NBA Talking Points: Where The Hornets Need Some Help

NBA Talking Points is a weekly series that runs down some of the top stories in basketball, and some that aren't being talked about enough. Click any of the links below to jump to this week's talking points, and click here for last week's edition.

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1. Byron Scott, Fired. New Orleans? Still Living On Mars.

As I type this, news has just broken that the New Orleans Hornets have fired head coach Byron Scott. The move comes a year too late, and it probably won’t change anything, but hey, maybe now they’ll play rookie Marcus Thornton more. The real problem with the Hornets? This is who they are. They’re not some struggling young team that just needs a new voice to set them straight. They are a bad team. Simple as that.

It all reminds me of Gretchen Mol. Remember her? Like a decade ago, she was pegged as The Next Great Actress, and had her face splashed across magazine covers like this one:

Gretchen1_medium

She was beautiful, had an artistic name, seemed interesting… A no-brainer, right? Well, a problem arose when Rounders came out in 1998—it became painfully obvious that Gretchen Mol was a terrible actress. And from there, the hype surrounding Mol quietly subsided, and now she’s a a star on ABC’s Life On Mars, that show with a modern-day cop teleported back to the 1970s.

She was never meant to be the next Meryl Streep. It just wasn’t in her DNA. And just the same, the Hornets were never actually going to be the league’s next “great” team. It would have been a fantastic story for the NBA, Chris Paul certainly seems destined for greatness, and they did have that one playoff run… But the ingredients just aren’t there. Peja Stojakovic is overrated and overpaid, David West is overrated and possibly overpaid, and… what’s left? Emeka Okafor making $50 million over the next four years? Why is this team supposed to be good?

For one season, the forces of the universe conspired to propel them into a different stratosphere. West played great, Tyson Chandler gave a damn, Peja was solid, their stingy owner couldn’t screw things up, and Chris Paul was able to do the rest. That led them to within a game of the Western Conference Finals, and had many calling them a team to watch for the next few years. But none of the players, save for Paul (we’ll get to him), will ever approach that level again, and now, the Hornets are falling back to earth with a thud, taking their place in the middle layers of the basketball universe, just as nature intended. Like starring on Life On Mars.

They are the NBA’s Gretchen Mol. One good year, and then they were exposed. But hey, look at that cover!

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2. Chris Paul, MVP?

You know what’s really crazy? While New Orleans slowly descends into the firmament of the NBA’s middle class, Chris Paul is getting better and better. If the Hornets are crashing back to earth like Gretchen Mol, Chris Paul is more like Rihanna, or Taylor Swift: more talented than we ever imagined, and capable of doing just about anything at this point.

Taylor-swift-white-dress_medium

(I mean... Did you see her at Country Music Awards Wednesday night? She’s so perfect that watching the Country Music Awards actually sounded appealing. When you listen to her music, your heart just melts a little bit, right? Right??? Err… Let’s talk about Chris Paul.)

He’s shooting SIXTY-TWO PERCENT this year, and averaging 26 ppg and 9 assists, hitting on 65% of his threes, and adding two steals a game, while averaging just two turnovers. Really?!? Granted, these stats will probably subside before too long, but even for ten game stretch, these numbers are freaking incredible. 60% shooting for a point guard?

All of which begs the question: How bad does a team need to be for a guy to be disqualified from MVP voting? Would 50 losses for New Orleans preclude us from rewarding Chris Paul for one of the most remarkable individual seasons in history? Because that’s the way this is shaping up for both Paul and the Hornets.

Will someone start printing “Free Chris Paul” t-shirts?

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3. The Nuggets Have George Karl Disease

The Nuggets, after winning their first five games, have dropped three of four games on the road, and now stand at 6-3 going into tonight’s showdown with the Lakers. As someone who picked the Nuggets to win the NBA title this year, this news is distressing. They should be better than this, and shouldn’t be losing to teams like the Milwaukee Bucks. Looking at the last few box scores, it didn’t make sense to me. And then I saw this, from our Nuggets blog:

On Monday, Karl and I actually debated his quote about how if the Nuggets won half their road games on this six-game trip, it would be deemed “a great success.”  His argument was that if you win half your road games, that’s a great success in the NBA.  And over 41 road games, I agree with him.  My counter, however, was that when you’re playing the Nets (an injury-riddled bad team), the Pacers (an injury-riddled bad team), the Heat (a mediocre team), the Hawks (a tough match up, no question about it), the Bulls (another mediocre team) and the Bucks (an up-and-coming but young team with no bench), anything short of 4-2 can’t be considered “a great success.”

100% agree. The Nuggets are too good of a team to lose games to a team like the Heat or Milwaukee, and even though they escaped in Chicago, they probably should have lost that game too. Who’s to blame when a supremely talented group of players can’t seem to find the motivation to beat up on lesser teams? Hmm….

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4. Kobe Bryant Gets Better

Kobe Bryant reminds me of a few other great athletes in that he’s not likable in any sense of the word, but his career just forces you to appreciate his greatness. He works harder than anyone else in the NBA, and that’s not one of those empty platitudes that writers use to describe someone’s offseason. Really and truly, Kobe Bryant’s game has been carefully crafted through years of hard work, and whenever he gets the chance, he builds on what’s already made him so great.

He worked on his post game with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer, and it’s already paying dividends. SB Nation’s Silver Screen and Roll elaborates:

Bryant’s increased post work has been deliberate — and extremely successful. His interaction with Olajuwon from the court makes that obvious, and Olajuwon’s comments after the game confirm that he sees Bryant as having successfully incorporated what The Dream taught him into his game. The complete helplessness of Shane Battier, the defender thought to be the best at defending Kobe Bryant, is the proof in the pudding.

And that’s just in the last couple of months. As good as Kobe already is in the post, and as quickly as he has already incorporated the moves Hakeem taught him into his arsenal, expect him still to continue to improve, as he continues to practice and use his new moves.

It’s only six games in, and the sample size is small, but every indication is that this major improvement in Kobe Bryant’s game is deliberate, real, and here to stay. That steady decline that was predicted for Kobe going into the season? Go ahead and put that on hold, for the time being, as Kobe appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

As Bryant gets older, it’s clear that he’s not going out with a whimper. And that means changing his game. As opposed to someone like Allen Iverson, Kobe’s got the size and skills to play just about however he wants, and that makes him a perfect candidate to be a dominant post player. And the scary part is, he’s just scratching the surface. As the years pass, he’ll continue to master the art, and with characteristic savvy, could wind up being one of the tougher post-up guards in history.

Kobepostgame_medium

 

So, yeah, a guy that just recently decided he wants to master the post-up game could go down as one of the better post-up guards in history. He’s that good. Would you bet against Kobe being the best at anything? And with that said, he’s still completely unlikable.

(And speaking of great athletes that make me sick… Cudos to Curt Schilling for reminding me why I hate him so much, after he made his profile photo on Twitter a picture of his ankle from the bloody sock game. What an ass.)

(Also: Please Kobe, don’t teach any of this shit to Lebron.)

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5. The Wizards Signed Earl Boykins!

When I heard this news, it literally prompted me to stand up and yell. It’s that exciting—and yes, the Wizards season has been that depressing so far. For the past few years, I’d been at school up in New England, and haven’t gotten a chance to watch the Wizards on a nightly basis. When I graduated and came back home, I expected great things out of this year’s group, and figured I’d be watching every single game.

Except, the year’s gotten off to a pretty horrid start. I mean, it could definitely be worse, but the team has looked lifeless over the first few weeks, and we’re currently in the midst of a five game losing streak. Does that sound like Must See TV?

But by signing Boykins, the Wizards get a guy who might just be able to buck that trend. Some of the Wizards fans at Bullets Forever wanted someone who’s more of a traditional point guard—like Brevin Knight, for instance—and that’s fine. But the problem with the Wizards so far has nothing to do with talent. The team just looks unhappy out there, everyone has nagging injuries, and on more than once occasion, players have wondered aloud whether the franchise is cursed.

A player like Boykins (or Knight, for that matter) is not going to make a team more or less talented. There’s nobody that could have signed that would have magically lifted this team to another level. But what Boykins CAN do is inject this group (and the fans and the media) with some much-needed energy. His ability to push the pace with the second unit will be invaluable, and more importantly, it’s impossible not to smile when you see some 5’5 on an NBA basketball court. And that’s what this team’s been missing.

Smiles. Fun. Enthusiasm. These things never used to be a problem for the Wizards, but under a new regime and the weight of great expectations, winning games has seemed like a chore for this team. So, naturally, they’re not winning games. Earl Boykins will help change that; just watch.

(And isn’t a lot of fun to say the name “Earl Boykins”? Like… Earl Boykins!!!! Go ahead, try it. Try saying it different ways. I dare you not to enjoy it. Earl Boykins!!! Just awesome.)

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6. BYNUMITE.

From one jolt of energy to another… Who needs Rodney Stuckey or Ben Gordon when you’ve got a guy like Will Bynum coming off the bench?

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7. 2Pacalypse Now In Golden State

The season’s not even a month old, and already, the Golden State Warriors are in state of utter disrepair. This tweet encapsulates it pretty perfectly:

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That’s Marcus Thompson, Warriors beat writer, consoling Warriors youngster CJ Watson. And let’s just say… Anytime you’ve got players joking about  “life spiraling downward” and writers quoting 2Pac to cheer them up, you’re talking about a historically bad situation. And since it’s too early to tell which NBA teams might make history by being awesome, let’s dedicate some time to a team that’s awesomely terrible.

So, here: a few other Tupac quotes to Golden State players, coaches, and fans. He’s a bay area native, you know.

“I see no changes, wake up in the morning and I ask myself / is life worth living should I blast myself?”

-Changes

To Warriors fans, of course. For putting up with Warriors ownership the past few years. As Bay Area columnist Tim Kawakami put it, “Cohan [owner], Rowell [president], and Nelson [coach] have NO legitimacy, vision or energy, so why should the players give a damn?” Or, more importantly, why should the FANS give a damn? Damn.

“Instutionalized I lived my life a product made to crumble / But too hardened for a smile, we’re too crazy to be humble”

Hail Mary

I can’t overstate how many different 2pac quotes could be applied to Stephen Jackson. And really, it makes sense. If we had to pick one NBA player who most resembles Tupac Shakur in his daily attitude toward media and/or authority figures… Well, that would be Golden State’s starting small forward!

“My attitude got me walkin solo, ride out alone in my lo-lo / Watchin the whole world move in slow-mo … Who can I trust in this cold world? My phony homey had a baby by my old girl / But I ain’t trippin I’m a player I ain’t sweatin him”

— Until The End Of Time

To Golden State’s Monta Ellis, who’s would be better off riding solo out there in the backcourt.  Remember when he publicly questioned the wisdom of starting Stephen Curry in the backcourt next to him? Well this past week, a bigger backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Beno Udrih bullied the Warriors guards for a combined 43 points on 60% shooting. Um, Monta may have had a point.

“I’m up before the sunrise, first to hit the block / Little bad mothaf——- with a pocket full of rocks.”

— Str8 Ballin

To Kelenna Azubuike, a little bad mothaf’in bright spot on this roster. He works hard, he’s solid on D, and he’s pretty much the only element of the W’s roster that’s NOT dysfunctional.

“Why explain the game? Ni—— ain’t listenin / Stuck in positions. If victims can’t stand the heat / Then stay the f--- out the kitchen”

Life Of An Outlaw

To Anthony Randolph and Don Nelson. Randolph, who’s easily one of the top 5 prospects in the entire league, can’t get consistent minutes. This column pretty much sums it up.

“I bring truth to the youth tear the roof off the whole school / Oh no, I won’t turn the other cheek”

Holla If Ya Hear Me

To Tim Kawakami, the Bay Area columnist charged with documenting this disaster. He’s been phenomenal, and really, any interest further reading should be directed toward his blog, Talking Points. Do they give Pulitzer Prizes for sports journalism? If they do, Dan Steinberg and Kawakami have the market cornered.

And as for the whole team, things are not beyond saving at this point, but a few principal characters need to change. It’s always funny to me when sportswriters use the word “mercurial,” because it’s basically code for, “unpredictable a-hole.” And in that spirit, both Don Nelson and Stephen Jackson are mercurial. Compounding matters, the ownership’s priorities are misguided, which is code for, “they don’t give a crap.” Until Nelson and Jackson move on, and possibly until their terrible owners are forced to sell the team, Golden State will remain as it’s been for the past twenty years: a tragically comic rendition of a pro basketball team.

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8. Getting To Know The Real Shaq

This sort of comes out of left field, but this week I wrote something about the Gilbert Arenas-Shaquille O’Neal love triangle, and I was reminded of something I learned last year: Shaquille O’Neal is quite possibly a terrible person. This is really difficult to appreciate when you think of Shaq. It’s not a cliche to say that he’s a larger-than-life personality; literally, he is larger in size than just about anyone you might encounter in daily life. But he can relate to the average person, and for that, we love him.

Most people would resent someone with even a fraction of Shaq’s size and power, but because he’s not afraid to be self-deprecating, fond of goofy dance routines, and quick to flash a gigantic smile, he’s looked upon as the NBA’s resident gentle giant. And yet, after years of adulation, NBA titles, and hundreds of millions of dollars, we’ve missed the biggest attribute of all: his massive, unremitting, and altogether repulsive ego.

And sometime during last season, all of this crystallized for me. Just days after calling Chris Bosh the “Rupaul of Big Men,” he unleashed the following tirade on Coach Stan Van Gundy:

First of all, none of his players like him. When it gets tough, he will become the master of panic like he did before and he will quit like he did before. The one thing I despise is frontrunners. Yeah, he’s got a young team playing good but don’t be a frontrunner.

Him and his brother and even the legend on the bench ain’t done what I’ve done in my whole career. So flopping would be the wrong choice of words.

[…]

Remember, I’ve done more than him, his brother and Patrick Ewing. Stan Van Gundy reminds me of a broke navigational system. He knows everything about everything but ain’t never been nowhere. Think about that. If I’m right here and I type in the address of where you’re going, I know where it’s at but I’m not going there.

When a bum says some s—- about it and I respond, you can f—-ing cancel that cuz I know how he is in real life. We’ll see when the playoffs start and he f—-ing panics and quits like he did when he was here (in Miami). And you f—-ing print it just like that. Do I look soft to you like you can say something and I’m not going to say something?

Just a galling, immature, and shockingly personal tirade directed at a guy that most people seem to think of fondly, and who appeared to treat him more than fairly during their time together in Miami. (If anything, Shaq went behind Van Gundy’s back to convince Pat Riley to return, and toss Stan to the curb before the Heat’s championship season.) This, after Van Gundy (who eventually took over the Magic) had the nerve to call this play a flop:

But wait, there’s more! Around this time, Dwight Howard explained that while just about every big man in history had offered him valuable advice over the course of his career, Shaq’s never said a damn thing to help him out. And you know, that says a whole lot more about his character than even his petty tirade above. Howard’s exact words, via the Orlando Sentinel

“The only thing I would expect from him is that he would try to help me improve my game and that’s it.”

Has he?

“No,” Howard said.

“Like all the other big guys [do], you know, like Hakeem [Olajuwon], Pat Ewing, Dikembe [Mutombo], Bill Russell, David Robinson . . . tried to help me improve. . . . Taking shots at somebody else, I wouldn’t do that.”

Howard said he expected some helpful “comments to come from Shaq,” but added that the only advice he received has been basically useless.

Then, of course, there was the time he double crossed Steve Nash and stole his idea for a reality show. When the show debuted, it was fairly successful, and fans around the country delighted at watching this big buffoon try his hand at different sports with fellow celebrities. Just a bunch of good, clean fun, some laughs, and one, giant sight gag. A formula that’s made Shaquille O’Neal into an icon.

And yet, even that dumbass reality show was proof that beneath the veneer that America cheers, Shaq is kind of a bad person. And not offering even a little bit of advice to Dwight Howard—a guy who not-so-subtlely has been called “The Next Shaq” by just about everyone in the league—is equally evocative of Shaq’s true colors. He’s a selfish, immature boor, that looks out for his own best interests first, last, and always.

Taken on their own, none of these anecdotes really changes things; he’s still a great player, with four championship rings, and a basketball legacy that’s beyond reproach. But when considered alongside each other, it all contributes to a much darker portrayal. Whether it’s sleeping with Gilbert Arenas’ girlfriend, stealing Steve Nash’s television show, needlessly bullying Stan Van Gundy, or ignoring a benevolent young player eager to learn, you get the feeling that after all these years, and toxic situations in L.A., Orlando, and Miami, maybe Shaq was the problem.

It prompts you to reconsider his entire career. Did the Lakers win because of him, or in spite of him? Maybe Penny Hardaway wasn’t such a fool, after all. And how about Dwyane Wade, having the maturity to placate Shaq’s ego for the greater good. Nothing could erase the memories of his dominance, but perhaps it puts an asterisk next to some of those performances. As in, keep in mind: Shaq was a phenomenal player, but at the end of the day, he created a lot problems for teammates, and treated people terribly. Does that make him less phenomenal?

Of course not, but like Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, might it make it a little harder for us to romanticize his career? I say yes. Over the years Shaq’s done a masterful job painting himself the victim, but as he stubbornly refuses to retire and continues to collect massive paychecks ($21 million this year), he’s keeping himself in the public eye, and unwittingly revealing a whole lot more about "The_Real_Shaq" than he ever wanted us to know.

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