Previewing the 2009-10 NBA Season (With a Little Help From Tracy Morgan, Of Course)

The sports world and pop culture really aren’t that different. Neither is politics, for that matter. In each case, you typically hear a lot of clichés from all the relevant parties, and most of the characters you encounter have shades of stars that have come before them. Each world relies on the action—games, movies, elections—to keep our attention, because absent that, the characters involved really aren’t particularly interesting.

Which is part of what makes someone like Tracy Morgan so fantastic. In a world full of banal celebrities, he’s sort of the antithesis to the archetype. And awesome. He at once exacerbates the stereotypes of what a celebrity is, and destroys the clichés what they're supposed to be. But rather than blather on about Tracy Morgan and his place in the pop culture universe, I’ll just say that no other celebrity, to me, encapsulates the NBA so perfectly.

Uh, I didn’t realize we were looking for a Hollywood celebrity to encapsulate an entire sport, you might say. And you’d be right. But that doesn’t mean Morgan’s not the ideal analog for contemporary NBA players. On a superficial level, he’s hilarious. But beneath the cartoonish veneer, we’re talking about someone living with a very complicated reality.

He was raised in "Ghetto, USA" as he explains it, completely detached from the world of privilege and influence he now occupies. As a result, he’s got a set of instincts and emotions that consistently confound his peers and fans alike, and yet, his inherent qualities are what’s served him so well throughout his career. By trusting his instincts, he succeeds, and then when he does, we say he succeeds in spite of his instincts.

But rather than delve into the sociology of all this—the obvious corollary being the transition from "Ghetto, USA" to White America—we’ll just say that the eccentricities of both Tracy Morgan and many NBA players are what makes covering them so much fun. And when I heard Tracy’s appearance on NPR this past week, I couldn’t help but think about pro basketball.

So, without further ado, let’s take 20 quotes from Tracy Morgan’s absurd appearance on NPR to look at the 2009-10 NBA season. You can listen to the interview here, and really, it’s worth the 40 minutes. Just trust me.

1. "You know, life smacks Tracy Morgan in the face, and I don't mean to talk in third party, but no, it doesn't stop raining when I come outside, no, absolutely not. I'm very in touch."

To the New York Knicks, the NBA team that’s ostensibly grounded and planning for the future, but is in fact gallingly divorced from reality. You’ve heard of lame duck coaches, but this 2009 Knicks may be the first lame duck roster in the history of the NBA. Literally. Nearly every single player—save for the young players, Danilo "Big Cock" Gallinari, Jordan Hill, and Toney Douglas—is subject to dismissal prior to the 2010 season. Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry have the potential to exercise player options for next season, but otherwise, the Knicks aren’t tied down to anyone. 

And why, exactly? Because in 2010, the plan is to woo LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or some other superstar to New York City, where they’ll presumably play the role of franchise savior, resurrecting a fallen glamour franchise, and restoring order to basketball world. But here’s the thing: why would any star player want to do that?

The Knicks are banking on the allure of New York City to sell players, but they’re overlooking two critical factors: first, the Nets will be in Brooklyn, too, meaning there’s some competition next door that has plenty of cap space, and a far more attractive roster to offer a superstar. Second, it’s not like we’re operating in the 1960s; players today can sell themselves all over the world without playing in New York City, and whatever opportunities they sacrifice by remaining in say, Cleveland or Toronto, may well be worth the cost if it means avoiding the landfill that’s become New York’s roster, and the immense expectations that’ll accompany whichever Big Name free agent they add next year.

If you ask me, by planning ahead for the past three years, virtually ignoring the present, the Knicks have tempted fate, and offended basketball’s karma Gods. That’s why I think that, when all’s said and done, Lebron will go to Brooklyn, Dwyane Wade will go to Chicago, Chris Bosh will stay in Toronto, and New York will be forced to take on Amare Stoudemire, talking themselves into Amare as a franchise player. It’s a harsh reality, but New York will have to face it at some point: Madison Square Garden and the Knicks name just ain’t what it used to be. So stop thinking in the third party, Donnie Walsh.

(Also of note: If you ever feel the need to utter the sentence "No, it doesn’t stop raining when I come outside," you are absolutely NOT "very in touch" with reality.)

2. "When I speak, I speak passionately. I do. It's not anger. I mean, that little 17-year-old boy, he's grown up. He's a man now. And when I was angry, when I was younger, I was in a cocoon. Now I'm a beautiful, black butterfly."


To Carmelo Anthony, the one superstar from the draft class of 2003 that won’t be on the open market next summer. He’s in Denver for the long haul, and if last year was any indication, he’s left that cocoon of anger and stop snitchin videos, and grown into a beautiful basketball butterfly.

Keep in mind: Melo’s only 25 years old. And when he puts the ball on the floor and doesn’t settle for lazy jumpshots, he’s quite possibly the best offensive player in the NBA. That’s not hyperbole; when Carmelo is making his jumpers and attacking the basket, he’s absolutely unstoppable, and so are the Nuggets.

Leading into this season, a lot of analysts have written off the Nuggets, citing last year as an aberration, expecting Denver to regress to the mean. But that’s foolish for two reasons. First, Chauncey Billups plays for the Nuggets, and even though his disappearing act in last year’s playoffs probably cost Denver a spot in the NBA Finals, are you ready to bet against Billups? That man’s been surpassing expectations for a solid decade, and as a leader for Denver, he’s just about perfect.

But more than Billups’ presence, you have to consider Carmelo. He’s consistently overlooked when you talk about the NBA’s elite players, and yet, in just about every category, he measures up with the best of ‘em. He works his ass off in the offseason, and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes together for him. And frankly, if it’s going to happen ever, it’ll happen in the next year or two. Isn’t time for Carmelo Anthony to make a run at an MVP trophy? I say yes. And as a result, Denver’s going to really surprise people this year (as much as a Western Conference runner-up can "surprise" anyone).

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At some point, Melo's work is going to pay off in a big way...

3. From Saturday Night Live: "Barack is not just winning because he's a black man. If that was the case, I would be winning and I'm way blacker than him. I used to smoke Newports and drink Old English. I grew up on government cheese. I prefer it."
 
To Indiana’s Danny Granger, an all-star that’s probably had to remind himself of his racial identity on a daily basis in Indiana. Call it a coincidence or call it a master plan, but the Pacers are inching ever closer to assembling the league’s only all-white lineup. The principal characters:

C Jeff Foster

PF Troy Murphy

SF Danny Granger
SG Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

PG T.J. Ford


Granted, that’s only 3 of 5, but with Travis Diener waiting in the wings to average 9 ppg and 4.5 assists, it’s only a matter of time before T.J. Ford cracks his clavicle on a freak accident in the lane, clearing the way for Diener to start, and Adolph Rupp to grin a little wider up in heaven.

Where does this leave Granger? Well, frustrated. Not because his teammates are white, but because they kind of suck. Granger’s improved every year he’s been in the league, and quietly, he’s one of the steadier stars the NBA has to offer. He does everything well, and on a good team as a second option, he’d be damn near unstoppable. Instead, he’s stuck in Indiana, leading a mediocre supporting cast to the 11th spot in the East every year.

Don’t be surprised if at some point Danny Granger snaps and shows up to practice covered in tattoos, quoting Public Enemy lyrics, and demanding that "Master Bird" trade him. Not saying it’s going to happen, but not saying it won’t…

And lest we forget, Bird’s the man who once said this in a panel with Magic Johnson, Lebron James, and Carmelo Anthony: "The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me. I still don't understand why. … I'd say, 'Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.' ... For some reason, that always bothered me when I was playing against a white guy.

"I didn't care who guarded me -- red, yellow, black. I just didn't want a white guy guarding me. Because it's disrespect to my game." Ironic, huh?

(Also, this photo of Jeff Foster will haunt your dreams.)

4. "I was in the papers every week. I was taking my shirt off in clubs. I was dancing with the devil, mama. Holla at me!"

A vintage Tracy Morgan quote goes to one of the craziest teams in the league, the Memphis Grizzlies. If any team could be said to be dancing with the devil, it’d have to be Memphis, right? They signed Allen Iverson, traded for Zach Randolph, and continue to juggle OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay, two shot-happy youngsters, in an attempt to cobble together a coherent offense. By adding Randolph and Iverson, it’s almost as if the Griz are trying recreate the ’04 Pistons-Pacers brawl among their own team. And frankly, I wouldn’t rule it out, because it might help ticket sales.

All this being said, Memphis still has plenty of bright spots. Iverson’s merely window dressing to help sell tickets; in fact, the Grizzlies are quietly assembling an impressive array of young talent. After Gay and Mayo, they’ve got Marc Gasol (just 25 years old), rookies Hasheem Thabeet and Demare Carroll (could eventually be a great "glue guy" on a good team), Mike Conley, Marcus Williams, Darrell Arthur, and Darius Miles (okay, just kidding about that one).  It’s a promising group, and if Memphis can avoid self-combustion, there’s a chance that, within a year or two, this core of youth could coalesce into something resembling a contender.

Then again, it’s Memphis, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

(And for the record, the "NBA player most likely to remove his shirt in a club" is definitely Zach Randolph. That’s not even up for debate.)

5. "Lorne Michaels called me in the room and he simply said to me, Tracy, you're not here because you're black. You're here because you're funny. And that's all he had to say to me. My fangs came down and I begin to feed.

I thought it was because I was black they wasn't putting me in the sketches. No, [it was] because I wasn't being funny.
"

One of the more serious moments in the interview goes to Golden State’s Anthony Randolph, easily the best prospect on the Warriors, and maybe in the NBA, depending on whether you still consider Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant "prospects."

In any case, last year was tough on Randolph as a rookie, as Don Nelson steadfastly refused to play him big minutes, despite continued Warriors losses and the considerable promise Randolph displayed in the time he did play. But Randolph needs to understand, he wasn’t playing because of any shortcomings, but instead because Don Nelson is just incredibly arrogant.

In any case, Nelson met with Randolph’s parents over the summer and both sides buried the hatchet. Now, Anthony Randolph is a glaring bright spot for a team that’s otherwise mired in cartoonish levels of turmoil. And after wowing scouts and peers alike at this summer’s USA basketball trials, Randolph’s confidence would have to be at an all-time high.

He’s 7 feet tall, with freakish athleticism and a knack for getting to the rim—it’s time for those fangs to come down. Let the feeding begin!

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I promise. He's not as awkward as he looks.

6. (Morgan, as Maya Angelou reading greeting cards on Saturday Night Live)

"I see your brown skin … Neat Afro … Full lips … A little goatee.

A Malcolm, a Martin, Du Bois. Sunday service becomes sweeter when you're black— black like the night.

Happy Bar Mitzvah to you, little Bubelah."


One of the funniest scenes excerpted in the interview goes to Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans! A guy who looks, plays, and acts like a shooting guard, Evans is being looked upon as solution at the Kings’ point guard position. Let’s review his skill set:

An excellent slasher … finishes well at the rim … He excels when backing down smaller players … His passing skills are average on his best day … He’s turnover prone … He shoots like Ron Artest raps—too often, and not well ... Was the driver in a drive-by shooting. Not sure how that reflects on his abilities as a PG, but it says something.

Sure, playing him at point guard may create some matchup problems, but it could also drive Sacramento’s mild-mannered superstar Kevin Martin absolutely insane, and ultimately, it’d be a disservice to Evans. He’s got the chance to be very good NBA player, but as a point guard, he’ll be his own worst enemy. It’s not as if expectations in Sacramento are sky-high, so I guess they can afford to experiment, but I don’t see this ending well.

(As for the Maya Angelou sketch, you'll just have to watch the clip. Morgan’s inflexion is dead-on, and the outfit makes the parody even more hilarious. I miss the days when SNL was funny.)

7. Host: "You describe in your book that you kind of turned your demons into a persona that you named. You called him, or it, Chico Divine?"

Morgan: "Chico Divine. Yeah. Chico Divine is Tracy Jordan. Now I don't do it real life. Now I do it on TV. I exorcise my demons. It's my alter ego. Chico Divine was a little bit more wild because on TV I don't drink liquor. But Chico Divine was, you know, me manifesting the alter-ego."

To (who else?) Ron Artest! If there’s one NBA player who’s likely to have an alter-ego, it’s Artest. On road trips, he used to travel under a fairly hilarious alias, "Booray Mygame," a reference to his dominance in a card game called "Boure." At some point, I’ll have to share the story of the night I partied with Ron Artest and the Sacramento Kings until 3 a.m. Probably when he retires.

Until then, suffice it to say we all know intuitively that Mr. Artest is slightly... off. Maybe not full-on insane, but like Tracy Morgan, I think the operative word in any description of Ron-Ron the Rottweiler is "CRAZY." Will Artest’s eccentricities (to put it delicately) cost L.A. a chance at another title?

Consider: Kobe Bryant’s not the type of person that can keep someone like Ron in line. He thinks he is, he wishes he were, but he’s not. Beyond that, it’s laughable to think Pau Gasol might keep Ron-Ron in line, and while 90s-Phil Jackson would have been perfect for this role, you get the feeling present-day Phil Jackson just doesn’t have the energy. That leaves Lamar Odom, Artest’s close friend and fellow-Queens native, as the sole voice of wisdom in Ron Artest’s ear. And when the voice of wisdom controlling your team’s biggest X-factor is a guy that just married a Kardashian, well, that’s not a good sign.

("Chico Divine was a little more wild because on TV I don’t drink liquor." … Note: I need an alter-ego).

8. "Kids don’t see fault like that. Kids’ minds ain’t even that developed."

To the fans with wool over their eyes. I’ve tackled this elsewhere, but to anyone that thinks the NBA’s officiating problems were solved when David Stern ceded to the demands of the refs union… Um, grow up. This has been a problem for well over a decade now, and to some degree, it’s unavoidable. Players in today’s game are so extraordinarily athletic that it’s almost cruel to ask someone to try and keep up with the action from end-to-end.

And it’s not just the star players—people like Clyde Drexler and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were every bit the athletes that today’s players are. But what’s changed is that now, everyone is at that level. At some point, the court becomes too small, the bodies are too big, and everyone’s too fast to enforce rules evenly all the time. It’s a very, very difficult job, and the NBA refs are the best in the world at doing it.

BUT that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that the NBA has arrogantly refused to improve. For one, the assignment of officials to games, particularly in the playoffs, is an incredibly shady process, and one that allows the NBA to massage matchups from afar. That’s a problem. When a guy known for favoring home teams is assigned to an elimination game where a home team is trying to force a game 7, it’s very difficult to not raise an eyebrow.

Or when a guy like Bill Kennedy—famous for feuds with Doc Rivers—is assigned to a Celtics’ game, it’s tough not to wonder whether the NBA’s trying to affect the outcome. The same can be said for any number of officials and their biases. And compounding matters, the vast majority of NBA officials are old. This means that, in addition to trying to make split-second judgment calls watching some of the most athletic people on the planet, they’re trying do so while working with a 35-year age difference.

It wouldn’t be hard to fix the current system; with more money and some competent oversight, the quality of referees would improve practically overnight. The biggest problem, though, is that so far the NBA’s refused to admit that they need to make officiating a priority. And while the league itself has seen a sort of renaissance thanks to the present crop of superstars, the officiating struggles continue to loom large, hanging like a black cloud over all the excitement.

And by refusing to affect any meaningful reform, the NBA is essentially treating its fans like kids. Kids don’t see fault, their minds ain’t that developed. But we do, and anyone that cares about basketball can tell ya: something needs to change.

9. Host: "Do you think you’re still angry? Because… You still sound a little bit angry."

Morgan: "No, I’m not angry. I’m just passionate. I don’t see myself as angry, although other people see that."

To Boston’s Rajon Rondo, who absolutely should be angry. After dominating the tail end of the 09 season, and improbably taking things up a notch come playoff time, Rondo was subject to all sorts of trade speculation in the offseason, and still doesn’t have a contract extension going into this season. He's only 24 years old, you know. Rondo claims there’s no ill will, but perhaps some of the Celtics’ skepticism stems from this incident, as reported by Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

Rondo appeared to want his teammates to air out complaints in the early evening of April 14, but it rapidly deteriorated into a grievance session that had the uncomfortable vibe of the young guys against the Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. For some Celtics, there was a sense that Rondo had prodded the younger teammates to speak out on the tough-love tactics of the vets. … Rondo insists he had the best of intentions, and yet there’s no mistaking the fact the meeting served to widen a gulf between him and his older teammates.

And if that’s the case, and there’s a gulf between the Boston veterans and Rondo, then that’s even more reason for Boston to show some good faith and ink him to an extension before the season. The Celtics big 3 isn’t getting any younger, and Rondo’s by far their most promising player going forward, so why not give him some extra security?

Instead, Danny Ainge and the Celtics brass have opted to leave Rondo in the cold, essentially siding with the guys on their team that will be gone in two years, and deepening the resentment in a guy who could help them for the next ten. Rondo is a great passer, he’s tough, his long arms make him a terror on defense for opposing point guards, and what he lacks in jump shooting acumen, he more than compensates for with his impressive finishes in the lane. I mean, what’s the problem here? What am I missing?

10. Host: "So you grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. Describe the neighborhood."

Morgan: "It was rough. It was Bed-Stuy, do or die. You know, it was rough. It was deprivation, it was poverty, it was Ghetto USA. It was what it was, but there was love. There was a lot of love, you know, but then crack came along, and guns came along, and you know…
"

To the Charlotte Bobcats, who’ve quietly had a rough childhood of their own. People may not recall Charlotte's exact draft history, but that’s where the indispensable 2009-10 Basketball Prospectus comes in to connect the dots. In his essay on the Charlotte Bobcats, Bradford Doolittle makes the point that the Bobcats have had some really bad luck with the NBA Draft. Let’s review:

In 2004, they nearly landed Dwight Howard, as many believed that Orlando would opt for the more NBA-ready Emeka Okafor, and Howard would fall to Charlotte. Five years later, Howard’s the best big man in the NBA, and the Bobcats dealt the injury-prone Okafor to New Orleans this summer. Not fly.

In 2005, Charlotte finished with the worst record in the league, but wound up drafting fifth. Had they landed anywhere in the top 4, they would have been able to fill their point guard needs with either Deron Williams or, more likely, local product Chris Paul, either of whom would have been a monumental upgrade over the guard they got a number 5, North Carolina’s Raymond Felton.

In 2006, the Bobcats took Adam Morrison number 3. And yeah, it was a weak draft, but that’s just indefensible. Let’s move on.

In 2007, the Bobcats won just 33 games, but were forced to settle for the 7th spot in the draft. Had they lost, say, 29 games, they may have wound up with Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. Damn. Instead, they drafted Brandan Wright and traded him for Jason Richardson. DAMN.

In 2008, Charlotte won 32 games, but again found themselves at the end of the lottery, picking ninth, and taking D.J. Augustin, who’s best case scenario as a player would be Jameer Nelson 2.0. For a lottery pick, that’s not great.

And finally, this year Charlotte took a player from Duke, and while Gerald Henderson’s certainly promising, he’ll have to overcome decades of anecdotal evidence predicting his failure as a pro. If you go to Duke, you’ve essentially entrusted your soul to the devil (Kryzewski), and that karma, when paired with Charlotte’s draft history, makes the outlook bleak for Henderson.

Like I said, a tough childhood for the NBA’s youngest franchise.

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Unrelated: Like this photo, the 2009 Clippers are going to be a lot of fun.



11. Morgan: "Lorne Michaels is my Cus D'Amato like Cus was with Mike Tyson. Cus D'Amato would come in Mike Tyson's room every night and tell him, and Mike knew - he was like what is this guy talking about? But Cus was building his confidence up and his confidence up. And that's what Lorne used to always do to me. He wouldn’t talk to me, but sometimes he’d just give me a wink."

Host: "He wouldn’t ta—"

Morgan: (yelling) "HE’D BUILD MY CONFIDENCE UP! He’d build my confidence up.
"

One of the more insane moments in the interview goes to... the Hoops Whisperer! If you didn’t see this week’s Sports Illustrated, it features a fantastic excerpt from Chris Ballard’s upcoming book, The Art of the Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the NBA. The excerpt centers on a man named Idan Ravin (ee-DON rah-VEEN) and it makes for a terrific read.

Basically, this is a former lawyer with no background in basketball, who just decided one day he’d like to start coaching, and suddenly, he’s the go-to trainer for some of the NBA’s biggest stars. Carmelo Anthony calls him "crouton" because "ee-DON rhymes with crouton" and "he’s a lot cooler than a regular cracker." His clients include Anthony, Chris Paul, and (gasp!) Lebron James, among many others.

Ballard’s profile is online, and it’s definitely worth a look if you’ve got a few minutes. And also, you can see some shots of Ravin in this commercial, which is also just a great commercial, and always worth a second look:


(As for the Michaels-Morgan interplay, how many different superstars has Lorne Michaels mentored over the years? Dating back to John Belushi, continuing right through to Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Morgan, and Tina Fey (whom I firmly believe will be president before all’s said and done). I want to know more about Lorne Michaels, who’s massaged the egos and insecurities of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars for the better part of 30 years, while stewarding the ship for one of the most groundbreaking and consistently funny shows in network television history. What makes this man tick? I need a biography.)

12. "I just see myself as a short, dumpy guy with bad feet, and I'm passionate."

To the city of Cleveland, naturally. In a word, "dumpy" pretty much encapsulates the place, and there’s no question it’s a city with the inferiority complex of a short guy. And yet, you have to hand it to them: they’re all so passionate about their city, their sports teams, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s admirable, really.

And that’s why it will be cruel in 9 months when Lebron James walks away from them. But really, the Cavs haven’t given him much choice. Over the years, the management in Cleveland has panicked to surround Lebron with a competent supporting cast, fearing that if they took too long to build a winner, their Prodigal Son would leave for greener pastures.

Of course, by panicking and adding big name players like Larry Hughes, giving big extensions to disposable players like Anderson Varejao, and trading for someone like Shaq, Cleveland’s forfeited flexibility for the sake of adding fairly average talent. And that’s the thing. Even with average talent, Lebron is still good enough to take them to the top of the East every year, and lead them deep into the postseason. So why not  be patient, surround him affordable average players, and wait until someone who’s actually worthy of the sidekick roll can come along in free agency?

Lebron is practically the only player on earth that’s good enough to make that a winning strategy, and yet, the Cavs have never had the foresight to exercise it, and now, their pinning their title hopes to a Shaq-Mo Williams-Lebron triumvarate that, in addition to being expensive, really boils down to "LeBron and some other guys."

Lebron James may be good enough to win a title with this year’s roster, and winning a title may be enough to guilt him into staying in Cleveland, but man, if you had to choose between playing Brooklyn with Devin Harris, Courtney Lee, Brook Lopez, and all the other talented young Nets, or playing in Cleveland with an aging, painfully average roster, which would you pick?

(A perfect example of why I love Tracy Morgan. What other celebrity would describe themselves as "short and dumpy,"  and somehow still seem awesome. He's the man.)

13. Scene from 30 Rock

Frank from 30 Rock: "We heard you can't drink. You still coming?"

(as Tracy Jordan) "No. No. I can't go because of the ankle bracelet. ... Or maybe I could go and just not drink? ... Hey, maybe I'll compromise! I'll go to the party, cut off my foot and drink all I want."

That’s from a scene in which Tracy Morgan plays a character who can’t drink because the government placed a bracelet on his ankle that senses when any alcohol is in his system, but he wants to go to the office Christmas party regardless. And it goes to the Chicago Bulls, who, instead of re-signing Ben Gordon, were content to enter the season with Luol Deng and John Salmons as their second and third scoring options behind Derrick Rose. This amounts to cutting off their foot (screwing their fans) in order to drink all they want (make more money).

Essentially, they’ve forfeited the upcoming season, with the ostensible goal being, "we’re saving cap room for Dwyane Wade in 2010." It’s a bit like the Knicks situation, except that it’s more complicated for two reasons. First, Derrick Rose and the rest of the young Chicago Bulls are talented enough to make this team competitive, but young enough to make their shortcomings excusable to fans and media alike. So that buys Chicago some time to build.

But the other factor to consider is that the Bulls have been "young and promising" and "building" for the better part of the past decade, and it’s entirely possible that ownership would rather profit with that model than spend big money on a team with legitimate title aspirations. That’s been their history, anyway. If Dwyane Wade goes to Chicago, this point becomes moot, but if not, then we’re talking about a franchise that’s officially screwing around with its fans, and doing a disservice to the basketball world by shortchanging Derrick Rose’s prime. Worth keeping an eye on.

14. Host: "It just, like, completely - it's, like, 180 degrees from the over-the-top comic side. It's like whoa. … I just think people are going to be kind of stunned, like whoa, this is, like, not what I was expecting."

Gil_medium


To Gilbert Arenas and the Washington Wizards… The above exchange pretty much encapsulates the whole interview with Morgan, as the host Terry Gross tries to delicately tiptoe around the fact that Morgan, known for his hilarity, is being a lot more serious than anyone might expect, and at times it’s slightly awkward. And that’s how I feel about Gilbert Arenas this season.

I can say for certain that he looks better than ever—really, after a few false starts the past couple of seasons, it appears he’s primed to reassert himself as one of the best players in the NBA and the heart and soul of the Wizards. But it’s coming not without some cost, as it seems like he’s just… different.

At the Wizards only preseason game this fall, I managed to sneak up to courtside seats, and probably more than anything else, the best part of sitting courtside is you get to eavesdrop on all the chatter between players, and sometimes between hecklers and the players. And at one point, during a Mavericks free throw, a fan stood up and yelled, "Gilbert you gotta score man! You gottta do something! Jason’s killin you man!"

Gilbert, in turn, replied by shrugging his shoulders with a scowl, muttering "I don’t know what you want…" And that was telling, to me. Three years ago, he NEVER would have responded like that. Three years ago, he’d have playfully smiled and maybe given a "We’ll see…" before firing up a 28-foot three on the next possession.

Now? It seems like he’s hardened to a degree. This is a guy who we applauded for offering us unprecedented exposure into his life and thoughts as a player, but when he stopped producing on the court (through no fault of his own), he was killed by the media. And he’s always taken criticism to heart, but this time, the criticism came harder and from higher places than ever before, because he’d suddenly become an NBA superstar. And Gil couldn’t do anything about it, because he was hurt.

And I think that changed him a little bit. Maybe not permanently, but certainly for the short term, as you can tell from his refusals to speak to the media, and cynical responses after he was forced to relent. That's not the guy we're used to rooting for in Washington.

Now, nobody has more invested in Gilbert than the Washington Wizards or their fans. I mean, I named my dog after Gilbert (true to his namesake, the most mischievous and self-destructive animal on earth), and even after being hurt for two seasons, he's probably on par with Alex Ovechkin as far as popularity in this city is concerend--a pretty emphatic statement considering how beloved Ovechkin's become. Gilbert's the first superstar D.C.’s had in twenty years that actually feels like he’s ours.

But as a fan headed into an otherwise promising season, it’s certainly unsettling that our franchise player doesn’t seem like he’s having fun.

15. Host: "But - so I'm wondering. Did you take Al Pacino's advice from "Scarface," don't get high on your own supply?"

Morgan: "No, I never did drugs. My drug of choice was beer, was liquor. As far as narcotics, no. I would smoke weed and drink beer like any other - like Michael Phelps do that."

My favorite moment from the interview goes to… nobody in particular. I just loved this and had to include it. Do you think Terry Gross has ever seen Scarface? Regardless, hearing a mild-mannered white lady ask, "So I'm wondering... Did you get high on your own supply?" was priceless. Bonus points for this being a clever way for her to ask whether Morgan ever smoked crack. And that Morgan responded by name-checking Michael Phelps only made it better.

And since we’re mentioning items of little relevance, here are a few things that made me laugh on Friday. First, according to the New York Post—which I think exists solely to examine the discarded receipts of famous people—Mikhail Prokhorov recently spent 19 grand on a lunch in New York City:

Their check included $825 for three orders of truffle tagliolini; $600 for four orders of truffle carpaccio; $210 for three orders of veal chops with mushrooms; and $72 for six large waters.

Not to mention $15 for a bowl of chicken soup.

The lunch was topped off with a $5,000 bottle of vintage 1998 Chateau Petrus and two bottles of 2002 Montrachet Latour for $3,600.

To quote Nets minority owner, Jay-Z, "F--- talkin ‘bout the recession, this sh—‘s depressin."

And second, this tweet from the Jazz beat writer made me grin, for some reason:

Picture_31_medium


Through no fault of his own, I have an odd feeling that Kousta Koufos, who's no longer a rookie, is going to be hazed mercilessly for his entire career in the NBA.

Also, Lamarcus Aldridge may have signed a $65 million extension last week, but come Friday, he was back to keepin it real, mannn... Showin' up to the press conference in the white tee? Iverson's the real Trail Blazer, here. And just for the record, look at that shirt. For a shirt to be that big on LaMarcus Aldridge, 6'11 245 pounds, that has to be one big ass shirt. Like, XXXXXXXXXL.

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Courtesy of our excellent Blazers blog, Blazersedge

Finally, please listen to this scathingly NSFW clip from the Jamie Foxx radio show. Starting at 3:40, he tells a pretty ridiculous story about Kobe. Jamie Foxx and his entourage are just as entertaining. Samples:

Kobe on the Celtics: "What the F--- they got to do with ME?

Kobe on Lebron: "He's a bad motherf-----"

Kobe on Jamie Foxx's Mavericks allegiance: "Why would you do that? You a winner baby. Why would you do that?"

It's fairly ridiculous, and further proof that as to why any behind-the-scenes NBA book will always work. The world of pro basketball is about ten times more colorful than censors allow, and only through secondhand anecdotes like this one, as hilariously told by Foxx, can fans glean some of the good stuff. And in an unrelated point, Jamie Foxx may have won an Oscar for Ray and immortalized himself as Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday, but first and foremost he's one of the funniest human beings of the last 15 years. Just for the record.

16. "So I said you know what? I'm going to focus all my energies on performance. I'll let them cast me in stuff, and when they cast me in stuff, I'll be the funniest thing in it."

I’m pretty sure this is a variation of what Kevin Durant told himself during All-Star Weekend last year, when he was left off the Western team and relegated to the rookie game (he won MVP) and H-O-R-S-E competition (where he came from behind with ice water in his veins to win it). If ever a game of H-O-R-S-E convinced me of a player’s destiny, it was that one, and Durant’s destined for great, great things.

And so are the Thunder. The lack of a national spotlight means that, at least for now, most basketball fans don’t realize quite how good Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Jeff Green really are. And that’s fine; it probably won’t happen this year, but as long Sam Presti continues to build with patience and prudence, this is a team that could emerge as a serious title contender for years to come. When they get their chance to really make a splash in a year or two, that young core, along with whatever veterans they can add, will be a crew to be reckoned with.

Until then, their GM will say things like this, as found in the 09 Basketball Prospectus: "It would not be prudent for us to let restlessness be our nemesis." Sounds a little bit like Confucius is running things in Oklahoma City, no?

Understatement of the century: with Sam Presti at GM and Kevin Durant the face of the franchise, the Thunder are in very good hands. 

P.S. For the record, this should all be happening in Seattle.

17. "It’s all collaboration. I just started to collaborate and I realized the gift of collaboration is more than the gift of competition."

To Golden State’s Monta Ellis, who will hopefully learn the same lesson as the regular season gets going. Coach Don Nelson has already said that Stephen Curry will start, and if reports are to be believed, he’s also been occasionally dominant against Ellis in practice. It’s understandable why a player like Ellis, who just two years ago was tapped as the franchise leader, might bristle at the thought of a younger, faster facsimile of himself starting alongside him, but it could reap massive benefits.

A backcourt tandem of Ellis and Curry, to say nothing of Anthony Randolph in the frontcourt, could be downright terrifying for opposing defenses, and even though it may not be enough to offset the defensive liabilities it creates, it’d be one hell of a ride while it lasted. And isn’t "whimsy" the only reason Don Nelson's still coaching?

18. "Yeah, I just chilled out with the homeboys, you know what I'm saying? Busted out a couple bottles of Cristal at the Club, drove around my baby blue Jaguar. Typical bad boy stuff."

To the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, with high irony. Because that’s not the Blazers anymore, and I’m quite sure Cristal is somehow illegal in Utah. Each of these teams is a breath of fresh air, and while it’s unlikely that either Portland or Utah will advance deep into the postseason, they’re both enjoyable, if benign. Nothing too spectacular—the Thunder was more entertaining losing 50 games than either the Jazz or Blazers were winning that much—but just very solid franchises, with good ownership, and great character.

(And mainly, I just wanted to include that Tracy Morgan quote, from an exchange with Rachel Dratch on SNL. Typical bad boy stuff.) 

19. "You know, there's ups and downs of any job. If you worked at the post office, there's ups and downs. You have your good days, and you have your bad days. If you're a housewife, you have your good days, and you have your bad days. I wasn't miserable there."

To Richard Jefferson, who, like Tracy at SNL, may have had good days and bad days at his job in Milwaukee, but is certainly happier now. With Jefferson on the Spurs, there’s a good chance that he could end up being a key player on the 2010 World Champions. A far cry from toiling his way to 18 ppg in obscurity for the Bucks.

As long as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili stay healthy, the Spurs are among the favorites to win the West, with Jefferson occupying the crucial role of "glue guy" for the Spurs. Look back at the recent NBA Champions—they’ve all got a glue guy, someone who keeps a low profile, plays great defense, hits threes, and stays out of the way other the bigger stars. Trevor Ariza for the Lakers last year. James Posey for the Celtics and Heat, in ’08 and ’06 respectively. Bruce Bowen (the guy Jefferson was traded for; subsequently retired) was the glue guy for San Antonio in ’07, and ’05, while Stephen Jackson shared the role in ’03.

Yes, Stephen Jackson was once a considered an essential linchpin to the success of a championship team. Crazy, I know.

In any case, Jefferson’s got a chance to be that type of player for San Antonio, and simply by getting a healthy Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have already improved by leaps and bounds from last season. Put it this way: last year, the Spurs were counting on Matt Bonner to play big minutes for them, without a hint of irony. Popovich can coach, but damn, the man’s not a magician.

With Jefferson, Duncan, Parker, and a hopefully-healthy Ginobili, I have a feeling the Spurs will be the second best team in the West. Second to…

20. "Tracy Morgan, I guess, could be many different things to many different people. I'm many different ways to many different people. I'm going to give you what you give me. I'm going to keep it just as real as you keep it with me. This is not going to be 70-30. This is going to be 50-50, straight down the middle."

To the Denver Nuggets, my pick to win the NBA Championship, and a team that’s many different things to many different people. Immature, thuggish, coming-of-age, underachieving, overachieving, well-coached, poorly-coached… No team generates such a wide variety of opinions as the Nuggets have over the past few years. Now, let’s take a look:

"World Champion." "Nuggets."

"World Champion Nuggets?" Could it be? Hear me out.

The way things have shaken out the past two years—really its own era, since Kevin McHale and Chris Wallace single-handedly affected a seismic shift of the NBA landscape with their phenomenal idiocy—there have only been a few teams with enough talent to legitimately qualify as title contenders.

Right now, we’re looking at Orlando, Boston, and Cleveland in the East, and then San Antonio or Los Angeles, and either Portland, Denver, or Utah looming as a long shot, depending on which of those three you like the most. That’s it; Eight teams, and we’ll know by December which of those three long shots has the chance at legitimate title run, so really, we’re talking about six teams with a shot. Let’s start with the East.

Cleveland has point guard issues—it’s through no fault of their management that Delonte West has had difficulties with bi-polar disorder, but it’s the management’s fault that there isn’t another competent guard besides West and Mo Williams. Literally, the only other guards on the roster are Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker, and while both can play spot duty at point guard, neither can be expected to do so for any extended period of time. That’s an issue.

Also, adding Shaquille O’Neal really doesn’t solve much. Without delving into any real analysis, I just have a feeling it’s going to turn out to be a spectacular failure for the Cavaliers. Panic moves almost never work, and after last season’s playoff collapse, the psyche in Cleveland is fragile enough so that one bad patch could easily mushroom into a lost season, and a lost superstar. There are just too many things that could go wrong.

The Celtics added Marquis Daniels and a 35-year-old Rasheed Wallace to help put them over the top. That sentence alone should be enough to disqualify them from any title discussion. Unless the plan is for Marquis Daniels to exchange kneecaps with Kevin Garnett, of course.

(Note: It pains me to knock Rasheed. I’m a guy who still visits this site on a bi-weekly basis. But in the NBA, you can tell how lazy someone is by the amount of perimeter jumpers they take vs. the amount of times they drive the lane. Put it this way: ‘Sheed takes A LOT of perimeter jumpers.)

Which brings me to my Eastern Conference Champions… the Orlando Magic! They added a prototypical glue guy in Matt Barnes, they’ve got the underrated Brandon Bass coming off the bench to terrorize their opponents’ second line in the paint, and they added Ryan Anderson from the Nets, whose ability to hit from the perimeter from the power forward position will fit right in off the bench for the Magic. And did we mention Vince Carter?

If Vince had been added to any other team, I’d be skeptical, but we’re talking about a guy that years ago decided, "screw it, I’m only taking jumpers from now on." Does that make him a complete pussy? Absolutely. But does it also make him a perfect fit for the Orlando system? You bet!

The ex-factor is his sustained effort, but he’ll be surrounded with more talent than he’s had since his days at Carolina, and that, combined with the joys of winning 55-60 games, should be enough to keep Vince attentive, at least for this year. And if he’s clocked in, there’s nobody in the East that can beat the Magic.

As for the West, it’s real simple: the Spurs and Lakers have had their time. The Spurs, in particular, are working with two superstars (Duncan, and Manu) that are a. aging, and b. have an injury history. That’s not a good combination, and no amount of DeJuan Blair or Richard Jefferson will compensate for a hobbled Tim Duncan or Manu come playoff time. By betting against the Spurs in ’09, I’m basically betting that one of their big 3 gets injured by the time the playoffs arrive. And you know what? I’d say that’s a pretty decent bet.

The Lakers, on the other hand, are not only aging, but they went and replaced the ultimate glue guy—defense, threes, and transition points from Ariza—with a player that just isn’t very good anymore. Ron Artest has been able to use The Ron Artest Experience to obscure some pretty significant flaws: he’s gotten a lot slower, and he takes a lot of really terrible shots. Will that kill the Lakers single-handedly?

Probably not, but with Kobe aging, Bynum entering yet another "This is his year!" year, Lamar Odom content to count his cheese up and smoke his weed up, and Pau Gasol unable to communicate with any of them long enough to get through and say, "Just give me the damn ball!" I’d feel more comfortable about the Lakers if they had Ariza as a steadying presence out there, quietly going about his business, playing great defense, hitting key threes, and not causing trouble.

Instead, they literally have the exact effing opposite of "steadying presence."

Good luck with that, Kobe.

Which brings me to the Nuggets. They’ve been there; Utah and Portland haven’t. That’s why I think they’ll be the ones that prevail in the West, and eventually, in the NBA Finals. As I mentioned much earlier, it’s about time for Carmelo Anthony to make a run at the MVP. Chauncey Billups has got one more good season in him, and as Ty Lawson emerges over the course of the season, Billups will be able to rest more than he ever did last year.

And, generally, I just have a feeling. Just as it did two years ago when KG and Pau Gasol were gifted to the Celtics and Lakers, the NBA’s approaching a potentially seismic shift in 2010. There are myriad possibilities as to what might happen, but it just feels like, while everyone’s looking ahead to 2010, the door is open for a team like the Nuggets to come through and steal a title.

Carmelo is a year older, and hardened from last year’s playoff experience, JR Smith and Chris Anderson combine to form the strangest glue guy duo in history, and Kenyon Martin is coming off one of the better seasons in his career. But mainly, I just a have a feeling—and considering we anchored this entire preview around Tracy Morgan’s insanity, it’s only appropriate that we choose a team like the Nuggets—successful in spite of their nature, or because of it, depending on how you see it—to win the whole damn thing.

I'm just trying to keep it as real as you keep it with me--50-50, straight down the middle. ... Now then: Who ya got?

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