N.E.R.D. & Rihanna - Lemon

It's been a long time since we've heard new music from N.E.R.D., their last single dropped in 2014, but the members of the group have stayed busy. Pharrell Williams has had huge hits both in his work with Daft Punk and the megahit "Happy." As the super producing duo The Neptunes, Williams and N.E.R.D. band mate Chad Hugo have worked with a who's who of the music industry including: Kendrick Lamar, Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris, Beyonce, Jay-Z and Daft Punk. If you have listened to pop music in the past 20 years, you have been listening to the work of Williams and Hugo. 

Songwriting has never been the forte of N.E.R.D. but it's hard to question their beat making prowess. On this new track,"Lemon," they bring in Rhianna a.k.a. the hardest working singer in show business to lay down a quick and dirty verse. Who knows if this single portends a new N.E.R.D. album in the near future, but it's fun to hear new music from the creative minds behind so much great music. 

A conversation with George Saunders and Jason Isbell

There may be no better story tellers in their respective fields than George Saunders and Jason Isbell. Good on GQ for having the idea to bring the two together to have a sit-down conversation. All too often you see interviews with creative folk, in which the interviewee has become so used to the questions and beats of an interview that her answers become robotic. When you sit the same person down with a person that they admire, who is coming from a similar yet mechanically different field, it can lead to a really engrossing conversation. 

Saunders just became the second American ever to win the Man Booker Prize for his staggering novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo," which is right at the top of my list of favorite books of 2017.  His short story collections "Tenth of December" and "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" are absolute must reads for someone looking to get into the form. Saunders is able to mix elements of science-fiction, postmodernism and satire to great effect. His stories often feature flawed but deeply grounded characters, dazzling dialogue, a feeling of displacement, and an inevitable, emotional gut punch. 

I've only recently come across the work of Jason Isbell, and have found in his music a portal into the country/western style that I have always remained willfully ignorant of. I think what attracts me to a singer/songwriter like Isbell is a deep and unrelenting vulnerability that inhabits his work. Bad country music has a stench of inauthenticity, but there is something raw and searing about Isbell's work that cuts through all the stereotypes of his genre. You can tell that Jason is proud of his musical tradition, while challenging the conventions of contemporary country. 

As I get older it get's harder to keep my tastes from crystallizing, and I'm always thrilled when someone comes along and challenges the misconceptions I have about a the world. I'm not sure what will end up being my favorite album of 2017, but you can be damn sure that "if We Were Vampires" will be my favorite song of the year. 

If you are the kind of person who loves to listen to talented people talking about their craft, this conversation will not disappoint. I've listened to parts of it multiple times, and it is one of the best videos I've come across all year. 

Here come the iPhone X first impressions

It's been a long time coming for Apple fans, but the iPhone X is finally starting to get into people's hands. There have been a rash of hands-on impressions over the last two days, and people seem to be mostly positive about their experiences with Apple's new flagship.

Here are a couple of videos:

MKHD:

The Verge:

Engadget:

A couple of notes about what I've seen and heard about the iPhone X so far. 

  • The OLED screen on the X appears to not have the same problems that people are currently experiencing with the Google Pixel 2.  It's obviously too early to learn about any potential problems with burn-in, but people seem to be happy with the display on these things. 
  • The Notch still baffles me. I've been buying and using Apple products for a long time now, and I don't think I've ever seen a design decision quite as off-putting as the notch on the screen of the iPhone X. I understand that there needed to be room at the top of the display for a front-facing camera, microphone, and speakers, but there were just more elegant ways to design around this than the notch. 
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To be fair, people have been noting that you kind of forget about the notch after you have been using the phone for awhile, but I don't think that forgives bad design. No one should be happy to have a sizable chunk of your screen obscured when you go to watch a video in landscape:

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There are going to be apps that are not optimized for the notch, and since this phone's design will be the minority when it comes to the total iPhone population in the wild, it may take awhile for your favorite apps to be optimized for the new form factor. 

  • The biggest worry I have about the iPhone X out of the box is how well it's facial recognition works in real life conditions. An edge-to-edge display means the X is completely reliant on this new technology to preform the most basic, yet vital, operation of the phone: unlock. In the verge video, Nilay Patel, said he had some issues getting the phone to recognize his face when he was at a brightly lit deli. I was shocked to hear that he had any problems at all. Think about how annoying it would be if your phone didn't unlock even 1/100th of the time. Now imagine you are out in public, say waiting in line at a deli, and have to keep brining the phone up to your face to get it to unlock. Yuck. 

    To be fair, other reviewers have said they have not experienced any problems with the facial recognition on the X, but we are obviously in early days here. There's no way for Apple to test all of the different ways this phone can fail from a software standpoint until these units are in the wild, and I'm certain once they have relevant data they will throw their entire weight at smoothing out any wrinkles in Face ID. However, be there any hardware limitations in these phones that cause Face ID to fail on a regular basis, it will be the biggest crisis the company has had to face since the release of the original iPhone. 
  • I'm already a hard pass on Animojis, and I think it's insane that they are playing such a big part in a lot of these first impression videos. Maybe I'm just an old crank, who needs to learn how to live a little, but seriously, get off my yard with that garbage. 
  • The most important feature of a smartphone for me is the camera, and it will be awhile before we know how well it stands up to other flagships when it comes to taking pictures. For as much as Apple lauded their front-facing portrait mode photos, MKHD said in his impressions video that the Google Pixel 2 actually was outperforming the X in that arena. 

This is the first time in awhile that I'm actually in the market for a new cell phone when a new version of the iPhone hardware is set to release. It would make since for me to buy an iPhone this time around now that I'm mostly invested in Apple ecosystem, but I'm not sold on dishing out a cool grand to have the newest and flashiest phone on the market. That's not too say that I'm unimpressed at what Apple has seemingly accomplished with the X. There is no doubt that we are going to be living in a future in which phones have no bezels, and rely on facial and audible recognition to accomplish all kinds of tasks, but I wouldn't bank o a first generation product to be really great at these sorts of things. I've been in the tech game long enough to know that early adopters always got burnt in one way or another. 

In a year win which Apple has released the iPhone 8, which in many ways is the pinnacle of their design language of the last five years, I would caution those who are chomping at the bit to buy the next big thing. Most people purchase a new cell phone around every two years. Even if you were to buy an iPhone 8 this year, I don't think you would be missing out on much. I have my doubts that the current iPhone X design is going to be the way that iPhone's look three or four years down the road. If you are one of the many who have already pre-ordered the X, I hope that it is worth every penny you paid for it. When they announced this phone back in September I was expecting a leap frog product that would make other phones feel automatically dated by comparison, but I'm not sure the X is that phone.

Caveat Emptor. 

Hayward's injury haunts NBA Opening Night

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Let’s just get it out of the way: the Gordon Hayward injury that happened early in the Cavs-Celtics NBA opening game was horrific. I’m not going to show how it happened because those who have not seen it probably don’t want to see it at this point, and those who have probably regret it. When Hayward fell to the ground there was an audible crack that I will probably never be able to unhear. Kevin Harlan, who was calling the game for TNT, was beside himself, screaming that Hayward had broken his leg. It turns out that Hayward has a dislocated ankle and a fractured tibia. Players from both teams were visibly shaken, some of them were in tears. In was one of the more awful things I’ve ever seen in an NBA game. I was amazed that the game even continued.

It’s not at all what I was hoping for from the start of the NBA season, but the guys on the court are professionals, and the game went on, with Cleveland winning 102-99. The Celtics went down by 18 early but came back on the strength (literally) of Marcus Smart, who was a one-man wrecking crew, bulldozing Kyle Korver to the basket on three straight possessions.

With Hayward sidelined, Jaylen Brown and Jason Tatum both got a lot of playing time. Both first-round picks got off to a rocky start, but Brown hit a couple of big threes to keep the Celtics in the game and finished the night with 25 points and six rebounds. Tatum took some lumps, getting his first shot in the NBA rejected by LeBron James (of course there are worse ways to start your career), but as the game progressed Tatum settled down and ended up with a 14 point, 10 rebound, double-double. With Hayward out for the season, the success of this young Celtics team now rests on the quick development of Brown and Tatum.

The narrative going into the game centered around Kyrie Irving, who asked for a trade away from the Cavs just a few months prior to the start of the season. Kyrie got his fair share of boos to begin the game, but the animosity faded after the Hayward injury.

 

Once again it was LeBron James leading the way for the Cavaliers, he scored 29 points on a hyper-efficient 12-of-19 shooting, while just missing a triple-double with 16 rebounds and nine assists. I’m not sure what’s left to be said about LeBron James at this point. He’s a national treasure, and we should all be appreciating his performances like they are works of Picasso, we’ll call this era his burgundy period.

Major injuries like the one Gordon Hayward suffered tonight are devastating. I can’t imagine what it’s like to move to a new city, with hopes of competing for a title and have your life turned upside down like that. It’s the nature of professional sports that we are already wondering how the Celtics will recover as an organization from the injury, and soon the spotlight will be moving away from Hayward completely and he will be left to recover in relative obscurity. Here’s hoping that recovery is a quick one.


The late game was a much lighter affair with Golden State getting their rings before the game, a game they would lose to the Rockets 122–121. Kevin Durant drained a shot in the final moments that would have given Golden State the lead, but after review, the shot was waved off, as his fingertips were still on the ball as the clock struck triple zeroes.

This was a sloppy game. The two teams combined for 29 turnovers. Chris Paul never found his rhythm in the game, scoring just four points on 2–9 shooting. He was in foul trouble early and often and looked like he was walking with a limp for much of the game. If you went into this season thinking that Paul was not a great fit for the Rockets, this game did not do much to change your mind. The Rocket’s offense would often stagnate when Paul was at the controls, and when Houston made their run late it was with CP3 on the bench.

Speaking of benches, it was a couple of the Rocket’s new bench players Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker, along with last year’s Six Man of the Year award winner Eric Gordon who carried the team down the stretch. The three reserves, who were the only Houston players to come off the bench tonight, combined for 58 points.

The Warriors got some bad news on the injury front with Draymond Green leaving the game with a left knee sprain. With no Draymond or Andre Iguodala in the lineup, their defense looked porous at times against the Rockets. The offense had moments of brilliance. Klay Thompson started the game off hot, hitting a deluge of long balls, but, as can happen with Klay, he kind of got lost in the shuffle. Young must have felt left-out at the ring ceremony, because he came off the bench and dropped 20 points in the first half, hitting his first four threes and ending up with 23 points, but somehow he had the team’s worst +/- number with a -10 on the night.

The Warriors just seemed a little off on both their offensive and defensive rotations. Head Coach Steve Kerr made it a point to get his entire bench into the game early (except for poor JaVale McGee), and I think that mishmash of lineups had something to do with all the turnovers and blown defensive assignments. I’m sure once the exhilaration of getting their rings wears off, and Kerr locks in on the team’s roster rotations, Golden State will be right back to their dominating ways.

It was a bit of a somber opening night, but the fact that both games were close down the stretch did a little to make up for its awful start. Tomorrow night there is a full slate of games, with Boston having to play Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back. It will be interesting to see how the team responds. It would not surprise me if they came out a little bit flat after showing so much heart against the Cavaliers tonight.

Gordon Hayward is probably lying in a Boston hospital bed trying to figure out what the hell happened, and what the are first steps to recovery. He’s about to start the long journey to get back into the league he loves. He’ll be in my thoughts as we get this long journey that is the regular season started. Let’s hope opening day plus one is memorable for other reasons.

Happy NBA Opening Day Everyone!

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Let’s all rejoice, for it is the dawning of the NBA regular season. To celebrate such a heady occasion, let’s make some harebrained predictions about some season-ending awards.

 

MVP: Kawhi Leonard

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With all of the upheaval happening around the league, you can expect some of the usual suspects to win MVP: James Harden, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, to lose votes due to the talent level of their respective teams. The only MVP candidates that will really have to carry their squad to success are Kawhi and LeBron James. If the MVP was assigned to the league’s best player every year, LeBron would need to buy a couple more trophy cases, but there are other biases that affect this award. The Cavs showed last year that they are not stressing the importance of getting the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but are concerned about how many minutes James plays. It would not surprise me in the least if The King takes an in-season mini-vacation, like he did a couple of years ago, to be able to maximize his talents in the playoffs.

There were a lot of smart basketball minds who voted for Leonard to be MVP last year: Zach Lowe, Haralabob Voulgaris, and Tom Haberstroh were all on the Kawhi train last year. And for good reason, Leonard averaged 26 PPG on 61% true shooting for a team that won 61 games. His defense has always been an area of his game that is the hardest to quantify, although he did finish the season 6th in defensive win shares and 8th in defensive rating. If you spend any time talking to NBA players, scouts, or executives, they will tell you that no single defender has as much impact on a game as Leonard.

 

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There are three areas in the court in which an NBA player has to excel in to be considered great. He has to be able to finish at the rim and hit the three-ball, that’a given, but the player who can exploit the openings in a defense from the midrange is truly special. Last year Kawhi made over 66% of his shots at the rim, 38% of his three-point shots, and 49% of shots between 16 feet and the three-point line. I think that last number is going to become increasingly important as defenses become more centered in on defending the three. Kawhi is already shooting the long two better than players like James Harden (42%), Russell Westbrook (34% yikes!), and LeBron James (30% wowzers!). The other player who comes to mind when you discuss hyper-efficient shooters from the mid-range is Kevin Durant, who feasted on the long two last year, shooting 56% on shots in between 16 feet and the three-point line.

A lot of people, especially casual basketball fans, are still wrapping their heads around how important the three-point shot is to the game. To try to explain how the next level step in basketball’s evolution is to become a hyper-efficient scorer from all areas of the court seems both painfully obvious and screamingly obtuse. Kawhi has the ability to make shots from a number of spots on the floor and has the playmaking ability to put himself in a position to get those shots. On defense, he is able to get the best players in the game to shoot from spots where they are uncomfortable shooting from, and what’s more, he is often able to keep the ball out of the best offensive weapons on an opposing team.

Last year I picked Russell Westbrook as my MVP because he posted a top 10 all-time season in box plus/minus, joining a group of players like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That Westbrook also averaged a triple-double over the course of a season made the pick almost too easy. Last year featured some of the more impressive offensive statistical seasons we have ever seen. Players like Westbrook and Harden were putting up numbers that were both mind-boggling, yet fairly easy to contextualize to the NBA layman. We are still probably a decade away from being able to quantify and verbalize exactly how valuable a player like Kawhi Leonard is to his team. So when I say that the Spurs are likely to win a lot of games because Kawhi Leonard is really good at basketball, please don’t think I’m being reductive.

COTY: Gregg Popovich

It’s easy to overlook Gregg Popovich for this award, much the same we overlook LeBron James for MVP. These guys have been so dominant in their respective careers for so long that the everyday brilliance starts to become mundane — and shame on us for that. However, this is the first time in half a decade where serious basketball minds are starting to doubt whether this Spurs squad has what it takes to compete for a title. In a year in which half of the Western Conference went out and made their teams better, San Antonio stayed mostly the same, going as far as to resign the often maligned LaMarcus Aldridge to a 3-yr/$80 million deal.

This is an aging squad that will be playing without Kawhi for at least the first game, and will be relying on guys like Tony Parker (35 yrs old) and Manu Ginobili (40 yrs old) to make meaningful contributions to the team. If this team can once again win over 50 games and grab a top-four spot in the Western Conference, it would be the ultimate masterpiece for Popovich and the Spurs system. I’m already looking forward to seeing Pop sit half his starting lineup sometime within the first month, and still have his team beat up on some unsuspecting Eastern Conference team.

The fact that Pop is also unafraid to speak up on social issues is just a bonus. I truly hope that every time they cut to an in-game interview with Popovich during the season, he ignores the banal, hoops related question and goes off on a multi-minute tangent about how cutting Medicare subsidies affects insurance markets in the Midwest.

ROTY: Ben Simmons

 

What’s important to note about rookies in the NBA is that they are usually cbad, even the good ones. Last year’s Rookie Of The Year winner, Malcolm Brogdon, had a .8 value over replacement player, meaning he was barely better than the average NBA player. That’s not a not on Brogdon or the rookie class of 2017, it’s just really hard to find your footing in the NBA, and few players excel in their first season. That’s why I’m going with Ben Simmons here. I realize this is kind of a cheat as this is technically Simmons second season in the league, but he is still designated as a rookie because he did not play in a game last season.

What I love about Ben Simmons are his size and playmaking ability. At 6–10 Simmons is tall enough to shoot over most players and skilled enough to play the point in Philadelphia. To say that Simmons jump shot is a work in progress would be the understatement of the decade, but he is such an athletic specimen that he will find ways to get into the lane and score or get someone else an open shot. The fact that he has been around the league for a year can only be a good thing. As much as I like what I’ve seen out of guys like Lonzo Ball and Dennis Smith Jr. I think Simmons game translates best to have a strong rookie campaign.

Come Back POTY: Joel Embiid

Is it fair to give the Comeback Player Of The Year award to a player who has only played 31 games in the league?

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Here’s a tip to anyone of you who may not be into the NBA, but find yourself in a social situation where you have to engage with a hoops fan: just ask them how they feel about Joel Embiid! To look at Joel Embiid’s per 36 minutes last year is to see basketball nirvana. Last year Embiid averaged 29 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes, and he also shot 36.7% from three. His 102 defensive rating would have put him in the top ten around the league had he played enough minutes to qualify.

 

Simply put, Joel Embiid has more potential than any player I’ve seen in my lifetime. He is a seven foot tall, 23 years old, whose game reminds me of Hakeem Olajuwon mixed with Dirk Nowitzki, down to their signature shots and footwork. He just signed a five-year max extension that is largely contingent on his staying healthy. If he can stay healthy he is a dark horse MVP candidate, and perhaps the most important athlete in terms of his impact on a city’s sports landscape since LeBron James early years. That he has been so committed to the city, even though the team has been in a perpetual state of rebuilding, thus “the Process” nickname he has been branded with, just makes him that much more likable.

There simply is not a more exhilarating player to watch in the league right now than Embiid, his past foot and back injuries are huge causes for concern for a seven foot tall NBA player, and every time he takes fall during a game I audibly gasp, but it all just adds to the thrill of watching him play. We may never get a full season of this guys brilliance, but every minute he is on the court feels like a gift. There’s never been a player outside of the Lakers that I have rooted for harder.

Finals Teams: Cavs-Warriors

I don’t know what to tell you. The Warriors are the Warriors and picking against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference is like betting against death and taxes, not a good idea.

NBA Champion: Warriors

 

Enjoy the games tonight!

How the Thunder and Rockets raged against the inevitable

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As someone who writes about the NBA, I typically get asked the same question whenever I’m out with friends or family, “Is there any chance the Warriors don’t win the title this year?”

The answer I always give is, “sure, anything can happen, but Golden State is a very heavy favorite.” 

It was fun watching teams in the West scramble to put together a roster that can at least compete with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant,  and company. The Rockets now have Chris Paul, and the Thunder added both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and while the offseason exploits of both these teams made for interesting conversation, it did not change the landscape of the league in a meaningful way. Which is to say, this is now, and for the foreseeable future, the Warriors time to dominate. 

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The thinking behind the Rocket’s move to get Chris Paul is sound. The Rockets needed another star to be truly competitive at a championship level, someone who could lighten the playmaking burden on James Harden. Paul is one of the best playmakers this league has ever seen. The 32-year-old point guard has been evolving his game, last he boasted his best true shooting percentage of his career while taking almost 39% of his shots from beyond the three-point line. It’s almost as if he was preparing himself for a transition to Houston’s three-point addicted offense. 

This is what Rocket's Head Coach Mike D’Antoni had to say when asked about how the Paul-Harden fit:

There'll be a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor at all times for 48 minutes—that's good. And then they're really good off the ball also. Chris Paul is one of the better shooters in the league; James has played off the ball his whole career and was runner-up for MVP off the ball ... I don't see that much of a problem.

It’s going to take a while, Paul, and Harden, to work out a dynamic when they are both on the court. Harden really blossomed last year when he was handed the reigns to the Rocket’s dynamic, read heavy offense, and Chris Paul has made a hall of fame career out of being a hyper-efficient ball hog. So what gives? The easiest way to get around this problem is two stagger the two stars minutes whenever possible. Paul only played 31 minutes a game last season, and I doubt that number will go up in Houston. 

The interesting questions I have about this Rockets team is what happens when they are in the fourth quarter of close games and have to make plays in the halfcourt? How much leeway does Chris Paul have to work the pick and roll, and shoot midrange jumpers in an offense that detests any shot not taken at the rim or behind the three-point line? We know how incredibly efficient the Rockets can be with James Harden at the controls, what happens to Harden’s game when he has to play 25-50% of his offensive possessions off of the ball? He was certainly effective playing off of the ball in Oklahoma City, feasting on open three-pointers and clear slashing lanes, but he is a completely different player now, remade in D’Antoni’s image. 

I don’t doubt that the Rockets will win a ton of regular season games with this roster. You have to give credit to Rockets GM Daryl Morey for going out and finding highly skilled athletes like Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker, who can defend and hit open shots. These are the kinds of players you need if you want to compete with the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Houston’s roster has the best mix of athleticism and shot making ability outside of Golden State. I just don’t see a five-man lineup that can compete with the Warriors death lineup of Steph, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. If the Rockets try to play small with a lineup of Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, they get torched on defense. If they take out Anderson, who is an amazing shooter at 6-10, for a guy like Clint Capela or Nene Hilario, all of a sudden they lack the firepower necessary to push Golden State’s swarming defense to its breaking point. 

I’m highly interested in following this team throughout the year to see how the Paul-Harden dynamic morphs with time. How many games will take for Chris Paul to snap at Harden for taking defensive possessions off here and there, and when, if ever, do we start hearing locker room chatter about Harden not being happy with how much Paul pounds the ball on offense? It’s in Chris Paul’s interest to take a backseat to Harden at this point in his career if the Hall of Famer ever wants to make a Western Conference finals. This team certainly has the talent to make it to a showdown with Golden State, but if things fall apart during the season, it will be interesting to see if Chris Paul becomes a trade chip. Paul is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and I think the only way he sticks around in Houston is if he thinks the team stands a reasonable shot at winning a title. Daryl Morey finally landed the second superstar he has always coveted, now the real test is seeing how long he can keep that player around. 

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Speaking of teams that were desperate to keep their superstar player on the roster, congratulations to everyone associated with the Oklahoma City Thunder for not losing two future Hall of Famers in three years! When Kevin Durant decided to leave OKC last summer, a lot of people around the league assumed that Russell Westbrook would at least test the free agency waters in 2019. Westbrook is coming off one of the most dominant statistical seasons in NBA history, averaging a triple-double while leading the league in scoring, and basically single-handedly dragging the Thunder to the playoffs. For his efforts Westbrook was not only rewarded financially, to the tune of a 5-yr/$205 million max extension, but his GM Sam Presti also went out and pulled off a double coup in trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a second-round draft pick. 

There has been plenty of ink spilled on the subject of whether or not Sam Presti is a good GM. He is the same guy who had the foresight to draft Durant, Westbrook and Harden, but he’s also the guy who let Harden go over a few million dollars. A lot of people blame Presti’s moves, or lack thereof, with Durant leaving, but he also essentially turned Serge Ibaka and some spare NBA parts, into two of the league's best players. It’s been quite a career for a GM who is only 41 years old. His legacy will be further shaped by what happens this season. 

There may not have been a more important offseason move than the Thunder acquiring Paul George, a 6-9 small forward who plays incredible defense, is a career 37% three-point shooter and does back down when going up against the best players in the league. After a horrifying knee injury suffered while playing in a Team USA exhibition game, some questioned whether or not George would ever be the same player. In the two full seasons he’s played since the injury he has posted career-high numbers in scoring and true-shooting percentage. He belongs in the conversation of best two players in the game with Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. 

The other blockbuster trade the Thunder made this offseason did not garner such rave reviews. There’s no question that going out and getting a scorer like Carmelo Anthony makes your team better. Coming into his 14th season, Anthony may not be the apex predator he once was, but the 12-time All-Star was still able to score 22 points a game playing for a dreadful Knicks team. At 6-8 Melo has the size and post up game to play the four for the Thunder, creating almost impossible matchup scenarios for any opposing defense. The number of easy baskets OKC will get off of a Westbrook/Anthony, 1-4, pick and roll seems almost endless. 

As good as a Westbrook/George/Anthony lineup looks on paper, there are some real questions the team is going to have to address when it comes to playing the league's best teams. The biggest question has to be how the team deals with ball distribution, or who gets the ball when the game is on the line? How easily will Russell Westbrook be able to switch out of do-everything, triple-double machine, and how willing will he be to defer to George or Anthony when the occasion calls for it? There was speculation that Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, at least in part, because of Westbrook’s poor decision making. We know Westbrook can rack up numbers in every statistical category but can be the playmaker his team needs to win a championship? 

One of the most fun asides of this summer in the NBA was watching Melo play pick-up ball in a hoodie. Anthony has always had a flair for dramatic headwear, but “hoodie Melo” became one of the offseason top memes. Come these playoffs, everyone will once again be talking about Anthony, who has spent the last handful of seasons in relative hoops obscurity and will be interesting to see how Melo adjusts to being back in the spotlight. One of the big knocks on Anthony over the years is that he was not willing to do what it took to be a championship caliber player and that he was happy to just get his, whether it be points or cash. For the Thunder to be championship caliber Anthony is going to have to play a lot of minutes at power forward, something that he has bristled at in the past. When playing a team like Golden State, power forward is the only position that makes sense for Anthony. He is not fast enough to keep up with the Warriors perimeter players, and his best chance at exploiting opposing defenses is by playing small ball. 

There’s an argument to be made for Anthony coming off of the bench, but it’s almost impossible for Thunder Coach Billy Donovan to even ask that of the six-time All NBA forward, no matter how devastating Melo would be going up against second units. If by some chance this does happen though, it not only lightens the load of both Westbrook and George, it also naturally resolves some of the logistical issues of the Thunders offense. 

No matter who starts for OKC, the minutes will have to be divided up in a way that at least one of their big three can be on the court to bolster the team’s second unit. If there is a fatal flaw with this squad it is almost certainly its lack of depth, especially with Patrick Peterson starting the year recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. The Thunder have no playmakers outside of their starting five, and even have some serious question marks in the starting rotation. The lineup that matches up best defensively with Golden State is Westbrook, Andre Roberson, George, Anthony and Steven Adams, but Roberson is such a terrible shooter that other teams often opt to not even guard him on offense. This allows Golden State to basically rest Stephen Curry on defense, having him play a kind of zone coverage on defense while maximizing his offensive minutes. If you take Roberson out of the rotation, you lose one of the best defenders in the league and a vital piece in solving the Warriors from a defensive standpoint. 

While I think the Rockets could win more games in the regular season due to their depth and offensive philosophy, I think it’s the Thunder that poses the biggest challenge to Golden State. Unlike the Rockets, who have two of the league's best players who unfortunately play the same position, I think the Thunder have a chance to be much more dynamic on offense. If Paul George can take a page out of Klay Thompson’s offensive handbook, and feast on the scraps that Westbrook and Anthony throw his way, he could become the league’s most efficient player. He also becomes a cornerstone defensive player who can guard everyone from Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard. Adding Anthony to the lineup gives them another player who can score when offenses bog down in the playoffs, someone who is not afraid of taking the big shot when the game is on the line. You add these two weapons to a team that already features the most athletically imposing point guard to ever play the game, and who knows what could happen in a seven-game series.  

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Maybe the biggest compliment you can give to the 2018 Golden State Warriors is that they forced the league to make the most dramatic year-to-year transition in its history, and yet, impossibly, be the overwhelming favorite to win the title. There are detractors who say that the Warriors have made the league less interesting with their dominance, but would teams be making these kinds of moves had Kevin Durant stayed in Oklahoma City two years ago? This NBA Season is like going to see a great action film, sure you probably know how it’s going to end, but what happens in the interim will be so dazzling you won’t have time to care about the inevitable outcome. Don’t try to overthink what is going to happen this season, just sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show. 
 

The Upstart Yankees and the joys of low expectations in fandom

Didi.jpg

Last night the New York Yankees overcame historical odds to beat the Cleveland Indians 5-2 in a series deciding game five shocker. They were a huge underdog going into the series, playing a team that had won 102 during the regular season, that featured a historic 22 game winning streak late in the year. After taking a 2-0 over New York, no one gave the Yankees much of a chance to get back into the series, let alone win. So when Brett Gardner knocked in an RBI single off of a 12 pitch at bat in the ninth inning, also scoring Todd Frazier from second base on an error, it felt like one of the crazier moments in recent baseball history. 

It’s almost cliche to talk about how this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Bronx Bombers. A year in which the team would finally free themselves of huge contracts on older players while bringing up some of their young prospects, and feel out what kind of roster they would carry into the future. It’s safe to say that no one saw the brilliance of Aaron Judge coming. There was a very specific kind of joy that came with watching a six foot, eight giant mash baseballs into the stratosphere all summer. Judge has had his ups and downs this season, including a an ALDS in which he broke multiple records for strikeouts in a playoff series. He may not have been a deciding factor against the Indians, but the Yankees would not be in these playoffs without his record breaking, 52 home run season. 

While Judge and fellow heavy hitter, Gary Sanchez had their struggles in the Indians series, shortstop Didi Gregorius had a monster Game Five, hitting two home runs against Corey Kluber, a pitcher who is sure to garner his fair share of AL Cy Young votes. It was Didi’s home runs that would knock Kluber out of the game early, and give the Yankees an early lead that would prove be all they needed to win the deciding game. Gregorius had a great season for New York, hitting 25 home runs and providing reliable defense up the middle. It’s crazy to think, but Didi is only two years older than Aaron Judge, and still has plenty of room to improve as a player. 

There was no bigger question mark coming into the season than how would the Yankees find enough wins out of their starting staff to get to the playoffs. There were serious questions about older pitchers like CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, and constant worries about injuries to their would-be ace, Masahiro Tanaka. It would turn out to be second year righty, Luis Severino who would step up to be the ace in New York’s rotation. His power fastball, which often reaches up to 100 MPH would overpower much of the league this year en route to 230 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA. After really struggling in the Bombers Wildcard game against the Twins (.1 IP, 4H, 3ER) the young flamethrower pitched a brilliant seven innings against the Tribe in game four, recording 9 strikeouts in seven innings. When you pair Severino with Sonny Gray, a mid year acquisition Yankees GM Brian Cashman made to sure up the rotation, New York now has a fighting chance in any playoff series, especially when you have the best bullpen in the Majors backing it up. 

The youth movement that has served the Yankees so well all season, will now go up against a franchise who has followed a similar path to success, although for the Astros this has be a decade long rebuilding project. Houston won 101 games during the regular season and boasts a lineup filled with potential MVP hiitters. Just watching someone like Jose Altuve, a 5-6 shortstop who unfathomably had a .957 OPS with 24 home runs this season, feels like watching a completely different sport. The Astros lineup also features sluggers like Marwin Gonzalez (23 HR, .907 OPS) George Springer (34 HR) and Carlos Correa (24 HR, .941 OPS). They ranked first in the AL in runs scored, batting average, OPS and OPS+. I’m already extremely excited to see how this best in class lineup fairs against the big arms in the Yankees bullpen. 

The Yankees are currently +160 underdogs going into their series with the Astros. They have some real question marks going into the series. If Judge and Sanchez continue to struggle, it’s hard to imagine the bombers having enough fire power to keep up Houston. One wonders which version of Servino will we see in this series, the guy who looked overmatched in his first playoff appearance, or the dominant pitcher who helped his team survive against the Indians. Both of these teams have great bullpens, and this series is probably going to come down to who can do the most damage in the early innings and start to wear down the other teams relief pitchers. New York deserves to be the underdog, but it would not surprise me if they continued to defy expectations and put a real scare into another of baseball’s elite teams. 

It’s not very often you see a team led by such young stars impress in professional sports. Getting to cheer for a team without the burden of huge expectations is a very enjoyable experience. I remember watching a young Thunder squad push a would-be championship Lakers squad to their limits, and thinking, ‘it has to be a ton of fun to watch those guys play.’ Watching the baby bombers succeed at the level they had, while still making the mistakes you would expect out of a young team, is just plain fun. If the ride ends here then sobeit, at least the young players got a taste of the playoffs, and all the pressure that goes with playing in October. There’s no ceiling on Yankee Stadium, and like a moonshot from Aaron Judge, there’s no telling how far this squad is capable of going. 
 

Queens of the Stone Age tease new song

We're about a month away from the new Queens of the Stone Age album, Villains. Yesterday the band put out this video as a teaser to an upcoming song from that album. 

You can definitely feel the influence of Mark Ronson in the sound of the tracks we've heard off of Villains so far. The secret sauce to the Q.O.T.S.A sound has always been the rhythmic grooves that served as the foundation to the driving guitars and Josh Homme's menacing lyrics. It makes a lot of sense that Homme would team up with one of today's top producers, to squeeze out ever last drop of groove on the new album. 

Here is Homme talking to NME recently about Villains

“There are some slower moments but I like to dance, man, and whether it’s Eagles [Of Death Metal] or Queens or [Them Crooked] Vultures there’s no reason not to conjoin rock’n’roll and dance and hallelujah and darkness and all that in one thing. In a world of desperately going for ‘likes’ I think ‘Villains’ is more like, ‘We’ll take the dislikes, we’ll take all the outcasts’. This album is here to do bad guy stuff.”

I wouldn't be surprised if the band gets some blowback for leaning so far into a new direction, but I'm excited to see just what the full album sounds like. Josh Homme is a rock and roll legend who has evil intentions in his heart and a maniacal drive to create infectious rifts. This is the album that I'm sure he's always wanted to make, but now has the confidence to unleash onto the world. 

 

Nine Inch Nails - "Less Than" video

Last year Nine Inch Nails released the EP, Not The Actual Events on Christmas. Earlier this year Trent Reznor said that it would be the first in a series of three EPS.  

Today the song and video for "Less Than" was released. The video is directed b Brook Linder, whose worked with artists like Grimes and Operators in the past, and features the Jeff Minter made video game Polybius

The song has a good amount of bite by the time it gets to the first chorus, which distinguishes itself from a lot of NIN's recent work. I love the way the video works with the song to create a sense of momentum. I look forward to hearing more of the new EP, Add Violence when it comes out on the 21st. 

This may be the next Google Pixel

Android Police got their hands on photos of what they believe to be Google's second generation Pixel phone. They claim that these pictures are probably form the XL version of the phone,  and seem fairly confident that that these photos are real:

We rate this rumor a 8 out of 10 on our confidence scale. The reason we are subtracting two points is due to the fact that we are not confident our source material reflects a fully finalized design. As such, there is a possibility that small changes may still occur before the phone makes it into production, as we don't expect Google to announce this device before October. Still, we are exceptionally confident that this image represents the overall look and feel of Google's new smartphone, even if some small elements may not end up being representative of the final product

I'm excited that all of the major flagships are moving towards a bezel-less future. There's not a lot of room to innovate in modern cell phone design, but getting these phones to be mostly screen is that right move.  

I have no idea what they mean when they say that the Pixel 2 will have a squeezable frame. It's kind of hard to squeeze anything that has a layer of glass on it, but perhaps the back and sides have some kind of extra meshy texture. 

This is a really good looking phone, and exactly what I want to see out of Google as they try to get into the flagship market. 

Stranger Things season two coming October 27

It's been a pretty strange last 24 hours in the news cycle. Whoever is doing the marketing over at Netflix could not have picked a better time to release this trailer. 

The first season of Stranger Things was one of the best things I've watched last year. If you have have Netflix and some time to kill I highly recommend the show. It's like someone had a young Steven Spielberg direct a show adapted from unreleased Stephen King stories. I also give high marks to the killer soundtrack

Vote on Senate health care bill delayed

Jennifer Steinhauer and Thomas Kaplan, reporting for the New York Times:

Facing intransigent Republican opposition, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, announced on Tuesday that he will delay a vote on his legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, dealing President Trump an embarrassing setback on a key part of his agenda.

Republican leaders had hoped to take a page from the playbook used to get a bill over the line in the House, appeasing the most conservative members of their conference while pressuring moderates to fall in line with fewer concessions.

But as opposition mounted in both camps, even against a vote just to take up the bill, Mr. McConnell decided he would delay consideration until after the Senate’s weeklong July 4 recess.

“We will not be on the bill this week, but we will still be working to get at least 50 people in a comfortable place,” Mr. McConnell said.

This is a big deal for a couple of reasons. It gives people a chance to give their Senators feedback. Many Senators will be hosting town hall meetings over the next couple of weeks, giving you a chance to have your voice heard. You can also call your Senators, which is much more effective than sending a letter or email, here's a list of their numbers. 

This is a bill that will effect millions of Americans in one way or another, it's nice to see that there will be at least a couple of weeks between the bill becoming public, and when it is voted for. This does mean the Senate's health care bill has been defeated. If their is one person in Congress who has the skill to get an unpopular bill voted for, it's Mitch McConnell. It will take an outcry from the general public unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime to defeat this bill, but it is possible. There is no doubt that there is room to improve the healthcare system in this country, but the bill that the Senate has come up with does the opposite of that. It's time to make your voice heard. 

Europe is getting hit by another massive cyberattack

Andrew Roth, reporting for the Washington Post:

A new wave of powerful cyberattacks hit Europe on Tuesday in a possible reprise of a widespread ransomware assault in May that affected 150 countries, as Ukraine reported ransom demands targeting the government and key infrastructure, and the Danish Maersk conglomerate said many of its systems were down.

These attacks are getting more sophisticated and are targeting major country's key infrastructures. At what point do countries like the Ukraine, which has been hit multiple times now, have to start treating these attacks as an act of war? 

Google slapped with $2.7 billion fine in antitrust ruling

Mark Scott, reporting for the New York Times:

Google suffered a major blow on Tuesday after European antitrust officials fined the search giant a record $2.7 billion for unfairly favoring some of its own services over those of rivals.

The penalty, of 2.4 billion euros, highlights the aggressive stance that European officials have taken in regulating many of the world’s largest technology companies, going significantly further than their American counterparts.

By levying the fine against Google — more than double the previous largest penalty in this type of antitrust case — Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s antitrust chief, also laid claim to being the Western world’s most active regulator of digital services, an industry still dominated by Silicon Valley.

Ms. Vestager has a history of going after big tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. It seems like the E.U. wants much more of a hands on approach to how the tech giants are regulated that what we see in the US. As for next steps:

Google has 90 days to respond to the European Commission’s demands, or face penalties of up to 5 percent of the average daily global revenue of Alphabet, its parent company. European officials said on Tuesday that they would regularly monitor the company’s activities to ensure that it was complying with the ruling.

Under European rules, the company — and not the regulator — must come up with proposals to guarantee that it treats competitors fairly when people make online search queries. The authorities can demand that Google make further changes if they are not satisfied with the initial proposals.

I expect that we will see a very long legal battle over this case. Eventually Google will probably make some slight changes to their search preferences in the E.U. and pay a much smaller fine than the $2.7 billion, and this thing will be done with.

 

The Verge shows off what's new in iOS 11

If you own a newer iPad, you are really in for a treat when iOS 11 drops. Apple has made thiPad line almost as capable as a laptop without sacrificing what makes the tweener devices cool - namely their simplicity and portability.  

Dieter Bohn does a good job running down some of the best new features in iOS 11: improved multitasking, system wide drag and drop, a dock - just to name a few. It's when you see a demo of the new operating system in motion that all of these little improvements really come to life. 

 

CBO score for Senate health care bill: 22 million uninsured by 2026

Thomas Kaplan and Robert Pear, reporting for the New York Times:

The Senate bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act would increase the number of people without health insurance by 22 million by 2026, a figure that is only slightly lower than the 23 million more uninsured that the House version would create, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Monday.

Next year, 15 million more people would be uninsured compared with current law, the budget office said.

The legislation would decrease federal deficits by a total of $321 billion over a decade, the budget office said.

The argument from the right will be, "Hey, at least it's better than the mean old House bill!"

 

Nintendo announces the SNES Classic, September launch date

Last year Nintendo released the NES Classic which featured dozens of classic Nintendo games and the thing sold like hotcakes. Many people were dismayed when the gaming company announced earlier this year that they were discontinuing the system. Nintendo came out and said that the NES Classic was not intended to be a long-term product, which led to rumors that a possible SNES system could be in the works.

Fast forward to today:

Here's a list of games that was announced in a Nintendo press release:

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System: Super NES Classic Edition has the same look and feel of the original system – only smaller – and comes pre-loaded with 21 incredible games:

Contra III: The Alien Wars™
Donkey Kong Country™
EarthBound™
Final Fantasy III
F-ZERO™
Kirby™ Super Star
Kirby’s Dream Course™
The Legend of Zelda™: A Link to the Past™
Mega Man® X
Secret of Mana
Star Fox™
Star Fox™ 2
Street Fighter® II Turbo: Hyper Fighting
Super Castlevania IV™
Super Ghouls ’n Ghosts®
Super Mario Kart™
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars™
Super Mario World™
Super Metroid™
Super Punch-Out!! ™
Yoshi’s Island™

While I don't look back at the SNES as fondly as I remember the original Nintendo console, I can't tell you how many hours I sunk into games like Super Mario World and Super Street Fighter 2.

There is an arcade bar a block away from my apartment which my wife and I frequent anytime we need to get a nostalgic gaming fix. It's easy to see how these throwback consoles are so popular, they scratch a very similar itch. Hopefully Nintendo has better expectations of what demand is going to be like this time around, I'm sure it will be a huge seller this holliday. 

Supreme Court to hear travel ban case

Adam Liptak, reporting for the New York Times:

The Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would decide whether President Trump’s revised travel ban was lawful, setting the stage for a major decision on the scope of presidential power.

Mr. Trump’s revised executive order, issued in March, limited travel from six mostly Muslim countries for 90 days and suspended the nation’s refugee program for 120 days. The time was needed, the order said, to address gaps in the government’s screening and vetting procedures.

Two federal appeals courts have blocked critical parts of the order.

This is where the Garland blockade pays off for Republicans. 

'Obama's secret struggle to punish Russia for Putin's election assault'

Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous, reporting for the Washington Post:

Early last August, an envelope with extraordinary handling restrictions arrived at the White House. Sent by courier from the CIA, it carried “eyes only” instructions that its contents be shown to just four people: President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race.

But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

One of the most harrowing pieces of journalism I've ever read. To the degree that our toxic political culture got in the way of defending our most precious democratic institution will be something future generations will never forgive us for. 

Nintendo on Switch Shortages

Kyle Orland, writing for Ars Technica:

Nintendo Senior Director of Corporate Communications Charlie Scibetta wants to push back on those accusations. "It's definitely not intentional in terms of shorting the market," he told Ars in a recent interview. "We're making it as fast as we can. We want to get as many units out as we can to support all the software that's coming out right now... our job really is to get it out as quick as we can, especially for this holiday because we want to have units on shelves to support Super Mario Odyssey."

Far from intentional, Scibetta says the shortages are simply a result of Nintendo underestimating the interest in the system. "We anticipated there was going to be demand for it, but the demand has been even higher than we thought," he said. "We had a good quantity for launch, we sold 2.7 million worldwide in that first month, said we're going to have 10 million [more] by the end of the fiscal year... Unfortunately, we're in a situation right now where as quick as it's going into retail outlets it's being snapped up. It's a good problem to have, but we're working very hard to try and meet demand."

There's no doubt that there is shortage of the consoles. Every time I'm in a big box retailer I check to see if their are any Switch consoles in stock, and I've yet to see one out in the wild. It looks Nintendo has another hit on their hands.