NBA Finals thoughts

If I had to give people a reason about why I love basketball so much, I’d submit Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. There was great strategy. There were great performances. There was a throwback performance by one of the legends of the game. There were the incredible narratives surrounding the best player in basketball (Will he fall apart? Will he come through?). There were clutch plays made by about ten different players in ten different ways (incredible one-on-one play, steals, rebounds, blocks and of course shots). And the intensity of the game coupled with the execution made it one of the most heart-pounding sporting experiences you can ever watch as a neutral fan.

So we get Spurs-Heat the rematch, a basketball purist’s greatest delight. Two of the best coaches in the NBA will be playing chess with each other. Two of the most unselfish teams in the NBA will be moving the rock until it finds the net. Two of the best schemes in the NBA will showcase plenty of ball movement and player movement. And it all culminates in seven glorious games.  Three of the greatest players of the modern era will try to pull off an historic threepeat and make true to the legacy they promised those first brash days in South Beach. The old cagey veterans (counted for dead yet again) will try to pull off one last incredible run, wipe away last year’s demons, and cement their

Neither team has anything to lose but the title. Almost everyone’s legacy in this Finals is secure. All the primary principals have championships (outside of San Antonio’s new crew), which should encourage a fairly high quality of play. There will be excellent ball movement and fearless play by both sides, and it should be an outstanding group of games.  Tony Parker’s ankle aside, most of the main stars will be healthy and ready.

Big 3 vs. Big 3.  LeBron is LeBron. He is the best player on the floor and will have to be that way at least once on the road (probably twice, since the Spurs generally are good enough to take one back on the road). His defense picked up in the last round. The biggest difference between this year and last year is the health of Dwyane Wade. Wade was not healthy last season. He only played well in 2 of the 7 games in the series. This year he is pretty well-rested and has become one of the most efficient basketball players. I never thought Wade would age well, but here he is dropping floaters, tear-drops and generally making it impossible to double-team LeBron James without Flash punishing you. Chris Bosh also seems more comfortable nailing every jump shot that comes his way, forcing big men away from the hoop and stretching the floor for attack lanes by Bosh and James.

Tim Duncan is still chugging along and should be his usual consistent self, and he is probably one of the few bigs comfortable with playing Bosh away from the basket. Tony Parker’s ankle will be analyzed ad nauseum the longer this series goes along–San Antonio will want to take control of this series early by going up 2-0 or 3-1 to make sure it doesn’t become an issue further down the line. Parker generally eats Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole alive, but I don’t think you can say the same for Patty Mills or Cory Joseph if they have to take their places. But just as important as Wade’s health is the return of a healthy and active Manu Ginobili, who played excellent basketball to help key the Spurs to their final wins over the Thunder.

There’s the bench. San Antonio last year had to downsize their rotation last season as Miami’s athleticism ran players off the court. Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili, and Gary Neal were the only ones really seeing any minutes last year by Game 5. This year the Spurs seem to trust almost all of their bench players to step up their game, and home court advantage should help them greatly. Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner, Patty Mills have all been entrusted to the point that they all saw action in the clinching Game 6, and in various degrees did their part to push them over the top against the explosive but eventually exhausted Thunder youth. And Miami’s athleticism is on the ebb–LeBron is not the superhuman defensive behemoth he was last season. He just has to do too much offensively.

Miami’s bench will also have a role to play, but they are much more unsettled. Outside of Chris Andersen and Ray Allen, you have Udonis Haslem (who never plays well against the Spurs), Rashard Lewis (found money against Indiana, but he definitely has to be hidden on defense against San Antonio). Norris Cole will have to make big leaps and try and prove he can stay on the floor.

Matchups. The biggest issue for Miami: How do you defend San Antonio’s two big lineups (whether Duncan/Diaw, Duncan/Splitter, or Splitter/Diaw) with a small lineup? LeBron is many things, but he is not going to bang in the post at the four for very long.  Haslem might be forced to play and try and contribute, but it’s likely that Spoelstra will ask Battier and Lewis to sacrifice their bodies down low to try and just slow the big men down. The Heat might just say “to hell with it”, stay small, and just try to win with LeBron/Wade/Bosh shooting the lights out and the Heat nailing a bunch of timely 3s. It’s gotten them through before.

The biggest issue for San Antonio: How do you defend LeBron and Wade? Danny Green’s threes were the big story, but he also gave Wade fits for most of the series. Ditto Kawhi Leonard on James, who just didn’t know how to handle having the ball stuck in his hands for much of the series as Leonard conceded his jump shot but didn’t allow him to drive and kick to three point shooters. LeBron and Wade have both brushed up since them and are wrapping up the most efficient seasons of their NBA careers, so they are clearly more ready for the schemes the Spurs threw at them.

That’s what makes this series so fun. It’s so even. You don’t know if anyone has a clear advantage anywhere. It should be close once again, and it could come down to the bounce of the ball and one final rebound and kickout to the corner again.

Is Erik Spoelstra an elite NBA coach?

Short answer: Yes. Next question.

Basketball is one of those games where you’re not really certain as to how much the coach is responsible for a team’s successes and its struggles. Basketball is a player’s league and always will be, but often a good coach can maximize his team’s strengths while minimizing the team’s weaknesses, while an average to mediocre coach will rely too much those strengths without developing anything else. There’s a reason people view Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle as the class of the NBA: Their teams are always prepared and ready to pounce for victory, even if they sometimes they don’t have the best player or two in the series.

So what to make of the coach who has superstars? Is it the superstar who makes the coach elite because he brings home the titles? Or does the coach help mold the superstars into the champions they are today?

The truth usually lies somewhere in between, and it feels like that’s the case with Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra generally gets overlooked in all the success Miami has had the past four seasons, but he deserves his due. Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich–none of those legends have been to FOUR straight NBA Finals. Spoelstra has to be right up there in that elite coach discussion. He has handled the media hype around his team quite gracefully and has not let the strong personalities in his locker room take control of the dialogue. Obviously the Heat have instilled a very strong environment, but Spoelstra has to be the one in the locker room executing that mindset. He has done so faithfully.

So let’s list some of the reasons Spoelstra should be considered an elite coach and not just a superstar manager.

  1. Before Spo landed the Big 3, he took the Heat to the playoffs twice. Outside of Wade, these were the principal roster pieces he had to work with: Mario Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, fossilized Jermaine O’Neal, James Jones, young Michael Beasley, Daequan Cook. Spoelstra coached them into a fifth-seed unit. Also, that team won 15 games the year before (Wade was hurt, but they had a lot more Shawn Marion to throw around). In any case, this is not a good basketball team on paper, and they nearly won 50 games in 2010. Again, MICHAEL BEASLEY was heavily involved.
  2. Spoelstra has been with Miami a long time, and his primary jobs have been technical. He was the team’s video coordinator starting in 1995. He was charged with scouting a few years later, and helped develop Dwyane Wade’s jump shot.
  3. Miami has no centers on their team, a formula that would lead to a first round exit for any other squad. Birdman, Haslem, Bosh is your general big man rotation come playoff time. The Heat have survived thanks to an incredible blitzing style of trapping pick-and-roll handlers that has caused turnovers and general mayhem, and LeBron James at the 4 unleashing one of the most efficient offenses to ever roam this planet.
  4. Spoelstra stumbled onto small ball, but he has embraced it and Miami has utilized that system and executed it even more efficiently as the team has grown older. The Heat’s defense isn’t quite as terrifying in previous years with LeBron having to carry a bit more of the load, but the offense has been spectacular. Spo has Miami’s offensive philosophy down to a hilt.
  5. I always judge coaches by the success rate of their out-of-timeout plays , particularly in the playoffs. Doc Rivers is more of a motivator than an Xs and Os guy, but his teams do REALLY well in OOT. Pop is the master of course, and Carlisle has some great stuff too. But Spo is right there up with them. Miami has had some incredible OOT stuff this season especially, particularly to clinch the series against Brooklyn.
  6. Part of coaching IS superstar/talent management. Think Phil wins titles if Shaq, Kobe and Jordan don’t buy into the triangle? Think Pop wins titles if Duncan, Parker and Ginobili don’t accept his harsh tongue-lashing? Spo had to ask Shane Battier to defend power forwards for an entire season to help Miami realize their offensive destiny. He had to get Chris Bosh acquainted with the idea that he would no longer bang in the post and would be responsible for stretching the floor for James and Wade. He had to get Dwyane Wade to accept rest to heal his ailing body and tinker with his game so that he stays effective as he gets older.

Spoelstra has proven to be the perfect coach for a super-team like Miami. He’s level-headed, very smart, lacks ego, gets players to buy into their roles, and the Heat have cooled down from their initial bombastic nature to become one of the most selfless and unbeatable teams in NBA history.

(parts of this original answer posted on R/NBA)

 

Was Operation Barbarossa A Smart Move by the Nazis?

Tens of thousands of Soviet Unions at Birkenau. Nearly six million Russian soldiers would be captured during the Second World War. Only about four of every nine would return to Russia.

Tens of thousands of Soviet Unions at Birkenau. Nearly six million Soviet soldiers would be captured during the Second World War. Only about four of every nine would return to Russia.

Operation Barbarossa are two words that emnate pure terror to any European. It would start a war between Germans and Russians that would end with tens of millions dead (either on the battlefield, massacre or as POWs). On the 68th anniversary of this battle I figured I’d talk a little bit about it. This particular post and map focuses on the military aspects of the campaign (in the future I’ll talk about the horrifying aspect of Barbarossa involving the Nazi death squads).

After Hitler could not subjugate Britain by either air supremacy or coastal invasion (Operation Sea Lion was postponed, and eventually cancelled), he turned his sights eastward toward Russia. 

Strategic breakdown

There were definitely huge advantages for Germany if they did win.  The Soviet Union had the largest army and air force in Europe, some of the richest territory in terms of resources, and the last great meance to Nazi dominance of the continent. If Germany were to crush the Russians in combat, they could be overlords of the European mainland for years to come.

They also believed they would have the superior tacticians on the field, thanks largely in part due to Stalin’s Great PurgeThe embarrassing performance by the Soviet Union against Finland in 1939 reinforced that notion. It would bear out during the early months of Barbarossa, when Soviet commanders, afraid of the NKVD squads if they gave ‘retreat’ orders, would rather they and their soldiers face encirclement and imprisonment from the German Panzers.  

However war against Russia needed to be won swiftly. The German economy was not in the shape to fight a long, protracted war, which was certainly what Barbarossa would entail. A decisive military victory would have to come in the first year or two of the invasion if Germany was going to have any chance to win in the Eastern Front. 

Moreover, while he respected the British as a people and longed for a coalition of both the empires, Hitler expressed malice for the Russians almost as tantamount as his hatred for the Jews. Indeed, the main reasons for the invasion were probably ideological, which overruled strategic orthdoxy from the outset. Hitler outlined his stark and frightening thoughts on Russia early on in his famous testament, Mein Kampf:

Here Fate itself seems desirous of giving us a sign. By handing P ussia to Bolshevism, it robbed the Russian nation of that intelligentsia which previously brought about and guaranteed its existence as a state. For the organization of a Russian state formation was not the result of the political abilities of the Slavs in Russia, but only a wonderful example of the state-forming efficacity of the German element in an inferior race. 

For centuries Russia drew nourishment from this Germanic nucleus of its upper leading strata. Today it can be regarded as almost totally exterminated and extinguished. It has been replaced by the Jew. Impossible as it is for the Russian by himself to shake off the yoke of the Jew by his own resources, it is equally impossible for the Jew to maintain the mighty empire forever. He himself is no element of organization, but a ferment of decomposition. The Persian I empire in the east is ripe for collapse. And the end of Jewish rule in Russia will also be the end of Russia as a state. We have been chosen by Fate as witnesses of a catastrophe which will be the mightiest confirmation of the soundness of the folkish theory.

Indeed, the campaign would be full of such barbaric overtones, and would eventually rob the Germans of the strategic advantages they had enjoyed in their biggest battles in Europe (we can talk about that later).

As for the Soviets, they were in good shape to anticipate the attack; they received NUMEROUS intelligence reports that indicated, even a report that indicating an attack for June 22. However, Stalin refused to believe any of this; whether he had wholly deluded himself to believe this or simply shrank from the moment can be debated for ages. 

Battle Plans

barbarossa1

As you can see from the map above, the plan was for the Germans to center their attacks on Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, with one army group in charge of each case. The northern most group (Army Group North) would advance through the Baltic states with minimal help from the Finns looking to recapture lost territory from the Winter War. The southern most group (Army Group South) attacking the Ukraine would advance with the help of Rumanian and Hungarian satellite troops. The middle group, Army Group Centre, would be assigned the most tanks (two of the four Panzer groups), charged with encircling the bulk of the Soviet troops and opening the road to Moscow. Eventually they would try to take the territory between the Russian cities of Astrakahan in the Caucasus, which would occupy practically all of European Russia. 

The Germans would engage nearly four million soldiers to the initial attack with 3600 tanks and 4400 aircraft; although they’d be outnumbered 4 to 1 in tanks and 3 to 1 in aircraft, those numbers would mean less compared to the inability for the Red Army troops to manuever, the fear of Stalin by Red Army commanders, and the inferiority of the equipment to defend with (the Soviets would not start producing T-34s en masse until very late in 1941, and Soviet aircraft was of barely average quality throughout the Second World War and was generally outclassed by the Luftwaffe until late in the European campaign).

Ultimately, each side (one fueled with ideological motivations, the other wandering with willful ignorance of the situation about to unfold) would collide into circumstances that would ensure the maximum number of casualties. It would leave a generation of men from Europe’s largest countries ravaged. To think it could all have been avoided.

Conclusions

1. Germany should not have prosecuted the war in Russia until they had finished off Britain. Had Hitler finished off the British by either overwhelming the Royal Air Force or achieving total economic blockade with the U-Boat campaign, the worry of persisting in a two-front War would have dissipated.  Unfortunately, Hitler remained deluded that the British would welcome a partnership with Germany to help govern the world. This viewpoint seemingly made even less sense considering their leader Winston Churchill was one of the most vehmently anti-Nazi leaders BEFORE the war even begun.

2. Hitler’s paranoia about Jews and Bolsheviks ultimately led to his undoing. Hitler’s inability to reconcile his perceptions of the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ would force him to conduct the war with Russia from ideological rather than pragmatic purposes (although he did turn the war into an economic one). It would end tragically for the Jews in Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine and Belarus, but it would also ultimately lead to the destruction of their Gideon.

The ideology against Slavs would alienate and antagonize many Baltics, Ukranians and White Russians. These peoples were no friends of Stalin and Communism; they weren’t even very friendly to the Jews. However, instead of collaborating, recruiting local troops from these territories, and setting the resources of these occupied territories to the Third Reich, the Nazis would treat those occupied as inferior peoples not worthy of anything but slave labor or extermination.  Thus a potential pool of soldiers and resources was severly drained and those who survived were lost to the partisan movement or the prisoner camps of the East.

3. Stalin’s stubbornness to reconcile himself with reality would end up costing Russia millions of its finest soldiers. The Red Army would only mobilize in the hours before the invasion when it was far too late to face the attack head-on. Interestingly, while Hitler’s personal feelings about Russia would color the portrait of the war that was about to unfold, without Stalin’s co-operation (by his ignoring all warnings of war coming to the Motherland) the Red Army would never have been brought as close as it was to near breaking point.

4. Germany would have to win quick. Letting the war drag on would ultimately lead to a war of attrition, one the Soviet Union was bound to win.  The Germans would have to rely more than ever on their Panzers to outmanuever and envelop the slower, plodding Russian armies.

5. Germany still had a decent shot to destroy Russia. I’ll talk about this later on.

In the next few posts I’ll get into the nitty gritty of Operation Barbarossa, and then in a post after that I’ll talk more about the darker side of the battle.

Source: John Keegan, The Second World War (The best one volume novel on World War II around. I’m sure there are better books out there, but this books does a great job of breaking down the big picture, of how these stories fit into broader history and gets us deep into the mindsets of the people prosecuting the war. There are probably fine books breaking down the intricacies of warfare, but if you want the best book to learn about the overaching nature of World War II, Keegan is for you. Keep in mind he does not like Clausewitz.)

The Ten Thousand

For those wanting a visual depiction of the Xenophon story, click on the picture of the map to go to the actual Google Map.

~The blue markers represent where the mercenaries originated from.

~~Example: “4000 hoplites under Xenias the Arcadian” would be marked by a marker on the province of Arcadia, Greece, etc.

~The red territory marks the extent of the Persian Empire during the time of the march; the Greeks would have to make it to the Black Sea to sail their way to Greece.

~The blue line….is well…yeah, the line they marched on.

~The fire represents where the battle of Cunaxa took place and all that jazz. There aren’t many details outside of the book of Anabasis; click on the link to check it out via Project Gutenburg!

Xenophon and The Big Aristotle

(Image by thefinaltruth)

For those not familiar with the story, Xenophon was a Greek philosopher/adventurer back in those ancient times. He accompanied Greek mercenaries under Cyrus into the heart of the Persian empire to march on Babylon to overthrow Cyrus’s brother, the Persian king Ataxerxes. The attack failed, Cyrus was killed, and the Greek commander was ambushed and beheaded by Persian soldiers on the trek back to Greek territory. As the Greek soldiers began to fall into despair, Xenophon began to cast himself into the spotlight.

“That night Xenophon, who had stayed mostly on the sidelines during the expedition, had ad ream: a lightning bolt from Zeus set fire to his father’s house. He woke up in a sweat. It suddenly struck him: death was staring the Greeks in the face, yet they lay around moaning, despairing, arguing. The problem was in their heads. Fightin for money rather than for a purpose or a cause, unable to distinguish between friend and foe, they had gotten lost. The barriers between them ”

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

Eventually Xenophon would help inspire the Greeks to forget about these internal battles and turn their fight outward onto the Persians. He told them to focus on one goal: Getting home to Greece. Inspired by this call to arms, the Greeks managed to elude the Persian army and get back to Greece in reduced, but still healthy numbers.

Now, what does that have to do with the Big Cactus? Let’s take a little look at his personal taste in movies:

“Remember, Shaq’s favorite movie is “The Warriors,” the ’70′s classic where the top gang leader in New York City (Cyrus) holds a gang summit and tries to organize the first-ever gang revolution. As Cyrus points out, the total number of gang members doubles the number of police officers in the city, which logically means that they can overpower them and take over everything. Apparently, he didn’t know about the National Guard, the FBI, the Army and the Marines. Anyway, Cyrus gets assassinated at the gang summit — one of the most devastating screen deaths ever, right up there with Sonny Corleone and Hooch — and everyone incorrectly blames the Warriors, an unassuming gang from Coney Island.”

Sound familiar? The Warriors is actually based off of Xenophon’s Anabasis. The struggle, the despair, the leader stepping up (Swan taking the place of Xenophon).

What is striking is that despite this being Shaq’s favorite movie, he doesn’t seem to have learned the deeper meaning behind the message of the film. If he did, he might very well be most dominant center ever. Simmons wrote a fascinating paragraph about Shaq’s reaction in the 2006 NBA Finals, that even with Shaq playing the Robin role he still couldn’t cede the spotlight. The victory had to be about him, in some form or the other.

Shaq has struggled with internal drama his entire career, to the detriment of his team and perhaps his legacy. That he could never show up and lead his team to big victories (and it’s still debatable whether he’s ever shown up). That the NBA had to change the rules so teams could defend him. That he never put in the work to make his damned free throws.  That everyone was out to get him. That his coaches were never good enough or masters of panic. That his teammates didn’t get him the ball enough. That his centers That his sidekicks (Penny, Kobe, Wade) were selfish and immature.  

Perhaps there’s some truth to that. Shaq is candid like that. But what does it tell us about Shaq that he says such things? Is he just trying to make excuses for his narcissism and self-indulgence?  He could’ve had at least seven to eight dominant seasons rather than three (imagine that 2000 season replicated six to seven times over), like Bill Russell and Kareem, and left the game as undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever play the game. Right now he’s sitting somewhere in the top 20, with two of his sidekicks (Kobe and Wade) on their way to surpassing him.

Shaq could’ve overcome all of this if he had the foresight of Xenophon or the will of Swan. Instead of being ruthless and destroying his opponents on the court after winning his first title, he retreated and did just enough to squeak his way to titles. If he had battled his inner insecurities and turned the inner drama into an external battle he waged to get to the top. 

But he could never truly crush his insecurities. His career won’t be a disappointment, but it’ll be diminished from what it could’ve been. Shaq can say he’s the greatest center ever all he wants. We all know the truth. He didn’t do quite enough to get out of Persia.

Introducing the Fark Map

 

The Fark Map is a map full of all the recent news stories detailed up on Fark

The Fark Map is a map full of all the recent news stories detailed up on Fark

Click here or on the image of the map for the full-screen map.

This is only the first prototype of a series of maps I’m trying to make utilizing stories from the Fark main page. What I’m trying to do is utilize Google Maps to help catalog current Fark events. For now the process is manual, since I’m trying to be as precise as possible. We’ll have to see what happens when it gets larger.

Hopefully this’ll make it easier for fans of Fark and those looking for the funniest news of the day more easily. Here’s the description of how the categories are bunched up:

Stories Key
Dumbass: Blue Marker
FAIL: Blue Marker w/o dot
Stupid: Blue Pin
Cool: Sky Blue Marker
Caption: Sky Blue Marker w/o dot
Spiffy: Sky Blue Pin
Scary: Purple Marker
Strange: Purple Pin
Weird: Green Marker
Followup: Green Marker w/o dot
Sappy: Green Pin
Interesting: Red Marker
Unlikely: Red Marker w/o dot
Asinine: Red Pin
Amusing: Light Red Marker
Ironic: Light Red Marker w/o dot 
Sad: Light Red Pin
Hero: Flag Marker
Florida: Sunshine Marker
Obvious: Yellow Marker
Silly: Yellow Marker w/o dot
Sick: Yellow Pin
PSA: Information button
Photoshop/Caption: Camera 
News: Television

The next step will probably be to separate the maps into categories so people can find events based on the event they’re looking for. This is far from a perfect project but I think it’s a pretty good start.
Two main ideas I have right now:

  • Separating the maps by day, finding a way to combine them into one.
  • Separating the maps by category, allowing the users to filter the events they want to see.

If you guys have any ideas how I can improve this, just comment away or shoot me an email: ramanujanredux at gmail dot com.