For the last two weeks, the fundamental power structure of the NBA has been inverted. While the owners and executives are the true power brokers of the league, they have been rendered powerless by one man’s now broken silence as no one wanted to make any moves until LeBron had decided where he wanted to play next. There is no other player in professional sports who could bring all transactions to a virtual standstill by refusing to say a word. Now, LeBron has stated his intent to sign with Cleveland, returning to the team and city where he spent the first seven years of his career and the NBA can resume its business as usual. The reactions are pouring in from sportswriters and its effect on the rest of the league, but I am more intrigued by the thoughts of my friends and acquaintances from home, which for me, as well as LeBron, is Akron, Ohio and the so-called forgiveness being offered to LeBron from them and the power exercised by LeBron apart from the ever-present constraints of ownership.
I, like LeBron am from Northeast Ohio and will always consider it home no matter where else I may live. I was born just outside of Youngstown and spent the majority of my formative years living just outside of Akron in a suburb called Tallmadge. When LeBron became a national sensation in the early 2000s, it was an even bigger deal for all of us who lived in the area. This was not just an athlete who played for Cleveland that had come from somewhere else - LeBron was one of us. Even though we could not begin to fathom the fame and wealth that he would soon enjoy, we liked to dwell on what we had in common. In fact, I met LeBron once when he was a senior in high school at a college football game between Marshall and Kent State in 2002. I immediately recognized him and had him autograph my ticket stub. He seemed simultaneously immediately knowable and unbelievably unfathomable.
When the Cavaliers received the opportunity to draft him by winning the 2003 Draft Lottery, the euphoria was palpable. The local legend was now able to become our savior. I mean, it’s pretty much impossible to miss the Messianic overtones of the massive billboard that used to take up a whole block in Cleveland of LeBron throwing the chalk in a Christlike pose. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. While the Cavaliers had the most success they had attained in decades - perhaps ever - including their first trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron left Cleveland in 2010 to join the Miami Heat where he won two championships. But while he left the Cavaliers, he never really left Ohio. He still owned his house in Bath and devoted the majority of his charity work to local organizations within Akron. When he won the 2013 NBA Finals MVP, he made clear that he was “from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city” and was “not even supposed to be here.” Cavaliers fans may have felt betrayed as sports fans, but they could not have felt betrayed as Ohioans.
I remember the day and night of the Decision vividly even though I made a conscious decision not only to avoid watching it, but to leave the state altogether the night it happened. Before I left, I played pick up basketball with my friends and we discussed the night’s upcoming event and I told them that they must feel confident because there was no way that LeBron would leave Cleveland on national television. Of course, I wasn’t as convinced of this as they were and I did not want to be around Akron to witness the fallout if he did actually leave. That night, I drove a few hundred miles to North Carolina to see my then girlfriend and did not find out where LeBron had decided to go until I received a phone call from one of my friends while driving on I-77 South through Charleston, West Virginia. While I was put off by the manner in which LeBron decided to announce his decision to leave the Cavaliers, I was appalled by the reaction among people from my hometown. Videos of jerseys burning and angry rants filled my Facebook news feed along with status after status filled with bitter indignation regarding the purported betrayal. Of course, the ultimate expression of this was Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter in which he called LeBron’s departure a “cowardly betrayal” and a “shocking act of disloyalty” which “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.” The whole letter reads like a surreal blog entry written by a spurned lover who had every reason to be left behind.
Now, LeBron is returning home. He is the prodigal son. He is FOR6IVEN. This rhetoric is far more congratulatory and welcoming, but no less discomforting. LeBron is not an actual person in all of these renderings, but an object of praise, an idol that had been neglected and is now being returned to a place of prominence. Of course, all of our relationships with sports figures are inherently impersonal, but this faux-personal relationship with LeBron that Northeast Ohio has had could be the subject of several psychoanalytic studies. But could any Cleveland fan honestly claim that LeBron going to Miami was a bad decision? Do they really believe that LeBron could have gone to the Finals for four consecutive seasons and won two championships if he had remained in Cleveland? Honestly, who was the best player LeBron played with in Cleveland? Was it Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, a rookie Carlos Boozer, an aging Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Hughes, Anderson Varejao or maybe even Ira Newble? The landscape was bleak.
When LeBron left for Miami, I think it resonated on more than simply an athletic level. Yes, he was and remains the best basketball player in the world, but this was the local hero leaving for sunnier skies. The problem is that such a leaving is no mere isolated incident, but emblematic of a mass migration that has occurred throughout Northeast Ohio in recent years. Akron’s population has dropped by nearly 20,000 people since the year 2000 while Cleveland’s population has dropped by nearly 90,000 in the same time period. There is a sort of stubbornness that defines Northeast Ohio in my experience that persistently screams at anyone willing to listen that we aren’t as awful as you think we are, and accompanying this is a simultaneous jealousy and resentment of all those who leave the region and this is most fully exemplified through the public outcry regarding LeBron James. It is hard to imagine that there are not thousands of people within Northeast Ohio who wish that they could have moved to Miami themselves, but are unable to due to the economic hardships which have overtaken the entire Rust Belt. Even though LeBron had been a millionaire for years by this point, it was this move that finally proved that he was not actually one of them despite their perpetual claim on him.
It is this claim on LeBron which bothers me the most. When LeBron left, people felt personally aggrieved. Now, with the prospect of his return over the last few weeks, the same people have acted as if LeBron owed them a return, a redemption story, a championship, but LeBron does not owe any fan anywhere a single thing. While I am excited to see Lebron alongside Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins, I remain uneasy about LeBron’s return. This notion of Cleveland fans ‘welcoming’ LeBron back and forgiving him of his (manufactured) transgressions sickens me. The Decision was a poor public relations move admittedly, but that’s all it was - bad PR. Even LeBron himself has said he would do it differently for years now, but regardless, I do not think that exercising one’s right to choose their place of employment - which honestly is all LeBron did ‘wrong’ - is nowhere near as repugnant as burning jerseys and writing paternalistic letters.
This is why I was shocked to wake up today to several text messages announcing LeBron’s return to Cleveland. It was simply impossible for me to fathom him working for Dan Gilbert again in light of that letter and his subsequent comments about LeBron not playing hard enough in the 2010 Playoffs. The prospect of a return seemed even weirder to me in light of the fact that LeBron, out of all NBA stars, had the harshest words regarding Donald Sterling’s racist rant. While Gilbert’s letter was not explicitly racist, it still overflowed with racial power dynamics that should make anyone uncomfortable. It read like something a slaveowner could have written the day after emancipation. I did not expect the young pieces on the current Cavs roster coupled with the wonderful redemption narrative to make up for all the abuse heaped upon him in recent years, but I was wrong and am definitely happy to have been so.
I genuinely hope that LeBron can bring a championship to Cleveland. It would be Northeast Ohio’s first championship since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964 and I would celebrate oh so heartily. While I currently live in Southern California, I am from Northeast Ohio and that is where my heart remains and I know firsthand what a championship would mean to that area, but it is the interim that troubles me. I still vividly remember watching the first game that LeBron played in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat and the visceral hatred that enveloped the Quicken Loans Arena. I remember watching it in my dorm with a few friends and legitimately being scared that someone might try to kill him somehow. I did not find any thrill in the screams, but a genuine terror and hatred that horrified me. And now, when Cleveland plays their first home game this season, the screams will be just as loud, but they will be sounds of praise and adulation, sounds of joy and rejoicing. I’m just not sure these praises deserve to be heard or even acknowledged at all after these last few years.
The Philadelphia 76ers avoided the ignominy of holding the record for the longest losing streak in NBA history by defeating the Detroit Pistons handily Saturday night, topping their previous largest margin of victory by ten points. Coming into the season, the 76ers were pretty much unanimously assumed to be the worst team in the league as new general manager Sam Hinkie traded the team’s best player and sole All Star in Jrue Holiday for a potential new franchise centerpiece who would be unable to play a single game this season. Clearly, the team was in full tank mode. This was even further solidified by trading key rotation players Spencer Hawes, Lavoy Allen, and Evan Turner at the trade deadline for pretty much nobody of actual worth, leaving Thaddeus Young, James Anderson, and Michael Carter-Williams as the only players on the 76ers’ roster than any other NBA team would have any interest whatsoever in having for themselves.
What no one expected though was how the 76ers started the season. They began their season by winning their first three games, including a win against the defending champion Heat in which Michael Carter-Williams, in his first game as an NBA player, nearly had a quadruple double. If anyone had wanted to convince this seminary student that the universe is completely random and indifferent, the 76ers’ 3-0 start to the season was as good of an argument as any. It was fun to imagine Sam Hinkie being secretly outrageous at his team’s success and losing faith in rationality or logic, but the team - and Carter-Williams - regressed to the mean after that impressive and wholly unexpected start. Carter-Williams, seen as the presumptive Rookie of the Year based on that game alone, has attained a grand total of one tenth of a win share this season - not that any other rookie has really set themselves apart. Unsurprisingly, the 76ers have not been very fun to watch this season. While other teams have been more tragicomic - Hello Cleveland! - or disappointing - Sup Detroit? - the 76ers’ season has been somewhat sad, but not overwhelmingly so because well, we all saw it coming. They don’t even care that much. Even their coach said before the game against Detroit that they were on a “three to five year plan.”
What is most bizarre about the 76ers’ losing streak - and NBA losing streaks in general - is the fact that the two longest winning streaks in NBA history are both longer than the longest losing streak. Of course, the Lakers’ thirty three game winning streak from 1972 can be sort of demythologized by realizing that this was during the peak of the ABA and several would-be NBA stars including Zelmo Beaty, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, and Mel Daniels were playing in the ABA that season so the competition was kind of diluted to say the least, but still, it was thirty three games! It’s more difficult to do that with the Heat’s twenty seven game streak from last year except to say that well, the East wasn’t that good. I wish it were possible to develop some grand and interesting theory from this historical anomaly, but I don’t think it actually indicates that it is more difficult to lose than it is to win in the NBA. Maybe it’s easier for some really bad teams to occasionally have a good night than for a great one to have a bad one.
This season has seen a torrent of tanking as this year’s draft is presumably really good, (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t watched a single second of college basketball all year and not having to hear about it anymore is the best non-weather related aspect of moving to California from Indiana) but tanking has turned out to be harder than expected for a lot of teams. In spite of this losing streak, the 76ers still do not have the NBA’s worst record as the Milwaukee Bucks are still two games behind them. Ironically, the Bucks did not want to tank at all. Their front office threw forty million dollars this offseason to pick up such luminaries as O.J. Mayo, Gary Neal, Caron Butler, and Zaza Pachulia. Not the greatest moves in the world, but hey, anything for an eight seed. Meanwhile, another team projected to do abysmally, the Phoenix Suns, have become one of the most exciting teams in the league to watch and are currently fighting for a playoff spot in the hectic and absolutely brutal Western Conference where just a few games separate a five seed from lottery balls. While there are certainly many teams who are still very bad this year, several of them - the Kings, Knicks, Pelicans, Bucks, and Pistons among others - were genuinely trying to avoid the lottery this year while others who had planned to tank - most notably the aforementioned Suns - are doing quite well. Who would have ever thought that trying to lose would not guarantee losing?
What does make the 76ers harder to watch than some other bad teams is that these players are certainly not trying to tank and there is a sadness in watching their passionate, yet futile, striving. Every game, the coach is fighting, as are the players. I mean, this team has consisted of several mercenaries on ten day contracts who are fighting for another chance after those ten days expire. They aren’t tanking; they’re just not that good. Take the team the 76ers beat tonight for example: the Pistons have a much better roster, but gosh are they listless. Also, while other bad teams in the NBA have a player that makes NBA fanatics want to turn in regardless - I know I’m not alone in getting sucked into more than a few Bucks games solely because of Giannis Antetokounmpo - the 76ers do not have that unless you have a thing for midrange jumpers, in which case, Thaddeus Young is your man.
Why does futility interest us? Why was I perversely cheering for the 76ers to set the record even though I wish no ill will towards that team or any players on it (especially not Tony Wroten, who I inexplicably love)? I don’t think it’s that we take any sort of gleeful joy in the 76ers’, or any other team’s, failings, but every single time a record is set - undignified or otherwise - there is the opportunity to see something that has never been seen before and there is a sense in which that is worth celebrating no matter how humiliating the setting of the record may be. There’s lots of bad teams and hundreds of games every year and we yearn for something to make this season unique, worth watching so we cling to every little detail that could possibly distinguish last night’s Pistons/76ers game from all the other late season games between two bad teams heading towards the lottery.
The problem with this is that we miss that there is something inherently unique about every single NBA game regardless of historical context. There is a beauty within the very essence of the game that means that in every single game, no matter how trivial or inconsequential, we will see ball movement, ball handling, shots, lay-ups, dunks, or absurdities that will never be replicated in just that way again. They will be approximated, but never recreated. There is a beauty in that which does not necessitate records. The game is gorgeous and we should realize that and that should be enough. Although, if you’re a 76ers fan who was cheering for them to lose against Detroit to get that much closer to obtaining Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, or whomever else, I get that too.
-Micah Wimmer (stationtostation and @micahwimmer)
When I think back on Chris Paul’s career thus far, there are few single plays that stand out. I can recall his game-winning fadeaway from the free throw line over Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers and his buzzer-beating three-pointer in the 2011 Playoffs against the Lakers, which I remember due more to Kevin Harlan’s horrifying “right between the eyes!” call than the play itself. Instead of great individual plays, which any viewer will see many of from Paul in any single game, it is repeated moves that manifest themselves in my mind. Two in particular never cease to astound me even though no single manifestation of them is lodged in my memory. Both of these plays begin with Paul using a pick to penetrate. In one, he is immediately encountered by an opposing defender on a switch. Paul feigns further penetration into the paint, but instead hesitates, dribbling the ball between his legs before quickly pulling back and shooting a mid-range jumper from the elbow. His other go to move is going around a pick, but this time, there is no defender to immediately impede his progress so he simply goes into the paint for a lay-up, but very rarely does he not toss in some fancy, although necessary, ball-handling in order to evade an inevitable help defender. Neither of these moves are meant to amaze – they are not ostentatious for their own sake, but necessary to achieve the hoped for result. They’re nothing that any other point guard would be unable to do, but Paul elevates these simple moves that have been in the toolkit of basketball players for decades into things of beauty.
While Blake Griffin is generally considered to be the most exciting player on the Clippers, or even in the NBA, I personally find Paul to be much more thrilling to watch. Dunks are great, but rarely the work of a refined craftsman. As much as I love rewatching Kevin Durant’s dunk on Brendan Haywood, it seems like a more shallow thrill. Blake Griffin’s athleticism simply seems like good genetic luck while Paul’s court vision and ball handling, while being so natural as to seem innate, is really the work of several years in the NBA brought to full fruition.
Chris Paul has nevertheless accumulated a truly stunning body of work and unquestionably established himself as the best point guard in the NBA, perhaps the best since Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson retired and despite his more relatively traditional style of play compared to the league’s other great point guards – Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving – he is still as exciting and idiosyncratic as any of them. If the NBA’s point guards were jazz musicians, Chris Paul would be Duke Ellington, an artist loyal to more traditional swing and big-band styles, but always remaining inventive, pushing those forms forward.Ellington would compose songs that highlighted the specific talents of his bandmembers and Paul does the same. It’s hard to imagine Tyson Chandler leading the Association in Offensive Rating for multiple seasons without Paul showcasing how he could be most effectively utilized.
Additionally, Paul’s basketball IQ is unparalleled. Last season, there were many jokes made about who really coaches the Clippers - Vinny Del Negro or Chris Paul - but watching a Clippers game made it clear why such jokes could be made semi-seriously. While Vinny Del Negro meandered up and down the sideline with his mysterious sheet of paper rolled up in his fist, Paul barked at his teammates setting the tone for the rest of his team. While a term like “feel for the game” is so ambiguous to be almost meaningless, it is clear merely by watching a Clippers game that Paul knows what is needed and when. He knows when to assert himself as a scorer or to distribute, when to be more passive or more aggressive. There have been several games where Paul simply manages to keep the Clippers close before finally taking the mantle upon himself in order to take the lead or further it. Even a brief glimpse at his bio page on NBA.com reveals a number of stats showing how drastically different his numbers in the fourth quarter are. In the 2011 season, despite being only thirteenth in points per game overall, he was second in points scored in the 4th quarter. Paul was also second in the NBA in points scored with his team ahead or behind by five points or less with less than five minutes in the game, more simply known as “crunch time.” I don’t mean to start arguments about clutchness that tend to rely on gut feelings and conventional wisdom more than what actually happens on the court, but in my mind, there is no player I would rather have on my team with the game on the line than Chris Paul.
When writing or talking about sports, we often try to find historical analogues for current players. Kevin Durant is our generation’s George Gervin, LeBron James is an evolutionary Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant is Michael Jordan, etc. etc.. Chris Paul is different. Paul is no single player reincarnated or developed upon, but instead a summation of all the great point guards who have come before. In many ways, he is the final remnant of great, ‘traditional’ point guards as the league trends more and more towards quick, electrifying score-first point guards a la Rose, Westbrook, and Irving. I do not mean to sound like an old-timer bemoaning the days that point guards looked for the open man before their own shot - I love watching Russell Westbrook just as much as I do Paul - but there is something lovely about seeing an archetype of greatness fulfilled. While other players show the evolution of basketball and the game’s constantly changing contours and style, Paul offers not a way forward, but the perfecting of an ideal.
-Micah Wimmer (stationtostation and @micahwimmer)
Faith is a strange thing. It is primarily spoken of in a religious sense, but it doesn’t have to be that way. From a religious context, theologian Karl Barth spoke of faith simultaneously as trust, knowledge, and confession. However, in a more colloquial sense, Brandon Jennings has been in the NBA for four years and despite flashes of brilliance, no one seems to have faith that he is the key to rejuvenating a mediocre Pistons team instead believing more in Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, and Josh Smith. I don’t think those people are wrong, but I wish they were.
Brandon Jennings entered the NBA with an air of contrarian flare. Giving a middle finger to the NBA’s rule that you must be out of high school for one year before entering the NBA, Jennings opted out of attending college for one season then going pro and instead decided to go professional immediately, but for an Italian squad. He did this despite the fact that he could have attended any college he wanted to. Jennings had been named player of the year by Parade, EA Sports, Gatorade, and also earned the Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award. He was pretty much unanimously considered the top high school prospect his senior year, but nevertheless scorned the traditional one-and-done model.
Jennings’ overseas career was undistinguished. He averaged less than ten points a game, shot less than forty percent (sadly, a harbinger of things to come), and played less than twenty minutes a game. Despite this, Jennings was still drafted with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially, Jennings opted to not attend the draft, going to a family get together instead. But after the fourteenth pick was announced, Jennings showed up unexpectedly; he wanted that picture with the commissioner.
When he began his rookie season, he played phenomenally. He flirted with a triple double in his very first game getting 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists. He seemed to have the Rookie of the Year award locked up after the first month of the season. In his first eleven games, Jennings averaged 25 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 assists while shooting 47 percent overall and 49 percent from three. These numbers, if he had continued getting them, would have put him in talks for being one of the best players in the league, but unfortunately, they were not sustainable
On November 14, 2009, the Bucks played the Warriors. Jennings started out slow, not scoring at all in the first quarter. He made up for it by scoring ten in the second quarter, putting him on pace to nearly match his season average to that point. But Jennings’ third quarter was literally one of the best quarters ever played in NBA history. With the Bucks down nine, he scored sixteen consecutive points for the Bucks turning a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead. Jennings made twelve of his thirteen shots in third quarter, including four three-pointers. His only miss was a three with 4.9 seconds remaining in the quarter. Jennings finished the game with 55 points after amassing sixteen more points in the final quarter, leading the Bucks to a four point victory.
After this game, Jennings began to be mentioned along the names of legends. He set a rookie record for the Bucks surpassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 51 point performance in 1970. He became the youngest player in NBA history to score 50 points, beating LeBron James by twenty eight days. And Jennings’ 55 points were the most scored by a rookie since Earl Monroe’s 56 point performance in February 1968.
The adulation was justified, but perhaps we extrapolated too much from that performance. The Rookie of the Year award seemed to be locked up by him after that game. It was assumed that the rest of the season would simply be a coronation for the game’s newest star, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Jennings continued to put up decent stats - fourteen points and about six assists per game over the season’s final seventy one games - but he shot terribly. Gone was the hyper-efficient player we saw the first month of the season. After shooting 47 percent those first eleven games, Jennings made less than thirty five percent of his shots the rest of the season. Particularly damning was his inability to convert from close to the rim as he shot better from three than he did for two pointers. After shooting fifty percent or better four times in the first eleven games, he only reached that mark again eight times in the latter seventy one games of the season. He did not win Rookie of the Year.
Recent seasons have been more of the same: glimpses of promise interspersed with inefficient volume shooting. But these glimpses of potential greatness have been enough for me, as a fan, to ignore everything else. Even when his shots haven’t fell, I’ve kept watching. Even apart from his tantalizing potential, there’s been an intrinsic coolness to him that has kept me intrigued. Maybe it’s just his left-handedness, but I think there’s something more than that. Even now, it’s hard to think of any players who could be described as having a smoother playing style than him. His quickness, speed, and dexterity are continually thrilling. Although he often struggles to make his shots when he gets near the rim, watching him get there is always an aesthetic treat. The problem is, the more he struggles to make shots efficiently, what once seemed effortless now just seems careless.
So returning to the notion of faith and Barth’s conception of it, I feel the need to ask three questions. Would I trust Brandon Jennings running my team’s offense? Do I know that Brandon Jennings is a good basketball player? Would I confess a belief in Brandon Jennings? It’s hard to say absolutely yes to any of those. Jennings has shown himself capable of being a formidable starting point guard at times, but one with obvious, and, at times, overwhelming flaws. It is clear that Jennings has the capability of being an All Star player. We’ve seen it, but after four years, it seems foolish to prize an eleven game sample over four full seasons, yet I continue to do so. Yet I ignore logic and it is because of these eleven games that I am still able to believe in Jennings. It’s been years now since Jennings quit being the darling of the NBA; no one considers him one of the best young point guards in the league anymore with Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Damian Lillard, and maybe even Eric Bledsoe surpassing him. Perhaps these lowered expectations, along with playing on a better team, will help Jennings get a little bit closer to where he was when he entered the league than where he has been recently. If those eleven games were really the best Jennings is capable of - and it looks more and more like they were - then it is time to become grateful and awestruck by those, letting them lie, instead of expecting them to happen again. Those eleven games seem so long ago now, but they were so tremendous that NBA fans cannot forget them entirely.
There’s plenty of reasons to not like Jennings. It makes perfect sense why so many teams had no interest in signing him, but there are still few players I seek out on League Pass more than Jennings. Despite all of his flaws, I still believe in Jennings - perhaps against my better judgment - but I don’t think faith was ever intended to be fully rational.
Last night, Allen Iverson officially announced his retirement from the NBA. In a way, this announcement is long overdue as Iverson has not played in an NBA game in over three years. There have been many times during these last three years that we have gathered and once again paid homage, commemorating the end Iverson’s career, but now, this is actually the end and while we have known that it has been over for a while, it seems that Iverson finally does too.