38 Special, "Changing the Culture" and a Peaceful Suspension: Random Thoughts as the 2012 NBA Season ConcludesToday is the final day of the 66 game, lockout-shortened 2012 NBA season. We already know the identities of all 16 playoff teams and the top three seeds in each conference but several playoff matchups will be determined by the results of tonight's games. There will only be one day of rest before the playoffs begin, so coaches will not have much time to prepare for the important game one of the playoffs (the winner of that contest ultimately wins the series the vast majority of the time) and I will have less time than usual to complete my annual awards article and my playoff preview article--but three subjects that I will not cover in those two articles are weighing on my mind:
1) The L.A. Lakers' game versus the Sacramento Kings is "meaningless" for both teams but I remember when star players played--and sometimes put up big numbers--in such "meaningless" games. If the teams and the players are truly going to treat such games as "meaningless" then they should refund the ticket revenue from those games (the Boston-Miami game on Tuesday night--with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo all sitting out--was a travesty and everyone who bought a ticket deserves a refund plus a free ticket to a real NBA game). Kobe Bryant needs to score at least 38 points to beat out Kevin Durant for the scoring title. If Bryant hits that number exactly or barely exceeds it then this will be the closest scoring title race in NBA history, surpassing the legendary 1978 duel when David Thompson scored 73 points in a "meaningless" game only to lose the crown to George Gervin, who scored 63 points in a "meaningless" game to finish with a 27.22 ppg average (Thompson averaged 27.15 ppg). Whether you are a Bryant fan, a Durant fan or an unbiased observer, if you truly love NBA basketball then you want to see Bryant play in that game and you want to see him try to score 38 points, a total that barely exceeds his 2006 season average (35.4 ppg) but that he has matched or bested just seven times in 58 games this season. If Bryant captures the crown he will be the oldest scoring champion other than Michael Jordan in NBA history, while if Durant is victorious he will be the first player to win three straight scoring titles since Jordan won the 1996-98 scoring titles. George Mikan, Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo and George Gervin are the only other players who won at least three consecutive scoring titles.
2) Metta World Peace is a repeat offender who has been suspended multiple times for violently striking opposing players (and, on one infamous occasion, charging into the stands to strike a fan, nearly starting a riot in the process). The vicious elbow that he delivered to James Harden's head could have seriously injured--or even killed--Harden; fortunately, Harden seems to have avoided serious injury but he does have a concussion, which could not only affect him in this year's playoffs (possibly costing the Oklahoma City Thunder a chance to win a championship) but could leave him susceptible to future concussions and possible long term health consequences. Suspending Peace for seven games is, literally, about the least that the NBA could do; it would not at all have been excessive for the league to sit him down for the entire playoffs and require him to successfully complete anger management training before being allowed to return. He has serious mental health issues that could have disastrous consequences if they are not properly addressed. If Peace did not learn from and was not deterred by previous suspensions that cost him more than 100 games plus millions of dollars in salary then why should anyone think that a seven game suspension is going to deter him now?
3) Chris Paul is receiving a lot of credit for "changing the culture" in L.A. and media members seem poised to anoint him as high as third in the MVP race. Paul is still not quite the player he was in 2008 and 2009 when he made the All-NBA First Team and All-NBA Second Team respectively but this has been a nice bounce back campaign for him after injuries limited his effectiveness the past two seasons. Paul certainly deserves a lot of credit for the L.A. Clippers' success this season but suggesting that he has singlehandedly transformed a losing team into a playoff team is just as ludicrous as saying that LeBron James' departure singlehandedly ruined the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blake Griffin leads the Clippers in points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage and total minutes played, so it is far from clear that Paul is even the best player on his own team, let alone the third best player in the entire league. However, regardless of whether Griffin or Paul deserves to be considered the top Clipper, it is indisputable that the Clippers have a vastly different eight man rotation this season than they did last season: only Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye ranked in the top eight in total minutes played for the Clippers both last season and this season. Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans joined Paul as new members of the Clippers' eight man rotation--and the Clippers' ninth player in minutes played, Chauncey Billups, started the first 20 games of the season, during which the team went 14-6. The Clippers are only 24-20 since a ruptured Achilles tendon ended Billups' season, so if Billups had gotten hurt just a bit earlier the team might not have even made the playoffs.
Paul has had a very good season and has reestablished himself as one of the league's top point guards but there is no reason to exaggerate how well he has played or the impact that he has had; that is the kind of mistaken thinking that resulted in Derrick Rose winning the 2011 MVP over LeBron James and led to Steve Nash winning two MVPs while Shaquile O'Neal and Kobe Bryant only received one MVP apiece. Perhaps media members more readily relate to players who are closer to their own size but at the NBA level it is very difficult for even a great small player to have the same kind of impact that a great mid-size player or a great big man has. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of NBA championship teams have been led by a great big man and/or a great mid-size player; the 2004 Pistons, the 1989-90 Pistons and the 1979 Sonics are three exceptions: those teams triumphed either because of the collective strength of an ensemble cast of very good players (2004 Pistons, 1979 Sonics) or because of the greatness of two small Hall of Fame guards (Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars) supported by gritty and tenacious big men who played suffocating defense. Rose's Bulls captured the number one seed in the East in 2012 because of their great defense/strong rotation of big men even though Rose missed a large chunk of this season but Nash never led a team to a championship (or even to the NBA Finals) and I doubt that Paul will ever be the best player on a championship team.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:58 AM