Dragonslayer

Lebron James

Lebron James


By: Michael Conroy

In the NBA, superstars are judged primarily on their ability to do what is expected of them. It’s a defensible criteria, considering just how often the best teams seem to win it all. The most talented athlete in the league is given a golden ticket to June along with a perverse ultimatum: Tread water, or drown. How, then, does that athlete ever find the time to “swim?” This is the quandary that faces all established NBA stars. In a world where everything goes according to plan, being truly remembered requires monumental aberration.

There are moments in a player’s career when their own success becomes that which is unexpected. Lebron James is no stranger to this moment. The home-grown Cleveland hero famously fled to Miami in 2010 to avoid it. Rather than slay the dragon that is NBA convention, James joined Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to become that convention and win his two championships.

One by one, the scrutinized James toppled demons that had stalked him since his first foray into the playoffs. He solved the puzzle of the final two minutes and allegations of inadequacy in all forms fell by the wayside. Now, Cleveland’s prodigal son has returned to the Cavaliers as a grizzled veteran with the tools he hopes can finish the job he started once upon a time.

The Golden State Warriors are one of the most prolific offensive juggernauts in NBA history. Incredibly, the team also led the league in defensive efficiency. They are a running, shooting, fire-breathing favorite to win the NBA Finals. For Lebron James they are the final frontier.

The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 12 consecutive games in January are ancient history. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love nursing injuries, a skeleton crew remains. J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Matthew “Deli” Dellavedova hardly constitute an imposing foursome. Even if Irving and Love can return in a limited capacity for their clash with Golden State, the Eastern Conference will have its most shallow representative since Iverson’s 76ers.

Lebron Dragon 4

A.I. wasn’t nearly the generational talent that Lebron James is. However, at the age of 26, Iverson had accrued far fewer grueling postseason minutes and even he couldn’t triumph in the face of the Kobe-Shaq L.A. Lakers. Make no mistake, the present-day Warriors stand to be every bit as historically dominant as those Lakers. League MVP Steph Curry is averaging over 28 points per game in the playoffs. Scoring like that in the NBA Finals would rank among the series’ all-time greatest performances.

At 30 years of age, Lebron James faces both the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity of his professional life. Rarely does a superstar like James come up against a seemingly unbeatable foe. If the self-proclaimed “king” can overcome incredibly long odds and win his third championship in four seasons, his career will become part of a new and very exclusive .discussion. It seems strange that a 4-time league MVP with two championship rings and an Olympic Gold Medal could possibly have more to prove, but those are the stakes.

What is implied when people talk about the “great” ones in the NBA? Is it simply a game of counting rings that determines greatness? More accurately, those mathematical hurdles serve as a baseline. What matters more is a star’s claim. In other words, how and why is he remembered?

Crafting that legacy is more difficult than it sounds. So many factors are out of a player’s control. Level of competition, timing, team mates, coaching and even social issues all play a role.

Lebron’s career has, at the very least, been unique, but not always for the reasons he’d like it to be. In a way, the injuries to Irving and Love might be blessings in disguise. By finding a way to overcome those setbacks and win four of the next seven games, he can rewrite his own history. James can be remembered not as a mercenary, but a hero who did what could not be done; Whose greatest moment came in Cleveland, not Miami.

The Golden State Warriors should win this series with relative ease. They have the deeper, younger, healthier roster by far. Still, if any player is capable of such a massive upset, it’s Lebron James. At least, if he does, it will make a wonderful story.

Life After 1, 6, 11

Draft Lottery

By: Michael Conroy

Just what is so compelling about the NBA Draft Lottery? Is there an untapped audience clamoring to watch athletes decorated with “pseudo-haute couture” attire as they grin and grimace through a hyper-glorified raffle? No, those optics alone can’t be responsible for shutting down a Buffalo Wild Wings at around 6:30 p.m. on an otherwise random Tuesday. Hope, on the other hand, could do that with its eyes closed. After all, only the hopeful could form a community as inexplicably interested as the Philadelphia 76ers fanbase. Last night, that’s exactly what the NBA was selling.

ESPN had the perfect lead-in to its coverage of the Western Conference Finals opener between the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets. The broadcast played like an — albeit shamelessly milked — Old Spice commercial. In a sense, fans were told: “Look at your man, now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me. But with the first, sixth and eleventh overall picks in the 2015 NBA Draft, he could smell like me.”

Just think, all of the “stink” emanating from Sixers GM, Sam Hinkie’s controversial tanking strategy in recent years could finally be abating. Watching James Harden square off against Steph Curry, respectively the third and seventh overall selections in 2009, the future of a team with the potential draft capital of the 76ers seemed undeniably bright. Landing just one of their two conditional picks would increase the odds of drafting a difference-maker exponentially. It was an enticing scenario, but one that ultimately eluded the Sixers faithful.

In reality, Philadelphia’s Utopian outcome was never very likely. Still, it’s difficult not to view last night’s haul as a slight disappointment. The third overall selection in the draft is hardly a pittance for any NBA team, but landing outside of the top 2 could prove problematic for the Sixers in the long run.

Russel

Both Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor are favored to be the top pick, but D’Angelo Russell could be a target for the Lakers at #2. What, then, will Hinkie do if Los Angeles goes off script on draft night? Nerlens Noel flourished in the second half of last season and last year’s third overall selection, Joel Embiid is poised for a breakout rookie* campaign in 2015. The selection of Okafor or Towns would undoubtedly force out one of the other Sixers’ center prospects.

Of course, Sam Hinkie tends to view all players as assets, so the idea of taking Jahlil Okafor may be slightly more tenable. Regardless, if the 76ers are truly building something, wouldn’t it be better if the blocks fit together?

It’s true that the Philadelphia 76ers are playing the long game and their fans have clearly bought in, but just because people are patient, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re buying tickets. It’s always easier to suffer the journey when you can make out the destination in the distance.

Two superstars clashed on a national stage last night. The 7-minute lottery extravaganza was fun, but James Harden and Stephen Curry were the main event. The pair represent the highest rated offensive prospects drafted in the past decade. Third on that list could be a 76er next month. A good Point-Guard in the NBA makes his entire team better. D’Angelo Russell could facilitate the offensive growth of Philadelphia’s young roster through crucial developmental years. He may have been Hinkie’s pick at #1 overall.

In the end, it might come down to which Center the Lakers favor and whether the Timberwolves take him first. That might just cost the Sixers their chance at Russell. Los Angeles could even leverage their superior positioning to gain assets from Philadelphia. As it stands, Philly will be hoping once again just over a month from now. Perhaps those dreams won’t be dashed.

The Departed

Spencer Hawes (left) and Evan Turner (right)

by: Michael Conroy

As the new General Manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, Sam Hinkie was always going to explore ways to reinvent his roster. The flurry of activity in the waning hours of Thursday’s trade deadline was, in a way, just the dropping of a second shoe. Generally speaking, I’ve never been a big proponent of purging veterans as a precursor to a rebuild. In the NBA, colossal youth movements seldom turn out how they were planned. Most young players need to walk into an established culture and grow under veteran leadership. For this team, however, at this moment, The Sixers made the right call.

Evan Turner is not who we wanted him to be. At this point in his career, it’d be laughable for fans not to have arrived wholeheartedly at that conclusion. It’s equally comical and all the more frustrating that Turner hasn’t arrived there with us. Maybe some day he will, but if/when he does, it won’t be as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. What the Sixers received in their trade with Indiana is irrelevant. Sam Hinkie had assessed his team and decided to move on from a player who just never seemed to get it. For all of his physical ability, Evan Turner struggled mightily with his decision-making on the court. In a leadership role on a rebuilding team, he simply didn’t bring much to the table.

Turner seems like a nice enough guy. He takes care of himself in the media and off the court. He’s never been a distraction, but he seems to be more concerned with who he might still become than who he has firmly proven himself to be. The Sixers just couldn’t wait around any longer.

When the trade was announced that would send Spencer Hawes to Cleveland, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I’ve always had my issues with him as a player but it’s impossible to deny that a Center with Hawes’ skillset has value in the NBA. Earl Clark showed flashes as a Laker last season but few would consider him an asset to the Sixers. The two 2nd round draft picks are a nice consolation prize for what should have been a better deal.

The obvious elephant in the room in this situation is the long-term status of Thad Young, who may have been the Sixers’ most substantial trading chip. He’s a good player who consistently performs up to a certain set of standards. While many believe Thaddeus will be the catalyst for some draft night deal, I find that scenario a bit far-fetched. The draft class of 2014 is a hallowed one in the eyes of many team executives. If a first-round pick in this year’s draft wasn’t on the table at the deadline, I can’t see that changing by June 26th. Though Young has voiced his displeasure about the state of the franchise, he’s still under contract and, unlike his recently departed team mates, holds value for a rebuilding team.

And so, the Philadelphia 76ers have finally blown it up. Very little remains of the Doug Collins era. The continued development of Michael Carter-Williams and the upcoming draft are pivotal, but every young team needs veteran leadership. Sam Hinkie has decided that Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were simply the wrong kind of veterans. The rebuild has just grown exponentially in scope. In the immediate future, a lot of terrible basketball awaits, but this franchise is undeniably back in motion. While it may get worse before getting any better, at least the 76ers might finally be moving towards better days.

Break the Silence

Center, Jason Collins

I began to write this column knowing wholeheartedly that, by doing so, I would be immediately undermining the point I wish to make. Still, I feel strongly enough about the subject that I was willing to give it a shot.

I want to begin by asking the media as a whole a simple question. What on Earth are we doing with this Jason Collins story? Let’s really step back for a moment and think about what happened yesterday. Jason Collins, a veteran NBA player, became the first active professional athlete in the United States’ four major sports to “come out” publicly and announce that he is gay. When you put it that way, it’s easy to see why this has become such a massive story in the sports world and beyond.

Make no mistake, this was a notable event. It’s worthy of reflection, significance and discussion, but on day two of this post-homosexual-professional-American-athlete world, this has devolved into something that I’m not sure Jason Collins can even be proud of. 

Let me explain. Before yesterday, we knew there were professional athletes with varying sexual preferences in America. Very few people would dispute that what happened was a likely scenario. So, when Jason Collins took a commendable step in disclosing details about his orientation, there was a palpable sense of relief in his words. There was a feeling of relief from his audience as well. In the immortal words of one Bob Sugar, “Finally, someone said it.”

As cathartic an experience as it was, the purity of Collins’ acknowledgement lasted just about twenty-four hours. Today, the prevailing narrative has completely shifted from one man’s brave declaration to something far less noble.

Today, the story seems to be about how “we” are all supposed to deal with this. How are the “rest of us” supposed to treat Jason Collins and other gay athletes? How should a team deal with his locker-room presence next season? The news cycle has been dominated by this story and it’s “ripple-effect.” It’s become a national sensation, but those peripheral distractions should not be so paramount to the discussion.

Maybe I’m naive for thinking that the bigger this story becomes, the less progressive our society seems. I don’t feel like talking about how much of a bombshell this is reflects very well on our tolerance at all. At what point does the media cross that fine line between covering a story and covering themselves, covering a story? Wherever that threshold may be, I can’t help but feel that it’s somewhere behind us.

I could be wrong. This story might warrant such incessant dissection. There is no doubt that Jason Collins did something courageous and noteworthy yesterday. Perhaps his affirmation should have been given a little more room to breathe, though. I think we should be coming to a point in our nation’s history where Jason Collins is looked at as a professional basketball player who happens to be gay and not a gay man who happens to play basketball.

Good Life

It feel like Philly

On Friday, the Philadelphia 76ers did something. I mean they really, actually did something in the world of professional basketball. In acquiring Andrew Bynum, a trajectory has been set for this franchise. There is a real, distinct chance that this team could contend for an NBA championship as early as two or three seasons from now. This is no small feat, as the situation the 76ers had found themselves in was significantly less than ideal.

In the NBA, the economic system dictates that you, as a team, either need to be a contender or you need to be rebuilding. There is no “good” in this league. Just ask Daryl Morey if you don’t believe me. He’s been on a warpath to land a superstar for years. Now that he’s realized he can’t, he’s shifted his focus to sucking as soon as possible.

Being caught in the middle of the pro basketball pack ensures that you are not good enough to contend with the best teams but far too formidable to draft a difference maker. Boy, had the Philadelphia 76ers found that middle… existing as assembled, the Sixers were never going to win a title so they needed to make a move.

The only problem was that seemingly the only move to be made involved a considerable amount of risk; risk that the “difference-maker” you acquire might leave the team gutted at the season’s end. This is only a problem if you are too short-sighted to realize that you truthfully have nothing to lose.

In making this decision, the 76ers have rid themselves of that pesky Andre Iguodala, the man who kept them too good to rebuild for so long, and made certain that they will no longer be part of NBA purgatory. If Andrew Bynum works out as a 76er, plays well, and the team can build around him for the future, that will be a major victory for the franchise. If he flops in Philly and walks when all is said and done, then the team will be atrocious. They will lose a TON of games and contend, for the next few seasons at least, for the top five picks in the lottery.

For ownership, this is a massive gamble with a product that could have easily yielded them a few more years of profitability without warranting such risk. For the fans, however, this is one of the best decisions in franchise history; this is a get-out-of-jail-free card. This team is either going to contend for a championship or build for one through the draft and, after this season, there is no more in between.

For Andrew Bynum, the latest appointed savior of our beautiful city, the focus should remain on himself. I say “remain” because we all know that’s where it’s been all along. We’ve heard rumblings about Bynum’s desire to be “the guy” on his team and, as I’m sure he is aware, that was never going to happen on a team employing Kobe Bryant. In the Philadelphia 76ers, Bynum has found a team that desperately needs him to do what he has so longed for in Los Angeles. They need him to be the premier, go-to offensive option. What Bynum has always wanted is at his fingertips. This is his chance to become something he was never going to be in L.A. : a true superstar.

The happiest person of all in this situation should be Evan Turner. With the roster this team was boasting before the deal, his development was the only meaningful story line. Turner’s growth into a superstar, something he has shown no signs of being, was going to dictate whether this team could salvage this group or had to find a way to bottom out in a hurry. With Bynum’s arrival, Turner reaching his potential becomes just icing on this delicious, blue, white, and red velvet cake.

It’s not all roses and sunshine, however, for the newlyweds in this case. There still remain some serious questions about how this can all fit together. Bynum is notorious for having a lackadaisical attitude towards coaching instruction and can be rough around the edges when dealing with the media.

With Doug Collins being the coach of this team and sports media being what it is in Philly, I have my doubts that this will go off without a hitch. There is also the loss of Iguodala to consider. Some of you may scoff at that last sentence but make no mistake, Andre Iguodala was a leader and stabilizing force on this young team. Regardless of Bynum’s obvious skill set, Iggy’s absence will certainly be felt.

All around, this should be a glorious time to be a Sixers fan. The franchise’s future has not looked this promising since before Allen Iverson stopped attending practice. Before this move, there was seemingly no plan. In making this commitment to excellence or excrement, the Sixers’ front office has sent a clear message to their fan base that we have been desperately waiting to hear. Deep down, beneath all of the boasting about last season’s imitation post-season success; behind the signing of one Kwame James Brown, they understand. They really do understand.

Mild

Dirk Nowitski hoisting the NBA Finals trophy

That’s honestly the only word I can find to describe the way this year’s NBA finals wrapped up just a few hours ago. After this series dragged on to it’s sixth episode, one could only hope that if they were given enough opportunities, these two teams would come up with at least 48 minutes of spectacular basketball at some point. If you had, you were wrong.

This series was just so lacking in energy on so many levels. The stars were not outstanding on either team. The benches were defined by their irrational confidence and tendency to act as though they were anything but role players. Every 3-point shot that found its way into the basket gave way to the most annoying celebrations I can remember seeing during a live sporting event in at least three years.

Jason Terry is not compelling. He is not special and he is not a star. Neither are J. J. Barea or Shawn Marion. I did not tune in to every one of these finals games to see them play like second stringers and celebrate like three-peaters. I tuned in to see Dirk be Dirk (which, for the most part, he wasn’t) and the Heat’s Big Three. Neither of those products were even close to being as good as advertised and the series suffered.

Lebron James is not an enigma. I cannot stress this enough. We all know what he is at this point in his career. He’s the best Basketball player on the planet. This does not mean that he’s perfect, clutch, or media-friendly. We are going to have to accept that the better team does not always win out. The Minnesota Vikings were the best team in football in 2009 and gave the NFC championship to the inferior New Orleans Saints. It’s not a rare occurrence and it will happen again with regularity.

I don’t want to say that I won’t take anything away from Dallas because I plan to. Dallas won an NBA championship tonight. In the Miami Heat, they beat a team that was better than them. The Heat failed to execute this entire series and if they had played sound basketball, this would have been a sweep.

Unfortunately for Miami, a championship would have been par for the course. Dwayne Wade and Lebron James gambled for more and lost. While the Heat messed around with house money and played the media game, they failed to realize something. Their losses were going in another team’s win column. This situation became evident to Lebron James at about the 2:35 mark of the fourth quarter of game six.

I find it agitating that the “experts” and commentators will tell us that what we watched was a great series. As I have stated before, sloppy turnovers and bad shots do not make great defense. I saw two teams out there that were incapable of seizing the game. They were playing hot potato with a championship but one of them had to end up with it when the whistle blew.

I do appreciate a player like Dirk Nowitski getting his ring after laboring for such a storied tenure in the NBA. I just wish that he could have achieved his goal by out-playing a worthy opponent. Unfortunately this just was not the case here.

There will be plenty to talk about in the coming weeks regarding the long-term implications of this series and how Dirk Nowitski will go down in history. For now, we move on to the post-NBA/NHL limbo for the coming months and hope that the NFL’s free agency period comes sooner rather than later.

Dallas fans everywhere should be chanting one thing tonight; “A win’s a win!”

From Out Of Nowhere

Lebron James' Powder Ritual

Lebron James Pre-Game Ritual

Starting this blog at a more awkward moment in the major sports calendar would have been very difficult. Still, smack dab in the middle of two championship series and fast-approaching the MLB all-star break, I find myself typing this, the first ever post of “The Peyton Mann-Thing Blog”. Tonight, the Miami Heat will continue their quest for media attention in Dallas against an equally annoying Mavericks team that seems to want this title as much as I want to see another season of American Idol (Hint: Meh…). Thus far, it has truly been a battle of who wants it less.

To be honest, this series has been a chore to watch. I’m tired of listening to ESPN Radio hosts drone on about the solid defense being played by both teams. Am I missing something here? This NBA Finals Series has been a marathon of ugly turnovers, anemic offense, and terrible penalties on both ends of the court. It’s been like watching a football game where both quarterbacks are shoe-ins to throw 5 interceptions by halftime.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s riveting television, but I can’t help but wonder if it is for the wrong reason. Lebron James is that reason. Since the beginning of the season, people have been waiting for this exact series; one through which they can finally measure the worth of Lebron James. Recently, he hasn’t been worth much. I haven’t been blown away by his defense in this series and his offensive impact is completely irrelevant at this point. If he’s not scoring in transition, chances are #6 probably isn’t scoring.

Since we’re all watching these finals with him and his “legacy” in mind, why not bring up something that has entirely nothing to do with basketball and use it to make wild assumptions about Lebron James’ play as of late?

I was listening to ESPN this morning while making a nice plate of scrambled eggs for myself (yum) when something caught my attention. It was the voice of Stephen A. Smith, a journalist that has been very close to Mr. James for quite some time.

(“Stephen A. Smith alluded to something terrible that he heard is going on in LeBron James‘ personal life that may be affecting his play in the NBA Finals“) -ESPN.com

Stephen also went on to compare Lebron’s supposed turmoil with that of Dwayne Wade during his trying divorce, saying that these stars are more affected by their off-the-court problems than we, the public, may understand.

My first thought: Wow that’s stupid.

My second thought: Eggs are getting dark on the bottom

My third thought: Wait…didn’t I read something completely uninteresting about Lebron James’s personal life the other day?

http://i.imgur.com/xI9KH.png

BANG.

So here comes a wild assumption, based on absolutely nothing substantial, about the lack of super emanating from this “star” recently.

RASHARD LEWIS SLEPT WITH LBJMVP’s GIRL WHILE HE WAS AWAY!!!

If I happen to be proved correct six weeks from now, you can be sure I’ll reference this article repeatedly to gloat to the WordPress world. If not, I will probably never mention it ever again and neither will you.(I can’t lose bro.)

Anyway, I expect Lebron to make a statement tonight and bring the series home to Miami where the Heat will dispatch Dirk and Friends  in what I can only describe as a mercy killing. For my sake and yours, I hope something interesting happens between now and then to reward us for time served in lackluster NBA hell.