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.

391px-lebron_james_vs_washington_3-30-11
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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Is this the second coming of the Dream Team?

Dream Team JordanPretending that this team is as good as the “Dream Team” from 1992 is probably pushing it. However, if you can march out a starting lineup that consists of Chris Paul, James Harden, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are you going to lose to? Even if those guys need a rest, you can roll out a lineup of Steph Curry, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMarcus Cousins. Even that lineup isn’t getting beat by anyone else in the world.

This is the most talent in a US camp that we’ve seen in quite some time. We just watch Team USA lose to Canada in the Pan-American games. And it wasn’t even in the finals. That team consisted on many college players, led by Ron Baker and Melo Trimble. The players who were already pros on that squad were Anthony Randolph and Ryan Hollins from the NBA and a few others hailing from overseas leagues. It has been some time since we’ve seen a top flight USA team.

LeBron_James_Even in 2014, when the USA won the FIBA World Cup yet again, some of the top end talent was not there. James, Durant and Paul were all watching from home. That’s three fifths of a potential starting lineup. Like I said, the US still dominated the competition. They won their five group play games by an average of 33.2 points per game. Every other team in their group finished with a negative point differential as well due to the massive losses at the hands of the US. In bracket play, the US’ closest game came in the quarterfinals against Mexico, and the US won by 23. It was a landslide the whole way.

Chris PaulIt begs the question of does the US need to send an even more stacked team to the 2016 Olympics in Brazil next summer? Obviously, any team can lose on any day but sending in even more reinforcements seems like overkill. We all saw what can happen to stars trying to play at the international level when Paul George careened into the barrier and destroyed his knee. That could very well happen to any of the other superstars walking out on the court. They could suffer a serious injury in a game that really could be won without them.

Stephen_Curry2Now if everyone left it would be an issue but for guys like Durant and George who are coming off major injuries that prevented them from participating in most of the previous NBA season, is this worth the risk? Both of them are in camp with the team, which doesn’t guarantee they will be playing in Rio but the possibility is there. I’m sure Oklahoma City and Indiana would both prefer if their two star players rested up and trained on their own, preparing to be on the court in the NBA this season. (Side note: George has since left camp.)

Anthony_DavisI know I sound critical of the best players participating on Team USA. The truth is that not all of that star power is needed to win an Olympic Gold for the US. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t be a ton of fun to watch these guys play together. It will almost be like the NBA All Star game but this time the outcome has some consequence. It should be an offensive barrage as well making the game just that much more entertaining. Those five guys, Paul, Harden, Durant, James and Davis scored a combined 118 points per night in the NBA this season. They obviously all can’t hit those numbers now as their usage ratings combine to reach 144 percent.

Harden_DurantIt may be a risk but it is one that we as fans of basketball should hope they continue to take. There have been some new precautions taken to avoid repeats of George’s gruesome injury. And if we get to see the best US players on the court together dominating it will be a sight to behold, even if games are blowouts. It probably couldn’t touch the “Dream Team” from ’92 but there is a good chance this will be the most talented team Team USA assembles since that point. That final 12-man roster is going to be stacked.

King James turns back the clocks

LeBron JamesIt is always fun to turn back the clocks and reminisce about the days of old. LeBron James is doing that and then some right now in the NBA Playoffs. James has been on fire in the Eastern Conference Finals and is showing shades of his 2007 self. Even beyond that, this current Cavs team is starting to resemble the 2007 versions more and more as the playoffs roll on. It is slowly morphing into the LeBron show with a couple of random sidekicks jumping in every night to make an impact. The comparison is kind of scary.

The 2007 Cavaliers finished the season number two in the conference and entered the playoffs as a true title contender. James led the way and carried a team full of relatively unknown commodities. The starting lineup around LeBron consisted of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskus. None of those guys were superstars by any means, and none of them scored more than 15 points a game in the regular season.

Obviously, this year’s Cavs have some more fire power but the pieces are continuing to fall as more of the burden falls on James. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both are nursing injuries that could cost them the rest of the playoffs. The Cavaliers starting lineup now features Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov alongside James. None of these guys have average more than 14 points a game since the playoffs began.LeBron_James_Wiz

Once again, the King is forced to prove why he sits on the throne. LeBron has done a very good job of answering the call so far. In three games without Irving or Love on the floor this postseason, James has tallied 27.3 points, 11.7 assists and 12 rebounds per night. Everyone points to that 2007 squad as the team that LeBron single-handedly brought to the finals, but he only average 25 points along with 8 helpers and 8 boards. Despite being 8 years older, James is playing even better now.

LeBron_James_Defensively, James is playing like his younger self as well. After registering 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per contest during the regular season, James has turned it up a notch. The King is now posting 1.8 thefts and 1.3 rejections on a nightly basis since he’s entered the playoffs. Those numbers are identical as well to his 2007 playoff numbers.

The amazing thing is the transformation LeBron has undergone in that time. His game is very different now than it was 8 years ago but James is still proving to be productive. James is relying on his three-point shot less than ever and playing a lot more around the hoop. In fact 50.3 of James shots have come within ten feet this postseason. He continues to bang with guys in the paint and slash his way to the basket. What a difference this is now from what we saw when James relied on his jump shot and post fadeaway more often than not.

He does better with opponents around him too. LeBron has attempted 60 percent of his shots with an opponent less than four feet away from him. He has connected on 49 percent of them. Oddly enough, on the other 40 percent of his shots where an opponent is more than four feet away, James has only hit about 33 percent of those shots. This doesn’t take into account where he was on the floor but it is certainly interesting to see that he seems to relish some contact.LeBron_James_vs_Andre_Roberson

This was supposed to be a competitive Cleveland team because of the new Big 3 that was planning to take the league by storm. With only LeBron left standing of those three, they are still as viable a title threat now as they were before. Part of that is because of the three-point shooting from Dellavedova, Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Mozgov and Thompson’s rebounding certainly go a long way as well but without James this team would not have a prayer of beating Atlanta, much less winning a title.

Irving should return soon though and if he does at full strength this Cleveland team could challenge Golden State in the Finals. They would be deep enough at guard to contend with the Warriors backcourt rotation and they can answer with some three-pointers of their own. I am pulling for a Warriors-Cavaliers matchup now just because of the intensity that series could bring. James would likely faced Draymond Green on a night-to-night basis, which would be a great matchup. LeBron is hitting his stride at the right time so even Green might have trouble King James.

2007 might be long behind him but if James continues to play like he’s 23, he might just land himself another title and really turn up the heat on the conversation for greatest player of all time.

What if Cleveland hadn’t won the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery?

Andrew_Wiggins_2014The NBA draft lottery is always difficult to predict. The last time the team with the highest chance of winning the lottery landed the top pick was over a decade ago when the Magic won back in 2004. That pick turned into Dwight Howard and drastically changed Orlando’s fortunes for the next several years. Some teams have simply gotten lucky with the draft lottery. Cleveland ended up with the top pick in the draft three out of the past four years, including 2014, where the Cavs won despite only having a 1.7 percent chance. That is simply unprecedented. It makes you wonder what might have happened if the Cavaliers’ fortunes weren’t so great. Here is what would have happened if the Cavs did not win the 2014 NBA draft lottery.

First thing is first, Andrew Wiggins doesn’t go first overall anymore. Milwaukee wins the draft lottery instead and the Bucks made it clear they wanted Jabari Parker no matter what. Instead, Wiggins goes second overall to the 76ers, making Philadelphia a scary young team. What transpires after the draft drastically changes the outlook of the 2014-2015 NBA season.

With no elite bargaining chip, the Cavaliers are unable to pry Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Instead, Love is shipped to Boston in exchange for Marcus Smart, Rodney Hood and two future first round picks. With Love headed for the Celtics instead of the Cavaliers, LeBron James decides to opt into his contract with Miami. The King’s presence in South Beach means that Chris Bosh walks away from the Heat for a contract with the Houston Rockets. Bosh teams up with the aforementioned Howard and James Harden to form a new Big Three in Texas. Some other free agents change their decision as well. Pau Gasol joins Miami to fill Bosh’s void. The incredible amount of spending by the Heat means they cannot afford to add the young Hassan Whiteside, who instead joins Philadelphia now that Joel Embiid is not in the picture. And with Gasol bound for Florida, the Bulls hang on to Jusuf Nurkic rather than trade for Doug McDermott. Chicago also finds an incredible amount of cap space they use to lure Carmelo Anthony away from New York.

The season starts with plenty of crazy headlines. Orlando cannot wait to pair Embiid with Nikola Vucevic next season. The 76ers love their core of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Andrew Wiggins and never send MCW to Milwaukee. Rajon Rondo could not be happier in Boston with another star present in the form of Love. Dallas is in desperate need of a point guard but with Rondo locked in for the Celtics, the Mavericks find themselves out of luck. Right around the trade deadline, with the playoffs essentially out of sight with Dallas, Oklahoma City and New Orleans all in front of them, Phoenix deals Goran Dragic to the Knicks in exchange for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Lance Thomas. The Suns also send Isiah Thomas packing but this time to Charlotte for Lance Stephenson and a couple of future picks.

When the playoffs roll around, the super teams in each conference, Miami and Houston, enter as the top seeds. Milwaukee and Dallas miss the postseason due to the trades that now never happen. The Heat matches up with the eighth-seeded Cavaliers in the first round as LeBron inflicts even more pain on Cleveland with a 4-0 sweep. Miami edges the fourth-seeded Celtics and beats out the talented Bulls for a return to the NBA Finals for a fifth straight year. They meet the Memphis Grizzlies after the Griz outlast Houston in the Western Conference Finals. Pau and Marc Gasol become the first brothers to face each other in the NBA Finals. It would be the elder Gasol who gets the last laugh as Miami snags its third title in five years.

LeBron_JamesThe following offseason, with his contract up and three rings to his name, James walks away from the Heat and joins the Cavaliers. Linking up with Kyrie Irving, James sets out to recruit either LaMarcus Aldridge or Marc Gasol to join him in Cleveland. Minnesota is still sitting with the worst record in the league after an atrocious 11-71 season. The Knicks and Lakers both join the Wolves as those among the bottom three in the league. All of this happens if a different ping-pong ball was picked back in May of last year. Instead of talking about Cleveland, all the hype would still be in Miami right now with the playoffs just getting underway and the MVP conversation would likely be over as James dominated the league once again. Who knows, maybe LeBron will still get that third ring anyway.

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.