Welcome to week 15 of the NBA season. Sort of. See, thanks to the All-Star Weekend there were four full days without any NBA games that counted in the standings, so it's probably technically week 14 1/2. In any case, there certainly a full week's worth of drama even if very little of it actually happened on the court.
The NBA mourned the death of owner Jerry Buss
In a Lakers season full of big losses, the toughest loss of them all happened Monday morning when team owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away from complications from cancer at the age of 80. Buss's passing marks the end of an era in L.A., and in the sporting world in general. Although Buss was a lot more likable than some of the larger-than-life owners that passed before him, most notably George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees and Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, he was in many ways a similar type: a dedicated hands-on owner who molded his team in his own image and was dedicated to winning at all costs.
Buss, who bought the Lakers in 1979, essentially created the modern day Lakers. A rollicking playboy type himself, Buss was instrumental in turning the Lakers into Los Angeles's team, complete with an aura of glitz and glamor. Jerry Buss always courted the best players, the big names who could shine in big games, no matter how much money it took to sign them, he transformed cheerleaders into "Lakers Girls" and made the courtisde seats the go-to place for all of the beautiful people to be seen. Of course, none of these added attractions would have mattered if the team didn't win, but under Buss's direction, the Lakers were one of the most successful franchises not just in the NBA, but in all of professional sports.
Obviously, the success of Buss's Lakers can be traced to the sheer amount of talent that has flourished in purple and gold over the years. There could be an entirely new basketball Hall of Fame dedicated solely to the stars that the Lakers had on their roster during Buss's reign: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Horry, Pau Gasol and many others. Under Buss's watch, even the head coaches, most notably Pat Riley and Phil Jackson, were de facto celebrities. Critics would argue that the Lakers had enough revenue that they could afford to buy championship-caliber rosters, especially since it was easier to sell potential free agents on the idea of spending their winters in California as opposed to Cleveland or Toronto. There's some truth to this, just as there's some truth to the counter-argument that Buss was spending money on his team in an era where many other owners were simply lining their own wallets. Still, the Lakers' financial advantages alone don't account for the Lakers winning 10 championships, and making 16 NBA Finals appearances, in the span of 30 plus years. If there's one thing this current Lakers squad, mostly assembled by Jerry Buss's son Jim while his father was ailing, has proven, it's that simply acquiring the best available players isn't enough to create a winning team, let alone a championship-caliber one.
For better or worse, the Lakers are now officially in Jim Buss's hands. Jerry Buss, much like the post-George Steinbrenner before him, has handed down the franchise he transformed to the next generation. With reports out saying it's highly unlikely that the family will give up control of the team, Jim Buss will have a long way to prove doubters that he's capable of running the team. Not only has the team been dysfunctional on the court, the struggles of newly acquired All-Star center Dwight Howard have been well documented, there have also been plenty of problems inside the organization as well. Most notably, there's talk that he's feuding with sister Jeanie Buss over his decision to hire Mike D'Antoni to replace head coach Mike Brown and not Phil Jackson, Jeanie's fiancee.
At the moment, the Lakers community mourns along with the rest of the basketball world, but soon their attention will be back to the games. The Showtime must go on. The Lakers have to know that the best way to honor the memory of their longtime owner would be to turn this farce of a season around and make a strong playoff push. One thing is for certain: If this doesn't motivate this particular Lakers team, then nothing will.
Hedo Turkoglu was busted for PED use
Despite the fact that the use of performance enhancing drugs is one of the biggest stories in sports today, alongside other notable topics such as imaginary girlfriends and ill-timed power failures, the NBA world seems strangely immune to the controversy. For whatever reason, it's never a story in basketball even though many NBA players have just as much reason to bulk up or recover quicker from injuries as players in the MLB or NFL. This isn't necessarily a complaint, it's nice to be able to follow a sport without having to be up on deer antler spray or whatever the heck Jose Canseco is saying this week, but it's still rather odd that there's so little steroid talk in basketball.
This might change shortly. On Wednesday the league announced that they were suspending Hedo Turkoglu of the Orlando Magic 20 games for failing a drug test. Turkoglu, of course, is making the "no warning label" excuse for his positive test, blaming a pill he absent-mindedly took in Turkey to help him recover from a shoulder injury: "I took something that I shouldn't be taking. I should've researched and I shouldn't be in this situation right now". The reaction around the league to Turkoglu's suspension was somewhere along the lines of "wow, if this is Turkoglu on PEDs, how bad would he be without them?" This incident, along with the fact that he's, well, Hedo Turkoglu and half of his salary is non-guaranteed next year, almost certainly mean the Magic will be moving forward without the, uh, forward.
If this seems like a rare event that's because it is. Most drug-related suspensions in the NBA revolve around marijuana which isn't a performance-enhancing drug unless you're a musician, artist or counter-culture novelist. The last players to get suspended for PED use were O.J. Mayo, then of the Memphis Grizzlies, in 2011 and, before him, Rashard Lewis, oddly enough also with the Orlando Magic at the time, who was suspended 10 games back in 2009. For whatever reason, whether it's because 99.5% of basketball players are clean or the league's policy on PEDs is lax and full of loopholes, Occam's Razor might be helpful here, very few NBA players have been publicly suspended for abusing these substances and none of those who have been caught have been big name players.
Eventually, of course, this will probably change. Just the basic law of averages suggests that a big name player will be implicated in a PED scandal at some point and there will be some sort of public reaction, whether it be witch-hunt level hysteria (the baseball fan reaction) or complete and utter indifference (the NFL fan reaction). To his credit, NBA Commissioner David Stern brought up the need for further testing during the All-Star Weekend:
I would say that we have a comprehensive drug testing program that has a long list, probably a hundred or so, I'm not even sure the number, of drugs that are prohibited, including HGH, subject to an agreement of the validity of an appropriate testing protocol. And we expect that to happen, we really do, before the start of next season.
While Stern's comments were as much lip service in praise of the NBA's current drug testing system as anything else, it's noteworthy that he's learned from the mistakes of other commissioners in sports, and by "other commissioners in sports" I mean Bud Selig. On this topic, it's better for the league to appear more proactive than reactive. The NBA may or may not have a performance enhancing drugs problem, but so far it has avoided the appearance of having a performance enhancing drug problem and, in the end, that might be the only thing that matters.
Kyrie Irving won the All-Star Weekend
The All-Star Weekend was supposed to be LeBron James's victory lap. The reigning MVP and NBA Finals MVP came into the weekend riding the wave of what might be the greatest stretch of basketball we've ever seen anyone play in about a decade. Not only did the LeBron-led Eastern Conference lose to the Western Conference in the All-Star Game, a loss highlighted by Kobe Bryant blocking two of LeBron's shots, but James' in-game performance was overshadowed by the Cleveland Cavaliers' latest basketball prodigy.
Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, although practically worshipped by diehard NBA fans, is still something of an unknown quantity for the general public, mostly due to that whole playing-in-Cleveland-thing. This weekend, however, Irving made his presence known during all three days of activities. Friday night, Irving shone in the NBA Rising Stars Challenge. Saturday night, Irving won the Three Point Contest. Sunday night, Irving might have been the East's standout player in their loss to the Chris Paul-led West, making a strong case that Eastern Conference coach Erik Spoelstra should have started him rather than his guy Chris Bosh.
Thank goodness for Kyrie Irving because without him this would have been one of the more lackluster All-Star Weekends in recent memory. The Slam Dunk Contest, sorry the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest disappointed for the second year in a row. Once the crown jewel of the All-Star Weekend, the game has been plagued with a Carrot-Topian over-reliance on props, a lack of star power and, most regrettably, players who miss more dunks than they make. Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors eventually won the contest, but the only memorable highlights of the night revolved around gimmicks such as Jeremy Evans dunking over a painting of himself dunking (how recursive), Gerald Green cutting down the net (before screwing up the whole "dunking" part of the contest) and James White's small army of flight attendants.
Meanwhile, the Rising Stars game somehow featured less defense than the All-Star Game, Usain Bolt, despite the pregame hype, faltered in the Celebrity All-Star Game after an early dunk and nobody cares, or ever will care, about Shooting Stars or the Skills Challenge, sorry the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, not even the winners. It looked like everyone had a fun time in Houston, and the All-Star Weekend, at heart, really is just an extended party occasionally interrupted by basketball, but it did not translate into memorable television.
Billy Hunter is officially gone, but the union still may be in trouble
Listen: Billy Hunter has come unstuck at work.
It's not that we've heard the last from now-former NBA Players Association head Billy Hunter, he's preparing for a lengthy legal battle while you read this, but as of last Saturday he is out of a job. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the union suspended Hunter indefinitely after an investigation revealed that he put numerous family members on the payroll, treated himself to an untold number of paid "working" vacations and just generally abused his power to the detriment of the union. As many expected, this suspension was a prelude to firing Hunter, who had been head of the union since 1996.
Union president, and former Lakers star, Derek Fisher, who had been feuding with Billy Hunter at least since the 2011 lockout, made a brief statement about the union's decision, saying that "this is our union and we have taken it back". Fisher added "we want to make it clear that we are here to serve only the best interests of the players," Fisher said. "No threats, no lies, no distractions will stop us from serving our memberships."
This all sounds well and good, beyond Hunter himself and the many, many relatives he included on the NBAPA payroll, most would agree that Billy Hunter's firing was well-warranted, but there's a suspicion that the union will be no better off now that Fisher has won the power struggle. Tom Ziller of SB Nation notes that Fisher and company may have circumvented due process in their eagerness to split from Hunter. Plus, Fisher's brief press conference on Saturday, where he read a short statement ending with "there will be no further comment at the time", was not the sign of a newly transparent regime.
Hey, maybe Jerry Stackhouse was on to something.
Other things we've learned
• Here's just a small sample of how the NBA world responded to Dr. Jerry Buss's passing.
• Tweet of the week from the Nets_PR Twitter account:
You don't say.
• I hope Chicago Bulls fans had a blast on Sunday, reliving the Michael Jordan era on his 50th birthday, because the b-day celebration was soon followed by the news that it's possible Derrick Rose might miss the entire season while recovering from his ACL injury.
• Yes, yes, I know you're all sick of hearing about Michael Jordan after this weekend, but seriously Craig Ehlo's thoughts about what it's like to attempt to guard Michael Jordan are really kind of amazing.
• ("I Got You Babe" plays on the clock radio.) Oh look, Andrew Bynum is still a few weeks away from returning and he has really, really ridiculous hair. (Leaves hotel room. Greets Ned Ryerson. Attempts to kill groundhog.)
• The next big day now that the All-Star Weekend is over? The NBA trade deadline is Thursday at 3:00pm EST. Right now the biggest rumors revolve around Dwight Howard. Wait, oh my stars, this is "Groundhog Day" isn't it?
• Oh and I suppose the Dunk of the Week should rightfully go to this year's Slam Dunk Contest winner Terrence Ross. Heck, let's make it Dunks of the Week:
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © octupushat