Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Offering some final reflections on the best moments of the offseason, as training camp and the preseason loom.
1. The 2012-13 season ended on June 20 and training camp starts next week. Let's get nostalgic: What was your favorite moment of the offseason?
Ben Golliver: Without a doubt, I'll go with Dwyane Wade's Instagram note to Kevin Durant this week, which came in response to Durant's assertion that James Harden should be ranked higher than Wade in The Point Forward's "Top 100 of 2014" list. Selecting this as the summer's best is definitely subject to recency bias, but it was an enjoyable moment for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that we poured dozens of hours into our rankings and engaged in the "Wade vs. Kobe Bryant vs. Harden" debate, plus many others (Mike Dunleavy vs. Chandler Parsons vs. Kyle Korver, etc., etc.). To see this particular comparison explode like it did, with some of the league's biggest stars and highest-profile media personalities weighing in, felt like validation for the ranking process, regardless of where people lined up on the subject.
There's nothing better than when a sports bar's hot topic is being stoked by the people who make up that very discussion (Harden and Wade) and others who are separated by just one degree (Durant and Dwight Howard). That direct involvement crystallizes the key points, answers some questions and often raises new lines of thought.
The big-picture importance here, though, is the symbolism of Wade's message. His underlying sentiment is similar to one of the deciding factors The Point Forward used in keeping him atop the two-guard rankings, and keeping other stars like Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant ranked fairly high despite age and injury issues. It seems to me that there is a fundamental unfairness in crowning someone before he's fully proved that he deserves the recognition, and that ties or close calls between players should go to the incumbent. When Wade said it was time for him to make Durant "respect [Wade's] place in history again," he's clearly talking not only about himself but also about the Heat.
Make no mistake: The Heat are in the middle of some serious history. They've made three consecutive Finals and won two straight titles. (Wade, meanwhile, is in position to give himself the dopey nickname of "Four" come June.) The only teams to three-peat since the 1960s Celtics are Michael Jordan's Bulls and the Bryant/Shaquille O'Neal Lakers. That's it. Not Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, Duncan or anyone else.
The No. 1 story of the 2013-14 season is simple: Miami, a ruthlessly efficient organization and team, is seeking that rare place in history while being chased by the deepest pool of legitimate contenders it has seen during the Big Three era. Go down the list: The Thunder, Spurs, Bulls, Pacers, Nets, Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets and Knicks could all potentially win the title if things break properly. Some teams in that group are more ready right now than others, but all seem fully capable of a run to the conference finals, and at that point you're knocking on the doorstep. None of the teams in that group took major steps back this summer, and a number of them significantly improved their outlook. This is a heck of a chase pack.
And that brings us to the best part of Wade's note, which was the unflinching response. Durant, who we know is "not nice" and "sick of finishing second," didn't apologize or back down. In true competitive fashion, he requested that Wade go ahead and prove it one more time. Harden, meanwhile, said without flinching that he should be considered a top-10 player right now. This movie has played out in a thousand old Westerns: The gunslingers are moseying forward, sizing each other up, before it's time to draw. The offseason, ultimately, is about setting the table for the new year, and we couldn't have scripted a better prelude to the 2013-14 season than the one sparked by Wade and Durant. Let's eat.
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Rob Mahoney: I'll take Mark Cuban's blog post explaining -- in unprecedented detail -- the motivations behind Dallas' moves of the past few seasons. He may not break down each acquisition or departure item by item, but Cuban dedicated some 3,300 words to detailing the team's actions on the whole as clearly and simply as possible. Few, if any, other owners in professional sports would do the same. The end result is an explanatory missive that doesn't read as an exercise in spin (though Cuban, naturally, does find room for PR), in which the Mavericks' owner walks us through his point of view while taking responsibility for some of the franchise's missteps. It's surprisingly forthcoming, even by Cuban's standards, and as thorough a clarification as you're likely to get from the highest level of a basketball front office.
Beyond that, Cuban shared his take on some the macro-level trends in the NBA, largely addressing the complications associated with tanking. It's a dicey systemic issue, but Cuban raises some salient points -- that the popularity of tanking could compromise its effectiveness, that teams going in a different direction are able to capitalize on the trade and free-agent markets as a result, and that an established culture might not be worth upending for a high draft pick. All his claims are debatable, but well worth considering. They're also hashed out in greater detail than the vague, self-serving justifications that most franchises give for their aversion to a tear-down rebuild. Cuban's perspective obviously coincides with (and thus affirms) the water-treading, cap-flexible approach that the Mavs had taken in recent years, but that's understandable given that he has bottom-line approval on all that Dallas does.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter much if you agree with Cuban's perspective. Basketball thinkers -- whether front-office mainstays, up-and-coming personnel evaluators, amateur trade-machine eccentrics or even us lowly media types -- all have different opinions on the way a team should be run and the kinds of moves that should be made. What's of value here is getting a peek behind the curtain. We shouldn't go too far, though; for all of Cuban's efforts, we still glimpse the Mavs' process as painted through relatively broad strokes. But Cuban's brushwork is at the least more layered and nuanced than we've come to expect from other owners and GMs, and for that alone his dispatch was a welcome surprise.
2. Basketball never stops, as the marketing slogan goes, and the last few months saw the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, a host of pro-am games, a USA Basketball minicamp and EuroBasket in Slovenia. What was your favorite on-the-court moment of the offseason?
Mahoney: While EuroBasket offered plenty of legitimate basketball to parse and enjoy, I'll opt for something a bit more frivolous: Jeff Taylor's punishing dunk over San Antonio's Aron Baynes in the Las Vegas Summer League. Over the last year, the Bobcats' Taylor, 24, has established himself as one of the NBA's sneakiest athletes. He doesn't play a particularly explosive game, and if anything is being groomed as a 3-and-D type -- the wing player subset with the slightest demonstration of applied athleticism.
But if given the space to get a running start, Taylor can get up and throw down. Observe:
Baynes may still be shell-shocked. Let this be a lesson to all of you young shot-blockers out there: Late defensive rotations bear the risk of serious trauma.
Golliver: Two moments really stand out for me on the court. First, Tony Parker's leading France to its first international gold medal, at EuroBasket. The French's signature moment came when they ran off the court at full speed, celebrating their insane comeback victory over Spain in overtime during the semifinals. This was primal happiness that was more than a decade in the making, and it was particularly sweet because Spain had been the Bad Boys Pistons to France's Bulls for years. Parker has lived a charmed NBA existence, winning his first title at age 20, but here he finally slayed a dragon that had been haunting him for all of his adult life. It was his game that powered France to the gold this year, but it was also the force of his personality and fame that helped France build its program in the first place. That's a real triumph.
The second moment, and the one I'm picking as my answer to this question, came under completely different circumstances. Sure, there was a title at stake for the first time, but the Las Vegas Summer League isn't exactly EuroBasket when it comes to the quality and intensity of the competition. Don't tell that to the Warriors, though, and definitely don't tell that to Kent Bazemore, who was phenomenal on both ends throughout the tournament. I'll remember the 2013 summer league for years, in part because of the Warriors' wire-to-wire focus but mostly because of the hammer dunk Bazemore threw down during a comeback victory over the Lakers. That moment -- and that game as a whole -- stands as one of those "You had to be there" sequences that you rarely see in a tournament that amounts to an extended tryout for fringe players and a showcase for the league's top rookies.
The first sensation that you feel when going from Game 7 of one of the most riveting Finals of the last 25 years in June to summer league in July is obviously an emotional letdown; here was Bazemore single-handedly combating that feeling, while expressing Golden State's franchise-wide desire to be taken seriously, no matter the venue. If only every player and organization put as much into their offseasons.
3. What was your favorite "boardroom" moment of the offseason, whether it be a signing, a trade, a hire or some other off-the-court highlight?
Golliver: The first one that comes to mind is Boston's hiring of Butler coach Brad Stevens, which ranks at or near the top of the "Wow" offseason moments. Absolutely no one saw it coming, many thought it would never happen (at least not for years), and it came right on the heels of a franchise-changing, era-ending trade involving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Celtics president Danny Ainge wasn't just taking the ship into a new direction; he was blasting into uncharted waters as fast as he could go.
The surprise factor helps this move stand out from the pack, but so too does Stevens' potential. Read Tim Layden's excellent Sports Illustrated profile of Stevens and it's impossible not to get excited about what's to come, even if Boston figures to be one of the league's weakest teams this season. A full-scale, multiyear rebuilding effort requires lots and lots of hope-selling, and Stevens comes across as both sharp and genuine, two critical personality traits for this type of endeavor. And let's face it: There's pure intrigue at work here too. Outsiders with no dog in the fight will be watching simply to see if an NCAA wunderkind can make the difficult transition to the NBA game. This move winds up being my "favorite" not so much because I think it was a guaranteed grand slam success, but because it was so inspired and outside the box that tracking Stevens's progress over the next few years will remain must-see TV no matter how things play out.
Mahoney: Mine is the Nets' signing of Andrei Kirilenko, if only because it would seem to be the fulfillment of a pipe dream. When Kirilenko declined his $10.2 million player option with the Timberwolves for 2013-14, it was presumed he would chase a longer deal to secure more guaranteed salary. In exchange, he was likely to earn a bit less per year than the $10.2 million he left on the table. But Kirilenko was in an odd place; his age and skill set made him of clearly greater value to a playoff team than a rebuilding one, and yet precious few franchises penciled in for the postseason had the salary-cap room to acquire him outright. That left some to wonder if Kirilenko might wind up as a bargain signing for the full mid-level exception -- a mechanism that would allow him to join a quality team, provided that he accept a league-average salary.
What unfolded was even more bizarre. A possible link between Kirilenko and the cap-strapped Nets emerged overnight, one that on its surface seemed no different from the goofy hypothetical scenarios linking the Knicks/Nets to every coveted free agent on the market. Brooklyn had already loaded its salary sheet in acquiring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry and had virtually no tradeable assets left to complete a potential sign-and-trade. With those complications understood, the Nets and Kirilenko pulled off something even more insane: a two-year deal (with Kirilenko's option in year two) that will pay an excellent all-around player a rookie-scale-like $3.2 million.
As much as I can understand Kirilenko's wanting to play for a quality team, signing for that relatively meager sum is bananas. It also sets an unfortunate precedent for future ventures down the "Nets should sign ________" rabbit hole, but for now we'll settle on a player and team managing to overcome every expectation in order to strike a deal.
4. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Social media sites produced plenty of fun and follies throughout the summer. What was your favorite social media moment of the offseason?
Mahoney: I'm still a little charmed by Andre Drummond's online courtship of Disney Channel star Jennette McCurdy. It's not exactly news that pro athletes tend to have pretty good fortune in their romantic lives, but in this case Drummond managed to make his own luck with the help of a few thousand of his closest Twitter friends. What started as Drummond's posting a weekly picture of his crush grew into a flirty, virtual relationship, largely thanks to his followers' insistence that McCurdy touch base with the 20-year-old center. Once she did, their relationship apparently took off across several mediums until they were finally able to meet in person. McCurdy reflected on that whirlwind process in the Wall Street Journal, using her experiences as an opportunity to riff on social networking and online dating in general, all while suggesting that there is a genuine connection between the Twitter-cross'd pair.
There's some showmanship there -- tweeting messages to one another that could be texted, obliging their respective fans with Instagram photos of their meeting, etc. -- but this story is a fun one all the same. Even if it is a bit filtered, there remains enough earnestness in their exchanges to make it ideal summer fare.
Golliver: I mentioned Wade's message above, and there were plenty of other online highlights. I think I'll settle on Lakers guard Kobe Bryant's reaction to the departure of Dwight Howard to the Rockets. In case you forgot: Bryant posted a photo of himself with teammate Pau Gasol patting him on the head with the caption "#Vamos #Juntos #LakerCorazon #Vino." Translated: "we go, together, Laker heart, wine." Vino, of course, is one of Bryant's many monikers, a nod to his age.
The more time that has passed since Bryant posted this, the more I appreciate what he did with this message. It was revealed in the aftermath of Howard's decision that the Lakers had a feeling they weren't going to keep their All-Star center for some time before things became official. Clearly, in that time, Bryant had the opportunity to think about how he would respond to what would become the biggest defection any team suffered this summer. There were plenty of directions that someone in his position could go. For example, Lakers executive Jim Buss claimed that Howard "was never really a Laker," while his sister, Lakers executive Jeanie Buss, took the high road, saying that Howard's departure was "disappointing" and that the Lakers "failed him."
Bryant carefully walked on the tightrope, refusing to take any direct shots at Howard while keeping the focus on his long-standing, championship-winning partnership with Gasol. It seemed to strike exactly the right chord with Lakers fans, who were processing a whole new post-Howard reality, because it alluded to the winning, unity and passion that was missing for much of L.A.'s 2012-13 season, and from the Bryant/Howard partnership. There's no good way to watch a top 10 player walk out the door for nothing in return, especially if your unbending personality was a factor in his leaving, but Bryant handled this about as well as could be expected. Bryant's photo possessed exactly what the pleading "Stay" billboards lacked: the pride of a champion.
5. Some stories and videos just explode during the dead months of the NBA calendar. What was your favorite "viral" moment of the offseason?
Golliver: This one might be the easiest answer of the five we've discussed here. How many times did I watch and re-watch and study and dissect Kyrie Irving's Shammgod crossover at the Jamal Crawford Pro-Am in Seattle? I'm not sure, but it was definitely an unhealthy amount. Let's take another look via YouTube user HoopmixtapeBlog.
Irving is so media-savvy and such a natural on the court that it's uniquely enjoyable to watch him in the looser pro-am setting: There's a sense that he's operating free, without the limits, expectations and scripts that come with being a franchise point guard who has been anointed as one of the game's future greats. When he's out there, totally unencumbered, he's as filthy as can be.
Everything about this move -- the second one in the video clip above -- makes you stop and think twice about what you just saw. The change of direction and the change of pace. The smooth purity from start to finish. The ingenuity and the ambidexterity. The knowledge that he clearly spent hours crafting a move he's incredibly unlikely to use in a game. More than anything: the freakish handle. We've seen that on display before in an NBA setting, and it never gets old.
Mahoney: The shaving of Reggie Evans. While he may not be identified by his beard to the extent of, say, James Harden, it's almost unsettling to see Evans without that sprawling rug on his chin. The Nets' power forward will certainly have the most unusual reason for coming into camp 10 pounds lighter, though will losing the beard throw off his equilibrium? Will Evans lose his rebounding superpowers? Was his shaved beard used to make a toupée that now wanders the world alone, forever separated from its rightful father? I'm left with more questions on the subject than I'd like, if only to somehow come to terms with the sight of a grizzled, bearded veteran shaved down to a thin 'stache.