The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate… Mix of Experience and Youth

February 9, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

Football season is over, and slowly The Sports Debates will begin to switch gears on to other sports. Enter today’s debate on the validity of the San Antonio Spurs. Are they the best team in the NBA as we approach the unofficial mid-point of the season with the All-Star game coming up next weekend? Well, obviously, the answer is yes.

The easy defense of this is to take a quick peek at the NBA standings. Through Tuesday’s action, the Spurs had a five game lead over the Celtics for best overall record in the NBA and a 5.5 game lead over Babe Ruthless’ beloved Miami Heat. Projected out over a full season at the current pace, the Spurs would have nearly an eight game lead over the Celtics. That’s no small advantage.

One key advantage the Spurs have over the other contenders for the “best team in the NBA” throne –such as the Celtics, Heat, and the Lakers – is the fact that the Spurs have been consistently great the majority of the year. Sure, they’ve made missteps along the way. No team can be losing to the Hornets by 24. But if you look at the schedule to this point, the longest losing streak of the season for the Spurs is two games, and that was last month. They followed that “losing streak” with an eight game winning streak. On the season the Spurs have had three winning streaks of at least eight games, including two double digit streaks. That’s consistency.

Compare that to the other Big Three. The Celtics have three two game losing streaks, and they are currently in a streak where they have lost four of ten, including a loss to the Wizards. The early season struggles of the Heat are well-documented, leading to speculation (and a debate on this site) that head coach Eric Spoelstra was on the hot seat. The Heat had a three game losing streak early in the season and topped that with a four game losing streak last month, including a loss to the Clippers. The Lakers, out of all the top teams, have been the model of inconsistency, with two three game losing and a four game losing streak. Their struggles have prompted talk of acquiring Carmelo Anthony. Do they belong the title of best team with those rumors flying around?

Last month I tooted the horn of the Spurs when discussing the hottest team in the NBA, and they certainly haven’t cooled off. Obviously, the big three of Manu Ginobili, the former Mr. Eva Longoria (a.k.a. Tony Parker), and Tim Duncan – who is somewhat taking a back seat this season – are still there. But management has wisely installed some youth to surround the old guys. Leading the youth charge are Gary Neal and DeJuan Blair – who will both be laying in the Rookie/Sophomore game next weekend. Look who leads the Spurs in offensive rebounds? It’s not Duncan. It’s Blair, and that is in just over 21 minutes per game. Head coach Gregg Popovich has done an outstanding job of keeping his team fresh to this point, with no one averaging over 32 minutes a game. Folks, that’s going to play big dividends come playoff time.

The Spurs may not be the sexiest team in the NBA. But they are glad to give that title to their rivals if they can hold up that trophy in June. To this point in the season, they are in the best position.

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The Spurs Leading the Pack Debate… Mis-Leading The NBA

February 9, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Obviously the Spurs are good. The simple fact they are the first team to 40 wins in the NBA this season proves as much. But are they really the best team in the NBA? I am not sold.

Admittedly, a quick glance at the first half stats would lead one to believe the Spurs are indeed the best team in the NBA. After all, the San Antonio Spurs own an NBA leading 42-8 record and hold a 6.5 game lead over the team with the next best record in the Western Conference – The Dallas Mavericks. What’s not to like about that?

But upon closer inspection of the record books the Spurs don’t look quite as well… sharp. The Spurs have absolutely been dominant at home (25-2), and absolutely dominated all but the best teams in the league (winning 26 of 29 games against teams with less than 30 wins). But it is their strength that also exposes their weaknesses.

The Spurs have been upset more than once by teams they should have beaten easily, and those losses usually came on the road. The Portland Trail Blazers, New York Knicks, and L.A. Clippers are by no means among the worst teams in the league, but they are opponents that the Spurs should have been able to beat. Each upset pulled off exposed the soft underbelly of the Spurs’ road game to the league.

Obviously most teams haven’t been able to capitalize on this weakness, but most teams aren’t really in the Spurs’ league. The Spurs really haven’t been challenged much this season. More than half of the team’s wins have come against sub .500 teams. Similarly the Spurs have played almost twice as many teams with less than 30 wins than teams in the 30-plus column.

It is the teams in this latter category that have been especially good at making the Spurs look beatable this season. The Boston Celtics (38-13), Orlando Magic (32-20), Dallas Mavericks (36-15), and New Orleans Hornets (32-21) are all what I would consider worthy opponents for the San Antonio Spurs, and they have each found ways to beat the NBA’s “best.” This general point includes a 22-point beat down by the Magic and a 24-point shellacking at the hands of the New Orleans Hornets. Keep in mind this is the same Hornets team that earlier in the season dealt the Spurs one of only two defeats on their home court. It appears that when matched against the league’s best, the Spurs lose a bit of their shine.

You might be asking yourself, “Hey Babe Ruthless, if the Spurs aren’t the best team in the NBA then who do you think is better?”

I don’t propose than any one team is, but rather a few teams. For starters, the Miami Heat. Now I am well aware that all my unabashed LeBron love doesn’t sit well with everyone (even the judge for this debate), but I ask the haters to give me the benefit of the doubt on this one. Heck, even Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban admits the Heat are the best and he is an ego maniac.

LeBron James and the Miami Heat own the second best record in the Eastern Conference (37-14) and the most road wins in all of the NBA with 18. The team is heating up as the season progresses. They are among the hottest teams in the NBA right now, as they are currently in the middle of a six game win streak, and don’t show any signs of letting up. Imagine if the Heat had opened up out of the gate as strong as they are playing now, there would be no doubt they would be the undisputed best in basketball. That calls the Spurs claim into question.

Similarly, the success of the Boston Celtics (an important link to read) serve as another crack in the foundation of San Antonio’s claim to the top spot in the NBA. With a 38-13 record the Celtics are just a handful of games off the Spurs’ pace. The Celtics, who beat the Spurs 105-103 earlier this season, have posted nearly as good a record in arguably a tougher conference than the Spurs. Add to that the fact that the Celtics have been slowed of late by injury and a grueling road schedule, and we are talking about a team that might just be better than their record reveals.

The point of today’s debate was merely to cast a shadow of doubt on the Spurs claim to being the best and the best. Personally, I’m not even sold that the Spurs are better than a team in their own division – the New Orleans Hornets, who bested them twice already this season – but I feel confident that the stats prove the Spurs cannot be anointed, unequivocally, as the best team in basketball.

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The Miami Heat Playing As A Team Debate Verdict

January 28, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Loyal Homer and Babe Ruthless.

I really, really hate that I have to judge a debate like this. Call me a basketball purist, but one of the things I really enjoy about basketball is the fluid motion of five guys running an offense, communicating on defense, etc. It can be such a graceful sport to watch for that reason. You may read that and say that I’m immediately biased in favor of deciding that the Miami Heat MUST play a team game in order to be successful in the post-season. That is incorrect.

While I regret that much of the NBA has moved beyond the fluid team game that I believe basketball should be, that regret has no bearing on my understanding of what it takes to be successful in the NBA. Kobe Bryant’s Lakers have won the last two NBA championships. If that is not somewhat of a ringing endorsement of selfish play, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, the Boston Celtics have been very successful and they have a very team-oriented style. Bu, I went into this debate with an open mind. Let’s go to the arguments and see who emerges victorious.

Truth be told, I thought Babe Ruthless summed up his argument in the title of his post: “There’s No “I” in Team, But There is in Win.” Babe Ruthless is always big on individual achievement, and great players taking a team to victory… and this argument is no different. If this debate had popped up a month into the NBA season, Babe Ruthless would have no shot at winning, seeing as the Heat were a royal mess at that point in time. However, since King James’ cathartic Cleveland experience where the Heat demolished the Cavs, the Heat have been on a roll, and now Babe Ruthless’ argument holds a lot of weight.

Loyal Homer really gave no statistics to back up his argument, but his reference to the post-season struck a chord with me. He talked about how the rigors of a seven-game playoff series can expose holes in your team, leading the reader to infer that individual talent may be able to win for one night, but that it takes cohesive team play over a seven-game series to bring home the crown. At this point, I still hadn’t made up my mind who won the debate.

However, the more I thought about it, my inference from Loyal Homer’s post won him the debate. I thought back on my formative years as a Chicago Bulls fan, watching Michael Jordan (and eventually Scottie Pippen), two of the greatest NBA players of all time, bang their heads against the postseason glass ceiling a few times before breaking through. What did the trick for the Bulls? Jordan realized, as Kobe has now, that you need help to win a championship. Sometimes you need Steve Kerr to take the last shot because the better basketball move is to use your supreme talents as a decoy. It is not disrespect if you touch the ball less than your teammates, and only get the ball in crunch time now and then. Individual talent can be dominant in the regular season (see last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers), but it takes a cohesive team to win the trophy. Will Miami be that team? Dwyane Wade doesn’t think they need to be, but Loyal Homer and I disagree.

As a token of congratulations to Loyal Homer, I award him a pair of D-Wade’s sweet new goggles. Please understand that I am in no way making fun of Wade’s migraine issues. Migraines are brutal and frustrating to deal with, but I genuinely miss the era of guys running around with wild-looking goggles. Medical reason or no, I think D-Wade can bring them back – right after he sends his first pair to Loyal Homer.

Babe Ruthless will argue the Heat don’t need to play a team game to win, while Loyal Homer will argue the Heat need to play a team game to win consistently. Why don’t you take your talents to these articles, and the poll, and decide this question?

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The Miami Heat Playing As A Team Debate… There’s No “I” in Team, But There is in Win

January 27, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Loyal Homer.

Newsflash, America – the Miami Heat are not comprised of team players!

Did that shocking news revelation really just blow your mind… because it shouldn’t have. We all knew LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were never going to end the season first and second in the league in assists, but apparently there is a bit of an uproar that the Heat should be more “team-y.”

Criticism of Miami’s recent four game losing streak prompted Dwyane Wade to make comments defending his team’s unique strategy of letting star players loose to do their thing. Wade elaborates that the Heat are, “not [one of] these kinds of teams that need to play together.” And he is absolutely right! The Heat were designed to be a team of hired guns who keep the ball in the talented hands of their playmakers, then sit back and watch as LeBron, Wade, and Bosh do the rest. Why are people surprised when Wade makes a comment like this stating the obvious?

Playing to their Strengths

The Miami Heat currently sit atop the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference of the NBA with a 31-13 record for a reason – they win games. The Heat have a core of explosive playmakers on offense that, when hot, are virtually unbeatable. Putting the ball in the hands of James, Wade, and Bosh has propelled them to success thus far throughout the season, so why abandon that game plan at the first sign of struggles? Letting James and Wade play their preferred type of game is simply playing to their strengths.

Asking the Heat to change their game to be more team oriented is like asking the Yankees to abandon an affinity for the longball in favor of National League style small ball. Obviously the team aspect of small ball works for some clubs, but the Yankees simply aren’t built with that type of game in mind. Ignoring this fact in favor of a more team friendly approach would be placing an arbitrary handicap on the Yankees. Just as no one would expect Albert Pujols or Alex Rodriguez to quit swinging for the fences at the first sign of a minor slump, no one should expect LeBron and Dwyane Wade to move the ball around at the first sign of struggle.

Rewarding Experience

Although it doesn’t sit well with those big on “team play,” letting LeBron and D-Wade hog the ball is a viable and effective offensive strategy. It was this same individual focused rewards strategy that turned around the Heat’s season after struggling out of the gate. Coach Erik Spolestra decided that when his players made big stops on defense they would have liberal doses of freedom on offense. This motivation technique, although controversial, yielded results. It helped the Heat to set franchise records as they won eight straight by double digit margins. This in turn helped them pull ahead of the Magic and take the top spot in the division.

Critics of this rewards system will point to the fact that the Heat still trail teams like Boston, and claim that it is a flawed strategy. It should be considered that the Heat have been playing in the only Eastern Conference division with two other teams with records above .500 (Atlanta 29-16 and Orlando 29-16) and are still winning. Similarly, they have a far superior road record (15-8) than other division leaders like Boston (12-7) and Chicago (10-10). The system works, despite all the naysayers who second guessed the players’ ability to coexist. The Heat’s 96-82 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats saw both James and Wade put up 30 plus point games, proving not only that they can coexist but dominate as well.

Harping on the fact that basketball is a team sport is, in this case, arbitrary rhetoric. True there are five men on the court wearing the same jersey, but each shot is taken by an individual. In Miami those individuals seem to be at their best while playing their own game. Dumping that strategy now would be foolish.

It’s a long season, and the Heat are a new team still working out the kinks. We have yet to see how the players will function in the post-season, but if its anything like the regular season has been thus far, the league should be prepared to handle an explosive offense with a unique style that is hard to handle.

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The Miami Heat Playing As A Team Debate… No I in Team

January 27, 2011

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

The topic of today’s debate the part of sports that I really don’t believe in. Unless I am playing golf, tennis, or any other individual sport, I don’t believe in individuality in athletics. I never have. I had that instilled in me by my little league coaches when I was a scrawny little dork playing in sweltering South Georgia heat. In baseball, you hit the ball to right side of the infield to advance the runner over. In basketball, you pass the ball to your teammate if you feel he has a better shot. You rely on those teammates to achieve the ultimate goal, which is to win the game.

Evidently, Dwayne Wade doesn’t prescribe to my school of thought. He said, “We’re not the Boston Celtics. We’re not these kinds of teams that need to play together. We have guys that have the individual talent, and sometimes the individual talent, one-on-one ability is going to take over. Boston has more of guys that have great individual talent, but they feed off each other.” Guess the Celtics do it the wrong way, huh D-Wade? That’s why, entering action on Tuesday night, they had a 2.5 game lead on the Heat for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

The popular theory is that the NBA is a superstar driven league where individualism is magnified and necessary. How often does the end of a game come down to a one-on-one “iso” play, after all? But it’s been evident in recent years that even the great ones need not only good teammates, but need to learn how to play together as a team. Kobe Bryant, when commenting recently about Carmelo Anthony’s current plight with the Denver Nuggets, essentially implied he had the misfortune of playing with the likes of Smush Parker. He knows the importance of teammates, despite his reputation of being a selfish player, and that’s why he has five rings.

I give all this background data knowing full well it has nothing to do with the 2010-2011 Miami Heat. This Heat team features three players who at one time or another have been the focal point of their team during their careers, and now they are going through a process of give and take. All three of their respective scoring numbers are down slightly, but they knew that would happen. After all, LeBron did say they realized their days of winning MVP titles were probably over.

In a seven game series everything is magnified. The half-court offense becomes more a part of the game, and even superstars need teammates in those situations. There are no games against the Cavaliers where anyone can loaf. Everyone must bring it every night. The Heat really need to learn how to play together, and Wade needs to take this seriously if he has visions of earning a second championship.

Do you remember at the beginning of the season when the Heat were struggling, and much of the blame that wasn’t being put on Eric Spoelstra was put on the fact that the big trio didn’t play much during the pre-season? They hadn’t had time to develop much chemistry. We’ve had the team chemistry debate on this website, and while Sports Geek didn’t feel it was that important in the verdict, I certainly felt, and still feel, team chemistry plays a big part in a team’s overall success.

The bottom line is the “one-on-one” mentality that Wade speaks of is not the type of mindset to have in the playoffs. Perhaps we’ll see the “team” talent in Boston against the “individual” talent in Miami in the post-season, and see whose talent prevails. I think Mr. Wade will realize that he needs the help of the role players on the TEAM to help bring a title to South Beach.

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The January 2011 Hottest Team in the NBA Debate… The Heat Is On

January 13, 2011

Read the opposing arguments from Sports Geek and Loyal Homer.

You can call them the Super Friends, Miami Thrice, or even The Heatles, but no matter what you call the Miami Heat, you are referring to THE hottest team in the NBA.

Despite all the naysayers and pre-season speculation that claimed “LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh just could not coexist in South Beach,” they have done exactly that. This season, the three have formed the nucleus of one of the most unbeatable and feared teams in the NBA today. The threesome has risen above the heap and led the Heat to the top spot in the Southeastern Division and second place in the Eastern Conference with a commanding 30-10 record. Despite all the hate, King James is making believers out of everyone.

King of the Road

The Heat have been lights out at home, posting a 15-4 record playing at American Airlines Arena. But what has made them the scariest team in the NBA is a ridiculous road record of 15-6. The 15 road wins are the most in the NBA and include a streak of 13 wins on the road (second best in franchise history). Not only are the Heat a menace at home but they continue to light up scoreboards like pinball machines on the road as well.
The team is so good, in fact, that even when the L.A. Clippers finally broke their streak the otherwise simple story made national headlines. The Heat are a force to be reckoned with, and are THE hot story in the NBA right now. Miami continues to draw sellout crowds at arena after arena on the road across the country. Whether it’s to witness the Heat’s amazing play in person or simply to boo the biggest heals in the sport, everyone wants to watch this super team in action.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

James and his team have continued to draw (you guessed it) HEAT from the fallout of his high profile free agent signing with Miami and the team’s bold five championship projections. Certainly a lot of the ill will being aimed in his direction is generated from the greater Cleveland area, fans of other teams jilted in the James free agency courtship (e.g. the Knicks and Bulls), and NBA fans who just disliked the move in general have also done their fair share to vilify King James. While hating the most dominant goliath team in a particular sport is natural and is practically a pastime in itself, it is also very dangerous as it serves as motivation to the team it is directed at. As a Yankees fan I am well aware that sometimes the worst thing you can do to a giant is boo them because you are only going to make them mad. This is no doubt pushing James and company to be the dangerous force they are, and gives them justification to trounce a trash talking team when they come to town.

The situation around the NBA has fed into the image of LeBron and the Heat as the prominent villains of the NBA (they do often wear black, after all), a role which motivates James and his Miami teammates and makes them that much more dangerous. Commenting on the issue, James stated, “It’s not like I really feel like a villain. It’s just when I go into an opposing building, it’s nothing but venom thrown at us, so you know you embrace that.”

James has vented many of his frustrations on Twitter, but that has served to only stir the pot even more. After seeming to delight in the Cavs misery when they were decimated by the Lakers recently, LeBron tweeted, “Crazy, Karma is a b****. Gets you everytime. It’s not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!”

He is all but telling his former team owner, Dan Gilbert, that he is enjoying watching the man who claimed LeBron would carry a curse of betrayal with him to Miami suffer himself. While he has backpedaled about the comment since first posting it, it goes to show that he does indeed acknowledge the love loss he has with so many. But as the modern poet Kanye West proclaimed “that, that, that, that don’t kill me can only make me stronger” and I do believe these comment make for a stronger, James and in turn a more dangerous Miami Heat team.

His Airness, Michael Jordan, used to use any perceived slights to motivate him to be that much better, and I think the same thing is happening to LeBron this season. He and the Heat are starting to get into the groove they lacked at the beginning of the season and pretty soon they will be impossible to stop.

Pardon yet another temperature related pun, but the Heat are absolutely en fuego right now! They can beat you on their court, but they can also beat you on your court. Any boos or jeering will just make them that much better. The sky is the limit for this All-Star team, and the league should take them serious because the Heat are for real.

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The 2010 Sportsman of the Year Debate… The Once and Future King

December 27, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan, and Optimist Prime.

In 2010 LeBron James not only redefined himself, but perhaps all of professional sports as well. Though he has been thoroughly scrutinized and lambasted for the way he set about this redefinition, it may just be the price one has to pay for experiencing growing pains as one of the most public sports figures in the world.

Critics, fans, and whole cities came to despise LeBron James in the wake of The Decision, but I believe his announcement on national T.V. was ultimately more good than bad, more help than harm, and more hope than heartbreak.

Everyone thought they knew LeBron James best. Cleveland, New York, and Chicago all thought they understood the man and launched campaigns to appeal to what they thought motivated him. In Cleveland, they appealed to his heart, making passionate pleas to his sense of loyalty. Chicago played to his competitive nature adding players – like Carlos Boozer – that most analysts thought would put James in a position to win, given his particular style of play. New York appealed to King James’ ego offering him the treasury and throne in what may very well be the capital of the sports world. But in the end LeBron shocked them all and did what few saw coming before the day The Decision, announcing he would take less money and share the limelight in order to assemble quite possibly the most the most dominant super team the world has ever seen.

LeBron did the what we all believed was unthinkable. As one of if not the most sought after free agents in sports history he chose team victories over individual accolades, he chose championships over salary and sponsorships, and he put the urge to win above self. While this made him a heel in Chicago, a fool in New York, and public enemy number one in Cleveland, it also made him the Sportsman of the Year in my book.

Profound Consequences

I am certain that those loyal to teams spurned by James will be slow to see what he did as a positive (it might take Sports Geek and Bleacher Fan 50 years or so to come around), but that is exactly what it was – a good thing for both professional sports and athletes. LeBron proved it was possible for a player to put competitiveness and team success above self and still make it a profitable proposition.

While it is a crushing blow for sports mega-markets like New York, it opens up a world of possibilities for other franchises throughout the league. Maybe it is a sign that a fat stack of cash doesn’t guarantee players like it used to, and then again maybe its not. But it definitely provides a glimmer of hope for the rest of the league. Likewise, I am certain that franchises like Cleveland will view this as the nail in the coffin on the long term competitiveness of small markets without squads of superstars to attract more, but that is not necessarily the case either. This decision was also about who LeBron wanted to play alongside with as much as it was about the competitiveness.

Before the off-season arrived, James had been making public musings about free agents basically colluding for the betterment of a particular franchise. He suggested that if players like Bosh and James decide together where they thought they could make the biggest impact they could change the NBA’s landscape in a big way, and that’s exactly what they did. While maybe not completely within the rules, it does evolve the empowerment of the modern free agent.

Since James’ epic decision there has already been evidence of trickle down effects in other sports. Major League Baseball recently watched the hot stove pursuit of ace pitcher Cliff Lee take a James-ian turn as he turned down more lucrative contracts with New York and Texas in order to sign with a club he simply wanted to play for more. Just as was the case with King James, Lee’s addition to superstar players like Roy Halladay, Cole Hammels, and Roy Oswalt makes for one of the most dominant pitching staffs in team history, possibly MLB history. This trend could very well spread to the NFL this off-season and reshape the competitive landscape there as well. The fallout from James’ choice is as immense in its magnitude as it is controversial.

King Sized Perks

LeBron made his off-season choice known in a grandiose TV special that exceeded even the wildest of expectations in terms of anticipated hype. While “The Decision” may not have lived up to the anticipation in terms of climactic drama, it no doubt captured the attention of the nation. ESPN’s one hour special on the LeBron’ signing was the highest rated program on television the night it aired, and clearly caught the attention of more than just serious NBA fans. What’s more is a large portion of the profits from the special were donated to the Boys and Girls Club. Critics point to the fact that he could have done more, but in reality he could have done nothing at all. When was the last time you remember an athlete using their free agent leverage for charity? Having trouble? That’s my point exactly. Like a noble monarch, King James let his benefits trickle down to the people and that is a gesture seen far too seldom in sports today.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of the NBA…or at least I wasn’t before this season, but all the craze of this post-season’s free agency carried over to the regular season and now I’m hooked. I’ve purchased six tickets to NBA games this season (one of which is a Miami Heat game), which is 600% more than I have purchased in the last decade. While my personal habits do not make for a scientifically significant study, I do believe there is something to be said for LeBron making the NBA more popular during the off-season.

I realized I may not have made a believer out of anyone, but I feel that LeBron James deserves more credit than he has received. He was the biggest story in all of sports this year and the positive impact of that legacy earns him my vote for Sportsman of The Year.

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