Monthly Archives: June 2012

Russell Westbrook: The Power of German Engineering

There’s been a Volkswagen commercial playing during these NBA Finals that, for whatever reason, has really caught my attention. Some of you may know which one I’m thinking of. There are two young, teenaged looking boys standing next to a pulled-over Volkswagen Passat which they very recently crashed into something (I suppose we don’t know what). As the two boys stand there, the one just sort of observes the other, stoically, as he worries about what his father will do, now that he’s crashed his car. “My dad’s gonna kill me, dude,” the worrying kid says with that all-too-familiar tremble in his voice that we’ve all experienced at one point or another. But then some assuring words appear on screen, “He can only kill you if you’re OK.”

The point of the commercial, of course, is to show just how safe the Volkswagen Passat is. They’re basically saying, that in order for your dad to kill you, he needs the opportunity to kill you, and he’ll never get that opportunity unless you drive their “IIHS Safety Rated” Passat. There’s an odd polarity to it – they can’t guarantee that your dad won’t kill you, but they’re willing to bet that, at the very least, you won’t kill you. It’s a curious way to sell a car, really. It puts the thought of crashes and death in the viewer’s mind, which isn’t something we generally associate purchasing a car with – yes, we look for safety in our vehicles, but it’s never so bluntly stated in the ads. Most companies just tell you that their car can get you from Point A to Point B, and they can do it with this many cup holders, and that many TV’s in the backseat for the kids. But what they don’t tell you is that sometimes between Point A and Point B, you crash. You do. Everyone does at some point. But Volkswagen’s bet is that if you drive their car, you have the best chance of surviving the crash.

There are a lot of great (or really good) point guards in the NBA right now: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Steve Nash, Ricky Rubio, the corpse of Jason Kidd, Kyrie Irving, John Wall, even Jeremy Lin if you want to go there, but none of them ever seem to draw the same amount of criticism that Russell Westbrook does. And maybe it’s for a reason. Sometimes he’s out there playing like a “coked-out Klitschko brother.” He plays so arrogantly and so out of control that it gets really, really frustrating to watch. It’s even more frustrating to watch because basketball nerds have an obsession with Kevin Durant, and we really, really want to see him succeed.

But then there are the other times; the majority of the times, really. All of these other times, Russ Westbrook plays like, not just one of the best point guards in the NBA, but one of the best players in the NBA, period. Game Four was one of those games. In a contest that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook was the best player on the floor, and it wasn’t even close.* Forty-three points, seven rebounds and five assists is what we expect out of LeBron James, not out of Russell Westbrook, and certainly not on the road, in Game Four of the NBA Finals. At one point in the fourth Westbrook ran off 13-straight points for the Thunder. With the way the Heat were playing, he was the only reason they were in that game. And that’s what Russell Westbrook can do, most of the time.

*Actually, statistically, it was close, because LeBron’s 26-12-9 game is so amazing, but seems so mundane because he’s LeBron James and we almost expect these types of performances out of him.

But like any driver, Russ sometimes crashes, and crashes hard. In Game 3 he was benched for most of the third quarter in favor of Derek Fisher. In Game 2 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Westbrook played so out of control that Scotty Brooks sat him for the entire fourth quarter in favor of Eric Maynor – and won. It’s because of this that the media tends to drive a narrative that Russell Westbrook is the problem with OKC – well, if one of the fifteen or twenty most talented players in the NBA is your biggest problem, that’s one amazing problem to have.

So when James Harden and Udonis Haslem squared off for a jump ball, with seventeen seconds left (and a full five seconds left on Miami’s shot clock) with Oklahoma City down three points, and Russell Westbrook fouled Mario Chalmers with only a couple of seconds left on Miami’s shot clock…Twitter, and Facebook and everything exploded – even I tweeted and texted “WHY WOULD YOU FOUL THERE?!?!?!?!” It’s a logical reaction, really, because, well, it was a dumb play, and it makes sense to question it. And it’s because of moments like this that Westbrook almost seems bi-polar: one minute he’s playing like Derrick Rose; the next minute he’s playing like JaVale McGee. There’s a Good Russ and a Bad Russ, and we mostly see Good Russ. But for one really inopportune moment tonight, we saw Bad Russ.

The problem with this, though, is that, yes, he fucked up, but he shouldn’t be taking the blame for this loss (as was done to him by the Facebook and Twitter elite). There are handful of moments you can pinpoint (just from the fourth quarter) which led to the Thunder losing – James Harden missing a wide-open layup, Derek Fisher driving the lane with numbers when Derek Fisher has no business driving the lane whatsoever, any number of errant passes, Thabo Sefolosha taking a shot late in the game, and so on. Oklahoma City lost that game. NOT Russell Westbrook.

He fucked up, and it sucks, but the team was still down three at that moment, and they were down three for a reason – they didn’t execute for the other 47 minutes and 52 seconds of the game. Russ Westbrook was the best player on that floor tonight – he balled. He also made a boneheaded mistake that likely cost Oklahoma City the last possession, and a chance to tie the game. But that comes with the territory of Russell Westbrook. If your franchise is going to live by Russell Westbrook, it also has to prepare to die by Russell Westbrook. And you know what? All players are bound to make mistakes. But with Russell Westbrook, you probably have a better chance at surviving that mistake. He’s going to win you some games, and he’s going to lose you some games, but, mostly, he’s going to win you games – he’s just that talented. Still, Bad Russ is bound to make some dumb plays every now and again, and sometimes those plays might kill you; but Bad Russ can’t kill you unless Good Russ keeps you in that game.

– bhb

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Seriously Guys, Why the *%#! Are You Rooting Against LeBron James?!!!??!

Barry Bonds was a gigantic asshole. There’s, really, no other way to put it. He spurned Pittsburgh for San Francisco (and the then-richest contract in baseball history); he (allegedly) took steroids or HGH or whatever the fuck it was that we spent $25 million in taxpayer dollars trying to figure out but never did; he broke, perhaps, the most cherished record in all of sports, whilst (allegedly) taking these “performance enhancing drugs;” and he was a dick to the media, and to fans, and basically all walks of life. You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a teammate, or executive or media member who genuinely liked Bonds, just as a human being. The media hated him, the fans hated him, and a lot of his ex-teammates hated him. He was an asshole. He was also (arguably) the greatest hitter of all-time.

The thing that sucks about Barry Bonds’ career, is that so much of this country spent it hating him, and hoping he failed that nobody really took the time out to appreciate just how scary-fucking-good he was (and he was really scary-fucking-good).* You look around baseball these days and there are some great hitters in the league – Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun – but, no offense to any of them, none of them are Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols may go down as the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time, but he wasn’t a Gold Glove outfielder who also averaged almost 30 steals a season; he just isn’t Barry Bonds, even he’d probably tell you that.** Ask any manager from the last two decades which hitter struck the fear of God in them with the game on the line, and you’ll hear one, maybe two, names, but they will always say Barry Bonds.*** The greatest show of respect for any hitter is to intentionally walk him – Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 688 times in his career, Hank Aaron was second with 293. He was so feared as a hitter that on May 28, 1998 Buck Showalter intentionally walked him with a two-run lead in the bottom of the 9th, and the bases loaded. He’d rather give the Giants one run, than allow Bonds the opportunity to plate four.**** Just think about that for a minute. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent to that in any sport. That’s how good Barry Bonds was; and it kind of sucks that our memory of him is so shrouded by our hatred of him, that we never really got the chance to appreciate his greatness. I’m starting to get the feeling that this is sort of where we’re at with LeBron James right now.

*For the record, I really couldn’t give a shit what you think about the steroid era. It’s my belief that every record from that time should stand, and everyone, whose career was deserving of the honor, should be in the Hall of Fame.

**Though their 162 game averages are remarkably similar: .298/.444/.607 with 41 HR, 108 RBI, 121 runs, 28 steals and a 139/83 BB:K ratio for Bonds, while Pujols has put up (thus far – we still haven’t accounted for his decline phase, which seems to be taking place now) .326/.417/.610 with 42 HR, 125 RBI, 121 runs, 8 steals and a 91/67 BB:K ratio.

***The other, I’d argue, is Manny Ramirez. But that’d be its own essay.

****The last time this happened, I believe, was back in 2008 when Josh Hamilton was going crazy – Joe Maddon intentionally walked him with the bases loaded and Tampa up four.

LeBron James is an asshole – or at least he seems like an asshole; we project him in our minds to be an asshole, even though he is (by all accounts) a great teammate, and a really loyal friend. We stick with the narrative in this country, though – he left Cleveland! he did “The Decision!” Jordan would never have played with Bird or Magic! – so we’ve decided as a nation that he is an asshole.* And we absolutely hate him for it; we vilify him for it – for being this asshole we project him to be. And since we hate him – and, in turn, the Miami Heat – we want him to lose, and every fourth quarter we hope and pray that he fails, because if he does, it’s some sort of vindication for society – as if the fate of the civilized world rests on whether LeBron hits a free throw or not.

*I mean, at the very least, we’ve come to a national consensus that he’s a douchebag, right?

I don’t want to sound like the “good job, good effort” kid, but this is all pretty silly, really. This is the third round of these playoffs that I’ve now had to hear everybody wishing that the Heat lose; actively rooting against them. And, honestly, I can’t understand why. Give LeBron as much shit as you want for “The Decision” – it was poorly handled and even he understands that now – but he’s still the single, most talented player in the world.

Seriously think for a second: if you were to create the greatest basketball player of all-time out of parts of other NBA legends (a sort of Megazord of NBA players) how would you build him? Karl Malone’s body? Magic’s agility and passing ability? Pippen’s defense? Kobe’s scoring ability? Jordan’s will to win? LeBron James has all of those attributes, except, maybe, the last one – that competitive fire that only Jordan had, and probably only Kobe can come close to emulating. Except maybe he does have it.* It certainly looked like he had it in Game 6.

*Stop reading right now and read this piece by Joe Posnanski. Like now. Really. Seriously. I won’t mind if you don’t come back. Ok, I will. But, seriously, read it.

It’s games like this that make you remember he’s the best player on the planet right now.* You can spare me the he hasn’t won a championship! argument; I didn’t say the greatest, I said best. We can measure greatness by rings if we want, but on pure talent we’ve never seen someone like LeBron James before, and if you argue otherwise you’re 1) wrong, and/or 2) so much of a LeBron hater that you just aren’t willing to accept the truth [or, perhaps, 3) from Cleveland, which is, really, just an extension of 2].**

*I won’t say the universe, because if Independence Day is any indication, aliens are pretty fucking advanced – and I don’t even wanna know what the fuck they’re developing on Moron Mountain – but from the life forms we’re able to observe, he is, hands down, the best.

**And please realize that this guy ranks THIRD all-time in points per game (27.6; behind only Jordan and Wilt) while also averaging 7 boards, 7 assists, 2 steals and a block.

So explain to me, again: why, exactly, do you want, so badly, for LeBron James to lose (if you’re not a Celtics fan)? Because the only thing you can possibly accomplish by getting your wish – the only possibility that can come from LeBron James and the Miami Heat losing Game 7 on Saturday night – is depriving us, as a nation, of being able to watch the best possible basketball available. You’re basically rooting against your own best interests; LeBron James losing is bad for you as fans. You’re, really, no better than the poor schmucks in Alabama who vote Republican just because they’re Christian – you make no fucking sense. Go check some tape of the Boston Celtics and tell me that watching them against the Oklahoma City Thunder for seven games is more intriguing than LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant, or Dwyane Wade vs. James Harden and Russell Westbrook. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait…)

Listen, I don’t like that LeBron did “The Decision,” or that he left Cleveland, or even just the way he carries himself – he comes off as a bit of a douchebag or an asshole, he just does; that’s sort of (from the public eye) indisputable. But he’s also the best player on the planet, and actively rooting against him robs us, as fans, of the chance to watch a once-in-a-generation (possibly even a once-in-ever) talent during the peak of his career, on the sport’s biggest stage.

A couple of people joked around on Twitter before Game 6, saying shit like “Today, we’re all Celtics fans.” Honestly, though, fuck that. I already missed out on appreciating Barry Bonds’ prime, I’m not repeating it again with LeBron James. Come Saturday, I sincerely hope we’re all Heat fans. (Then we can all go back to rooting for Oklahoma City.)

– bhb

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