“Now I am become Death. The destroyer of hoop dreams.” – The Slim Reaper (via Oppenheimer)
We always knew Kevin Durant was good. Last season he joined the 50-40-90 Club (50% Field Goals 40% 3pt and 90% Free Throw)- an elite group containing only five other players to put up such huge numbers over the course of an 82 games season. This impressive feat however was quickly forgotten by pundits and fans alike as Russell Westbrook’s knee buckled, ending Oklahoma’s championship aspirations while LeBron led the Heat to glory.
We’ve known Kevin Durant was a special talent ever since he entered the league in 2007 and marvelled at the effortless way in which he scored the ball. But it wasn’t until now, in January 2014, that the basketball public finally began to understand just how damn special Durant is and how scary he has become.
When Thunder management quietly announced in December that Russell Westbrook would be having further surgery on his troublesome knee and would not return until after the All Star break, it was widely assumed that Oklahoma would fall away from the race to secure the number one seed in the West. Without Westbrook’s dynamism, the argument went, the Thunder offence would grind to halt and too much burden would fall on Durant’s shoulders.
The argument was only half right. The burden has indeed fallen on Durant but rather than crack under the pressure, Durant has elevated his game to a level that few have ever seen and in the process ensured that Oklahoma have not missed a beat. Durant’s barrage began with two 48 point games against Minnesota and Utah respectively, but since Minnesota are unpredictable at best and Utah against all odds defeated Oklahoma, no one really took any notice and simply shrugged it off as Durant getting his points.
It wasn’t until a week later when Durant exploded for a career high 54 points against fellow Western contender Golden State, that people sat up and began paying attention.
Epic back to back performances against Portland and San Antonio soon followed. In both games Durant ruthlessly stared down his defender deep into the last quarter and drained cold blooded threes. Even as Nicolas Batum, and Tony Parker the following night, stretched desperately to contest the shot, everyone knew as soon as the ball left Durant’s hands that it was going in- again and again and again.
Not content with destroying Western contenders, Durant has dished out some pain to the Atlanta Hawks by nailing a contested game winner with three defenders trying in vain to cover him.
Yet it isn’t just that Kevin Durant has been putting up ridiculous numbers in the points column; the NBA is littered with fond memories of scorers getting onto a hot streak. What makes this stretch different is the efficiency with which Durant is playing. Not only is he averaging 36.5 points a game for the month of January but he’s doing it whilst maintaining a ridiculous field goal percentage of 53%. Normally hot streaks of this kind are accompanied by strong doses of ball hogging and shot chucking but such a high field goal percentage indicates a shooter letting the game come to him and choosing the right shot rather than the first shot.
What makes Durant so dangerous isn’t simply his height and shooting touch; it’s the variety of ways in which he can score. Watch those clips and you’ll begin to see the arsenal that Durant has at his disposal- Drives to the hoop, isolation plays, stepback jumpers, catch and shoot opportunities, post ups, finishing through contact. Not only can he seemingly score at will but he relishes the big moment. Even as a bewildered Portland defence sent a double team, Durant, effortlessly hit a clutch three pointer with a hand in his face. Ditto for San Antonio, Golden State and Atlanta. Put simply, Kevin Durant was built to score the basketball and he’s only 25 years old. What will he be producing when he enters his prime?
Another big test for Durant looms as he faces LeBron James and the Miami Heat this week. In the past James’ strength and defensive prowess have contained Durant’s scoring capacity so it will be interesting to see what Durant conjure in what could be a finals preview.
As the NBA season enters its second half, Durant has stolen a march on his competition for the MVP trophy and the Thunder are now certain to be in the reckoning for the top seed in the West. Of course, Oklahoma’s ultimate success in the playoffs still very much hinges on the state of Russell Westbrook’s knee but assuming Westbrook returns to action, the Thunder look to be very good shape. With Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb providing scoring punch off the bench, the continued growth of Serge Ibaka, the hopeful return of Westbrook and Durant in the form of his life, Oklahoma seem set for a deep playoff run.
For now talk of playoffs and championships can be put on the backburner. One of the greatest offensive players in the game’s history is scoring at a stratospheric rate and mesmerising fans and opponents alike. For now let’s just sit back and enjoy what the Slim Reaper is delivering.
Long may he reign.
The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club
It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in
If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.
The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.
It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.
Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.
Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).
It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.
Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.
The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.
The Long Goodbye: A Spurs fan’s final salute to Kawhi Leonard
Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
The saga of Kawhi Leonard is over and while his signing to the Clippers means that two fanbases are left incredibly disappointed, there’s one group that is making their overdue final goodbyes. For Spurs fans like myself, it is clear that while the Board Man is a special player, he is a product of the current generation of players- loyal to themselves. It’s OK, I’ve resigned myself to moving on because I was happy that he won in Toronto, happy for everyone involved (except for Drake) because I knew that as soon as he signed for the Clippers, his legacy would no longer be built on unbreakable bonds but rather on personal pursuit alone. And that was never the trait of the silver and black. At times during this saga, I’ve felt like Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 movie The Long Goodbye, blinded by what I initially thought was loyalty. But after living through Kawhi sitting out, his demands for leaving, and ultimately, his winning a ring for the North, I’ve realized that in today’s NBA, allegiance, integrity, and trust are the exception, not the norm.
One of my earliest memories of being a Spurs fan was the ragtag group of players assembled for the 1992 season. It was early in my Spurs fandom and only two years into the storied career of David Robinson. The Admiral would become my favorite Spur, and ultimately, my favorite NBA player of all-time, but it was clear early on that he needed help. While Sean Elliott, Willie Anderson, and Avery Johnson were nice pieces, it was memories of wayward Rod Strickland passes that would ultimately encapsulate that time as an NBA fan. But the truth is, it was an important learning phase for any true NBA fan- that success comes with smart moves and dedicated, loyal, and hard working players who forever would put team above the name on the back of the jersey.
The years that followed was a mix of frustration and hope. The team gelled, especially for the 1994-1995 season where the team finished 1st in the Midwest (62-20) and David Robinson would end up capturing the league MVP after a dominant season (27 ppg, 10 reb, 3 blks). It was all awash come playoff time where vivid memories of Hakeem Olajuwon “dream shaking” The Admiral out of his shoes still haunt me to this day.
Perseverance paid off. Both for the Spurs and to fans like myself. Then general manager Gregg Popovich took on the additional responsibility of running the ship from the sideline, David Robinson was never traded, he rarely complained, and the miracle of the 1997 NBA Draft changed the fortunes of the franchise forever.
The years that followed were graced by the very best kind of basketball for basketball purists. While the league continued to flourish under the star power and glamour of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Spurs quietly put together championship pedigree devoid of front page drama, superstar whinging and a sense of loyalty to the city and team that has all but become extinct in today’s NBA. My generation of Spurs fans are lucky to have lived through 5 championships, but also lucky that we were able to stay true to a team that had loyalty in their DNA. We were blessed that Tim Duncan got to take the court with players Tony Parker and Manu. Both absolutely crucial to the titles and the teams, both exhibited the kind of character seemingly rare today.
Kawhi was supposed to be the next titan of the team. We saw what was possible with his captaincy and Finals MVP run for the 2014 ring. He was supposed to continue the Spurs legacy. What we got instead was an endless whinge-fest, culminating in his sitting out all but 9 games of the 2017-2018 season. The mysterious ailment that plagued him, his battle with Spurs management, his desire to “go home” to California, and his distance from other Spurs players led to so much unnecessary frustration. In March of 2018, Manu was quoted as saying; “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
It’s the kind of distraction that my 7th-grade basketball coach would have found embarrassing. Kawhi did the Spurs dirty, and while fans often project the burden of legacy on to players even when they never set out to be, it is the unfortunate fall out of being a great player- especially one that at the time, seem to fit the mold. Kawhi has now done the Raptors dirty, and if he wins a title in Clipper-land, he will most likely do them dirty too. It’s his MO, it’s his way, and really, in today’s 2K video game NBA, it’s OK because that’s just the way it goes.
Team basketball is dead, superteam basketball is now the play. Raptors fans are playing it cool, saying that the one title was more than they could have ever asked for. But really, if I was a Raptors fan I would be disappointed because Toronto seemed like such a great place for him to be. A good coach, a good front office, an adoring nation, everything he said he was unhappy with in San Antonio. If I was a Raptors fan, I would be disappointed not because the team didn’t do what the Clippers did and mortgage their future for a chance for more, but because Kawhi proved that there’s no such thing as loyalty- and that it’s OK today as long as there’s some transient success. Perhaps I have been spoiled by Spurs basketball. Spoiled by Popp’s team-first mentality where the glory of championship parades is not the end, but the next beginning. If I was a Clippers fan I would be wary. Not just because Kawhi isn’t as superhuman as we’ve all made him to be. But because the Clippers DID have to mortgage an entire future for Kawhi and Paul George to battle it out against LeBron, against AD, against an entire city that will always hold the Lakers above the Clippers. If I was a Clippers fan, I would be wary of Kawhi’s new 3-year, $103 million dollar deal (with the option to opt-out in two). Not because it means he’s positioned himself for that supermax pay off, but because potentially, he could weasel his way out of the Clippers in two years too.
Am I old and a little bitter? Maybe. I’m grateful of Kawhi’s contributions to that 2014 title- his performance during those finals, especially after the bitter disappointment of the previous year, proved that he was more than capable of being the next Spurs great. He came alive in Game 3, proved his MVP status in Games 4 and 5, and cemented what seemed like the future for the franchise. But in the end, what stands out more for me is the letdown that Kawhi just wasn’t up to par with the Spurs giants that he was supposed to follow. Am I a product of my generation? Yes, just like Kawhi and many of today’s younger generation of fans are a product of theirs.
He could have been placed next to The Iceman, The Admiral, and The Big Fundamental, instead, Kawhi becomes another in the long line of a new generation of NBA superstars beholden to no one but themselves, playing their former teams and fanbases for fools. I feel like Phillip Marlowe, manipulated, trust broken, hearing Kawhi telling me that “maybe I’ll never learn, maybe I’m a born loser”. Maybe he’s right, maybe I’m just waiting for my harmonica moment. It’s the way things go today.