Fire the coach when you’re No. 1

If you look at the NBA standings, out of the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference, one squad stands tallest. It’s the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sporting a 30-11 win-loss record (that’s a 73.2 percent winning clip), they lead the second-placers Toronto Raptors by three games. The Cavs carry an impressive 16-2 record when playing at “The Q,” their Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland.

Their last 10 games? They won eight. And who can forget them reaching the NBA Finals last season, leading the Warriors two games to one before losing 4-2. Impressive numbers, right? Absolutely.

Well, not exactly. In a bold, decisive and, to many, shocking move, the Cavaliers management have fired their head coach David Blatt. What? Yes, despite leading the conference and getting poised to trample upon the much-weaker East, they tore apart his $5 million annual contract that was stipulated to end next season.

Perplexing? Yes and No. First, “The Loss.” This, to me, was the final episode that tipped the Cavs owners to make the astonishing decision. “The Loss” means that game between Cleveland and Golden State last Monday. After the two finalists played on Christmas Day in California (with GSW winning 89-83), it was revenge time for the Ohio team.

What transpired was more than shocking. It was embarrassing. The Cavs trailed by 30 in the first half and the deficit reached 43 after halftime. At game’s end, the scoreboard read 132-98 for the Warriors. Can you imagine, all game long, the frustration and shame felt by the Cavaliers fans and their owners? Now that the Triple Threat (LeBron, Kevin and Kyrie) was complete, they get disgraced like this? At home?

Never mind if, in the next two games after that horror, the Cavs defeat the Nets and the Clippers — the decision has been made: something drastic has to be done.

David Blatt… you’re fired! So, this is both shocking and not-so-shocking. In a piece by Nate Silver entitled “LeBron’s Cavs Are The Best Team Ever To Fire Its Coach Midseason,” the author writes: “Coaches don’t usually get fired when their teams are playing well. But Blatt’s Cavs haven’t just been good; they’ve been on the verge of great. The team’s current ELO rating is 1669, far higher than that of any other team when it fired a coach mid-season.”

True. But it’s all about expectations. To many, leading the East and garnering a 73 percent winning percentage is excellent. But to LeBron James & Co., that’s not good enough. They want more. And they’ve assembled the James-Love-Irving triumvirate not merely to reach the playoffs. There’s only one goal and that’s to win the NBA season’s very last game.

Why not wait, some are asking, for the season to end before deciding on Blatt’s fate? No, no. The Cavs are impatient — as they should be. And it appears that, behind the scenes, the Cavs were not as cohesive as they need to be.

Amin Elhassan of ESPN Insider says this of the change: “Good move. There had been friction between Blatt and the locker room for most of his tenure. That makes his winning percentage sort of irrelevant because if the team isn’t fully invested, nothing else matters.”

Who’s the replacement? Tyronn Jamar Lue is the new coach. A former NBA player (who won two rings in the ‘90s with the Lakers), he was the Cavs’ assistant coach before moving up the corporate ladder. Based on my readings, Ty Lue is well-liked by the players, especially by the NBA’s four-time MVP, LBJ.

ESPN’s Elhassan’s take on the 38-year-old Lue? TBD, he says. To be determined. “In the short term, it’s a good move in that he has the ear and respect of the locker room, so buy-in will come much more easily for him, especially considering players typically want to play well for a well-liked, respected assistant coach in his first head-coaching gig.”

My take? Given the embarrassment LeBron faced against Steph Curry, this move is necessary. But the burden’s on Coach Ty. He ought to remember this: Blatt was the third coach to be fired in the last four seasons.

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NBA 2015-2016: Here’s what to expect

This Wednesday morning (Tuesday 8 p.m. in Chicago), the 70th season of the NBA unfolds. What a first game awaits us, basketball fanatics: it’s the Cleveland Cavaliers dribbling against the Bulls at the United Center — a stadium immortalized by the high-flying acrobatics of MJ.

The NBA regular season begins on Oct. 27 and ends on April 13. That’s 169 days. Within these five and a half months, 30 teams will compete for 16 slots to qualify for the Playoffs.

We all remember the NBA Finals last June 5 to 17. The Cavs — limping without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love but subsisting on the broad shoulders of LeBron James — led the series 2-1 before disintegrating in the next three games to hand the trophy to the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry, who visited Manila last Sept. 5, was the league’s MVP.

That’s the past. What are the predictions for this season? One of the most awaited of surveys is the one that the league itself conducts prior to the start. It’s called the NBA.com GM Survey.

GM, obviously, stands for General Manager — and each of the 30 GMs is asked by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann a list of 49 assorted questions ranging from “Which team will win the 2016 NBA Finals?” to “Which active player will make the best head coach someday?” (answer: Chris Paul) to as tough a query as “Who is the toughest player in the NBA?”

Golden State will not repeat as champs! That’s the overiding message of the respondents. Cleveland ranked first, garnering 53.6% of the votes, followed by San Antonio (25%), with the Warriors a distant third with 17.9%. (For comparison, last year’s pick was San Antonio at 46.2% — and we know that they lost Game 7 in the first round to the Clippers after that last-second layup by Chris Paul.)

The Top Four teams, according to the GM survey, are: in the East, it’s Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami and, in the West, the four include Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the LA Clippers.

MVP? Same as last year, the GMs picked the 31-year-old Akron, Ohio-native who stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 250 lbs. Mr. James got a 39.3% rating followed by Anthony Davis (25%) with Kevin Durant and James Harden tied in third at 10.7%. Surprisingly, the reigning MVP (codenamed “The Baby-Faced Assasin”), got only 7.1%, tied with Russell Westbrook.

I rattle off a few more significant results:

Best center: Marc Gasol, 65.5%. The Spaniard is also the top pick in the “NBA’s best international player” query, defeating his older brother Pau.

Best power forward: Anthony Davis, scoring 82.1%.

Rookie of the Year? The 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor, who’ll play center for the Philadelphia Sixers. He out-pointed 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns, 44% vs. 34%.

Top coach? Garnering an almost-perfect 93.1% score and who was recently named Team USA’s coach: Gregg Popovich.

Most fun team to watch? Warriors, getting the nod of 28 out of the 30 (there’s no “perfect” score because a team can’t vote for itself).

Most athletic player? 1) Westbrook; 2) LeBron; 3) Zach Lavine, who won the slam dunk contest last year; 4) A. Davis.   

Best pure shooter: Curry (who else?) at 79.3%, followed by Kyle Korver (10.3%), Klay Thompson (6.9%) and Anthony Morrow (3.4%).

Best passer: Chris Paul. (CP3 also won “the best basketball IQ” contest, besting LeBron and Steph.)

A few more compelling finds: Dwight Howard is nowhere in the list. While he was named in last year’s survey as “the best center,” this time, he didn’t extract a single vote. Andre Iguodala of the Warriors was picked “the bench player who makes the biggest impact when he enters the game” and Tony Allen of Memphis gets the nod for the “Toughest player in the NBA” plum.

Finally, the GMs pick for that Mythical Five: Curry, Harden, M. Gasol, Davis and James. They’d be the starting five to represent Planet Earth if we got involved in an intergalactic Star Wars.

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Lamar Odom’s sad but unsurprising fall

The 6-foot-10 former LA Lakers forward was close to dying. Found unconscious and vomitting blood and “white stuff” from his mouth and nose last Wednesday, he appears to have awoken from coma and is responding. This is terrific news. It would have been tragic had the former NBA Sixth Man of the Year (in 2011) died at the young age of 35. Odom, if you remember, helped the Lakers win in 2009 and 2010. His NBA career spanned 14 years.

This recent nosedive by Odom is sad. It appears that he overdosed on cocaine and other pills. This type of story among top-caliber athletes, though, is not uncommon. After experiencing the highs of stardom and money, when such athletes (or movie actors and entertainers) retire and are no longer in the limelight, they fall. They escape. All their lives, they’ve played the game so well — and now they don’t know what to do. With their money. With their not being the star.

That’s why we often see these aged, long-retired superstars make a comeback. They miss the applause and camera clicks. They’re no longer mentioned in Twitter. Video clips of their acrobatics no longer proliferate in YouTube. Some come back. Some do drugs and destroy their lives, like Lamar.

But Lamar’s not the only one to squander wealth and success. The list is long: Michael Vick (NFL), Marion Jones, Vin Baker (to alcoholism), Tiger Woods, and the worst example of all, Mike Tyson, who transformed his $300 million income to $30 million in debt (plus a battery of charges that include domestic violence and sexual assault).

This is sad and bad. But plenty have also done good. Others, after retirement, have turned to mentoring the youth. They coach. Some build their own academies and training camps.

I’m reminded of Andre Agassi. The winner of eight Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, when Andre retired from tennis because of severe back pain, he turned productive.

He became a businessman. While still world’s No.1, he capitalized on his good name, forming “Official All Star Cafe” with fellow stars Wayne Gretzky, Ken Griffey, Jr., Monica Seles, Joe Montana and Shaq. He invested in several more business ventures. (Another excellent move by Andre: he married Steffi Graf!)

But ask Agassi what he’s proudest about and he’d probably answer this: the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. Investing $35 million of his personal funds, he built a school in his hometown of Las Vegas for at-risk children. Starting with only three levels, the school is now a full K-12 institution. Said Andre: “Early on, we concluded that the best way to change a child’s life was through education.”

As heartbreaking as Odom’s latest episode unfolds, people like Andre inspire. They give back. One example is his group “Athletes For Hope,” a philantrophic and charitable organization represented by top athletes. Among Agassi’s companions include Muhammad Ali, Alounzo Mourning and Mia Hamm.

One unfortunate co-member? Like Lamar, a member of the “Fall from Grace” athletes club? Lance Armstrong.

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NBA Finals: A Preview

Ace sports journalist Jonas Panerio of CDN, legendary coach (and Provincial Board Member) Yayoy Alcoseba and businessman Mark Garcia provide commentary on the NBA Finals…

JONAS PANERIO. How would thee Warriors claim thy NBA title? Let me count the ways: While it’s true that the Warriors players lack NBA Finals experience, they have passed a battery of tests in the mighty Western Conference, which includes beating future MVP Anthony Davis, “outhustling” the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies before completing a “gentleman’s sweep” of the Houston Rockets. Along the way, the Warriors have laid taste to the who’s-who of the All-NBA First Team – Davis, Marc Gasol and James Harden. The Warriors have proven without a doubt that they can emerge victorious in whichever way possible – be it a slow-down, low-scoring affair, a fast-paced shootout and everything in between.

In comparison, Cleveland dispatched of a sub-500 Celtics squad, a Bulls team that forgot how to play basketball and a Hawks team that while willing, did not have the manpower needed to make Cleveland sweat.

Let’s get this out of the way: LeBron James is the best player drawing breath on the planet right now. But as Warriors forward Draymond Green so succinctly pointed out, “He is not god.” The Warriors will trust on their disciplined defense, not to mention their platoon of like-sized, long-limbed wings in Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and of course, First Team All-Defense Green to keep the “King” at bay. If all else fails, there’s always NBA 2nd Team All-Defense member Andrew Bogut as the Warriors last line of defense.

In contrast, who will Cleveland assign to defend the reigning league MVP, Steph Curry? The choices don’t offer much in the way of answers. A less-than 100% Kyrie Irving defending the cat-quick Curry will prove to be disastrous. Okay, so place Iman Shumpert on Curry then. But where does that leave Irving? Against the larger Thompson and Barnes? Get the picture now?

And finally, the Warriors have a rocking, uber-loud arena to call home. It’s not fondly called the “Roaracle” for no reason at all. The Warriors are 7-1 at Oracle Arena in the Playoffs and the Cavs will soon find out how tough it is to come away with a victory there. Come to think of it, only three teams have won at Oracle this season. Three.

YAYOY ALCOSEBA. I tip my hat to LeBron James; going to the Finals five straight times is no easy task. I think Cleveland will take the championship. No disrespect to Golden State, who is equally up to to the task. But for me being a coach for the longest time, having experience will play a crucial role in winning the championship. I don’t have to explain the championship pedigree LeBron brings to table. The Xs and Os is there but at the end of the day it’s the team who wants it more. The team who controls the rebounds will win the championship. Every position in this type of game is crucial. More rebounds, more positions.

MARK GARCIA. This year’s Finals will have all the intrigue since it will be a matchup of the current MVP vs the 4-time MVP. It will be interesting to see how Curry performs in the biggest stage as well as how LeBron would respond especially after last year’s loss to the Spurs. Both teams are on a roll heading to the Finals. The Warriors would rely on their high-powered motion offense and lock down defense while the Cavs will rely on their much-improved playoff defense, LeBron’s post up game and passing ability.

It will be interesting who the Warriors would use to defend LeBron as well as who the Cavs will use to defend Curry and Thompson. Will the Warriors double LeBron in the post to force him to pass out to other guys for the open shot? Or would they play LeBron one on one and won’t mind letting him score 40 to 50 points as long as the other Cavs players aren’t involved in the game?

Will a jump-shooting team like the Warriors finally win a championship? Can the Cavs win it by isolating LeBron all game long? Will LeBron’s experience put the Cavs over the top?

In the end, I think that the Warriors motion offense, outside shooting, fast break game, bench play, and multiple LeBron defenders (Barnes, Iguodala, Green) would overwhelm the Cavs. I pick the Warriors to win it in 6 but I would never count out the Cavs just because they have LeBron who, together with Kobe and Curry, are my favorite NBA players to watch.

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My picks? Clippers-Warriors, Cavs-Hawks

Everybody happy. That’s the term we use in tennis when, midway through a tough fight, the score is all-square. It’s a tie. In the NBA, three of the four quarterfinal games scored 2-all. Isn’t this terrific? This is what fans want. A best-of-seven contest that’s become two-out-of-three.

The Golden State Warriors lost a home game but, after winning the other day, they’re back. Same with Cleveland. Missing Kevin Love, they turned-over the home court advantage to Chicago — but that was before LeBron James’ buzzer-beater in Game 4. That shot was amazing. In the previous game, it was Derrick Rose who performed that incredible three-point bank shot. In an MVP vs. MVP duel, LeBron seized the opportunity in Game 4 and fired his own winning shot. Plus, did you see LeBron’s block on Rose in yesterday’s win?

In a few days’ time, I expect the four remaining teams (out of the league’s 30 squads) to be the LA Clippers vs. the Warriors and the Cavs against the Atlanta Hawks.

Of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and the other less-famous Los Angeles team, the Clippers are on a basketball roll. After that escape against the defending champs Spurs (when they were down 2-3), they’ve embarrassed the Rockets. In the next round, everybody’s looking forward to this all-California encounter: Clippers-Warriors.

Thus far, this NBA season has been one of the most thrilling. We had the move of LeBron back to his hometown. We had the unbelievable season of Steph — one of the greatest displays of shooting that we’ve seen. We witnessed his MVP rivalry with Harden, Westbrook and LeBron. (In the end, it was not close: Curry won 100 of 130 first-place votes.)

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Play ball! It’s the NBA Playoffs

Dennis Que loves basketball. Almost daily, he switches on the TV set to swallow that regular dosage of NBA action. He’s also watched, on vacation episodes, live games in the U.S. Like I’ve done in the past, I asked for Dennis’ expert NBA commentary…

“Looking back at the regular season,” Dennis said, “the team that stood out most was the Atlanta Hawks.” We all expected Cleveland and Chicago to top the East, he said, but everyone’s applauding Atlanta who, in January, amassed a 17-0 record — the first perfect month in NBA history.

“In the West, it’s the Golden State Warriors,” said Dennis. “Under first year coach Steve Kerr and with almost the same line-up from last year, they led the NBA with a 67-15 record. This is the most wins by a rookie coach, a record.”

The other notable moments, said Dennis: LeBron James coming back home to Cleveland, Steve Nash retiring, Paul George returning to court after a horrific leg injury, Russell Westbrook’s string of triple doubles, Zach Lavine revitalizing the dunk contest, and Kobe Bryant’s lifelong dream to pass Michael Jordan for 3rd on the scoring list.

“The game that I will never forget was when Klay Thompson scored a record 37 points in one quarter,” he said. “He shot 13-13 from the field including 9-9 from beyond the arc.”

On the post-season, Dennis commends the New Orleans Pelicans, who had to win on the last day of regular season (against the Spurs!) to eliminate OKC. In the east, the Milwaukee Bucks surprised him the most, considering they were the worst team last season and they have a new coach. “Jason Kidd did a great job with almost the same team from last season and after losing key players due to injuries,” said Dennis. The biggest surprise: Miami and Indiana (Eastern finalists the past three seasons) not making the playoffs.

FIRST ROUND. In the East, the best match-up is between the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards. “I predict this series to go to game 7 with Toronto winning,” said Dennis, who doesn’t expect upsets in the others, with Atlanta, Chicago and Cleveland advancing to Round 2.

In the West, he cites two interesting encounters: the 2nd seed Rockets versus the 7th seed Mavericks (“the Rockets are favored but the Mavericks might pull an upset”) and San Antonio versus Los Angeles.

“Last year, the Clippers was poised to meet the Spurs in the Western Finals but lost to the Thunder in Game 7,” he said. “This, for me, is the most exciting series and I hate to see either team exit the first round.” But he expects the Spurs to triumph, same with the Warriors and Grizzlies.

PREDICTIONS. In the East, Dennis thinks the Cavs have it easy because of less competition (Boston and New Jersey made the playoffs with losing records). The Western Conference is different because of many contenders. “Each team has to go thru 3 grueling series before they can reach the Finals,” he said.

He likes the Hawks vs. the Cavaliers for the Eastern Finals. “The Hawks has experience,” said Dennis. “With the Cavs, two of their top players (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love) have not played a single playoff game.” But he expects Cleveland to win because of their size, speed and “they have LeBron.”

In the West, Dennis foresees the Warriors vs. the Spurs. “The Warriors are favored and they have enough experience, youth, and they’re the best offensive and defensive team,” he said, “But the Spurs have the experience and the motivation to win back-to-back. Plus, they’re peaking at the right time.”

FINALS? Cavaliers-Spurs. No major shock in Dennis’ prediction but this one is surprising: “Just like the 2007 NBA Finals, this will be a short one,” he said. “The Spurs’ experience could prove too much for the more talented Cavaliers. It’s too hard to beat the Spurs in a seven-game series. Time is running out on this old Spurs team but they will be motivated to win their first back-to-back in the Popovich-Duncan era.”

Is Dennis right? He also picks Steph Curry to win the MVP. Let’s see. The NBA postseason begins today.

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Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook?

russell-westbrook-stephen-curry(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Over steak, blue cheese, green salad and red wine to celebrate Nia Aldeguer’s birthday at her and Chris’ house in Ma. Luisa, the main topic of discussion among the boys — Mark Garcia, Meyrick Jacalan, my brother Charlie, Chris and I — was on basketball: Jordan brand shoes, Finn’s basketball exploits and the race for the MVP.

Jacs Jacalan watched Stephen Curry with his sons last Dec. They didn’t sit at home to watch on TV; they purchased 200+ dollar tickets and boarded the bus from San Francisco to Oakland to watch the Golden State Warriors play Kevin Durant’s OKC. During the warmup, Jacs overheard two seatmates at the back make a bet: one guy wagered that, from three-point range, Stephen Curry wouldn’t miss a flurry of shots. Steph. Did. Not. Miss. A. Single. Shot. The other guy lost $20.

This race for the MVP has been one of the most exciting. Unlike previous years when a LeBron or a Derrick Rose or, like last season, when Durant was a sure winner, this year we’ve got the Fab Four: James, James (Harden) and two 6-foot-3s, Curry and Russell Westbrook.

Yesterday morning on TV, I watched a few minutes of the “Masked Mamba,” when Westbrook’s OKC played the Minnesota Timberwolves. In back to back plays, Westbrook grabbed an inbound pass, jumped to fly on-air sideways, and banked an effortless two-pointer. Seconds later, he outmaneuvered three men to slam a dunk. No one has been hotter than Russ: last week, he scored 49 points, pulled down 16 rebounds and threw 10 assists against the 76ers to record his fourth straight triple-double — a feat not achieved since 1989 by Michael Jordan. So, Russ as MVP?

JONAS PANERIO. No! says my fellow sportswriter from the Cebu Daily News, Jay Panerio, who argues for Stephen Curry.

Here’s Jay Panerio’s full report:

STEPHEN CURRY

2014-15 Per-Game Stats

23.8 points (Fifth-Best),
4.4 rebounds
7.7 assists
2.2 steals (League-Best)
FG % of 48.5
FT % of 90.3 (Third-Best)
3-PT % of 42.2
33.1 minutes per game
207 Three-Pointers Made (League-Best)
Player Efficiency Rating (PER – a measure of per minute production) of 27.8(Third-Best behind Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook)
Real Plus-Minus (the metric isolates the unique plus-minus impact of each NBA player by adjusting for the effects of each teammate and opposing player) rating of 8.55 (League-Best, ahead of James Harden’s 8.51)
True Shooting Percentage (a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account 2-pt field goals, 3-pt field goals and free-throws) of 63.1% (Fifth-Best, Harden and Westbrook aren’t even in the top-20)
Win Share (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player) of 12.2 (Second-Best behind Harden’s 13.0)

Steph is on the cusp of joining the historic 50-40-90 club (shooting percentages for field goals, 3-pointers and free throws) while leading the league in steals per game, three-pointers made and that all-important new-age metric, Real Plus-Minus. Moreover, it is his clinical efficiency that pushes him past any and all contenders. Take his aforementioned percentages and compare them with Westbrook’s and Harden’s and the gap becomes as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Westbrook:        43.4% FG, 28.5% 3PT, 83.8% FT
Harden:             44.7% FG, 38% 3PT, 86.8% FT

Speaking of efficiency, I have yet to mention that Steph is doing all these while playing just 33.1 minutes per game, mostly because Warriors games become such blowouts that he ends up sitting on the bench for the rest of the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Harden plays 36.7 mins per game while Westbrook plays nearly as much.

He is the best player of the best team in the league. And while it cannot be denied that the Warriors have had breakout performances from nearly all corners of the squad, namely Defensive Player of the Year candidate Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, it also cannot be said enough that Steph is the biggest reason why Golden State has rose to such prominence this season. Need proof? The Warriors have outscored opponents by 646 when he plays and been outscored by 51 when he sits.

Many would argue the case against Curry would be that Golden State are in fact the best team in basketball, which can take some of the shine off of what he has done what with so many contributors.

But consider this: Lebron’s got a guy who six months ago was widely considered to be one of the top-10 players in the entire NBA (Kevin Love) and the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup (Kyrie Irving). Westbrook shares the floor (at times this season) with the league’s reigning MVP (Kevin Durant) while Harden’s floormates include a center who is an eight-time All-Star, a seven-time All-NBA team selection, a five-time All-Defensive member, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and a certain game-changer when he’s around (Dwight Howard). So tell me, who’s supporting cast has more glitter?

But more than the numbers is how Steph does what he does – with breathtaking skill and mesmerizing flair. People often say that he is a wizard with the ball and maybe he really is. Maybe he goes home each day and creates some sort of potion to drink before each game that allows to him do nightly feats of basketball sorcery that has earned him the reputation of being “the league’s most un-guardable player.”

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James will win NBA MVP, but which one?

james_harden_lebron_james(Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images)

I’m referring to the two best players with the same name: James Harden and LeBron James. (If they decide on a co-MVP, can you imagine a James-James winner?)

So, which James? First, let’s examine how the NBA votes on their Most Valuable Player. Every year since the 1955-56 season, the MVP award, named the “Maurice Podoloff Trophy,” in honor of the league’s first commissioner, is given to the best performing player of the regular season. A panel of sportswriters and broadcasters from the U.S. and Canada cast their votes. They submit five names, ranked from 1 to 5, with their top pick garnering 10 points. All the points are tallied and the highest-pointer wins basketball’s most coveted title.

In the history of the MVP awards, no player has won unanimously. Shaq (2000) and LeBron (2013) came very close, each receiving 120 of the 121 first-place votes.    All time, the record-holder is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won six. He’s followed by Michael Jordan and Bill Russell with five apiece. Wilt Chamberlain joins LeBron as four-time MVPs while Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Moses Malone own three.

LeBron has won four of the last six MVP crowns. His quest for a three-peat last year was thwarted by Kevin Durant, who amassed outstanding numbers last season: 32 PPG, 7.4 RPG, and 5.5 APG. This year’s regular season ends on April 15 and the MVP awardee will be disclosed during the playoffs. So, will it be James or James?

Let’s discuss: Since LeBron moved from Florida to Ohio, he’s transformed the Cavs from being under-performers to Eastern Conference Finals contenders. As of yesterday, his averages per game are: 26 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. The biggest factor is what happens to the Cavs when he’s with (or without) them. In the 11 games that he missed this season, the Cavs scored 2-9; when he’s around, they win 70 percent of the time.

According to Greg Swartz, who wrote “The Case for LeBron James to Win NBA MVP Yet Again” in Bleacher Report last March 9: “It’s not just his 26.0 points, but rather James’ overall court vision and playmaking ability that stands out… There’s all the little things that don’t show up in stat sheets. James is always pointing out what he sees on the court to teammates. He shouts defensive assignments from the bench. He supports, encourages and even criticizes when necessary… James is once again the undisputed leader of the Cavaliers, with his every move dictating their success.”

His leadership, his numbers, his elevation of the Cavs to potential NBA champs — all guarantee that he’ll be a top MVP contender. But you know the disadvantage of LeBron? His name. His reputation. This thing called “voter fatigue.”

“Much like with Durant the year before and Derrick Rose in 2010-11, it’s arguably more exciting to see a first-year winner rather than someone who’s done it before,” said Swartz. “James certainly shouldn’t be penalized for this, however. The most valuable player should be a blind award based off who’s made the biggest difference for his team, regardless of past success.”

As for James Harden, the league’s second top-scorer with a 27.1 point average, Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, said it best: “Take James Harden off our team and we are nowhere.”

“Harden has suited up for every Rockets game this season,” wrote Jesus Gomez in “James Harden’s durability should make him the MVP favorite,” a recent SBNation.com article. “He leads the league in total minutes played and is second in minutes per game, averaging 36.6. In a year in which most of the league brightest stars have struggled staying on the court, Harden has been arguably the most durable elite player in the NBA. It has been huge for the Rockets to be able to rely on him so much with Howard missing 27 games already. When it comes to the ability to stay on the court for his team, Harden edges out every other MVP candidate.”

L. James or James H.? Neither. I’ll go for Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook — and the discussion continues in a future article.

NBA All-Star: Play and Display

urlWith an average of 14 players per squad multiplied by 30 teams, that’s roughly 420 total players today. Out of that number, a select few — the ‘Navy Seals of the NBA’ — make it to the All-Star game. Only 24 players, or six percent of 420, play in either the West or the East All-Stars teams. This Sunday, the day after Valentine’s, is the 64th edition of the NBA All-Star Game.

The East, who won last year 163-155, will be led this weekend by Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Pau Gasol, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Chris Bosh, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver (who replaces the injured Dwayne Wade). Their head coach is from the Atlanta Hawks, Mike Budenholzer.

The West, who trail the all-time win-loss record with 26 wins versus 37 losses, are manned by Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Stephen Curry, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard (who replaces Blake Griffin), and DeMarcus Cousins (who replaced Kobe Bryant). The Warriors’ Steve Kerr will be head coach.

The All-Star game is not the only attraction this weekend. It’s the culminating activity but there are plenty of festivities.

New York City is hosting the Feb. 13 to 15 spectacle. The two NBA teams — New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets — will be spitting the venues.

Last Dec. 16, I had the chance to be inside the Madison Square Garden, the venue of the All-Star Game this Sunday. MSG is one of the world’s most iconic of coliseums, hosting concerts (John Lennon’s final appearance was there) and the hockey team, the New York Rangers. It also hosts, sad to say, the NBA’s worst-performing team: the Knicks, who carry a 10-42 win-loss record.

Tomorrow (Friday), the weekend kicks off at the MSG with the Celebrity Game, featuring movie stars and celebrities. Over at the Barclays Center (home of the Nets), it’s the Rising Stars Challenge. According to NBA.com, “The league’s annual showcase of premier young talent will debut a format that pits 10 first- and second-year NBA players from the United States against 10 first- and second-year NBA players from around the world.”

On Saturday, all in Barclays Center, there’s plenty. The Shooting Stars. The Skills Challenge. The Three-Point Contest with Curry, Thompson, Harden, Irving, Korver, Marco Belinelli, Wesley Matthews and J.J. Redick competing. Finally, the Slam Dunk contest featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee and Zach LaVine.

On Sunday, there’s the D-League All Star Game at the Barclays Center and, to cap the action, MSG’s hosting of the All-Star Game (for us, it’s scheduled at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 16).

Plus, there’s something new: the first-ever All-Star Fashion Show. No kidding. Just because we see these men all-sweaty and wearing knee-high socks, baggy shorts and high-cut Nikes, it doesn’t mean to say they don’t dress well off-court.

Produced by LeBron James himself (under his Springhill Production Co.), the “NBA All-Star All-Style” will not be purely a simple “paso-paso” (walk) like those leggy models. True to their competitive spirit, it will be a fashion competition.

Klay Thompson, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins are expected to join others in this contest that will have an actual winner. Said the AP report: “It will have three rounds: dressing for the boardroom, a night out and attire worn to the game. The competition will start with eight players, with four advancing to the second round and the top two competing in the finals.”

Why this new concept? “NBA athletes are legitimate fashion icons, with various stars (e.g. Russell Westbrook) and notable players (e.g. Nick Young) becoming notable not just for their play on the court but their sartorial impact,” wrote Eric Freeman for Yahoo! Sports. “Some players will show up on basketball blogs just as often as they appear in the pages of GQ. Personal style is part of their public image and brand.”

On-court and on the ramp, it will be fun watching the stars.

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Lousy Knicks, lively entertainment

Knicks gameNEW YORK — Jasmin, Jana and I watched the New York Knicks vs. Dallas Mavericks game the other week (Dec. 16). We sat in Row 225 inside Madison Square Garden. This arena is iconic; built in 1968, its tagline reads, “The World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Today, MSG hosts over 300 sporting events each year and is home to three pro teams: the Knicks, the NY Rangers (hockey) and the NY Liberty (women’s NBA). For basketball, the seating capacity is 20,000.

Entering the coliseum, I was expecting a derelict facility (given that it’s 46 years old) but was surprised to see a spanking world-class arena. Newly-renovated last year, MSG was comfortable; the seats were cushioned; on top of the basketball court was a gigantic HD screen that endlessly projected slow-motion replays, up-close shots of the players and other highlights.

When we arrived at 7:45 p.m., the players were warming-up. As the Mavs and Knicks stars were introduced, the last man to be called was the most “sikat:” Carmelo Anthony. He wore an orange bandana that was the same orange color that spread across the Knicks uniforms.

Finally, the announcer says, “Let’s… play ball!” All the lights were off. The girls danced an intro number. After the players stood ready, Margot Bingham was called to sing the national anthem. Like we see on TV, once the song reaches those last few lines, everybody sings along. Someone screamed, “Let’s go New York!” It’s wonderful to see Americans so proud of their song, people, nation.

Game on! New York had possession after the jump ball. But, like an ominous sign of the bad things to come, they didn’t even fire a shot: they were penalized after a 24-second shot violation. Bad sign! Seconds later, Tyson Chandler was lobbed an alley-hoop pass which he barreled into the ring. A slam dunk for the Mav’s first two points. Shot after shot, the Mavs wouldn’t miss. They converted on their first six attempts. No miss. After four minutes, the score was lopsided: 19-7. Chandler had one more dunk. And another. Three dunks in five minutes.
Dallas is an amazing offensive team. They lead the NBA in points, averaging 113 per game. It was evident that night: after six minutes, they amassed 27 points. Moments later, the score was 29-11. Led by Dirk Nowitzi, the Mavs led from the first minute until the last. From beyond the arc, they buried 15 of 33 three-point attempts. This wasn’t a ballgame, it was a New York massacre.

You know Americans; they’ll let you know in your face how they feel. They’re blunt and direct. And the New Yorkers let their players know how they felt. They booed. They turned quiet. The initial atmosphere of excitement was replaced by oh-no-here-it-comes-again…. another beating.

By the end of the first quarter, the score was 36-24. At that point, the Mavs made 79 percent of their field goal attempts. Amazing statistic. As bad as the Knicks were, the Mavs were unstoppable — they were possessed when they possessed that ball.

The Knicks weren’t a team of five players on-court; they’re a one-player squad. Carmelo Anthony led with 26 points but that was it; everybody else was lousy. This is nowhere near the team that won the NBA crown back in 1973 (their last win) that had Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson, now the Knicks president.

But as lousy as the Knicks were, the entertainment was fantastic. Plenty of celebrities watched. Golfer Jason Dufner. Actor John leguizamo. Devon Kennard of the Giants. Even John Starks came to watch.

During timeouts, they have what’s called a “Dance Cam” where they find spectators who’ll dance and they’ll showcase their moves on the large screen. One man juggled balls. They also had these “machine guns” where they’d fire t-shirts to the crowd. One shirt was fired towards us and Jana caught it. They had a Tic Tac Toe game played by two men. They had all these side entertainment gigs to make the lousy game fun. In all, it was fun despite the Knicks losing by 20.

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