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Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Shaky Starts for Lakers and Rockets Punctuated by Saturday Night Fight

The Houston Rockets and L.A. Lakers have both started the 2019 season in less than impressive fashion. The Rockets are 1-2 and their only win is against the 0-3 Lakers. The Rockets have a mediocre offense so far, ranking 17th out of 30 teams in scoring, 15th in field goal percentage and 18th in assists. They are awful defensively, ranking 27th in defensive field goal percentage and 24th in rebounding. James Harden will always put up gaudy individual regular season numbers playing for a team that is built around him monopolizing the ball--28.3 ppg, 9.7 apg, 6.7 rpg so far--but the Rockets have been outscored by 7 ppg during his time on the court while outscoring their opponents by 3 ppg when Harden is on the bench.

The Lakers are giving up 131.7 ppg (!), which amazingly is not the worst figure in the league; the Lakers rank 23rd in points allowed. The Lakers are shooting .287 from three point range (28th), which means that LeBron James is often operating in a crowd because opposing defenses can afford to sag into the paint. The reflexive response would be to blame James' "supporting cast" for the Lakers' perfectly imperfect record but the Lakers are being outscored by more than 7 ppg while James is on the court and the Lakers are holding their own when James is on the bench.

When the two teams met on Saturday night, it very much looked like the resistible force meeting the movable object. It was not clear which team would fold in the end when, with 4:13 left in the fourth quarter and the Rockets clinging to a 109-108 lead, the train went completely off the rails. Brandon Ingram was called for a foul after Harden pushed off during a drive (unless you believe that extending your arms horizontally--as opposed to upward--is a natural shooting motion for a layup). Harden whined for a continuation call, Chris Paul chimed in as well and Ingram shoved Harden out of the way while complaining to the referee about the call. At that point, it looked like Harden would be living at the free throw line because of the shooting foul plus the technical foul on Ingram. While everything was being sorted out, Paul and Rajon Rondo got involved in a heated conversation. Suddenly, Paul stuck his finger in Rondo's face (leaving a scratch underneath Rondo's eye) and Rondo responded by throwing punches. Paul threw punches as well before his good buddy James pulled him away to safety. Meanwhile, Ingram rushed into the fray and threw a punch as well.

Paul ran to the broadcast table to get his story out first, claiming that Rondo had spit on him. While James walked alongside Paul with his arm draped over Paul's shoulder, the other Lakers tried to calm Ingram down. Ingram, Rondo and Paul were each ejected. The NBA subsequently suspended Ingram for four games, Rondo for three games and Paul for two games. Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni immediately complained because the suspensions (and resulting forfeited game checks) will cost Paul far more money than the other guys will lose (due to Paul's bloated contract). Here is a thought: maybe the President of the Players Association who makes $40 million per year should have considered what he stood to lose before he stuck his finger in Rondo's face.

It is well established that the Rockets are fake tough guys, something that I addressed last season in an article titled The Rockets' Fake Toughness:
Real toughness in the NBA is displayed by playing defense, focusing on the game plan and executing in the playoffs...Fake toughness in the NBA is displayed by acting like you want to get in a fistfight, knowing full well that there is an armada of security guards and police officers at every NBA arena. Years back, Tim Thomas--speaking about Kenyon Martin--had the perfect term for these kind of antics: "fugazi," meaning "fake."
I am pretty sure that Paul assumed that he could get his finger poke in for free before he and Rondo would be quickly separated. Paul did not count on Rondo unloading a two piece on his dome.

Paul's new teammate Carmelo Anthony, a member of the NBA's All-Fake Tough Guy First Team, called Rondo's conduct "unacceptable." Anthony is well versed in "unacceptable" conduct; in  2006, then-Denver Nugget Anthony was one of the principals in an ugly melee in Madison Square Garden. Anthony sucker-punched the Knicks' Mardy Collins and then back-pedaled like he was on ice skates--managing to lose credibility both as a professional ball player who should know better than to throw a punch during a game and as a self-respecting man, for no self-respecting man would throw a sucker punch and then run away from the target of his anger. Fighting has no place in the NBA but if you are going to start a fight then be a man and stand your ground instead of running away like a scared little kid!

NBA Commissioner David Stern suspended seven players for a total of 47 games, with Anthony leading the way with a 15 game suspension (at the time this was the sixth longest suspension in NBA history). While Commissioner Adam Silver let Saturday night's instigators off relatively easily, Commissioner Stern imposed significant punishments and it is not a coincidence that the 2006 brawl was the last such on court melee until Paul, Rondo and Ingram lost their cool. It will be interesting to see if Silver's punishments will have the same kind of deterrent effect.

After the fight, ESPN showed clips of some of the previous interactions between Rondo and Paul. ESPN was making the point that there is a long history of animosity between these players but one thing that stood out immediately and dramatically is how much muscle mass Paul has added. The image of Paul flexing his biceps earlier in the game looks like a short version of the Incredible Hulk, while the young Paul looks like a scrawny kid. Throughout his career, Paul has been listed as 6-0, 175 pounds, but he is probably shorter than 6-0 and at this point he is clearly significantly heavier than 175 pounds. That kind of dramatic transformation brings to mind--among others--Evander Holyfield, who also went from about 175 pounds to well over 200 pounds of chiseled muscle during a period of time when illegal performance enhancing drugs were delivered to his residence. It is worth noting that as the President of the NBA Players Association, Paul has been a staunch opponent of testing for Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is an odd position to take if one cares at all about (1) the long term health and safety of the players and (2) the integrity of the sport.

Another thing that struck me is that Paul does a whole lot of jawing for someone has not even made it to the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship. I vaguely recall a verbal exchange between two NHL players years ago and, if I am correct, I believe that the one player told the other that he could not even hear the nonsense that the other player was spouting because he had put all of his championship rings over his ears. Rondo could have saved himself a lot of money and had the ultimate "scoreboard" last word by saying something similar to Paul instead of punching Paul.

After the fight, Rondo kept his mouth shut publicly until the suspensions were handed down and then he offered his take: "Of course, the NBA went with his side because I got three games and he got two. Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don't know he's a horrible teammate. They don't know how he treats people. Look at what he did last year when he was in LA, trying to get to the Clippers locker room. They don't want to believe he's capable of taunting and igniting an incident. He comes out and says I spit and the media sides with that." Rondo added that he "had a mouthpiece in my mouth and I was exasperated because I was about to tell him to 'get the [expletive] out of here.' One, if I spit on you, bottom line, there is not going to be no finger-pointing. If you felt that I just spit on you, then all bets are off. Two, look at my body language. If I spit on you on purpose, I'm going to be ready for a man to swing on me. You ain't going to have my hands on my hip and my head look away at someone if I spit on them. After the [expletive] goes down, within 30 seconds, you run and tell the sideline reporters that I spit on you? If I spit on you, you are trying to get to me. You not trying to make up a story so you can look like a good guy. It makes no sense to me. I was going to let it rest. I wasn't going to say much. But now I have kids and I teach my kids to speak up for themselves and don't let the world tell their story."

The tape of the incident has been slowed down, placed into close up and replayed more often than the Zapruder film. If you freeze-frame it, squint and look from a certain angle, then maybe some spittle came out of Rondo's mouth, but if/when it did, Rondo was not even looking directly at Paul. Rondo should start a second career as a ventriloquist if he can intentionally spit on someone through a mouthpiece without even looking at the person! My take is that Paul did not like Rondo telling him to "Get the [expletive] out of here," Paul poked Rondo in the face while assuming that they would be separated and Paul did not realize that Rondo actually knows how to throw punches in combinations.

No one is covered in glory here. Ingram, a normally mild-mannered person by all accounts, lost his mind. I thought that he deserved to be suspended for at least five games; running into the fight and throwing a punch was a dangerous, bush league move. Paul and Rondo should have received the same punishment; two or three games makes sense, but I consider them equally culpable because they both threw punches. I suspect that Paul was the actual instigator but once they both threw punches they both needed to miss multiple games.

As for James, there is nothing wrong with him pulling Paul out of the fracas. You are always supposed to grab the guy from the other team, so your guy does not get punched in the face while he is being held. The problem is that after Paul was separated from the pack James should have gone over to his team and been with his guys. If I am a Laker, those pictures of James leisurely walking with his arm around Paul are not cool at all. In the old days, this would be resolved by James delivering a hard foul--not a cheap shot and not intended to injure--to Paul the next time these teams play, to demonstrate that his on court loyalties are not divided. The mainstream media narrative is that James and Paul are great leaders/teammates but the real world narrative is that coveted free agents are hardly clamoring to play with either guy.

The Rockets are not going to finish with a losing record and the Lakers will eventually win a game but both teams have some issues to address. The Carmelo Anthony experiment is turning out so far the only way that any sensible person would have expected: he is sixth on the team in scoring (8.3 ppg) while shooting .321 from the field and .200 from three point range. As usual, his defense is awful and apathetic. The Rockets are being outscored by 5 ppg while Anthony is on the court. "Olympic Melo" was always a myth for the most part and now, at best, it is a distant memory. Anthony is a ball-dominant isolation scorer who has lost his shooting touch and he is playing alongside two other ball-dominant players. Why in the world would anyone expect this to work?

James signed a long-term deal with the Lakers, which is supposedly a sign that he will be patient after he only signed short-term deals with Cleveland. Patience has never been James' strong suit, though, and another way to view his contract is that James is an aging player who is now locked in for big money until he will be a lot closer to 40 years old than 30. That was a financially smart move on his part and he has always been smart about using the substantial leverage he enjoys. If the Lakers keep losing, James will need a scapegoat, which means Coach Luke Walton will be on the hot seat and/or some players may be headed out the door. We all saw on Saturday night that James cares a lot more about how his good buddy Paul feels than about how Rondo, Ingram or his teammates feel. Just file that away for future reference if the Lakers do not show signs of progress by game 20 or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:12 PM