Returned Derrick Rose Is Both at Peace and More Driven Than Ever

CHICAGO — Meet the new Derrick Rose. He’s the same as the old Rose, but he’s different in a few telling ways.

The Chicago Bulls point guard projected a calm excitement at a charity event days before the NBA season’s start, speaking as confidently as he did when he became the youngest MVP in league history back in 2011. But he also sported some new, key features to his outlook. Through two seasons of injuries, Rose has spent more time off the court than on it, and he has adopted a more complex and peaceful worldview as a result.

And although our sample size is small—Rose returned to action with Team USA just three months ago—his new attitude has shown on the court, too. Known previously as a ceaseless speed demon, embracing contact as he plunged into the lane like his team’s only jackknife, Rose is now a shrewder player.

“My IQ of the game has changed,” he told me after taking questions from students who were the beneficiaries of his recent $1 million donation to a Chicago after-school program. “I’m switching gears, playing with more paces instead of just one. I can make the game easy. I’m being patient.”

This was in line with what he preached to the students in the Adidas store of the Water Tower Place shopping mall on Michigan Avenue. Rose urged them to always follow through with their inclinations and seek new knowledge. He even cited a recent reading of Malcolm Gladwell as a hint of the rewards of a tireless, exploratory work ethic.

“I did some research and saw that it takes 10,000 hours to master any craft,” he said. “That’s 10 years. You have to dedicate your whole life to something if you love it.”

We don’t have the math on Rose’s time in the gym at our disposal, but he seems to have surpassed that decade of concentrated time as a player.

In his regular-season debut against the New York Knicks, Rose rarely pressed the action, instead utilizing his quickness in brief bursts that found him alone for easy, mid-range bunny shots. Rose has always worked harder than the opposition, but in 2014, he’s also working smarter, seeing the game more like an easy chess match than a test of how far he can push his body.

A certain cocoon-like quality to Rose’s lifestyle has always enabled this sort of improvement. Growing up in Englewood—one of the deadliest of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods—Rose says he survived by insulating himself with close, trustworthy friends, many of whom now work with him.

He developed a tunnel vision for his familial circle and basketball love early on. Rose became so focused on his game as a teenager that he didn’t even watch his hometown team.

“I never went to a Bulls game. I didn’t watch the Bulls in high school, I just worked out with that guy right behind you all day,” Rose said, referring to Andre Hamlin, a former coach of his at Simeon Career Academy who now works as his security chief.

Hamlin was one of many on hand trying to wrangle the younger, ebullient Rose, Derrick’s son P.J.—whose name is short for Pooh Jr., a reference to the star’s nickname growing up. The two-year-old made the most of the store’s large, open space, giggling as he feverishly threw a basketball around to everyone in attendance.

The impact of fatherhood is another key tenet of the reimagined Rose. He said being a dad motivates his performance further. “Having my son, just knowing how he’s going to grow up, it’s different. He needs something that’s going to push him. It’s all going to make him want to push himself to the next level.”

It’s also not hard to see how the toddler’s happiness changes Rose. At one point of the event, the child’s laughter and movement in the store reached such heights that Rose stopped mid-monologue just to marvel at it. “P.J.,” he said with a bemused chuckle.

Things look fun again for Rose, who has admitted to feeling little else but stress and expectations when he tried to return from injury a year ago, only to go down again during the season’s 10th game.

“I think that was just a dark side for me, a dark period of time,” Rose told The Washington Post’s Michael Lee at Team USA camp in Las Vegas this summer. “I felt like it was damn near like a job instead of just going out there and having fun. I wasn’t smiling, I wasn’t enjoying the game. I was trying not to mess up.”

Today, the point guard can’t wait to get on the floor. He loves what “feels like a new team” and thinks they can win it all.

“This is the most professional team I’ve played on. It’s no disrespect to older teammates. I’ve been on professional teams before. But on this team, from rookie all the way to veteran, everybody’s focused. You can’t do anything but respect it. We have a really good, deep team. If I was the owner of the team, I’d be very happy. We’re a contender,” he said with a proud lilt.

The Eastern Conference won’t be the one-team party it’s been in recent years—a glut of mediocrity with LeBron James standing tall above the pack. Behind a rejuvenated Rose, the Bulls are a real equal to James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and easily the biggest threat to ending LeBron’s four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

With the teeth of coach Tom Thibodeau’s renowned defense and new scoring weapons like Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott, this looks to be the best professional team Rose has played on.

And as much as he tries to undersell his eagerness to thwart the King, it shows. When asked about whether there’s extra emphasis on his team’s Halloween showdown with Cleveland, Rose laughed again. “C’mon man,” he said.

 

All quotes acquired firsthand unless noted otherwise.

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LeBron James Says Return to Cavs Is One of the Biggest Sporting Events Ever

While LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland Thursday night is a pretty big deal in the NBA world, it’s probably not as significant as James thinks it is. 

While speaking with reporters Thursday morning, James stated that he believes tonight’s game is at the top of the list when it comes to sporting events. Of all time.

One thing’s for sure, people in Cleveland are definitely excited for LeBron’s return:

[YouTube]

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Russell Westbrook Under More Pressure Than Ever Without Kevin Durant

For the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s all about Russell Westbrook

No really, it is. 

Without Kevin Durant in the lineup as he returns from his Jones fracture, the focus is entirely on the team’s dynamic point guard, a player who often serves as a lightning rod even when he’s playing second fiddle to Durant’s first-chair violin. Of course, that’s just compounded by the other injuries the Thunder are working through, as the list seems to drag on and on, growing longer by the day.

Reggie Jackson had to be helped off the practice floor by his teammates just prior to the start of the season, suffering a right ankle injury that put him on crutches and leaves him questionable for the first game of the campaign. Jeremy Lamb’s back is hurt, while Andre Roberson has a balky ankle that he may have to fight through due to the dearth of options on the wings.

Beyond that, Anthony Morrow’s sprained MCL will keep him out for at least a month, Perry Jones III is having some trouble with his knee, and Mitch McGary fractured his foot during the preseason and will miss a significant portion of his rookie year. 

So again, it’s all about Westbrook now. More so than ever before, it has to be. 

 

There’s Always Pressure

Westbrook has basically never played without a spotlight focused firmly on his play. He’s one of those players who’s constantly being scrutinized and put under the microscope, allowing fans and analysts to try determining whether the positive production outweighs the negative. 

Everything he does gets analyzed and overanalyzed, whether it’s a breakout performance that makes it seem once more as though he’s elevating up toward the top of the point guard hierarchy or a lackluster shooting performance that might prevent the Thunder from racking up yet another win. Some players are just inherently controversial, and this floor general’s playing style takes that to another level. 

We’ve all heard the many arguments that center around Westbrook. For example, despite the simple fact that he suits up at the 1 for the Thunder, some question whether he’s really a point guard.

He’s a natural shooting guard who’s forced into playing the point. He can’t be one of the league’s best point guards because he’s really a 2-guard. He’s entirely overrated because he focuses on his own scoring and doesn‘t play like a pure point guard. He’d be so much better if he didn’t shoot as much. 

And heaven forbid he makes a crucial error late in a game or throws up a brickfest during any given night. If that happens, the world plays Chicken Little, and the performance is treated as though it’s causing the sky to fall. It gives fodder to the inane arguments that his penchant for shooting mid-range pull-ups and jumpers early in the shot clock prevent him from being a high-quality basketball player. 

He’s the one who inspires Magic Johnson to claim during the broadcast of an NBA Finals game, per the Orlando Sentinel, “I was very disappointed in Russell Westbrook. That was the worst point guard in a championship finals I’ve ever seen.”

But Durant provided a rebuttal of his own during those 2012 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, as relayed by Doug Smith of the Toronto Star: ‘It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point and people don’t recognize that. Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like John Stockton…there’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ. We need him to play the way he plays.”

The way he plays has tended to work out nicely for the Thunder more often than not, but it’s still failed to change the overall perception. Years later, here’s Charles Barkley taking a stance on Westbrook’s shot-happy ways: 

When Durant lit the world on fire and carried OKC in Westbrook’s absence, it led to notable NBA writers like Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry asking whether the team was better with Jackson, not the typical starter, playing alongside the future MVP. 

Basically, if you look up “lightning rod” in the unofficial NBA dictionary, you’ll see Westbrook’s face staring right back at you. He’s never been able to avoid the pressure, simply because everything he does is analyzed until those talking about him are blue in the face. He’s a naturally controversial player, one who creates endless arguments that will never, ever allow for either side to budge. 

But even with all that history, he’s never been thrust into a situation quite like this one. 

 

High Expectations 

The proverbial pressure cooker has always had the dial turned up to 11 for Westbrook, but now the world is finding a way to bump it up to about 15. 

Durant is gone for the time being, letting his foot heal and showing no indication that he’s going to beat the expected timetable of four-to-six weeks. The rest of the depth chart has been decimated, with players going down left and right…and up and down, apparently. And it’s not as though the expectations are that much lower for the Thunder. 

Preseason picks for ESPN The Magazine were due a couple of days before Kevin Durant’s foot injury surfaced. I had OKC winning the West if fully healthy,” wrote ESPN.com’s Marc Stein during his power rankings just prior to the start of the season. “Now? After an injury-riddled October, I might still say the same if you could assure me KD will miss only a month. But who could possibly say that with certainty?”

Durant may be missing, but the Thunder are still expected to stay in the thick of the race for a top seed in the brutally difficult Western Conference. And this is a conference in which just a few games can be the difference between earning a No. 5 seed and finishing outside of the West’s top 10. Every game counts, and it’s up to Westbrook to get his team off to a hot start. 

As Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains, it’s going to be exciting, but the offense may struggle more than we’re accustomed to seeing from these Thunder: 

It will be exciting to see Westbrook stretch himself. He’s probably going to lead the league in scoring and usage rate until Durant gets back. But he is not a multidimensional, on- and off-ball threat like Durant. He doesn’t instill panic running off screens, he can’t shoot over anyone at anytime, and he’s still in the early stages of developing a post-up game that has been useful against smaller point guards.

Defenses in today’s NBA, with loosened zone rules, can clog the paint and strangle even the world’s best drivers when they know what’s coming. Westbrook has come so far in his career, and much of the endless criticism aimed at him has been off base. He takes three or four terrible shots every game, sure, but he’s an unstoppable freight train going to the hoop, and he has made subtle improvements in his passing every season.

Durant’s gravity away from the ball, and his screens for Westbrook, have helped clear those paths to the basket. Space will be tighter now, though Brooks can tinker with the rotation to maximize it. The Thunder’s offense occasionally fizzled out when Durant was the lone scorer; it will happen more often with Westbrook.

But it’s hard to be that definitive. 

Part of the reason for the pressure is that no one really knows exactly how Westbrook will fare without Durant. It’s been fun to speculate about him in the past, wondering if he could win an MVP like Derrick Rose did as a shoot-first, do-everything point guard, but there’s limited hard data to support any claims. 

Durant carried the Thunder without Westbrook, bolstering his MVP candidacy, going on a ridiculous tear and keeping the Thunder’s win total growing at a constant rate. But can Westbrook do the same? 

Based on the severe lack of time he’s spent without the reigning MVP on the floor, we have no idea: 

Durant has been the injury-avoiding mainstay in the lineup ever since Westbrook entered the league out of UCLA for the 2008-09 season. He’s always formed a dynamic duo with his point guard, and this situation has simply never popped up, save for the few minutes that Westbrook will occasionally spend on the court while his teammate catches his breath on the pine. 

And that simply doesn‘t matter.

There will be no sympathy for the floor general if he and the Thunder stumble out of the gates. There will be no excuses made for him if he doesn‘t capitalize on this opportunity, an opportunity his playing style seems to claim he’s wanted for quite some time, even if he’s never explicitly expressed such a desire. There will be no forgiveness if he succumbs to the pressure. 

The expectations are still there, and they’re never going away. 

  

Struggles Thus Far

Let’s see what we can glean from the small samples that represent Westbrook’s performance without the league’s reigning MVP on the court, dating all the way back to his rookie season. 

We’re not as concerned with defense, given Serge Ibaka‘s continuing presence, the overall effectiveness of Scott Brook’s systems and the other defensive pieces on the roster. The point-preventing unit will suffer without Durant, but offense remains the primary concern. 

Below, you can see Westbrook’s offensive rating with and without Durant for each season of his career, per NBA.com’s statistical databases

There’s an interesting trend starting to form there, as it appears Westbrook is beginning to gain comfort operating as the leader of the Thunder. After all, his offensive rating sans his talented teammate has gone up each of the last few seasons, peaking with the 41 minutes that qualified this past go-round. In fact, that was the very first time his offensive rating without Durant had surpassed the number he produced while sharing the court. 

But is this actually a trend, or merely the product of small samples, ones that can produce wonky results rather easily?

We won’t know until there’s more data provided to us by the opening salvo of the 2014-15 regular season, but the preseason already put a bit of a damper on the hopes. As Anthony Slater detailed for NewsOK.com, Westbrook struggled throughout exhibition season after Durant went down with his devastating foot injury: 

When Durant was in the lineup, Russell Westbrook could afford the occasional bad shooting night. Those 4-of-14’s could be masked by KD’s 12-of-18’s. But with Durant gone — carrying with him that extreme efficiency — Westbrook’s makes-to-takes percentage will likely carry more weight. If he’s off, it’s tough to see the Thunder beating many good teams. In the final three preseason games, Westbrook went a combined 14-of-43 from the field. OKC lost each by wide margins. Against Utah, he had his dominant spurts — he followed a nice first-half post-up of Dante Exum by swiping the rookie and slamming in the open court. But his mid-range jumper has been off. And that’s hurt the offense. Westbrook was 6-of-16 on Tuesday night, and the Thunder was outscored by 20 points with him on the court. Can’t happen in Portland next Wednesday.

According to RealGM.com, the high-flying 1-guard averaged 12.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game throughout the preseason, but he also coughed the ball up 4.2 times during the average outing, shot 36.9 percent from the field and made only one of his 10 deep attempts. His player efficiency rating was a meager (by his standards, at least) 18.7.

It’s just the preseason, but it could be indicative of upcoming struggles. Though there’s plenty of time for him to turn things around—and perhaps he will—there are certainly some critics already salivating at the thought of tearing him apart when the Thunder don’t emerge with an elite record during the opening portion of the 2014-15 campaign. 

The pressure is on. There’s no doubt about that now for a player who’s experienced unrelenting scrutiny throughout the entirety of his career. 

Westbrook is finally getting a chance to prove himself as a No. 1 option, and there’s only one certainty heading into what’s set to be a rather interesting opening. 

Plenty of shots will fly, but excuses won’t. 

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Amar’e Stoudemire’s Resurgence More Critical Than Ever to New York Knicks

It may seem like a strange time to predict big things for Amar’e Stoudemire.

The 12-year veteran turns 32 in November and is coming off the second consecutive season in which he averaged fewer than 25 minutes per game. Injuries held him to just 29 games in 2012-13, and his 11.9 points per contest a season ago were his lowest numbers since 2005-06—when he only suited up for three games with the Phoenix Suns.

And yet, there’s suddenly a shred of hope the six-time All-Star could at least partially return to form in his fifth and potentially final campaign with the New York Knicks—a season in which he’ll earn $23,410,988.

“My joy is there. My love of the game is there,” Stoudemire recently told reporters, via Fred Kerber of the New York Post. “I feel like I’m 19 again as far as how much I love to play the game of basketball. I feel youthful.

“To have that type of feeling again as I had my rookie year, to want to play and just want to be out there and get better as a player is pretty encouraging.”

It’s been a trying journey for Stoudemire, particularly after a successful 2010-11 debut with the Knicks in which he tallied 25.3 points and 8.2 rebounds in 36.8 minutes per game.

“Injuries sometimes take that joy away,” he added. “You’re not able to play, you’re not able to become that leader that you know you are, you can’t speak on things that you see on the basketball court because you’re not out there within the battlefield with the guys.”

So maybe Stoudemire’s heart and mind have undergone some timely renewal. Maybe he’ll even establish himself as a reliable second or third option under new head coach Derek Fisher.

But could he entirely redefine himself in the process?

“My goal this year is to become a better defensive player and be known as a defensive player,” Stoudemire proclaimed. “It’s a challenge I’ve got to accept.”

And it’s a challenge the Knicks will gladly encourage.

Stoudemire—who didn’t attend college—did his growing up under head coach Mike D’Antoni, quickly developing into a feared scorer with explosive athleticism and a smooth mid-range game. Unfortunately, he picked up some problematic defensive habits along the way, focusing instead on anchoring an iconic run-and-shoot offense.

Perhaps it isn’t too late for Stoudemire to learn some new tricks.

You’ll just have to forgive Knicks fans for waiting to believe it until they actually see it.

They may not see it right away. These kinds of transformations take time, especially with roles and expectations undergoing some reshuffling under Fisher. Good as Stoudemire’s intentions may be, there’s no substitute for sustained effort and focus—virtues that rarely appear overnight.

Then there’s physical toll with which Stoudemire must contend. Given his age and injury history, there’s really no telling how much action he’ll see throughout the season ahead.

After two seasons of minutes restrictions designed to keep him healthy, Stoudemire will apparently attempt to become more of a full-time contributor—with the medical staff’s blessing, of course.

Right now there aren’t any minute restrictions, or he can only play the front of a back to back, or any of that,” Fisher recently told media, via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com.

“If we can find ways to be consistent in [scheduling the rest days] then we don’t have to judge in the game whether or not it’s too many minutes or whether he can start or [not based on minutes restrictions],” he added. “So we’re excited that we can go into the season with an open mind in that regard and it’s worked well so far.”

An encouraging sign, yes.

More so, even, than Stoudemire’s latest quest for basketball immortality.

The 6’10″ power forward is attempting to preserve his health and physical tools with baths in red wine, a relatively new form of treatment with an aim toward longevity.

As the New York Daily NewsPeter Botte explains, “Bathing in red wine—known as vinotherapy—is said to aid recovery and boost circulation by using grape seeds, skin and stems to heal and rejuvenate the body.”

“It’s a rejuvenation and it’s not 100% red wine. It’s water and wine combined, but majority red wine,” Stoudemire told reporters this month. “The red wine bath is very important to me because it allows me to, it creates more circulation in my red blood cells. Plus, it’s very hot, so it’s like a hot tub.

“I felt great and after doing that recovery day, my legs felt rejuvenated. I felt great so I’m going to continue to do that for sure.”

There may be some legitimate questions about the therapy’s actual effectiveness, but the important thing is that Stoudemire feels 100 percent—for now anyway. His health history since 2005 is a mixed bag, particularly in recent years.

Stoudemire and Co. are saying—and probably doing—all the right things, but doubts will persist until he strings together a few months of sustained, elevated production.

If his body is right, he has a chance.

“I feel great. My body feels great,” Stoudemire told media earlier this month. “I worked extremely hard this offseason to be in top shape and be there full-time. But my body feels great. I feel confident. Hopefully it pans out well.”

Full time. That’s the key. In the wake of two seasons typified by limited action, the Knicks need Stoudemire to last at least 30 minutes every night. They need him to be aggressive, to defend with mental and physical purpose.

They need him to be dominant again.

“Last year was a difficult year. I think this year is a different story,” Stoudemire added. “I feel so much better now than I did last year. I’m healthy. I feel strong. So it’s definitely a different situation.

“Obviously [I want] to reach back to my dominant self. I feel like I’m there now. I feel like my body is feeling so much stronger, so I feel dominant.”

If there’s really something to Stoudemire’s optimism, team president Phil Jackson may have an interesting decision on his hands next summer. While it’s unlikely Stoudemire will command a massive deal in free agency, now is his opportunity to raise his perceived value—in the eyes of Jackson and others alike.

Stoudemire insists he’ll continue playing, and it’s conceivable he continues playing in New York, albeit at a significantly reduced rate.

Much as this organization might like to forget its first chapter with the overly compensated former star, it would be premature to rule out a second act.

But for now, that’s for Stoudemire to prove—and he’ll get his chance in 2014-15.

“There are leadership qualities with Amar’e that you can’t replace necessarily,” Fisher told reporters this month. “We’re excited to have him healthy. He played almost 70 games a season ago. We’re hoping we can get to close to 80 or more this year.”

It’s a hope that says as much about New York as it does Stoudemire.

This team desperately needs a big man to step up after Tyson Chandler‘s departure via trade to the Dallas Mavericks. New York’s increasingly strong perimeter arsenal (Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr.) will assure superstar Carmelo Anthony a halfway decent supporting cast.

The bigger question is the Knicks’ interior rotation. 

If Andrea Bargnani stays healthy, he’ll earn playing time on account of his ability to space the floor. Samuel Dalembert will play minutes in the middle, namely to defend the basket. 

But Stoudemire is the closest thing to a real two-way weapon. He has the skill and pedigree to help carry the scoring load, and he has at least some potential to make a defensive impact.

There probably aren’t any All-Stars in that big man mix, but the Knicks will take what they can get. Stoudemire’s best All-Star impersonation may be good enough to return this team to the playoff conversation.  

Earning that $23,410,988 won’t be easy. Earning a newfound appreciation from Knicks fans, however, isn’t out of the question just yet.

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Jazz Coach Quin Snyder Has the Most Terrifying Scowl Ever

If you’ve ever seen a zombie turn on its prey, you’ll recognize the look Quin Snyder wore on his face Thursday night. 

The Utah Jazz stamped out the garbage fire that is the Los Angeles Lakers, 119-86, and improved to 4-0 for the preseason. In spite of this, the team still somehow managed to a coax a horrifying death glare out of their head coach.

CJ Fogler crafted a Vine of the moment. If you feel your face magnetized toward your screen, pull back and walk away from your computer or electronic device. 

Harrowing, to be sure.

Considering the circumstances, it’s likely we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this in the coming months.

If the Jazz don’t go 70-12 this season, maintenance workers might start finding the remains of mauled bats in the catwalks of EnergySolutions Arena.

 

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Kobe Bryant Steals Ball from Stephen Curry, Slams Home Oldest Old Man Dunk Ever

Kobe is old.

He’s so old that his current teammates wore his jersey growing up. He’s old enough to have actually been a fan of Twin Peaks. The Black Mamba could run for president right now.

But like Sisyphus, Kobe Bryant returns year after year to work that rock, and he does it better than most.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ star stepped back onto the court Thursday night for a preseason matchup against the Golden State warriors. He wasted no time in reminding everyone how good he is, and just how old he’s become.

Bryant’s moment came on a slick steal off Stephen Curry. The 36-year-old swiped the ball out of Curry’s hands and took it to the rim for the oldest, old man dunk that has ever been dunked.

Eighteen years in the NBA takes a toll, and after last season’s fractured tibia and torn Achilles tendon, it’s a credit to Bryant that he even went for the slam.

Scarcely a year ago he was slamming over two defenders:

We may never see that Kobe again, but you can’t rule anything out when it comes to the Black Mamba. Between his otherworldly determination and the miracles of German franken-science, life’s rules only loosely apply to this man.

 

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Each NBA Franchise’s Worst Team Ever

Figuring out how modern-day offenses and defenses stack up against the units of the 1950s and ’60s isn’t exactly an easy task, but it’s quite necessary when attempting to determine the worst teams in each of the 30 current franchises’ histories. 

Just looking at points scored and allowed doesn’t do the trick because that doesn’t give pace an opportunity to come into play. For that reason, defensive and offensive ratings—pace-neutral metrics that show how many points a team allows and scores per 100 possessions—are much better gauges to measure prowess on those ends of the court.

But when attempting to rank teams historically, as we’re doing here, that’s still not good enough. After all, not every team with identical defensive ratings is on the same level. Nor is every team with an identical offensive rating equally competent at scoring the rock.

If two teams gave up 95 points per 100 possessions, which is worse—Team A, which did so during a year in which defenses rose to the top of the heap, or Team B, which did so when everyone was scoring points like the video game sliders were all the way up?

Team A should be the easy answer because context is crucially important. That, in a nutshell, is why DRtng+, or adjusted defensive rating, is the best inter-era metric for comparing defensive performances. 

The same holds true for ORtng+ or adjusted offensive efficiency.

Calculating these metrics isn’t particularly troublesome: Just divide the league-average defensive rating from the year in question by the team’s defensive rating and then multiply the result by 100 to achieve DRtng+. Similarly, ORtng+ is derived by dividing the team’s offensive rating by the league average and then multiplying by 100.

A score of 100 means the defense or offense was perfectly average that year. That does tend to happen fairly often, given that we’re working with the 1,315 teams throughout league history for which we have data. 

The final step in determining the strength of a team is averaging the two metrics. The result, called TeamRtng+, weights offense and defense evenly to ascertain the overall effectiveness of any team in NBA history.

When determining the worst squads throughout the NBA’s many seasons, the style of play doesn’t factor into the equation. Neither does points scored/allowed per game nor memorability, subjectivity and win-loss records. 

TeamRtng+ is all that comes into play. We’ll be looking at the worst team in each franchise’s history, counting down toward the very worst squad of all time. Analyses like this have been run before, notably by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Andrew Lynch and Ian Levy, but this is taking it to a whole new level by calculating things before and after the 1976 ABA/NBA merger. 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com. This introduction is an adapted form of what was used when ranking the top 20 offenses in NBA history as well as the top 20 defensesbottom 20 defensesbottom 20 offenses and best teams for each franchise throughout the same period. 

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Transfer leaves Marquette before ever suiting up

Transfer forward Gabe Levin leaves Marquette before ever suiting up for Golden Eagles

      
 

 

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Could LeBron James Ever Surpass Michael Jordan’s Cultural Impact?

LeBron James may one day become the cash-stacking, trend-setting pan-media mogul Michael Jordan is. But if he ever reaches that level, he’ll owe a debt to the man who blazed the trail.

That’s because the basketball-player-as-business-icon game, driven by the commodification of cool and the sale of sneakers, is still one dominated by the man himself.

 

James: Trying His Best

According to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com, James makes an estimated $20 million per year from Nike. His signature shoes accounted for approximately $300 million in sales in 2013, making them the most lucrative of any active player’s specific kicks.

His equity in Beats headphones earned him a reported $30 million when Apple bought the company. He’s a pitch man for McDonald’s and a ubiquitous presence in television ads for Samsung. He also collects loads of cash from endorsements in Asia that include Dunkin‘ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins.

A partnership with Fenway Sports Management netted James part ownership of Liverpool FC, which is among the most popular clubs in parts of the world outside the U.K.—especially Asia.

All told, Forbes estimates James has made $326 million in endorsements since coming into the league as a teenage phenom, including $72.3 million last season. He collected more than $50 million in each of the past two years, and his year-over-year earnings have increased consistently since 2003-04.

Chump change.

 

Jordan: Still Dominating

That $300 million in sales of James’ signature shoe sounds impressive…until you learn Jordan brand apparel did $2.25 billion in the same year, according to another report from Badenhausen. Jordan didn’t collect more than a fraction of that number, but he still made an estimated $90 million last year (20 percent more than James without an NBA salary).

And for Jordan, being a cultural icon isn’t solely about the money, though James will almost certainly have to become MJ‘s rival in finance before we consider him equal in sphere of influence.

Jordan’s legend (and it is a legend, by the way, which is another reason LeBron has so far to go to catch him; James is merely human at this point) is about more than cash. It’s about creating a brand, cultivating cool.

When Jordan signed a $500,000 deal with Nike in 1984 for a signature shoe, the NBA did everything it could to stop him. It banned his shoes and fined him $5,000 in every game he wore them.

Combining his business sense with his inborn defiance, Jordan rocked them anyway. And Nike picked up the tab on the fines.

That’s a cool move. Jordan flouted the rules. He stood up to the power structure, which, viewed in context with his otherwise very uncontroversial public life (he deliberately avoided stances on touchy political issues), seems shocking in retrospect.

It’s hard to know if Jordan benefited from such a guerrilla start to his life in business, but it’s worth noting that he triumphed in a market that was far harder to navigate than the one James exists in today. Now, instead of banning shoes, the league pushes Kia Optimas out onto the court for Blake Griffin to jump over in dunk contests.

Jordan taught a reluctant NBA that the best way to market itself was through individual players, but he had to fight to do it. And you’d have to assume he’ll continue to fight for his market primacy.

All the cash Jordan makes is one thing, but his continued recognizability and approval make it tough to imagine James overtaking him.

Per Badenhausen: “Jordan’s Q score, which gauges awareness and popularity, has been tops among sports fans every year since 1991. His 25 million Facebook fans are 43 percent more than any other U.S. athlete.”

The fact that MJ is more recognizable and popular than James right now, despite the fact that His Airness hasn’t done the thing that initially made him famous for over a decade, is remarkable. In fact, it makes it difficult to imagine LeBron ever surpassing Jordan in that regard.

To do so, James would have to become significantly more popular than he is right now, which seems almost impossible.

 

A New World

Jordan built his empire in the pre-Internet age, which makes his rise that much more astounding. At the same time, James understands how the world has shrunk, and he’s been better than Jordan at utilizing social media and technology to grow his brand in avenues MJ never considered.

Perhaps that’s the secret. Perhaps James will find more ways to reach his fans, to influence culture.

He’s already got his own app, and he’s diving into television production, with two shows set to premiere this year. In terms of multimedia, James is already ahead of Jordan—even if he’s still being actively influenced by him.

“I’m really excited about helping develop Becoming and bringing this kind of program to kids,” James said in a statement, via ESPN.com. “Sports and athletes were my inspiration growing up. It was the stories about Michael Jordan, Deion Sanders and Allen Iverson that kept me dreaming. When I learned that they had some of the same struggles and challenges I did, it made everything seem possible.”

Younger fans (if not this generation, then the next) may not relate to Jordan the same way they will to LeBron—especially if the latter is making his way into their smartphones and TV sets. At some point, MJ will become the guy whose logo is on a pair of shoes, and it’s even possible some especially young fans won’t even realize Jordan once played.

Ask a bunch of 15-year-olds whose likeness is on the NBA logo (it’s Jerry West, kids), and you’re likely to get far more shrugged shoulders than you would from a group of 30-year-olds. The same thing could happen here.

If Jordan is just a guy with a cigar on a golf course to young fans, maybe he’s not as cool as someone still winning titles on the court and setting trends everywhere else. Then again, there are plenty of brands that maintain influence and cultural ubiquity long after their namesakes have faded away. Maybe Jordan is Levi Strauss or James Barclay.

Who knows?

 

Getting by Giving

James is in his prime, on TV, playing hoops, pitching products and capitalizing on his popularity. He’s everywhere.

Jordan is in full icon mode. You don’t see him often, and he’s becoming a bit more withdrawn (a cool guy move if ever there was one) as he ages. He sits back and smirks at the world while James sprints up to smile and shake its hand.

His days of changing things are over. He already pioneered the shaved head, the longer shorts, the endless string of chill-inducing commercials.

James has yet to put those kinds of stamps on the game and its fans.

But he has an opportunity to do something Jordan never did. He can use his social conscience to make an impact through charity.

That’s not to say Jordan wasn’t concerned with effecting change outside of his own bank account and reputation. But it’s hard to ignore the way James has made giving back a priority.

Per Sam Amick of USA Today, James explained:

I’m 11 years in, (and) I feel like I’m in a great place as far as my professional career and I feel like as far as off the court, that’s the more meaningful thing for me. I believe my calling is much higher than basketball, and I will continue to use that tool to continue to inspire because it has helped out a lot.

We’ve never heard anything like that from Jordan.

If James ever reaches MJ‘s level of fame and influence, this is how he’ll do it: with a far more human touch.

 

Homage to the Master

LeBron’s public-relations missteps (The Decision, principally) have made him more eager to please, while Jordan never had to make amends during his career. Playing at a time when the media wasn’t salivating for schadenfreude certainly helped.

Jordan commodified cool, but he did it with a complicit press that ate it up and rarely tried to tear it down.

Nobody stays on top forever, and James is definitely making progress toward Jordan’s throne as an icon. If the young gun ever catches the old dog, he’ll owe his predecessor a great deal.

Because even if James eventually does it better, Jordan did it first.

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Each NBA Franchise’s Best Team Ever

Figuring out how modern-day offenses and defenses stack up against the units of the 1950s and ’60s isn’t exactly an easy task, but it’s quite necessary when attempting to determine the best teams in each of the 30 current franchises’ histories. 

Just looking at points scored and allowed doesn’t do the trick because that doesn’t give pace an opportunity to come into play. For that reason, defensive and offensive ratings—pace-neutral metrics that show how many points a team allows and scores per 100 possessions—are much better gauges to measure prowess on those ends of the court.

But when attempting to rank teams historically, as we’re doing here, that’s still not good enough. After all, not every team with identical defensive ratings is on the same level. Nor is every team with an identical offensive rating equally competent at scoring the rock.

If two teams gave up 95 points per 100 possessions, which is worse—Team A, which did so during a year in which defenses rose to the top of the heap, or Team B, which did so when everyone was scoring points like the video game sliders were all the way up?

Team A should be the easy answer because context is crucially important. That, in a nutshell, is why DRtng+, or adjusted defensive rating, is the best inter-era metric for comparing defensive performances. 

The same holds true for ORtng+ or adjusted offensive efficiency.

Calculating these metrics isn’t particularly troublesome: Just divide the league-average defensive rating from the year in question by the team’s defensive rating, then multiply the result by 100 to achieve DRtng+. Similarly, ORtng+ is derived by dividing the team’s offensive rating by the league average and then multiplying by 100.

A score of 100 means the defense or offense was perfectly average that year. That does tend to happen fairly often, given that we’re working with the 1,315 teams throughout league history for which we have data. 

The final step in determining the strength of a team is averaging the two metrics. The result, called TeamRtng+, weights offense and defense evenly to ascertain the overall effectiveness of any team in NBA history.

When determining the top squads throughout the NBA’s many seasons, the style of play doesn’t factor into the equation. Neither does points scored or allowed per game. Nor does memorability, subjectivity or win-loss records. 

TeamRtng+ is all that comes into play. We’ll be looking at the best team in each franchise’s history, counting down toward the best squad of all time. Analyses like this have been run before, notably by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Andrew Lynch and Ian Levy, but this is taking it to a whole new level by calculating things before and after the 1976 ABA/NBA merger. 

 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com. This introduction is an adapted form of what was used when ranking the top 20 offenses in NBA history as well as the top 20 defenses, bottom 20 defenses and bottom 20 offenses throughout the same period. 

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