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LeBron_JamesHere’s the best way to determine a most valuable player on any team: look at how the team would have done without him, or her.

In the case of the NBA, look at Cleveland and Miami with and without LeBron James. Day and night aren’t much more extreme.

True: Golden State would have been far weaker without Steph Curry. Still, as essential as Steph is to Golden State, LeBron is at least as essential to Cleveland.

Here’s how to tell. Subtract four other starters from Golden State and see how they do. That’s pretty much what happened to Cleveland. The starting team LeBron played with after Kyrie Irving went out was not the one he had at the start of the season. And still he led his team to a pair of overtime games in Oakland, and kept his team in every game in the series at least through three quarters.

And LeBron is a true leader. He could score on every possession, yet still shares the ball like a point guard, with quick pinpoint passes that often baffle his opponents, and smart plays in which he plays a supporting role.

That he’s expected to win championships nearly every year he plays, like Michael Jordan did, is ludicrous. There are 30 teams in the NBA, and plenty of talent on even the worst of them. Every year there are injuries and changes, on nearly every team. (Sad example: Oklahoma City.) One reason Golden State won it all was that they were relatively injury free all year — and notably in the playoffs. The team they played in the finals was LeBron and his bench. (And yes, some of that bench was first-string elsewhere, like J.R. Smith, who was huge in the playoffs for Cleveland.)

Not saying this to take anything away from Andre Iguodala, who was key to Golden State’s success (though obviously less valuable than Steph Curry), and named MVP of the finals. I love Andre’s game. He’s a smart defender and a great nearly-all-round player (he shoots better threes than free throws). But LeBron is more than the best player in the game. He’s the best team member as well. And that deserves more mention than it gets.

One last thing. Yeah, I know that LeBron overrode and ignored his coach much of this year. But consider this: LeBron is more than the best player. He may also be the smartest. The man has a legendary memory of every game he’s played, and a keen sense of what his team and each of its players can and can’t do — possibly more keen than any coach.

A common sports media assumption right now is that David Blatt will be gone as Cleveland’s coach next year. Here’s a possibility to consider: LeBron replacing him as player-coach. It’s not like it hasn’t been done. Remember Bill Russell.

BasketballIf you care about sports at all, you need to see the NBA Finals this year. What you will see are the two best players, on the two best teams — perhaps ever.

We’re not talking just about talent here. We’re talking about teams. Basketball at its best is a pure team game, and these guys are showing how it’s done.

Let me lay out my loyalties here first. They don’t matter, but I might as well.

I’ll always be a Knicks fan. But I’m a Golden State fan too. For a number of years in the late 80s (the “Run TMC” era) I had season tickets to the Warriors. And when I lived in Boston (’07-’13) I rooted for the Celtics as well.

But I just love the game. And right now we are seeing two amazing teams play outstanding team ball.

The two stars — the best players of our time — LeBron James and Steph Curry, lead their teams beautifully. As players they are hugely different, mostly because LeBron is huge (6-8, 260) and Steph isn’t. LeBron is simply the best player in the world, and perhaps ever. He is also making his team — all of whom, other than LeBron himself, were second-stringers or elsewhere at the start of the season — better than Golden State, which has the best record in the league. Cleveland plays top-notch defense and share the ball all over the place. They played the first to games away, at Golden State, and were expected to lose. Instead they pushed both games to overtime and won the second one. Then they won another at home. that makes them better, at least through three games.

Meanwhile, count on Golden State making adjustments. Steph is not only the best shooter in history (my opinion, and I’m not alone), but a brilliant ball-handler and a magician on the floor. He leads his team and gets everybody involved. All of them share the ball and are totally unselfish.

I gotta say I’ve been slow to warm up to LeBron over the years. But after watching what he’s done in Cleveland, and how he’s led his team, making every player on the floor better, every game, I’m in awe. If you love the game, you have to love the way that man plays. His worth and stature as one of the all-time-great team players only grows.

Same with Steph.

I want to see this thing go seven games. Only one team will win at the end. But so will the whole game, and every fan.

Alas, I’m probably going to miss some. I’m tied up and on the road right now, and probably will be for the next few weeks. So expect sparse blogging and tweeting. Just saying.

I remember the first time I saw Dwight Durante shoot. It was in the old Guilford College gym. Catawba College was the visiting team. Guilford in those days was a small college basketball powerhouse, ranked among the top NAIA schools. Our coach was future hall-of-famer Jerry Steele. We had three players who would be drafted by the pros (Ed Fellers, Pat Moriarty and Bob Kauffman, who went on to become an NBA all-star, coach and general manager). Catawba was good but not quite great, and sure to lose.

Not far past the half court line on Catawba’s first possession, Dwight Durante fired up what would have been a desperation shot for an ordinary player. But for Durante it was like a layup. Swish. The whole crowd’s jaw dropped.For the rest of the game, Durante perforated the Guilford defense with artful moves, but kept blowing everybody’s mind with these extremely long shots. I forget the final score, but I remember that Guilford lost.

All those long shots were worth just two points each. Two more decades would pass before the 3-point shot arrived. From a 2007 story by Mike London in the Salisbury (NC) post:

Eighty amateur basketball stars gathered in New Mexico in the spring of 1968 for the Olympic Trials.  Only 12 would be chosen for the USA team that would compete for a gold medal in Mexico City.  Pete Maravich, Charlie Scott, Rick Mount and JoJo White were there.  So was the nation’s most famous little man, 5-foot-9 All-American Calvin Murphy, who could dunk two balls at a time.  But the sensation of those trials was a 5-8 junior from Catawba who scored 44 points, tied Murphy in knots and led the NAIA all-stars to three straight victories.

His name was Dwight Durante, and while the selection committee wasn’t going to put a 5-8 NAIA kid on the team, Durante proved he could play with the best.  “I had a great tournament,” Durante said at Catawba’s basketball reunion.  “I almost made it.”

Durante’s name is still whispered on the Catawba campus four decades after his heyday.  He was a lefty scoring machine with lightning in his legs.  He shot often, connected often.

The Catawba record book remains his personal property: most career points (2,913), most points in a game (58), highest scoring average for a season (32.1).  He averaged 29.4 points per game for his career.  He scored 777 more points than Bill Bailey, Catawba’s No. 2 all-time scorer.

Durante did what he did despite an unfortunate suspension that cost him nearly half his sophomore year and an injury that hobbled him for a month his senior year.  And he did it without benefit of the 3-point shot.

“I figure 60 percent of his field goals would have been 3-pointers,” said Sam Moir,  Durante’s coach at Catawba.  “His teammates have told me, ‘No, Coach, it would have to be 70 percent.’  Dwight had great legs — he wore ankle braces in practice — and he could elevate and shoot accurately from 25, 26 feet.”

…”He was Allen Iverson, but he was Iverson with range,” said James Brown, a Catawba Hall of Famer who used to sneak into gyms as a youngster to watch Durante’s magic act.  “If Dwight was coming out of college now, he’d get a multi-million dollar contract.”

Yes, he was that good — and decades ahead of his time. Catawba has more famous alumni, but none better at any sport than Dwight Durante. That’s why I just added him to the Catawba’s notable alumni list in Wikipedia, with three citations (you’re welcome). One of those, a list of all Globetrotters players, has Dwight listed at 5’6″. I think that’s closer to correct, but I dunno.

Other small-college players I was lucky to see back then: Gene Littles of High Point College, Henry Logan of Western Carolina University, and Earl Monroe and William English of Winston Salem State University. All were great. (Earl was my fave, and the finest ball-handler of the day.) But none could shoot like Dwight Durante. I’m not sure anybody ever will.

[Later…] I just found this 1996 item in the Sports Illustrated vault:

Dwight Durante, a 5-foot-8 freshman guard at Catawba College, Salisbury, N.C., tallied 58 points against Western Carolina to set a new single-game scoring record in the Carolinas Conference. Durante is the league’s leading scorer with a 30.1 average.

I remember that little piece because of what Jerry Steele said after Carl Sheer, Guilford’s play-by-play announcer, brought it up after a victory over Catawba. “Well,” said Jerry, in his slow Carolina drawl, “Dwight Durante might have his picture in Sports Illustrated. But I’ve got Bob Kauffman’s picture in my bedroom.”

(BTW, I would love to put a picture of Dwight, from back in the decade, at the top of this post. If anybody has one to point out or send along, please do.)

Check out this map:

deflationgate-mapThis isn’t new. Way back in 2008, after the Patriots’ undefeated season ended with a Super Bowl loss to the Giants, The Onion wrote Patriots Season Perfect for Rest of Nation. It’s easy to hate an overdog.

Sports is an emotional thing. We care about teams, games and players because we care about them. And, because we care, we have inventories of sports knowledge that we enjoy enlarging through reading, watching, listening and talking to others who care about the same stuff.

Sports also holds us together. When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, there were four topics everybody talked about: the Depression, the War, sports and TV. The first two are long gone, and TV is shattering into a zillion sub-breeds of video. In fact the only breed of TV programming that still needs to be seen live, on schedule, is sports. Thus sports rules what’s left of broadcasting. It’s also what keeps newspapers alive.

When games aren’t on, about all you can do with sports is talk about it. Subjects come and go, but all are fueled by the need to talk about something, or anything. Hence the big topic of the moment: #deflationgate.

I’ll put my loyalty cards on the table: I like the New England Patriots. But I’m not hard core, or a lifer. I’ve hung out in New England for the last eight and a half years, and I’ve come to favor the teams there. But I also grew up in New Jersey, just across the river from New York, where I am right now. When I was a kid I cared a lot more about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Mets, Giants and Knicks than I do now about the Patriots or the Celtics. During my twenty years in North Carolina, I became a Duke basketball fan. (I also like Carolina, Wake, State and Virginia, in roughly that order.) When I lived in the Bay Area, for more than a decade and a half, I became a fan of the Giants, 49ers and Warriors. In fact I had season tickets to Warriors games for several years. So mostly I like sports, and that’s my main point. Can’t help it.

Yet something I care about more than any team or sport is journalism. That’s been my vocation or avocation for all my adult life, and I take its virtues seriously. I also see those virtues lacking in most coverage of #deflationgate. Sure, sports coverage is mostly about opinion, the best of which is “analysis.” But how about just some actual journalism here?

I mean, wtf are the facts? Do we actually know the ones that matter, for sure? We know some of the rules and official procedures, and that’s cool. But as for who did what, when and how, we have nothing. From Bill Belichick and Tom Brady we have denials of knowing anything about the under-inflated balls used by the Patriots in their last game, against the Colts. (Note that I don’t say “deflated,” because I’ve read or heard nothing from anybody about deflation of the balls; but we all know they had to have been inflated at some point.) Those denials, even if they prove wrong, are facts. As for the rest of the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How Much, the ratio of fact to opinion in coverage of the topic runs about one in a thousand, or worse. Who inflated and/or deflated the footballs, when, where, and how? Who inspected them — where, when and how? Perhaps by now the league knows. But the rest of us haven’t heard much more than speculation.

The most unhelpful speculations are ad hominem arguments made against the Pats, Belichick and Brady. Yes, the Belichick and the Pats were caught cheating once. That doesn’t mean they cheated this time. Matt Leinart tweets that every team tampers with their footballs. Presumably that’s an informed opinion, but it’s still just an opinion. Where’s the proof? The same question survives John Madden fingering Brady as the buck-stopper. It’s just opinion. No facts there.

But sentiment runs strong, especially against overdogs. I hated the New York Yankees when I was growing up, even though I liked Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and other Yankees players. It’s easy to hate the Patriots, with their pretty-boy quarterback and their coach who bathes in a tub full of warm entrails. But we need facts here.

Credit where due: CBS Sports, Heavy. Got any others? Love to see ’em.

Back in the early ’90s I was waiting for an elevator one night at a high rise hotel when I was joined by a group of Miami heat basketball players and Jack Ramsay, who was then most famously the former coach of the Portland Trailblazers, a team he led to an NBA championship in 1977. But he had coached a number of other teams, including the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) during my former schoolmate Bob Kauffman‘s time there. So I thought, “Oh. Jack Ramsay is coaching the Heat now.” Back in those days Miami was not a great team, and even as a fan I was paying no attention to them. But the team was paying attention to Dr. Ramsay. That much was clear.

We got on the elevator together. The tallest players, 7-foot Matt Geiger among them, had to cock their heads toward one shoulder to avoid bumping the ceiling. I was crowded into a corner like a piece of luggage. The team had just lost a game. For the whole trip up to the Nth floor, Jack talked to the guys about what you can learn by losing that you can’t by winning — in useful detail. It was obvious that the old guy was still a great coach, and that the players had great respect for him. By that I mean, they weren’t just being nice. They were listening, carefully.

It was only later that I learned that Jack was not the coach, officially. His job was color commentary on Heat broadcasts.

All basketball fans by now have learned something from Doctor Jack, who went on to share his wisdom and experience over ESPN and other outlets. The man always had something interesting to add to the time-filling blather that comprises most of sports commentary.

So I just learned that the good doctor passed this morning, at age 89. I also learned that he enlisted for service in the U.S. Navy at age 19 during World War II, and shortly thereafter became the platoon leader of an underwater demolitions team — the forerunner of today’s Navy Seals. I suppose he was younger during his service than most or all of the players he taught in that elevator. Tougher too, I’m sure.

Ghandi said we should learn as if we’ll live forever and live as if we’ll die tomorrow. Jack Ramsey was clearly one of those guys who did both, for all his life.

I love watching basketball. Loved playing it too, back in the Millennium. I grew up a Knicks fan. In my North Carolina years (’65-’85) I was a fan first of Guilford College (my alma mater), then of the ACC’s Big Four (Carolina, Duke, State and Wake). I have many family connections to Wake, lived in Chapel Hill, worked at Duke, and loved the way Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano coached State. When I moved to California in ’85 I became a Golden State Warriors fan, and for several years had shares of season tickets. They were good years too. (e.g. Run TMC.) After moving to Santa Barbara I got into the Clippers a bit, but mostly followed the game itself. Then, when I got the Berkman gig in ’06, I became a Celtics fan. More about that after the next paragraph.

I’m no better a judge of teams and their management than the next fan, and possibly worse. Like, when Mike Krzyzewski replaced the much-loved Bill Foster at Duke, I said “there’s nothing about that guy that a blow-dry and a sense of humor wouldn’t cure.” (For that to make any sense, you had to be there.) Anyway, it became something of a meme, which was mean and unfair, as well as wrong. Coach K’s job at that time was re-building a team that wasn’t playing much better than .500 ball. He never smiled and seemed to spend whole games doing nothing but snapping at officials. Who knew he was building the most solid and productive program in all of college basketball? Or that he would become the winningest college coach of all time? Not me.

The Celtics under Doc Rivers were easy to like, especially after they put together the Big Three: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. They won a championship in ’08 and came close twice after that. Garnett and Pierce were, respectively, the heart and soul of the team. It was a bummer to lose Ray Allen to the Heat in ’11, but the team stayed strong, and got another solid outside shooter with Jason Terry. If they hadn’t lost Rajon Rondo to an injury this season, they might have made a run at the championship. But it was clear, after getting wiped out by the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs this year, that the Celtics had to re-build. The only question was how. The answer came a few days ago, when GM Danny Ainge traded Doc Rivers to the Clippers for a first-round draft pick, and then sent Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to the Nets for three more first round picks and a collection of second-string players. Now the Celtics have nothing but promise, and the Clippers and Nets are richer by far. How does this make sense?

In sports media the decision by Celtics GM Danny Ainge gets a lot of bad reviews, because he seems to have given up a lot of something (including their heart and soul) for a literal nothing — at least until they draft well, in future years. But Danny had no choice. He had to rebuild with what he had, which was trade bait. If he continued to ride his old horses into the ground, he would have had nothing to deal with. So he got the most he could while they were still valuable. As for Doc Rivers, who can blame him for not wanting to coach a losing team through the rest of his contract? I don’t envy whoever gets the Celtics coaching job; but I do like Danny’s chances of building a good new team, especially if Rajon Rando is a capable leader. Remember this: basketball players keep getting better and better. There will be no bad players among Danny’s draft picks.

The Nets look good for now. With Pierce, Garnett, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams they have the best starting five in the game. Yes, Pierce and Garnett are both old and bound to run out of gas, but they’re still all-stars, and make the Nets a solid franchise. Jason Kidd as a coach is an unknown, but I suspect he’ll mix well with the new talent, who are guys he knows well and respects. You can bet Jason Kidd counseled Brooklyn GM Billy King on trading for the three Celtics players. Billy clearly wants to make the boldest possible moves for at least the next year. Which won’t be easy. Not only are the Heat still the best team in the league (and champs the last two seasons), but — with the Bulls, Pacers and Knicks — the East is still the strongest division in the game. And Brooklyn is now a marquee franchise, up there with the Knicks in New York and the Lakers and Clippers in Los Angeles. Great players from lesser cities will want to play there. This will help after Garnett and Pierce are gone in a year or two.

So, hanging as much as I do in New York and Boston, I expect watching basketball in both will be plenty of fun this next year.

As for the Clippers, they got a great coach. I’ll miss Doc, but I wish him luck.

Bonus link.

 

Interested in the NBA all-star game? Go to the latter (at that link) and you’ll see a panel for AllStarBallot.NBA.com. Go there and you’ll find Step 1:

Sign in or create an account as an NBA.com All-Access member.

SIGN IN TO VOTE

CREATE AN ACCOUNT

Click the second link and you’ll find a pop-over form with lots of personal stuff to type in to boxes, followed by this:

   

By clicking the Sign Me Up to Vote button, (1) you acknowledge that we may communicate with you at the email address you have supplied regarding your membership benefits and that we reserve the right to change membership terms, benefits and access at our sole discretion and (2) you accept and agree to our Terms of Useand our updated Privacy Policy..

Yo, NBA. Let me talk a little trash here.

First, creating an account is fine, even if it’s very 1995.

Second, don’t pre-check something to make opt-out look like opt-in. That move doesn’t sell anything to my defense.

Third, you’re not scoring shit with that small print. Yeah, I know it’s the usual stuff. I don’t care. It gives me nothing but junk mail and exposure to stuff I don’t want, including stuff I don’t even know I don’t want until it happens and I may not even be able to tell it happened because you let it happen. Enough of that crap.

You want to crowd-source all-star voting by fans? Let them come up with their own system. This one is as old-fashioned and broken as the no-dunk rule.

Apple TV (whatever it ends up being called) will kill cable. It will also give TV new life in a new form.

manhole coverIt won’t kill the cable companies, which will still carry data to your house, and which will still get a cut of the content action, somehow. But the division between cable content and other forms you pay for will be exposed for the arbitrary thing it is, in an interactive world defined by the protocols of the Internet, rather than by the protocols of television. It will also contain whatever deals Apple does for content distribution.

These deals will be motivated by a shared sense that Something Must Be Done, and by knowing that Apple will make TV look and work better than anybody else ever could. The carriers have seen this movie before, and they’d rather have a part in it than outside of it. For a view of the latter, witness the fallen giants called Sony and Nokia. (A friend who worked with the latter called them “a tree laying on the ground,” adding “They put out leaves every year. But that doesn’t mean they’re standing up.”)

I don’t know anything about Apple’s plans. But I know a lot about Apple, as do most of us. Here are the operative facts as they now stand (or at least as I see them):

  1. Apple likes to blow up categories that are stuck. They did it with PCs, laptops, printers, mp3 players, smartphones, music distribution and retailing. To name a few.
  2. TV display today is stuck in 1993. That’s when the ATSC (which defined HDTV standards) settled on the 16:9 format, with 1080 pixels (then called “lines”) of vertical resolution, and with picture clarity and sound quality contained within the data carrying capacity of a TV channel 6MHz wide. This is why all “Full HD” screens remain stuck at 1080 pixels high, no matter how physically large those screens might be. It’s also why more and more stand-alone computer screens are now 1920 x 1080. They’re made for TV. Would Steve Jobs settle for that? No way.
  3. Want a window into the future where Apple makes a TV screen that’s prettier than all others sold? Look no farther than what Apple says about the new iPad‘s resolution:
  4. Cable, satellite and over-the-air channels are still stuck at 6MHz of bandwidth (in the original spectrum-based meaning of that word). They’re also stuck with a need to maximize the number of channels within a finite overall bandwidth. This has resulted in lowered image quality on most channels, even though the images are still, technically, “HD”. That’s another limitation that surely vexed Steve.
  5. The TV set makers (Sony, Visio, Samsung, Panasonic, all of them) have made operating a simple thing woefully complicated, with controls (especially remotes) that defy comprehension. The set-top-box makers have all been nearly as bad for the duration. Same goes for the makers of VCR, DVD, PVR and other media players. Home audio-video system makers too. It’s a freaking mess, and has been since the ’80s.
  6. Steve at AllThingsD on 2 June 2010: “The only way that’s ever going to change is if you can really go back to square one and tear up the set-top-box and redesign it from scratch with a consistent UI, withall these different functions, and get it to the consumer in a way they are willing to pay for. We decided, what product do you want most? A better tv or a better phone? A better TV or a tablet? … The TV will lose until there is a viable go-to-market strategy. That’s the fundamental problem.” He also called Apple TV (as it then stood) a “hobby”, for that reason. But Apple is bigger now, and has far more market reach and clout. In some categories it’s nearly a monopoly already, with at least as much leverage as Microsoft ever had. And you know that Apple hasn’t been idle here.
  7. Steve Jobs was the largest stockholder in Disney. He’s gone, but the leverage isn’t. Disney owns ABC and ESPN.
  8. The main thing that keeps cable in charge of TV content is not the carriers, but ESPN, which represents up to 40% of your cable bill, whether you like sports or not. ESPN isn’t going to bypass cable — they’ve got that distribution system locked in, and vice versa. The whole pro sports system, right down to those overpaid athletes in baseball and the NBA, depend on TV revenues, which in turn rest on advertising to eyeballs over a system made to hold those eyeballs still in real time. “There are a lot of entrenched interests,” says Peter Kafka in this On the Media segment. The only thing that will de-entrench them is serious leverage from somebody who can make go-to-market, UI, quality, and money-flow work. Can Apple do that without Steve? Maybe not. But it’s still the way to bet.

Cable folks have a term for video distribution on the net Net. They call it “over the top“. Of them, that is, and their old piped content system.

That’s actually what many — perhaps most — viewers would prefer: an à la carte choice of “content” (as we have now all come to say). Clearly the end state is one in which you’ll pay for some stuff while other stuff is free. Some of it will be live, and some of it recorded. That much won’t be different. The cable companies will also still make money for keeping you plugged in. That is, you’ll pay for data in any case. You’ll just pay more for some content. Much of that content will be what we now pay for on cable: HBO, ESPN and the rest. We’ll just do away with the whole bottom/top thing because there will be no need for a bottom other than a pipe to carry the content. We might still call some  sources “channels”; and surfing through those might still have a TV-like UI. But only if Apple decides to stick with the convention. Which they won’t, if they come up with a better way to organize things, and make selections easy to make and pay for.

This is why the non-persuasiveness of Take My Money, HBO doesn’t matter. Not in the long run. The ghost of Steve is out there, waiting. You’ll be watching TV his way. Count on it.

We’ll still call it TV, because we’ll still have big screens by that name in our living rooms. But what we watch and listen to won’t be contained by standards set in 1993, or by carriers and other “stakeholders” who never could think outside the box.

Of course, I could be wrong. But no more wrong than the system we have now.

Bonus link.

Another.

I enjoyed watching the Kentucky-Kansas NCAA Championship game last night, but not nearly as much as I have earlier finals, such as the Butler-Duke game two years ago. That game was in doubt even during the final second, when Gordon Hayward came inches away from winning it for Butler with a 45-foot shot released microseconds before the buzzer.

Here’s the difference. Duke-Butler was a college basketball game. The stars were college players, most of which might have had NBA fantasies, but only four of which were drafted: Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Lance Thomas and Kyle Singler. Three still play in the NBA. Singler plays in Europe. Of the NBA players, only Hayward is a starter. [Later… see corrections in the comments below.]

The Kansas-Kentucky final was a pro game. By that I mean that the game showcased a lot of future NBA talent. “What I’m hoping is there’s six first-rounders on this team.” Kentucky coach John Calipari told the LA Times. “We were the first program to have five, let’s have six.” On the Kansas side, there’s Thomas Robinson for sure. Others likely to be drafted, when available, are Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson. Another way of looking at it: Kansas-Kentucky was a college-pro game. Kansas was the college team, and Kentucky was the pro team.

But still, all the perennial high-seed college teams — including Kansas — have become showcases for NBA-bound talent. UNC, which many (including President Obama) expected to win it all this year, just saw three of their starters declare for the NBA draft. Last year’s top draft pick was Kyrie Irving, who played less than one year for Duke (he was injured some of the time). Austin Rivers, a freshman star at Duke this year, has also just declared for the NBA draft.

Part of me wants to believe that every great team takes years to assemble, even given the yearly attrition of talented underclassmen and graduating seniors. Yet the Kentucky team that won the championship this year was a very tight, well-coached and utterly unselfish team. They played some of the best team defense I’ve ever seen. I’d bet that John Calipari could put together an all-freshman team and get more than 30 wins in a season. Of course talent is required, but so is coaching, and a program that’s geared for one-and-done players prepping for their NBA careers by putting in a year at Kentucky. Even though most of those players won’t last, even if they do get drafted.

The 2012 Early Entry List at NBAdraft.net tells a story by itself. A handful of the the 107 players listed there will make it in the NBA. And that makes the unspoken sub-story of the tournament even more poignant. The Onion, as usual, surfaces those stories, with Totally Predictable Ending To Wild NCAA Tournament Prepares Student-Athletes For The Rest Of Their Miserable, Ho-Hum Lives and Nation Abuzz With Prospect Of 18-Year-Old Boys Having Their Dreams Crushed.

Which means that the NIT is now the only true college tournament, because — being comprised of teams that couldn’t make the NCAA playoff cut — they feature few future NBA players. Stanford won this year, and none of its players are on NBAdraft.net‘s list.

I’m not wringing my hands over this. Only pointing out a fact that just became clearer.

The Knicks just beat the Pacers, 102 to 88, in Indiana. Jeremy Lin had 19 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 1 block. He only had two turnovers — his one problem stat.  But that problem will end, because Jeremy Lin is a learner. That’s the second reason why he won’t be relegated to the bench from whence he came only six weeks ago. The first reason is that he’s clearly way better than the average NBA point guard, and better than many other starters as well. A lot of other teams would very much like to have Jeremy Lin starting for them.

Many in the media had written off Jeremy Lin after the Knicks hit the skid that ended with Mike D’Antoni’s resignation as head coach. But Jeremy has participated in the Knicks’ three straight wins since then, as a starter. I listened to the fourth quarter of this game, and he was the Main Man down the stretch, grabbing rebounds, getting steals, distributing the ball, drawing fouls, and hitting four straight free throws without a miss.

Not many people have visited the possibility that Jeremy Lin went undrafted because he wasn’t this good then. He got this good by playing against better competition, and learning every step of the way.

Look at his stats across four years at Harvard. When he arrived, recalled a Harvard coach, he was physically the weakest player on the team. Lin fixed that, and he’s still fixing it. All his stats went up, for the most part steadily. Yet most weren’t as high as he’s achieving now as a starting pro in the NBA.

Some players are already great in high school. A lot of those stay great through their few years in college, and a relative few make it in the NBA. And many of those are done growing as players, once they get there. They become like chess pieces. You know what they’re good for, and use them for that.

But others are on trajectories that start later and grow in a more linear way. Hall-of-Famer Hakeem Olajuwon didn’t play basketball until he was fifteen, the same age at which Michael Jordan didn’t make the cut for his high school varsity team. Both men improved steadily through college and in the NBA. The main difference with Jeremy Lin is that he improved later.

My wife’s business partner, who was a mentor twenty years her senior, was one of the smartest people I ever met. And one of the wisest as well. When I asked her why she wanted to go into business with my wife, she said, “because I could teach her what she didn’t know, and she already knew what I couldn’t teach.”

I think the same thing applies to the best athletes. They are talented, but teachable. They can learn what they don’t know, and improve what don’t do well enough yet.

Jeremy Lin is that kind of player. Unless he gets injured, he’ll be fine. And so will team he plays with, if they’re ready to catch the ball.

When this is done, Linsanity will mean Lin sanity.

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