Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sliding Doors

In an alternate universe,  James White won this year’s Dunk Contest.  In fact, in that world, he’d be champion three times over.

In this world, he is an NBA Champion. Not bad for someone who has played only 44 regular season games in 3 years spent with 3 NBA teams.  Sadly, however, for those who followed his exploits over the years, he is not a Slam Dunk Champion.

A review of his bio at reveals that White is a former  McDonald’s All-American who never quite reached his potential in college. He was drafted with the 31st pick by the Portland Trailblazers in 2006 (or, to put it nicely, he was the 1st pick of the 2nd round of the draft).  But was immediately traded to the Indiana Pacers who proceeded to waive him even before the 2006 season started. He then got picked up by the San Antonio Spurs for the 2006-2007 season but played only 6 games with them. While he did not play a single game in the playoffs, he did get a ring, as the Spurs won the NBA championship for 2007.

White did not play in the NBA during the 2007-2008 season, but re-surfaced again in 2008-2009 with the Houston Rockets where he played a grand total of 4 games. After 3 years away from the Association, he won a spot with the New York Knicks this season, and he has now played 34 games. And this is how, nearly 7 years after he got drafted in the NBA, he was finally picked to be a participant in the dunk contest.

As numerous YouTube clips will show you, White isn’t called “Flight” for nothing.  His specialties: (a) running the length of the court, taking off from the free throw line, and dunking the ball with two hands; and (b) running the length of the court, and doing a between the legs dunk also from the free throw line.  So everyone, and their mother, picked him to win this year.

There were a few nagging doubts. Some said, what’s new? Jordan already dunked from the free throw line. And Dr. J before him. Heck, even Brent Barry did that in 1996.  More importantly, because he did not enjoy much success in his first stints in the NBA, White joined this year’s dunk contest at 30 years old, and yes, he was the oldest participant ever.

But you see, there is an itty-bitty difference between the dunks made famous by MJ and Dr. J, and the one Mr. White did as his first dunk. Dr. J dunked from the free throw line with one hand. MJ took off from the free throw line but did a double clutch before dunking with one hand.  James White showed up with 10 stewardesses, took off from the free throw line and dunked with both hands. Perhaps because he missed the first time, the achievement was lost on the judges and White only got a score of 45. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that dunking with two hands per se requires a higher vertical leap and a higher degree of difficulty.  Doing that while taking off from at (or close to) the free throw line is worth at least  50 points in my book, more so if you consider that a contestant gets 30 points for missing every attempt. In an interview after the event, he admitted that he had the between the legs dunk ready if he made it to the finals, and that for his other dunk, he planned to take off “from the top of the key”.  But he didn’t get the chance.

And so, down the drain it went, Mr. White’s dream of winning the dunk contest. And with it, perhaps his one chance to truly make it in the NBA and get that nice contract, like that other former Slam Dunk champion Gerald Green, who recently parlayed his success as the NBA Slam Dunk Champion into a 3-year US$10 Million contract. White had, to paraphrase Whitney, his  one moment in time, and the ball (and all opportunities) just kept slipping from his hands.

The reality is for every Gerald Green, there are countless James Whites.  The NBA has 30 teams, which can keep a maximum of 15 players on their roster. That’s 450 players total, and every year 60 more players get drafted and even more try out for these 450 roster spots.  White, at 30, is a journeyman,  one of those players on the fringes of a team’s roster, the first to be let go when new blood comes in. He is under contract only for this season, and he has played less than 7 minutes per game on the average.  Worse, his performance at the dunk contest has been called a flop.

But take comfort, for as someone on Twitter said “[o]nly getting to watch James White in a dunk contest at 30 is akin to only getting to see Sabonis finally at 31 in the NBA.” So, whatever happens,  Flight, we’ll always have YouTube.

*This article was published last 26 February 2013 at the Pinoy Beat Writers section of NBA Philippines.
**By File:Wizards vs Knicks.jpg: Keith Allison derivative work: Chrishmt0423 [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Seize the Day

Most people want to go the US to pursue  the American dream. Me,  I just want to watch the Lakers at Staples Center before Kobe Bryant retires.

Last December, I had the chance to do just that. For reasons which felt valid then, I did not. I rationalized that Kobe (my favorite Laker since Magic Johnson) was under contract until the 2013-2014 season and could very well play a few more seasons after that. Plenty of time, I told myself.

A few minutes after shooting back-to-back threes to erase a six point deficit in the fourth quarter against the Warriors, Kobe tried to drive past Harrison Barnes and fell. It looked like his leg just gave out on him. He shot two free throws to tie the game and limped out of the court to a standing ovation from the faithful at Staples.  The Lakers went on to win, sans Kobe.

After the game, the Lakers beat writers started tweeting that Kobe might have torn his Achilles and if so, that would mean the end of his season.

I was disconsolate.  And that was before I saw this video of his post-game interview:

As any long time Lakers fan will tell you, Kobe doesn’t miss many games. He injures a finger on his shooting hand, he shoots with his left. Or figures out ways to shoot despite the crooked finger. He injures his nose or any part of his face, he wears a mask. Dahntay Jones intentionally steps under him and injures his ankle, he’s back after a few games. He injures his knee, he goes to Germany in the off season and comes back better than ever.

But after this injury? He knew he couldn’t play because he couldn’t even walk.

In the wake of Chauncey Billups’ Achilles injury last year, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus did a study of players who injured their Achilles and the list isn’t long:  

Jonas Jerebko *  Dan Dickau * Elton Brand *   DeSagana Diop * Laron Profit * Sam Vincent *  Mehmet Okur * Gerald Wilkins  *Isiah Thomas *Dominique Wilkins * Jerome James *Chauncey Billups

The only “success” story, according to Pelton, is Dominique Wilkins who got injured at 32 but still managed to make it to two All-Star Games after recovering from the injury. The others were never the same again. In fact, Isiah Thomas retired at 32 after suffering this injury.

This game made me realize how fleeting an athlete’s life is. It seems only yesterday that Kobe and Shaq were leading LA to 3 titles in a row. Now, Kobe is 34.  And he’s played 17 seasons (actually, the equivalent of 20 seasons, if you count the playoffs and the Olympic games). He has also hinted at retirement recently.

My wish is for Kobe to be allowed to leave the game on his own terms. Not gingerly limping away while being supported by Robert Sacre. Not in the 80th game of his 17th season when the Lakers’ playoff hopes hang in the balance.

Come back strong, Kobe. Father Time owes you a few more rounds. Your fans want the chance to say a proper goodbye.  I want the chance to see you play in Staples.

And from now on, I promise never to put off doing something because there's time. Because sometimes, there may not be.

P.S. I'm not sure if this is a real Nike ad (the video part, I mean), but it's pretty good. Be back soon, Kobe.

Photo taken during Kobe's 61-point game at MSG. 
Credit to luzer / C. J. ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Ricky Rubio and the Art of Passing

Nowadays, it’s all about point guards who score – see for example, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving.

I like the other kind, the point guard whose main goal in life is setting up his teammates, making the right pass. More particularly, I like those who treat passing as an art.

To illustrate – there’s John Stockton, who holds the NBA record for the most assists. He is one of the greatest players ever but he was a fundamentally sound basketball  player who passed the way he played. Thus, for the most part, he dished out the basic chest pass, or bounce pass. Nothing fancy, but it worked.
On the other side of the spectrum is Magic Johnson. Equally effective, but the pass itself made you gasp out loud and clap – no-look passes, one-hand-length-of- the- court-off-the-dribble-passes, alley oops. In other words, Magic made passing cool.

Ricky Rubio is from the Magic Johnson school of point guards.  Sadly, he plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves which means you won’t see much of him on Philippine TV. Worse, he got injured midway through his rookie year last year. But, in the 41 games he played, he averaged 8.2 assists per game. To put that in perspective, that ranked him 6th  in the league last year, behind only Rondo, Nash, CP3, Calderon and D-Will.

This season, he only started playing  last December 15 but is slowly but surely rounding into form.  In the 13 games the Wolves played last February, he logged 10 or more assists in 8 games. In those 13 games, he averaged 12.7 points and 9.4 assists. And he is why the Wolves are must-see-TV on NBA League Pass.

You see, Ricky Rubio doesn’t just pass the ball to his teammates. He dribbles between his legs and makes a behind the back pass.  He gives no look passes in transition. He passes the ball through  the legs of opposing players right into the hands of teammates who don’t even realize, until that precise moment when the ball reaches their hands, that they are wide open.

The Wolves have been ravaged by injury this season. Instead of Kevin Love and Andre Kirilenko, Rubio has been forced to play with Michael Gelabale, Chris Johnson and Greg Stiemsma. (Yes, feel free to join me in saying “Who?”)  Imagine if he actually had good teammates who won’t fumble the ball or get hit in the face by his passes due to sheer surprise.

One of these years, and for the sake of Wolves fans,  David Khan, the Wolves GM, may manage to surround him with great teammates. Or maybe not. Khan is not really renowned for his managerial acumen.  This is the same person who picked  Jonny Flynn instead of Steph Curry in the 2009 NBA draft, and Wesley Johnson instead of DeMarcus Cousins or Greg Monroe in 2010. He also inexplicably decided to offer a multi-year contract to Darko Milicic, now out of the league, and managed to offend Kevin Love by offering him only a 4-year contract (instead of the maximum 5-year deal allowed by the current CBA) with an opt out clause prior to the 2015-2016 season which he will surely exercise.

And so,  as an 80s kid and a lifelong Lakers fan,  I’ll root for Rubio to go to the Lakers  in 2015 and take his place as the point guard who, like Magic Johnson before him, will bring Showtime back. Consider this – Rubio’s contract with the Wolves will expire after the 2014-2015 season. Coincidentally, that is also the season when Steve Nash’s contract will expire. And right now, the Lakers have no one under contract for that season. (To be accurate, the Lakers could have Dwight Howard under contract by then - god forbid. But that is another story waiting to be told).

And Rubio should be a Laker. He can’t be anything else. Else, like the Spurs’ Tony Parker, he will end up a great player on a not-so-popular team who does not get the accolades he deserves. And frankly, that would be a disservice to the art of passing,  in this age of players who think that only scoring and dunking will get you on Sportscenter. 

Credits: Photo by Joe Bielawa (Flickr: DSC_0301-MN v DET)
[CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Could the Lakers trade Kobe?

Imagine if you are Mitch Kupchak, the General Manager of the Lakers.

On one hand, you have Kobe Bryant, 34 years old and making US$27 Million a year. After this season, he is under contract for 2013-2014, when he is projected to  make roughly US$30 Million a year.  He will also turn 35 years old before that season starts.

In a perfect world, the honourable thing to do is to let Kobe play out his contract and offer him a 1-year deal for 2014-2015 for anywhere between US$20-30 Million with the understanding that that deal would be renewed as long Kobe wants to play. This, after all, is the player who gave you 5 championships and who, at 34 years old and on his 17th season, is still an MVP candidate and one of the most popular players in the NBA. On top of the 5 rings, his resume is impeccable: more than 30,000 points, 2008 MVP, 2 Finals MVP, 10  All NBA First team selection,  9 All Defensive Team selection, 15 All Star appearances and that great 81-point game.

On the other hand,  you have Dwight Howard, 28 years old, with an expiring contract. You need him to sign a long-term deal to be the face of the Lakers post-Kobe. Hollywood needs stars, and Howard is one even if his play has been less than stellar this season due to the season-ending back surgery he had to undergo last year. However, despite the fact that he is playing with 4 All Stars and future Hall of Famers, this season has been nothing short of disastrous. He obviously doesn’t like Mike D’Antoni’s system, and inexplicably refuses to play pick and roll with Steve Nash, the greatest pick and roll point guard the league has seen in years. Instead, Dwight wants to be in the post where, incidentally, Kobe is most effective.  He also wants the touches that Kobe gets, which demands have reduced Kobe to a facilitator-type of player. The Lakers, cognizant of the need to make Dwight happy, have turned Steve Nash into a spot-up shooter and Kobe into a point guard.

But could the Lakers go further and trade Kobe to appease Dwight and let him know that he is now the man for Los Angeles? Or should the Lakers just cross their fingers and have Dwight and Kobe play out their uneasy truce for the 2013-2014 season and then opt to not re-sign Kobe instead?

Flashback to 2004 – the Lakers had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Shaquille O’Neal was 32 years old, had a year left on his contract and wanted a contract extension which would pay him US$30 Million a year. Kobe was 26 years old, and had just exercised an opt-out clause in his contract allowing him to sign with any team.

Faced with the choice between an aging superstar whose salary demands would negatively affect the team’s chances to lure good players and a player at his prime, almost, if not more popular, with a lower salary, the Lakers choose Door B: Kobe. And it was the right choice at the time.

Now, nearly 9 years later, the Lakers are faced with the same choice. There are, however, some obvious differences.

First, Kobe has a no-trade clause which Shaq did not have then. This means the only way Kobe can be traded is if he agrees to the trade. As a long time Kobe fan, I am almost sure that the only places he would agree to be traded to would be New York or Chicago. Or he could stay in LA and go to the other team. The Knicks aren’t feasible (I think) because they have Carmelo, but they have boatloads of money so who’s to say. I’m not sure if Derrick Rose and Kobe would work, and Chicago has, historically, refused to pay luxury tax, so that may not work either. The Clippers need a decent shooting guard, but Donald Sterling is a cheapskate and he will need a lot of money over the summer to pay CP3, so that’s not happening either. So it’s gotta be Brooklyn or bust.

Second, Dwight isn’t in the same league as Kobe popularity-wise. In fact, nowadays, he is one of the  least-liked players in the league. Winning, however, will cure all of that as Kobe and LeBron can attest. So if the Lakers start winning sans Kobe, all will be well in Lakerland.

Third, Dwight is at best, 70% of what he used to be, athletically. He does not have the same hops and explosiveness. Worse, his excellent play has always depended on his athletic ability. Can the Lakers be sufficiently assured that Dwight will regain this by next season? And even then, is he really an all-time great that you can build on, or merely a great complementary player?

Good luck weighing all of this, Mitch Kupchak. You’re going to need it this offseason.

Credits: Photo by luzer / C. J. ( 
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons