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Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

January 12, 2017 in Features, Opinion

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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Top five worst officiating decisions in NBA history

November 28, 2016 in Opinion

In light of the recent drama between the Toronto Raptors and the Sacramento Kings, Elephant Sport decided to take a look at some of the worst decisions of all time in the NBA.

5) Raptors’ Ross Robbed

On November 21 2016, Terrence Ross silenced the Sacramento crowd with a clutch three-pointer on the buzzer to take the game to overtime. Or so he thought.

Amidst ruckus and exuberant celebrations, the home sector started to cheer. The referee had spotted a tip from Demarcus Cousins in real time.

The officials proceeded to confer in the replay centre and, in the end, decided that Cousins had tipped the ball. This, effectively, meant that the clock should have started when Sacramento’s centre touched the ball, not when Ross collected it. In essence, the buzzer should have sounded before Ross shot.

But a recent Twitter investigation saw a user splice the clock when Cousins touched the ball, which dramatically revealed that Ross had released the ball before the buzzer even with Cousins’ interference added to the timer.

This controversy has led to the Raptors making a formal complaint, hoping that overtime will be replayed in a one-off encounter vs the Kings at a later point this season to decide a victor.

But there have been worse decisions in the NBA, surprisingly (or unsurprisingly for the unabashedly critical fans of the sport…)

4) Joey Crawford Calls ‘The Worst Foul Ever’

Perhaps the most comical and least serious of all the other moments on this list, Joey Crawford whistling for a foul on Steve Nash is still one of the most ridiculous bits of officiating in sporting history.

Halfway through the third quarter of a play-off game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Phoenix Suns in 2010, Nash releases a pass inside the D and draws a foul… according to Crawford.

In the midst of it all, Marcus Camby was awarded his fourth foul of the game. The issue with this? Camby was nowhere near Nash. If he were to have jumped at Nash, fully outstretched and possessing the superhuman abilities of Mister Fantastic, Camby still would have failed to touch the point guard.

Nash made both of the subsequent free-throws, effectively knocking Portland out of the series in the first-round.

3) The First Phantom Foul

Picture this: there are 27 seconds left on the clock, the Detroit Pistons lead by one point against the Los Angeles Lakers. The latter have the final possession of the game and decide to storm into the paint.

This is Detroit’s chance to win their first ever NBA Championship, leading the 1988 series 3-2. In 24 seconds, providing they can defend a Lakers play, the Pistons win the title.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar receives a pass in the post and challenges Pistons centre Bill Laimbeer. The towering giant jumps to contest Jabbar’s post-hook and forces the superstar to miss. At that point, the Pistons were champions.

That is, until, the officials decide to call an illegal foul on Laimbeer for his jump on Jabbar. The replays still to this day show no such illegal play whatsoever.

Jabbar stepped up, knocked down both free-throws and the Lakers went on to tie the series, force a final game and win the championship.

A fight broke out at the end of the game between both teams due to the absurdity of the decision.

2) Hue Hollins Prevents The Bulls From Making History 

The second phantom foul on the list but, undoubtedly, the worst.

This was a Chicago Bulls team without Michael Jordan, who had spent the entire year on a hiatus playing baseball; this was a Bulls team with only Scottie Pippen remaining.

Pippen was the supporting star to Jordan’s excellence. But he became the leader in the 1994 NBA Finals. By the end of it, referee Hue Hollins had reduced Pippen to a loser.

With three seconds left on the buzzer, the Bulls were close to clinching a spot in the NBA Finals. The New York Knicks had to draw up a three-pointer to win the game and force a final match for the series.

Hubert Davis chucked a three from improbable range which Pippen attempted to contest. “Attempt” being the operative word; the small-forward jumped but failed to touch Davis, who ended up missing.

Hollins blew the whistle and awarded Davis three free-throws which, essentially, knocked the Bulls out of a potential historic NBA Championship and prevented ‘Pip’ from becoming a bona fide superstar.

1) The Biggest Fix in NBA History?

In game six of the 2002 NBA finals, Sacramento were one win away from being crowned champions for the first time in their history.

Playing to a level of quality never before seen in the city, the Kings side led by all-star power forward Chris Webber received a level of officiating that, to this day, stands as the biggest travesty ever witnessed in an NBA game.

Playing on the road at the LA Lakers, the Kings had four legitimate blocks called as illegal fouls. From these fouls, the Lakers collected eight points.

Sacramento then suffered three offensive fouls, wrongly called as both were clear blocking interferences from the Lakers (two by Kobe Bryant, one from Shaquille O’Neal). In the following possession of each foul, the Lakers drew up a three-pointer and two mid-range jumpers for a seven-point play.

Perhaps the worst and most frustrating refereeing decision made on the night was when Kobe attempted a mid-range jumper and elbowed Mike Bibby in the face.

Bibby fell to the floor with an assistant referee staring directly at the play. He called for a foul… against Bibby. Bryant knocked down another two points from the subsequent free-throw which wrapped up the game late on for the Lakers.

Ex-referee Tim Donaghy later alleged that Dick Bavetta and Bob Delaney – officials in this particular game – had fixed the outcome of the tie.  Both they and the NBA denied the claims.

An investigation ensued, but no wrongdoing was ever proved, however that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theories abounding even to this day.

The Kings went on to lose 106-102 on the night and in the final game, too.

Gentrification and its impact on youth sports in Brixton

November 23, 2016 in News & Features

Take a stroll through Brixton and you’ll notice boarded-up shops and evidence of protest in this culturally diverse corner of  south London.

In early 2016, many social housing estates in the area began to undergo a remodelling and rebuilding process, paid for in part by property developers keen on reaping the dividends of Brixton’s proximity to the city centre.

While residents were forced to relocate and scatter around London, local businesses were also in a state of upheaval.

“Many local people believe it’s about making Brixton more marketable to those far wealthier than its current inhabitants”

In February, the council alerted a host of small shops and companies near the railway station – primarily in Atlantic Road – that the area was also to undergo a transformation under the auspices of Network Rail.

Independent business owners were told that they had four months to close down and move away. Some have said they won’t be able to afford the rents set to charged for the railway arches once they have been refurbished.

Many local people believe the reason for this shake-up is to improve the look of Brixton, essentially making it more marketable to those far wealthier than its current inhabitants.

In other words, the area is being gentrified, creating a sense of alienation and resentment among many long-time residents.

Now in November, the entire railway road is one lengthy board of black with white graffiti reading ‘SAVE BRIXTON!’

How is local sport affected?

Behind the boards, the remnants of businesses past: a Portuguese butchers that offered imported delicacies, an independent Jamaican music store run by a father and his teenage daughter, and a small taxi company that transported people from Brixton to Heathrow and Gatwick.

But, perhaps the most important of all, was a modest space for children to congregate after school. One 4 All, the name of this independently-run company, would organise trips to the local leisure centre, just on the opposite side of the railway.

It was at this leisure centre that I spent most of my days as a kid – and it is at this leisure centre that many children of today can no longer take part in sports.

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Grafitti protesting the evictions on Atlantic Road

Due to the closure of One 4 All, there is no longer a middle-man between the visiting children and the centre.

This means no supervisors or carers which, in turn, means a decrease in attendance after school.

Parents would often entrust the workers here to look after their children while they work – mine most certainly did. It was almost free childcare.

For kids, it was the chance to visit the coveted leisure centre. At Brixton Recreational Centre, you can try your hand at basketball, futsal, badminton, table tennis… the list goes on.

Introducing Robbie

Speaking to basketball coach Robbie Sugg – affectionately dubbed ‘Uncle Robbie’ by many kids – I realised that the atmosphere at the Recreational Centre is somewhat gloomy in the wake of gentrification.

The 57-year-old, who has spent around 17 years working as a coach at the centre, said: “I used to have 20 to 30 kids come in here every single afternoon once school finished. They’d all walk in, pick up the basketball and shoot some hoops.

“Now? I’m lucky if I get five kids. And they’re no longer the same faces.”

What does Sugg think of Brixton’s transformation?

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The main area for kids at the Recreational Centre

“Listen, I can understand how the government will defend this as well as the local council,” he said.

“They will say it’s about making Brixton a more pleasant place. But what they’re doing is making people angry. The more money that gets put into Brikki, the less diverse it will become.”

‘Brikki’ is an affectionate moniker used by those who have some sort of connection to the district. Sugg has been a resident of Brixton his entire life, living just a few minutes from the recreational centre, just west off Electric Avenue.

He continued: “Now you tell me how parents can afford to send their kids here to have some fun after school? They can’t scrape together money for the membership which One 4 All were covering. ”

“You’ll have more little youts (patois for youth) running around causing trouble because they don’t have an escape.”

His concerns are genuine. The more children he can work with and introduce to sport, the fewer there are on the streets potentially getting into trouble. Especially with the angst-riddled atmosphere currently circling around Brixton.

“The only people I see here nowadays are adults. That’s fine, but I don’t see kids no more. Those kids that called my Uncle Robbie. The only kids I see are unfamiliar faces that come and go. The sense of community is disappearing, man” said Sugg.

An alternative voice

After my chat with Sugg, I proceeded to a local coffee shop to get the other side of the story from a council spokesperson.

Susan McRae arrived, sat down and quickly began to talk about the benefits of gentrification. It symbolised the divide between council and community – neither side is completely right, but neither wrong either.

“People have to trust us and believe that we won’t neglect the current community for a newer and more wealthy one”

“Obviously it is sad for the people who feel like their community is being broken apart, but people have to realise that this is for their benefit,” she said.

“More money entering Brixton isn’t a negative. After all, you have to consider just how many outlets kids will have for sporting engagement.”

While there are no concrete plans yet for any official sporting playgrounds, McRae confirmed that it is possible.

“We obviously understand the pull of the skate park and the leisure centre. Maybe we will build a 3G pitch for football – it’s something that has already been discussed.”

I relayed my interview with Sugg to McRae who had some sympathy for his frustrations.

“Sport obviously plays a key part in the growth of a child, especially in communities such as Brixton. People have to trust us and believe that we won’t neglect the current community for a newer and more wealthy one.”

McRae admitted, however: “It’s true: kids don’t really have an outlet in Brixton once they finish school. The Recreational Centre is somewhat off bounds now unless the parents can afford the membership, and the skate park is dominated by adults which can be intimidating.

“At the moment, there is nothing that the council can possibly do aside from asking the kids to be patient.”

Finding middle-ground

As a resident of Brixton, and someone who grew up there, it’s possible to understand both arguments.

I grew up during the riots that saw Brixton literally on fire. One can side with the idea of gentrification when casting an eye back at those times.

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One of the first businesses to fall victim to the evictions

But I have also grown up in a community that unequivocally offered me this: sport at no cost.

The skate park was always my stomping ground, the Rec Centre a chance to flex my skills across heaps of sports.

It’s undoubtedly a concern that the lack of sporting outlets could see children turn to mischief and become disenfranchised from sport – seeing it only as something they only do at school.

But if the council decide on building free sporting complexes, then it may be a win-win situation for the community. Better housing and sporting facilities? A lot of people would jump with joy at that.

It’s a fragile time to be from Brixton – a district that once lavishly celebrated its mix of communities, now reduced to graffiti and protests which speak of distrust and disenchantment.

And the kids still don’t have a viable place to partake in their sports…

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