Unmasking the Cult of Stephen Curry and the 2016 Finals

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The Cult of Steph Curry is a ferocious horde—a Twitter-dwelling echo chamber, armed with crying-Jordan memes and next-gen stats, as passionately intent on spreading the myths of their prophet as Beyonce’s social-media army. The platitudes they spit out about Curry, and the record setting 73-win juggernaut he plays for, are easy to rally behind. Home grown. Underdog. Organic. Skill based.  The right way. Do those sound familiar? They should.

Steph Curry broke onto the consciousness as a scrawny guard wearing a loose-fitting scarlet jersey repping a team you’ve never heard of. Call it fearless, call it reckless, Curry was launching twenty-five footers at a rare and disorienting rate. Before the analytic-driven revolution that led to the NBA spreading the floor and shooting more threes in the past three seasons than it did the previous eight combined, Steph Curry was throwing up ten threes a game.  His collegiate star was brightest his sophomore year as he led his tenth-seeded Davidson Wildcats on an improbable Elite-Eight run, tallying 33 points per game and firing off 51 threes in four games. But the Steph Curry Cult wasn’t much more than a clamoring minority then. A legion of fans who loved showcasing him in March Madness 2009 (RIP to that terrific franchise) and a handful of others seduced by his boyish looks and limitless range. When he left Davidson and entered the NBA draft in 2009, he fell to seventh overall. Shoe companies didn’t line up to make him the face of their brand. ESPN didn’t play Warrior games, despite it’s large market. After his rookie season, his jersey wasn’t among the top 15 in sales. A top 15 that featured Nate Robinson and David Lee.  No, he wouldn’t find himself on that list until 2014-15. 

Curry got plenty of playing time during his rookie season, notching 36 minutes per game, but he seemed different from the energetic spark plug we saw in college. Was the physicality of the NBA overwealming? Did the Warriors coaching staff install a Governor on his shot selection? (He shot only four threes a game his first three seasons.) Then came the injuries. A bum ankle restricted him to only 26 games in the 2011-12 season. Due to the injury concerns, at the start of the 2012 season Curry signed a tepid four-year contract for $44 million. Where was his cult?

The answer resided in the sunny beaches of Miami.

Even before LeBron James infamously left Cleveland, a team that history often forgets was co-piloted by Mo-fucking Williams, a gang of idolatry Michael-Jordan worshippers snuffed out a threat and seized. Protecting their precious nostalgia, they tried to undermine LeBron’s every accomplishment and condemned his move to Miami. All of his achievements were qualified with a yeah but—he took the easy route, he needed Wade and Bosh to win, the East sucks. Yadda Yadda. Skip Bayless and the executives of ESPN seized on the fervor and built a race-baiting daytime empire around it. They did whatever they had to in order to protect the myth of Michael Jordan. 

When attacking LeBron they ignored the seven-year Finals drought that Jordan suffered to begin his career, that he didn’t win until the Bulls drafted Pippen.  When that tired, the LeBron dissenters elevated false champions.  They clamored for Derrick Rose. So much so that the media, party to the LeBron nit-picking, flagrantly awarded Rose an MVP. When LeBron, and flimsy knees, set fire to the Rose effigy, they moved to Durant. But the lanky sharp-shooting seven-footer  lost to LeBron in 5 and then couldn’t get back, despite having an supremely-talented alien for a sidekick in Russell Westbrook. The salt-ridden mass of LeBron haters had nothing to cling to.

Then a life raft emerged in the form of wide-grinned, shot-chucking Steph Curry.

Starting last year, people began propping up Curry over LeBron. It was bewildering and sudden and only intensified this season. Soon after, the Horde hopped over LeBron and started comparing Curry to Michael Jordan. Which is fine. Except none of the LeBron qualifiers existed. LeBron, who throughout his Heat run guarded the opposing team’s best player, in one Finals run guarding Paul George, Derrick Rose and Tim Duncan in successive series, would get ripped to shreds for a missed free throw and for missing half a Finals game with severe cramps. Whereas Curry, who was being hidden on opposing team’s worst offensive player, isn’t knocked for similar feats. Not for getting inarguably outplayed by Russell Westbrook, for getting injured, for relying on Klay Thompson’s heroic Game 6 performance to save their season. When has LeBron ever needed that? Don’t give me the Ray Allen shot unless you’re willing to strip away Jordan’s ring that Steve Kerr’s game winner secured. The one time LeBron was outplayed, by Kawhi Leonard in the 2014 finals, he was torn apart. And even that is arguable when you review the stats. While Curry was the fourth, maybe fifth, best player in the OKC Series, having two MVP-level games. 2-5.

Maybe you enjoy the horde. Maybe you are one of them. Maybe you dismiss the unbalanced math, 11.2 3PA’s per game this season, and raise up Curry’s numbers as evidence of his superiority to LeBron. Maybe it’s easier not to account for defense. Maybe you dismiss Klay Thompson the way you dismissed Scottie Pippen and the way you didn’t to Dwyane Wade—as a superstar and vital element of the myth-building. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s just easier to give Curry all the credit. Maybe he’s less threatening to your Jordan nostalgia than LeBron is. Maybe it’s easier to pretend that Curry isn’t your anti-LeBron life raft.

That Andre Iguodala wasn’t awarded the MVP for holding LeBron James to an astronomic 36-13-9 Finals line a year ago.

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Finals Preview

It doesn’t matter how intently the Cavaliers staff breaks down the Thunder-Warriors game tape, they won’t be able to replicate the success that the Thunder had. At least not in the same way. Cleveland lacks the length and athleticism to do so. In one of the more surprising twists in the playoffs, the Thunder found success by playing at the high-flying pace of the Warriors. The Cavs can’t play like that.

On paper the matchup is lopsided. The Cavs have only one two-way player, LeBron, maybe two when Shumpert is hitting shots, where the Warriors have three—Thompson, Iggy and Draymond. Golden State can rotate Iggy, Barnes and Green on LeBron as they did last year and have Klay take Kyrie. Conversely, the Cavs will stagger Shumpert and Delly, neither of whom offer much offensively, on Curry and then pray that J.R. Smith can contain Klay. The latter is potentially the most troublesome matchup. Maybe they throw LeBron on him and rely on Love and Kyrie to carry the load offensively.


Much is being made about how the Cavs will hide Kyrie and Love on defense. Some say stagger them, some say play Frye over Love and Delly over Kyrie. Those suggestions seem to neglect that we saw a similar build last year and the Cavs fell in 6—against a Warriors team who is drastically improved this year. Though it will lead to frustrating Warrior runs, the Cavs can’t overly concern themselves with the defensive output of Love and Irving. If they revert to their turnstile selves, the Cavs have no chance of stopping Golden State. No matter what they do, Golden State will use pindowns to get Love isolated on Steph and Klay. Where it could get really ugly is if they can get Curry and Green pick and roll being guarded by Love and Irving.  However, if they play Delly and Frye thirty minutes a game they have no chance at outscoring Golden State. So you have to play Love and Kyrie.

Lue will have to be creative with how he manages his rotation, but look for the Cavs to close games with Irving, Smith, Lebron, Love and Frye. That lineup has scorched the East during these playoffs, and, in terms of length, conceivably can guard the Curry, Iggy, Klay, Barnes, Green lineup the Warriors are likely to close with. Kyrie has demonstrated in fleeting moments throughout his career an ability to play average defense. Last year in Game 1, before blowing out his knee in overtime, he played Curry to a draw.

Can Kyrie play Curry to a draw a few times this series? Certainly. We just saw Russell Westbrook outplay Curry for an entire series and Damian Lillard come close before that.  LeBron can match the Klay production, and Love and J.R. can match the output by Iggy, Draymond and Barnes—especially if Barnes looks the way he has.  Remember that Cleveland had a 2-1 lead a year ago, then Iggy and Klay got hot and the rest was history.

The Cavs can pull off what would be the greatest Finals upset since the Dallas Mavericks beat LeBron’s Miami Heat in 2011. A result that the current occupants of the Steph Curry Life Raft love to throw. The annoying horde will be excited to fling 2-5 in LeBron’s face if the Cavs fall. They won’t remember that his team’s were underdogs in all but three of them—of which he’s 2-1. They won’t remember that Jordan’s teams were never an underdog. Or that if Steph and the Warriors repeat, they’ll do so as two-to-one favorites each time.


But go ahead, Curry Cult. Keep saying that your team, with two second-generation NBA players, came from the bottom and are underdogs. Whatever best feeds your myth.

Cleveland take game one, and wins in 6.

The Evolution of the Best Picture Nomination

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Hollywood’s elite will gather at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles to celebrate the 88th on Sunday. Much of the discourse surrounding the Oscars this year has been focused, deservedly so, around the glaring whiteness in the acting nominations. Before you dismiss this year’s show entirely, you should take notice of an evolution of the Academy Awards’ highest honor, the Best Picture category.

Though it’s not a perfect model, a reliable barometer to gauge the American public’s approval for a film is by its box office numbers. The more money the film makes, the more the public enjoyed it. (Or, the harder it was to ignore.)

Equally imperfect, a film’s artistic quality is determined by how it performs during award season. Typically, these two measures clash as the films that are nominated for Best Picture often go largely unseen by the American public.

Oscar-nominated films don’t fetch much attention at the box office because of their content, release date, and MPAA ratings, but it’s arguable that the film’s budget plays a role too.

Without a large-scale budget to allocate to distribution and marketing, many people will never hear about a film, let alone see it. In the past this has been the case with many Best Picture winners, including 12 Years a Slave (2014), The Artist (2012), Hurt Locker (2010), and Slumdog Millionaire (2009). It’s especially true with some of the nominees: Philomena (2014) Armour (2013),The Tree of Life (2012), Winter’s Bone (2011), The Kids Are All Right (2011), Milk (2009), and The Queen (2007).

Average Film Budget By Best Picture Nomination Class

2013: $52.1M

2014: $39.7M

2015: $19.6

2016: $70.1M

In recent years, however, that trend seems to be changing. Movies with larger budgets are getting nominated. Never more so than in this year’s class of Best Picture nominees. This past year saw a number of big-budget films that were each able to both rake in box-office bucks and receive critical approval: Mad Max Fury Road, Jurassic World, Creed, The Revenant, The Martian, and Star Wars the Force Awakens . Each of those films received favorable reviews and cleared over $110M at the box office. In 2014 the year’s highest grossing film was American Sniper, which received a Best Picture nod.

The Academy is also becoming less snobby. Last year featured a pivotal change to convention when The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated, despite being released in March. Typically the Best Picture nominees are restricted to a fourth-quarter release. A similar feat occurred this year with Mad Max Fury Road , which was released in May.

A third factor could be the Academy Awards as a broadcast property. In an unstable television landscape, threatened by cable cutting and streaming, the most valuable commodity for networks to possess is live-event programming. Sports, awards shows and political debates are among the most viewed programs. Is it possible that the Academy is intentionally nominating films that have registered large box-office hauls in order to increase viewership? Perhaps. Last year with a group of Best Picture nominees that featured lower-than-average budgets the show saw a major dip in ratings. A cynical mind might leap to a conclusion there.

No matter how or why it occurred, the 2016 Best Picture nominees break from convention. Whether or not this is an outlier or the beginning of an Oscar Evolution remains to be seen.

Will the big-budget trend of the 2016 Oscars contribute to big ratings and a more enjoyable show? Will Chris Rock hold Hollywood and the Academy’s feet to the fire? Will Leonardo DiCaprio pretend that he’s surprised to win Best Actor? Tune in Sunday night at 7:00 E/T on ABC to find out.

 

Kendrick Lamar and the Gradual Improvement of White America

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Unless you’ve been living in a hyper-productive, internetless void, you’ve noticed the instant, potentially blinded, adulation for Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Begging the question, how is an album, and in a macro sense an artist, speaking from such a specific point-of-view attaining such incredible acclaim and far-reaching popularity? Now through five front-to-back listens, I’m ready to explore why this might be.

Is it the delivery?

The Beyonce-release, dropping an album unexpectedly without promotion or notice, is here to stay. It has shown to be a knockout success for Beyonce, D’Angelo, Drake and most recently for Kendrick. I don’t know about yours, but my timeline was congested with premature claims of TPAB being a classic album less than an hour from its release. The buzz generated by Kendrick Beyonceing his record can only be classified as a stroke of smooth marketing.

In a world of declining record sales, social buzz is the most valuable commodity a modern artist can possess, and this ploy gave Kendrick droves of it. Releasing the album on a dime gives the consumer an intimate connection with the artist, an immediate shared listening experience with social media at large. Not too mention the financial savings, far less advertising, this mode of delivery gives to the shrinking budgets of major labels. The drawbacks are minimal, the largest being that critics are forced to digest an album and publish a review in a window of about four hours, as opposed to their typical two weeks. But who reads reviews anymore? With streaming, the modern music consumer doesn’t need the music critic. They can listen to the album, for free, and gain their own impression before deciding to purchase the product—whereas in literature and film, customers utilize the critic to decide whether or not they should invest the money to discover their own opinion.
The success of TPAB benefits from the delivery, but it is not a sole reason. Kid Cudi made a release like this with his last album, and the response to that was chilly. It can’t be the release.

Is it a Good Kid, M.A.A.D City hangover?

Good Kid is universally, at least as much as possible in the Twitter era, considered to be a classic album. Released in the post-Drake Hip-Hop climate, Good Kid demonstrated a flawless blend of melody, storytelling, and novel vocal delivery. A concise, thematically-consistent 12-track sonic dream, the album was able to do what few can—shed out monster singles without jeopardizing the album’s individual artistry. Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe, Swimming Pools, and Money Trees all charted tremendously on their own, yet the when they play in the natural flow of the album, they don’t sound like singles. 

Is the urgency in awarding TPAB a classic tag a blinded reaction carried over from Good Kid? I think not.

In music, hip-hop specifically, following up a classic debut album is an impossible burden, not an unfair advantage. Just ask 50 Cent whose follow up to (one of the greatest debut albums in the infancy of hip-hop’s thirty-year history) Get Rich or Die Tryin, The Massacre, was received as a disappointment despite selling over a million records in its first week and receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Album—when Grammy’s were still something to be desired. Or Nas, who after 25 years of attempting to outrun the enormity of the success of his debut album Illmatic, capitulated and, in an unprecedented move, began to tour the quarter-century old record. When his acting jobs finally dry out, look for 50 Cent to do the same.

Though not a debut, Drake was also greeted with a less-than-tepid response for his Nothing Was the Same offering, following the classic-worthy Take Care.  When your debut is a classic, we grade everything that follows on its Mt. Everest-level pedestal. So that isn’t the case here.

Is it the Messaging?

When you boil down the sharply structured, speed-variant verses, the Outkast-esque balance of hollow drums, bright horns, and myriad soul-infused backup vocals, TPAB is an album about survivors guilt.  A continuation of Good Kid, where Kendrick voices the effects that the constant tugging of gang-culture had on the shaping and developing of himself as a man and an artist.  On TPAB, he expresses the guilt and confusion for how he has became famous by narrating the inner-city plight for the consumption of White America.

But what makes the discourse of this album so interesting, and Kendrick in general, is that to Kendrick Lamar, there are two White America’s.

There is the White America who shot Trayvon Martin, who squeezed the life from Eric Garner, who failed to indict the killers of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, who continue to harbor the nasty, archaic, diseased racism of our ignorant American predecessors. He takes aim at them on one of the album’s richest tracks, Blacker the Berry.

You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.

Kendrick calls these idiots out, and also rubs their faces with the fact that he, a symbol of their hate, is among the most important artists in popular culture. He is thumbing their noses in the fact that their way of thinking is endangered.

Endangering the racist philosophies of the White America of the past, is the other White America Kendrick Lamar recognizes: the growing class of antiracist whites within leftist White America — and they all seem to love Kendrick Lamar.

Open up a new tab and run a Google-image search of black lives matter.

Welcome back. You noticed it, didn’t you? Many of the images displayed young white Americans, protesting their exhaustion towards the continued mistreatment of black citizens by those entrusted to protect and serve them. Now remember your timeline during the Ferguson protests. Remember the beautiful cross-racial unity of users shouting their discontent for the happenings on their televisions, ashamed and sickened by the actions committed by those of their race in their country. If nothing else, Ferguson showed America that its youth are invested in bettering their future and are unafraid of applying pressure upon their own community: that they are determined to eradicate the racial injustice amidst its community.

Kendrick is aware that a majority of his fans are of this demographic. Though confused by it, he can’t help but notice them at his concerts, or heaping praise upon his Twitter feed.

For a twenty-something white person from the middle class, there is very little to relate to on TPAB. Generally speaking, a majority of people listen to a particular artist because of their relatability to the content.  We like Taylor Swift because we’ve all experienced rejection, as she claims to have in her songs. It’s essential that Drake fans know that he is just like them: insecure, introspective, and over-expressive —though of course Drake is a hyper-wealthy, limitlessly famous and ultra-talented version of ourselves. We identify with 2015’s biggest anthem, Know Yourself, because we can envision ourselves having everything, yet still being overwhelmed with stress and longing.

But Kendrick doesn’t cater to his white fans, like his peers do, instead he detours them into his Compton upbringing. As evidence by Hood Politics. A song that features in its chorus the line:

We was in the hood, 14 with the deuce deuce.

This growing element of socially-aware White America doesn’t know a damn thing about being 14-years old, strapped with a pistol. We don’t know anything about Sherm Sticks. Most hadn’t a clue who King Kunta was before hearing Kendricks masterful track. He even nodded to this ignorance by interpolating the Seinfeld theme song, a show that I love, but lets face it, pretty much ignores black people. But the incredible acclaim and far-reaching popularity of this album shows us is that we don’t have to relate to an experience to enjoy and appreciate it.

To Pimp a Butterfly forces the white listener to experience a new, under-served perspective. It forces the white listener to take inventory in their own stereotypes, as Kendrick takes inventory of himself on the introspective, unconventional jam-track “U”. Kendrick questions whether he is doing enough for the betterment of his people. At the same time the white listener examines themselves, realizing that just because you tweet that #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean you, the tweeter, are doing enough. But its the recognition of the problem that is the true triumph by Kendrick, and the listener.

We, as a society, still have a long road to defeating racism. Racism is not merely an age thing, as evidenced with the Oklahoma frat scandal last week. But the fact that one of the fraternity brothers recognized the necessity for this hate-filled nonsense to be exposed by filming and leaking the video, shows progress. The pop-level popularity of To Pimp a Butterfly is proof that there is reason to be optimistic about America’s social future.

And that is why we love Kendrick Lamar. That is why we shower him with well-deserved praise.


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The Greatest Time of the Year

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It’s that time of the year again, the opening weekend of March Madness: the time of year to burn a couple sick days by vegging on the couch for two consecutive days in a buffalo-wing-comatose state, consumed by the ensuing madness and painful decimation of our pursuit of bracket glory!

By why is it that we adore the impending forty-eight hours so?

One would fail to argue that the NCAA product exceeds that of the NBA, as there are numerous idiotic elements the college brand of basketball possesses that their professional counterpart does not: the thirty-five second shot clock that renders the final ninety seconds of play to a festival of fouling ; there is the coaches over-managing the games, being allowed to call time-outs after their team scores; there is the mandatory media time-outs, though placed at the first break in play after the sixteen, twelve, eight and four minute marks, coaches seem to always forget and burn one of their own, forcing situations where the viewers will be slapped with two sets of commercials with just thirty seconds of game time elapsing. Which means in a two-hour game a viewer will see the Sean-Penn-starring-as-Liam-Nielson-in-Taken trailer fifteen times.

Additionally, there is the whole AAU-inlfuenced bit that leaves the players void of fundamental training, incapable of shooting or properly running a pick-and-roll, which gives us 50-47 rock fights. The only NCAA rule that I can discern the NBA should adopt is the one-and-one bonus system. Though the NBA players shoot a much higher percentage from the charity stripe, there is something about the added pressure that leads to more drama in late-game situations. Imagine how fun it would be to watch Lebron shoot a 1-and-1 with twelve seconds left and the Cavs up two?

But even with all these admitted, glaring deficiencies in the college game, we stay in our sweatpants all day and engulf the tournament in large, unchewed, gluttonous bites. So much so that the NCAA tournament TV rights are worth more than the NBA Playoffs and the Super Bowl!

Why do we love it? Certainly it has nothing to do with observing the game at its purest form, as we all know the NCAA is the present-day Costra Nostra.

We love the tournament for the bracket and for what the bracket represents.

We love this month-long tournament because we are obsessed with self-validation.

Our self-validation obsession is best highlighted through the lens of our social media dependency. A tool we use only to broadcast the lives we are living by falsifying the degree in which we are enjoying to live them. If we’re having a night that is a 6-out-of-10, we will throw in some hyperbole to make sure the hundreds of followers, that we don’t really like or know but really care how much they like us, will drown in envy of the fun they’re perceiving that we are having. It’s why we Snapchat bottle service, even though we didn’t buy it, and it’s why we always always always take a picture out of the window of a airplane.

The tournament, more accurately our bracket, serves us as a public display that our sports opinion matters. Sure we might win some scratch if we seize our office/family/friend-group pool, but really we do it for the pride. We watch each of these poorly-played, flaw-riddened games because each one is an examination of how smart we are: we watch to validate our intelligence in relation to the others we know.

And here are my picks, since I, like you, also care too much.

Early Upsets: Dayton wins, Buffalo wins, Davidson wins, Texas and Ohio State. Also Wichita to sweet sixteen.

Elite Eight Picks: Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Arizona, Villanova, Virginia, Utah, Iowa State.

Final Four: Kentucky, Arizona, Virginia, Iowa State

Chipper: Kentucky over Virginia.

Good Luck