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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nowitzki and Nash Lend a Maverick Flavor to All-Star Saturday Night

Current Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki and beloved former Maverick Steve Nash accounted for half of the contest winners on All-Star Saturday night. Nowitzki's amalgamated Texas team--including San Antonio WNBA star Becky Hammon and Houston Rockets legend Kenny Smith--won the Shooting Stars event over a Los Angeles team comprised of Laker Pau Gasol, Los Angeles WNBA star Marie Ferdinand-Harris and L.A. Clipper legend (and 1996 Slam Dunk champion) Brent Barry. Then Steve Nash--a two-time MVP as a Phoenix Sun who received a very warm welcome from Dallas fans who remember his days as the Mavericks' point guard--defeated young guns Deron Williams, Brandon Jennings and Russell Westbrook to claim his second Skills Challenge title. Smith suggested that this is just the start of a Dallas-themed All-Star Weekend because Nowitzki will be a strong contender to win the All-Star MVP; Nowitzki will start in place of the injured Kobe Bryant and there have often been times when the hometown star is fed the ball by his teammates if he is hot and has a chance to capture the MVP.

The Three Point Contest was tightly fought--the scores ranged from 14 to 20--and yet not particularly dramatic. In the end, Boston's Paul Pierce--determined to avenge his disastrous performance in the 2002 Three Point Contest--hit all five last round "money balls" en route to posting 20 points to defeat Golden State's Stephen Curry (17 points) and Denver's Chauncey Billups (14). Curry started fast in the last round but faded in the middle racks and was essentially out of contention by the time that he began the final rack (he would have had to run the table just to tie Pierce, but Curry missed the first shot). Pierce was eliminated in the first round in 2002 after bricking his way to just eight points and this was the first time he had been invited back. As Pierce received the trophy, he told the Dallas fans that he knew that most people consider him a scorer, not a shooter, but that he thinks he is the best shooter in NBA history; he only backed down slightly in the post-event press conference, saying, "I would say one of the best. I've always said this and I tell this to guys on my team. I said throughout my career, I've always been known as a pure scorer and I always said if I just sat outside and shot threes and really just focused on that--come off screens and spot up and shoot six or seven threes a game--I would probably be more known as one of the great shooters in NBA history." Informed that Celtic legend Larry Bird won the Three Point Contest in Dallas in 1986, Pierce replied, "They say history always repeats itself and it did tonight. The stars were lined up I guess."

The Slam Dunk Contest is supposed to be the climax of All-Star Saturday but this event has been hit or miss in recent years. It simply does not have the cachet or mystique that it carried when the league's very top stars vied for aerial supremacy. Gerald Wallace is a first-time All-Star, while Nate Robinson, DeMar DeRozan and Shannon Brown are role players. Robinson's previous battles with Dwight Howard were entertaining and colorful but this year Robinson did not have such a charismatic--or physically imposing--foe. Brown and Wallace went out meekly in the first round. DeRozan is clearly a much more obscure figure to basketball fans than Robinson is; during the Slam Dunk Contest the scoreboard at the arena even misspelled his first name as "Dermar"! DeRozan earned the only perfect score of the night with an impressive dunk after catching a lob that his Toronto teammate Sonny Weems threw off of the side of the backboard but then Robinson stole the show by parading out four Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Fans no doubt thought that Robinson would jump over one or more of the girls but in fact they were just eye candy/inspiration. Robinson cannot palm the ball but he has such great springs in his legs that he can dunk two-handed at just 5-9 (and he quite possibly is shorter than that). Robinson's spinning, twisting two-handed reverse dunk after catching his own pass off of the backboard enabled him to squeak by DeRozan in the fan voting, 51% to 49%. Robinson is the only three-time Slam Dunk champion and he said afterwards that he will not compete in the event again.

Frankly, in general the All-Star Saturday events were not as exciting or dramatic as they have been in years past. In fact, the most entertaining event of the night may have been Commissioner David Stern's annual All-Star Weekend press conference: in a virtuoso performance that lasted less than 40 minutes, Commissioner Stern managed to reel off a string of one-liners:

1) After opening his remarks with a glowing state of the league report, he coyly said, "Is there anything I left out?" Media members laughed out loud as Stern paused and then added, "I guess I should mention this thing about collective bargaining."

2) Stern noted that San Antonio owner Peter Holt likes to say "This is not my first rodeo"; Stern said, "I don't even know if this is my ninth rodeo or my tenth. I've been around this. So I would give yesterday's meeting high marks on the list of theatrical negotiations. Literally out of the handbook of Negotiating 101...the right adjectives were thrown around and our proposal was appropriately denounced. Our response is you can denounce it, tear it up, you can burn it, you can jump up and down on it, as long as you understand that it reflects the financial realities of where we are."

3) Stern said that he has been involved in NBA negotiations since 1966: "I started when I was in a crib."

4) Responding to a question about the union tearing up the league proposal or taking it off of the table, Stern quipped, "I don't know what that means. We are talking semantics and everyone around here knows that I am not anti-semantic."

Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien better watch out!

One thing that Stern does not find the least bit amusing is that some anonymous NBA executives have taken potshots at the players; one colorful quote declared that if the players don't like the NBA's proposal then "LeBron James can play football, where he will make less than the new max. Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won’t make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years." Stern did not cite that quote specifically but I'm sure he had it in mind when he called such anonymous broadsides "cowardly" and vowed that if he ever finds out who said it "they would be dealt with; they would be former NBA people, not current."

Between the Henny Youngman shtick and the harsh words for executives who have spoken out of turn, Stern sent some straightforward shots across the bow in the direction of the Players Union regarding the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. Essentially, Stern declared that the league's financial books have been opened up to the players and the numbers show that the league and its teams are losing hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Therefore, the league's current economic model is not sustainable; the owners made a proposal to the union about how to fix matters and if the union does not like the proposal then Stern suggests that the players counter with an alternative that is fair to all sides.

I have not seen the books, so I don't know who is right and who is blowing smoke but what I found fascinating is that on one hand Stern declares that the league is doing better than ever in terms of reaching fans on a worldwide basis but on the other hand he claims that the NBA is losing money. That is a jarring dichotomy but most media members apparently did not pick up on it. Finally, near the end of the press conference, True Hoop's Henry Abbott asked Stern, "Can you just help us understand a little bit how the league has had such good attendance and ratings and all of these new international markets and yet hundreds of millions of dollars in losses?" Stern replied that "revenue generation has not been a problem...(but) the cost of that revenue has gone up dramatically." For example, teams are filling up arenas with fans by freezing or reducing ticket prices: hence, more revenue is created but the profit margin vanishes. Therefore, expenses have to be cut in some way and that is why the league has proposed to change how the revenues are split between the owners and the players.

Sometimes I have critiqued True Hoop and its various satellite blogs but that is not personal: I just hold professionals to high standards and I expect that people who are fortunate enough to communicate to a large audience should produce content of the highest possible quality. By the same token, I think that it is important to offer praise when someone does a good job, so I caught up with Abbott in the media dining area after the press conference and told him that I thought he asked the best question of the entire press conference.

Abbott and I agree that when more people have the opportunity to really digest Stern's entire message they will wonder how it can simultaneously be true that the NBA is thriving and yet bleeding money at prodigious rates. No doubt the union will ask that question as well. Again, I do not pretend to know the truth about the league's finances or business model but it seems doubtful that this press conference offered the final word in that regard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 AM



At Sunday, February 14, 2010 5:03:00 PM, Blogger Sports Chump said...

Ugh... another uneventful Slam Dunk contest.

Woe for the days of yesteryear.

Come trash the contest with me at http://sportschump.net/2010/02/14/dunk-you-very-little-nba/2972/

At Monday, February 15, 2010 12:14:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

your last point was the most astute- i've been wondering the same thing since stern went on simmons' BS report last week.

it seems to me- or, IMO- that the essence, which is all the public is currently privvied to, of the future CBA is to avoid a league like MLB and try for the cap and sanctioned enforced parity of the NFL, which to me is a mistake; alhough the fact remains that the NBA's ramifications have not rooted as expected, in terms of the d-league and WNBA.


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