Since the dawn of modern sports it seems nicknames have been synonymous with its athletes. Often times a player is better known by his or her given moniker than their own birth name.
Inevitably some are far more clever than others with the classic pairing of the first letter of a player’s first name with their last name such as D-Rose, D-Wade, or D-Will taking virtually no thought but being pretty much timeless whereas calling Kevin Durant the Slim Reaper is simply brilliant.
The first key to having a nickname is being given one, not choosing one. When it comes to giving nicknames it seems the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah fancies himself an unofficial master.
Witness a good performance by Taj Gibson and don’t be surprised if you hear Noah shouting Tajy-woo! Apparently Kirk Hinrich has been forced to accept the fact he is known by his teammate as Kirky Werky.
He may not like hearing this, but I like Noah’s nickname giving ability to that of an embarrassing grandmother. However, that somehow makes them al
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Trading the mercurial floor general was never going to be easy. Not with his troubling track record that includes run-ins with coaches and teammates, a torn ACL that plagued his production last season and stats that might not be as strong as they seem.
But moving the obstreperous point guard has never been as difficult as it is now that he’ll be sidelined for the next six-to-eight weeks with a broken left finger. He was still working to repair his reputation after last year’s disappointing showing, and now he’ll have to do so without the benefit of training camp, the preseason and possibly as much as the first month of the 2014-15 campaign.
Considering the package the Celtics would need to receive in return for a trade to pay off on their end, Rondo’s trade value is a long way from where it has to be. This latest setback could drag it down even further, as it might be a while before he starts rubbing elbows with the NBA elites again—assuming he even gets back to that level.
While the time frame is an estimate, CelticsBlog’s Kevin O’Connor found that the five players who underwent surgery to address a metacarpal bone injury in recent seasons missed an average of 41.6 days. Of those five—Carlos Boozer, Kevin Love, Hedo Turkoglu, Patrick Beverley and Manu Ginobili—two of them (Love and Turkoglu) reinjured their hands after their initial return.
Love was plagued by the injury throughout the 2012-13 season, shooting just 35.2 percent from the field in his 18 games, though he did suffer two separate fractures during that year. Ginobili lost a little over a month the previous season to his injury, but he showed no lingering effects and compiled a .513/.384/.859 shooting slash after his return.
Rondo went under the knife last Friday. A six-week absence would cost him four regular-season games. An additional two weeks out of action would keep him out of another six contests.
In the context of an 82-game campaign, this might seem like minimal damage. But with so much riding on this season for both Rondo and the Celtics, this has the potential to become a crushing blow.
“The beginning of the season is the worst time to sit out, especially when it involves losing out on those crucial team-building opportunities that come just prior to the first game’s opening tipoff,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal.
For Rondo, this won’t be as simple as getting back on a bicycle after a lengthy layoff.
There are new players around him, including his potential replacement in lottery pick Marcus Smart. Rondo will miss out on head coach Brad Stevens’ training camp for the second consecutive year, and that could prove problematic as Rondo said Stevens has a new system to put in place, per Scott Souza of the MetroWest Daily News:
There is no way to get that developmental time back.
He can keep himself in shape, but none of his workouts can replicate NBA game speed. He will have to attempt to hit the ground running with and against players who could have as much as an entire month of regular-season contests under their belts.
That transition won’t likely be a smooth one. He had 30 outings to find his form in 2013-14 and never did seem particularly comfortable. He shot 40.1 percent from the field in his first 15 games back and 40.4 percent in his last 15.
The Celtics can’t afford to have him stumble out of the gate this time around. While they technically have until next summer to decide his future, February’s trade deadline looms large as Boston’s last possible chance to bring back something in return for its franchise face.
That is when the Celtics must really make their call, assuming that bridge hasn’t already been crossed, of course. There has been some speculation over whether Rondo or the Celtics have left the door open to a potential long-term relationship.
Publicly, both have stressed it’s still an option.
“We expect Rajon to be in Boston for the long term,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said, via Comcast SportsNet. “Does that need to be asked anymore by anybody every again?”
Consider that latter portion wishful thinking on the executive’s part. Those questions will persist until something official comes across the transactions log, be that a blockbuster trade or a significant contract extension.
At Celtics media day on Monday, Rondo expressed his desire to stick with the team going forward, per ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg:
It’s all very definitive—except, it isn’t that at all.
Consider the current situation.
Boston is Rondo’s current home. Until he officially has a new one lined up, there is no incentive for him to start distancing himself from the city.
Unless, of course, he can do so behind closed doors. According to ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan, Rondo has already started putting his exit in motion.
“He’s told them he wants out,” MacMullan said during a behind-the-scenes portion of ESPN’s Around The Horn, via CBS Sports’ James Herbert. “And no one believes me, but that’s the truth.”
If that’s the case, the Celtics have reasons to quietly shop Rondo. But they need to prize him publicly until something takes place, or they risk seeing his value plummet to the point that any trade is no longer worth their while.
“If something did crop up that would bring in a young potential superstar, the Celtics would have to reconsider their stance against dealing Rondo—but with Rondo posting only so-so-numbers as he completed his rehab last year, his value is relatively low just now,” wrote Sporting News’ Sean Deveney.
That’s what makes Rondo’s latest injury so deflating. He needed this season to help him cash in on the free-agent market next summer. The Celtics had to have a strong year from him to either feel good about keeping him for the long haul or, more likely, furthering their rebuilding plan by getting a collection of future assets in return.
Ideally, Rondo would have proved himself last season, and the Celtics could have flipped him over the summer to avoid a year-long media frenzy.
That obviously never happened, and now there are some serious concerns over whether it ever will. If it takes some time for Rondo to find his groove, the Celtics could have a hard time moving him even if that is their desired outcome.
“Teams want to see him perform before putting much into a trade offer,” noted NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin. “Now they are going to wait longer and be watching two injuries.”
It’s almost impossible to find a silver lining in this injury.
If one does exist, it’s probably the added exposure Smart should receive in Rondo’s absence. Even then, it’s hard to say what the best-case scenario would be.
Say Smart explodes out of the gate and creates some offensive harmony with his teammates. Then, what happens when Rondo comes back? Would Smart’s development be stunted in order to help Rondo’s trade market? Or would the four-time All-Star be trapped behind the rookie, watching his potential free-agency earnings diminish in a reduced role on a team that could struggle to win 30 games?
Or what if Smart cannot rise to the occasion and looks incapable of ever effectively replacing Rondo? Would that motivate the Celtics to keep a 28-year-old whose best days may be finished before the team’s even start?
Ainge already told reporters at media day he knows it’s going to cost whichever team winds up paying the point guard, via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:
The Celtics don’t need a max contract on their books. Not one who clearly needs to find his way to a win-now roster, at least.
It’s hard to say if Rondo can perform at a level high enough to warrant that type of financial commitment. No matter what type of offers get put in front of him, though, he seems eager to explore all of his options in free agency.
“It’s kind of like college all over again, with recruiting,” he told Washburn. ”Only times 50 because they have a ton of money to throw at the guys and they don’t have any restrictions on what they can do.”
If the trade deadline passes without any movement on the Rondo front, the Celtics will have completely lost control of this situation. Even if there is mutual interest of keeping the relationship alive, it might not be enough to keep him from being overwhelmed by another suitor.
There are risks involved with either outcome, and Rondo’s injury only further complicates the matter. That’s a potentially major issue, even if the injury itself feels like a relatively minor one.
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I’m not talking about his talent, because it should be fairly obvious to all that he possesses tons of it. Rather, the manner in which Ginobili chooses to use his gifts is what produces question marks.
The 6’6” Manu is wildly unpredictable, which makes it difficult to guess what comes next with him. Will he break away from the play? Gamble on defense? Ignore head coach Gregg Popovich?
There’s just no way for teammates or opponents to know, and boy does it give him an edge. He’s always been the proverbial X-factor, and I feel confident in saying that will always be the case. That might sound like an exaggeration, but let’s take a look back at his career and see how he’s evolved.
Crossovers and Dunks
Manu had great ball-handling skills and demonstrated a great level of athleticism. I wouldn’t accuse the Spurs of being unpatriotic, but it’s probably fair to assume they loved what they saw from Ginobili against the United States. He showed no fear against NBA players and was constantly on the attack.
NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper offered this appraisal of Ginobili’s performance in 2010: “Ginobili was everywhere. There just was no way to know the extent of the preview, that it was the first look for most in North America of a unique talent who would play a pivotal role in delivering three titles and making San Antonio, along with the Lakers, the dominant team of the first decade of the 2000s.”
San Antonio selected Manu with the No. 57 pick in the 1999 draft and kept him stashed away in Europe. By 2002, the Spurs felt it was time to bring him in.
Ginobili joined the Spurs and backed up Stephen Jackson at the 2-guard. Considering Manu was fresh off the World Championships and it was difficult to project how he would adjust to the speed of the NBA game, Popovich brought him along slowly.
Ginobili only averaged 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game during his rookie year.
Once the bright lights of the postseason came on, though, Ginobili became a seemingly maniacal king slayer. Despite coming off the bench, he felt comfortable attacking every player on a Los Angeles Lakers squad that was trying to win its fourth consecutive title.
Manu produced 11.7 points and 2.5 assists in 24.7 minutes per game against the Lakers, while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from long range.
Ginobili broke off plays to creatively attack defenders off the bounce and finish at the rim with authority. His play led to the demise of the Lakers, and San Antonio went on to win the championship.
Just like that, a reckless star was born.
Popovich has mostly kept Ginobili in a second-unit role throughout his career (except for the 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2010-11 campaigns where he started over 55 games in each), in an effort to preserve his 2-guard. He’s only cracked the 30-minute barrier on average twice (2007-08 and 2010-11 seasons), which has kept him fresh for playoff runs, where the real magic happens.
An argument could be made that he’s been the best postseason 2-guard not named Kobe or Dwyane Wade over the last decade.
During his younger years, Popovich entrusted him in late-game situations where he came through time and time again. For instance, many remember Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals as the Robert Horry game, but few might recall that Ginobili had the assist on the game-winning basket.
Once the Detroit Pistons’ Rasheed Wallace trapped Manu in the corner, the 2-guard quickly responded by feeding an open Horry.
That kind of decision-making is the reason why the coaching staff feels confident down the stretch of games with the ball in Ginobili’s hands. He delivered again in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks. Manu capped a comeback by nailing a three-pointer to give San Antonio the lead late.
On the flip side, bad Ginobili showed up a few possessions later when he fouled Dirk Nowitzki and allowed him to convert a three-point play that sent the game to overtime where Dallas ultimately prevailed.
That sequence of events captures Ginobili’s career perfectly. He’s always been a moment away from the biggest and worst play of his career. At age 37, his skills have eroded with time, but he’s still the mysterious player he’s always been.
Jumpers and Floaters
San Antonio’s backup 2-guard has become a little slower and less athletic in the latter portion of his career, but he’s still important to the Spurs’ success.
Sure, the team operates now like a fine-tuned machine that was created for basketball, but the right pieces are still mandatory.
The Spurs seemingly operate as one, with everything flowing perfectly because that’s what Popovich demands. Manu is a big part of that because of his ball-handling, passing (6.8 assists per 36 minutes last season) and shooting (46.9 percent field-goal shooting last campaign).
He no longer attacks the rim with reckless abandon and regularly dunks over defenders, because he’s evolved in conjunction with the decline of his physical state.
Still, Ginobili keeps the ball live and continues to dish out remarkable passes to teammates, which explains why San Antonio had the best playoff offense last year, according to ESPN.com.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe offered this take in May:
He’s still pretty much the only player who can get away with breaking the offense and not having Gregg Popovich look like he wants to murder somebody.
His wild drives and outrageous passes are otherwise anathema for the Spurs, whose offensive system is an acutely constructed machine that runs with Peyton Manning–esque precision — except when Manu decides to pursue something that seems beyond possibility until the moment it actually happens.
He’s relying a little more on jump shots and floaters, without sacrificing too much in terms of efficiency. Don’t get it twisted, Ginobili still dropped the hammer on the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh during the Finals, but that’s no longer the norm.
Manu fits within Pop’s motion offense, but he’s no longer an overwhelming option for opponents.
He’s more of a role player now, as opposed to a star. And yet, Manu will continue to decide games because he’s a threat for a throwback performance.
For instance, in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals, Ginobili dropped 16 points and 11 assists on the Heat. He had similar numbers in Games 2 and 5, but he had a dud in the fourth contest (seven points and four turnovers).
His energy and playmaking off the bench will still impact games when he has it going, and the unpredictable nature of his game will continue to catch people by surprise.
The ascension of Kawhi Leonard will push Manu to the background ever so slightly, but he will continue to remain relevant and important to San Antonio’s success. Even in limited minutes, he’s the best second-unit player on the Spurs, and he will continue to swing series, while also occasionally looking like he’s sabotaging them.
Manu being Manu is just awesome, and the Spurs will take him as such. The latest title run is proof that he still affects San Antonio’s title window.
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Few jerseys are as recognizable as the purple-and-black No. 24 (or No. 8, if you go back far enough), donned by a current player who will be elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he’s eligible. Few players are as respected as the man whose name has become virtually synonymous with a poisonous species of snake from sub-Saharan Africa.
But what led to the Los Angeles Lakers All-Star shooting guard turning into the legend he is today?
For starters, how about everything?
Everyone’s definitions of stars and superstars seems to vary, but you’d find precious few people who would dispute No. 24′s status as a superstar. Though I’m one of them, that’s only because he falls more into the realm of superduperstars, a classification occupied by only a few players throughout the course of NBA history.
Bryant simply transcends the game.
Even now that he’s 36 years old and fighting to come back from two major injuries while carrying a mediocre Lakers squad, there’s still a widespread belief that he won’t skip a beat. No one has ever done what he’s trying to achieve, but there’s still this underlying assumption that Bryant is a superhuman, basketball-playing entity who is somehow beyond the reach of laws that apply to mere mortals.
Isaac Newton may have stood on the shoulders of giants while furthering the pursuits of physics and mathematics, but Bryant somehow looms even larger, unaffected by all those laws Newton helped quantify and explain.
Seriously, go out, and ask a few basketball fans why they believe in Kobe Bryant. Chances are, you’ll hear a few different answers of the same iteration: Because he’s Kobe Bryant. Some might even include an expletive as Bryant’s fake middle name.
It’s a silly argument. Tautological as it gets, it’s supplying no form of rhetoric other than an unsubstantiated opinion.
Yet somehow, it still makes sense.
Again, simply because this is Kobe Bryant we’re talking about.
It was a ridiculous convergence of factors—some controllable and others uncontrollable—that got us to this point, and that’s saying nothing of Bryant’s immense popularity, both domestically and internationally. Just think all the way back to the beginning of his career, when a precocious teenager was drafted out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets and almost immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Whatever involvement Kobe had in that process, it happened. And it allowed him to play for what’s arguably the sport’s No. 1 attraction. Though the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls would all disagree for various reasons, the Lakers are the league’s marquee franchise, enjoying gargantuan levels of support from virtually all areas of the globe.
Anytime you combine a captivating athlete with a franchise that’s always in the global microscope, sparks are going to fly. And Kobe promoted them by being so damn good early in his career, even if his first All-Star appearance was a little bit ridiculous. Plus, the titles flowed in during the afro-bearing, No. 8-wearing portion of his career, setting the stage for a widely viewed prime and twilight to his NBA tenure.
Let’s not overlook how rare it is for a superstar to spend his entire career in one uniform.
There have been negative aspects to Bryant’s life with the Lakers—the time he spent in Colorado early in his career, as well as the summers in which he was no longer satisfied with the direction and success of the organization—but he’s worn purple and gold throughout his entire time as an NBA player. From brash teenager to sage, unfiltered veteran, Kobe has gone through every stage of an NBA life without changing colors.
Nor can Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen, LeBron James or virtually any other star of the modern era. Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are the exceptions, though neither has risen to the level of worldwide popularity and unmitigated scrutiny that Bryant has both enjoyed and put up with throughout his time playing professional basketball.
How many people truly fit the definition of a household name?
If you walked into the home of a family that had as little interest in the NBA as possible, which players could they name? Due to how much they dominate the news cycle, James and Bryant would likely be mentioned. But beyond that? Even Kevin Durant hasn’t spent enough time making headlines, and the rest of the big guns—O’Neal and Michael Jordan, above all else—are long retired.
If you walked into a sports bar instead, you could gauge how much conversation just saying a name sparked. People always seem interested in arguing about Bryant, whether discussing the strength of his career resume, his ability to excel upon his return from injury or whether he or O’Neal was the leader of those early-2000 L.A. teams that were so successful.
Who else passes the bar-fight test? James again. Maybe Derrick Rose. But beyond that, you’ll be met with some indifference by at least some portion of the otherwise-interested crowd.
Everyone seems to care about Bryant, and that’s not a statement that’s limited to the United States. China, above any other country, has a torrid love affair with the future Hall of Famer, as Chris Ballard carefully detailed for Sports Illustrated in one of the best sports articles of 2014:
As for Kobe, here in China he really is, as the sign reads, “forever young.” Here the local media dotes. The fans not only adore him but arrive with no expectations beyond glimpsing the icon. Hang around a Lakers’ road hotel in the U.S., and you’ll see groupies and autograph hounds awaiting the bus, and if the players don’t acknowledge them, angry 40-year-old men will berate them. In Shanghai, I saw one group of nearly a dozen teenagers outside the Shangri-La hotel at 10 in the morning one day; at 11:30 p.m. they were still there, waiting, hopeful, asking any Westerner who entered if they knew when Kobe might return. They carried a succession of handwritten placards, in English, that, one holding each, read “kobe can we take photo with u [heart sign]?”
This kind of unconditional love is rare. Growing up, Kobe received it, like most kids, from his parents. Now he gets it from 17-year-old Chinese kids.
There’s no telling why exactly this popularity sprang out of nothingness, though Ballard speculates it happened organically, with a hardworking people respecting and admiring the unmatched dedication that Bryant has shown to his craft.
Regardless of the reason, it exists.
In fact, ESPN.com’s Darren Rovell reported during the 2013 offseason that Bryant was the most popular player in the NBA from 2008-09 until last summer, when James surpassed him.
Think about that. It took four MVPs and two titles for the best basketball player in the world to move past a star who should be aging.
A summer later, Rovell wrote that James had become the most popular male athlete in America, but let’s not overlook where Bryant ranked.
Keep in mind that the Lakers superstar was coming off a season in which he’d played only a handful of games, limited by an Achilles injury during the early portion of the ill-fated campaign and a major knee injury after his brief return. Despite being largely out of the public eye for the vast majority of the year, Bryant remained the fifth-most popular male athlete in the country, trailing only James, Jordan, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning.
This isn’t the result of a normal career.
An Abnormal Career
It’s a testimony to everything Bryant has done in his NBA life.
He’s stayed with the same franchise, which again just happens to be the most popular one in the Association, and excelled throughout his career. He’s won titles, consciously—and convincingly—imitated the greatest player of all time and displayed a near-psychopathic ability to avoid distractions and believe in himself unfailingly.
“Armed with unequaled self-confidence and an insatiable desire to prevail over opponents—both literal and figurative—on his own terms, ferrying Los Angeles’ hopes has become Bryant’s preferred way of life,” Dan Favale writes for Bleacher Report. “He wouldn’t have the Lakers entrusting their fate to anyone else. He wouldn’t share the strain of expectations even if he could.”
Bryant has drilled countless game-winning shots, shaking off the misses so vigorously but simultaneously with so much ease, that everyone in the arena believes the ball is finding the bottom of the net when it next leaves his fingertips while the last seconds of a game tick off the clock. He’s posterized what seems like every great big man during his era of NBA history. He’s crossed over myriad opponents, leaving them clutching their ankles as he rises for another successfully converted jumper.
In his prime, he was even a lockdown defender, capable of impacting a game immensely on that end of the floor. Though he’s devolved into a ball-watching, opportunistic defender who thrives on his previously earned reputation, he remains capable of serving as a shut-down one-on-one player to this day.
“It was probably the best defense somebody’s ever played on me since I’ve been in the league,” Brandon Jennings said about the 2-guard, via The Associated Press’ Greg Beacham, after a January contest during the 2012-13 season.
He wasn’t the first to feel the wrath of a jilted Bryant on that end of the court, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Bryant’s game has constantly evolved, as he’s developed some of the best footwork in NBA history to counteract his falling athleticism. When the need arises, he’s served as a de facto point guard, piling up assists and eschewing those volume-shooting outings for the better of his team.
He’s by no means a perfect player, but he’s always going to do his darnedest to ensure he comes as close as possible to that descriptor. Well, as close as possible to his version of that descriptor, as Bryant’s idea of a perfect player doesn’t always show a perfect correlation with everyone else’s.
What he’s done in the NBA is irrelevant here. There will be players who match his number of titles as a key player. There will be stars who put together similar statistical resumes. Someday, another standout will score more points than Bryant has to his credit when he’s done lacing up his sneakers for a final time.
That much feels inevitable, even if it’s hard to fathom in the present.
More important is how Bryant has risen to such prominence. That’s where the tireless work ethic, nonstop improvements and tinkering, willingness to play out his career with a single franchise and knack for handling the spotlight all come into play.
And that’s why there won’t be another Bryant.
No Potential Replacement in the Current Landscape
There are plenty of superstars in the current iteration of the NBA. In fact, James seems awfully close to superduperstar status, if he hasn’t reached that popularity nirvana already, and Kevin Durant won’t be far behind if he keeps improving each and every season of his already impressive career.
But no one has been mythologized like Bryant. Plus, each star has a notable flaw in the resume he’s submitting while trying to walk in the shooting guard’s size-14 footsteps.
James has already changed teams multiple times, alienating the Cleveland Cavaliers fanbase before returning to his hometown team after winning two championships with the Miami Heat. Even though he’s the most popular athlete in the sport now—objectively speaking, based on those earlier popularity reports from Rovell—his career has been filled with too many twists to enjoy the unbridled adoration so many project upon Bryant.
As for Durant, he simply hasn’t been as successful.
Now gearing up for his eighth professional season, he’s ringless and has yet to develop the following that Bryant enjoyed at such a young age. He’s widely viewed—whether it’s fair or not—as the league’s second fiddle, a status that might be different if he’d already three-peated, as Bryant had already done at Durant’s age, young as that may be.
Who else is going to get there?
Anthony Davis is the next big thing, but he’s playing for the small-market New Orleans Pelicans. Ditto for Andrew Wiggins, who’s now set to toil away in relative obscurity for the nondescript Minnesota Timberwolves.
Poking holes in the candidacy of the league’s other young up-and-comers is a similarly easy process.
Plus, the way we view the NBA has changed.
The role of analytics has risen rather dramatically, shaping the way the game is played and viewed by fans. Though some remain stubbornly opposed to the impact of numbers, they’re doing so at their own peril, passing up a chance to glean valuable information and become more intelligent consumers of an incredibly complicated, ever-evolving and often awe-inspiring product.
Bryant had the luxury of playing in the era just before everything was scrutinized. Basketball was quite popular in the early-2000s, but the sport wasn’t a 24/7 entity in which each move was broken down. Allen Iverson was allowed to loft up 25 shots per game while shooting low percentages from the field, and hero ball pervaded late-game situations.
That doesn’t fly anymore. Well, it doesn’t fly to the same extent.
But that offensive freedom—the ability to operate in a one-on-however-many situation—allowed Bryant to start his career in soaring fashion, then continue on his merry way as the game changed around him. It’s hard to fathom any player in this day and age recording an 81-point game, for example, despite this particular 2-guard doing so only eight years ago.
“Still, the thought of anyone so much as scoring 70 points in a single game—in a league that’s gone to great lengths to encourage ball movement and spacing and de-emphasize isolation play—is a fleeting one, at best,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Josh Martin while looking back at what has arguably become the most famous game of Bryant’s incredible carer.
So, regardless of whether anyone touches that 81-point milestone, will the NBA be able to replace Bryant?
Just as Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and the rest of the stars from the post-Jordan era helped the Association move past the absence of the greatest player the sport has ever seen, remaining ever-popular all the while, Davis, Wiggins and the new breed of basketball superstars will help the league fill the void left by this particular shooting guard.
However, that in no way means the Association will replace the man, the myth and the legend named Kobe Bryant.
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Kobe Bryant is back for what could be his penultimate NBA season. But who’s with him?
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Much has changed on the global basketball scene since the original Dream Team stormed its way to Olympic gold some 22 years ago. The sport is now a fixture in most (if not all) of the countries on Earth. Last season, the NBA boasted 92 international players hailing from 39 different countries and should feature more on both counts this fall. Spain, from which five of those aforementioned 92 came, is once again the epicenter of basketball’s biggest event of the summer: the newly rebranded FIBA World Cup of Basketball.
As far as basketball has come in recent decades, it still has a long way to go to catch up to the world’s pre-eminent sport: soccer. While FIFA‘s World Cup is a global phenomenon filled with excitement and drama, with every match beamed into homes across the Seven Seas, FIBA‘s version has yet to garner such broadcast clout (only Team USA games have been broadcast on television domestically thus far).
While FIBA World Cup may never enjoy the same worldwide cachet as the FIFA World Cup, there are a few signs that basketball is closing the gap on soccer’s stronghold as the world’s most popular sport.
Sizing Up the Competition
To be sure, basketball has got its work cut out for it. By just about any measure of popularity—from revenue to viewership to social media—soccer’s lead would seem nigh on insurmountable.
According to the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, basketball, as represented by the NBA, constituted about six percent of the global sports market in terms of revenue generated in 2009, at 2.7 billion Euros. Soccer, on the other hand, swallowed a staggering 43 percent of the market, with a take of 19.5 billion Euros.
Much has changed in the last five years, though, particularly for basketball. According to collective bargaining guru Larry Coon, the NBA’s latest increase in its salary cap points to a projected basketball-related income (BRI) of $4.75 billion for the league in 2014-15. That number could jump considerably in the years to come, thanks in large part to the flood of revenue that’s expected to flow from the NBA’s upcoming renewal of its national television pacts.
For the moment, then, that leaves the NBA slightly behind the English Premier League in total revenue. According to BBC News’ Bill Wilson, the EPL broke the £3 billion mark—which translates to right around $5 billion—for the first time ever in 2013-14.
Unlike the NBA in basketball, the EPL isn’t the only billion-dollar conglomeration in the soccer world. According to Deloitte, Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, Brazil’s Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A and the Russian Premier League all checked in above $1 billion in revenue as of 2012-13.
And that’s not including the 22 other soccer leagues around the world—including MLS and the second-division groups in England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan—that rake in more money than does basketball’s second-biggest association, Spain’s Liga ACB, which brought in just under 107 million Euros (i.e. a shade over $140 million) in 2011-12, per AS.com’s Alfredo Matilla and Juan Jimenez.
Some of Spain’s biggest basketball teams, including Barcelona and Real Madrid, are directly affiliated with their soccer counterparts. The latter, though, easily dwarf the former.
“Clearly, the soccer team is the dominant one,” said Bill Duffy, one of the most prominent agents in basketball. “It’s the most heavily financed. It has the highest sponsorship. They’re much more lucrative, and there’s a much bigger commitment. Basketball is there, but it’s clearly second fiddle, and it’s not even close.”
To its credit, the NBA has a significant leg up on most other major sports leagues in terms of star power. None of the other North American fixtures can boast a roster of global icons that so much as sniffs the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, to name but a few.
But on that scale, even the NBA’s biggest names can’t quite hold a candle to their soccer counterparts. According to Fan Page List, the four most-followed athletes on social media are all international soccer stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads them all with more than 126 million followers between Facebook and Twitter, has a bigger following than Bryant, James, Durant and Michael Jordan combined.
Whichever way you slice it, soccer still owns basketball in just about any battle over humanity’s most popular sport.
Room for Growth
That’s not to say, though, that basketball doesn‘t have plenty going for it or that it won’t be able to loosen soccer’s grip over the global sports scene in the years and decades to come.
For one, basketball’s Rolodex of internationally marketable stars is already strong and grows stronger with each passing year. The absences of James, Durant, Bryant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and a host of other household names from the FIBA World Cup has merely allowed up-and-comers like Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden to seize the spotlight—and for Derrick Rose to begin to reclaim his rightful share.
Many of the game’s biggest names are already known quantities, if not bona fide rock stars, outside of the U.S. Some, like James and Bryant, regularly visit China, the world’s biggest basketball bastion beyond America’s borders. According to The New York Times‘ Ben Sin, the NBA is nothing short of a force to be reckoned with in the world’s most populous nation:
Now, the N.B.A. is one of the most popular brands in China, and the only American sports league with a significant following throughout Asia. The league has a combined 70 million followers on Sina Weibo and Tencent’s microblog platforms, compared with fewer than 400,000 followers for the National Football League.
Superstars like Bryant have played a pivotal part in basketball’s worldwide expansion. That, in turn, has been the product of a sustained marketing effort overseas by the sport’s most important power players.
The NBA, in particular, has taken up arms in this cause at all levels. Its Basketball Without Borders initiative has brought players, coaches and other team and league officials to cities all over the world to teach the game and touch the lives of those who want to play it.
The league has been sending its teams overseas since 1978, when the champion Washington Bullets lost to long-time Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. It wasn’t until 2013, though, that The Association formalized its foreign exhibitions under the banner of the NBA Global Games. The upcoming preseason will feature contests in Berlin, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Beijing, with regular-season games to be played in Mexico City and London thereafter.
These games aren’t entirely unlike the summer friendlies that Europe’s biggest soccer clubs play in Africa, Asia and North America every year. The biggest difference is in the fervor generated, which is to be expected, given soccer’s continued primacy on the world stage.
The NBA and FIBA are not alone in their attempts to extend basketball’s footprint abroad. The sports apparel industry as a whole, and Nike and Adidas in particular, has a significant stake in seeing hoops become a bigger athletic habit across the map.
“The shoe companies rely heavily on NBA stars to drive their basketball business,” said Marc Isenberg, the author of Money Players: A Guide to Succeed in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes. Hence, those stars have long been and continue to be leveraged heavily by Nike, Adidas and the like to grow the game abroad, in large part to sell sneakers.
Whatever the impetus for its spread, basketball has proven to be nothing if not contagious as an activity. “Basketball’s basketball. It knows no limits or borders,” said Mike Peck, who most recently spent two years as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers’ D-League affiliate. “That’s the beauty of the sport.”
It’s already caught on in a big way throughout Asia and Oceania, with strong presences in China and Australia and a burgeoning initiative in India. None of those countries, though, can compete with the per-capita basketball fervor of the Philippines.
“Any neighborhood you go to, there’s always a hoop on the street,” said Leo Balayon, an associate head coach at Bethesda University in Los Angeles. Balayon grew up in the Philippines before playing and coaching basketball around the world, with stops in China and Australia along the way.
“When you talk on a non-personal level, it’s usually either politics or basketball,” Balayon added. “It’s everything in the Philippines.”
It helps that the game has been in the Philippines for over a century. Then again, the YMCA did what it could to spread basketball all over the globe in the late 1800s, with exhibitions in France, Japan, India, China and what was then known as Persia.
The game was, has been and continues to be a solid fit in Canada, the birthplace of basketball’s progenitor, Dr. James Naismith. As is the case with soccer in so many countries, hockey holds a strong sway over the sports scene north of the border, but basketball has made significant inroads over the last two decades or so. Vince Carter’s meteoric rise to slam-dunk stardom with the Toronto Raptors touched off a grassroots revolution across Canada whose fruits (i.e. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis, Kelly Olynyk) are just now being brought to bear in the NBA.
“I think when [the Toronto Raptors] came in, we had an NBA team to watch every night,” Stauskas told Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. ”I used to watch every game growing up. And I went to some games. Having the Raptors around was definitely a positive.”
And it’s not as though basketball has been blacked out entirely in soccer’s most devoted strongholds, particularly in Europe. Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy are among those that are home to solid domestic basketball leagues on the continent. The best club teams on the continent—including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Maccabi Tel Aviv (i.e. Cavs coach David Blatt’s old haunt) and Olympiacos—regularly participate in the annual Euroleague. “I think that many of those teams could compete in the NBA,” said Graham Boone, the director of basketball operations at Tandem Sports and Entertainment.
The Grassroots of the Game
That may be so, but competing for the attention that their soccer counterparts soak up is another story. Any attempt by basketball to loosen soccer’s sports hegemony would require a long-range approach, one that must begin at the grassroots level and could take generations to truly blossom.
The powers-that-be in the basketball world have been hard at work for some time developing the game’s infrastructure overseas, though there’s still plenty to be done. Even in Australia, an affluent country that also happens to be a burgeoning hoops hotbed, quality courts are few and far between.
“When you’re in the States, you’ll find a nice high school gym pretty much anywhere. [Australia] doesn’t have that,” said David Nurse, a professional shooting coach who’s played and run clinics all over the world. “The best gym that they had in the city of Adelaide, where I was playing, was equivalent to an average high school gym, and that was for a professional team down there.”
Nurse also noted that the quality of coaching in other parts of the world isn’t exactly up to snuff—even in China, where the NBA has had offices since 1990. “There’s a lot of talent over there,” Nurse said, “but they’re just brought down by their coaches and their skills are never developed at a high level like you see in the states.”
Without the proper resources available, much of that foreign talent is left to lie fallow. The good thing is, according to Peck, who spent three weeks in China with Nike this summer, “there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for the game abroad.”
“There’s just not a solid grassroots infrastructure and I think they’re just scratching the surface on it now,” he said of the situation in China. “There’s definitely a level of passion and interest for that.”
Another explosion in the game’s popularity, then, may well require a more effective and efficient means of tapping into the latent enthusiasm that exists for basketball, in addition to stirring up further fervor.
Part of that comes down to unearthing stars who can serve as tentpoles for basketball in other countries. Former MVPs like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have done wonders to drum up interest in the game in Germany and Canada, respectively.
But neither can quite hold a candle to what Yao Ming was able to do in China. ”It changed the game completely, singlehandedly,” said Duffy, who’s long represented Yao. “If it weren’t for Yao Ming, basketball would be much lower on the totem pole.
“Typically what happens when you have a star player in a country emerge, like Yao Ming in China in basketball, there’s more eyeballs on it and there’s more people participating.”
Added Balayon, who was in China during Yao’s heyday with the Houston Rockets: “I saw the rise of basketball in the span of three years.”
If Yao’s impact on China is any example to go by, basketball could see an international boom in short order amidst the right confluence of professional star power and grassroots energy.
American ex-pats have done their part to sew seeds in this regard. Kobe Bryant grew up learning the game in Italy, where his father, former Philadelphia 76ers big man Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, played for four different teams. Tony Parker’s father, Tony Sr., played collegiately at Loyola University in Chicago before hopping across the pond, where he competed professionally while raising a family with Dutch model Pamela Firestone.
Fast-forward to today, and we find two international progeny of American basketball products (i.e. Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum) among the most promising members of the NBA’s incoming rookie class. Any success enjoyed by Wiggins and Exum in the years to come would occasion ripple effects on basketball’s popularity in their home countries of Canada and Australia, respectively.
The NBA can only hope that another rookie, undrafted center Sim Bhullar, will help to open up what could be a massively important and largely untapped market in India. Bhullar, a Toronto native who went undrafted out of New Mexico State, became the first player of Indian descent to sign an NBA contract when he inked a deal with the Sacramento Kings earlier this summer.
“Most of the people didn’t really know [who I was],” Bhullar said of his most recent visit to India four years ago. “I’m pretty sure that if I go back now, it’ll be the complete opposite.”
The NBA certainly hopes so. A strong foothold in India, with a population north of 1.2 billion (and counting), could be the key to basketball so much as approaching soccer on the global stage, along with China and Africa. “Over the next 50 years, the NBA’s going to be as popular in those countries as it is here in America,” Duffy added. ”I firmly believe that.”
That may not be as strong an endorsement as it may seem. Basketball may be the world’s second-biggest sport, but in America, the NBA’s revenues still lag well behind those of the NFL and MLB and may continue to do so even after the league renews national television contracts.
Meanwhile, soccer is gaining a stronger foothold in the States with each passing day. According to the Boston Herald‘s Rick Kissell, this year’s World Cup final between Argentina and Germany drew more eyeballs (26.5 million) than the highest-rated game of the 2014 NBA Finals (18.0 million).
MLS has certainly benefited from this shift, and could eventually find itself going toe-to-toe with America’s biggest sports leagues, the NBA included. “I really believe, in the next 10-20 years, you may very well see major soccer clubs here in the US, on the level of NFL teams,” said Duffy.
As far as developing international stars is concerned, grooming them in the American collegiate system, as Bhullar was, may not be the best bet. Consider, for example, Hakeem Olajuwon, whose success at the University of Houston and in the NBA didn‘t exactly translate to a basketball explosion in his native Nigeria.
It’s somewhat instructive, too, that some of the best foreign-born prospects had to be plucked off of soccer fields. That was the case for Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, in his home country of Cameroon. The same goes for Thon Maker, the 17-year-old Sudanese phenom who didn‘t start playing basketball seriously until 2010 in Australia.
A Changing of the Guard?
By and large, then, basketball is still scrambling after soccer’s proverbial table scraps. Until (or unless) that changes, it’s tough to imagine the former catching up the latter, much less surpassing it in the big picture.
Soccer’s status as a pseudo-religious obsession in so many parts of the world is and will be difficult for basketball to contend with, but world football’s popularity is drawn from more than just its earlier roots.
At its base, basketball requires more dedicated resources than does soccer. “Having a playable basketball court is much more difficult in other countries than getting a soccer ball and playing in a field,” Boone noted.
Moreover, soccer, in addition to its flexibility across playing surfaces, is also more inclusive when it comes to the shapes and sizes of its participants. You don’t have to be a behemoth to dominate on the pitch; just ask Lionel Messi (5’7), Neymar (5’9) and Cristiano Ronaldo (6’1). In some respects, being abnormally tall can actually be a disadvantage in soccer, where speed and coordination easily outstrip height and leaping ability in physical importance.
Demographically speaking, then, there are far more people in the world with the requisite tools to play—and, in turn, succeed at—soccer. In basketball, players who are comparable in height to Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo rarely rise to the top, with the likes of Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas serving as exceptions that prove the rule. The average NBA player may be 6’7, but that doesn‘t mean people of that stature grow on trees, so to speak.
In short, basketball has a steep hill to climb, and soccer’s own continued global growth has practically rendered hoops’ ability to scale it a Sisyphean (if not a Herculean) task.
But that doesn‘t mean basketball is necessarily doomed in any way. More kids are playing it every year. More stars are making their way to North America with each passing season. Domestic leagues will continue to grow in number and strength around the world. And with the game’s grassroots efforts in China, India and Africa, the count of humans playing hoops could eventually number in the billions.
At present, though, basketball might have to get comfortable as the world’s No. 2 sport, albeit a strong one with tremendous upside. As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Bloomberg News’ Scott Soshnick at the recent Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York, ”With all due respect to the other US-based sports, there are really two global sports: There’s soccer and there’s basketball. And we’re really just beginning to scratch the surface.”
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The 76ers have dismantled their roster at an arguably unprecedented rate.
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The 76ers have dismantled their roster at an arguably unprecedented rate.
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There is always talk about who is the best to ever play in the NBA, and the answer is always Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Well if there was ever any doubt, LeBron James is on his way to being the king of the land.
There have been many factors making James the best, but the way he has evolved and grown as a player since first coming into the NBA back in 2003 is what really sets him apart. Here are the six reasons:
1. He’s in his prime. James will be 30 years old this upcoming season and still has at least 10-12 years left in him if he stays healthy. That is scary to think that the best player on the planet has that much time left in the NBA to put up even more elite stats. The way his career has been going, it will only go up from here.
Last season he averaged 27.1 points per game. Kobe Bryant’s career points average does not even reach that number as his is 25.5 points per game. James is getting better at picking apart defenses and scoring when he needs too, which sets him apart.
2. He is
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Russell Westbrook is the first and last of his kind, and I’m good with that.
He is the best point guard in the league while being its most overrated. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder guard is a physical specimen unlike any I have ever seen, and he blends in those attributes with a mental toughness that probably rivals Kobe Bryant’s.
Westbrook is the most athletic point guard the sport has ever seen, and I’m talking about a league that’s housed the likes of Steve Francis and Baron Davis. Russell will jump over and through you if he deems it necessary.
What’s more, his speed and quickness are simply breathtaking. There isn’t a person alive who can stop, contain, slow down or catch Westbrook. He’s the NBA’s version of the Road Runner, except he dunks on you when you finally think you’ve trapped him.
Call me selfish, but I’d like for things to remain as is.
Westbrook’s natural gifts are impressive in their own right, and they only stand out more because he comports himself like the best player alive.
Westbrook will pull up for a trey early in the shot clock, make one bad decision after another and occasionally freeze out his teammates. He just wants it so bad that at times he takes his entire team out of sync.
And yet, he’s the guy who gives the Thunder everything.
He gives OKC scoring, playmaking, passion, intimidation and heart. The Thunder play with an edge whenever Westbrook is on the floor, and it makes the team better.
Still, I can’t merely gloss over his warts because, much like Westbrook, they show up in spectacular fashion.
Russ plays at a speed that’s vastly different to everyone else’s on the floor, which in turn makes him often seem out of control. To be fair, sometimes he is.
Westbrook will run up the court before his teammates are set and throw himself into a wall of defenders inside the paint and live with the results, no matter how porous they might be. One could argue he’s just a bad decision waiting to happen.
“It’s not just that he’s selfish or that his shot selection is borderline psychotic or that his fight-or-flight instinct keeps screaming ‘four-point play!’,” wrote Brian Phillips for Grantland in May. “It’s that he can do anything, so he tries to do everything.”
It’s worth noting that his superstar teammate (KD) has collected four scoring titles during his career and is a career 47.9 percent shooter.
Forgetting about your comrades during the regular season is somewhat of a forgivable offense, but such issues become magnified during the postseason in late-game situations. But Russell being Russell, it matters not.
My source had told me Westbrook actually was Batman to Durant’s Robin — that the point guard built like (and who often played like) a strong safety was the one with the killer instinct, the assassin’s clutch guts. Westbrook, my source had insisted, was mentally tougher than Durant and more feared by opponents late in games.
He has very little regard for time and score, which can be infuriating but also prevents him from shrinking in big moments.
Westbrook takes huge risks and lives with the consequences. He’ll repeatedly call his own number down the stretch of games and ignore open teammates, which, you know, isn’t what point guards are supposed to do.
What’s more, he won’t make any apologies about it, either.
“Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots,” Westbrook said in late April, per NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner. “But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”
The expectation from the position is steadiness, leadership, getting teammates involved and only calling your own number when open or if the situation demands it.
The perfect Westbrook sequence occurred in Game 5 of that series, with the Thunder trailing by seven points with 49 seconds left.
After blowing two layups, Westbrook registered six points, a steal, an assist and a rebound to close out the contest. Trailing by two, he stole the ball from Paul and drew a foul on a three-point shot. Russ nailed all of his free throws and won the game for the Thunder.
One might consider that a great display of intestinal fortitude given how he bounced back, but that’s just Russ being Russ.
I’m not sure there’s another player in the league who can match both his ceiling and floor. He’s capable of outshining Durant or demonstrating the worst point guard play in a championship game, according to Magic Johnson back in 2012.
And yet, I hope Westbrook never changes.
Sure, he might look like an oncoming train wreck every now and then, but he also lights up the tracks. Nothing is ever dull or even average with Westbrook. All of his plays are executed at 120 miles per hour, and that makes him susceptible to sensational highlights and spectacular blunders.
Westbrook is a nerve-wracking experience all by himself, and I certainly enjoy it.
As someone who once enjoyed watching wrestling, I see parallels between Westbrook and wrestling superstars.
Russell has his own signature move (six-shooter holsters), a swagger that borders on arrogance and the ability to recover from whatever pitfalls he suffers during play (this dude had three knee surgeries and it’s impossible to tell based on the way he flies around the court).
Why would anyone want any of that to evolve? A more conventional Westbrook would be a less entertaining one.
The fact that he always looks like he’s battling for control of a team that is effectively his is a joy to watch. Russ being Russ, he’s always looking to prove that he belongs and that “I got this.”
Westbrook possesses the traits of every (yes, every) great or borderline-great point guard who came before him, and it makes him an easy target for criticism. There are times when I feel like there’s an expectation for him to play better simply because Westbrook was built with seemingly every skill needed.
There’s no reason for anyone to want any of that to go away. Remember, Westbrook came out of UCLA as a 2-guard and was asked to become a point guard. All he did was go with the flow and become an All-NBA guard while playing out of position. To top it all off, he is often the No. 1 target whenever Oklahoma City loses.
With that in mind, why would I or anyone want him to allow others to dictate his fate? If my words can’t convince you, perhaps Durant’s will.
“A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player, and I’m the first to have your back through it all,” said Durant in his brilliant MVP reception speech. “Just stay the person you are. Everybody loves you here. I love you.”
Get yours Russ, because really, doing so gives me one of the greatest joys possible while watching basketball.
I can only hope he takes this advice: Borrow a chapter from Kobe and never conform. Instead, make others adjust to you.
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