Russell Westbrook deserves to be starting in the all-star game this year.
That is probably the most obvious statement that anyone could ever make in 2017 given the fact that he is having one of the best basketball seasons that I’ve ever seen in my lifetime and is probably a lock for the MVP at this point.
Dude is averaging a triple double. You read that right a triple double. Averaging 30.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Westbrook is literally chasing history.
If he can keep up this historical pace, he will be only the second NBA player ever to pull it off. Following Oscar Robertson in the 1961-62 season.
He should clearly be starting in the backcourt beside James Harden who has completely reinvented himself under new Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and in addition to being one of the best scorers in the association is now one of the best facilitators as well averaging just under a triple double per game at 28.9 points, 11.6 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Not only are they the two best guards in the league this year. You’d be hard pressed to tell me that they aren’t the two best players as well.
But this is not your starting Western Conference backcourt.
Instead joining Harden behind Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard.
In his place will be Steph Curry.
Now I don’t think that Steph Curry isn’t an all star calibre guard. He absolutely is, but he is also now the second option on his team. Kevin Durant has established himself as the man in Golden State and Curry’s numbers have taken a pretty big dip as a result.
His 24.6 points, 6.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game are still solid numbers but a huge dip from his 30.1/6.7/5.4 last season when the Warriors won a record 73 games. A lot of that can also be contributed to his drop in 3 point shooting which has come down to a shade under 40% compared to last year’s 45% efficiency.
Of course, next to Westbrook’s record setting pace, Curry’s numbers are kind of underwhelming.
But this is all the all-star game. The starters aren’t really determined by who the best players at each position are in terms of numbers or any other objective criteria, but by a fan vote. It’s essentially a popularity contest.
That’s why Curry is there instead of Westbrook.
It’s why DeMar DeRozan is a starter in the East over Isaiah Thomas too, actually. DeRozan had all of Canada tweeting votes for him, while Thomas just had sensible basketball fans.
That one observation could get me kicked out of Toronto. But I digress.
The Golden State Warriors are by far the most popular team in the NBA right now. I mean those Bulls turned Lakers turned Cavs turned Heat fans had to go to some bandwagon right? You could do a lot worse than the winningest team in NBA history.
The Warriors are so popular that on a recent visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia I saw more Curry and Durant knock off jerseys than either mainstay LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Loads of them. In Cambodia.
I also saw a lot of Larry Bird jerseys but that’s a story for another time.
In the face of that level of global appeal and coming off a second straight MVP and being on the best regular season team in NBA history (could have been the undisputed best team ever if they didn’t blow that 3-1 lead), it’s not hard to see why Curry was chosen.
It’s a popularity contest.
Basketball fans, to their credit, do tend to get it right more than other fans. You won’t see any John Scott stories in the NBA, but you will see things like Curry over Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony being a starter long after he should have been as in last year (playing in the New York market helps him a lot, so did the East being dog shit for years) or Yao Ming getting voted as a starter in 2011 despite being injured for almost a year with foot ankle injuries that ultimately ended his career (the Chinese LOVE basketball).
The fans largely got it right this year. Beyond the Curry for Westbrook snub you can’t argue with Harden, Davis, Westbrook and Leonard.
In the East, the fans went above and beyond by sending young stars Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo (another player eyeing NBA history as he looks to be only the fifth player in NBA history – after Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James – to lead his team in all five statistical categories) to join LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. DeRozan over Thomas is slightly suspect but even that came down to a tie breaker.
Yet the talking heads in sports media will scream and howl and curse about it. Generally just to fill the 24/7 sports news cycle that fuels a seemingly endless stream on garbage hot take shows on ESPN, Fox Sports and other outlets.
Of course, most of those people are complete and utter hypocrites.
You see, the people screaming Westbrook was “robbed” (even though he kind of was) after another player was voted in by fans fair and square are the same ones who screamed and howled to “rob” a player who was overwhelmingly voted in by fans and was also much better statistically than the media’s choice of his all-star spot way back in 2003.
The player who the media conspired to rob of his rightful spot in this case was Vince Carter. The player who they wanted to replace him with was Michael Jordan.
I was reminded of this story on a 15 hour plane ride from Montreal to Beijing when I was a lot of time to read. A lot of time. Too much time even.
One of the books I polished off on my flight was Michael Leahy’s excellent 2004 book When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback which chronicles Jordan’s ill-fated, ill-advised, legacy tarnishing comeback with the Washington Wizards for two seasons at age 38.
Seriously he rode off into his second retirement with the perfect ending to his career, hitting the final shot of the NBA Finals (on a push off mind you) to secure the sixth championship and second three-peat for the Chicago Bulls.
End scene. Ride off into the sunset. Hollywood could not have conceived a better ending.
For most that would be enough. To end a career on the highest of high notes and be remembered as one of, if not the greatest players ever set foot on a basketball court.
But most people aren’t Michael Jordan.
Jordan isn’t the guy we like to think he is. He’s not the dude in the Gatorade commercials. He’s not the guy having a laugh with Charlie Sheen in those Hanes ads. He’s definitely not the guy who fought space aliens with the Looney Tunes.
Michael Jordan is kind of an asshole.
Don’t believe me? Let me tell you one of my favourite Michael Jordan stories to set the stage.
Once upon a time there was an ultra racist governor of North Carolina (both the state where Jordan grew up and where he rocketed to stardom with the Tar Heels) by the name of Jesse Helms. So racist, in fact, that vehemently opposed the Civil Rights Act calling it the “most dangerous piece of legislation in American history”. He then followed that up by spearheading campaigns to prevent black people from being able to vote via fraudulent mail outs, opposed any form of affirmative action, vehemently opposed having any black judge on the Supreme Court and filibustered for 16 hours in order to prevent North Carolina to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a state holiday.
Now in 1990, Harvey Gantt opposed Helms in his for re-election. Helms fought dirty by running a series of ads equating Gantt’s candidacy with affirmative action taking jobs from white North Carolina citizens. The tactic kept Helms base strong and Gantt turned to the only man in North Carolina with enough clout to swing the election: Michael Jordan.
His response: “Republicans wear sneakers too.”
That’s why I will always be a bigger fan of players like LeBron James, Magic Johnson or Bill Russell who stood for something when it mattered.
Don’t be like Mike.
Beyond being incredibly self-centred, Jordan is also an adrenaline junkie seeking highs from gambling all night, betting on golf games or any other way he can compete with others at the highest level.
It’s no wonder then that in 2001 when he found himself a basketball executive in the Washington Wizards organization that he was incredibly restless. Being an executive means that you get to take credit for a team’s failures while the players on the court get to take it for the team’s successes.
Like Jordan used to when he played for the Bulls while belittling Jerry Krause, the man who built the Bulls dynasty, at every chance he got.
Krause was a savvy GM who surrounded Jordan with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and had the foresight and ability to add pieces that made the Bulls into a championship dynasty.
But the narrative most Jordan sycophants will tell you is that Michael Jordan has six rings. Not the Bulls but Michel Jordan.
Jordan didn’t draft Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant though. He didn’t make deals to add pieces to put the Bulls over the top or hire Phil Jackson or anything like that. Krause did. But Jordan hated Krause and got all the credit and belittled the work Krause did because Jordan thought it was easy.
He quickly found out otherwise in Washington. Jerry Krause gave the Chicago Bulls Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan gave the Wizards Kwame Brown who he took 1st overall in 2001 ahead of Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Zach Randolph and Joe Johnson.
Not cutting it as an executive and not getting the adrenaline or ego boost out of sitting in an office that he did on the court, Jordan was restless and unhappy until he saw his friend, hockey star Mario Lemieux, return to his sport years after his retirement to an executive life.
At age 38, Michael Jordan was coming back.
He hired long-time Jordan sycophant Doug Collins to coach the Wizards and scheduled a series of work outs against current NBA players and college standouts. The comeback was immediately problematic and should have been aborted from the start when Ron Artest broke Jordan’s ribs in a scrimmage therefore setting his timeline back for getting into game shape back by almost a month.
But Jordan persevered and was going to go through with it regardless of what time and his body told him.
Remember this wasn’t the same Michael Jordan we last saw hitting that winning shot over Byron Russell (push off) to win his final championship. He was now three years older and had a permanently damaged finger on his shooting hand from slicing the tendon in a cigar cutter mishap while on post-retirement vacation.
In true Michael Jordan form, he celebrated his first regular season game back (after sitting most of the preseason with bad knees) by staying up all night gambling in a Connecticut resort town. Unlike the Michael Jordan of old, there was no miraculous “flu game”, the Wizards got pounded and Jordan looked old.
That set the tone for the entirety of Jordan’s first season back.
This was a desperate version of the one-time world’s most famous athlete who could be recognized just by his silhouette which adorned his own clothing line. That symbol was now bigger than the man as the game had continued to evolve and pass him by in his absence.
In his place stood young stars and future icons and they were all going to be coming for him.
Basketball now belonged to Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. They were younger, faster, more athletic and were capable of executing every Jordan move that they studied as kids with their own new twists due to their younger athleticism. They all got their turns pounding Jordan and the Wizards.
For his part, Michael wasn’t terrible. He scored 22.9 points per game to lead his team and added 6.1 rebounds and over a steal per game which were team highs as well. Not bad for a 38 year old. But well below the excellent of a man with the all-time highest PPG in NBA history at 30.1 for his career.
Unfortunately his first season back saw his lowest game total since he played only 17 the first time he came out of retirement. Jordan’s body gave out at the 60th game due to a cartilage tear in his right knee. Large due to the fact that Doug Collins was allowing Jordan to bully him into playing the aged superstar a whopping 34.9 per night. When you consider Jordan spent the last seven games of his season coming off the bench and playing for 20 minutes a game that means Doug Collins was playing a 38-39 year old 40+ minutes some nights.
Jordan loomed large over the Wizards much to the detriment of their young and developing players.
Michael Jordan has a history of terrorizing his teammates.
In Chicago he bullied a young Scottie Pippen and diminished his achievements in interviews to make sure that everyone – especially Scottie – knew that Pippen would always be the Robin to MJ’s Batman. He rode Horace Grant so hard that Grant bolted out for Orlando as soon as his contract would let him. Grant still talks about the bullying he received in interviews today. He punched Will Perdue and Steve Kerr in the face in two separate incidents. Both totally unprovoked by all accounts. He messed with veteran centre Bill Cartwright so much that the big man had to threaten Jordan with career-threatening level bodily harm to get him to back off.
This bad behaviour continued in Washington. Jordan punished Kwame Brown – who in no way was ready for the NBA out of high school – mercilessly. Calling him soft, using a homosexual slur that I won’t repeat here and at one point making the former number one pick – that Michael Jordan himself chose against better judgement – break down in tears. It didn’t matter that Jordan put Brown in a horrible position by making a bad pick. He either – directly or through sycophant Doug Collins – ripped the rookie so badly that he would never really recover.
Jordan also clashed with young star Rip Hamilton. Initially talking a good game about sharing responsibilities with Rip, only to hog, minutes, touches and through the younger star under the bus during Wizards losses.
Courtney Alexander, Bobby Simmons and Tyronn Lue didn’t fair any better during the career stunting experience in Washington.
The Wizards sputtered to a 37-45 finish and failed to make the playoffs.
Everyone but Michael Jordan took the blame. Even though the Wizards were a much more exciting, fast breaking team with Jordan out and Hamilton and Alexander leading the way on offense.
Alexander was dumped to the Charlotte Hornets for a pick and Rip Hamilton was traded to the Detroit Pistons (where he would go on to be a key piece of their 2004 championship squad) as part of a six player deal that brought Jerry Stackhouse to Washington.
The idea being that since Jordan was coming back, Stackhouse could start at the shooting guard spot while Jordan came off the bench and then move to the 3 when they shared the floor. Stackhouse was thought to also compliment the slower, plodding style the Wizards had to play to accommodate their centrepiece pushing 40.
Larry Hughes was also added during free agency as was Jordan friend and bodyguard Charles Oakley.
None of this worked. Jordan’s ego and Collins sycophancy lead to his bench role lasting all of six games and he’d start 67 during the season. Stackhouse spent most of his time playing a position he wasn’t comfortable with and although he did lead the team in scoring, was still cast in a second fiddle role to Jordan.
The team was further hurt by Collins and Jordan playing older, slower players over younger, more dynamic ones. Most notably Larry Hughes over Tyronn Lue which really hurt Lue’s development over the long haul.
The team was a mess and limped to an identical 37-45 record. The only highlight being the farewell tour Jordan embarked on in his third and final last season.
Part of that farewell tour was supposed to include a last hurrah at the 2003 NBA All-Star game in Atlanta.
All of the preparations were made. The league wanted to make sure that the entire weekend centred around Michael Jordan and Mariah Carey was brought in for a halftime show that would focus entirely on Jordan’s basketball career.
There was only one problem. The fans didn’t cooperate. Jordan was not voted as an all-star starter.
The East starting line-up was made up of young, dynamic players who captured fans imaginations and put on far better performances than a broke down 40 year old could at this point.
The West starters –got all got more votes than Jordan – were Kobe Bryant (who got more than anyone), Steve Francis, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and then-rookie Yao Ming.
The starting five was Tracy McGrady (who lead the league in scoring that year with 32.1 PPG which was higher than MJ’s career average and higher than Jordan had averaged in ten years at that point), Allen Iverson who had cemented him as the NBA’s premiere guard and one of its most exciting talents, with Detroit Pistons’ juggernaut Big Ben Wallace and the Pacers’ Jermaine O’Neal.
Then there was Vince Carter.
The Toronto Raptors superstar who was dubbed “Air Canada” as a reference to both the arena the Raptors played in but also the fact that he could fly like a young Michael “Air” Jordan and also played north of the border. Carter cemented himself as a superstar for life after winning the 2000 dunk contest – largely considered the greatest in NBA history – with dunks that were at the time mind blowing, revolutionary and far beyond what anyone had ever seen at that point in time.
Carter was explosive. So much so that he was described using a Nas lyric: half man, half amazing.
He was also bringing it on the court as well as he was the driving force behind making the young Raptors respectable and really was probably the biggest reason why the NBA was successful in Toronto but failed in Vancouver.
Carter was such a phenomenal talent and such a treat to watch that he had been the top all-star vote getter in three straight seasons leading into the 2003 affair in which he slipped to third (behind Kobe Bryant and former teammate Tracy McGrady) due to being in the midst of an injury marred season.
Carter was the fans choice, but the media had other ideas.
The charge was lead by Jordan cheerleaders such as Michael Wilbon, Skip Bayless and Ahmad Rashad to have Vince Carter give up his spot so that Michael Jordan could be properly feted.
Even one of my all-time favourite players, analysts and human beings, Bill Walton, got in on the act.
The whole thing was ridiculous. 26 year old Vince Carter was an infinitely better player and infinitely more deserving of an all-star selection than a 40 year old Michael Jordan and the fans knew it even if the media and league didn’t.
In their last head-to-head meeting – before Carter’s injury – in the 2002-03 season opener, Carter dazzled fans with some creative in game dunks and a dominating performance over the Wizards defense. Jordan came off the bench, scored 8 points in 24 minutes and literally got laughed at by Toronto fans.
In Jordan’s last game against a Carter-less Raptors team, he was outplayed by Rafer Alston and Damone Brown, who were on ten day contracts from the D-League, and an injury ravaged Raptors team embarrassed the Wizards.
Despite all of this the media pushed the narrative that Carter must give up his spot.
Michael Jordan could have stopped all of this pressure on Vince Carter with one sentence but it never came. He could have encouraged the media to stop pushing for Carter to give his spot to him, but he never did.
Michael Jordan was never known for giving up an ego boost.
With mounting pressure and the league having already planned a Jordan-centric wankfest, Carter eventually gave in. Even though he should never have had to.
The result was that Jordan got to start and gave the kind of tepid and plodding performance that you would expect from a 40 year old trying to keep up with the best basketball players in the world.
Kevin Garnett would be the one stealing the show and Jordan’s shine on that night.
So when you see and hear the usual talking heads ranting and raving about how Russell Westbrook was screwed and the fans were idiots for not voting him into the all-star game. Keep in mind that a lot of these same people were wailing and gnashing their teeth to force Vince Carter, in his prime, to give up his spot to a 40 year old Michael Jordan.
The fans aren’t always right and they weren’t with the Curry over Westbrook selection.
But they were in 2003 and the media did everything they could to reverse it.