Despite what some fans in Los Angeles or Boston might desperately want to believe, it's no longer early in the NBA season. The February 15th All-Star Break is less than a month away, and after that comes the February 21st trading deadline.
At this time of year teams are what they are, forcing management and ownership to examine their roster and see if they either want to stand pat, make changes or, at least in Sacramento's case, skip town forever.
The NBA announced this year's All-Stars
With the Los Angeles Lakers sliding farther down the standings, that Miami Heat/Los Angeles Lakers NBA Finals that everyone was predicting before the start of the season seems increasingly unlikely. The closest we may come to a showcase game between the two could, in fact, be in this year's All-Star Game, where both teams should be well-represented. The NBA announced the starters last week while the All-Star reserves will be announced this Thursday.
The Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will start for the Eastern Conference while the Lakers' Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard will start for the Western Conference. Bryant, starting his 15th straight All-Star Game, was the top vote getter, collecting 1,591,437 votes to LeBron James's 1,583,646. Bryant beating out James is something of an upset considering that LeBron James is the reigning MVP, reigning Finals MVP and that his Heat has been at, or near, the top of the Eastern Conference standings while this Lakers have barely been flirting with .500.
Not that it's too surprising to see a Lakers star topping what is basically a popular opinion poll. The fan voting process elevates the big name players that play for the big market teams. How else would the Boston Celtics, who have been struggling so much that their head coach has publicly threatened roster changers, have two starters, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, joining LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Carmelo Anthony, who rounds out the Eastern Conference starters, has been playing well enough to deserve the nod, but the fact that he plays for the New York Knicks certainly didn't hurt him.
If there's any doubt that All-Star Game voting is all about celebrity, four of the starting five for the Western Conference come out of Hollywood. In what has to be an occurrence as rare as a new Bowie single, there are an equal number of starters from the Clippers as there are from the Lakers this year. Not only that, but when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin share the court, more eyes will be on them than on Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. The sole non-Californian in the lineup is Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder, but I suppose if you had to pick one player to represent literally everywhere in the Western Conference that isn't L.A., you could do worse than Durant.
Honestly though, to complain about Los Angeles, Miami or Boston as being overrepresented is to miss the point somewhat. The NBA All-Star Game isn't like the MLB All-Star Game, which pretends to be about rewarding the most deserving players, or the NFL Pro Bowl, which pretends that it has any reason to exist. The NBA All-Star starter selection process is, and will always be, a blatant popularity contest that rewards the big names from the big markets. In other words, it won't matter how the Lakers are playing, you can pencil in Kobe for start number 16 next year.
The Phoenix Suns fired Alvin Gentry
The last time we were discussing the Phoenix Suns... (Thinks.) Wait, when was the last time we were discussing the Phoenix Suns? After the Suns unloaded Steve Nash, the face (and most of the rest of the body) of the franchise, during the offseason, it was a given that the team would be in rebuilding mode for 2012-13. Not only have the Suns been bad this year, they are currently at the bottom of the Western Conference, they haven't even been bad enough to be entertaining in the way that the Washington Wizards or Charlotte Bobcats have been.
So, when the Suns fired head coach Alvin Gentry on Friday it both made sense and didn't. Yes, when a team is playing terribly, they make coaching changes, but it's not as if this Suns roster was underachieving. The Suns have been playing pretty much exactly at their talent level, neither better nor worse than to be expected. The official reason the Suns let Gentry go was that the Suns wanted a coach that would work better with young talent, but as Zach Harper from CBS Sports asks: "Where is the young talent?" The Suns apparently think that Lindsey Hunter, who they promoted to interim coach, will have better luck with a roster filled with the likes of the perpetually disappointing Michael Beasley, the late Jermaine O'Neal and, wait, this can't be right, Sebastian Telfair is still in the league?
With Alvin Gentry gone, that makes two coaches that have been fired in the wake of the Steve Nash trade. At the start of the season the Lakers replaced Mike Brown with Mike D'Antoni, Nash's old coach during the Suns' golden years. So Nash's old coach and new coach were both gone in the matter of months. Is it too early to start calling Steve Nash a coach-killer like Deron Williams or Dwight Howard?
The Celtics and Hornets redefine the Father-Son game
If the ongoing and exhaustive Super Bowl coverage proves anything it's that Americans are suckers for a storyline involving clashing family members. While it's not quite as notable as two brothers coaching against each other in the biggest sporting event of the year, last Tuesday's game between the Boston Celtics and the New Orleans Hornets had a decidedly Oedipal twist to it as Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to coach against his own son.
Austin Rivers, who opted to join the NBA Draft after just one year at Duke University, has been having a rough go with the New Orleans Hornets, to the point where hyperbolic, clicks-hungry writers have suggested that Austin might be having the "worst rookie season of all time". It would have been a nice story if Austin had a huge game the first time around against his father's team, but he ended up with a decent, but unremarkable, 8 points and one assist. Still, he was on the winning side as the Hornets defeated the Celtics 90-78.
From all accounts Doc was happy for it to end: it especially had to be weird for him to hear his own family cheering against him. At one point during the game, Doc had to shut off his fatherly instincts and not encourage Austin:
I was about to say something and I didn't; I caught myself. I forgot he was on the other team. It's just a strange dynamic. I didn't enjoy it, honestly. I know it's neat for everyone else, but as a father, I don't know if I enjoyed that.
It's a credit to Doc Rivers's honesty that he didn't even attempt to pretend that this was an ordinary game. In the game's strangest moment, the Hornets' Brian Roberts injured his ankle and could not shoot his own free throws. The Celtics got the chance to pick which opposing player they wanted to bring in to shoot for him, which usually means choosing the team's worst free throw shooter. However, in this case, the player would have been Austin Rivers, so Doc Rivers instead decided to choose Al-Farouq Aminu. It was a rare odd thing to see in sports, where a father decided to sacrifice a possible competitive edge in order to avoid putting his son in a potentially embarrassing situation. It's hard to blame the guy for not wanting to be in that position very often.
Time is running out for the Sacramento Kings
As discussed last week, it's becoming increasingly likely that the Sacramento Kings will move to Seattle. Those plans took one step closer to reality on Sunday, when it was announced that the Maloof family had agreed to sell the Kings to hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, who is expected to move the franchise to Seattle and revive the SuperSonics name. Although not yet final, the remainder of the process seems to be a mere formality unless something drastic happens.
Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson wants to be that something drastic. He's attempting a last minute effort to keep the city's only professional sports franchise. NBA commissioner David Stern has given Johnson the opportunity to match Hansen's offer, although Stern's promise that Johnson is "always welcome to present" an offer to the board of directors makes it sound more like the league is humoring Johnson rather than genuinely interested in keeping the Kings in Sacramento. There's a Kafka-esque slant to the NBA's position here which seems to be "we're only taking this meeting so that you know you've done everything you could do".
The whole process has been somewhat ugly for those who want to see basketball as something other than a business, especially considering the amount of money involved. Reportedly, the Kings were worth $525 million despite the fact that they were never one of the league's most valuable franchises. In comparison, Forbes magazine just recently estimated that the Sacramento Kings were only worth $300 million. The position of the NBA, most notably during the lockout, has been that the economic structure of the game made it difficult for smaller-market teams to make money, there were many who were skeptical before and this sale certainly doesn't make these critics any less skeptical. Among those critics is LeBron James who went on Twitter Sunday night to get the final wordr: "So the Kings getting sold for 525M!! And the owners ain't making no money huh? What the hell we have a (lockout) for. Get the hell out of here".
Other things we learned
• It seemed like the Cleveland Cavaliers just got Kyrie Irving back but now they have to deal with the loss of another key player. This time it's center Anderson Varejao who will be out for the season with a blood clot. Luckily Varejao should be okay, blood clots can be scary business, but I'm almost starting to suspect that Cleveland is an unlucky sports town or something.
• There's nothing like waking up and excitedly clicking on a "Memphis Grizzlies complete trade" headline, and then realizing that the Grizzlies were just sending a package of players to the Cleveland Cavaliers to get under the luxury tax and that Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph aren't going anywhere. Total bait and switch, headline writers.
• While we're on the subject, here's the Joe Johnson Game Winner of the Week. If he keeps this up for the Brooklyn Nets this could become a regular feature here.
• In an attempt to revamp his lineup, Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni has benched big man Pau Gasol. No word on whether D'Antoni plans to replace him with Colin Kaepernick.
• And finally, a quick reminder to news agencies: Bill Russell is not, in fact, Morgan Freeman.
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