June 26, 2016, 8:02 pm
Hello, friends. Welcome back! How have you been? Good? Great. This is Last Week This Morning, basketball words and things and hoops and slams and jams and mama there goes that mans, etc.
I know, everything and anything that could possibly have been said about the NBA Finals has been said. I’m a week late to the party here, but when you’re supposed to collect all of your thoughts once a week, and Game 7 of the NBA Finals occurs on the same night as the day you’re supposed to be writing said column, this is what you get – late takes. I’ll make it short.
For a certain generation of younger basketball lovers, and I’m speaking as part of that generation right now, LeBron James’ NBA Finals performance was the single most impressive stretch of important basketball that we’ve ever seen. I’ve witnessed impressive regular-season runs, long winning streaks, and impressive full seasons (the 73-win Warriors are certainly one of those) but as far as an individual performance on the grandest stage of them all, what LeBron did from Game 5 on was the best basketball I have ever seen.
That is sort of a bold statement, but it does come with some caveats. First of all, on a personal level, I’m really only counting the last five or so years of NBA basketball. I’m 26, and I’ve probably watched well over 100 NBA games per season since I was 10, but I didn’t start thinking about basketball until about five years ago. I am, admittedly, having a hard time making my point here, so hopefully this makes some sense. I feel like I know what I’m watching now, where as when I was younger, I simply watched basketball because I loved it. I love it now, possibly more than ever, but I have a much better Idea of what I’m watching.
I’m not claiming that LeBron James is the best basketball player of all-time, or that his 2016 NBA Finals performance was the best NBA Finals performance of all-time, I’m simply stating that for folks in a similar stage of their basketball-watching life, LeBron James’ 2016 NBA Finals performance was the highest level of basketball, again, on the grandest stage, that my generation has ever witnessed.
He was remarkable and he played as close to perfection against unparalleled competition that I cannot even really put what I saw into words. He would go through quarter-plus long stretches of making the right decision on every single defensive and offensive possession. Now, the execution might not have been there every time. He didn’t make every shot, and it’s not like he didn’t commit any turnovers, etc, but it just seemed like, from a basketball IQ standpoint, he continued to make right play after right play after right play. It was awesome.
Appreciating Online NBA Communities
Personal anecdote time – I bought a new car almost two years ago. I guess when you buy a new car the SiriusXM dudes give you a free year of satellite radio. I don’t know, at any rate, I had a year of free Satellite radio. They convinced me to sign up for another year, blah, blah, blah, whatever. The point is, I used to listen to a lot of local (Boston) sports talk radio, and have listened to A LOT less since I got the new car.
I actually like a lot of the people on the radio here in Boston, but I had a long drive ahead of me the day before the 2016 NBA Draft, the Celtics had a million picks, so I decided to tune in to one of our two local stations. One stations was talking Red Sox, fine, the other guys were talking draft, so that is where I stopped.
Oh man. It was bad. It was bad in the ‘ESPN’s draft coverage is so far behind twitter’ kind of way. The information and / or draft talking points they discussed were weeks late. The prospect analysis was, at times, dead wrong. And I understand that I’m not their audience, really, and if you’re reading this, you aren’t their audience, either, but it made me really appreciate the kind of smart basketball dialogue plastered all over the Internet. From podcasts, to the speed and frequency of information we can get on Twitter, to /r/NBA, and so on. There is just so much awesome NBA work being done online, and I feel so blessed to know where to find it.
I’m not breaking any news with that realization, but seriously, go listen to your local sports radio station for a few hours. It’ll make you appreciate our little community of hoop lovers like never before.
Anyone Can Win
The last little tidbit that stuck with me from the past weekish of hoops was J.R. Smith’s NBA Finals performance. I don’t think J.R Smith was amazing in the NBA Finals, but he wasn’t a liability, either, and considering J.R. Smith’s spotty reputation around the league, ‘not a liability’ is quite good. He shot the ball well, he never lost his confidence. And most impressively, Earl Smith III played 39 minutes of basketball in a Game 7 for the NBA Championship against the greatest regular season basketball team of all-time. That is so far from the lower points of J.R. Smith’s career that it really helps reinforce how important ‘fit’ is to a player’s success in the NBA.
We are SO quick to label NBA players. I’m as guilty as anyone. ‘Can you win an NBA Championship with this guy?’ is a hypothetical question I hear people ask about a host of players around the league all the time. It’s a frequent podcast topic, writing topic, etc. That ‘can he win?’ narrative is everywhere, always.
Of course, LeBron James is kind of a cheat code player in J.R. Smith’s example, but the Cavaliers were supposed to lose this series, and it’s not like J.R. Smith wasn’t a HUGE part of the Cavaliers’ win. You can question his production, but the fact of the matter is, he played nearly 40 minutes per game in the NBA Finals. That is a major, major piece of a championship team’s rotation. If you asked me a couple of years ago if ANY team could win with J.R. Smith playing that big a role, I’d probably tell you ‘I don’t know’, because I like to ride the fence, but deep down inside, I would certainly lean towards ‘hell no’.
But it’s hard not to look at J.R. Smith and come away from his NBA Finals win thinking that any proven NBA player can win in the right circumstances. I think Rudy Gay, or someone like Carmelo Anthony, are two good examples of proven NBA players who we generally mock for their collective ‘losing’ when a lot more focus should go on who their playing with, and what their organization is like. For both the Knicks and the Kings, the answer is ‘bad’ and ‘bad’.
I’m not suggesting that those guys are efficient basketball players, and in both cases a ‘downsizing’ in role and salary is probably necessary to find them the right team.
Rudy Gay, for example, had a bad season in Sacramento this year. He was horrific in Toronto, but I won’t make the blanket statement that you ‘can’t win with Rudy Gay’ anymore. You can, he just needs to be surrounded by a team of players, or a disciplined organization that can keep his warts, namely shot selection and uninspired defense, in check.
He had that in Memphis. I’m not sure he’s had that anywhere else, and look where his reputation around the league is right now. It’s not great, and I’m not absolving him from blame, because he is a frustrating player to watch at times, but he is so talented. More so than J.R. Smith, and if he found the right team, and started making consistent playoff runs, his current reputation would vanish.
I’m going to make a conscious effort to stop generalizing in the wake of J.R. Smith’s success. Some players are better than others, but if J.R. Smith can play 40 minutes of NBA Finals basketball, a lot of these so-called ‘losers’ around the league can, too. Fit is such an underrated part of how we value players, and it might be the single biggest component to said players’ success.