Earlier I mentioned how the NBA front office was looking at sanctioning six referees who had gambled at casinos. Turns out there were more than six refs violating the anti-gambling policy - it was more like 25! Whoops. Rather than fine half his referee core, Stern is instead changing his tune and deciding to be a bit more lax on what types of gambling are allowed.
Many fans point to this change of heart as yet another example of Stern holding players to a different standard than referees. With players, Stern has been unyielding with fines and suspensions. The most notable fact might be the one game suspension of Stoudemire and Diaw in last year's playoffs against the Spurs. Yes, Stoudemire and Diaw technically left the bench and, by the letter of the law, should have been suspended. And that's what Stern said - his hands were tied, he had to follow the rules. Yet when half of the referees get caught breaking league rules, Stern turns the other cheek, ignoring the strict interpretation of the rules. One could also draw a comparison to Stern's uneven view toward referees with his very quick reinstatement of hothead Joey Crawford.
This will be an interesting year for NBA referees, both on the court and off the court. They will be held to the highest scrutiny by fans and the media, that's for certain, and PR snafus like this sure aren't going to help their image (or the League's).
What took them so long?
Back in the early 2000s the Minnesota Timerberwolves showed some promise. They surrounded Kevin Garnett with Sprewell and Cassell and the Wolves made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2004 (only to lose to the Lakers). Following their trip to the WCF, the Wolves imploded. Cassell was eventually traded to the Clippers; Sprewell soon left for retirement; but Garnett remained and remained and was surrounded by a disappointing lack of talent.
This summer the Wolves traded KG to the Celtics, signaling that they were about to embark on one of two future routes: try to rebuild around a new nucleus, or blow everything up, clear off expensive contracts, and trade for future draft picks. Today they made it crystal clear that they're blowing the whole thing up as they traded Ricky Davis and Mark Blount to the Miami Heat for Antoine Walker, expiring contracts, and a future first round draft pick.
Poor Antoine Walker. He had such promise and hopes at the start of his career. Sure, he was streaky, but when he was hot, he was hot, and he helped lead the Boston Celtics to some impressive playoff appearances. And then he was traded to the Mavericks, where he was unimpressive. Then off to the Atlanta Hawks for a year, then back to Boston, and finally with Miami, where he (somewhat) helped win a championship. And now, after coming back to training camp horrendously out of shape, he is being shipped to the frigid north where he will likely end his career playing for a team that will be happy to win 25 games.
(The picture of Antoine Walker was taken from www.Need4Sheed.com, a Pistons fan site...)
One of the Five Stories to Follow this NBA Season I blogged about earlier was the referee situation. Tim Donaghy was the focal point of an FBI investigation on gambling in the NBA. Well, it turns out Donaghy wasn't the only ref who violated the league's anti-gambling rules. The NBA front office announced today that six unnamed referees were disciplined for violating anti-gambling rules.
Now, it appears that this isn't nearly as serious an issue as with Donaghy. These refs aren't accused of changing the outcome of games or shaving points through their foul calls. Instead, the infractions are more minor, like gambling at a casino. Clearly none of these six referees did anything too scandalous, as none of the six have been suspended. But still, it's another mark on a league that already has a battered image with regards to its officiating. And gambling in casinos can be the first step to more heinous infractions. After all, say that a ref has a gambling problem and racks up a debt with an illegal bookie. Might he try to right that debt by promising to call a game or two?
The information out of the front office on these disciplines and specific actions is limited, at this time. I don't know if they're planning on going public with this, anyhow. More information online at Report: NBA Disciplined 6 Refs for Violating Anti-Gambling Rules.
One of the stories to follow this season is the Kobe trade watch. Two teams that are commonly discussed concerning a Kobe trade are the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls. However, Mavericks owner and dancing extraordinaire Mark Cuban has officially iterated that he won't trade Dirk for Kobe, nor will he blow his team up to acquire #24.
In short, this means there is no way Kobe will become a Mav. I don't know what he could offer the Lakers if Dirk is off the table. Maybe Josh Howard and Jason Terry and an expiring contract? But wouldn't that constitute as blowing up the entire team? Who knows, since Jerry West left you can never underestimate the intelligence of the Lakers front office. After all, this team traded Shaq for less, but I can't see Dr. Buss making the same mistake twice. In short, with Cuban's refusal to make key moves for Bryant, there's little to no chance that we'll see Kobe shipped to Dallas.
Will something materialize with Chicago? Will Jim Paxson have the stones to shake things up for Kobe? Probably not, since the Lakers would demands young stars like Deng or Gordon, personnel who Paxson has previously said are "off the table" concerning any trade deals. We shall see... if the Lakers get off to a poor start this season, will Kobe start pouting and stepping up the trade rhetoric? Or might the Lakers get off to a hot start, quieting such demands?
It's that time of year again. With Major League Baseball wrapping up its playoffs, the NBA regular season is right around the corner! The season tips off the last week of October (with the Lakers squaring off against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday, October 30th in the Staples Center). The NBA season is a long, grueling 82 games, and it can be hard to stay interested and focused during the regular season (just ask Shaq). Here are five stories to follow during the first half of the season to keep your interest piqued:
(1) Kobe Bryant and the Incessant Trade Rumors
Early in the off-season, Kobe Bryant demanded to the Lakers front office that they either surround him with some talent, or trade him. Kobe's frustration is understandable - he's the premier player on a team that's mostly composed of scrubs. Lamar Odom is better than average, Luke Walton has great basketball IQ, and Andrew Bynum possesses the most potential upside of any young Laker, but imagine how frustrating it is for a fierce competitor like Kobe to play with a starting lineup that includes the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. Yeck.
The drama went through assorted peaks and troughs throughout the course of the summer, with Kobe quieting down for stretches, only to come back to light with videos of himself deriding teammate Kwame Brown. And what did the Lakers do this offseason? Did the net a superstar like Kevin Garnett? Did they trade Kobe to another team? No. They sat pat, content with doing nothing more than signing Derek "Mr. 0.4 seconds" Fisher.
Despite the lack of moves in the offseason, Kobe showed up to training camp on time and with a seemingly positive attitude. But the drama couldn't stay down for long, and culminated recently with Lakers owner Dr. Buss saying that they're still considering trade options for Kobe, and the media getting all excited since Kobe supposedly cleaned up his locker a bit and hasn't been playing in the preseason games.
Will Kobe get traded this season? I would hope that a team who has a player of Kobe Bryant's caliber would do their damndest to hang on to him. But the Laker's recent history proves otherwise. Rather than making Shaq and Kobe kiss and makeup, they traded Shaq - who some would argue is the best player in the history of the NBA - for pennies on the dollar. So nothing would surprise me here.
If the Lakers do trade Kobe, I hope they blow the team up and start from scratch. What I don't want to see is the Lakers follow the New York Knicks formula: grossly overpay for suspect veterans with personality disorders and medical conditions and pray that everything works out. Personally, I can't see Kobe leaving. I don't think there are enough teams out there with cap space or the onions to make such a trade. The Lakers aren't just going to give Kobe away (at least I hope not), so there must be something substantial in return. In any event, I forsee one of two things happening this season:
- Kobe is traded and the Lakers plummet to obscurity with one of the worst records in the West.
- Kobe remains a Laker, the team does mediocre and enters the playoffs in the number 7 spot, which will extend their season for another five games.
(2) Kevin Durant's Induction into the League
This year looked like the most exciting batch of rookies since 2003 when LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmello all joined the L. Granted, this year's rookie class is not nearly as deep as in 2003, but there were two key headlines: Oden and Durant. As luck would have it, Greg Oden's season ended before it even began, taking the wind out of the rookie class's sails. Even though we'll have to wait another year for Oden's premier, we still will get to enjoy Durant's. Will Durant be able to make an impact his rookie season, or will Durant's production be pedestrian? Given his wiry frame, many have questioned his strength and inside presence. Such sentiments were strengthened when Sonics coach PJ Carlesimo moved Durant to the shooting guard spot. Durant's natural position is that of a small forward, but it's likely that Carlesimo doubted Durant's presence down low.
Despite his size, Durant has speed, skills, and the heart of a champion. I'm sure he'll have some very impressive highlights and games this season. Whether he can make as great of an impact as the likes of BronBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmello Anthony did in their first seasons remains to be seen, but it should sure be fun watching.
(3) The Battle for the West
We haven't seen parity in the Eastern and Western conferences since the 1990s. This decade, so far, has been the decade of the Western Conference, and this year will be no exception. There are so many strong teams in the West, with the Mavs, Spurs, and Suns topping the list. But don't forget about Utah, Houston, or Denver. These second-tier West teams are better than virtually all of the Eastern Conference teams.
It will be interesting to see what teams are battling for the top spot in the Western Conference. I'm confident the Spurs will be at or near the top, as they have been sice the late 90s. But how will the Mavs and Suns fare? The Mavs suffered a meltdown last season with their playoff loss to Golden State. Couple that with their NBA Finals meltdown against the Heat the year before, and you begin to wonder if this team can still have the mental toughness needed to dominate in an ultra-competitive league. And what about the Suns? They still have their core players together, but Nash is another year older, Amare is having more knee surgery, and Shawn Marion is demanding that he be traded. Trouble in paradise!
Will any of the second-tier Western Conference teams make the leap this year? Iverson and Anthony have had a full year together in Denver. Yao Ming continues to show signs of improvement. And perhaps a softer, gentler Jerry Sloan is all that Andrei Kirilenko needs to return to his former, dominant self.
(4) The New Celtics
While the Lakers sat on their hands this off-season, the Boston Celtics sure did not. They signed two All-Star caliber veterans to complement Paul Pierce: Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. These additions instantly make the Celtics a real contender in the Eastern Conference, where even the most mediocre teams are better than average. I am especially intrigued by the addition of Kevin Garnett. Yes, Ray Allen is a nice pickup, but Allen is older and a step slower than he was in his prime, and he plays the same role and position as Pierce. Garnett, however, is younger, more hungry, and a true physical specimen. His intensity borders on insanity; his drive to win is at its zenith. And he has a level of talent around him that he hasn't since Cassell and Sprewell were Timberwolves. (And don't forget - that team of Garnett, Cassell, and Sprewell made it to the WCF before being overmatched by the Lakers.)
The Celtics should be the most fun team to watch in the East this year. Consider the alternatives: for the Heat, Shaq is another year older, and D-Wade will miss significant stretches of the season; while Cleveland and Detroit were last year's strongest East teams, neither made any significant moves this offseason. Garnett and crew should do well this season. Hopefully these veterans can gell and lead Boston to the NBA Finals.
(5) The Referee Situation
The NBA faced its greatest public relations nightmare this off-season when the FBI netted one Tim Donaghy as an "inside man" for the mob. Donaghy allegedly shaved points for mob bosses to make right on outstanding debts. This couldn't have come at a worse time for the League, as many fans have been complaining about shoddy refereeing and suspect calls, such as Joey Crawford's unexplainable ejection of a benched Tim Duncan. With the charges against Donaghy, you can expect the media and fans alike to scrutinize the referees' jobs to an even greater extend. Likewise, expect to see several reviews and reports from the NBA front office when there is a pivotal foul call or ejection or non-call during the regular season and playoffs. These refs are going to be watched closer than ever and I wouldn't be surprised to see front office action this year in the forms of fines or official statements relating to calls whereas the same incident last year wouldn't have even warranted a comment.
I don't envy the NBA refs this season, not one bit. Because of Donaghy's hijinks, fans will assume refs guilty until proven innocent. Sucks to be them.
All in all, this year has several promising story lines that should help keep even the most distracted person's interest during the mundane regular season. And even if these stories don't pique your interest, it's just 82 games until the real season begins!