#IMHO: Ja and the Rookies, Jordan vs. Isiah, and the return of the NBA?

Grind City Media’s Lang Whitaker and Michael Wallace have been covering the NBA since shorts were short and socks were long, but their opinions about the League don’t always mesh. #IMHO is their weekly chance to weigh in on the most pertinent news from around the NBA. What’s lit? What’s lame? Find out each week right here.

 

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Tuesday, April 28, 2020 at 9:26 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

Mike:

Let’s start this week where we left off last week, going through some of the NBA postseason awards. (Even though the season isn’t over!) And I think we both agree that Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is the runaway rookie of the year winner—no rookie was as impactful on his team and the league as consistently as Ja was this season. From keeping these Baby Bears in the playoff race all season to dunking on fools to getting national commercials and magazine covers, this has been an incredible season for Ja, and it’s wild to think this trajectory is only going to continue trending upward.

And while I think Ja ran away with this one, there were other rookies worth watching. Zion Williamson showed flashes of dominance, but played less than 20 games. Kendrick Nunn has shown himself to be great at self-promotion but had help from Tyler Herro and an array of veterans in Miami. And there were several guys who played well but were on awful teams (Coby White, RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, Eric Paschall). I also haven’t mentioned Ja’s teammate, Brandon Clarke, who came off the bench for the Grizz to play steady, explosive, winning basketball night after night.

So, if we both have Ja as the presumptive ROY, who else is in your five for your All-Rookie team? I’ll go Ja, Zion, Nunn, Barrett and Clarke. How about you?

 


From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Tuesday, April 28, 2020 at 10:34AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

As you pointed out, there were some serious gems in this rookie class. And the Grizzlies landed two of the top-five most productive newcomers in that crop in Ja and Brandon. I have absolutely no issues with your All-Rookie first team picks there. I believe those five players sort of separated themselves from the rest of the pack. A second group of Darius Garland, Coby White, Tyler Herro, Matisse Thybulle and Eric Paschall is a pretty strong rookie squad, too. And we haven’t even mentioned Cam Reddish, PJ Washington or Jaxson Hayes—guys I also really like from this class.

So many rotation contributors from that 2019 incoming crop, and I know we’ve left off quite a few other solid young prospects. But what sets Ja apart is something that new Grizzlies teammate Justise Winslow said: Morant is the lone rookie in a true leadership and alpha role on his team. And he’s doing it at age 20, while putting up historic numbers for the franchise as well as in rookie efficiency on some levels. Zion has Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday. You pointed out Nunn’s veteran Heat All-Star teammates in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Sure, Ja has plenty of quality teammates in Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and others. But he’s also running the show as a rookie on a team positioned for the playoffs in a year no one expected them to do so.

So, we’ve essentially made another case for Ja on what should be a case-closed matter.

Now here’s a case that’s been reopened in the court of public opinion. We’ve watched Episodes 3 and 4 of “The Last Dance” this past weekend, and the most controversial debate to come out of it was the age-old “handshake dispute” between the Bulls and Pistons after the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. Michael Jordan is still fuming about the Bad Boys strolling off in the final seconds of the game, disrespectfully stepping past the Bulls bench and off the court after getting swept. After all these years, I still can’t defend Zeke Thomas and Bill Laimbeer’s actions. But is Jordan caught up in too much pettiness by still holding a grudge some 30 years later?

 

2019 NBA Draft Class

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 10:29 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

Jordan is being petty, sure, but that pettiness is what makes him the GOAT, right? Those grudges or slights, perceived or real, are where MJ found motivation and fuel to become great. You come at the king, you best not miss. And those that MJ felt crossed by at some point along the way were always made to pay a price. For MJ, the hatred for Isiah wasn’t just from not shaking hands after the Bulls finally toppled the Pistons. This wasn’t covered in the show, but don’t forget about the 1985 All-Star Game, when MJ felt like Isiah froze him out on offense.

Still, it was kinda hilarious watching the documentary and hearing MJ blurt out that he felt Isiah was an a-hole, mostly because there’s just been silence around this relationship forever. Isiah not making the Dream Team in ’92 has long been attributed to MJ’s presence, a feeling that MJ extracted some sort of revenge via keeping Isiah off the most iconic team of all-time. (For what it’s worth, when John Stockton got hurt and briefly looked as though he would need to be replaced on the Dream Team roster, I was told Joe Dumars, not Isiah, would have been the next man up. The other great irony in all of this is that the coach of those Bad Boys teams, Chuck Daly, would later coach the Dream Team. Heck, Isiah coached MJ in the 2001 All-Star Game!)

I know Isiah said the Pistons didn’t shake hands in part because the Celtics hadn’t shaken their hands years earlier, but two wrongs don’t make anything right. And if you do something wrong to MJ? Well, you just better be ready to pay that price for a long time. Time usually heals all wounds, but time always seemed to move differently for Michael Jordan.

While watching “The Last Dance,” Mike, I was struck by just how physical/dirty those Pistons could be. There were essentially no long-term repercussions, so I get why they pushed it as far as they could, but my question to you is will we ever see anything like this again? Sports—and heck, society—is so different now than it was in the ’70s and ’80s. It made me wonder if perhaps the most revolutionary/different thing we can see in the NBA today is something like the way the Houston Rockets play, with crazy lineups and extreme shot selection?

 

Michael Jordan vs. Isiah Thomas

From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 1:27 PM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

The brutal physicality of the game back in the ‘80s and ‘90s completely jumps off the screen now when you see highlights these days. I remember talking to former Detroit Bad Boy Rick Mahorn about how those Pistons went about their business, and it was simply to send a blow physically a few times early, and then you have mentally beaten them down by the time the second half played out. Once Jordan’s Bulls accepted and embraced that it was mental warfare, they were able to overcome the physical bullying tactics.

Man, if you think those Bulls-Pistons series were rough, just go back and look at the Celtics-Pistons and the Lakers-Celtics clashes. One thing that’s clear about today’s game is that there are no true fighters in the league anymore. I haven’t seen a punch connect in a decade or so now. But enforcers like Robert Parish and Charles Oakley never missed when they let those hands go.

To your other point, Lang, we’ve seen the game evolve a lot. But at the end of the day, the Rockets aren’t doing anything that the Steve Nash Suns didn’t do in the 2000s, or Don Nelson’s Warriors didn’t do in the 1990s or Alex English’s Nuggets didn’t do in the 1980s. The emphasis is far more on the three-ball today, but I’m not sure today’s brand is more entertaining or engaging than it was in previous decades. The good thing is there are twists and turns and aspects of each decade that made the NBA game special and unique.

Lang, we’ll roll out on this: NBA practice facilities are set to open next week in some markets that appear to have a relatively decent handle on the COVID-19 crisis. Under the guidelines, players will be permitted to work out on an individual, voluntary basis with extensive health and safety measures taken throughout the facility. No coaches or top assistants can be involved in the workouts, but at least it gets players back in a familiar setting to work on conditioning until the league figures out the next step for the 2019-2020 season.

For players like Grizzlies young catalysts Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, who have remained in Memphis throughout the hiatus, this is a good thing and gives them access to hoops again. My question to you is how significant of a first step is this for players across the league? And, although the NBA insists this move has no impact on whether, if or when the season might resume, on a scale of 1 to 10, how optimistic are you that this could lead to an eventual return of the game we all love at some point in the coming weeks/months in a quarantined fashion? I’m at a 6.

 

Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, April 29, 2020 at 1:43 PM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

It’s funny, I got a phone call last night from an NBA exec I hadn’t talked to since we all went on lockdown. He’s been holed up waiting this thing out like everyone else, waiting to see when we’re all allowed to get back to doing what we’ve all done for years now. But of course, nobody knows when that will be. Everyone talks, but they don’t really have much to say.

I was thinking back to when this all started, that night the Jazz/Thunder game was called right at the tip, which seems like years ago at this point. The one thing that feels different today, at least to me, is that it appears as though we have more answers about things now than we did back then. There is still plenty that is unknown, but as a society we seem to have a better grip on how to do our best to slow the spread of the virus.

All that to say, it does seem like some kind of quarantined league is the best option remaining if we hope to finish out this season in anything close to a timely manner. While Vegas seems like a bad idea, since it’s such a public city, I was thinking what if the NBA took over Atlantis in the Bahamas for a few months? Like, literally put everyone on an island and don’t let anyone on or off? (When I floated this idea to someone, they reminded me that we’re about to begin hurricane season, and considering the way 2020 has gone so far, the entire league setting up shop in the Caribbean right now might not be the best idea.) Someone else floated the idea of taking over Disney World, which makes sense as well.

There are holes in those plans as well, of varying size and shape. To me, out of all the major US sports leagues, the NBA has the best shot at restarting, only because the rosters are smaller and it takes less playing space. I also think the NBA has the best braintrust behind the league, and I trust the same people who built the NBA into the global behemoth it is today to get this thing up and running in a safe fashion. So, if I had to put a number on my confidence, I’m going with a 7. (Shouts to Wayne Selden.)