TrueHoop: Justin Verrier

A sign of the times

July, 1, 2013
Verrier By Justin Verrier
Dwight Howard Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesWill a superstar player willfully walk away from the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason?
For a team based in a city so associated with flash and superficiality, the Lakers seem almost anachronistic. The jersey and the logo remain virtually unchanged since the franchise first arrived in 1960. Upper management often relies on the brute force of negotiation and the art of the deal rather than any deep belief in the draft or analytics. The cartoonish crooning of Randy Newman still booms over the Staples Center speakers before and after games.

The weather and the celebrity culture and the sheer number of bodies in Los Angeles indeed raise the profile, but the Lakers have been more successful than almost every franchise in sports, and that tradition and consistency are ultimately what drive the constant hubbub that hovers around them -- the outside interest in their palace’s intrigue, the anointing of their best players, the outsized expectations both from fans and around the league, their place at the top of a vast majority of players’ wish lists.

So to see the media blitz the team is employing to persuade Dwight Howard into staying put, with billboards and full-page ads and hashtags and confusing photoshops, is both surprising and incongruent. Even more so than the Celtics, a franchise with one more title overall but with seven fewer championships and 10 fewer winning seasons since the NBA-ABA merger, the Lakers represent high society in the league, and it’s not often you see old money getting its hands dirty.

Veteran Lakers watchers can’t recall anything like this. Not even for Kobe Bryant, who had built up eight years of good faith when his petulance threatened to undermine the club’s high hand in 2004. For them, the Dwight campaign brings out the worst in both parties: in the Lakers, for being reduced to equal footing, and in Howard, for being the type of guy who focuses on the bright lights and misses the big picture.

Courtesy of J Alexander Diaz/Lakers
This image can be seen on a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard and is part of the Lakers' campaign to lure Dwight Howard back to the team in free agency.

While the flashy display of affection has been scoffed at for its supposed desperation, it at least represents a more modern method of solving a more modern problem. The league’s new collective bargaining agreement allows the Lakers to offer Howard more money than any other team, but buying a contender to put around him isn’t as easy, especially given how messy L.A.’s books are until next summer. That extra $30 million in salary they can provide is indeed a major sweetener, but outside of that, the Lakers’ sales pitch to Dwight isn’t too dissimilar to the one the Knicks employed when courting LeBron James in the summer of 2010: cap space to pair him with a high-quality running mate (in the Lakers’ case, not until the following season), a chance to live in one of the country’s most popular metropolitan cities, greater domestic marketing opportunities and the chance to be a part of their rich history. In other words, everything other than what we want our superstars to prioritize: the best shot at winning a championship.

If the Lakers seem desperate maybe it’s because they should be. Over the past three years, the power has, rather refreshingly, shifted somewhat toward superstar players. The more popular locales will likely always win out for their services over the Charlottes and the Milwaukees, but for the league’s elite players, future potential, not past success, could mark the necessary difference among them, even if it means forsaking one of the league’s oligarchies. The mission of the majority on the owners’ side of the CBA negotiating table was to make the league fairer for all, and while that will probably always be a pipe dream, it at least made it fairer for some. Particularly so for the smart among the some.

Less than two years ago, the Clippers were able to dig themselves out of decades of futility by leveraging the Los Angeles market, the potential of Blake Griffin and sound drafting to land Chris Paul. Soon after, posters of Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan were plastered on three successive multistory buildings downtown, not far away from the "#StayD12" poster currently occupying a wall of Staples Center.

"It's a sign of the future landscape," general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters Thursday in regard to the billboards.

Whether or not Howard follows them remains to be seen. Current reports indicate that title chances will be the most important criterion in his decision, but the notorious flip-flopper has said all the right things many times before, only to lose sight of them when immediate gains aren't realized. He helped Otis Smith drive the Magic into the ground by doubling down on high-priced goofballs, then asked out soon after opting back in. He bought into being Bryant’s No. 2 despite initial skepticism, but he only seemed happy and productive at the end of his first season, when the offense flowed around his post touches and Bryant was away from the team.

Because of that, Howard’s image, the part of his career he has tried so very hard to protect, to the point of suffocation, can’t win regardless of what he chooses. If he returns to the Lakers, he again will be subject to the Los Angeles media crunch, for a season that figures to be even more difficult than his tumultuous first one. If he goes to the Rockets, he’ll have flipped (or flopped?) to his third team in as many seasons.

It’s more clear-cut when it comes to future earnings: Houston, after shrewdly compiling assets and shedding salary to acquire frontline talent like James Harden, offers the best chance to win, and to win now; Los Angeles, after muscling its way to a deal for Dwight a year ago, offers the best in literal earnings and all the social benefits from not only being the “The Guy” on the Lakers, but also being the guy for which the Lakers were willing to bend over backward.

I guess we'll see where the signs ultimately point.

There goes our Hero

April, 13, 2013
Verrier By Justin Verrier

The gritted teeth. The peaked eyebrows. The scrunched face.

The look has been the logo for Kobe Bryant at his best over the past few years.

But here was Bryant, sitting near the east foul line at Staples Center, his knees near his chest and both of his arms attempting to stabilize his limp left leg, and the look conveyed only horror.

Two nights earlier, Bryant turned in a heroic performance -- a 47-point, 8-rebound, 5-assist, 4-block, 3-steal gem in a much-needed win at the Rose Garden, a place that had so tormented him in years past. It was the type of game that made you believe that nothing could stop him from lifting the tired and tattered Los Angeles Lakers into the postseason.

But here he was, one of the game’s last few giants, crumpled into a heap.

After decades of living through newspaper box scores and first-hand accounts, the Information Age has created new ways for understanding and interpreting the game. Advanced statistics have become not only part of the conversation in recent years but an integral piece in any argument. “Efficiency” is a buzz word that permeates through locker rooms and press rooms and at home. It’s not unlikely to hear about “usage rate” or “effective field goal percentage” during a local or national broadcast.

All of it has conspired to create a more educated fan, and, in turn, a new ideal for a superstar basketball player. It’s not so much about heroic feats as much as it as about cold, hard reality.

The guy who jacks up all types of shots, from every angle, against every defense has given way to the guy who can do a little bit of everything and do it efficiently.

The last-second dagger may have gone in, but should it have been taken in the first place? The discussion of Hero Ball has effectively killed our basketball heroes.

Except for a select few, most notably Bryant.

This emphasis on process over raw production regardless of the means most undercuts a stone-cold gunner like Bryant, who, despite a 17-year career that has been nothing short of prolific, has a tendency to take the reins and refuse to give them up, regardless of the obstacles thrown in his path.

But the more the game of basketball becomes grounded in statistical truth, the greater the myth of Kobe Bryant seems to grow. Because while his historic scoring ability has fueled his rise, it’s the defiance of a TV anti-hero that has defined his 17-year career.

I can’t skip college? Watch me.

I can’t succeed without Shaq? Watch me.

I can’t play with a gnarled finger? Watch me.

I can’t win as many rings as Jordan? Watch me.

Even as his age has crept past 30, his brashness, that impenetrability of a teenager, never waned.

So it was no surprise that after a 2011-12 season that saw his attempts rise and his shooting percentage dip, Bryant again defied the odds this year, turning in some of his best performances as the unbridled hope of a Lakers NBA Finals run quickly disintegrated into a daily fight to save face. The means had indeed changed. A healthier Bryant was taking three fewer shots per game, and more and better shots at the rim while scaling back the midrange jumper a bit. He also vacillated roles at times to Stucco over the Lakers’ injury woes, sometimes even eschewing his tunnel vision for the rim to become more of a facilitator, at one point racking up double-digit assists and near-triple-doubles in clumps.

But it wasn’t enough just to do it. In the midst of his facilitating binge, Bryant made sure to underline the ease with which he could do it. He would go into games with the clear mission to get others involved, drop 10 assists or so, and afterward act like it was no big thing, at one point even evoking Neo from “The Matrix.”

By any means necessary, Kobe would often say.

At some point during this season, as the injuries began to mount and the losses dragged the Lakers’ playoff chances deeper and deeper into a hole, Bryant became more myth than man, and the charming cockiness he displayed in postgame scrums -- cracking jokes despite dire situations and swearing openly into live mics, always with a sly grin -- only added to the persona. Slap a 10-gallon hat on him and you’d think the stubble-faced Bryant was a character conjured up by Elmore Leonard.

LeBron James has been superhuman this season. But while his physique is Herculean, The Decision and the emotional toll it clearly took on James has made him seem so mortal, even as he defies gravity. He is also very much a star of now, the model of all-around brilliance and efficiency the game now craves. Bryant, too, has endured his share of personal and professional obstacles, but his foibles only further emphasis the old ideal of a superstar athlete -- the cocky, manly gunner with the ice in his veins and a fear of no one.

Which is why it was more confusing than heartbreaking to watch Bryant limp on his tattered left leg to the locker room Friday night, even making a portion of the walk from one end of the court to the other without any help. Leg injuries have felled several of the league’s brightest stars in the past year. But Bryant was supposed to be impervious to such things. In nearly two decades with the Lakers, Bryant has missed no more than 17 regular-season games in a single season, playing with face masks and cartoon-sized gauze wraps along the way.

But there he was, as always, after the game: in front of his locker being peppered with questions from the media. Only this time it came with crutches underneath his arms and a glossy coating around his eyes as he dammed his emotions.

As ESPN's Chris Palmer noted: "Kobe with tears in his eyes. Never seen him so...human."

Bryant will likely rehab and make a comeback. After the game, a Lakers win over the playoff-bound Golden State Warriors, he told reporters that the thought of pundits questioning his ability to do so already pissed him off.

And, surely, such a recovery will be hailed as heroic.

But already 34 and 232 days and facing perhaps a year-long comeback, it’s possible that, at least in spirit, the NBA lost its last hero of Hero Ball on this Friday night.

A season in the shadow

June, 28, 2012
Verrier By Justin Verrier

Getty Images, US Presswire
Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond could be the final NBA draft lottery picks in Jim Calhoun's reign.

It’s the smile that does it.

Every memorable player comes to have a particularly noteworthy physical trait, some type of look or hairstyle or facial feature that embodies who they are to us on the court, the way a person’s hat tips you off in "Guess Who."

Kobe Bryant’s jutting bottom lip and icy glare are the manifestations of his look-at-me intensity. LeBron James’ burly biceps tell you everything about his freakish, natural athleticism. The precision with which Ray Allen shaves his head every day. The mere silhouette of an in-flight Michael Jordan. In a social-media-strung-together world, where information is often parsed down to its most molecular level, something as novel as a few unshaven hairs in the center of your brow could wind up serving as your identifier forever, a traffic cone for a fan’s however-long journey through the league.

For Kemba Walker, it’s his smile. That big ole Cheshire Cat grin that conveys the confidence and boyish charm that define his personality and game.

There weren’t many happy moments for Walker as he began his career on the worst team in NBA history, but his gleeful look might as well been plastered at midcourt in Storrs, Conn., and on the Connecticut Huskies’ American flag blue pantaloons after Walker led the team to the 2011 NCAA championship. Surrounded by a cavalcade of fresh faces, Walker was the one tugging at the marionette strings throughout the Huskies’ up-and-down 2010-11 season, and he was ultimately the one carrying UConn across the finish line to cap off its unparalleled postseason run, fostering Jeremy Lamb’s growth from an unknown out of Norcross, Ga., to a potential lottery pick along the way.

Walker was a leader, in every sense. Even Jim Calhoun, the team’s Hall of Fame head coach, often deferred to the point guard’s judgment.

Yet, as Walker darted off to the professional ranks, the team actually appeared in better shape, talent-wise, as it prepared its title defense. The Huskies returned five of their top six players and welcomed uber-prospect Andre Drummond, the most celebrated recruiting get in Calhoun’s 26-year reign, into the fold. The first title repeat since Florida in 2006 and 2007 was a possibility. All they needed was someone to take the lead.

The Incumbent and The Newcomer were the two most likely candidates.

The Incumbent

Lamb is also defined by his distinguishable look. Only, the image isn’t all that flattering.

The sophomore swingman often appears like he may fall asleep at any moment, his eyes almost glazed over like he’s sitting in the back of a high school mathematics class and his voice slowly rolling out of his mouth in a crackly baritone. His game is just as laid-back, as his lanky, 6-foot-5, 179-pound frame smoothly glides across the hardwood like he’s on ice. And instead of charging at the basket like Walker, Lamb prefers to spot up from midrange or toss up a near-automatic floater before entering the circle.

It’s that lack of edge and aggression -- particularly when compared to the energetic, attacking point guards he was paired with in the backcourt for his two college seasons -- that has led to doubts. And while some assume passivity based solely on his sleepy demeanor, Lamb does have a tendency to fade into the background, a habit particularly harmful on a college team in desperate need of direction.

An efficient scorer basically from the get-go, Lamb’s emergence in 2010-11 as a capable No. 2 option ultimately proved to be the catalyst for the Huskies’ 11-for-11 tournament(s) run. But his opportunities were almost always created by Walker, whether the ball came off the point guard’s hands or not.

Lamb, despite dominating the ball for Team USA’s U19 team last summer, continued to pick his spots as a sophomore, but with erratic, turnover-prone point guards and no other established offensive option amid a surplus of talent, he was forced to try to on Walker’s uncomfortable role far too often. Although he shot 60 percent on 2-point attempts, Lamb, who had one of the heaviest minutes loads in the NCAA, jacked up almost as many 3s (at a 33.6 percent rate), mostly because he had to.

The complementary role he’s more comfortable in is likely what he’ll be asked to do in the pros, which means he’s probably better off in the long run. But the 20-year-old seems lost when he attempts to be more than that. As he told our Chad Ford in a pre-draft video piece: “My freshman year, the team, we were really like brothers. We did everything together. We just really wanted it, and when times got hard, we stuck together. My second year, we wasn’t as close. … We could’ve had a much better year.”

The Newcomer

Drummond is a direct product of the rise of UConn basketball. A Middletown, Conn., native born six years into Calhoun’s tenure and three after the program’s “Dream Season” of 1989-90, the center grew up in a world where his hometown team was already a national powerhouse. And as the gangly boy blossomed into a 6-11 powerhouse with Amare Stoudemire-like athleticism, the buzz began to build in Connecticut, particularly when word spread that he longed to one day attend the state university.

Even as a high school freshman, it was clear there was something special. I marveled while taking his agate lines from coaches for The Hartford Courant, and in the one game I saw Drummond play during his lone year at Capital Prep in Hartford, he effortlessly coasted to a 20-point, 20-rebound performance; given the height discrepancy, stepping on an opponent’s while in midair was a legitimate concern.

But, as other first-person testimonials of his early days have noted recently, not much has changed. After reluctantly enrolling at UConn in the late summer, Drummond continued to coast on his gifts, and as a result, he was bullied around by shorter, sturdier players -- much in the same way DeJuan Blair used to dominate Hasheem Thabeet -- gave little effort on the boards, and rarely scored if the ball wasn’t already in the air and near the rim. The team gave him every chance to succeed, playing through him in the back half of the season, but his wild turnarounds and clunky post moves only brought more screams and sighs of exasperation out of Calhoun.

(No moment crystallizes his college career more than this video. After missing a foul line jam in a preseason slam dunk contest, Drummond quickly gathers himself … and then casually throws down a between-the-legs dunk off the bounce. He would, of course, lose the competition.)

Once viewed as a legitimate threat to Anthony Davis’ hold on the top spot, Drummond’s disappointing lone college season has now sent his draft hopes tumbling down big boards. But it could actually be for the best. Earlier this season, while reminiscing with Thabeet soon after the former UConn center was traded to his third team in three years, he explained how surprised he was to be drafted No. 2 overall in 2009 and shook his head in disappointment while discussing the burden of expectations.

Drummond’s upside is far higher than Thabeet’s -- unlike Drummond, Thabeet was a stiff athlete who showed virtually no aptitude for scoring despite being the tallest player on the court for three years -- but he may benefit from a lower draft position. An 18-year-old who struggled to stay away from the snacks at South dining hall and whose voice still crackles, Drummond needs a more-structured, patient environment more than most (as our Beckley Mason noted earlier this week), and the teams that can provide it are most likely to be found the farther he falls. (The Rockets and post-move savant Kevin McHale would seem to be a particularly good match.) Although he didn’t progress as expected, Drummond did benefit greatly from a year of discipline, as evidenced by the fact that his greatest skill thus far is a trademark of UConn big men: blocking shots and defending without fouling.

Like Lamb, the disappointments in college could be rectified in a professional setting.

The History

Before John Calipari’s rash of one-and-doners began consuming draft boards, UConn was at one point widely regarded as the top pro-producing college outfit. The Huskies have yet to produce a No. 1 overall pick, but they became the first school to have two picks selected in the top three (Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, in 2004) and the first to have five players selected in a single draft, in 2006. Ray Allen, Caron Butler and Richard Hamilton all made All-Star teams. And, farther back, Donyell Marshall, Kevin Ollie and Clifford Robinson all had long careers.

But its reputation has faltered some as time has gone on. Allen, Butler and Hamilton are all nearing the end of their careers. Gordon and Charlie Villanueva have tapered off significantly after moderately promising starts to their careers. Of the Huskies’ ’06 draftees, only one, Rudy Gay, remains. And their most recent exports from its last Final Four trips -- Thabeet, Walker and A.J. Price -- haven’t fared much better.

A once-proud tradition is slowly looking like a bit of a red herring.

The End?

The draft stocks of Lamb and Drummond have suffered as a result of UConn’s far-from-stellar 2011-12 season, more so in the case of the latter, as the freshman center now must fend off inquiries about his motor and desire for the game on a daily basis. But both are in better shape than the program they leave behind. With a postseason ban forthcoming, the team experienced major defections after its title hopes torpedoed into a first-round exit in the 2012 NCAA tournament. And with the 70-year-old Calhoun’s status year-to-year because of health scares that grow more concerning each season, the program is at a crossroads, particularly when it comes to recruiting.

With only one player currently on next year’s draft radar (DeAndre Daniels, No. 82 on Ford’s 2013 Big Board) and no impact imports on the horizon, it’s possible, a cynic might pontificate, that Lamb and Drummond could be the Huskies’ last two first-round picks -- in the Calhoun era or maybe ever.

Unlike most other high-profile programs, UConn’s success is so tightly tethered to its head coach. The team wasn’t much before Calhoun’s arrival, and even though he’ll leave it with at least three national titles in hand, the lure to the cow town of Storrs has always been the man in charge and his ability to help players become legitimate draft prospects. If his successor isn’t able to quickly pick up where he left off, the doomsday scenario isn’t out of the question.

Twenty-two years after Calhoun’s first draft pick, Clifford Robinson, turned a second-round selection into a 17-year career, a run of 24 draftees could end with Lamb, perhaps the next in a line of successful wings, or Drummond, the homegrown top recruit who could be the coach’s greatest achievement or his biggest letdown.

Go for it, Kobe

April, 26, 2012
Verrier By Justin Verrier

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant needs 38 points Thursday for the scoring title. But should the Lakers let him off the pine?

At some point in his career, likely in the latter stages of the 16 NBA seasons he’s now amassed in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, Kobe Bryant stopped caring about the persona we expect a star athlete to have.

Maybe the turn came in midair, on one of the many flights he took in and out of Colorado in 2003 and 2004 while being chastised by the entire country. Perhaps it was after the dust had settled on very public falling outs with the coach and star player from his first three title runs, in which he received the brunt of the blame. Or most likely, it was those status-fortifying fourth and fifth rings, the ones he won. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but somewhere lost amidst all the awards and accolades and success, Bryant has accepted and embraced that, despite his immense popularity, he may not be the most well-received player in the public eye. At the very least, he has just stopped caring.

And boy, is it refreshing.

He swears in interviews, so much so that he made it his New Year’s resolution to stop doing so (which didn’t last very long). After winning his fifth title, his immediate response to a question about what it meant to him was, “I just got one more than Shaq.” And he admitted that he went into last year’s All-Star game in L.A. looking to break the scoring record and did everything could to follow up on it (he didn’t, but he came close).

Bryant has always been brash; he took Brandy to his high school prom and wore sunglasses atop his shaved dome as he announced that he’d be skipping college and taking "his talents" to the NBA long before LeBron, as SI's Lee Jenkins reminded us this week. But with a decade-plus of exploits now under his belt and one of the league’s only no-trade clause at his disposal, Bryant has become downright brazen. In the same way your parents are willing to say and maybe wear things that embarrass the heck out of you without any remorse, Kobe’s comfort in his place in the league allows him to do what he wants, which is often to shoot from the hip.

That attitude has both cultivated and hindered his game, as carte blanche is also what affords him all those seemingly unquestioned shot opportunities. But in a league so bogged down by talk of a players’ image and what can and cannot be said, so much so that it may be altering the way some behave and make their decisions, Bryant remains one of the few willing to occasionally step outside of the public- and media-crafted conventions (regardless of whether or not it’s in an attempt to convey or bolster a carefully constructed image of superiority). His feats and maniacal quest for even greater feats may make him seem inhuman or robotic, but the openness with which he lusts after them is both rare and welcome in a sports culture that offers precious few moments of honesty.

The latest example came on the eve of the final night of the 2011-12 regular season, as Bryant and the Lakers head to Sacramento with the year-end scoring title on the line. The 33-year-old Bryant is averaging 27.86 points per game. Kevin Durant is averaging an NBA-best 28.03 points. In order to finish ahead of Durant, Bryant will have to score 38 points or more.

With little to gain against the Kings, the Lakers have said that they will likely sit most of their starters … except, perhaps, Bryant. Kobe will make his final decision at shootaround, but the presumption, based on his declaration last week that he’s “not on vacation” and that Kobe is, well, Kobe, is that he’ll play.

The decision may not be a wise one, especially for a player who just missed seven games because of a shin injury and averages over 38 minutes a game, at age 33. But unlike most players, Kobe has made it clear that statistics and his place in league history matters. A scoring title is a relatively minor accomplishment on a resume like the one Bryant has assembled, but years from now when we’re debating his place in league, such things will be brought up and factored in, and an almost-scoring title, even if it is by a fraction of a point, won’t even register. As frivolous as they may be, those conversations matter to many, including Kobe. And despite quotes to the contrary, it’s naive to think that many, many other players don’t agree.

Kevin Durant has brushed aside any talk about the significance of a third straight scoring belt at the tender age of 23, only feeding into the humble persona that defines both him and this new generation of NBA stars. But a noted fierce competitor, it’s a little hard to believe that Durant is completely disinterested, even if it is an individual award. With his emotions often hidden better than his many tattoos, it’s hard to tell, really.

Besides, while Durant may not have made any blatant attempt to pad his scoring numbers in his final regular-season appearance, a 106-101 loss to the Nuggets in which he had 32 points, the Thunder still had home-court advantage in a potential Miami-Oklahoma City NBA Finals to play for.

The Lakers, however, have very little to gain in their 66th and final game. Which may seem like an open invitation to shut it all down, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to give Kobe free rein for the night. The risk of injury is looming, but how is playing on this night any more dangerous than it was in the previous games this season, or the 1,000 or so before it?

Just let Kobe be Kobe.

He’s going to be either way.