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CEO of the Street Basketball Association Blogs for SuperSport / MultiChoice 
 

by Jerrod Mustaf  /  www.supersport.com

 

Thank You, Mr. MANDELA

This week, NBA Africa joins the world in extending our gratitude for the commitment to resistance, resolve, global reconciliation, and the rebuilding of South Africa’s constitution by Nelson Mandela.

In the late eighties, there was a protest movement across college campuses in America to demand divestment in South Africa and a boycott of corporations doing business in South Africa.

I marched with the National Pan-Hellenic Council and others through the campus of the University of Maryland and felt a kindred spirit with my fellow brothers and sisters fighting the unjust apartheid regime in their Homeland.

During that time, I learned about the heroism and incarceration of the revolutionary Nelson Mandela. Because of his commitment and dedication to deliver freedom, justice and equality to every South African citizen, regardless of class, race, or tribe he joined Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as my personal heroes.

Historically, Black Americans have been reluctant to identify with Africans, but Nelson Mandela forged a solid link of empathy, camaraderie, and brotherhood & sisterhood, reconnecting us as one family in the fight for equality, civic and human rights.

Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, which resembled the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South, resonated with the masses of Black America, who had remained generally prejudicial towards Africans.

As a former boxer, Mandela believed in the theory that sports not only built character, but it also had a unique way of negotiating relationships with adversaries, offering solidarity for those competing under one flag.

His profound support of the Springbok rugby team during the 1995 World Rugby Cup, hosted by South Africa, helped bind the multiracial “Rainbow Nation” and allowed the spirit of reconciliation to grow.

This week, we stop to give honour and pay homage to a man who gave his life of service to humanity and who taught us the power of forgiveness, and how to live a more peaceful co-existence with those who appear unfamiliar.

Twenty-four years following my anti-apartheid marching in College Park, Maryland, I am thankful for the opportunity to write this blog for the South African-based MultiChoice corporation.

With all due respect, I salute you.

Canada Now, NIGERIA on Deck

With close to a dozen players on NBA rosters, including the top pick in this year’s NBA draft, and the presumptive number 1 pick in the upcoming 2014 draft, Andrew Wiggins, doing his apprenticeship at Kansas, Canada is finally relevant to America in basketball.

To further raise the profile of basketball in Canada, acclaimed rapper Drake was recently appointed “Global Ambassador” for the Toronto Raptors. This ambassadorship speaks volumes of the efforts that are being made to capitalise on the resurgence of basketball in Canada with the fusion of hip-hop to the emergence of youthful NBA prodigies who have exploded on the scene.

Players like Anthony Bennett, Kelly Olynyk, Tristian Thompson and Andrew Wiggins have accelerated the pace of basketball prominence that Canadian-born Dr James Naismith envisioned when he found the sport.

For as much as Canada has our attention in the basketball world presently, Nigeria is the nation on deck that will herald a new era of basketball phenoms into the NBA.

Not only is Nigeria well represented in the NBA with young talent such as Festus Ezeli of Golden State Warriors and Al-Farouk Aminu of the New Orleans Pelicans, but also boasts foreign-born Nigerian first-round draft picks, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic and Giannis Adetokuno of the Milwaulkee Bucks.

The NCAA is saturated with Nigerian talent throughout the country. The 2013 Parade Magazine National High School Player of the Year, Semi Ojeleye is a freshman star at Duke, Chris Obekpa of St Johns University is a projected 2015 first round draftee, and seven-foot center Tonye Jekiri of University of Miami is set to join the NBA elite within two years.

But the most promising Nigerian-bred talent playing in America may be center Jahlil Okafor, the number 1 ranked prospect in the 2014 high school class, and fellow 2014 classmate Chinua Anuaku, who is University of Louisville’s prized recruit.

The basketball world is recognising the tremendous potential of NBA talent in Nigeria and the strategic alliances made this summer by the Nigerian Basketball Federation (NBBF) should expedite Nigeria’s entrance into their “Golden Age of Basketball”.

Operation stay HEALTHY

If you thought the 2011 NBA season that witnessed a number of star players on the injured list was an aberration, you're wrong. Most fans and experts attributed the rash of injuries during that season to the fact that most players refrained from serious training to prevent injury during the owner-imposed lockout and the limited preseason time.

Everyone assumed that players' safety was sacrificed by the NBA for condensing a 66-game schedule into a mere four-month season. The most significant injury that season was the ACL or MCL tear, which claimed former MVP Derrick Rose, All-Rookie Ricky Rubio, Knick Imam Shumpert and All-star Zach Randolph. Other All-Star-calibre players needing season-ending surgery that season included Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford, Baron Davis and Jeremy Lin.

This season has been even more devastating as the number and quality of players lost to injury has been exaggerated.

The Los Angeles Lakers, who were expected to struggle early with Superstar Kobe Bryant recovering from an Achilles injury, were an early surprise with a team of spare parts playing .500. Incredibly, the Lakers subsequently lost all three point guards on their roster within weeks and superstar Kobe to a knee injury after his return from the Achilles injury, all to significant time this season. It's nothing less than a miracle that this Lakers team can manage to field a competitive NBA "five" with the daily roster adjustments being made due to injuries.

All-star guard Rajon Rondo of Boston continues to undergo rehab from his major knee surgery and has not played yet this season.

All-NBA point guards Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose both had recent knee surgeries again to derail their comebacks after returning this season from previous season-ending knee surgeries. After signing these players to multi-million dollar contracts, their respective teams will be extremely cautious to jeopardise the investments by bringing them back too soon from their respective multiple knee surgeries.

Brooklyn Nets All-Star center Brook Lopez had season-ending foot surgery this week, and Atlanta Hawks All-Star centre Al Horford was lost to a torn chest muscle.

The struggling Memphis Grizzlies lost All-Star center Marc Gasol for significant time due to a knee injury, and their troubles were magnified with their firing of longtime coach Lionel Hollins last summer, who at least could have provided continuity and familiarity with their systems during Gasol's recovery. Fortunately, the centre's knee didn't require surgery, but his predicted eight-week absence is evidenced by Memphis's collapse into the bottom of the Southwest Division.

And the latest injury that may alter the balance of power in the Western Conference is the dislocated shoulder of All-NBA point guard Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The teams that sit atop the conference standings are the teams that have been relatively healthy and who maintain a deep rotation of nine to ten players.

Just last season, ornery coach Gregg Popovich of the Spurs was criticised and heavily fined for resting his veteran players in a road game against the Heat as well on back-to-back games. But this season, teams like the Miami Heat, ironically, have adopted Pop's method of keeping players rested and healthy and find themselves in the hunt for playoff home-court advantage.

As players become bigger, stronger, faster, and train harder, expect injuries to increase. Fifteen to twenty years ago, players didn't enter the NBA with as many miles on their legs. Now players as young as nine years old play as many as 150 competitive games annually, with additional hours per week on personal training. The accumulation of wear and tear on the knees, joints and tendons will factor into the durability and longevity of players and we are seeing teams employ precautions to preserve their investments by restricting playing and on-court time for players in the League.

Look for teams to utilise minute restrictions on star players as the season approaches the mid-season point because health may be more valuable than home-court advantage.

LOVE Is Always Money!

From Lake Oswego, Oregon, to sunny UCLA to the bitter cold in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Kevin Love has always been Money.

Love followed up his phenomenal high school career with an All-American season at the legendary UCLA, where he led the Bruins to the Final Four.

Even though fellow draftees Michael Beasley and OJ Mayo had headlined his talented high school class since middle school, Love was the lone constant presence in championship games.

Love consistently led his high school team to the state finals, his AAU clubs went undefeated for years, and he carried his college team to the Pac-10 championship and Final Four, but slow players with baby fat don’t have NBA execs salivating.

Basketball is the one sport where a premium is on tall, young and unproven talent. In professional basketball, potential holds more value than production.

When you look at Kevin Love, Larry The Cable Guy in a uniform would come to mind before an NBA player. Unlike the ultra-long and athletic rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, who oozes potential, and who probably never played for a significant championship on any level, Kevin produces.

Loves resembles the prototypical slow, burly guy who reminds us of former NBA stiffs Luke Harangody or Mark Madsen.

Some NBA draft experts had compared Love to collegiate All-American Tyler Hansbrough, another power forward, who was projected to play at least 10 solid years in the NBA as a backup.

They both were labelled ‘safe’ picks, who would make the eight-man rotation and join the team without bringing an overflowing entourage from the neighbourhood.

Even Love’s first NBA coach, Randy Wittman, suggested that Love accept his limited ceiling as a solid player, albeit one that ESPN analyst Hubie Brown would refer to as being “very smart”.

Fortunately Love rebuked that casting, and because he was on a poor rebuilding team, he seized the opportunity to prove his critics and supporters wrong about his ability to dominate a flashy game.

Taking his cue from others, Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski of Team USA was reluctant to extend playing time to Love in the 2010 World Championships.

Seemed like Coach K’s aversion to inserting Love into the line-up decreased as Kevin’s distinct knack for scoring and rebounding became decisive for Team USA’s victory.

Following the 2011 NBA season, Kevin was selected as the NBA’s Most Improved Player, but, once again, Love was underestimated, as the Minnesota Timberwolves opted to give Love a four-year contract instead of the well-deserved maximum deal expected.

As his game continues to expand and reach heights never imagined from the chubby bruiser from Lake Oswego, Love is now averaging 26 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per NBA game.

In the last week Love faced the other two players considered as contenders for the top power forward in the NBA, LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffith.

In those contests, Love averaged a whopping 37 points, 17 rebounds and 7.5 assists while ending the conversation of who is the best power forward!

Help the BEAR

“If you see me and a bear fighting, help the bear”. Those were the words of the 4th all-time leading NBA scorer Kobe Bean Bryant. Back in October, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on Kobe, where he referred to this stage of his career as "the last chapter". During the interview, he seemed more excited about conquering this bear of an obstacle and overcoming his horrific injury to evolve as a player than any other season.

We hear the critics getting louder each time the Lakers lose as well as the whispers of the faithful fans as they fall to 1-4 with Kobe in the line-up. And every time I hear the doubters complain about Kobe not being ready, I think of the African fable of the tortoise and the hare and remind those near me that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint.

The NBA season is unlike the 16-game NFL season where every Sunday game can be a season-altering contest. Whereas Washington’s pro football team’s quarterback Robert Griffith III didn’t have the luxury to pace himself back into playing condition following career-threatening surgery, Kobe is doing just that. Kobe is using his first dozen games as his training camp and preseason as he publicly confronts the unknown as to what his body will allow him to achieve.

He is forced to accelerate his conditioning by playing the most demanding position in professional basketball: point guard. But the multiplicity of his roles now as playmaker, facilitator and scorer will abate in a few weeks and allow the Black Mamba to focus singularly on scoring and closing games. The silver lining to him playing ‘point’ is that it allows Kobe to develop better chemistry with the team and learn tendencies and nuances of each new teammate.

Admittedly, his first week back has not been stellar, but I know there aren’t many players as dedicated to the craft as Kobe. His work ethic is legendary and his ambition to be the best is on par with Michael Jordan, so I have no doubt that he will perform at an All-NBA first-team level again. As an NBA precedent to Kobe’s injury, Dominique Wilkins even averaged 30 points per game in the season following his Achilles surgery.

After the NBA All-star weekend in February is when the elite players and contending teams press the gas. Expect Kobe to shift into “go time” after Valentine’s Day and lead his Lakers in the playoffs.

As recently as last season, the Lakers were hovering at 10th place in the competitive Western Conference in March, yet Kobe publicly guaranteed, without an ounce of humility, that his Lakers would make the playoffs. Determined, he led them to a sixth-place finish during the final frantic weeks of the season while DHoward was being courted by various suitors.

The Washington Wizards of Odd

You can make the argument that basketball’s biggest fan just happens to be the USA's Commander-in-Chief… and he only lives a few blocks from the “house that Abe built", the Wizards' home court at the Verizon Centre.

I was fortunate enough to catch a few games at the Verizon Centre while POTUS was in attendance, and the energy from the crowd when he walked in the building was unbelievable every time. So far, I’ve been to all of their home games this season, but I guess POTUS would rather watch the television series Scandal with Michelle, than ride down the block and check out the hometown Wizards. Lol!

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it was no secret that his sports passion was basketball. He is a black American, after all. He made good on his promise to erect a basketball court on the White House lawn to test his modest skills against NBA-calibre players. For some reason, I never received my invite, but was excited for those former peers who did.

With a majority of the NBA stars publicly endorsing a US presidential candidate for the first time in 2008, we expected DC to be the preferred destination for top-tier NBA free agents. Imagine being an NBA star in Washington DC and rubbing elbows with the President and his entourage, who sit courtside ‘dapping you up’ and seek you out for autographed basketballs. Not to mention the possibility of establishing a relationship with POTUS to help ease the transition following pro basketball. The Verizon Centre could be rockin’ like the old Great Western Forum during Showtime if the right talent was assembled and the Wizards could put on their Bullets throwback uniforms to blend those patriotic colors for those home games POTUS may put on his social calendar.

Hold up – somebody pinch me and wake me from this stupor I’m in. This is the Wizards I’m talking about! The only way to make that come true, is to actually build a solid team with a respected coach, and a savvy general manager who could entice quality free agents with the allure of the "First Fan" and a blueprint for winning. Then players would flock to the Capital City like college recruits visit Miami.

Somehow the Wizards are inexplicably married to Ernie Grunfield, who, based on their dull play, must have forgotten he was once the lead actor in the Ernie and Bernie Show in college. The most exciting part of the home games so far has been the youth teams scrimmaging during halftime of the games. Ernie’s tenure as General Manager of the Wizards has been plagued with bad contracts, poor drafting, inconsistency, and lousy trades at the very best.

Ernie was the GM who gave free agent Gilbert Arenas (who opted out of his contract) $111 million following multiple surgeries on his knee. He also drafted a tall, super athletic centre to pair with his ultra fast #1 pick John Wall, who he subsequently traded to Denver for reluctant bruiser Nene. He followed that by trading for another slow unathletic banger, Marcin Gortat, who becomes another poor fit for Wall’s best attribute – speed. Jan Vesley, who has been a first-round bust from the 2010 draft, is more suited to John Wall’s uptempo style, but contrasts with the Wizards' preferred big men who remind us of the 'ole Washington Bullets “Beef Brothers”, Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland.

For all of John Wall’s natural talent, he has not been on a Wizards team suited to him, and hasn't placed in a position to grow as a player. It’s been a collaboration of back-up mismatched players with skill-sets that do not complement each other. And Coach Randy Wittman has not demonstrated that he is the right coach for the team’s franchise player.

Ernie Grunfield’s sub-par record of overseeing this consistently lottery-bound franchise, proves that his time is up in DC.

And John Wall, with his $80-million contract, was completely dominated by fellow number 1 pick Kyrie Irving last Saturday 41-9 – in his own house. This is another glaring example of Grunfield’s lack of vision in evaluating and constructing players and molding a franchise. In Wall’s defense, his coaches have not surrounded him with players to complement his abilities.

And as the final term of basketball’s biggest fan begins to wind down, we will see if the Wizards make the necessary organisational changes to capitalise on this unprecedented position or concede the opportunity to the Mystics with their projected candidate in 2016.

Grass Is Not Always Greener

A lot has been said and written about Dwight Howard leaving the Los Angeles Lakers and joining the Houston Rockets. Howard made it very clear the moment he announced his signing with the Rockets over the summer that he was more interested in smiling and being happy than competing for an NBA championship.

Howard had lobbied passionately to the Lakers' management that he should be the focal point on offense – not five-time NBA champion and fifth-best NBA scorer of all-time, Kobe Bryant.

After signing in Houston, his team of advisors were convinced that Howard would thrive in the middle for the Rockets, where he would be surrounded by shooters, who in turn would be delighted to feed the ball to Howard on the block. This marriage was purported to be basketball's Camelot, with the new best 2-guard in the league, James Harden, willing to sacrifice his 20-plus shots per game to appease Howard – unlike Kobe.

Houston brought in all of their former legends for Howard's introductory press conference: Hakeem Olajuwon, Elvin Hayes, Ralph Sampson and Yao Ming.

A Superman statue outside the Toyota Centre in downtown Houston was commissioned to coincide with the tickertape parade to celebrate the forthcoming championship in June.

Fans embraced the theory that since Hall-of-Fame big man Kevin McHale would be coaching Howard and he was being tutored by legend Olajuwon, the Rockets would be guaranteed a spot in the Finals. A lesser-known fact is that Hakeem Olajuwon had worked with Howard prior to this summer, and from those daily sessions, Hakeem disclosed that Howard was still “very raw offensively”. It’s telling that Howard, entering his 10th NBA season, is still considered raw!

As far as making it headline news that Howard spent a few weeks honing his post skills with Olajuwon this summer, let me remind you that Howard spent years in Orlando with Hall-of-Fame centre Patrick Ewing as an assistant coach, who knows a thing or two about the post.

With all of this expert post tutelage at his disposal, Howard would be the ideal candidate for osmosis if basketball skills were transferable. And Kevin McHale would be more than willing to deliver Howard his trademark ‘up and under’ post move. Too bad it doesn’t work that way.

So, through the first seven games of this season, Houston is 4-3 and Howard’s numbers are slightly down from last season. The area where he should exert his dominance is on the defensive end and so far, Howard is blocking only one shot per game.

Offensively, he averages about 11 shots per game for his 17 points but shoots a dismal 49% on his free throws, which means he can’t help his team win close games. He should probably spend more time working on free throws than pushups, which only allow him to look better in the medium-size t-shirts he favours.

Not only does James Harden dominate the basketball more than Kobe ever has, but Howard must share the post with seven-foot lurch Omer Asiek, who has only two more assists than me sitting at home, compared to 18 for the Laker’s Pau Gasol – who was a much better complement to Howard’s game last year.

One of the most glaring images we were left with during Houston’s loss to the Lakers on Thursday night was of Howard running around the court to avoid being fouled because he lacked the confidence and skill to make free throws in the 4th quarter.

Is Brooklyn KIDDing us?

We are still only three weeks into the NBA season, so I will give Jason Kidd a little more rope before I write the Nets off as merely pretenders.

Two weeks ago I mentioned that veteran (all-star) players plus a rookie coach could be a recipe for failure; that jury is still out, but close to a decision.

After 10 games, the Nets are a lousy 3-7 and sit in the basement of the Atlantic Division. The players are out of sync and their poor body language is a sign of mistrust with each other, which is similar to the dysfunctional Lakers last season.

While watching about half of their games, I paid attention to Kidd’s rotations and substitution patterns. I understand that he is a rookie coach trying to find his best rotations and build chemistry, but my goodness his starting five are veteran NBA all-stars!

Six years ago, Garnett and "Benedict" Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston and they were 9-1 in their first 10 games coming together. But they did have a proven veteran coach at the helm…Doc Rivers.

Aside from hitting the game winner against the rebuilding Phoenix Suns, Joe Johnson is still playing uninspired basketball. He is too gifted to be so complacent.

And having other all-stars to defer to, he may actually encourage his reluctance to impart his will on hapless opponents.

Too often during the game Joe hangs out on an island sipping iced tea instead of going for the jugular and carrying the team on his back like an all-star with his tremendous skill-set should.

KG is quickly becoming a poor man’s Kurt Thomas instead of the dominating interior presence he was in last season’s playoffs.

He is too willing to set high screens up top, and pop out for his signature one dribble left pull-up. Beginning to think that he skipped the trip with Tim Duncan and Kobe to Germany this summer to prepare him for this season.

It’s hard to believe that the fragile Deron Williams was in the debate of the NBA’s top point guard between him in Chris Paul a few years ago.

He hasn’t been the same player since he forced Jerry Sloan into retirement. It would be a stretch to even consider Williams in the top 10 list of point guards now.

Remember, he helped jumpstart Linsanity with his poor performance in that first meeting with Jeremy two years ago.

But overall, it seems like Kidd is caught between keeping his former peers satisfied with playing time and developing chemistry with his bench.

The immediate transition from player in May to rookie coach in July is not as seamless as the Nets thought.

Asking Kidd to provide leadership to friends on the floor as a point guard is vastly different than managing their playing time and controlling their careers in a span of five short months.

And consistently playing 12 guys in the first half of games, who play like they just met for the first time, doesn’t give anyone confidence that we will see Brooklyn in June.

All Balanced in the WESTERN Conference

Without a doubt, this is the most balanced the Western Conference has been in over a decade, with no clear favourite.

So this regular season is probably worth watching. There are a number of good teams but no great team as of today. The only team that can honestly be penciled in as one of the top three in the West, is the timeless San Antonio Spurs. They are boring, maybe a step slower, but have been the New England Patriots of the NBA since 1999. Manu Ginobli may need to take whatever Tim Duncan did last year to bring his game back to life. If it weren’t for the stubborn coaching decision to keep Duncan on the bench in game six, the Spurs would be looking to repeat.

The Memphis Grizzlies gave Coach Lionel Hollins an envelope with a pink slip inside following the season and still didn't answer the call for a legitimate wing scoring threat. Mike Miller's 3-point shooting contest during the NBA Finals will prove to be "fool's gold" when it matters.

The first lesson that Doc Rivers will teach the Clippers is that Lob City does not win championships, just Sports Centre highlights. Doc is well respected in the league but covering up the Lakers championship banners is borderline elementary. Those banners should be a daily reminder to the Clippers that, until they win a ring, they will remain second-class tenants in the Staples Centre. By the way, of all the players who visit Hakeem Olajuwon for off-season post instruction, Blake Griffin could benefit the most. I still don't see them as legitimate contenders until Blake develops some semblance of a 'go-to move'.

Mark Jackson was a great teammate my rookie year and had a hall of fame career. He may prove to be a better coach than player in a few years. His Golden State Warriors had fans on the East Coast staying up past their bedtime (me included) during last season's playoffs to watch their exciting brand of basketball. As valuable as Stephen Curry was to the Warriors, Jarrett Jack was just as crucial. I give Jackson credit as a coach, but he's not the general manager who elected to part ways with Jarrett. His loss may prove costly, especially if the addition of Iguodala slows the development of Harrison Barnes.

Sam Presti of Oklahoma City was rightly given credit for building the Thunder through successful draft picks, who became the core of a contending team. The problem with that plan is that if you hit 'jackpot' with all of your draft picks, you will not be able to afford to keep them intact. Enter the decision to trade James Harden because they couldn't afford to pay him his worth and keep Serge Ibaka, who still can't make a move with his back to the basket. Hopefully, Presti has learned to grow his team smart and not so quick, and with a balance of draft picks and veteran free agents. Great thing is, his stars are young enough to regroup from that executive mistake and I expect them to contend again in a few years.

Brian Shaw will be a solid coach for the Denver Nuggets. He has learned from the most successful coach of all time in Phil Jackson. I'm sure he will have Phil's number on speed dial when he needs some advice coaching Nate Robinson and Javale McGee. Denver will be tough to beat at home because of the altitude and are talented enough to make the 1st round entertaining. Of course, Javale will headline Sports Centre's Not Your Top 10 Plays and NBATV’s Shaqtin’ A Fool, but don't expect much else from the Nuggets.

The Lakers are the enigma in the West. Aside from the soap opera last season, people forget that Mike D'Antoni took Steve Nash, an undersized centre, and spare parts to three consecutive Pacific Division titles. Steve Nash is still the general and his partner is one of the greatest players of all-time, who is playing for his legacy. Kobe at 60 per cent is better than 27 other starting shooting guards in the NBA. The questions for the Lakers are; how well Kobe returns from his career-threatening injury and if Pau Gasol can pretend he is playing for Spain in the Olympics this season instead of the Lakers? Also, how quick can the spare parts adapt to D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" offence?

I'm still scratching my head at the most unorthodox metamorphosis of an NBA team in a 12-month span since the expansion draft. Starting with D-league project Jeremy Lin, who went to worldwide fame known as Linsanity during a whopping stretch of 25 games for New York in 2012, to the trade for reigning sixth-man of the year, James Harden, who is now projected as the top shooting guard in the league, to the courtship and signing of the supposedly best big man in the game, Dwight Howard.... Houston has rebuilt the Rockets!

Based on Howard's attitude on his last two teams and the inability to satisfy him, I hope there is a Babies R Us near the Toyota Centre to pacify him. We will find out if Harden is built for the pressure of being the focal point of a projected contender for a ring. He can no longer hide behind Durant, pick his spots to show up, or have the freedom to freelance with no expectations like last season. He is a marked man who is expected to carry the Rockets to the NBA Finals.

HEAT is on in EASTERN Conference

Three years ago, when LeBron James escaped the pressure cooker in Cleveland to “take his talents to South Beach”, he claimed they would win seven championships. Basketball fans would have appreciated a little more humility after the “Decision” from LeBron and happily reveled in the Heat, being humbled by Dirk and the Dallas Mavs in 2011.

In 2012, due to a plague of injuries to Chicago’s Derrick Rose and the entire Knicks guard rotation, the Heat were able to survive a weakened Eastern Conference and win a ring in the lock-out shortened season.

Give the Heat credit this past season as the Heat were able to outlast the young Indiana Pacers in a grueling seven-game series and said enough Hail Marys during Game six of the NBA Finals to come back and beat the aging Spurs in seven.

This season, it looks like the Bulls are back with a healthy and hungry Derrick Rose. Besides his injury, he was questioned by fans for his inaction as the depleted and outmanned Bulls fought their hearts out in the playoffs while he sat on the bench in tailored suits and ties. His ego is ready to prove all doubters wrong….watch out Miami Heat.

The Pacers are a deeper and much better team with the return of former best player, Danny Granger. Oh, did we mention the same starting five that took Miami to Game seven are back, plus the veteran Luis Scola joined them in the offseason.

The team with the most talented starting five is the Brooklyn Nets, who will assume the ornery disposition of the Garnett-led Celtics. This is a one-to-two year window for the Nets but I'm not sold on this partnership yet. Veteran team plus rookie head coach is a recipe for a mutiny. We will find out in late January if J-Kidd or the players are running the Nets.

Across the city, the Knicks maintain that New York is their town and includes all five boroughs. Yes, Brooklyn…..you too. Melo and the Knicks seem to compete with a greater sense of urgency against the Heat but otherwise do not present a consistent challenge to the other elite teams in the East.

Detroit Pistons will more closely resemble the Bad Boy Pistons in frontline size, but Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars won’t be suiting up this year. There’s not enough on the roster to move into the top four teams in the East this season.

The scariest but most unpredictable team in the East will be the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Kyrie Irving-led back court will be exciting with Jarrett Jack bringing stability and leadership. The million dollar question is, “will Andrew Bynum’s knees hold up”? I expect the number one draft pick Anthony Bennett to contribute, but I’m not sure how much of a factor he will be. Even still, Cleveland will be a vastly improved team and this is the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.

So, Miami’s run to the Finals will end this season. Miami cashed in on the good luck with other teams’ injuries and the abbreviated lock-out season after the Collective Bargaining agreement presented Pat Riley with a window to add super star talent. That window is closing as Miami’s big three are entering the final season of their contracts. Dwayne Wade will be waging a battle against Father Time, who is still undefeated. Chris Bosh will be auditioning for another nice contract and to prove his many doubters wrong about his ….ability.

LeBron James will do his best to not let his impending free agent decision be a distraction, while he accepts all challengers to his throne in South Beach.

Jim Crow Basketball Challenge Proposed "All-White Basketball League"

When I first read the article, I assumed it was more of the dry humor from the latest former late night tv host. It had to be a joke. lol

I couldn't imagine pro basketball with only chest passes, player screens, and two-handed set shots...although Larry Bird is doing his best to reincarnate "white basketball" back in the Hoosier state.

Whenever I get the urge to see "white basketball" ( I don't), I just visit the local LA Fitness during lunch and get lulled to sleep by the execs in sneakers. For some reason I find the statement, "Hey Buddy, your ball.....I think I fouled you", rather amusing and inappropriate on the blacktop.

Not sure how many butts this whites only league will put in the seats with their proposed style of basketball, but history tells me not very many. I wonder if they plan to have picnigs before the games and sing Ol' Dixie for the anthem.

The greatest pro basketball league in the world only survived in the Fifties and early Sixties because of Black basketball. The Harlem Globetrotters, (not the minstrel team), were used by the NBA in the double-header format to draw fans to the arenas. After the Globetrotters beat the "World Champion" Minneapolis Lakers in 1948, it didn't take 2 years before the NBA signed Earl Lloyd from the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association(CIAA) and two other Negroes in 1950.

Years later it was Magic Johnson and Showtime and Michael Jordan and his playground swag that captured the hearts of basketball purists in this nation to the tune of billions from NBC, ABC,CBS and ESPN.

Basketball transcends race on most levels (playing fields). Teammates from completely opposite ethnic backgrounds form bonds and friendships that last a lifetime.

In year 2010, it would be an insult to basketball and all of the Legends Of The Game to make this a white versus Black issue. Therefore, I am proposing that Mr. Don Lewis select allstars from his All-American Basketball Alliance to play against the SBA All Stars all white team featuring Grayson "The Professor" Boucher and Randy "White Chocolate" Gill in a charity exhibition game.

Proceeds from this game will be donated to the Haiti Relief Effort.

We got Our 5....Get Yours!