Thursday, August 18, 2016

5 Observations from the Rio Games

Dirty water, robbery and doping scandals aside, these Olympic games in Rio have been a thrill to watch. And, with such a small time difference between Rio and the states, we have been able to actually enjoy them at a reasonable hour, sometimes even live!

With that said, here are five observations from the games:

#1: The Stars Help A lot

With golf, tennis and basketball stars backing out of Rio, it was easy to feel a letdown coming. But, with two of the greatest of all time – Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt – along with superstars Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Kerri Walsh Jennings, these games have been electric. 

The Olympics is supposed to be the stage for the greatest athletes in the world, and it most certainly has been that this year, especially for America! Approaching 100+ medals, USA has nearly lapped the country with the 2nd most current medals in China. 

Led by the greatest of all time, Michael Phelps, exiting the Olympics stage with insurmountable hardware and class, and the emergence of superstars Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles breaking records at just 19 years old, the stars have aligned for America, with the future looking as bright as the past. 

#2: International Basketball is More than Refreshing – It's the Right Way to Play

I thought the USA men's basketball team would steamroll the competition. And, when they didn't, I was reminded why the NBA has regressed, and the international game is poetry in motion.

Clich├ęs aside, watching these international teams play has been a breath of fresh air. The way they play the game, from their passing to their spacing, is how it should be played. The NBA has become way too much isolation one-on-one, and I believe that's a big reason for the disparity you see today. I'll take brilliant execution and team ball any day over superstars chucking it up. 

The Spurs are the exception here, but most NBA teams could learn a thing or two from the international strategy. Certainly, Team USA has by beating two teams, with much less talent, by just one possession. 

#3: The Less Mainstream Sports are the Best

When it comes to the Olympics, I've always been most fascinated and interested by the less popular American sports. Certainly, swimming and gymnastics come to the forefront at the Olympics, and our American stars have made those events must-see at the Olympics.

But, beyond that, I love watching table tennis, badminton and handball. And, believe it or not, the top stars in each sport have made in the millions for their careers. These sports are very popular in some rich countries, and I would love to see them televised more in the states. 

#4: Golf Needs to be a Team Event

After a 112-year absence, it was nice to see golf return to the Olympics. But, the format ruined it for me. Besides the fact that four of the top five golfers in the world – Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – backed out, the event would've been way better had it been in a Ryder Cup/team format.

Sure, it was fun that it came down to the 72nd hole between Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, two of the world's best. But, it would have been way more fun had it been a battle of the countries. Every player, and every shot, would carry so much more weight, and the camaraderie between countries and fan reaction would create much more excitement and buzz.

Honestly, with the Olympics being more than two weeks long, you could easily do both. Make it happen!

#5: Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps. Enough said. If he is, indeed, calling it a career, he went out in remarkable fashion, notching five more golds and one silver, to reach 28 total medals, 23 of which were gold.

But, this Olympics was more than his last hurrah; it was cementing his legacy and going out the right way. By Phelps standards, and his own standards, London 2012 was a disappointment. After going 8 for 8 golds in 2008, he had two silvers to his name in 2012. And, he told Bob Costas, "I basically did that off of pure talent, very, very minimal work. The last like year, leading up to London, I worked pretty hard. But, the other three years, I just joked around."

On top of that, as he acknowledged in the same interview, he went to very dark places, battled depression and even questioned his life. In doing so, his weight skyrocketed from 187 to 230. It wasn't until a DUI and subsequent rehab that he decided to return to the sport. 

And, so, the 2016 Rio Olympics was more than just the best ever giving us one last show for the record books; it was Phelps restoring his life, making an incredible comeback and going out the right way.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tim Duncan: Greater Than the Game

It's so rare that you find someone with a demeanor so calm and collected command that much respect, exude that much leadership and unquestionably rise to one of the best players in NBA history.

That was Tim Duncan in a nutshell. As great as he was a player, he was seen by his peers as an even greater teammate and person. What Duncan represents, along with the era he represented, is almost nonexistent today. And, here's why:

The Rivalries

What really made Duncan's era special, compared to today, were the rivalries. And, as a Mavs fan, Spurs-Mavs topped the list.

It was a true rivalry in every sense of the word. Both teams met a lot, both teams each won a lot and there were epic, storybook encounters throughout. Duncan and Dirk squared off six times in the playoffs, with Duncan winning 18 games to Dirk's 15. The rivalry featured very talented and deep teams, but what will be most remembered are these two mild mannered, all-time great power forwards that are champions and ambassadors of the game.

The Big Fundamental

What's really missing from today's game that Duncan, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and many of the other historically great big men of the past had is post play. Duncan had the infamous bank shot, while Dirk had the one-legged fadeaway, and both brought out their bag of tricks in the post now and then to get easy buckets.

Post play is a glaring void in today's game, and it's unfathomable to me as an NBA fan. I argue that it's not only pathetic, but also a contribution to the disparity of the league. It's not being taught at a young age, with young players of all sizes falling in love with what they see on TV and jacking up 3s as a result. I have this discussion with friends a lot ... is the game more exciting with so many 3's taken and less post play, and more importantly, should the strategy be to take a ton of 3s every game because of the inherent value of the 3-pointer?

I say emphatically NO. Don't get me wrong, I love watching a long 3-ball, but I can't justify a 3 on 1 fast break ending in anything but a layup, unless you badly need a 3. I also can't justify how players are so much bigger and stronger today and have such awful fundamentals when it comes to post play. Sometimes, post play is nonexistent, and that's baffling!

How is a 3-ball smarter than an easy bucket/layup, especially for a big guy? And, it's not even exclusive to big guys! Guards like Jason Kidd, Sam Cassell, Gary Payton, and greats Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson, all thrived in the post. But, while Duncan and Kevin Garnett are at or near retirement and represent the last line of great post-playing big men from their era, there is hope. Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor all have strong post games.

Let's teach these talented kids better fundamentals and post play, and encourage them to practice that day in and day out. I strongly believe it can set them apart from their peers, improve the quality of the game and add some parity as well. Maybe Duncan will become a coach and instill that. If anyone knows about fundamentals, post play and leadership, it's him.

Going Out Tim Duncan Style

You can't fault Kobe Bryant for going out the way he did. He was always all about the spotlight, and gave the league and its fans something to get excited for one last time.

But, Duncan was a different kind of player and person. He was all about going under the radar, no trash talk and no media-driven swan song. His retirement decision resembled the way his whole career played out: classy, methodical and calculated.

Tim Duncan was greater than the game, and if some of today's players acted more like him and learned from all he offered, the game would be in a better place.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Series, the Aftermath and the Finals

Impossible season. Extraordinary comeback. Epic Series. That sums up the Warriors record-breaking season and classic battle with OKC in the conference finals.

For a crazy person like me, I can watch any regular season NBA game and find myself compelled. Yet, for most, the NBA regular season is of little importance. But, when a team breaks the Bulls record and does it with the brilliance and artistry of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and their cohorts, it's worth watching.

Fast forward to the Western Conference Finals game five. The once unbeatable Warriors faced the brink of elimination, staring down three straight wins or an epic debacle. On one side, the Thunder played out of their minds, and it came out of nowhere, much like the 3-seeded Mavs in 2011. Kevin Durant (KD) and Russell Westbrook certainly did their thing, but it was the emergence of Steven Adams, the skill set of Enes Kanter and the unexpected reliability of Dion Waiters that put this OKC team in unchartered territory. They not only proved the Spurs takedown wasn't a fluke, but they also took the basketball world by storm by going toe to toe with the Warriors.

Then, the Warriors pulled off the extraordinary comeback in remarkable fashion. It took their best at the end to hold off a game OKC team in game five, and then took jaw-dropping Klay Thompson 3s to keep the Dubs in it and ultimately steal game 6 to force the decisive game seven. And, of course, in game seven, the Dubs made a double-digit comeback to defeat OKC to move on to the finals. It was an epic series that may have saved an otherwise mundane postseason.

The Decision 2.0

Okay, so maybe Durant's decision will be far less dramatic than LeBron's. And, you can make the case this is more like decision 3.0, with LeBron going back to Cleveland. Either way, the aftermath of this series gets back to the storyline before it: what will Durant do?

The most likely answer is that he'll stay in OKC for one more year, when Westbrook's contract ends, and then make a bigger decision. But, what's particularly intriguing is that before the playoffs, OKC just seemed like another team that had little chance of realistic championship aspirations. The fact that they took down the Spurs, came moments away from taking down the champs, and saw the emergence of Adams and other key role players, makes you wonder if that was enough to keep KD, and Westbrook, in OKC.

It's a great debate. On one hand, it seems like the dynamic duo finally has a real supporting cast they haven't had since Harden. It also seems they are literally a spot up three point set shooter or two from an unstoppable offense. Think about it ... they really don't have a knock down, consistent three point shooter for when Durant gets doubled. That makes it hard for them to iso Durant at the end of games, when Westbrook ultimately seems to go on his turnover spree, as he did in game 6. But, if they just got someone reliable, perhaps Ray Allen, they might just be in business and too good for KD to leave.

With that crazy OKC crowd and the talent level around him, it might be hard for him to leave. But, there's still a feeling amongst the basketball community that he might go home to Washington. While I'm not opposed to him staying in OKC, I believe it would be far more intriguing for him to leave and battle LeBron in the east. Think about it ... not too long ago, these two met in the finals, and it seemed as though this would be a classic rivalry for years to come. Then came the Harden trade and injuries. But, they were very close this playoffs, and would certainly build a nice battle in the east. Maybe LeBron would finally have some competition, and make the east fun again. The NBA isn't ditching conferences any time soon, so this is the next best thing.

The Finals

On to the finals! A great rematch on our hands, and one many wanted to see with a healthy Love and Irving back in the fray. The problem for the Cavs is that they get a Warriors team that has not only won a title, but also had the best regular season in NBA history. It was one thing when this team had never won a ship before and weren't as amazing as this season; it's another to take on the world champs in a historic season.

That said, I expect a very good series. I think the Warriors top four defense, combined with their great depth, spacing and shooting, will be the difference. And, we will see why that Klay for Love trade rumor last offseason was not worth the Dubs time. Boy was I wrong for considering that one! Give me Warriors in 7. Enjoy the finals!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Historic Night and a Fitting Farewell

Usually, the last night of the NBA is a formality. Well, for the Warriors, it was, and hats off to them. But, only one man in today's game could steal the show on this night, as he's done his whole career.

Kobe dropping 60 was anything but a formality. And, with so much pressure and emotion for his last game, few players, if any, could have this great of a game, carrying one of the worst teams all season to a comeback victory for the ages.

Kobe has always been my favorite athlete (on the court). His work ethic, ability to play through injury and clutch gene are second to none in my generation. So, how fitting was it that all of those qualities were on display last night, in front of a packed house of Lakers fans screaming to the rooftops for the first time in years?

I've never been a Lakers fan, and probably never will. But, that doesn't matter. Just like it doesn't matter if you don't even love the game. You still have to respect the Black Mamba. What an epic storybook ending for a legend. Thanks for everything Kobe!