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Denver Dynasty? Who knows. But Nuggets are the NBA’s top talent evaluators. And it’s not close.

In hailing the all-world talents of Nikola Jokic, now an NBA champion (and the most influential Serb since Gavrilo Princip), let’s also recognize that this cornerstone figure was taken #41 in the 2014 NBA Draft, behind Doug McDermott, whom the Nuggets took that year at #11. Don’t get me wrong: Dougy McBuckets has enjoyed a longer NBA career that most. He is, in fact, one of 20 Nugget draftees from the past decade who remain active in this league. That’s the extraordinary organizational lesson delivered by Monday’s clincher.

Observers journalistic and otherwise spent considerable time discussing teambuilding during these playoffs. First, it was the Heat’s predilection for making serviceable NBA squad players of undrafted castoffs. Then, when Denver started to look inevitable, the conversation moved to canny roster-development via the draft, wherein Joker remains Exhibit A.

Yet the larger takeaways for NBA clubs and fans alike are simpler and self-evident: Denver is the league’s best talent evaluator, full stop, thanks to Vice President of Scouting Jim Clibanoff (pictured above) and his crack staff. The Nuggets not only draft more effectively, they also better assess the potential value of Europeans and players discarded by competing NBA franchises. They’ve shown these traits for a decade or more, as I will detail below, and theirs is the best, most practical example of how to develop championship-ready rosters in 2023.

Free agency remains vitally important, of course. I read somewhere during these playoffs that Denver’s title is the first from a Western Conference team not located in California or Texas since the 1979 Seattle Supersonics! Big markets/money will always give “coastal elites” a leg up in luring/landing established stars. Yet Denver has shown league peers how to nullify these advantages in the 21st century. Once the new collective bargain agreement takes effect, and teams cannot afford three max stars going forward (thereby more evenly distributing plus-players around the league), the primacy of talent assessment is only enhanced.

By contrast, it’s time to get real on the most overhyped aspect of any NBA teambuilding discussion, the Draft Lottery. Based on the amount of media attention paid to these first half-dozen picks, one assumes this approach to be a proven strategy. It’s not. The Golden State dynasty was not built via reliance on or maneuvers to enable high lottery picks. LeBron James was a lottery pick 20 years ago; his fellow Laker, Anthony Davis, ran out on the team that picked him no. 1. Kawhi Leonard went 14th and somehow managed to be the best player on two NBA Champions, just north of two separate borders (San Antonio and Toronto).

What’s more, it seems clear to me the Lottery affects championship fortunes and overall roster strength less and less. Lottery picks are, of course, getting younger and younger. It’s no coincidence they are less and less able to produce at the NBA level, especially within the 3-year rookie contract window. Joel Embiid and Zion Williamson are great players, when healthy, but they’ve delivered nothing in terms of playoff success to the teams that contorted their long-term fortunes to acquire them. The demonstrable abilities of these younger and younger men, imbued with evermore AAU-enabled, one-and-done skill sets, makes them less and less NBA ready with every passing year. Why tank any season, much less two or three, to acquire them?

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Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

Play-in, Schmay-in: Just give every D1 team in the nation an NCAA bid

351 image

Let’s take the gloves off and settle this, right here/right now, for the greater basketball good: Another bout of March Madness is nearly upon us and the current NCAA men’s basketball tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — begins with the worst sort of capricious, competitively arbitrary folly. From the moment the current play-in gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope got very slippery indeed. At first, just two small-conference champions squared off for the right to get boned, on 36-48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. Let’s skip over mere half measures, or further regression, and proceed straight to the ultimate solution: tournament berths for every last Division 1 program, all 351 of them.

Don’t freak out: Here’s how it would work:

1) The regular season ends when February does. All 351 teams in Division I Men’s College Basketball retire briefly to their ever-more plushly appointed training facilities, where they wait on the tabulation of a final computer ranking — 1 through 351. In essence, the period now devoted to “Championship Week” is given over to a 287-game, three-round, six-day tournament that produces the familiar bracket of 64.

2) The opening round — comprising 95 games and held the first Tuesday & Wednesday in March — pits the team seeded 351st against the team seeded 161st. In between,  #162 takes on #350, and so on. You like Cinderella? I’ll give you Cinderella: Imagine the crazy shit that will inevitably stem from a 190-team Round I — contested over two nights, at on-campus venues all across these United States. Elegant in its mayhem, Round I rewards the top 160 with a bye (thus lending meaning to the our otherwise meaningless regular season) and quickly reduces the field to 256, a perfect multiplier of 64.

3) Round II takes place Thursday and Friday, whereupon those 256 remaining teams — the bye teams and the Tuesday/Wednesday winners — contest 128 games and symmetrically reduce the field to 128. Traditionally, the Thursday/Friday segment of NCAA Tournament week delivers 32 games and a dependably crazed bacchanal of buzzer-beaters, nail-biters, upsets and blowouts, all in the space of 36 hours. A universal-bid Thursday/Friday takes that spectacle and quadruples it.

4) The 64 games comprising Round lll, on Saturday and Sunday, would approximate a mere doubling of the traditional Thursday/Friday pandemonium, while neatly and cleanly winnowing the field to the recognizable 64. Sunday night the remaining teams — retaining their original seeds — are assigned opponents and regions in the traditional manner we’ve come to expect.

Rounds I, II and III would essentially form a massive, universal play-in bracket unto itself — producing more money in less time, via a more competitively honest framework than the current play-in scheme combined with the odious, so-called Championship Week. All 287 games are necessarily played on campus, at the higher-seeded school. This mechanism is critical because, in rewarding higher seeds, it assigns another, much needed element of meaning to the college basketball regular season. It also guarantees kick-ass atmosphere and avoids potential scheduling conflicts at neutral sites, while reducing site-rental and travel costs. There is no reseeding between rounds. The bracket holds its shape and schedule all week, meaning teams are locked into either a Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday schedule, or a Wednesday/Friday/Sunday schedule.

What’s more, there is no good reason why a 350-team women’s tournament could not, or should not, be administered in exactly the same way.

One of the great attractions of March Madness, perhaps the greatest of all, is the meting out of  champions based purely on game performance. Polls don’t matter. Bowl traditions don’t muck up the works. Ultimately, seeds don’t either. By winning six games in a row, a deserving champion is invariably crowned. The universal-bid system preserves and enhances this dynamic. As an added bonus, we dispense completely with any and all “bubble” and “snub” talk. Crucially, the regular season is dramatically transformed, for the better, in myriad ways (see below). The bloated frippery of conference tournaments is eliminated. Bracketology? That irksome construct and the tiresome, flatulent conjecture that wafts about it are similarly put out to pasture.


The original play-in scheme, instituted at the turn of the millennium, was shameful enough. The 8-team “First Four” we’ve endured since 2011 is that much more arbitrary and capricious. I wish I could tell you these “expansions” of the tournament were first undertaken in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But let’s not kid ourselves: In fact, let’s add a third descriptor, “mendacious,” because this peculiar arrangement was first advanced and expanded entirely in service of annually preserving tourney revenue and exposure for no more than a dozen would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans — at the expense small-conference champions. Today, the Atlantic Sun Conference title-winner is obliged to play-in against its Summit Conference counterpart because, if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some seventh- or eighth-place team from the Big Ten — a conference that will soon have 16 basketball members.

This is shameful. If you think about it, the entire bubble/Bracketology thing — as a media construct — is built around whether and which second-tier, major-conference teams make the tournament, at whose mid-major expense. It defies logic that such expansive hoo-hah fixates on a group of teams ranked 55-75 in the country, teams that will not win the title, almost certainly won’t make the Elite 8, and may not even win a tournament game. Accordingly and appallingly, play-in games have eventuated so these demonstrable haves might make more money — at the direct expense of have-nots. 

But here’s the good news: From the moment this play-in component was introduced, we began the inexorable move  toward the final, most competitive, most equitable, most evolutionarily mature, most lucrative solution: a pair of all-in, 351-team NCAA basketball tournaments. This format is nothing less than our hoop destiny. It will generate way more money and fan interest. There’s no practical reason why all-in men’s and women’s tournaments cannot run concurrently.

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NBA Bubble Splendidly Unmoored from Post-Season Predictability


When I sat down in late August to write this essay — about neutral courts and how they’ve made the 2020 NBA Playoffs the most wide-open, unpredictable tournament the league has ever conducted — turns out I did not know the half of it. Less than 48 hours later, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake 7 times in the back. NBA players still in the Disney Bubble would soon go out on a 72-hour wildcat strike.

[Don’t believe the naysaying, by the way: Without NBA players and their new post-Blake resolve, arenas in NBA cities would not have been made available for voting on Nov. 3 — in exactly those urban areas where creeping fascism had closed so many polling places. Neither would the league, its owners and players association have pledged to “immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”]

I don’t want to diminish those efforts. Indeed, I would like to see that coalition formally funded. But events that last week in August only confirmed my original premise: We are in fact witnessing the most mercurial, fascinating NBA post season in history — and perhaps the most competitively compelling.

There are two surprisingly concrete explanations for what makes these playoff games so damned watchable: First, the Bubble’s quarantine construct necessarily does away with home court, as all the games are played on either of two fan-less facilities located on Disney’s Orlando, Fla. campus. No NBA playoff tournament had previously been held on neutral courts. Ever. The effect has been monumental and fascinating — and here’s why:

Sporting events are interesting because their results cannot be predicted ahead of time. The less predictable the result, the more interest. Traditional NBA playoff games are claimed by the home team 65 percent of the time. Winners are not predestined, of course, but this makes NBA playoff games less interesting from a competitive standpoint than, say, NHL and MLB playoff games, where the home team only wins only 54 percent of the time, according to This is why we love the NCAA basketball tournament: 63 one-off games played entirely on neutral courts. Any team can win pretty much any one of those games. That’s compelling.

The impact of neutral courts inside the NBA Playoff Bubble has been striking. Only four times in 73 NBA seasons had a team fallen behind 3 games to 1 and come back to win that playoff series. The Denver Nuggets did it twice this summer, in consecutive series. We saw the top overall seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, eliminated in Round 2. That’s happened only twice in 20 years. The Clippers, a 2 seed in the West (and odds-on co-favorite to win the NBA title, according to Vegas oddsmakers) also lost in Round 2. Make no mistake: Home court protects favorites, the higher-seeded teams. And neutral courts weaken that paradigm almost to the point of shredding. They replace it not with random results but less predictable results. And that’s more fun, full-stop.

Dozens of assumptions and conventions normally attached to the playoff crucible also fell away this summer. For example, the recently completed Miami-Boston Eastern Conference Final: When the Heat won the first two games, it conveyed a different brand of superiority — because they had won neither game with the benefit of home court. And yet, when the Celtics fell behind 3-1, it never felt insurmountable — because, if they were to come back, never would the Celts have to win on Miami’s home court. Denver showed that, on neutral courts, a team can find something, make an adjustment and win three in a row. Sadly, for me, the Celtics could not make that happen. But lo and behold, we do have an NBA finalist, fifth-seeded Miami, that no one would have predicted when these playoffs started.

The NBA has rarely seen this sort of playoff fluidity, not since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-80), which effectively shook the snow globe and produced five different NBA champions in five seasons — the only time that has ever happened. Forget individual playoff games. On either side of this outlying interregnum, higher seeded NBA teams (buttressed by this potent home-court advantage) claimed individual playoff series 74 percent of the time. The NBA has been around for 73 years. In that time, 1 seeds, 2 seeds and 3 seeds have accounted for 71 championships.

Removing home court — expunging the predictability of moving that enormous advantage from city to city in the 2-2-1-1-1 format — has proved exhilarating. The entire psychology of playoff basketball this summer has become splendidly unmoored.

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Nova-Georgetown 1985: Still Crazy After All These Years

Much of my COVID-19 replacement sports-viewing has concentrated on vintage soccer films via YouTube (those Dutch teams of the ’70s were really something). But I did indulge earlier this month in a replay of the 1985 NCAA Championship between Villanova and Georgetown, on the CBS Sports Network. I think it’s accurate to say that between 1974 and 2004 (the period of my most fervid college basketball mania), this is the only final I failed to watch live — and only because I was backpacking through Europe at the time, behind the Iron Curtain. When I finally got a hold of an International Herald Tribune in Dubrovnik (the former Yugoslavia), I thought maybe Tito’s media censors were messing with me. In all the years since, I’ve seen highlights but never the entire game tape. Some thoughts:

• By now everyone knows that Villanova won this game (66-64) by shooting an extraordinary 22 of 28 from the floor: 78.6 percent. That’s plenty mindboggling (they went 22 of 27 or 81.5 percent from the line). All the John Thompson teams from this era were renowned for their swarming defense. They performed as advertised here, forcing the Wildcats into 17 turnoversn(!) and just 28 field goal attempts. In a 40-minute basketball game, that is not a lot, folks. Nova just made everything. It was nearly the case that on each possession in this game, Rollie Massimino’s team either scored the ball or threw it away. I’ve never seen an offensive performance quite like it.

• This was the last game of the “No Shot Clock” era; the NCAA went to a 35-second possession meter the following season. Villanova never went to a four corners against Georgetown but the Wildcats were extremely deliberate on offense (in part because they were throwing it away or having it stolen with such frequency — on account of the defensive pressure). At one point in the second half, CBS flashed a stat on the screen showing “Time of Possession,” the sort of thing you’d see today during a soccer match. I don’t remember this stat from the 1970s or ‘80s, at all. But it was damned relevant here. Villanova basically possessed the ball twice as long as Georgetown did.

• The Cats essentially contested this entire game with 5 guys. Massimino started a guard named Dwight Wilbur, who went the first 5 minutes, came out and never returned. (I thought maybe he’d been hurt, but he says otherwise.) Mark Plansky played 1 minute (there were three Plansky brothers from Wakefield, Mass.; I later covered state tournament games involving the younger two). The immortal Chuck Everson played 3 minutes — long enough to get punched in the face by Reggie Williams as the first half ended. This wasn’t some hidden rabbit punch. Everyone saw it, including the TV cameras. No call.

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With Marcus Back, the Smaht Money’s on Boston

When Patrice Bergeron returned from injury during the Maple Leafs series, he made the Bruins better. But I wouldn’t say he was the difference. Too many hockey players (20 to 22 of them from any one team) participate in playoff games to connect the dots through any non-goaltender, unless that man’s name is Gretzky or Crosby. Basketball is different. The playoffs typically shorten any team’s bench to 7-9 guys. I don’t see the Celtics losing this series to the Bucks if Marcus Smart is able to play.

Smart tore a tendon in his thumb six weeks ago. Kyrie Irving went in for the first of two knee surgeries three weeks later. Irving is clearly the best player on this team. Without him, the Celtics aren’t good enough to make The Finals this season, much less win them.

But Smart’s return should win the Celtics this series and perhaps the next. He’s that good, that influential, and it’s sort of amazing how far under the radar he manages to fly.

When the playoffs started, national media and the talking heads on ESPN and TNT made a big deal about how Boston would contest these playoffs without two starters, Irving and Gordon Hayward. But the latter has been gone so long (having gruesomely wrecked his ankle in the season opener), it honestly doesn’t feel anymore like we’re playing without him. In theory, Hayward is a stud, exactly the sort of wing shooter the Celtics need. But he was a brand new free agent signing back in October. He might have taken Boston to the next level but we really don’t know for sure. [One thing is for sure: If he had played this season, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown would not have progressed as far as they have. The minutes and end-of-game possessions would not have been there for them.]

But too many folks missed the fact that Boston opened these playoffs without three starters, because Smart is one of the five best guys on this team and the best all-court defender in the NBA. He might not have started every game, but he finished every game (that mattered). Without Irving and Hayward, Boston will always struggle to score down the stretch. But with Smart guarding the other team’s best player (a role he relishes and routinely occupies), with Smart representing a massive upgrade over plucky-but-limited Shane Larkin in the guard rotation, the Celtics are a different team.

There is no one in basketball quite like Marcus Smart, and I’m not sure why the rest of the league fails to appreciate this fact. He is the best defender on the league’s top defensive team but garners no laurels. He wasn’t even named to the All-NBA Defensive Team last season, when he was healthy. See here that list of 10 honorees from 2016-17:

1st Team

Chris Paul

Patrick Beverly

Kawhi Leonard

Draymond Green

Rudy Gobert

2nd Team

Tony Allen

Danny Green

Anthony Davis

Andre Roberson

Giannis Antetokounmpo

This is a pretty fair representation of top NBA defenders for 2017-18, as well, but Chris Paul and Tony Allen are shadows of the defenders they were 5 years ago. Beverly and Kawhi have been hurt all this season. Roberson has been out since January and is a complete offensive liability. Danny Green? He blocks it well for a 3, but otherwise I don’t know what he’s doing on this list. Draymond, Gobert, Anthony Davis and the Freak are superb defenders — as big men. They are a particular type of defensive asset; they are not all-court defenders.

Once we remove those bigs, I would take Marcus Smart over any of the remaining six guys. Of those who are injured, only Kawhi compares. At 6’4” Smart can check your point guard, your shooting guard, your small forward and most of the league’s shrinking 4s. He routinely guards LeBron James and drives him crazy. He is perhaps the only guy in the league to get inside James Harden’s head.

There is no one quite like Marcus Smart playing in today’s NBA. I’ve been singing his praises for several hundred words now, but I haven’t even detailed his best qualities: He’s wicked smaht. In fact, he’s flat-out smahter and more competitive than anyone in the game today, with the possible exception of LeBron — who is so good, he allows his competitive nature to flag on occasion. Marcus never does.

He is not without fault. Marcus is not a good shooter — a reality underlined by the fact that he refuses to acknowledge it. Though he shot just 37 percent from the floor this year (30 percent from 3), Smart never hesitates; he shoots with the confidence of Bradley Beal — which, in a perverse sort of way, makes me love the guy even more.

Like I said, the Celts aren’t going to The Finals this year. Ultimately, while injuries have catalyzed the development of Brown, Tatum and Terry Rozier (which bodes well for next June), Boston doesn’t have the horses to play for a title this June. But with Smart back and Brad Stevens pulling the strings, they’ll beat the Bucks — probably tonight.

Palestra Tales, 40 Years in the Making

PHILADELPHIA — When we learned my daughter Clara would matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, naturally her dad was thrilled: Here was my chance to make a proper pilgrimage to The Palestra, the most storied college basketball venue of the 20th Century.

As I’ve written here before, while my hoops allegiance today favors the overtly professional NBA, there was a two-decade period starting in the mid-1970s (just as John Wooden’s run at UCLA came to end) when I was a far more fervent college basketball junkie. The Palestra was central to that emerging fandom, which just happened to coincide with the sport’s surge into the national sporting consciousness.

College basketball and the NCAA Tournament are so popular today, so ubiquitous on television, it’s easy to forget their dual ascension is relatively recent. For all intents and purposes, UCLA and its 10 NCAA titles from 1962-75 effectively stunted the sport’s broader popularity (when certain teams/programs utterly dominate an underexposed sport, big cultural awareness only comes when some ridiculous win streak is snapped; think UConn, whose dominance has stunted women’ college basketball in the same way). Men’s college basketball should have taken off in the 1960s, but it didn’t because the only time anyone paid attention was when UCLA got beaten: first by Houston (1968’s famous Astrodome game), then by Notre Dame in 1973. These losses proved to be mere blips; the Bruins eventually won national titles both years. But someone finally did beat them when it counted (NC State, in the 1974 national semifinal). Then Wooden retired with one last title, in 1975. Suddenly the field was open and seeded. Take it from someone who was there: The idea that some team other than UCLA could win it all each year was novel and beguiling (!) — only then did the sport truly take off.

The Palestra (bottom right) sits directly beside historic Franklin Field, home of the Penn Relays and where Santa got booed in 1968. It also hosted the Philadelphia Eagles’ last NFL championship (1960). We visited Feb. 3, 2018, one day before the Eagles did it again.

Growing up in New England at this time, our interest had already been piqued by a Providence College team led by Ernie D, Kevin Stacom and Marvin Barnes. The Friars went all the way to the Final Four in 1973 — that year WJAR Channel 10 out of Providence started televising a bunch of PC games. The following year, rival WPRI Channel 12 took the talented University of Rhode Island teams (led by Sly Williams) under its broadcasting wing. Even obscure UHF stations like Channel 27 out of Worcester aired weekly games (each of them called by Bob Fouracre and his magnificent toupée) featuring Holy Cross mainly but also Boston College — even tiny Assumption College, led by the immortal Billy Worm (look him up; he was a stud).

Soon the national networks and their affiliates in Boston got wise and started televising big regional games every Saturday afternoon. Here is where I got to know The Palestra. Hoop-rich Philadelphia was home to The Big 5, a city series featuring local rivals Villanova, Penn, St. Joseph’s, Temple and LaSalle. Every Big 5 game was played at The Palestra and these were the games I watched with manic intensity each weekend. These were the memories dislodged to glorious effect earlier this month, when Clara, Sharon and Philly-born, erstwhile golf freak Mike Sweeney watched the Quakers beat Yale, 58-50.

When the 10,000-seat Palestra opened in 1927, it was among the largest indoor sporting venues on Earth (the name is derived from the ancient Greek term palæstra, a rectangular space attached to a training facility, or gymnasium, where athletes would compete in public, before an audience). Today it’s a bandbox but still all I could have hoped for: seating stacked steeply with front rows right on the baselines/endlines; vaulted ceilings filled with banners; exposed brick everywhere — pretty much exactly as I remember it from the mid to late ‘70s.

But there was more to our Feb. 3 visit. Quite a bit more.

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King James Can Restore Vitality to Dunk Contest — By Entering and Losing

King James Can Restore Vitality to Dunk Contest — By Entering and Losing


LeBron James can do basketball an honorable and valued service by entering the 2015 NBA dunk contest, not to win necessarily, but to eradicate the stigma of losing.

Today we can agree that All-Star dunk festivities — once the highlight of the NBA’s mid-season bacchanal — have lost nearly all their luster. The big names don’t participate because (and let’s be honest here) they have relatively little to gain, should they win, and much to lose if they cannot better the likes of young, live-legged, would-be journeymen such as Terrance Ross and Ben McLemore.

In an acknowledgement of this misplaced luster, the NBA has basically given an out even to those who will participate this year: Three players from each conference will team up, with the trio that wins being crowned  joint champions. There will be a top prize awarded to the individual winner, but he will be dubbed “Dunker of the Night.”

Whatever. This is nearly as bad as Team Figure Skating.

It’s not clear why this dunk-risk-aversion dynamic persists. The league’s best shooters do not appear unwilling to participating in the 3-point competition. There is no loss of face for Stephan Curry should he lose out to some young gun like Damian Lillard, or any of the league’s noted long-distance marksmen (among them this years, Kevin Love, Bradley Beal, Marco Bellinelli and defending champ Kyrie Erving). When Larry Bird won it, he relished the chance to win it again.

The Dunk Contest is different. In the beginning, all the big names did indeed participate. The very first one, at the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, featured this luminary lineup: Julius Erving, David Thompson, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Larry Kenon. The NBA revived the circus in 1984 and thereafter Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins didn’t just win, they showed up to defend. The stars started begging off in the ‘90s, though a young Kobe Bryant won in 1997. As recently as 2008, Dwight Howard lent some star power, as did champ Blake Griffin 2011 — but the Clippers big man chose not to defend.

LeBron has for 10 years been notoriously cagey about the Dunk Contest, steadfastly refusing  to enter, claiming that he’s an “in-game dunker”, but nevertheless strategically allowing media to see his chops once a year, normally just prior to the All-Star break.

LeBron is so clearly the game’s best player, and its most dominant personality, he can simultaneously restore the profile of Dunk Contest — without winning it. In fact, he should huddle with the judges beforehand and say, “Don’t let me win.” By taking part next year, thereby enhancing the showcase and honorably congratulating a worthy winner, he can show other stars that competing in the Dunk Contest is nothing of a gamble in terms of cred, brand or machismo.

I’ve got nothing against Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Ben McLemore, Terrance Ross and John Wall, all of whom are scheduled to do rim-rattling battle Saturday night. There are several legitimate up-and-coming stars in that field, an you gotta love anyone who attempts the rare 3-point/jam double (Lillard). But I would love to see LeBron compete against these guys, mano-a-mano, along with Josh Smith or maybe a healthy Russell Westbrook. If LeBron commits, other stars will follow — if only to compete against the King, and each other.



Jordan Homecoming Recalls Rutgers Hoops Heyday

Jordan Homecoming Recalls Rutgers Hoops Heyday

Interesting confluence of events both personal and national last week when embattled Rutgers University — struggling to salvage its basketball cred prior to moving from Big East to Big “10” in 2014 — hired NBA veteran Eddie Jordan to replace head coach Mike Rice, who was jettisoned after video surfaced early in April showing him crassly berating and physically abusing his “student athletes”.

[We’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that Rutgers knew about Rice’s antics long before the video was made public. That’s just more run-of-the-mill, big-time-college-athletics sleaze, and honestly, what more is there to add?]

What interested me more was the return of Jordan to his alma mater, where he played in the mid-1970s as a cog in one of college basketball’s most unheralded great teams — and the fact that I learned of his homecoming while kipping in the Marin County home of my boyhood friend Tom Wadlington.

That Scarlet Knight team, which went unbeaten in 1975-76 before falling to Michigan, Ricky Green and Phil Hubbard in the national semifinals, was even more visible to me, as a budding, 12-year-old college hoops freak, on account of Tom’s arrival in my hometown just two years prior. Tom had moved to Wellesley, Mass., from New Brunswick, N.J., where his parents, if I’m not mistaken, had both worked at Rutgers. He showed up in my 4th grade class, and on my various soccer teams, spewing all sorts of Rutgers propaganda. Much of it was dismissed for what it was — the meaningless parochialism of some pre-teen interloper.

But then, midway through the ‘75-76 season, it was clear that on the college basketball front, at least, Wad was not talking shit. These guys were really good and would eventually run the table, win the East Regional and go to the Final Four (not yet so branded, I don’t believe). They did so with Jordan at the point, Mike Dabney at shooting guard, super-smooth Phil Sellers at small forward, “Hoppin” Hollis Copeland at the 4, and Boston-bred freshman “Jumpin” James Bailey at center.

I think we all remember Larry Bird’s Indiana State team that went unbeaten before losing to Magic & Michigan State in the 1979 NCAA Final. But the long history of college basketball is not exactly littered with teams that go unbeaten over the course of a regular season, much less progress untarnished all the way to the Final Four. UCLA did it repeatedly in winning so many titles under John Wooden, and Indiana went unbeaten start to finish the same year Rutgers came so close, in 1975-76. Other teams that have won titles while going undefeated include Bill Russell and KC Jones’ USF teams in 1955 and 56, North Carolina a year later, UCLA four times, and Indiana.

But it gets thin when you search for teams that remained unbeaten all the way to the Final Four, only to lose there. Once we account for Rutgers and Indiana State, I recall these:

• Indiana went unbeaten the year before its golden campaign, only to lose in the Midwest Regional final to Kentucky, 92-90, largely because  (Hoosiers will argue) star forward Scott May had broken his arm with 7 minutes to play.

• UNLV was 34-0 when it famously lost to Duke in the 1991 national semifinals.

I encourage anyone to set me straight, but I think that’s it: Seven teams went undefeated and won the title, only two more got to the Final Four unblemished.

Jordan has his work cut out for him in Jersey, to be sure. Maybe joining the Big “10” (I’m not sure how many teams are in that conference anymore, but it ain’t 10) will expand his recruiting territory, but Rice has seriously sullied Rutgers’ reputation and recruiting capability in the short term. And despite being located in the heart of a bountiful talent pool, Rutgers has never been that great or recruited many first-rate sons of Jersey (Roy Hinson tops a short list). The Scarlet Knights weren’t part of the original Big East, of course. They joined in 1995, and it could be argued, it didn’t benefit their basketball program a lick.

As for Tom Wadlington, he ultimately matriculated at Cal Berkeley and has since transferred all his propagandizing efforts (on behalf of collegiate athletics) to the Bears. But he did have this to say upon learning the news of Jordan’s hire: “He should bring Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney as assistants!”

Speak the Unspeakable: Celts should deal KG for Howard

Speak the Unspeakable: Celts should deal KG for Howard

You heard it here first.

Tell me what doesn’t make sense about this trade. With Rajon Rondo out for the season with a torn ACL, the Celts are done this year. Maybe they’ll make the playoffs, but it’s time to turn the page. The Lakers and Dwight Howard are not proving a good fit, and he’s a free agent at the end of this year. Most of the talk has been about trading Pau Gasol, but the Lakers are instantly NBA Finals material with Garnett, a better fit for Coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, a different but comparably excellent defender, a man Kobe would prefer to Howard, for right now (Nash, too, but he doesn’t have anything like Kobe’s veto power in LA).

Who says no to this trade?

Not the Lakers, who must think short term with the pieces they have. Things have gone so awry with Howard, personally, they might not even be able to sign him this summer. Dealing for KG cuts their losses and makes them better.

Not the Celtics, who can build around Howard, Rondo and maybe someone like Josh Smith (ATL homeboys reunite!), for Boston instantly becomes a free agent destination of choice with that young core (a core that doesn’t need to shoot; the gunners will line up to play with those guys).

Not the League: The numbers match up. Garnett makes $19 million and Howard just 11, but throw in Jeff Green ($8 million) or Brandon Bass (6) and it fits.

KG is one of the few NBA players with a no-trade clause. He’s been a model Celtic, but if we’ve learned anything about Garnett during his tenure in Boston, winning is paramount. The window is closing for him, too, and it’s gotta be clear, to him, this Celtics incarnation is toast (I’ve argued they could not realistically have won the last three years; they’ve been gallant but never had have the horses). He has two years in him, I reckon. So do Kobe and maybe Nash. Gasol for sure. Why would he say no?

Because the Lakers are, well, the “hated Lakers”, and because they have 16 championships to Boston’s 17, Pierce — who is too much of a Celtic to ever leave for the Lakers — would say no to a Howard-for-Pierce, Gasol-for-Pierce deal. He grew up in LA but he’s been that anomalous single-team player his whole career. He would not want to go to LA on a championship-mercenary mission.

I don’t believe KG looks at it the same way. He undertook that mission when he came to Boston. Perhaps he wouldn’t go to Miami, but I say he goes to LA.

Only the Celtics would have plausible motivation to say no. While they would probably not trade KG within the Eastern Conference, they might also balk at sending him to the “hated Lakers”. Danny Ainge could potentially be handing LA a 17th title and a place directly level with Boston in the Pantheon.

Still, that’s a lot of yes and a single no.

If you haven’t checked out Zach Lowe’s NBA reporting at, do. He’s extremely informed and a facile writer. This was a clever piece, for example, exploring the Celtics options and multiple potential trade partners. The Spurs make sense, though KG and Tim Duncan reportedly loath each other and San Antonio has nothing to give in return. Lowe (and Jalen Rose) both posit an Al Horford/Kyle Korver for Howard scenario, which makes more sense. But neither floats the Garnett for Howard idea, which makes the the most sense of all. The salaries line up. So do the stars, in an astrological sense and this vital sense: KG & Kobe would assent. These two stars are nearly burned out, and they want to win.

Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

Bob Ryan Retires: All Hail the All-Time NBA Sage

The encomia are surely piling up across the web, but I couldn’t let slide the fact that Bob Ryan has retired from The Boston Globe as full-time basketball sage and de facto Commissioner of all things hoops (a title bestowed decades ago, by his fellow scribes). Here’s a link to his farewell column, delivered Aug. 11 with his signature directness, brevity and authoritative elegance.

Having grown up in Greater Boston, I latched onto Ryan early, in the mid-1970s, when the Celtics were winning championships and knowledge of the team was nearly the exclusive province of Mr. Ryan, whose game reports and columns were often the only worthwhile analyses available the next morning. Yes, some games were televised locally, but only a few. Radio was an option, but Johnny Most was so bombastic, his account of the goings-down, while entertaining, could not be trusted.

Above all things, Ryan could be trusted — to authoritatively tell you the “why” behind wins and losses; the “who” when it came to contenders and pretenders. His appraisal of players was never erring. When Larry Bird was drafted, as a junior, and all of Boston watched his senior year at Indiana State wondering if his game would translate to the pros, Ryan put that matter to rest. He sized up Bird a basketball genius way before it was obvious to the rest of us, and so Larry turned out to be.

His between-the-lines sizing-up of personalities was similarly spot on and vital to a young basketball mind in its formative stages. It really was about the guy’s authority. You could tell when Ryan truly admired a player (Dave Cowens) or didn’t deem one worth a damn (Sydney Wicks). It was clear when he admired someone but didn’t necessarily like him (David Stern), and when someone didn’t like Ryan (Tommy Heinsohn). It was all done very professionally, perhaps a bit coyly, and I found it all thrilling — that someone could earn a living by chronicling such fabulously interesting things in a public forum.

All through my high school, college and early years as a sports writer, Bob Ryan’s professional life was the one I wanted for myself. One time, in high school, circa 1979, my mom got us tickets to a Celtics game (vs. the Jazz) at the old Boston Garden, where she endeavored to introduce me to the guy before tip-off. I remember that he was cordial but not especially helpful or inspiring. My mom was a bit disappointed, but I couldn’t hold it against him — he was probably concocting some new way to convey to readers the utter ineffectiveness of James Hardy and Ben Poquette.

I did indeed try to follow Ryan’s path but his times were not my times. In his farewell column, he writes about going straight to the Globe sports department after graduating from Boston College in 1968. In the mid-1980s, no one did that — years of daily newspapering experience were required before one would even be considered. Further, by that time, the Globe sports section was a veritable all-star team of talent, and thousands of aspirants were all clamoring for the opportunity to sit at Ryan’s knee, along with those of Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Dan Shaughnessy and Leigh Montville. Even if you had the experience, and the chops, the Globe was notorious for its minority hiring policies. I remember one reporting colleague claiming that he’d already have a job on Morrissey Boulevard, “If only I were a black, female, Cape Verdean.”

In any case, dreams die and/or they’re deferred. I left daily newspapers in 1992, having had a chance to cover the Celtics (and all the Boston teams) for smaller newspapers with nothing like the Globe’s reach and influence. I was tired of making no money, tired of being essentially nocturnal. Soon the newspaper model would collapse, and I frankly count my blessings that I got out when I did.

Ryan pressed on through this period of industry decline, adapting to the web realities and even moving into television a fare bit. Personally, I could listen to him talk about basketball and other sporting matters till the cows came home, but I think even he’d admit that his rapid-fire, staccato delivery — along with his advanced age — never truly dovetailed with the medium as it exists in the 21st century.

This winter, at the height of the Jeremy Lin craze, Ryan sat and did a podcast with Bill Simmons, the guy who has emerged as Ryan’s heir apparent on matters NBA. Check it out here; it’s linked as part of my own post comparing/contrasting Billy Ray Bates and Lin. It would seem that Simmons was the guy who successfully crafted for himself a Ryanesque place in the basketball firmament, and I enjoy his writing and podcasts nearly as much.

Best of luck to them both. The torch has been passed.