A couple of months ago I learned that I’d be traveling to Manila for work. While the Federal Government’s security warnings had me frightened a little (i.e. “Don’t travel to this place unless you really really need to”), the prospect of spending a few weeks in a basketball-mad country had me really excited. It was about a year ago during a trip to Kuala Lumpur that I met a man named Rolly who told the weird and wonderful stories of his Philippino childhood, his love for basketball, and the reason he named his son after Pat Riley. A year later, here I am.
My first impressions of this country were mixed. I found it alarming my hotel had metal detectors and sniffer dogs. I was surprised at some of their road-rule interpretations. I was sweating like a dog in the humidity. I was overjoyed to learn they served Coopers Green at my hotel bar (my Beer of the Year runner-up for 2007, behind the all-conquering James Squires Pilsner who won back-to-back after a superb ’06 season). But beyond all, I immediately could feel the love for basketball.
It’s clear this country loves basketball. From the billboards around Manila to the all-to-corny music videos featuring dudes shooting hoops, to the constant coverage of university basketball on the sports channel “Balls” (officially the best name for a sporting channel ever, their slogan.. “We’ve Got Them”). You can tell these people love their basketball. Why? I’ll tell you why. The standard of local basketball (at least the last few games I’ve been watching) can be described as average at best (picture Brian Scalabrine dominating in the post). It’s seriously no way near the standard of the NBL. But you know what? They pack out those stadiums and everyone is going nuts. Several times while watching the telecast it actually made me feel really sad – Australian basketball used to be like that. I used to rock up to Spectors and Magic games with my NBL basketball card collection and big wavy hand thingies. I used to dance around in the crowd when Robert Rose and Leroy Trimmingham were carving it up. Don’t remember those days? Maybe this will jolt your memory…
It didn’t matter than our own game was nowhere near the NBA standard – it was fun and the other 10,000 people in the stadium knew it. That’s the sense you get when watching the local Philippines basketball. The standard isn’t great, you won’t see alley-oops and faultless turnaround J’s. But it doesn’t matter. The fans love it, it’s infectious, and the players thrive on it. I hope the NBL sees those days again.
I’ve been working with a few guys from Houston and naturally I was interested to know how closely they followed the Rockets. Their responses surprised me a little. “Oh.. I don’t really follow the NBA… I’m more of an Astros fan”. Fair enough. I asked the other guys. “I don’t really support a team… I just like watching some of the players, like Kobe”. For both these guys, the Rockets were their third or fourth favorite sporting team from their home town (although it was interesting to know they both immediately knew who Patty Mills was, which gave them a little more credibility in my eyes). I would have thought there would be few NBA cities with more promise for the upcoming season than Houston. “You know… you guys have a big shot this year… pulling Artest in the off season. It’s gonna be a great year for the Rockets”, I said. “Yeah… let’s just see if we get out of the first round this year, ok?”. I think I was starting to understand. This was a team scarred with playoff failure for a long time. Never mind the last few years with T-Mac, you can go right back to 03-04 in the Stevie Franchise days… these Rockets have been there or thereabouts for half a decade. I can see why they’re wearing thin on the fans from city that used to be Clutch.
Speaking about being scarred with playoff failure, I was thinking about my Pistons in the shower the other day as I often do. I can tell you I honestly hold no expectations for the Pistons this year (hearing Sheed reportedly say “It’s over man” after game 6 against the Celtics doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence). Since 2005 I have gone into every season expecting at least a Finals appearance, whereas this season it’s a blank canvas for me. I keep telling myself we’re entering a rebuilding phase which is really just to try and make me feel better when we get knocked out of the playoffs again. But when we do (and yes, we will… unless a trade is made the Detroit Pistons will NOT be your 2009 NBA Champions), can there be any doubt that this Pistons team will have officially earned itself the title of “Most Underachieving Team of the Past Decade”? That may sound weighty, but go with me…
I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Pistons make the Eastern Conference Finals again. The slow decline of Chauncey/Rasheed will more than be made up for with the rise of Rodney Stuckey (could explode out of his socks this season… legit 6th Man of the Year candidate), Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell. Of course just like every season, no one will tip us to finish even in the top two – the geniuses from ESPN gave us zero chance. If the Pistons do bow out in the Conference Finals it will make it seven straight Conf Finals appearances. How could they not be the most underachieving team of the past decade with only one title in seven straight conference finals appearances? You might argue that winning one title by default prevents them being labeled “underachieving”, a fair point, but name me one other team who has been more underachieving the past 5-10 years?
The Dallas Mavericks? Yeah they’d be close, but they’ve probably had only two seasons where they were serious title chances (Finals vs Miami in ’06, the 67 wins in ’07) whereas the Pistons have had five (Title in ’04, Finals vs Spurs in ’05, 64 wins in ’06, unforgivable collapse against Cavs in ’07, beaten by Celts in ’08). I’m not so sure 1/5 is any better than 0/2. The Pistons have had the luxury of guaranteeing a top-two finish out East the past five years (thanks to a weak conference), and even when they finished #2 (behind Miami in ’05 and Celtics in ’08) they never appeared that much inferior to the #1 teams. The Mavs on the other hand have had to deal with all the powerhouses out West, year after year, month after month (although to be fair to the Pistons, they never embarrassed themselves on the scale the Mavs did against the Warriors last year).
I hate the “underachiever” tag in sports. In my opinion its one of the most stinging criticisms you can level at a team or individual. It’s basically saying, “Hey, you guys were good… but you were never quite good enough”. It’s worse than that, it’s a death toll. “You guys were good… but you were never quite good enough… and now you’ve missed your window you won’t be good for a long time”. All fans know the nature of pro-sports. You miss that window and you might be waiting another generation. It’s the realisation every Essendon fan had to deal with after the Bombers dominated the AFL from 1999-2001 (and I mean thoroughly dominated, just ten losses over three seasons) but only had one premiership to show for it. It’s the tag that will be affixed to the Saints when they bow out of the Finals tomorrow – the fact that team has not made a Grand Final in the past five years, with that list, is ridiculous. Underachievers. The Detroit Pistons can still bask in the glory of their ’04 Championship Trophy, but that glow is fading. Another year of disappointment and you can start engraving a new trophy – “Detroit Pistons: NBA Underachievers of the Past Decade”.
There’s been some interesting news out of the Lakers camp recently. Firstly Kobe decides against finger surgery. This one puzzles me. I understand him not wanting to put a dent in the Lakers plans at aiming for a title, but wasn’t that the point of holding off surgery early in the year? To keep the momentum going for the playoffs? From what I’ve read Kobe would need a six week recovery, which would put his comeback somewhere in the second week of the season. Even if Kobe misses the first entire month, will it really matter for the Lakers? I can only assume two things: 1) Kobe’s finger is not hurting him that much and has zero effect on his ability to play basketball, and 2) The Lakers are really serious about this season. I mean, really serious. I’m guessing their #1 objective is to get home-court advantage, and realizing the toughness of the competition out West, they know they’ll need Kobe for every one of those 82 games to get it. (EDIT: My bad, his estimated recovery time was 12 weeks which would put his comeback at mid-December, missing a possible 6 weeks of games)
The other bit of news is that Andrew Bynum is 100% and feeling better than ever. I was thinking, Bynum is probably the most important player in the entire league this upcoming season. Name me one player who could be more responsible from turning a title-contender into a clear title-favourite? There isn’t one (if you said James Posey I’ll give you one point). If Bynum plays like he was playing during that ridiculous stretch last season the Lakers may hold true to my prediction that they will win 75 games. After losing the Ron Artest stakes the Lakers are now desperately reliant on Bynum providing that defensive toughness, an edge they clearly lacked against the Celtics last Finals. If the Lakers meet the Celtics again in the 2009 Finals with Bynum providing a passive 12-10 the SAME thing as last season will happen. The Celtics will whoop them. But if Bynum becomes that energy guy (remember Ronny Turiaf is no longer a Laker) and can start bullying people in the paint, then the Lakers will get over the line. It’s that simple. It has nothing to do with Kobe (Kobe will be Kobe). Nothing to do with Gasol. Nothing to do with James Posey going to New Orleans. Nothing to do with how healthy Shaq is. Nothing to do with J-Kidd’s aging body. Nothing to do with Lebron, Wade or Elton Brand. Nothing to do with Artest, T-Mac and Yao. It’s all about Andrew Bynum. If he shows up the Lakers will be too good. They will simply overwhelm.
That, or underachieve.