The Darning Stick

Well, I guess you can't quite ever have perfection, can you. The NBA season was on the brink of becoming the wildest in history, with the league suddenly transformed into the NCAA football system. Every single Western Conference game mattered and every game that the Pistons and Celtics played seemed of grand import for determining who would garner that 1-seed in the East and not have to face LeBron in the playoffs. The race out West has been so tight that post-Pau Gasol, teams have been involved in a chess match on the largest scale, flipping and trading pieces left and right to stay afloat. Firegeorgekarl.com sprang up gloriously from the earth's core, which proves just how competitive things have gotten. Denver fans had realized that the current climate out West had given their team as it is currently operating a surprisingly bleak chance for the playoffs.

But when the news of Yao's injury hit yesterday, amidst the ridiculousness of Ric Bucher and the Rockets GM being legitimately asked if this was somehow a ploy to ready Yao for the Beijing Olympics, I couldn't help but feel that this season no longer counts. Ever since the Rockets got McGrady, they have been my pre-season pick to come out of the West, and this year, with Adelman finally equipped with a team that could play defense, Houston actually proving that they could win withOUT T-Mac scoring 30 a night, the recent 12(13)-game winning streak, and most importantly Yao's newfound swag, I thought it could finally happen.

There are seasons in the NBA when a championship means a lot, and seasons when it means relatively less. Larry Brown's Pistons beating the Lakers in 2004 was the greatest upset in sports over the past five years, better than George Mason, Eli Manning, or Warriors vs Mavs. THAT was a championship. There are other seasons, however, where the glory has been diminished by mitigating factors. Sometimes one conference is so strong that all the scrapping their finals representative did to get to reach the championship round has exhausted them. Other times, key players are absent from the entire scene. Charles Barkley jokingly talks about how Michael Jordan "loaned" Olajuwon and the Rockets their two titles during the mid-90s when Jordan opted to try baseball for a couple years. Wade's abdominal injury a couple years back, Shaq's toe and Kobe's knee back in 2003, even these things matter.

And now it is Yao whose absence shakes skyscrapers. Jason Kidd, the 2008-Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, sure these are nice pieces for a playoff run. But I wanted to see if we have really entred the age of post-Center supremacy. I wanted to see if the Suns, Lakers, Mavs, or Spurs could really defeat Yao--in his prime--in a seven game series. The whole situation just leaves me feeling a bit hollow.

...In other news, this new Nike Kobe campaign, which can be seen here, gives us endless joy. This commercial is like the anti-KG-Adidas-joint. This commercial is totally They Might Be Giants.

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At 2/27/2008 10:52 AM, Blogger MC Welk said...

(baker's) dozen-

At 2/27/2008 11:13 AM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

"Larry Brown's Pistons beating the Lakers in 2004 was the greatest upset in sports over the past five years, better than George Mason, Eli Manning, or Warriors vs Mavs. THAT was a championship. There are other seasons, however, where the glory has been diminished by mitigating factors. Sometimes one conference is so strong that all the scrapping their finals representative did to get to reach the championship round has exhausted them."

Funny, I'd always thought of that 2004 Finals as the prime example of exactly what you're talking about when you refer to one conference being so strong that it exhausted the supposed favorites. The Lakers going through the reigning champ Spurs then the top-seeded TWolves (both on the road, 6 game series), and losing Karl Malone along the way is to me the best example I can think of where a team used up everything it had just to get to the Finals, then lost cause the tanks were empty.

At 2/27/2008 11:24 AM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...

you know yams, i was kind of thinking the same thing after i wrote this, but the fact is that no shaq and kobe team should ever ever ever ever lose to the pistons in the finals. especially in five games.

At 2/27/2008 11:25 AM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Kobe as DaVinci cracks me up more... I like seeing Leonardo footwork on the defense.

I was feeling the Rockets a lot, especially during their recent 12 game winning streak. This was a tough blow.

On the bright side: the Warriors might now make the playoffs. Warriors-Lakers first round, anyone? I would consider a Warriors win there a way bigger upset than the Warriors beating the Mavs last year.

At 2/27/2008 11:45 AM, Blogger Sweat of Ewing said...

Definitely would be a bigger upset - aside that the Lakers now are better than last year's Mavs, the Lakers also match up a hell of a lot better with the Warriors than the Mavs did. Farmar and Kobe can guard Monta and Baron a hell of a lot better than Harris and Terry, and Odom can match Jax pretty well I'd bet.

At 2/27/2008 11:47 AM, Blogger Josh said...

goddamnit, I went back and watched that KG ad and the Thompson interview and now I desperately want him to win a championship again. fucking Celtics.

At 2/27/2008 11:55 AM, Blogger Alap said...

i actually think yao's injury makes this season even prettier. here's where i sound ignorant: if anything, this has been a season of events. one big-name trade after another, the lakers being vital again, the frankensteinian suns, dallas mortgaging its future, chris paul: MVP candidate, celtics' big 3, etc. yeah, yao being out with an injury blows, but it also adds to that list of landmark events, where we can look back on the season and see yao's injury as perhaps the most cataclysmic event in a season full of them. so, in a sense, though yao's absent from the rest of this season, he's still here in spirit, right?

or, to look at it another way, in this season where every team's been trading for more and more big-ticket players, yao being injured is a net gain for every other team in the west, another big-name player spread across the entire conference. his arms go to dallas, his legs to the hornets, his torso to the jazz, his neck to the suns, and his cerebral cortex to the spurs.

to look at it a third way, on a purely logistical level, before yao's injury there were 9 teams fighting for 8 playoff spots in the west (10, if you count portland or maybe sacramento). the rockets being out of it means i won't have to be all "shit i really wish the warriors/nuggets/hornets would've made the playoffs" when the season's over. and even if the rockets do somehow stay in the playoff race, at least i have team to decidedly root against to not make it, instead of trying to decide whether i care less about melo/iverson in the playoffs or the warriors getting back in.

so, in summary, there are three ways in which yao's injury can be a cool thing.

At 2/27/2008 1:03 PM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

Dr LIC - Since the Pistons have since gone on to prove they're perennially legit since that upset over the Lakers, I can't in any way think of that Pistons title as nearly as big an upset as the Giants this year. It was maybe surprising at the time, but I have a hard time looking back and having that level of shock in thinking about it.

Similarly, I don't know if a Warriors win over the Lakers this year would be as big an upset as last year's Warriors 1st round win. The Mavs won 67 games last year, after all, and the Warriors didn't make the playoffs till the last game of the year. Can there be a bigger upset than that?

Nevertheless, this year's Lakers would match up incredibly well against the Warriors with all that size (provided Bynum comes back healthy). Pau and Bynum on the block all day long for easy layups and dunks. The lack of an interior game combined with Avery's foolish decision to try to match up small against GS last year is why the Mavs lost. The Lakers would be licking their chops to face the Dubs in Round One this year.

At 2/27/2008 1:21 PM, Blogger Ben & Melissa said...

Really? I mean, the Rockets have been on a nice run, but there are people who think they'll beat the Lakers/Spurs in a seven game series? Yao is a beast, but this is the same team that flamed out in the first round last year, and who just traded away their "Spurs-killer" in Bonzi Wells.

Plus, let's look at the contents of that last streak. They beat the Cavs (before Wally and Wallace) and while they beat the Hornets, who were just entering a slump.

I wasn't a believer, and it had everything to do with McGrady - he's not getting any better and still can't get it done, even with all that talent around him.

The Lakers frontline will probably manhandle Yao - he's tall, but they're athletic.

Duncan won't enjoy guarding Yao, but he does ok. Frankly, they could let him score 40 a night and still beat them in a series because they'll be able to limit the rest of the team and then run them into the ground.

Shaq is one of the few guys in the league with the size to push Yao around in the paint. A healthy Rockets team would probably beat the Suns, but not because of Yao - the Suns wouldn't have the perimeter defense to shut down the shooters and slashers.

My guess is the Rockets would beat the Hornets in 6.

Every year is supposed to be the Rockets' year. When are we going to figure out that they are NEVER going to get it done?

At 2/27/2008 1:51 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

Oh come on, Ben & Melissa, of course the Rockets were going to win the title this year. Didn't you hear that they are now coached by Adelman? I mean, for godsakes they had already climbed into 4th in their division and 7th in their conference! Clearly the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics and Pistons are breathing a sigh of relief today now that they don't have to fear the perennial playoff powerhouse from Houston. Yup, Dr. Lic is right, this season no longer counts.

At 2/27/2008 1:58 PM, Blogger David said...

Pistons over the Lakers was good and all (I really enjoyed watching Karl Malone and gary Payton get skunked after selling out to win a title), but I believe you are forgetting the 2004 Boston Red Sox comeback from 3-0 in the ALCS. They were one out away from elimination and rallied to victory. It had never been done before in baseball, and no team has ever rallied from 3-0 in the NBA playoffs. That was the greatest comeback/upset in sports history without question

At 2/27/2008 2:22 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

The Rockets could go either way right now: the wheels could fall off and they miss the playoffs entirely, or the team is utterly transformed into a smaller, Suns-type run and gun squad (while ironically the Suns themselves become more Rockets-like with the addition of a slow, but excellent, big man) that manages to stay hot and dangerous deep into the playoffs.
But as for the "this year is their year" mentality, I think it's simply goodwill leftover from '93-'94 and '94-'95 when people were just sick of seeing the Bulls win everything. (not Jordan, mind you, but the Bulls.) Except this time it's another Texas team, the Spurs, who have come to dominate the League. A team so boring that the media is looking for a savior, any savior from the mind-numbing efficiency that is San Antonio. The Rockets always play the Spurs tough (13 points in 33 seconds, anyone?), which makes them by default "this year's contender."
But as a Houston fan since the Sleepy Floyd days, I have to agree, it's never "their year" until they fulfill that potential.
I, for one, look forward to seeing the '01-'02 Adelman coached Kings reincarnated in this year's Rockets team, even if we do lose in the Western Conference finals.

At 2/27/2008 3:19 PM, Blogger Five Pound Bag said...

(kob)E = mj^2

At 2/27/2008 3:21 PM, Blogger Brian said...

Dwight's alter ego is the symbol of peace and justice, the thin blue and red line between the atomic age and destruction.

So of course Kobe becomes one of the scientists that made that age possible.

At 2/27/2008 3:26 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

The Rockets were hitting their stride... I don't think they were considered a top tier contender, but they could have crept up to a 5th seed. Heck, they were only two games behind for a top-3 seed! So let's not pretend they didn't exist, just because no one was paying attention (sort of like the Jazz last year, who went from expected 1st round defeat to the Conference Finals).

I wasn't a believer, and it had everything to do with McGrady - he's not getting any better and still can't get it done, even with all that talent around him.

You know, I just want to say... this annoys me. Not picking on anyone in particular here, but why does T-Mac almost always shoulder the blame for the failure of the Rockets teams? Isn't Yao the franchise player? The #1 pick? The Greg Oden of 2001? The heir to Shaq? Isn't blaming T-Mac for the Rockets failure like blaming John Starks instead of Patrick Ewing for all the Knicks failures of the 90's (ahem, "2 for 18" aside)? Isn't the big man the guy who shoulders the responsibilities? When did it become T-Mac's job to get the Rockets out of the first round, and not Yao's? Aren't they the same age?

At 2/27/2008 3:40 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Yao is younger. And McGrady is depressing, so people attack him so they won't have to be sad over his situation.

New Sporting News column: CRIS PAUL IS GOD

At 2/27/2008 3:53 PM, Blogger MC Welk said...

Paul will have to settle for the best -fighter-pound-for-pound designation, and he has to go up a weight class to battle Williams.

At 2/27/2008 4:01 PM, Blogger Leonardson Saratoga said...

I think there are a few factors involved. First and most important is the fact that McGrady was brought to the team on account of free agency as a "franchise" player. This automatically places a huge weight on any players shoulders, as they are brought in with the "savior" weight on their shoulders.

Plus the fact that Yao was (as most foreign NBAers are) considered a project, which automatically lowers expectation in a way. Sure it makes him more prone to be called a bust, but it also means that if he wins a conference or league title, it is looked at as a pleasant surprise, and if he never does, its looked at as the "dangers of taking a foreign player"

At 2/27/2008 4:37 PM, Blogger Brian said...

MC Welk, that is so crap.

Just because Deron can take Paul in that one category, doesn't mean they have to be judged differently. This isn't a game of one-on-one, and Paul is a better point guard than DWill, anyday.

At 2/27/2008 7:36 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

Saratoga: I've heard those arguments before, but I don't buy them. One, T-Mac arrived in Houston not as a free agent, but acquired via a trade for Steve Francis. I believe he wasn't suppose to be "the savior" of the Rockets franchise, but rather an upgrade over their last "Franchise". And remember, Steve Francis was still an All-Star stud player at this time. Perhaps even held as a more valuable player than McGrady (20-6-6 prior to the trade). The trade was swapping two teams' problem stars - McGrady wanted out (he had an opt out coming up the next year), and Francis wasn't getting along with Van Gundy (a wonderful foreshadowing of his future). In fact, Francis was almost traded straight up for Ray Allen, who was also a top tier player at the time.

I do agree with the "project at #1" thing, but those days are long gone. Nobody view Yao has a project anymore, right? He's a certified All-Star every year.

Shoals: your explanation would make more sense to me if someone was beating up a bum or an addict. We're talking about T-Mac, though, not Bubble from The Wire! People attack the depressing to feel better about themselves? That must be a Seattle thing... you need to get out of that place, Shoals!

At 2/27/2008 11:23 PM, Blogger paper tiger said...

sml- don't overlook the impact of t-mac himself demanding that he be considered the franchise player. remember last spring when he walked out of the interview when steven a. smith suggested that a playoff loss could be more on yao's shoulder's than mcgrady's?
it's about him wanting the responsibility just as much as it's about people forcing it on him.

At 2/28/2008 1:38 AM, Blogger Wild Yams said...

This is a little off-topic, but I just wanted to reiterate something in case there were any lingering doubts:

The Suns are dead.

At 2/28/2008 8:54 AM, Blogger Ben & Melissa said...

I think that folksies are assuming that I don't like McGrady for some reason. I'm a Spurs fan (lonely these days), but 13 in 33 was one of the more spectacular things I've ever seen on a basketball court. I LIKE McGrady. His sad story doesn't even enter the equation for me - I'm one of those shallow guys who judges players for what they do on the court. He and his cousin are strikingly similar - stat machines who don't win big. And here's the important part - they don't win even with talent around them.

Yao IS the best player on the Rockets. McGrady SHOULD be. I'll forgive him for injuries, but he's a guy with top-shelf talent playing with other top-shelf talent

And no way can a team with McGrady at the helm (or do you question his primacy now that Yao is gone, too?) be a running team. The dude lives and dies by the half-court set.

At 2/28/2008 10:53 AM, Blogger Nicholas said...

The coach has more to do with the style of play than the players themselves. Don't get me wrong, a coach will coach according to the strengths of his players, but never completely change his style. You're used to seeing McGrady play Van Gundy style half court sets. I'm predicting that with Adelman at the helm and Yao out for the season (along with the addition of Bobby Jackson to bring energy off the bench at the point), the Rockets will play a more uptempo style similar to what we saw in the turn of the century Kings. And it will be fun to watch, as McGrady is a graceful slasher with a nice pull up jumper. I see him as more of a "secondary fast break" type player rather than a "half court set" type player. But we'll see.

The really funny thing is, I'm actually more interested in watching the Rockets now to see how they respond to adversity, than I was when they had Yao and were a better basketball team (or at least had better personnel).

Oh, and the Spurs are still boring.

At 2/28/2008 11:51 AM, Blogger Ben & Melissa said...

@ Nicholas:
The best argument in your favor is Grant Hill's success with the Suns. And that's pretty convincing. I'm not sure that McGrady and Adelman are going to be as good a fit, though. Yao is a very tall and slow man, but he didn't seem to me to be the only factor dictating their more traditional pace (with and without Adelman).

I'll be be happy to be proven wrong, and to see another hero performance from TMac as the Rockets lose in 6 in the semis. That would make my year.

And... Manu Ginobili gives your last statement a big thumbs up :) There are some guys that I can recognize I'd hate if I wasn't a fan of the team - Bowen, maybe Oberto - but Ginobili is just a superbly weird ball player.

At 2/28/2008 2:11 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the Spurs (my grandparents are huge fans and have been since I can remember) I just don't think I'd watch another NBA Finals series involving them (again, my grandparents are huge fans and have been since I can remember).

At least your not a Mavs fan.

At 2/28/2008 2:12 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

"your" should be "you're." At least I wasn't an English major. Oh wait, yes I was.

At 2/28/2008 3:12 PM, Blogger Ben & Melissa said...

Being a fan of anything your grandparents like is cause for serious concern.

I completely understand.

At 2/29/2008 2:23 AM, Blogger T. said...

As a Shanghai resident and former Houston resident and knowing Yao - this injury has me torn up. I feel enormously bad for the man, for the team, for the city.

But deep within me, there's a tiny tiny bit of unadulterated excitement. And I implore the FreeDarko community to catch the Rockets next time they're on television.

The reason? Carl Fucking Landry.

Everything Stro Swift was supposed to be. Everything the Rockets ever wanted in a power forward. Gritty. Hard nosed. 15 foot jumper. Check check check.

But his assualts on the rim? Wasn't really a job requirement (see Hayes, Chuck or Scola, Luis) but Landry attacks the rim like a pit bull going after a steak. I don't know if I have a good comparison. Players like Barkley or Kemp sure - but I don't want to saddle Landry with the expectations of a Hall of Famer or one of the most dominant power forwards of the 90s.

But to pick a moment in time - Kemp over Gatling? That's the sort of business Landry brings every night.

Yao being out kills the Rockets title chances, and it sucks for the man. But with the 25 games left in the year and possible playoffs? It's Landry time.

At 2/29/2008 2:25 AM, Blogger T. said...

Put it another way. He's already everything Amir has the potential to be.

At 2/29/2008 2:44 AM, Blogger personalmathgenius said...

Cosign on T's comment. Landry's a beast. The technical he got the other night for swinging on the rim to avoid hitting Yao was the best negative point I've seen scored in awhile.

The Nuggets are even more incapable of stops than the Suns, the Warriors I think will pull it out, but I don't think the Rockets are quite dead yet at least as far as getting in the playoffs. But yeah, this still won't be the year TMac gets out of the first round.

At 2/29/2008 5:48 AM, Blogger T. said...

For the Landry highlight the personalmathgenius refers to - see about 6:50 on this highlight video


At 2/29/2008 11:46 AM, Blogger T. said...

Hollinger on Landry:

Yet one player has been even more impressive than Young, at least in his rookie season. His name is Carl Landry ... or as I've taken to calling him, Carl Landry!

As in, guess who's averaging 19.3 points and 12.9 boards per 40 minutes? Carl Landry!

Can you believe who's shooting 62.7 percent from the floor? Carl Landry!

Do you know who's fifth among all power forwards in rebound rate, ahead of David Lee and Kevin Garnett? My goodness, it's Carl Landry!

Care to guess who's leading all rookies in PER? Yep ... Carl Landry!

Better yet, have you heard who has the best PER on a 37-20 Houston team with two perennial All-Stars? Would you believe ... Carl Landry!

The second-round pick from Purdue was an afterthought in Houston's preseason plans -- 6-7 power forwards with limited shooting range haven't had the greatest track record in the NBA. As a result, he only played in three games prior to New Year's Day.

But on Jan. 11, he went 7-for-7 against Minnesota and hasn't been out of the rotation since. The fact that Landry's increased playing time has been met with a 13-game Houston win streak is not a coincidence. The Rockets are 17-1 when Landry plays more than 10 minutes, and 20-19 when he doesn't.

I'll grant that his numbers have only been generated in 377 minutes and it seems unlikely that he can keep up quite such a prolific pace. Nonetheless, any discussion of the league's top rookies has to include Landry. He's been brilliant at both ends when he's played, and it's not his fault he was nailed to the bench for half the season.


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