of neither hot nor cold selections to follow in under twenty-two hours, probably should figure into the draft process.

-Why have Euros been so much easier to kill than high schoolers? Is it that, while there are a couple of international players that have landed on these shores and grown into men, the high schooler turned All-Star tale has become a central part of modern Association lore? That is, it's just harder to convince yourself out of the fantasy when you see a freakishly athletic 18 year-old American who very nearly looks and acts the part of the professional he's been waiting his whole life to become (or at least fits very clearly into the progression that's been laid out for NBA future stars). Does it have to do with the exotic gloss and unreasonably weird expectations put on Euros, which almost sets them up for a letdown (whereas with hs'ers, we just expect NBA players)?

You can guess what kind of player a high schooler would be and hold his hand to get him there; you know his game, and work to hone it. But with international teens who never get on the court and build a buzz by advertising themselves as nearly aberrant phantoms of basketball imagination, their style is supposed to be a self-taught revelation that America can only spoil by getting too close. The fact of the matter is, international players have skills that need to be molded into a cohesive, U.S.-ready package, but for some reason we assume that with technical proficiency comes a feel for the game. The truth is, high schoolers may be accused of all style, no content, but they're the ones who have an intuitive grasp of what it feels like to play NBA basketball. Here it comes: THIS IS A LEAGUE OF STYLE!!!

(regarding the Recluse's Smiths post, being able to dunk on everyone brings you pretty close to the heart of what makes this league run, formally and emotionally. Much moreso than being a seven-footer who can dribble fluidly and reliably hit a three in a workout. When you're talking NBA Draft, the most important intangibles come from being in touch with exactly the kind of frivolity that international players are so praised for lacking. That's what you can't teach; that's what can motivate a raw, physical speciman to develop a jump shoot and work in the post.)

Or is it that Euros can afford to stay overseas and improve their draft position, whereas for a high schooler who stays in (and the teams scouting him), it's pretty much now or ever. Terrifically unfair, actually, and something that the new CBA should alleviate—thought up until now, it's mostly gm's who have been put in the uncomfortable positions of not wanting someone to fall into oblivion.

-Someone should do a mock based on fit for team personality and coach's personality. There's some of that that goes on with "their uptempo style blah blah blah," but can you imagine a prospect stepping onto the court with your team and getting along with them, personality-wise and on-the-court-wise? It may seem trivial, but it will determine how much you can actually get out of any given player. For instance, anyone who doesn't think Hakim Warrick belongs on the Nets should not be reading FreeDarko. And this talk about Felton to the Jazz, or them taking Green. . . has anyone remembered Jerry Sloan lately? Assuredly, coaches can change , teams can adjust their philosophy to fit a massive talent; having accomplished both of these might be Manu's single most profound NBA achievement to date. But if there's one thing that can be said with certainty about NBA Draft 2005, it's that no one's anticipating a single player in this year's pool doing either.

-More kill Skip Bayless. Linking to him would require my looking at his column on the draft again, and I would sooner cut the skin from my ankles. He claims today that if Marvin were a man, he would have gone to Roy and demanded that starting job. Of course, if he had, Bayless and his ilk would be calling him a disrespectful punk with no character. Young black man entering the NBA to earn millions, you just can't win with Skip Bayless.

FreeDrafto, Pt. 4: Please, give me blood and wheels!

First it was the Spurs and the Pistons, now Andrew Bogut. Bogut, college player of the year, self-proclaimed prophet of "good" basketball, the man whose sound, polished, decorated presence, in many minds, legitimates the draft itself. If he isn't the draft equivalent of the Spurs and Pistons, sullying what should be a good name of screwy, jackhammer brilliance and replacing it with a call to responsibility and virtue, then I have no place in this blog. Just as the playoffs was clouded by the righteous fog of your two favorite avatars of "real" basketball, so Bogut's goofy, unconvincing (and totally conniving) media blitz (and drooling media boosters) has overshadowed a draft that should be as full of loopy drama as the Finals utterly failed to be.

It doesn't stop there, though. I had said earlier that the beauty of this draft was that, with no obvious stars and no hot scouting trends to govern its otherwise lawless parameters, anyone could be god for a night. Why not believe that the best player in the 2005 NBA draft would come from the late first round? But so re-made in the image of Pop, Duncan, Brown, and whoever it is on the Pistons that keeps Wallace, Wallace and Billups on ice (Rip, I guess), has the Association become over these last few months that now it's being pegged as "the draft of depth." Does that make anyone want to tune in? You watch the draft to see history in the making, not to see a solid seventh man picked up by a team that really needed one for playoff depth. Also the chances of failures that cackle throughout the halls of memory (aka basketballreference.com, or whatever it is the Recluse reads in his spare time) are far less likely when no one's destined for magnitude in the first place.

"Who could forget Joey Graham, the twelth pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. Scouts had projected him as a tough, inexorable player on both ends of the floor, who could stabilize a young team while providing a decent third or fourth option. Unfortunately, his whole career he was never more than a fifth option or a valuable bench player. The NBA Draft, indeed it is made of horror."

Also there's this new thing I've noticed on some draft-related sites (if you have already been reading them or have an interest in doing so, look for them yourself so the shame can be revealed) of advertising mocks as "what should happen" vs. "what will happen." I get the two confused, but the distinction usually has to do with whether or not you take "best available" (and whether or not scouts think doing so is smart or foolish, and whether or not they're smart or foolish for thinking so). May I gleefully submit that, in a draft flush with indistinguishable talent and pickling uncertainty, "best available" is ridiculous? No one can agree on who belongs in the lottery, much less who's the "best available." Teams should be going for need because there is no index of "bestness."

But I would like to offer up this last plea to the Draft powers that be: don't let Bogut go #1. Or #2. Here is my version of the qualified mock, in the form of a few things that have to happen for anything socially redeemable to come out of Tuesday night. It will be brief: Bogut #3 and a snotty interview; Hawks take Paul and save Atlanta basketball from itself; Bynum goes mid-lottery as this year's "weird thing that went down in the last two days" story; McCants late lottery "despite some questions about his attitude"; Knicks pick a center of some kind and save us all another year's worth of misplaced collective groaning and anxiety; big trade goes down that at least affects some known quantities; we see Phil's master plan start to swing into motion (Jarret Jack?) and next season already seem close, competitive, and sinister; 'Cats get at least one UNC player; Wolves start to retool their backcourt and things seem alright; the foreigners get funnier AND FAST (they get funny quickly, but a hunger strike would also behoove); every single pick isn't followed by "they've already got so and so at such and such position" so we can at least pretend these selections will step right in and star.

Is Barkley doing the draft?


FreeDrafto, Pt. 3: How Soon Is Now?

To some extent, every NBA Draft has influenced the following one, but the trends have become more pronounced in recent years, with the League attempting to figure out what to do with foreign and high school players, neither of whom played much of a factor as recently as a decade ago. The epochal 2001 Draft led many scouts around the league to go back to their teams with their tails between their legs and led many fans to believe their heads were up their asses. None of the high schoolers picked in the Lottery have even sniffed an All-Star Game, while Pau Gasol went on to win ROY and lead a Grizzly resurgence of a sort (we’re talking about the Grizz here), and Vladimir Radmanovic has proved to be a valuable player in Seattle. Thinking they had learned their lesson (that foreign players are more ready than American high schoolers), the 2002 Draft saw the great minds of the NBA selecting Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Nene Hilario several spots ahead of man-child Amare Stoudemire.

With the issue of foreigners vs. high schoolers still unresolved, 2003 saw the drafting of our hero Darko Milicic sandwiched between American hoops prodigies Lebron and Carmelo. But last year, NBA execs seemed to have things pretty well figured out. The early lottery saw a good mix of proven college stars and talented high schoolers, with the first Euro, Andris Biedren, going at #11 to team of the future Golden State. The jury is still out on Biedren, but they’re busy deliberating about high schoolers Robert Swift and Dorrell Wright, as well.

If there is any lesson to be learned from the 2004 Draft, it is taught to us by the electrifying Smith Bros. (no relation), Josh and J.R., who went back to back at #17 and #18, respectively. Both swingmen, neither one fit the mold of other wings who had made the jump straight from high school. Kobe and T-Mac were both highly skilled athletes with relatively polished all around games. By contrast, Josh came in with only one definable skill (jumping really fucking high), and J.R. added to that uncanny 3-point range, but neither showed any ball-handling or mid-range skills to speak of.

If there was any precedent for the Smiths, it was not Kobe or T-Mac, but the 23rd pick of the 2000 NBA Draft, Deshawn Stevenson, who boasts a career scoring average of 6.7 ppg. On paper, the Smiths seemed to share his raw athletic ability and low basketball IQ, a package that rightfully did not seem too appealing to most NBA scouts, and they accordingly fell out of the Lottery. But, both Smiths excelled in their rookie years, averaging around 10 points a game and contributing numerous highlight-reel dunks, blocks, and 3-pointers. Indeed, just perusing a collection of still photos of Josh Smith in action is enough to cause one’s jaw to drop. Together, they caused NBA execs to forget about the Deshawn Stevensons and Harold Minors of the past and seemingly proved that incredible athleticism really can be enough to make it in the League.

So, what does this mean for 2005? Is there a Smith in this year’s Draft, or are the Smiths yet another Draft myth to be debunked? Gerald Green seems to fit the mold the closest. He combines Josh’s length and ups with J.R.'s ability to wet jumpers from deep. But, he lacks the all-around skills of Kobe or T-Mac, making “the next T-Mac” comparison preposterous, although the fact that both were largely unheralded during their early high school years does make it tempting. However, the player who will likely benefit the most from the success of the Smiths is 2007’s Bill “Dirty McNasty” Walker, teammate of O.J. Mayo and the most talked-about high school dunker since Vince Carter. Watch your head.


Proof positive

I know that someone's going to jump all over me for this, but fuck it. I just looked back at some of my posts from the beginning of the playoffs. . .damn, my writing actually had some style back then, what seems like a century ago. All this Spurs and Pistons handicapping, Robert Horry and the structure of clutch situations, Tim Duncan's soundness, explain the mechanics of why the draft is so screwy, assess the CBA shit has either really sapped the life out of me or naturally lends itself to the kind of writing we pay for the privilege of reading on Insider. So I hereby resolve that, after we've put this playoffs to bed once and for all, I'm going to learn to smile again. Before draft night, I will again litter my garden with flowers and asps!!!!!!!!!

And if anyone thought that my Game 7 post earlier today read like some unholy union of Scoop and Carrie Bradshaw, well, I guess it's come to that.

A Prediction

The finale

Someone is going to lose tonight, in more ways than one.

If the Spurs lose, Duncan all of a sudden has some serious legacy problems (what is he without Robinson? did he choke?).

(Pistons immediately crowned the Pats of the NBA)

If the Pistons lose, they get branded a one-year fluke, who wouldn't have even made it this far if Wade hadn't gone down.

(Duncan cements his legendary status, a million analysts remind us that they picked the Spurs to win in the pre-season)

All of the above are somewhat true, but how much so, we'll only know after tonight.

Do we think of Game 7's as the culmination of a series and a season, when everything that's gone before comes to a head. Players bear their true selves, all lessons learned are put into action, glaring weaknesses come back to haunt in decisive fashion, you get a meaningful ending to the tale of might, doubt and longing that we call the 2004-2005 NBA.

Or is it just another game between two (as of late) erratic teams in a truly incomprehensible Finals, the last contest of the year but hardly a culmination of 2004-2005 or even Spurs vs. Pistons?

Again, both are probably true. But I'm not going to go flying off in one direction or the other until I see it with my own eyes.

And if it sounds like most of what I've just said is about Duncan, well, it is. This is his time.


Strictly on the DL

Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have a basketball minor league. As part of the CBA, rookies and second-year players can now be "farmed out" to the NBDL, pending their development into the lottery caliber performers they were thought to be on that fateful June night. And while there are still only two rounds in a draft of basketball, this should certainly raise the NBDL's profile, making it of remote interest and, unintentionally, giving kids even less incentive to stay in school. What remains to be seen, however, is whether teams might not still go the other DL route, so they can keep their prize prospects close and make sure they're getting NBA-caliber coaching. I suspect it will vary from player to player; what's the point of sending someone down to dominate when they can be learning in practice at the highest level? Again, though, the NBDL could turn into what people wish college ball still was: all the future stars fighting tooth and nail against each other to earn the right to get called up to the big leagues. And, with more of a vested interest in NBDL, perhaps you might see teams sending some serious coaching assets down there to oversee the developlment of their draft picks.

A lot of this hinges on whether or not NBDL teams are explicitly affiliated with pro franchises, something I probably should know but don't. If not, does this mean that NBDL teams get in petty bidding wars over who gets to supplement some high schoolers gigantic lottery contract?

My sense is that, at first, teams will be reluctant to make use of this new option. But as soon as some raw player spends one year there and then turns up as ROY the following season, it will become more and more common for anyone who isn't clearly capable of holding their own in the Association. Telfair and Josh or J.R. Smith would probably never end up there, even though they've got a lot of growing to do still. But Chandler, Curry, or Kwame have NBDL written all over them. Someone like Al Jefferson or Travis Outlaw, who weren't totally lost but, because of position issues and their teams wanting to win now, could probably have stood to spend year one putting a little more polish on their game.

Though introducing this and the age limit seems a little redundant. A year of college for any of the aforementioned players and they'd probably be starting for the wrecks of teams that drafted them. It will probably be used most with good teams who take a chance late on "project" picks, and who can't afford to have them develop as their franchise is trying to win now.

One point of clarification on the age limit: it's a year after your high school graduation that you become eligible for the draft. I suspect it's only a strict calendar thing for international players, or high school drop-outs (something we'll see from time to time and people try to get into the league sooner rather than later?)

UPDATE: Okay, this is huge and possibly totally moronic. Just read over Chad Ford's take on the CBA (I'm sure you can find it without a link); turns out that the NBDL minimum age is now eighteen. Meaning, players could opt to skip college and go directly to the NBDL. Of course, they'd be getting paid next to nothing, and they'd have no clear connection to any NBA team (how does this work: NBDL teams are sort of connected with pro franchises, but can harbor fugitives from the league?). So there's now the alternative of bypassing college for a year of NBDL, where at least there's some money involved. Not as attractive as trying to win an NCAA title in your spare time, but for second-tier prospects and over-eager high schoolers, it might become common practice.

Bottom line is, things just got a lot more complicated for all the non-lottery players in this world. We'll get to see Oden, Mayo, etc. in college, but this might result in preps with less certain futures facing something far less dire than the current "first round or bust" scenario.

And, weirdest of all, this new NBDL system will be in place next season, so this current crop of high school hopefuls are no longer as much of a risk as they were a few days ago. For one brief, spiritual year, eighteen year-olds are both eligible for the draft and pose less risk than ever to teams who didn't want to waste a roster spot on them. Maybe that's what Miles, Ellis, Williams, et al. were hearing that lead them to keep their names in.


"He's such. . .a human"

More on this tomorrow, but for now I have this to say: it took the Spurs to make me realize how much I should have dug the Pistons all along. At least in this match-up. Find me a more likeable nucleus than Ben, Sheed, and Chauncey. . . no matter how annoyed I am by Rip, or the almost unspeakably personal, radioactively ambivalent relationship I have with Larry Brown, I don't understand how anything could neutralize said trio of perfect.

(that is not a rhetorical question)

(and this ain't bandwagon jumping; ask anyone, I've been a Sheed guy forever, a Big Ben supporter when he was Reggie Evans, the prequel, and Billups, well, since he should've been starting for the Wolves)

A few other thoughts, mostly of the Spurs-baiting variety:

-At what point do we start criticizing Duncan, if not for choking at key points in this series then at least for not asserting his presence (himself?) more? I know that's not the kind of player or person he is, but the greatest power forward ever (no sarcasm there) should be putting his unmistakable stamp on each and every game.

-This is probably the only time you'll ever hear me say anything this fusty, but Manu's judgment might be drifting from cavalier to reckless.

-I know you have to have Horry take those shots down the line, but let's remember that in some late game situations, he's just a role player missing some of the same (open) shots that made him famous. Not an deadly weapon who'll get his even if you know it's coming. Again, that circumstantial thing.

-Still, I can't imagine the Spurs losing on Thursday. They're just too proud, too good, and too deep, to not remind the world that they are in fact the best team in basketball.

Peace in the valley

Breaking news:

From what ESPN's hearing, the solution is a classic compromise. More cap room, but shorter contracts; before you go and forecast an MLB-like arms race, think about how much money teams have tied up in shitty, useless long-term deals. All this means is that these won't absolutely kill a roster for years, since they'll have some flexibility even if they do continue to make terrible signings (trust me, they will) and these contracts will only sting for so long. You'll see a slightly greater turnover in bad contracts, but never will one or two tie the hands of team. I think this will also help the overall depth of teams that are smart while still putting teams run poorly, not those with less money, at a disadvantage. The players and the league both get what they want, and it works out to benefit the fan on both counts.

And then there's the age limit. I can rattle off a million socio-political reasons why there shouldn't be one, and of course sentimental economics sits squarely on the side of the high schooler with a dream. But one year in college is hardly a life sentence, it gives them some much-needed experience, makes them easier to assess, betters the NCAA, and even if they aren't insatnt, Melo-like stars they still shouldn't lose their allure as pro prospects (see Marvin Williams). Apparently the latter has been a big concernt with international players, who, while wanting to get a lottery promise, also don't want their reputations to be tarnished by growing pains at the overseas pro level.

Also, plenty of high schoolers are nineteen by the day of the draft. I know for a fact that Amare was; LeBron was close, but due mostly to his birthdate. So this hardly spells the end of preps-to-pros, however unintentionally. I don't know, it does seem a little strange that being old for your grade could have the ultimate result of letting you go to the NBA out of high school, while your AAU running buddy has to go play for Duke for a year.

There's probably some stuff to be said about tonight's game, but frankly I think the series is over. Duncan can't continue to be this hollow. Detroit is inconsistent. No one wins in San Antonio, no one wins on the road in this series. And, more importantly, this year's Finals was destined to give us one truly indispensable game, just enough for everyone to rain holy fire down on me for doubting its profundity or value to the lexicon of hoops. Very much like the two teams in it.

No, I'm far more excited to hear that there will be a league next year, so I can see some basketball that, by and large, doesn't make me feel like it's a job or point of professional pride to care.

Yeah, I know. . ."that game was amazing." Fine. Does it make up for the four that preceded it?


Happy birthday, big guy

With all the talking we at FreeDarko do about actual pressing basketball issues, one essential part of our mission often get lost in the shuffle. Today, that wispy shell of competence turns twenty, and we invite you all to take a moment out of your busy day to raise the glass in honor of you-know-who-(o).

Five clutch commandments

So I'm assuming that everyone want to talk about Robert Horry, even though the subject's alreayd been done to death. Clearly the draft is still over people's heads.

1. Why do I think Reggie Miller is a more distinguished clutch player than Horry? Because last night was the first time in Horry's career that he's had a sustained late game effort—a Miller-esque performance—as opposed to just one shot.

2. Hall of Famer, my ass. If you want to penalize Nash's MVP cred based on his lack of defense, surely Horry's chances of enshrinement are hurt by not trying until the last shot of a playoff series's decisive game. There's really never been a player like him in any sport—one who shows you next to nothing until it really matters, while plenty of more talented guys fold under pressure despite having played at a high level up to that point (whether you're talking late in game, late in season, or late in playoff series).

3. Horry's kind of clutch is not quantifiable. Except for last night's game, we're not talking about overwhelming late game efforts; it's hitting a shot in a game that happens to come down to one shot, a situation that's completely beyond his control (if anything, it's a failure on his part for not having widened the gap before then).

4. That said, Horry is ready and willing to take that shot and more often than not, hits it. That's the defintion of a role player: given a specific kind of situation, he can be inserted to do the job. Not, like a star does, set the course of the game himself.

5. If this series has been saved, it's because the game was entertaining, active, and close up until Horry took the final shot. Celebrate Horry for the second half, where he caught fire and kept them in the game, not the "historic" three. To their credit, the media seems to be doing this, but failing to note the basic difference between this Horry and the one that's up to this point defined his post-season career.


Chills (or, best.link.ever.)

I generally stay away from nba.com—it's smart and useful, but ultimately it's still advertising. But this shit is almost too good to be true. You can seriously find these people's entire careers (and very public lives) contained within that first NBA interview, as well as re-live the days when Hubie rocked a perm.

It's beyond me why KG isn't known as "Mr. 1000%."

Most poignant moment: when Webber, who gets the loudest ovation of anyone, inexplicably wanders away from the handler and gets lost in a wall of curtains while being lead to the podium.

FreeDrafto, Pt. 2: It came from below

This marks time number four I've tried my hand at this post, so the rough edges and facile answers you see in this one will be battle scars and mental toughness, respectively. NBA Draft 2005: it's a war out there!!

Without the the Draft, there would be no FreeDarko. The Draft embodies all that is frivilous and fantastic about the Association, the time at which the NBA is furthest from being a real sport and yet closest to our hearts and minds. It was also all I used to talk about with the Recluse, without whom I don't think any of this would have ever happened (stay watching for that FreeDarko biopic for the full story). And, most of all, it renews and refreshes the league itself like so many summer mikvahs, keeping the "league of stars" from becoming the breeding ground of grouchy tradition and conservatism.

(It doesn't take a billionaire to look at what's happened to the Association this season and recognize that the Draft now mattters more than ever. It's being dominated, gamewise and image-wise, by players whose draft-day interviews are still fresh in our minds)

For these reasons, the Draft is my Easter. In summers past, I killed time poring over mocks, laughing at the stories, wondering exactly why this thing was such an inspirational mess every year. In the end, though, that was its charmful beauty: the Draft operates according to a logic of its own, developed over a few fitful weeks of talent evaluation and chad ford-baiting. Each team lives in its head, wildly imagining what could be and ending up with a highly personal board that no other scouting dept. could understand or agree with; stir these all in together, and it's like the U.N. talks on child birth laws would have been circa 1200 A.D.

There have been trends. We've seen Euro-mania crest, recede, and creep toward the shore again; the high schoolers, while still too good to pass on in some cases, have proven to often not be worth the wait or the PR hit. And the major draft revolution of the last few years has been the shocking discovery that, MONGA or no MONGA, experienced college players can actually breath new life into the game, rather than show up in the pros living on borrowed time or having succeeded largely on technicality alone.

It should be a year of enlightened drafthood like none before. If an international player isn't ready to compete at a professional level, you make him wait for his lottery promise until he is. If a high schooler doesn't stack up well against older prospects, try to push him into the collegiate ranks. If someone could dominate the NCAA game, chances are he'll be able to do a thing or to in the pros.

(Joe Forte andnotwithstanding.)

And if a player leaves college before he can really make his mark there, you shouldn't expect him to amount to much at the next level. These rules aren't perfect, but they set a level playing field, wherein prospects can be judged on their own merits and not suffer because of categorical biases.

Unfortunately, this year things are too fair. Very few people in the draft pool are foolproof or amazing. But responsibility has taught us to not rashly exclude and include players based solely on what kind of prospect they are. So, instead of the draft hysteria of years past, 2005 sees a low-level, disorienting malaise setting in, where everyone seems just as attractive as everyone else. Usually, players fall into three distinct categories: lottery picks, who have that aura of royalty well before the first whispers of draft order; late first-rounder, good guys that no one's too excited about; and second rounder, a merely formality. There have always been busts and sleepers, and the high school/Euro element introduced a whole new wrinkle into talent evaluation. But scouting seems to have finally caught up with itself; surprises should in theory be kept at more of an all-time low than ever.

As I write, these walls mean nothing. Making a mock this year is a joke, since on any given day someone might make a jump from the late first to the lottery without anyone batting an eye. The second round, far from being the place where good college players go to die, is instead the sexiest part of the draft. With very little distinction between, say, picks #20-40, teams have never been more intent on finding the diamond in the rough, and, since it's pretty much all rough, taking him as high as need be. Hence Hodge and Garcia, to pick two examples, initially projected as second-rounder but now with a chance of cracking the late lottery. Taft has fallen from high lottery pick to late first-rounder before draft night, something we usually get only as a blast of eleventh-hour drama. Channing Frye, too, would in past year's be a head-scratching pick on 6/28, but instead the secret is out and there are now actually teams fighting over how high to take him. Euros and high schoolers that were thought to be out of the draft are now worming their way back into the lottery. Deron Williams loses some weight and he's the next Jason Kidd, not Andre Miller's revenge. The Chicago camp actually might produce several first-rounders, rather than just get someone invited for a FA try-out.

And anyone who says "the draft is always in flux" is retarded. Nothing compares to this. Not even

To prove my point, here's my one and only attempt at a mock. Lottery only.

(It was lazy when Dime could only manage a lottery preview, but in my case it's nothing but bitter, bitter snot)


If anyone read my mock, I hope you got a giggle out of it at my lenient expense. For the record, I know it was somewhat less than credible; it was actually credibility-killing, sharks, tweezers. I also realized, only several hours after the fact, that it was virtually identical to Chad Ford's in all the places that count. The stupider parts were all mine, and that was all principle (see the remaining comment for the sole evidence of its flaws).

Since then, I have decided to boycott all mock drafts until the Hawks wise up and decide that it's in their best interest to take Paul, not Williams or Bogut. I just can't bring myself to pencil in (or support the penciling in of) such stupid gm'ing. As THC has mentioned in behind-the-scenes FreeDarko meetings, a decade of Paul to Josh Smith alley-oops could be the only thing capable of saving the Association from this year's Finals. . .I mean, averting a lockout.

"They don't know" -Curtis Mayfield
"Why don't they know?" -Rashaan Roland Kirk
"They ain't even tryin' to know" -Aceyalone


FreeDrafto, Pt. 1: MONGA

I think I said in passing a few weeks back that the draft-season comparisons are fundamentally retarded. You get everyone likened to all-stars, when clearly what makes special players special is that they're completely and totally singular. Hence, talking about finding the next T-Mac, next KG, next Marion is a waste of breath and questionable talent evaluation. "Poor man's so-and-so" is a little more responsible, but to even imagine you could have a greatly diminished version of KG, say, depends on current players having proven it's possible, that it's a template for revolution that could conceivably be followed by mere mortals.

That's more what scouts should do: reference more generic players, or empirical types, roles, definitions of a position. It's a more realistic outlook for what they're likely to land in the draft, more consistent with how people think about building a roster, and what goes on once an actual basketball court is involved. Not to say that all players aren't interesting and unique in their own little ways, but beyond the top one or two guys on a team, coaches are thinking in terms of form and function.

Things have gotten totally out of hand this year, though, with the Myth of the Next Gilbert Arenas, from hereon known as MONGA (no racist). Arenas's story has been done to death: undersized, out-of-position college two-guard wills his way from the second round to the verge of superstardom as a thrill-a-minute point guard. What's often left out of the legend is that Arenas's well-documented personality quirks had a lot to do with his preciptious draft-day fall. He also had the poor fortune to come out in the year of high schooler, the ignominious 2001 draft that also, in the form of Gasol, augured the next year's Euro-mania. He was evaluated horribly, but Arenas was also perceived to be damaged goods with zero mystique or fashion on his side.

Now, with Arenas an established force in the Association, his pre-career the stuff of parable, and this year's draft pool swimming with college guards, the stage is set for the Year of MONGA. The logic goes something like this: not only is Arenas a type of player, rather than an unlikely individual, he's also someone whose eventual greatness they could and should have seen coming because of the nature of his shortcomings. Scouts are looking not for a prospect who resembles Arenas now, but someone who, given the right circumstances, could experience the same astounding metamorphosis that Gilbert has as a pro.

In short, look for someone undervalued (even devalued) for some of the same reasons Arenas was (having the same strengths as Arenas, like blinding speed, an absolutely destructive first step, the strength of a much larger player, fearlessness in any situation, and a willingness to take over the game in a variety of ways, are optional), and you have a shot at him making the same developmental leap that has defined #0's whirlwind tenure in the Association. It's not just a "this high school kid could turn into a Tracy McGrady-type player when he's mature;" instead, you're looking at "this college vet, whose game is relatively fully-formed, has some of the same liabilities as a guy who, when he hit the Association, managed to reinvent himself, prove the doubters wrong, and end up on the All-Star team."

The Recluse is taking a proactive approach to the MONGA, claiming that Head could make an Arenas-like jump from the depths of second round because he has some of the same skills and strengths, not just because no one's sure if he's a point guard. What remains to be seen is, even when this far-fetched comparison might make a bit of sense, GM's believe it enough to actually draft Head in the first.

Stay tuned for my next FreeDrafto bulletin, which will deal with the bizarre significance the second round has taken on for the 2005 Draft, in part because of the MONGA.

Pop Culture/Carmelo-Hating Watch

Funny-ass GAME hoops-related interview here.

SLAM: Why did you aim the rhyme “I’ll do the rapping, you play ball” at Carmelo Anthony?

GAME: Carmelo got robbed out in L.A. and I spoke on it, and he was saying, why I put his business out in the street. But I seen him in the club and he wasn’t talking none of that. So I just let him know to keep playing basketball and stay out of this street shit.

Dude has always seemed mad overrated to me, but that Antoine Walker line sounds pretty ill. Best hoops-related rap line ever (and I swear I dont even like Cam'ron that much):

"I got plans that was better than jail

Now look, we like Bird, Parish, Kevin McHale
Scott, Worthy, Jabbar, and Magic
Oh my god it's Magic, Isiah, Dumars, I will carve your casket
Feel Scotty and Mike, feel Shaq and Kobe
My gats will de-tatch you homie"

-Killa from "The Champions" (Cam shouting out Bird and McHale is just too funny)


I love this draft!

(This is as much to kick start the FreeDrafto operation as it is entertain our legions of readers. But it still warrants sharing with the FreeDarko community)

Chad Ford strikes again. Just when you thought this year's draft was going to be ruined by common sense and respect paid to college players, he drops this gem on us, live and direct from some Euro camp somewhere overseas:

Victor Keirou, SG, Russia

Nicknamed the "Black Russian" because of his mixed heritage (his father is black, his mother Russian), Keirou stunned scouts in attendance with his smooth, athletic game, scoring 20 points and shooting 3-for-3 from beyond the arc. He has great size and athleticism for his position and showed a nice shooting touch from the perimeter. He hasn't played much on his team in Kazan, Russia, but his talent is unmistakable. If he stays in the draft, he's a likely second-round pick. If he pulls out, he could work his way into the first round next season.

People get ready.

. . .double LP, world excited

Me and the Recluse were talking today about how, with all that's been going on in the Association, we here at FreeDarko probably should have something. So as much as I'm at this point all about working to perfect the maiden voyage of FreeDrafto, and as little of the Finals as I've watched, here are a few tidbits on the only NBA news that matters.

-Is there a single NBA player with as much clout as Kobe? You can say he's unreasonably demanded it, but the Lakers were more than happy to hand it to him. And even with his stock at an all-time low, Bryant's got more influence over his franchise—and more capacity to affect people's view of the league—than any number of more agreeable, possibly more skilled, players. He's still the ultimate power broker, with Shaq's folk hero appeal as good as toothless, LeBron too concerned with not turning into Kobe, and Garnett and Iverson too real to transcend the players' side of things. Like it or not, Kobe Bryant is still the most influential athlete in America, even if most of it's mere potential at this point.

-The real winner here is Odom, arguably the most versatile man in the Association. You can say a lot of things about Phil's coaching, but he's nothing if not smart and efficient. Handing him Odom in his prime—especially on a team that, starved for talent, will have to make as much of him as is humanly possible—has to be as attractive to him as a second go-round with the incredibly gifted #8. There's been a lot of noise about Odom being utilized like the second coming of Scottie, which is hardly out of the question.

For Odom, Jackson is a god-send. Queens's finest is almost too proficient for his own good, which explains his occasionally indecisive or over-determined play. The one year he had a strong coach, he became an All-NBA caliber weapon. Jackson knows that the Lakers will only go as far as Odom can take them, since his role will determine what shape the offense takes around Kobe. Chances are, the better it looks, the more likely Kobe will be to make his game a fit for it.

-Something tells me Butler's on the way out. Besides Kobe and Odom, he's their only appealing asset; packaged with an expiring contract, he could get them some frontcourt help. Plus he's probably going to get squeezed out of starting job, unless Phil wants his point-forward also having to be their best big man. Not that Odom isn't capable of playing the undersized 4 out West; Marion proved it's possible on the right team. But given the role he's likely to be handed, and the unlikelhood of Jackson trying to remake the Lakers in the Suns' image, I just don't see it.

-Some draft talk: with the best PG's steadily rising in the mocks, the chances of the Lakers stealing Felton at #10 seem slim. But given Phil's PG history, the amount of time Kobe and Odom should handle the ball, and the Lakers' problems in the post, look for them to grab a solid starting PF.

-One final word on Kobe: you don't trade him. For all his personal shortcomings and tendency toward egomania on the court, his combination of sheer ability, basketball IQ, and desire to win are unmatched in this league. Wade may be getting close, and T-Mac, for all the strides he made in the playoffs, is still the NBA's most persistent engima. You can make the argument for Iverson, Garnett, or Duncan, or claim that LeBron's just one season away from leaving everyone else in the dust. But for the here and now, Bryant's still the most formidable specimen of classic basketball greatness out there. That he can essentially run the Lakers and remain the league's #1 story despite an operatic fall from grace is a testament to what every GM in the league still knows: get Kobe under control and he's the most dangerous player in the Association. Hopefully, the league having passed him by will allows us to learn to appreciate him all over again.

-In case you're wondering, I still haven't bothered to watch a game of the Finals all the way through. I do have to finally take THC's side on Manu-gate here, though, and officially deem the buzz out of control. For one thing, he's still essentially a scorer. And while it's fashionable to say that he'd win the scoring title as the #1 option, let's not forget that Duncan still draws a fair amount of attention from defenses, as does the defense-splitting speed of Parker. Don't get me wrong, Manu's a fantastic player and as much of a joy to behold as anyone not on the Suns. But just because Wade's been knocked out, it's not fair to assume that someone has to inherit the mantle of hype.


Guest blogger achieves orbit

I've spent enough time working with ESL students to understand why this isn't actually funny, i.e. exactly how little of a clue this person has as to what he/she is saying and how it will be perceived. But sometimes magic happens in the strangest places, so, without further adieu, here is a brief guest entry from a college student struggling to master the English language and make the world think a little, to boot.

Since the Union won the Civil, African Americans were freed from slavery and able to make contributions in many aspects of sports and music. African Americans such as Michael Jordan changed the world of sports. If the Union had lost the Civil War, basketball would not be as exciting as it is nowadays. Many amazing moves or records would have never been invented or made. Talents would be lost if slavery still existed today. Jazz was first invented by the African Americans who sang their mood. If African Americans had never been freed from slavery jazz would not exist today. Also, the basketball team, the Utah Jazz, may not exist today because the word jazz would probably not exist if slavery still existed. Freedom of slaves was what led to the many accomplishments of African Americans.


Bogut/Bryant update

Not really an update, since it involves me remembering something that happened several weeks before Bogut's assertive remarks on Kobe et al. But am I the only one who saw the news item about how someone (couldn't be the league. was it Bogut's people?) had scheduled a meeting between Kobe and Bogut, I guess so the college player of the year could talk to one of the Association's brightest stars about how hectic shit is in the pros. Bryant left Bogut waiting in a hotel lobby for a while, then had someone call to say he couldn't make it. All very mysterious, and a tad bit rude. Yet not quite twisted enough to be pure, intentional Kobe.

(Really, who could have possibly set this up? Kobe is the most high-profile black sheep since [insert Black Sheep pun here] and, whether you're talking good or bad, has by no means had a representative experience on or off the court. It seems odd that he would have volunteered to talk to Bogut out of the goodness of his convoluted heart, and it probably would look bad from a PR perspective if Bogut expressed too much of an interest in meeting Kobe.)

(This is why I should probably have links in situations like this, but it was buried somewhere in InsideHoops)

(Okay, buckling to self-imposed pressure, here's a link to some guy's blog that explains some of the salient details and then some.)

Far from being a crusader for goodness, Bogut might just be a little kid who got his feelings hurt. Fronting like he's a premature statesman setting the tone for a new era

(memo to Bogut: it's been fifty plus years since a white center played any role in setting the tone for league. Walton's the exception that proves the rule--he's without a doubt one of the more perplexingly singular figures in the history of the game. And was more of a cultural phenomenon seeping into basketball than the game and its culture defining themselves.)

Maybe Shaq, who could actually be more of a political opportunist than his good guy image will let us believe, reached out to him after the Kobe incident. And that's why we see Bogut so willing to call out Kobe in print--with Shaq in his corner and a far more appropriate sense of how he fits into the Assocation, suddenly Kobe looks like an easy target.

But if that guy with the blog I linked to is right, and Kobe had a very good reason to miss the meeting that he opted not to make public at the time, it's not just a matter of Bogut finding a more appropriate role model and taking up his new mentor's on and off court cause. Rather, it's the kind of petty shit that Scoop tenatively called out Shaq for doing throughout his career, stuff that might well end up undermining the Big One's legacy (or at least draining it of some of its effervescent, intangible-based glory).

Another memo to Bogut: Shaq gets away with it because, as a player and a personality, he's Shaq. You're never going to be him, so it might be time to start rethinking your approach to year one before you make an ass of yourself. If whoever drafts you is lucky, you're the next Brad Miller. Brad Miller's image took a hit when he provoked Shaq into throwing THE MIGHTIEST WINDMILL IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL SPORTS, ergo, you'll be working with about that same level of shaky, if not invisible, public feeling. Accept it and act accordingly. You may have good hair, but no seven footer has ever been a model.

Still, it's probably too late to avoid an early season game of Kobe just destroying you for a full 48. Shit should go on PPV.


Game Sevens

A short while ago I text messaged a few friends:

"Hey where are we going to watch the game. My place is available."

I recieved a call barely thirty seconds later:

E: "Yeah, hey man, I'm here with J and we were discussing. Umm.. if you recall back we watched the last Game 7 against the Knicks at your house."

A: "I thought that was at B's house."

E: "Remember? M was there and you went and sat under a tree for a few hours after Allan Houston hit that shot."

A: "Yeah, I remember.."

E: "Anyway, so your house is out of the question. We'll go the bar where we're 2 and 0 this series."

A: "Good call."

It's The Little Things

Consider this my belated BethlehemShoals-like semi-threatening LAST POST BOUT THE PLAYOFFS till they're over. I maintain a great amount of angst over the Suns' failure to advance, but in my deepest of hearts knew that after game one of the series, it was not meant to be. Epiphanies that a) nobody on the Suns boxes out for the first 3 quarters of a game, and b) it is not that Nash is a poor defender, it is that he flat out REFUSES to play defense, made me feel very sorry for Phoenix fans everywhere.

I echo Shoals' sentiment: THIS IS A LEAGUE OF STARS. However, I would remiss if I did not defend the Pistons as not only a watchable team, but perhaps the most likeable team in the Association currently. Seriously, tell me a Pistons player who you hate. They have Darko. They have 'Sheed. Even the guys they cut are named "Smush" and "Del-fino." And all this man knows how to do is pass and be a fan favorite...


Yes sir, folks, the Pistons are the heterosexual version of the Spurs. Quasi-boring, but evocative of the same feelings I get when watching the Patriots beat everysinglefucking body based on strategy alone. Thank you, Larry, for being the best basketball mind of our time. Better than Phil, Rudy T, and better than Pop. Everywhere he has gone he has gotten the most out of his players, and he doesn't promote that goopy smirking, Walton-orgasm-inducing, "aw shucks, all we know how to do is be smart and play de-fense." Ben Wallace still punches people. Rasheed and Chauncey still get ill-advised technicals. Rip bats the ball away from Dan Crawford. LB himself goes for delf behind the scenes. No puritanism, no implicit code of ethics, no "we don't yell at the refs" tirades The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he was "playing the right way." Larry's too Brooklyn for that. He's too TarHeel for that. He's too Detroit for that.

(Segue into finally determining reasons underlying both my annoyance with the Spurs, and why this whole playoffs has fallen out of favor with me).

I prematurely spoke when I said that the playoffs are really all about Wade now. Truth is, the playoffs died when the Sonics were eliminated. They were the soul of this season, foreigners, thugs, a goofy 7-foot high schooler, and Jesus Shuttlesworth himself just
"doing them." The Sonics embody personality and cool, two elements that NONE of the conference finalists (not even the Suns, who seemed a little to mainstream for my tastes) could muster up. Whereas the Bulls and Wiz were amusing in the same way watching a
bunch of 4-year-olds smash a pinata are amusing, the Sonics were solid gold soul. Either you're with Fortson, or you're against Fortson. They're the type of team you could watch on mute with your girl in the room, and she might not like it, but she would UNDERSTAND.

The Spurs are the antithesis of all that. I can't think of a single Spurs player whose jersey I could wear in public and feel like I had a chance of getting laid. It's not that they're
boring, it's that they are cold and metallic. And the Heat don't offer much more...I'm sick of Damon Jones. The "Shaquille" reality show has further reinforced that he is truly the
high school lackey to the Homecoming King, and he savors that role. He's like a less arrogant version of Freddie Mitchell, but still milking his playoff spotlight for all it's worth. Zo and Laettner have been unlikeable for years, and B-Shoals blew my mind when he said what we were all thinking, that Wade is secretly boring. I will still cheer for them, however, because the Shaq-switching-teams-to-win-the-championship subplot is all I have left in this world.


As Shoals hinted, I will be stockpiling draft and free agency material over the next few weeks, as well as breaking down in full depth the 05-06 Golden State Warriors, which as of now, are looking like the most entertaining team of the Darko era ever. Not to mention, that barring a lockout, it will be this man's time. Oh yes.



The real fantasy

At the risk of over-personalizing what's fast becoming a blog of pure, fateful grandstanding, I've had a shitty week. The kind of week that makes you turn to the dreaded "buy it now" function on ebay and drink tons of coffee in hopes that marking the hours of your working day will make it seem like you've gotten something done.

There's been some talk over the last few weeks about the humanity (or lack thereof) of teams like the Spurs, the Pistons, or the Heat without either Wade or Shaq operating at full strength. For some, this might be comforting, or the kind of thing that makes the entire squad into a hyper-accessible fan favorite. Yet some among us demand more of our athletes than mere humanity; even "fan favorite," which is basically a euphemism for a tremendously limited, somewhat comial player that fans can both relate to and cut down to size, smacks of a need to see ourselves in athletes. On some level, most of us harbor some long-ago demolished dreams of a sporting excellence all our own. We invest so much energy, sweat and tears in fandom, it would be nothing less than fitting if athletes lived out our fantasies by proxy. Whether or not we all once dreamed of being MJ, Magic, or Bird is immaterial, since we're now most likely worse than average. As a result, we'd rather see players like ourselves taste victory, since it makes it that much easier to believe that our fandom is synonomous with the on-court (or on-field) effort.

(It doesn't take much of an imagination to see how this dynamic plays out along race lines in the modern Association, but I'll forego stating the obvious here.)

There are some among us, however, who see sports as the most heroic kind of escapism, full of folk heroes who make our humdrum lives worth living exactly because they're on a whole different level. They uplift us all not because they make us feel better about ourselves and who we've become, but because they hint at a greater, more fantastic world that we're lucky enough to see on this very drab earth for a few brief moments. If this sounds corny, that's because it is; long before the common man saw himself emboldened and encouraged through the accomplishments of those much like himself, he was forced to marvel at the exploits of gods and barbarians who at best served as an unattainable example. And while the sorrow that hangs over that sentence is the same feral bang that gave birth to Marxism, Protestantism, and a million other appeals to our oh-so common nature, in this day and age that die has cast itself far too many times to anything but petty opportunism. We don't need giants proportioned like humans (e.g. a President whose principle goal seems to be to convince us that he's no better than anyone else, when the POTUS should be exactly that); we need fire in the far-off sky that diverts our eyes and just maybe gives us the chance to inject the otherworldly into our daily lives.

Therein lays my problem with the Spurs and Pistons, and more specifically, with what's left of the 2005 post-season. I could really use some distraction, or inspiration, or encouragement to remake the world in a dramatic new image. Instead, I'm left only with decent people playing basketball the right way in hard-fought seriess that positively brim with mutual respect. It's a star-driven league, but this goes deeper than just wanting some thirty point games and last-second shots. I miss feeling that I am watching something truly beyond me, better than myself, and not afraid to make me deathly aware of this. It helps me in the short run and in the long run; it's the perfect cure to a bad stretch and the only way to believe that there might be more to life than television and sleep. If that sounds histrionic, it's because I wrote it to be so. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm not yet ready to resign myself to rooting for a down-to-earth team, since I'd still like to believe that misplaced realism is the worst kind of pandering.

I deserve better. America deserves better. Wade had better get healthy or we risk sliding into the muck of lowest-common affirmation. Shame on us. This is a league of stars, and even if we can't relate to them, we owe it to ourselves to bear witness to them, step into their world, and perhaps bring a sliver of it back down from the heavens with us.



Just passing through

-Will someone please tell me what to make of Scoop's piece on Shaq? It's like he said "someone could really bash Shaq. . . and they'd be totally wrong, but not for the reasons they were bashing him." Begging the question of whether Scoop is or isn't doing what he considers "the unthinkable." Maybe it's that Scoop writes so much, and drops each column on you like it's the end of the world; when he is actually trying to come with something major, it's some chicken little shit (not a pun, not a Native American name).

-Heard someone on Dan Patrick's show claim today that there's a relationship between bad calls that benefit stars and all the fouls they should get but don't (Riley's quote from this morning). Like all the non-travels and jump-steps are necessary to make up for all the times that they get killed in the lane without going to the line. I can't tell if this is totally insane or makes a certain amount of sense; probably depends on whether you think the stars could, in a perfect world, play without resorting to their version of "veteran tricks."

Aussie Please

Some rather interesting comments from the man who looks to loom large in this year's draft. Apparently he's irate about the state of the NBA and its greedy, selfish players, going so far as to call out Kobe by name.

Not that I think the Association (or Kobe, of course) is perfect, but last time I checked an unproven prospect with two years of college ball under his belt is in no position to call out a superstar, or pop off about the entire league. Especially not some foreigner, who doesn't really know what this game is made of at the professional—U.S. of mother-fuckin' A.—level. Let's face it, the Euros can crow all they want, but we run this sport (all that international competition doesn't count as pros) (the worlds and Olympics being nothing more than glorified college ball with slightly more talent and weird rules)!!!!!

Dude rips Americans for not staying in school and learning from master coaches so their attitudes will be better, but heads for the draft after two years at a second-tier program. Is that not more than a little hypocritical? If he worships Duncan so, why not follow Timmy's example and still the full, loyal four years? Does Bogut really think he's more mature at this point (or better on the court) than Duncan was after two years at Wake?

I'd take Chris Bosh over Bogut any day.

Back to his personal attacks on #8: something tells me that there's a poster with Bogut's name on it just waiting upon his entry into the league. And it will be a hell of a lot less flattering than even this

Two possibly related things I find worth mentioning:

-Shaq's respect paid to Mikan is truly heartening. Mikan's about as far from today's game as you can get, yet his sheer presence laid the groundwork for basketball as we know it. Granted, as a big man Shaq has more of a direct connection to Mikan's legacy, but it's also an acknowledgement that this man set the very foundation of post-war ball into motion (mixed metaphor there was totally intended). I wonder if I wouldn't get a little indignant, though, if someone like Bogut took the opporunity to lionize Mikan at the expense of basketball today.

-A brief NBARS that may or may not be relevant to the Bogut affair. Mostly because the new single is hot, I've been thinking a lot about Kanye West again. It's strange that when he brags and boasts just like every other rapper, people take it as truly offensive and pernicious, because, you know, he's not like that and should know better. If he can help himself and does so anyway, he must be a delusional monster. I wonder if this same thing doesn't also apply to Kobe, another gracious warrior of the borugeoisie. Granted his ego is outsized even by Rucker standards, but isn't some of the criticism of Bryant based on this idea that a smart, well-heeled citizen of the world has the power to not come off like a member of the Marbury extended fam?

With Bogut, too, he's allowed to make comments about the politics of the league that would be offensive if a white domestic player said them. Oddly, though, instead of being kept at a distance (as his liberty to do so would suggest in the first place), it's just the mouthpiece a lot of people seem to have been waiting for, one who can say whatever he wants on a technicality yet somehow be all the more authoritative for it.

-And, on a more thoughtful and totally uncontrovesial note, the issue of number recognition. Everyone knows the uniform number of their favorites, and even plenty of over-exposed players who have no business being recognize by their number. But how many people in today's Association can be referred to by number alone? I would say that this is a mark of greatness, but Penny certainly had it in his hay.

My short list: Kobe, Iverson, Shaq. Those are the only players who, if I just said to you (for example) "#3," regardless of context, you would know who I was talking about. Obviously LeBron has it, but his is more tricky because 1) he's always going to be in Jordan's shadow with that number 2) he picked a number that people are prone to remember and identify as iconic, possibly intentionally (or at least in honor of the Jordan mythos)

T-Mac and KG are awfully close. But T-Mac's number is boring and KG and Duncan cancel each other out.

Arenas probably belongs on there, too, since all anyone ever talks about is that wacky number of his.


All the Piston's Men

Fiction is far more interesting than reality. That's what we do here at Free Darko, take two parts truth and sublime it with saturated hysteria to make it interesting to you, dear reader. Our Gallup polls show that we have an above average approval rating.

We must inject truth with hysteria, because the averageness of it has never been more apparent than in the past week. Take the revelation about Deep Throat. The new mystery is no longer his shrouded identity but his motivation - a peek into the human soul instead of a desperate search for it. A comedy fit for Lifetime television, not suitable for Spike TV.

Speculation abounds whether it was his bitterness as a passed over number 2 at the FBI that drove him, his affection for a Bob Woodward that he mentored and perhaps reminded him of himself as a young man, or a desire to relive the espionage he experienced in World War II. I'm sure the bio pic is in the works.

What is depressingly evident in these Deep Throat revelations is that the truth about the scandal was known throughout Washington and through an abundance of leaks. All it took was two above average reporters and a well placed connection in order to expose Nixon. Reflecting the "Who you know" symptons of our society at large. And now, as Woodward details the events, it is obvious that Redford made it far darker than it really was.

I do not mean to cut to the heart of the Watergate drama, just reveal that now that we know more, it loses so much of its edge, it appears more a sympton of a Washington gone complacent than excitedly evil. And if anyone thinks that the current regime is any more dark side, I eagerly point you to Barney Cam II (third from the top).

And there my friends is how these NBA Playoffs have unfolded. As much as Stephen A has tried to performance enhance them, they've been just bland bland bland so far. Good basketball no doubt, but boring storylines.

There was no drama in the West. No KG, Kobe/Shaq, Kobe/Rape. Just the clean, global efficiency of the Spurs. Even in defeat, the Suns were far too gracious. Stoudamire exploded on the court, not in the press room. That was certainly impressive, but part of me yearns for the dysfunctional past. And now the Suns are out just when the big wigs realized *gasp* that Nash may be a little like Gretzky.

In the East, the media has flip flopped on this series so very terribly. After Game 1, the Pistons had solved Wade and were poised for a sweep. After Game 2 & 3, Wade's brilliance seemed to be beyond containment. Game 4 brought a chorus of compliments to the team style of the Pistons. The transparent day-to-day grandstanding isn't suceeding in blowing up hype, just pathetically revealing how very little these experts really know.

Even Larry Brown's possible elopement has been glazed over. No one really cares. It's beyond predictable, the most recent symptom of a man who always considers the neighbor's lawn to be far greener. A Nomad with a carpet bag full of Xs and Os. These "health problems" are too hush hush to create real drama, only leading to speculation whether its the hip, prostate, a case of persistent heartburn or worse *shiver*, arthritis or cataracts. I have an ordinary friend who went to the Mayo Clinic - be damned if Coach has to.

The Piston's indifference to the situation just leads me to look at Larry and feel very sad - he has been eclipsed by both Van Gundys. Does he really matter?

The real and only storyline that remains interesting is Shaq's thigh. Game 3 showed that if he's fully healthy Miami disposes of Detroit in relative ease. Part of why I wish it for all NBA fans that the Heat wins the East. And that has a lot to do with Lindsey Hunter.

Bias aside given their status as my hometown team, the recipe is far richer for a compelling final series in Miami than if Detroit meets the Spurs. The drama of a Pistons/Spurs series will be contained to Empty Suits speculating about the matchups and the possible loss of Brown - nothing more. Dress it up all you want, but that's what you're going to get. Having watched the Pistons for four games, I am so very bored. Richard Hamilton's Mask is like adding a packet of curry flavor to bland ramen. Our icon, Darko, is relegated to the bench in order to maintain the static sterileness of the team. Temper tantrums aside, when a guy like Coach K repeatedly gets an American Express hard-on talking about you - you know you lack the recipe for real entertainment.

Take Miami though, and the story becomes far, far richer.

Does Shaq's thigh heal so he can battle Duncan?

Will Wade become more like 23 with each playoff game - meeting the pseudo-Spaniard Ginobili on each half court possession in a battle to determine who has the greater heart of a champion?

Will Eddie Jones make up for his sins of the past?

Will Alonzo Mourning become the poster boy for organ transplant?

I ask that we back ourselves up again on sheer stardom, that of Manu, Duncan, the Big Daddy and Flash, not on Pistons and Spurs corporate efficiency regaling in the deepness of each other's bench and Tayshaun Prince's long arms.

It all comes down to a thigh - one that is likely larger than any in history. It is with a nod to the variety of tastes, that I admit that what I wish may not be wished by the many. But trust me as your representative, that my vision is in the best interest of all.


Best NBA Art Collection, Pt. 7629

As you should all know by now, the Masters of the Klondike are as interested in the eccentric private lives of NBA players as we are in who wins the Eastern Conference Finals (I say Pistons in 7). So, I must share with you what I have recently learned about Milwaukee Bucks wing Desmond Mason. You may know that he was a studio art major at Oklahoma State, and that his favorite artists range from Michelangelo to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. But, did you know that not only does he appreciate art, he creates art himself! Last year, he had exhibits in Seattle and at the Bresler Eitel Gallery in Milwaukee. I haven't found too much information about his art collection, but he plans to open a gallery once his playing days are over. I'm not sure where this puts in him the contest for Best NBA Art Collection, but he's got to at least be in the conversation with FBP, C-Webb, and Grant Hill.