Basketball needs a new villain

The curtain has come down on what proved to be an NBA season chock full of storylines. Kawhi Leonard delivered Toronto its first title, LeBron James missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and Golden State missed out on the first 3-peat since a guy named Jordan did it in the 90s. Yet, as the dust settles, one key role has been left shockingly unfilled in the world of basketball. For the first time in quite a while, basketball does not have a villain.

Kobe Bryant
The Black Mamba won 5 titles spanning the course of 11 years. (Flikr)

This role, most recently portrayed by Kevin Durant, is one common to basketball for decades. Sometimes, it even manifested into teams. The “Bad Boys” were the clear villain in the NBA during the late 80s, led by Bill Laimbeer. The mantle was passed to Christian Laetner in the early 90s. The late 90s were owned by that Kobe kid. He likely held that title for quite a while, even giving his persona a name which struck fear into the heart of his opponents. Although JJ Reddick really challenged him for the crown during the mid 2000’s.

In 2010, LeBron James announced he would be taking up the role until further notice when he created the first modern era super team. When he stepped down, as his character arc brought him back to hero status, Grayson Allen stepped up to bring back the Duke hate. That led us into Durant’s reign when he signed with Golden State.

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The King became the league’s best villain ever with his move to South Beach. (Wikimedia Commons)

There is no doubt though that Durant is done with the role, after attempting to play through injury in the finals before rupturing his Achillies, as the Warriors ultimately succumbed to injuries and the might of Kawhi Leonard. That kind of grit and determination won over a lot of the haters. Golden State already seemed to be losing steam as the league’s big bad. With Durant set to miss most or all of next season, Grayson Allen wasting away in Utah and LeBron looking like a business mogul in L.A., it is safe to say basketball will be holding auditions to replace him as its antagonist.

It is hard to know where to look for the next villain of basketball. The men’s college game didn’t produce any worthy candidates. It’s best player was one of the nicest people on the planet. The women’s college game didn’t even come close to manufacturing a leading lady, as Sabrina Ionescu (basically) felled every triple-double record ever known. The closest thing the WNBA might have is Brittney Griner, but she doesn’t seem to command the same level of animosity she did in college.

The NBA seems like the best bet to unearth the next great basketball antihero. With free agency looming and the Lakers acquisition of Anthony Davis, could Los Angeles once again become the home of the sport’s evil empire? This is Hollywood after all. They produce great villains all the time.

LeBron’s Lakers feel like the only remaining hope for a true villain right now in basketball. There is the potential college basketball will suddenly find a worthy contender, but no one seems ideally placed to take on the role. In the NBA, none of the current superstars feel all that hateable. Leonard is way too soft spoken. Giannis Antetokounmpo feels way too lovable. The closest thing the Association currently has to a new villain is Drake. In order for him to truly vault into that position, the Raptors would need to be a consistent contender. That is far from guaranteed. It also feels pretty lame if the villain is not even a player.

I just feel lost right now in terms of who to hate. After so many years of great villains, I can’t buy into hating the Lakers yet. I now feel bad for Durant and the Warriors. I dislike James Harden, but that hardly elevates him to villain status. Basketball just looks like a villain-less wasteland.

No, basketball must truly return to the drawing board and craft up a new character to lord over the sport, inspiring hate in all of our social media diatribes. The NBA capped its incredible storytelling with a masterstroke of having the unsuspecting Raptors vanquish the mighty Warriors, but it came at the cost of its best villain in years.

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In sports, hate is respect

There are some people in sports that you just hate. You hate seeing them have win awards or titles. You hate seeing them make a spectacular play. You just hate seeing them have success in general.

I talked about it the other day, but there are all kinds of hate. There is the hate for Alex Rodriguez, Sepp Blatter and Roger Goodell, which is based on their character and decision making. However, there is also the hatred of a player because he or she is really good at what he or she does.

USA Canada 2010 Gold Medal Game
Crosby scored the game-winning goal in overtime against the US. (Wikimedia Commons)

This version of the word is reserved for a only a few in sports. There are many that hate LeBron. Plenty despised Manning. Crosby is a someone hockey fans love to hate. Messi and Ronaldo are two of the most hated players in the world.

This kind of hate is usually personal. For me, I’ve always hated Brady and Kobe, as well as Crosby, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I never wanted to see them do well and it pained me when they did. That was a problem cause they were successful a lot.

In sports, hatred is the highest level of respect a fan can have for a player. That might sound odd, but when you think about it, it adds up. You despise these athletes because of how good they are at what they do. It is nothing to do with who they are as a person in this case. Instead, it focuses on their accomplishments, which means that you have acknowledged their success.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant retired third on the NBA all-time scoring list. (Wikimedia Commons)

It took me a very long time to realize why I hated some of these guys so much. It was because they were really good. I hated these players like Brady, Crosby and Kobe because they continually did things that most other athletes could not and I didn’t want to see it happen. I truly hated them solely because they were good at what they did.

Eventually, that kind of hatred turns into respect. I can’t stand Kobe and his constantly isolation, but I recognize that he is one of the top ten players to ever lace them up. Crosby cost me $10 in a bet when I was a kid and cost the United States a gold medal in hockey at the Olympics. I resented him for that, but I know it’s because of how skilled he is as a player.

Tom_Brady
Brady is tied for the most Super Bowl wins as a quarterback in league history. (Wikimedia Commons)

And Brady, man, I don’t know if I can put into words how much I hate Brady. He has tormented the Jets for as long as I can remember and I mean that quite literally. I’ve watched him hold up the Lombardi Trophy four times. Each time has felt like a gut punch. However, I accept the fact that he is arguably the best quarterback in NFL history.

It is hard to admit these things to ourselves, much less to other people. You always want to maintain that those players are not as good as everyone else thinks they are. Eventually, you give up the fight though and begin to respect them.

That doesn’t mean you hate them any less, you just understand that your hatred is more than justified because of all the success they have accrued over the course of their respective careers.

Do I still hate these guys? Absolutely. But do I respect that they are great athletes that I am lucky to be watching. Yes, I just might not like to admit it.

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NBA has some All-Star problems

After harping on some of the issues the NFL is facing with the Pro Bowl yesterday, I figured it was time to turn my attention to another All-Star game with major issues.

The NBA All-Star game is always a fun affair and usually well-attended. Instead, the issues the NBA has with it’s showcase game center more around who is involved and how they are selected.

Stephen_Curry2
Curry leads the NBA in scoring, but not in All-Star votes.

There is nothing wrong with fan voting, as long as the fans actually vote. Kobe Bryant received the most votes, (we will get into why that is an issue in a minute) barely edging out Steph Curry.

According to a NBA press release, Bryant led the way with just under 1.9 million votes. That is flat out pathetic. It is an uptick though from last season where Curry had the most votes while barely topping one million votes.

The Eastern Conference was even worse as LeBron James led the way with 1.1 million votes. Dwyane Wade was the next highest and could not even top the one million vote mark.

The NBA is a global organization. They have fans in time zones across the globe. Roughly 315 million people live in the United States and over seven billion people populate planet Earth. How is it that the NBA has players who cannot even garner two million votes?

Tom_Brady
Brady narrowly edged out Cam Newton for the most votes for any player.

Believe it or not, these numbers are actually really impressive when you compare them to the NFL. Tom Brady led all Pro Bowl vote-getters with a meager 700,000. However, fan voting is not the only thing that decides Pro Bowl rosters. Players and coaches give their input as to who should be playing in Hawaii and the fans players and coaches all pull equal weight.

For the NBA, it is solely decided by fans. Well at least the starters. Coaches determine the rest of the roster. Neither system is perfect, both probably need to be tweak and they definitely need to find a way to increase fan voting if they want to continue to rely on it.

Kobe Bryant
Bryant announced earlier this year that he will retire at the end of the season.

Fan voting also leads to some other issues, such as selecting players who do not deserve to be playing in that game. I mentioned before that we would be getting back to Bryant, who at the age of 39 is making his final All-Star appearance. Bryant will go down as one of the great players in NBA history, but based on his stats he has no business being in this game.

The Lakers’ shooting guard is in the midst of the worst shooting season of his career. He is hitting just 34.6 percent of his shots from the field, which is the worst mark among qualified players in the league, and only 25 percent from three-point range. There are 119 qualified players who shoot the ball better than Bryant and the next lowest one is Wesley Matthews at 38.9 percent. He is also on pace to put up the worst scoring numbers of his career in a season where he started at least 10 games.

What is even more disappointing is that Bryant’s presence prevents someone more deserving, like Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum or Andrew Wiggins, from participating in the game. Those three definitely deserved some All-Star consideration.

In short, Kobe should not be in the All-Star game, much less be starting. However, his inclusion brings about an interesting question. Does the NBA care?

The league is interested in putting on a fun-filled weekend for the fans and the All-Star game is the capstone of it. Including fan favorites like Kobe, who is on his farewell tour, boosts interest in the game. That should increase ticket sales and likely television rankings as well.

Dwyane Wade
Wade is making his 12th All-Star appearance in 13 years.

This applies to Dwyane Wade as well. While he is not as bad of a culprit here as Kobe, I don’t think he deserves to be starting in the Eastern Conference. Wade is more the product of being the most well-known player on a popular team. I think Wade has played well enough this season that he should be part of the game, but the fact that he is starting over Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan is questionable at best. Both Butler and DeRozan have put up better points, rebounds and steals per game than Wade this season.

What the NBA needs to decide is which direction they want to take this in. Are they content with having the game be a spectacle for the fans, regardless of whether or not the most-deserving players are part of it? Or do they really want this to be a reward for players who are having incredible seasons and deserve recognition for their play?

Either way can work, but right now the NBA is promoting the second idea, while practicing the first.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that Tyronn Lue is coaching the Eastern Conference team. Give me a break!

NBA All Star snubs

The NBA All Star rosters took another step towards being finalized yesterday. The coaches decided on who the reserve players for each team should be. The East roster now features Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Pau Gasol, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Chris Bosh, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, Kyrie Irving and Dwayne Wade. The West includes Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Klay Thompson. At least two players, Wade and Bryant, will likely not be participating due to injury. There are some notable names missing from this list and I am going to break down who among them should have made it.

The first name to jump out at me absolutely has to be Derrick Rose. The Bulls’ point guard has had an injury-ridden season but when he has played, he has looked like one of the best players in the league. He has struggled though, especially shooting the ball. However, he is still scoring at a great rate and he is tied for 16th in points per 48 minutes played. He is also scoring more than Teague or Wall, who made the team over him. Rose is averaging fewer assists and shooting at a much worse rate per game though so I can understand why he was not picked. That being said, I think he is the next logical add if it turns out that Wade cannot go.

The other thing that bothers me in the East is leaving out the Pistons’ frontcourt. Both Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe are in the top ten for rebounding this season with Drummond ranking second and Monroe tying for ninth. Drummond is averaging almost thirteen points per game as well with Monroe accounting for more than 15 per night. Drummond also has the most board per 48 minutes played and is an excellent shot blocker ranking ninth in the league. The issue for these two guys is that it is hard to argue whose spot they should take. I think Millsap and Horford were deserving of their selections. Both of these Pistons’ big men have played well though this season and certainly should have been considered.

Flipping to the West now, there is no bigger omission than DeMarcus Cousins. The man they call “Boogie” has been a force in Sacramento this season. Cousins has missed some time due to injury this year but he has put on a show out in California. He cleans up the board with 12.3 rebounds a game, good for third in the NBA. That is also two more rebounds per game than Duncan, who did make the team. The Kings’ big man has also made his presence felt defensively, with roughly 1.5 blocks and steals each per matchup. Duncan is logging about 2 blocks but only 1 steal per game. The biggest difference though is the gap in scoring. Duncan is scoring a solid 14.7 points per game. Meanwhile, Cousins is tallying 23.8 per night, which ranks fifth best in the NBA. I understand that Duncan is a great veteran player but I would definitely have selected Cousins over him.

Damian Lillard was another man forgotten in the All Star selection process. He has been a much better scorer than Chris Paul has this season but Paul has registered a lot more assists. The Blazers’ floor general shot much more effectively than Bryant did this season but Kobe, even despite his age, has been the better defender. The reality is that Lillard has played extremely well but it hasn’t been enough to push his name into being an All Star. There is a good chance that had Lillard been playing the East he would have been selected this season. He has outperformed the majority of the guards in the East but that does not matter with voting being conducted by conference.

It is hard to argue with the lineups being assembled to play in New York this season (well, outside of Kobe of course). There were some guys who were probably qualified to make these teams but unfortunately come up short based on how tough it is to make the 12-man roster. Only 24 players are named All Stars meaning that there are plenty of others who are left out. Let me know if you think there were some other players who should have made it.

NBA All Star voting flaws

The NBA announced whom the fans selected to participate in the 2015 All Star Game. The Eastern Conference squad features John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Pau Gasol. The Western Conference side consists of Stephan Curry, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. As always, there were some noticeable omissions from the lineup. On top of that, a couple of names made the list who were very debatable. Now, as everyone will want to know, who were the biggest names left off the list and who should have been left off the team entirely? I am not sold on how well the fans did at selecting these teams. Let’s take a look at the shortcomings.

For some context, this is just the preliminary roster with Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer set to name the reserves early next week. That means that some of the notable snubs will be added in that round of selections. Kerr is likely to add Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in addition to Clippers guard Chris Paul. For Budenholzer, he will likely name Heat forward Chris Bosh, Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving.

Another name that should crop up is James Harden, who more than likely should have been a starter over Bryant for the West team. This is a huge oversight by the fans. On his own merits, Bryant should never have been added to this roster, and definitely not as a starter. I have spouted off previously about Kobe and his steadily declining play. Meanwhile, Harden is in the midst of an MVP-caliber season piloting Houston to a tie with the Clippers for fifth in the Western Conference. The Rockets guard has averaged an NBA-leading 27.2 points per game along with 6.7 assists and 5.5 rebounds while converting the sixth most three pointers. Defensively, Harden has stepped up his game too with career highs in blocks and steals. Harden also ranks first in Win Shares and fifth in Player Efficiency Rating among starters. It makes no sense to me that he is not on this list and Bryant is instead, despite him having a disappointing year. Bryant will not be playing for the team anymore due to a torn rotator cuff and Harden should be his replacement.

The other glaring issue with the rosters is the makeup of the West’s starting five. You have Curry and for arguments sake, let’s say Harden. Then you have Griffin, Davis and Marc Gasol. Those last three are big men who play best as either a power forward or center. None of them could really make it as a small forward. So somewhere in this starting five, Kerr has to find a small forward for game day; there is not one there though. Griffin is the closest thing he has to a small forward and he would have his hands full playing against either Melo or LeBron, whomever he covers. The system of voting has left the Western team in a bind not really creating a true All Star lineup. I have always felt that the team should have a player from each position rather than general labels like guard and forward. That might be my opinion but it definitely would make for a cleaner lineup.

I do not have an issue with the selection that many people, most notably Charles Barkley, have openly disputed. Carmelo Anthony should absolutely be starting in the Eastern Conference. If this were similar to the NFL Pro Bowl, where the teams are not sorted by conference, then Melo likely would not make the cut. Under this current format, he is the best option available, and it is not even close. Anthony is second for forwards in scoring in the East with 24 points per game. The next highest scorer is Tobais Harris only averaging 18 points a contest. Melo is also tied for third with Paul Millsap for most assists per game behind only James and Joe Johnson. There is not a player in the East who has better qualifications as a starter.

The All Star game is still almost a month away and the rosters will be much more scrutinized once the reserves are announced. The All Star game does not stand for much but being named All Star is validation of your accomplishments as a player. Based on the immense split of talent between the East and West maybe it is time for the Association to adoptteams that are not conference specific allowing for truly the best players to compete in the game. Keep an eye for a list of the biggest snubs next week when the rest of the rosters are announced.