Well, this was sort of inevitable, when you think about it. After a summer spent fawning over the Miami Heat, we all should have known the Lakers would respond this way.
Asked about the Lakers and their 8-0 start, Magic Johnson just smiled. "Thanks to Miami," he told the L.A. Times. "What Miami did sparked everybody. It sparked Dr. Buss, because, remember, he was going to cut back but he decided to spend the money, so give him a lot of credit, and then it just trickled all the way down. I think it sparked Phil too, and especially the best player in the world. Kobe has now got everybody else on the same page."
As he concluded, "I think they're going to do something really special this year."
WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. Everyone on that team is far too proud to let a team like Miami come in and dominate the spotlight the way they did this summer—when, you know, nobody was playing any games. And since the games have begun, all the Lakers have done is dominate.
It's been against a relatively tame schedule—the combined record of the Lakers' first eight opponents is 24-34—but the competition hasn't done much to diminish what's happening out there. And what's happening, exactly? Everybody's playing better than ever.
While Chris Bosh flounders in Florida, Pau Gasol is shooting 55 percent and scoring 24 points-a-game, along with 11 rebounds-a-night. Next to Gasol, Lamar Odom has been even more impressive considering his history, hitting for 16 points on 62 percent from the floor, adding 11 rebounds of his own. Beyond those two, Ron Artest looks more comfortable than ever in the triangle offense, Kobe Bryant is playing 30 minutes-a-game and hitting for an understated 24 points-a-night, and then you've got Matt Barnes and Steve Blake off the bench, two role players that are better than anyone L.A.'s had during the past two seasons. When, you know, the won the whole goddamn thing.
This year, though, they look better. The offense has been crisp, everyone's dialed in, and even though they're allowing nearly 100-points-a-game, ESPN Los Angeles adds this note:
... insofar as defensive numbers are concerned, Memphis scored 59 points in the second half during their visit to Staples because the Lakers were up 27 at halftime.
That's Los Angeles right now. As SB Nation Los Angeles explains it:
...the Laker offense has seemingly transformed itself into a weapon of mass terror.
The scale of the offensive improvement is striking. In 2009-10, the Lakers had an offensive rating (meaning points scored per 100 possessions) of 108.8, which ranked 11th in the NBA. This season, through seven games, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 118.3, an almost 9% step-up in efficiency that has them atop the league scoring tables by a sizable margin.
And while that article continues on to explain it's probably not sustainable over the long haul, it doesn't change what we've seen the first few weeks. The Lakers have sent a pretty clear message to everyone who might have overlooked them the past few months. They've been so dominant and efficient and effortless through the first few weeks of the season, the numbers don't completely do them justice.
It's a team with an unfair collection of talent, so good that they could glide to 60 wins on cruise control, but galvanized by skeptics to the point where we have to realistically talk about 70 wins, and one of the most impressive seasons in history. ... Wait, wasn't that last sentence supposed to be about the Miami Heat?
Ah, but after an offseason dominated by fears of a big, bad superteam poised to run roughshod over the rest of the league, our nightmare has been realized, at least through the first few weeks of the regular season. It's not the team we expected, but these guys are just as scary.
2. Technically Speaking, The NBA's Flirting With Disaster
When we touched on the NBA's technical rules a few weeks ago, we used the Bobcats' Stephen Jackson as the example of players' dissatisfaction. As he said back then, "I just feel like they've taken a lot of the emotion out of the game. Things happen in the heat of the moment," he continued. "I think when something happens in the heat of the moment, that should be taken into consideration, instead of just defining everything by the rule book."
And sure enough! Just a few weeks later, here's Stephen Jackson, getting fined a cool 50 grand for "verbal abuse" of an official. As he told reporters afterward, "Everybody should be shocked—$50,000? If you all saw what happened, $50,000, that's a lot of money. But welcome to the life of Stephen Jackson."
But even better than that quote is Larry Brown's reaction. Because a month ago, Brown defended the technicals, saying, "Baseball they have hats on and you're 1,000 feet away. Football, they have helmets on. Everything we do, kids and parents see it."
A month later?
"It blows me away. For me to say, 'Wow,' and a [referee] to go, 'I gotcha,' there is no recourse," Brown said. "They were lip-reading as he was walking 50 feet away. I just don't know."
Nobody really knows, Larry.
There's a difference between policing emotional outbursts and prosecuting people for their emotions. So far, the NBA refs haven't done a great job walking that line. But that's just the beginning of it, really. Because while unfair fines and stupid calls is merely a subplot this year, what's really scary is that this new philosophy can decide games.
The other night, when New Orleans played the Miami Heat, Chris Paul got called for a verrrry questionable charge (video here), and reacted like any player would during the fourth quarter of a huge game. He was disgusted, scowling, and frustrated. Instead of two foul shots and a chance to make it a two-possession game with two minutes left, Miami got the ball and had a chance to tie it. So he was pissed. That's what happens with controversial calls late in the game, and there's no way to avoid it.
But when the referees call a technical on Chris Paul for a completely natural reaction? That gives the Heat a free point in a three point game, and at that point, we're really starting to affect the outcome of games. And for all the lip-reading that refs may do with someone like Stephen Jackson, it's the completely ridiculous technicals in the fourth quarter that will really spell disaster here.
New Orleans won the game, but wait until a team gets screwed out of a win after a technical foul. When officials (and league-sponsored announcers) point to the rulebook to defend the fairness of it all, that's when we'll really start to point fingers at David Stern.
And as for Stephen Jackson... Isn't he just the best? Here's a video of Captain Jack, mic'd up at a Warriors shootaround in 2007. Some highlights:
"I play better when I get a haircut."
"Damn! Somebody just fractured my ear drum!"
(to Baron Davis, practicing floaters) "Get to it Diddy get to it Diddy get to it. (to a coach nearby, whispering) "Watch his one-on-none game. It's hilarious."
And my favorite part:
(dribbling by himself) "Get 'em J. Get 'em J. Ooo. Get 'em J. Get 'em J."
Welcome to the life of Stephen Jackson.
3. MESSAGE! Gilbert Arenas Is A Tortured, Complicated Soul
As someone who has lived with day-to-day Gilbert Arenas stories for the past five years, I'm probably a little bit biased. But isn't this whole schtick getting a little bit old? From Sports Illustrated:
...Arenas told Sports Illustrated that the real reason he sat out wasn't, as he originally told reporters, to rest his thrice-surgically-repaired knee, nor was it the excuse he gave the next day, that he wanted to give backup point guard Nick Young the chance to play. "I was really scared of getting booed," says Arenas. "It's a little crazy because I was here with Kwame Brown when Kwame was scared to go out there. I used to be like, Man, it's just boos. Now here I was six years later, and I was him. I was scared to go out there."
And of course, his explanation of the pooping incident:
"I understand what people think because of the perception of me," says Arenas. "They read the funny stuff, like me taking a crap in [teammate] Andray Blatche's shoes. But nobody is going to ask what Andray did to deserve it. You read about it because that's when I'm at my goofiest, when I'm around my teammates. I don't get in trouble outside of this building. You are not going to catch me drinking and driving, or picking up prostitutes."
That last part's funny because Andray Blatche, well... He has a history with prostitutes.
As for Gilbert Arenas, whether he's telling reporters that he considered retirement, that he's scared of being booed, that he works harder than anybody realizes, that he feels like a failure, that he's disgraced his legacy... On and on it goes. And for some reason, the national media still finds this stuff fascinating. But as someone watching this up close, the melodrama has gotten a little out of hand.
Gilbert Arenas is making almost $18 million this season, and he's not a good player anymore. The story surrounding Gilbert should how quickly the Wizards can get rid of him. If we want to rhapsodize about how his demise is some sort of Shakesperian tragedy or that Gilbert has all the layers of character from a Dostoyevsky novel, then fine. But up close, just for the record, none of this is really that interesting. We get it; he's a complicated dude.
If you talk to Gilbert, he'll say at least one thing that sounds profound, or tragic, or vulnerable--he'll probably say something that encompasses all three. But at some point, the "GILBERT IS COMPLEX" stories stop being profound, and start becoming an ongoing parody.
Honestly, the Wizards should trade every player on their roster except for John Wall, Lester Hudson, Trevor Booker, Cartier Martin, and Kevin Seraphin. And as complicated and Shakesperian as this may sound, divorcing themselves from Gilbert is the first step to salvation.
4. Hey, Is The NBA Telling The Truth About Losing Money?
As the ongoing labor dispute between the Players Association and NBA Owners quietly percolates beneath the surface of this year's NBA season, I can't recommend Tom Ziller's analysis enough. There's just nobody better at reading between the lines with this stuff.
One example? Whenever pro sports owners complain about losing money, it rings a little hollow to fans. This is because listening to a billionaire complain about finances is just as obnoxious as listening to Latrell Sprewell complain about feeding his family with only two or three million dollars in salary. Figuratively speaking, the sacrifices are incredibly relative.
But as Ziller points out, that's also true in a very literal sense. At least as far an NBA ownership is concerned. As Ziller explains, "If owners squeal that the business of running a basketball is too costly, requiring payroll cuts for the players, then the players have every right to question why the immense growth in team value owners see isn't involved in the equation."
Because while teams may lose money in the short term, the value of franchises continues to appreciate, and the profits realized from the sale of an NBA franchise almost certainly dwarf any year-to-year loss. Just look at the chart here, along with Ziller's explanation below:
The current set of owners minus brand new bros Michael Jordan (Charlotte), Mikhail Prokhorov (New Jersey) and Ted Leonsis (Washington) have seen the combined values of their teams grow $6.5 billion since those 27 owners bought their respective teams. Jerry Buss has seen the Lakers' value grow $587 million in 21 years. Michael Heisley has seen the Grizzlies' value grow $97 million in 10 years. Dan Gilbert has seen the Cavaliers' value grow $101 million in five years. Mark Cuban of the Mavericks: $166 million in 10 years. Cablevision with the Knicks: $286 million in 13 years. And on and on and on ...
In other words, in a very tangible sense, the whining from the owners about cash flow is as shortsighted and insulting as Latrell Sprewell's infamous "feed my family" remarks. If NBA owners are really so concerned about "operating costs" then they should sell their team, and enjoy the hundred million dollar profit that's sure to follow.
It's not a trump card for the players, of course, but the numbers above help explain why the forthcoming negotiations encompass far more nuance than David Stern will ever admit. Does the league need to continue its evolution and make adjustments to the current collective bargaining agreement? Of course.
But do we need a drastic overhaul of everything so that we can save the scores of owners drowning in losses? If you're willing to believe that, then Latrell has a luxury yacht he'd like to sell you.
5. It's Been A Week... Remember When Kevin Garnett Disgraced His Legacy Forever?
Yeah, me neither.
But just for fun, here's DerMarr Johnson's interpretation:
And.... Okay, maybe. But let's not forget about Kevin Garnett's role in this. Hasn't he "gone to inexplicable lengths to craft a parallel legacy: a vicious bully, a cold and cruel jerk"?
Whatever, Dermarr. You're just another person ready to rationalize KG's classless behavior.
Wait, seriously? Okay, well let's all move on, then.
Here's a three year-old reciting the roster of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Sure enough, his pronunciation of Ersan Ilyasova doesn't disappoint.
7. Zach Randolph Makes Amazing Happen, Per Usual
Finally, on Monday night, Zach Randolph's 22 points and 20 rebounds pushed the Grizzlies past the plucky Phoenix Suns. Z-Bo! And afterward, a triumphant Zach Randolph told reporters, "We just finished the whole game, we played the whole 42 minutes."
Um, NBA games are 48 minutes. (Z-BO!)
And Randolph, in case you've forgotten, is just a few months removed from accusations that he's been bankrolling a drug operation in his hometown. And within 24 hours of those accusations making headlines this past summer, he was also sued by man who claimed members of Randolph's entourage beat him up outside a strip club.
And of course, there were his greatest hits, featuring high stakes drag racing on the streets of Portland, his drunken appearance at a charity Christmas party (followed by a DUI later that night), and the time he asked Blazers officials to take a leave of absence to attend a funeral, only to be spotted a night later during the Blazers game, "across town at the Exotica International Club for Men. According to sources, "He left in the wee hours, without paying his tab."
I love this game.