I find myself increasingly spending time communicating with people I’ll probably never see face to face. It’s this ongoing amalgamation of writing online articles, sometimes collaborating, often seeking approval in some fashion, and usually tweeting about it and many random things with no beginning and no end. I can’t sit down to dinner with online friends. Actually I can sit down to dinner with online friends, with more than a nod to Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.
My first sit down was with Emile Avanessian, a New York City resident, one man band for Hardwood Hype, and fellow contributor for Forum Blue and Gold. And a friend, regardless of location. We each had food and various electronic devices and watched Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the San Antonio Spurs – it was an epic game, and a fitting framework for dinner conversation.
Dave – What do you have on your plate, Emile?
Emile – Roasted chicken breast with goat cheese, olives and cherry tomatoes, with roasted potatoes on the side. And what are you having this fine evening?
Dave – Thank you for asking, I’m having small pieces of marinated chicken with mushrooms, red bell pepper, onion and angel hair pasta. I prepared it in a small skillet which is perched on the corner of my desk. And Pepsi. I was going to have wine. But I’m not.
Emile – So whaddya think about tonight’s game?
Dave – I think the Spurs have a legitimate shot. I think they’re due. But OKC has that thing that’s like instant healing. They can come back so fast it’s scary. The Spurs kind of have to stop and catch their breath.
Emile – Yeah, youth and spring are deadly. I am 55-45 thinking OKC closes it out. That said, I’m irrationally excited to watch the Spurs have to play a game for their season. They are so great normally, how about these stakes?
Dave – It’s the issue of generational change around the league. It seems as if there’s always newer, younger, more athletic teams coming up through the ranks and influencing the direction of the game itself. Yet, as we get into the late stages of the playoffs, there is an almost an inevitable shift back to the veteran teams. OKC is the exception this year – the one “young” team out there. By the way, did you ever stop to think that David Stern’s league model may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian form of government based on money? Haha, I’m paraphrasing My Dinner With Andre.
Emile – Haha, interesting thought on Stern & Co. I think this goes back to a conversation we had a few months back. The comparison was the NBA as a corrupt (but not too corrupt to deal with) oligarchy. Ironically, the new ownership groups entering the NBA (Wall Street/PE types) will run the show until NBA franchises are no longer considered a quality investment.
Dave - Another thing is the draft. Lakers have the 60th pick. I think Jimbo’s going to go hard after something better. It’s one of the real problems we face, dealing away picks and this is what we’re left with. Plus, Jim and Chaz and the younger brother scouts are so convinced that the draft is the way to go and that they have some form of expertise about such matters now. So what are they going to do? Just sit back and watch everybody else party? I don’t think so. Doesn’t mean they’ll get a good pick but I think they’ll try.
Emile - After all these years of “win now” mode, drafting away first rounders (admittedly low-to-mid first rounders, but first rounders nonetheless) in attempt after attempt to address specific shortcomings with turnkey solutions, it’s time to settle up. On the bright side we have two titles and three conference titles to show for the past five years, but we’re left with a roster that is aging, overpaid and inflexible, cap/trade-wise. Thus, I am all for making a bold move in the interest of beginning to lay a foundation for tomorrow.
No sure if we’ve ever discussed this but I am decidedly pro-trading Bynum, though I’d not do it for a draft pick. For ‘Drew, I want front line talent. Pau on the other hand, we can talk. Like I said in the 3-on-3 we did for FBG last week, I love the guy and would rather not trade him, but given the lack of options, I think he could be flipped for a top-10 pick and cheaper (but still overpaid) NBAer. As for Jimmy & Friends running a draft vital to the franchise’s future. I am unsure what to think. I’ve not been terribly kind to Short Buss since he took over, but he is in fact responsible for drafting Bynum and has not really had any other high picks with which to work. At the end of the day, I’m in favor of a full-scale blow up, in which the Lakers trade the two bigs for a combo of existing talent and a high pick, moving forward with that and plus Kobe’s final seasons, as the foundation.
Where do you stand on this? Are you in the Bynum-as-future camp, or do you see him as a valuable asset to be monetized? And Buss? Do you more trust him to run a draft, or to assess, value and acquire talent from around the league?
Dave – I agree about Pau, I think he's gone. And Andrew, for an elite talent? Sure. As for Buss, I probably trust him more with the draft than other basketball decisions.. I don’t put quite as much stock in his championing of Bynum because I think Ronnie Lester did the really heavy lifting there and Jim jumped on for the ride, and eventually showed Ronnie the door. I do however, think he’s spent a lot of time doing his homework and seems to like talking about it. Plus, he’s shown himself to be a cost-cutter in some obvious ways and I think that dovetails with a draft philosophy. His dad is the guy who had a keen eye for existing talent around the league. And Mitch of course.
As we were having this conversation, the Spurs had jumped out to a huge first quarter lead, extending it in the beginning of the second quarter before the Thunder began getting traction. The Spurs still went into the half, up by 15.
Dave – I went into my cupboard at halftime and realized I forgot to have the artisan filone asiago cheese bread that I purchased at my local Randall’s flagship market earlier today. And I really like having bread with my chicken and pasta. I’m a little annoyed but I’ll solider on. David Stern’s obviously a lighting rod for criticism and I’ve been on him plenty, all throughout the lockout, through various fictional tales, and then for obvious reasons after the botched CP3 affair. What’s your honest opinion on Stern’s stewardship of the league in general, a big picture view of what he’s done in the past, and where he is now?
Emile - Stern? Yeesh. Where to go with that? I don’t think there is any doubt that his leadership has been a net positive. He benefited from great timing, but he’s globalized the league, TV revenues are massive, the players are even better compensated, they’ve embraced digital/social media better than any league. That said, I think Stern is past his prime and drunk with power. It’s understandable when you think about it – he knows he’s nearing the end of the road and wants to assert his dominance until that day comes. Also, the world in which he now works is drastically different from the one in which he got his start. Players are fabulously wealthy and demanding a greater say in the way the league conducts its business. He’s become preoccupied with constantly reminding the world “who’s boss” and has begun inserting himself rather sloppily, into matters in which he probably has no place.
Dave – Tell me a little about the new ownership groups. Your comment from earlier about “running the show until NBA franchises are no longer considered a quality investment” is interesting. How far off do you think that is? Do you think there’s ever a chance of antitrust concepts being loosened in the NBA, much like they have in other business sectors? And has the New Orleans league-controlled ownership aspect already breached the antitrust concept?
Emile – I am not well versed in the legal aspects of sports ownership, but I’m talking about the guys who made megabucks from hedge funds/private equity/etc., and are now paying $300 - $400M+ for franchises. These guys are rarely the pillars of the community that bought teams back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, for $10 - $20 million. They are buying because NBA teams have historically been inefficient businesses, and by stepping in, totally revamping the infrastructure (much tighter payroll constraints, fewer jobs for former players; reworking arena leases) and improving cash flows. It is not bad per se, because these guys mostly recognize that in a suboptimal market, winning sells and all else withers. But they will run these teams as businesses more than as civic institutions.
With the exception of the CP3 debacle, I didn’t have a huge problem with the league’s ownership of the Hornets, as Shinn was a fucking disaster. And yes, it took a while to sell the team, but in the interest of keeping the team in NOLA (the stated goal) they waited and somehow got a top-dollar bid from Tom Benson.
Dave – I mostly agree about Stern. He did enormous good for the sport, and yes, the world is changing. But I keep thinking back to the lockout, and how that was handled. It was a labor negotiation, as elemental as it gets in many ways. We got so close to a lost season, and so much money was lost in ancillary ways. I could never quite understand why Stern seemed to shift away from his closest allies, the major market players. But ultimately, it really does go to your point – the new ownership groups, the cost-cutters. It’s the same mindset that has taken over so many business sectors. Cut costs, cut benefits, instill fear and make the other side cave. Except the players were finally pushed too far, and filed in federal court. And the cost-cutters had to take another look at it.
And then there’s the case of DerekFisher, still president of the players union, still in the game, still making a difference. And, with a fairly good chance to get his sixth ring. It’ll be a huge part of the narrative and for good reason. I’ve never quite gotten past the manner in which he was kicked to the curb. And here he is, still standing while the Lakers are trying to figure out how to get past getting bounced in the second round, two years running. It’s more than a little ironic that Fish is headed to the Finals and we’re talking about trade possibilities for Andrew and Pau.
By evening’s end, the Spurs had lost a heart breaker. The Thunder roared through the third quarter and were down by a single point going into the final frame. They succeeded in the end, paving the way for a trip to the Finals and possibly, a new dynasty.
Dave – I was sad to see the Spurs go down but at least they went down fighting. There’s that saying that youth won’t be denied – we’ll get to find out for sure in the Finals. I’m trying to wrap my head around who’s more competitive coming out of the east. A meeting between OKC and Miami has been a fairly popular assumption for a while. Not so much the case now, with the Heat facing elimination at TD Garden – that’s a tough place for an away team to win. And what kind of conversation would that engender this summer? The Celtics don’t have to sweat it, they’re not on the wrong end of the expectations game. I wouldn’t at all mind seeing Boston and Oklahoma – that’s as classic a case of generations colliding as you’ll get.
Emile - For reasons I can’t explain, I am finding OKC’s presence in the Finals a bit weird. Maybe it’s the jerseys and the logo and the name no one grew up with. Maybe it’s Derek Fisher’s presence. Maybe it’s just the stark reality of the balance of power shifting out West, and how suddenly that shift occurred. Maybe I’m just bummed that my full scale man crush on Gregg Popovich has screeched to a premature halt.
Because in terms of talent and continuity, OKC doesn’t lack for a whole lot. In fact, not only are these guys supremely gifted and immensely likable, they are punctual as well. This is when the Finals expected them. They’ve grown up, matured and learned to navigate the postseason together, made progress each year. Tough postseason losses, but not a single disappointing howler. It’s been textbook.
The Thunder are by no means perfect, but their strengths are just so pronounced and their stars so uniquely skilled that it’s inconceivable that any defense – even one as stingy as Boston’s – would be able to consistently shut them down for extended stretches. We’re going to watch the final two eastern conference teams duke it out for the privilege of joining KD, Russ and friends. If the Celtics are able to beat the Heat, we’ll be in it for the generational collision you alluded to. If Miami can pull out a pair against the C’s, the internet may well collapse under the weight of narratives of its own creation. Either way, regardless of the outcome of the Finals, I hope the simple “young greatness realized” storyline – one of this season’s coolest – gets the play it deserves.
Again, thanks a lot for putting this together. I had an absolute blast just sitting around Bsing about ball. Any time you want to do it again.
Dave – Thanks Emile, I wonder what Louis Malle would have made of the new digital age? Ultimately, this didn’t so much come down to the interactive possibilities of electronics, but simple, extended conversation. Over dinner, albeit it Austin to New York City. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Until next time.