Threat of Ice Leads to Throwback Game Experience

On Wednesday, the threat of inclement weather nearly lead to the cancellation of the Hawks-Mavericks tilt in Atlanta.

The effect of the uncertainty was noticeable on the players, but the effect on the atmosphere of the arena stood out even more. The Hawks have made significant changes to their game presentation this season, including the introduction of a giant projector that lights up the floor for pregame introductions and halftime, as well as the usual collection of cheerleaders, trampoline dunkers, and a parachuting plush cow drop from the rafters.

On Wednesday, there were no cows, cheerleaders, or trampoline dunkers. Hell, there were barely any concession stands open. A crew of what appeared to be about five, including the team’s mascot, Harry the Hawk, instead was left to put together a decidedly more low-tech version of in-game entertainment.

Things got off to a bit of a slow start. Pregame intros were conducted without the use of the arena-rattling intro music and projector magic – in fact the projector wasn’t used once during the game. In its place was the standard “Ryan Cameron calls out the players’ names and they go through a high-five line” setup. Just before tip Kent Bazemore grabbed a microphone to thank the crowd for bothering to show up.

The first quarter’s timeout entertainment was mostly a collection of pre-taped video segments played on the jumbotron, several of them recognizable from earlier in the season; it was the sort of sponsored segment that would feature all of the players being asked whether they prefer the Simpsons or Family Guy, or showing Al Horford and Kyle Korver playing the pyramid game. A few of the more entertaining ones throughout the night featured players’ reactions to a still of Mike Scott with his head between the legs of a Bulls’ player in a game and their attempts to pronounce a German word introduced by Dennis Schroder.

The real magic started when the brave few in-game entertainment crew members started to get creative. Harry the Hawk performed his usual routine, but the others were forced into some more interesting skits, most of which involved dressing up one of the guys in various costumes. He started out with a simple routine wherein, dressed in a blue inflatable suit and a Dirk Nowitzki jersey, he was chased by Harry around the court during a timeout before being dragged out. During another timeout later in the game he showed up in one section wearing roughly 15 giveaway t-shirts, which he then stripped out of one by one, tossing them into the crowd. At some point he came out in an Angry Birds costume, and finally, when the final horn sounded, he was seen wandering around the court in a robe and oversized boxing gloves.

Absent the usual array of sponsored on-court timeout filler or a halftime performance, a lot of the dead time was filled by Harry helping out two kids in an obviously improvised race, trying to launch an overhead, facing-the-wrong-direction halfcourt shot (a staple of his performance that got a lot more play last night), or just throwing it over to Sir Foster, the brilliant in-game keyboard player, and letting him chew up a couple of minutes with keyboard versions of Outkast songs. It was not unlike what you’d expect to see in a documentary about the ABA, or at least a game at Philips Arena prior to this season.

The ABA feel to the proceedings was not helped by the comedy of errors in the first quarter. The game clock malfunctioned at least three times, a staple of Philips in the pre-Budenholzer era. Then there was what appeared to be a roof leak dripping on an area outside one of the 3-point lines, which mystically repaired itself to allow the action to continue.

Between the sparseness of the crowd, the lack of in-game theatrics, and the slow start by the Hawks on the floor, it seemed like something straight out of 2009. For a long time, the poor crowds and underdeveloped arena experience were something of a trademark. For various reasons that’s started to change, helped along in large part by the fact that it’s more fun to watch a good team than a mediocre or bad one. CEO Steve Koonin has also made a major effort to beef up the entertainment side of things, leading to things like implementing the projector system and booking T.I. for the home opener.

For one night, though, it was all back to the barest basics, and it was surprisingly fun once things got rolling. Fittingly, the night ended with the Hawks mounting a comeback and handily beating Dallas, who went cold from the field in the 2nd half. Koonin quickly grabbing the mic to wish everyone a safe ride home. It turned out that for most in attendance that wouldn’t be a problem – the snow and ice had mostly been relegated to an area far north of the city, but an overreaction to the weather just added to the experience.

What Does Your Buyout Market Big Say About You?

The buyout season usually kicks into gear following the trade deadline, but things are going a little differently this season. You can throw out Josh Smith, whose dismissal by the Pistons was just bizarre, but even without him the early returns may be big for teams looking to add some depth thanks to the parting of ways between the Knicks and Amare Stoudemire and the impending buyout of Larry Sanders from the Milwaukee Bucks.

Sanders and Stoudemire are entering mid-season free agency from distinctly different places. Sanders’ antics have cost him a small fortune in fines and the missed games due to injury and suspensions have really piled up. His enormous defensive potential is clearly evident when he is healthy and allowed to play, as he roams around the paint swatting shots and generally deterring effective finishing while he’s around the basket. The offensive side of things may be a tad dicier, with his inability to convert any shot that’s not right next to the basket making him a one-dimensional roll man.

Offensive warts aside, he’s shown a ton of value as a D-and-dunks big when he can avoid lighting up off the court or trying to punch out an entire nightclub. His inability to dodge those latter issues are far more troubling, and are certainly the reason Milwaukee has had enough of him, but that doesn’t mean that some nice team couldn’t change his errant ways.

Amare sits on the other end of the spectrum. By all accounts he actually wants to play, and aside from an ill-fated confrontation with a fire extinguisher a while back and some ongoing immaturity concerns he doesn’t seem to be a bad guy to have around these days. Sure, he has fallen off from his defensive highs as a limited defender to become a raging inferno of ineffectiveness on that end. And yeah, with the high-flyer act he put on in Phoenix with Steve Nash feeding him gone there may not be much more to his game than “toss it to him in the high post” or “let’s hope this pick and roll goes really well”, but he is hitting his shots at the rim, just like he always does, and while the numbers are off this season, he’s historically been reliable with his solid midrange jumper.

None of that is going to move the needle too much, but a team like the Mavericks (who are the odds-on favorites to land Stoudemire’s services) could certainly use someone to score a few points when Dirk Nowitzki hits the bench. Leave the defense to the rest of the lineup.

While Dallas’s frontrunner status in the Amare pursuit renders this more of an academic than a practical exercise, it will still be telling to see which teams will chase which big. Do you court the enigmatic pogo-stick center with game-changing defensive potential and youth on his side (but who may burn the place down with style), or the safe older power forward who can score you a few points without causing any off-court headaches (but that’s it)?

This organizational personality test will show the teams that are desperate for upside and think they can keep their locker room in order and those that crave the scoring stability that known quantity Stoudemire brings. A playoff team looking at Sanders is showing that it doesn’t trust its current roster to make much, if any noise in the postseason, while one looking at Amare believes it can cover for the defensive lapses, or at least live with the bleeding in exchange for a little bit more firepower. Neither is a particularly appetizing option, but no player reaches the buyout market without their share of problems. So now all suitors have to ask themselves is which of the two (if either) they’re willing to bring aboard.

The Quiet Revival of Linsanity

Perhaps the heights of Linsanity were too bizarre and the situation too perfect to recreate. An expectation-laden Knicks team struggling with injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire suddenly found hope in the undrafted guy from Harvard. Jeremy Lin got 35 games of pure, ridiculous excitement as he put New York on his back and provided a little bit of magic before running into the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh buzzsaw in Miami.

Lin’s brilliance during that stretch briefly raised expectations for what his career could become. The big numbers in the box score (both good and bad) were somehow all positive indicators. The points and assists? Obviously All-Star caliber. The high turnover rate? Secretly a sign that he wasn’t even hitting his ceiling yet.

Only after the season, when he was poached by a crafty Rockets’ front office – leading to one of the most bizarre and desperate stories in free agency history as the Knicks, aware that they could not keep Lin, tried to hide from Rockets’ officials to avoid receiving his offer sheet – did the expectations wane. At the time of the signing, it was expected that Lin would be given the reins to the Houston offense, while fellow free agent signing Omer Asik was left to protect the rim and veteran Kevin Martin provided wing scoring.

Fortunately for the Rockets, but probably not Lin, they swung a deal to send Martin and several other pieces to Oklahoma City in the now-infamous James Harden deal. That left Lin as the secondary ball-handler in his own backcourt, and he never adequately adjusted to the role. This past offseason, after two years of mediocre numbers in Houston, he was shipped out to L.A. to create cap space for a Bosh signing that never came to pass.

With the Lakers he was again relegated to playing 2nd fiddle, this time to Kobe Bryant. With that, his slide into irrelevance became complete. No one gives a crap about the guy next to the guy making the headlines. And Kobe can make a headline. From his inefficient, shot-happy start to his kind-of tragic, left-handed finale, Kobe was, is, and will be the only reason anyone pays attention to the Lakers this season.

But maybe that’s all for the best. There, in the surprisingly obscure post-Kobe wasteland that is the Lakers’ roster, Lin can thrive. For the first time since Melo returned from injury to wrest control of a suddenly-surging Knicks team from Lin’s hands, he’ll have a shot at showing what he can accomplish as the primary ball handler on the wing. Sure, he’s going to be passing to Ed Davis, Robert Sacre, Jordan Hill, and a washed up Carlos Boozer, but at least he’ll have the ball…when he’s on the floor – he’s already coming off the bench behind Jordan Clarkson.

Hidden in his newfound obscurity is the fact that Lin is a pretty good point guard. He’s good for about 15 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes under normal circumstances, and with added responsibility he could easily eclipse those numbers. His shooting has steadily improved each season, with his 36% mark from long distance placing him right around the league average, an improvement from his bricky early days.

Lin is only 26, and this is his 5th season in the NBA. He probably won’t get much better than he is right now, but for the first time in ages he might at least have the opportunity to put his full talents on display. There are precious few reasons to tune in to a Lakers game these days; for my money, seeing Lin get his chance is probably the most compelling one.

Top of the East Has Teeth

The Western Conference grabs all of the headlines, and rightfully so, thanks to the number of teams competing for a playoff spot. Last season Phoenix failed to land a place in the top 8 despite a 48-34 record. That the West is the better of the two conferences in the NBA is not only taken for granted, it’s become a cause of concern for some around the league as ideas for balancing the playoff picture are floated around.

While the quality of depth in the Eastern Conference is pretty pathetic, let’s not use that as an excuse to rule out teams in the East from the championship picture. Due to Cleveland’s struggles in the first Kyrie Irving-LeBron James-Kevin Love season there’s an underlying sense that the Western Conference Finals could turn into something of a de facto championship matchup.

The top four teams in the East have something to say about that.

While Cleveland has faltered, Toronto, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago have all been playing excellent basketball and sit atop the standings in the East, separated by a mere 2 games. Chicago, at the bottom of the tight pack, is 22-10, which would be good enough for 6th in the West.

Obviously the easier schedule an Eastern Conference team faces affects their record; playing the likes of Philadelphia and the Knicks is a bit easier than running up against a New Orleans team featuring Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings.

Even just focusing on the East elite’s record against current top-8 teams in the West shows their quality, though. Despite Toronto and Washington dropping games last night to Portland and Dallas, respectively, the top four in the East have fared very well against the top of the West.

As of today, these teams are 11-9 against their playoff counterparts in the West. Only the Wizards have posted a losing record in these games for the East, and they sit 2-3 after losing to the Mavericks twice, beating Houston and the Clippers, and dropping a contest to Phoenix. The other three teams have all at least broken even against the best of the West.

Obviously the sample size is small, but it’s encouraging that even as the East’s most consistent performer for the past decade falters for the first time there are teams waiting to pick up the slack. There’s even reason to believe that they can improve. The Raptors have been operating without DeMar DeRozan, Washington started the season without Bradley Beal (and until recently were starting Kris Humphries), and Derrick Rose is still working himself into shape for Chicago. Only Atlanta has featured a more or less healthy lineup, and they have won big games without Jeff Teague and with Al Horford struggling to regain form after missing most of last season.

Basically, there are 11-14 legitimately good teams in the league, depending on Kevin Durant’s health and how you feel about Cleveland and Phoenix, and four of the locks are in the East. As it stands now, after the 1st round of the playoffs both conferences will feature good teams locked in a slugfest. Unlike in previous seasons in the East, anyone at the top can beat anyone else. Barring injuries, this should be fun.

The Kanter Conundrum

The Jazz are in an interesting position as a lot of their young talent begins to hit restricted free agency before the team has managed to turn that talent into wins. Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, and Gordon Hayward have all received extensions from Utah; the next in line is Enes Kanter.

The Turkish big has shown some useful skills during his 3-plus years in the league. His offensive game in particular has been productive, even as he’s drifted farther from the basket. He shoots well at the rim, as one would expect from a 6’11” center, but it’s his numbers out to 16 feet that are the real indicators of his solid offensive play. He doesn’t fall apart in the paint outside of the restricted area, as some players do, and he can shoot short jumpers effectively. Outside of that 16 ft. mark things become a little more dicey, especially beyond the arc.

Kanter added the 3-pointer to his arsenal this season with the approval of his new coach, the 3-loving Quin Snyder. That was intended to offer a little space for big man pairings featuring Kanter alongside Favors, but he’s only converting one third of these shots on a little over one attempt per game. There are some signs that Kanter can provide spacing eventually – he has hit a respectable number of his shots from 16-23 ft. in each of the prior two seasons – but the shot just isn’t there yet.

That makes the partnership with Favors, who himself isn’t a threat outside of 16 ft., very tenuous. It would help if the offensive struggles that come with playing these two together were offset by elite defense. That’s not the case though, and Kanter is a big reason why. The starting lineup, which features approximately zero above average perimeter defenders, gets slaughtered defensively on a nightly basis. Bench units that feature giant shot-blocker Rudy Gobert fare much, much better, because the lack of perimeter defense is covered up.

Favors is a decent rim protector, but Kanter can’t block shots and doesn’t get steals. He has to rely on positioning, but doesn’t have the instincts that someone like Marc Gasol has to wall off the paint consistently in spite of a limited vertical. That leaves him as a liability, especially considering the support his backup offers. Gobert has seen increased minutes this season, and it’s no surprise why.

Utah has to make a decision, and quickly, about what they want to do with the frontcourt rotation. Gobert has played very well as a shot-blocker and rebounder who can finish effectively at the rim. Even Favors would be better suited to playing as the lone big for stretches to open up his rolls to the rim. A very good three-man big rotation could feature those two with a decent shooting power forward coming off the bench. Of course, that would leave Kanter out to dry.

Maybe the Jazz should consider that option. So far they’ve made it a point to re-sign their young players no matter the cost, but that can’t continue forever. Commitments to Burks and Hayward have the wing spots set for the foreseeable future, and Trey Burke and Dante Exum will be given ample opportunity to prove they can man the point. The frontcourt is where the questions lie, and the problems facing the team aren’t going to go away.

Snyder values shooting, which the current roster is sorely lacking, and there are precious few opportunities to add it given the pieces already in place. Trading Kanter now would offer one opportunity to clear up a logjam at center and potentially bring in someone who can hit from deep.

Kanter has value, and some team may take a flyer on him for the rest of the season to see what he can offer. That team would then have the right to match any offer he gets in restricted free agency over the summer. Someone like the Knicks or Celtics could benefit from the influx of talent, and would be able to let him work out things like a burgeoning 3-point shot without the risk of losing playing time.

Utah would shed itself of the decision of whether or not to re-sign the center, plus could get some solid compensation in the form of picks lower in the draft or additional players (who can hopefully spread the floor a bit). Sometimes teams need to make the tough calls. For the Jazz, that time is now.