Where Do Curry and Durant Rank Among All-Time Duos?

Although they have just wrapped up their first season together, the sports media can’t help but wonder where Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant rank all-time as a duo. This conversation has lured me in as well, because throughout their unprecedented 16-1 postseason run, I can’t remember ever seeing two better players share the court.

Jeff Van Gundy, as he is wont to do, controversially posited during Game 2’s broadcast that Curry and KD are the best duo ever. While baldly ridiculous at first glance, I thought this claim deserved deeper investigation. Are we all just prisoners of the moment or does the Curry-KD duo have a case?

Since they have only played together for one season, we’ll compare them to other single-season tandems, beginning with the most recent and working backwards.

LeBron-Wade (2011-12)

This was only five years ago, but let’s set the stage: The Heatles were coming off a bitter end to their 2011 season, when the Dallas Mavericks stunned them in the Finals. Their first year together following The Decision had come up just two games short of a title, but it felt like an undeniable failure (and remains the only real black mark on LeBron James’ legacy). Critics of LeBron and the Heat were never louder than during the 2011-12 season, but somehow this duo tuned out all that.

LeBron won his third MVP, adding a fresh post-up facet to his game. Dwyane Wade, while beginning to near the end of his prime, made the All-NBA Third Team, proving he was still one of the league’s top few guards.

In the playoffs, LeBron submitted one of the all-time great performances in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Facing elimination against a hostile Celtics crowd, he played the entire game with a weirdly serene look on his face that made you think he was about to commit self-immolation in the middle of the Boston Garden. Instead, he just went to his happy place amid the Bostonian insults and slapped up a 45-point, 15-rebound masterpiece that remains one of the indelible individual efforts in the game’s history. That performance definitely deserves its own 30 for 30.

Despite LeBron basically at his apex and Wade still providing excellent numbers, Curry and KD top them for their combined excellence this season. Both made All-NBA Second Team in an insanely competitive current landscape of individual greatness. While that Heat team dispatched Durant’s Thunder in 5 Finals games that year, they really struggled getting through the East. In contrast, the Warriors were on cruise control, coming just short of completing the first undefeated postseason. Sure, Curry and KD have more help around them and LeBron and Wade played better off each other (see this article for an explanation of that), but this is historic greatness that we didn’t see from that 2012 Heat squad.

Edge: Curry and KD

Shaq-Kobe (2000-01)

So, Curry-KD are the best two players to wear the same jersey at the same time in at least 15 years, but can they top the 2001 Shaqobe Lakers? This was the middle season of the Lakers’ dominant three-peat run, well before everything turned sour.

Shaq was at his absolute peak and Kobe was in his fifth season and starting to feel real comfortable putting up easy points. They both averaged 28 points/game that season, with Shaq seeing All-NBA First Team and honors and Kobe on the Second Team.

However, it was the historic postseason that will help this team live on. The Lakers made the game look effortless by easily sweeping their first three opponents. Their only loss of the entire playoffs came in Game 1 of the Finals in overtime against Allen Iverson’s Sixers. Other than that blip, they cruised to a 15-1 playoff record and a second straight title. Shaq put up his customary 30 points and 15 rebounds postseason average, while Kobe carried more of the offensive load than the previous year, scoring 29.4 points/game to go with his 7.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists. They had two dangerous scorers who could drop 30+ points on you like it was nothing. Sound familiar?

Steph and KD almost matched Shaqobe in scoring volume, but where they are so much more frightening is their efficiency. Now, of course, it’s a much different game now than it was even 16 years ago, but when your two best players launch from three-point range at 43% in the playoffs? That’s game over.

And it was for the rest of the league, as the Warriors marched to an unthinkable 16-1 postseason record while hardly breaking a sweat. I don’t know if many NBA fans back in 2001 thought they’d ever see a team do this.

While Shaq was an unstoppable monster back then, Kobe hadn’t quite reached his zenith yet, on either end of the floor. Right now, Curry and KD are in the prime of their primes at age 28. Durant, in particular, looked quite impressive on the defensive end compared to a few years ago. And, let’s not forget, the Warriors bested that Lakers team by one playoff win. They get the slight edge as the better duo.

Slight edge: Curry and KD

Jordan-Pippen (1995-96)

Now we come up against quite a challenge to Curry and KD’s best duo ever argument. I chose the Bulls’ 1995-96 season, because, duh. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen straight wrecked the league for an entire season, with 72 wins in the regular season, which was only topped by the KD-less 2016 Warriors.

This was MJ’s first full season back from his gambl-, er, baseball hiatus, and he looked like he’d never left. He put up his usual 30 points/game on 50% shooting and picked up another MVP. Pippen, meanwhile, scored 19 per game and did everything else you expected of him: snagged boards, dished out assists, and played his obligatory lockdown defense. I can’t imagine how terrifying it had to be for opponents when the Bulls’ two best players were also tenacious defenders (not to mention Dennis Rodman roaming the paint behind them). Both Jordan and Pippen made All-NBA Defensive First Team, as well as All-NBA First Team that season (Rodman also made Defensive First Team). These guys just did it all.

In the playoffs, the Bulls flew through the first three rounds, dropping just one game. In the Finals versus Seattle, they marched out to a 3-0 series lead, before losing two games to Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton’s 64-win Sonics team. Chicago would close it out in Game 6 though, giving them their 4th title.

While Curry and KD had a better playoff record, their regular season with *only* 67 wins falls just beneath what the Bulls pulled off. With team results about even, we turn to the level of play of each duo. Steph arguably played the best basketball of his career in this year’s playoffs, even better than pre-Durant when he didn’t have to share shots. What’s more, he didn’t even win MVP or Finals MVP this season. Think about that. Durant somehow shot even more efficient than Curry and provided stellar defense, to boot.

Pippen’s offensive numbers dipped a bit in the ‘96 playoffs, but it didn’t matter. His defense was unreal as always (2.6 steals/game). Jordan was Jordan; that’s about all I need to say.

Curry and KD both made the All-NBA Second Team (KD might have been named to the First Team had he not gotten injured), but their individual defense was nowhere near the same stratosphere as Jordan-Pippen. In the end, that’s why MJ and Scottie beat out Curry and KD. When your two best players are seemingly invincible on both ends of the court, you might be the best duo of all-time.

Slight edge: Jordan and Pippen

For Curry and KD, it’s still no joke to be the best single-season NBA duo in over 20 years. Their efforts together (with a little help from their other All-Star teammates) have produced perhaps the greatest team of all-time. As it stands today, there’s plenty of time for them to add to their legacy and become the greatest duo ever.

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A Bittersweet Salute to Grantland

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I remember the exact moment I began to care about writing. It was 2009 and the Lakers had just won the NBA championship. Right after the game, I read a fascinating ESPN.com article on Kobe Bryant from a writer named Bill Simmons. With its entertaining tone and fan perspective, it was wholly unique to any sportswriting I had seen before. I was just about to start college, didn’t consider myself a writer, and didn’t have much interest in the subject at all.

The next two years I followed Simmons religiously. Sure, he was an obnoxious Boston fan most of the time, but he was a fun, relatable, and engaging obnoxious Boston fan. When it was announced that ESPN was opening up a Simmons-run site with 70% sports/30% pop culture content, I would say I was cautiously thrilled, if you can be such a thing. It sounded right up my alley, but an entire website of Simmons imitators made me a bit worried. Don’t get me wrong: I love Simmons’ writing, but a whole site of 4,000-word retro diaries and shaky sports-pop culture analogies supplemented by heavy doses of unabashed homerism? That didn’t sound so super.

Now, four-plus years later, my favorite site has shut down. 

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If I had to tally up all of the work/class hours I have spent reading Grantland, I’d be a little embarrassed. From its birth in the summer of 2011 to its death this past Friday, I was hooked. No, it wasn’t a perfect website; it took them some time to find their footing, but, I was all the way in since its first post, where editor-in-chief Bill Simmons wrote that one of Grantland’s goals was “to find writers we liked and let them do their thing.”

Boy, did they. This was a site where you could read a deep-dive into how LaMarcus Aldridge will fit in with the Spurs right next to a “Definitive Ranking” of all the jackets in Star WarsThe smartest thing Simmons ever did was hire a bunch of people who don’t write like he does. Whatever you think of him as a personality or as a writer, the guy knows how to find talent. 

Unsurprisingly, the collective nature of the enterprise was one of the things that will stand out the most in Grantland’s legacy. When several insanely skilled writers all jumped on one blog post — like in their NBA Shootarounds, the Lightning Round takes after a new album or movie trailer release, or the After-Party group posts the morning following the Emmys, Oscars, etc. — it was unlike anything you could find on the Internet. That was some of Grantland’s best stuff… except for a Brian Phillips piece on Federer, FIFA, Messi, sumo wrestling, shark attacks, sunken WWII battleships, and well, just about anything.

For me, Phillips was the Danny Ocean of the group, the guy whose effortless brilliance seemed to consistently outshine everyone else. His longform work, where he gifted readers with poetic, transcendent,  astonishing, and deeply weird pieces on Japan (The Sea of Crises) and the Iditarod, are perhaps my two favorite things to ever go up on Grantland.

That’s not to say the others couldn’t bring it. Andy Greenwald is the most clever and infectious TV writer I’ve read. Alex Pappademas came with fresh, intelligent perspectives on Hollywood, and film in general. Zach Lowe gave us exhaustive and insightful NBA coverage. Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays did the same on the NFL. Molly Lambert wrote in a number of different areas, but I’ll remember her witty and incisive celebrity profiles, as well as her extraordinarily perceptive Mad Men recaps, the most. Steven Hyden arrived more recently than the others, but the former Pitchfork contributor wrote knowledgeably and entertainingly on all things music, past and present. Rembert Browne brought that uncanny ability to merge the endearingly silly with the seriously journalistic, often in the same article. And Chris Ryan could seamlessly transition between the NBA, Premier League soccer, and film/TV analysis with aplomb.

Those are just my personal favorites. There’s countless other writers/editors whose work I thoroughly enjoyed. If you read Grantland daily, you were left astounded by the vast array of style. The other best thing Simmons did besides hiring writers that were unlike him? He allowed them to “do their thing” by straying across subject lines. On the same day, you could find a writer penning an essay on the latest Netflix show and appearing on a group NBA post. I don’t know of any other publication where this happens. Grantland had a deep understanding that people who write well in one area can probably write well in another.

There was this unpretentious combination of high and lowbrow that they pulled of so well. For example, they somehow put together a Paul Thomas Anderson Week and a Rom-Com Week. The engaging reader-voted brackets to decide the Best Tom Cruise or the greatest character from The Wire were acknowledged as the meaningless, yet highly amusing, content that they were. Then there was Oscarmetrics, the hilariously absurd Mad Men Power Rankings, and the NBA Playoffs and March Madness coverage that made those events even more fun to follow.

Of course, Grantland’s podcast network can’t go unmentioned. Any subject you wanted covered had a podcast that irreverently discussed the latest news. The rapport between hosts was obvious, probably because many of them were already familiar before they became Grantland coworkers. After a few listens to the Hollywood Prospectus or Girls in Hoodies, you felt like you were in on the jokes and a part of the circle.

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Time seems to fly by when you look back at a specific moment, like that first Simmons article I read six years ago. Then you realize just how much has happened in that elapsed time. I went from a holding an utter indifference to developing a serious love of writing. Now this blog exists. Now I write about soccer for a living. Now I know writing about sports and pop culture will be something I’ll likely do for the rest of my life. I’d say pretty confidently Grantland was the primary driving force behind this evolution. For the last couple years, my dream job was to write for that site.

What led to Grantland’s death was a mix of corporate politics, a post-Simmons lack of leadership, and its refusal to bend to the substance-free clickbait online culture to drive traffic. In the many eulogies across the web, you got the sense that Grantland’s influence had a wider reach than anybody thought. Its loss will be felt, but the talent is still out there to create something similar in the future — although its brilliance will be tough to match. We got four-plus years of thought-provoking, entertaining as hell, and routinely exceptional words on sports and culture.

I call this a bittersweet salute because I’m embittered and dejected seeing Grantland die. Still, I’m sentimental and grateful I ever saw it live.

Hero Ball and the Side Effects of “Be Like Mike”

In 1991 Gatorade revealed one of the most effective sports advertising campaigns in history. So effective, in fact, that everyone is still familiar with it. The television ad featured Michael Jordan shooting hoops with kids and a surprising amount of white adults (very accurate), laughing and drinking Gatorade from plastic cups and bottles. Interspersed are classic Jordan highlights – the Switch Hands Layup, The Shot – and playing over all this is an impossibly catchy jingle that nestles itself comfortably in your cranium: “Wish I could be like Mike…” The message of the spot is just about the least subtle advertising you will ever see. At the end of the minute-long ad is type that says “Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade.” While only the grossly naïve would equate drinking a sports beverage with becoming more like a great basketball player, the underlying message is crystal clear: everyone wants to be like Michael Jordan – and this was before he won 5 more championships.

The more amazing thing is the way all post-Jordan basketball players have been affected at all levels of the game. One-on-one skills and outside shooting (even for big guys) became the attractive way to play. The concept of clutch became a dominant talking point. Despite what reality had to say and what your actual skill set was, everyone wanted to Be Like Mike.

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This has come with positives for the game, sure. Last second, fadeaway buzzer-beaters are freaking exhilarating, as are flashy, Streetball-esque one-on-one moves. Another positive is how, after his career, Jordan has become the constant in the eternal question, “Who is the GOAT?” This allows us to come to general agreement in the conversation on what the standard is for the greats. I’m sure before Jordan started racking up titles, you could argue for Bill Russell or Kareem or even Magic or Bird, but after MJ finished the argument mostly stopped. This has allowed us to bask in Jordan’s greatness instead of nitpicking it for the sake of bettering another player’s case.

However, I would argue there are just as many negatives to the “Be Like Mike” universe we live in. Since his heyday, players have been attempting to play in a Jordanesque manner — particularly in crunch time – that has hurt the game by introducing Hero Ball, and coaches are just as guilty.

The shot clock is off, the game is tied, and one team is going to take the last shot for the win. What do you see happening next? A perfectly run set play to free an open shooter? A well-executed screen to create space for a drive to the hoop? No. The common play at the end of the game has become the Iso, which just means handing the ball to your best player and telling him he has to shoot it. The logic behind this is flimsier than David Lee’s post defense: “Your best guy has to take the last shot. Who else?” This line of thinking is about as lazy as it gets and it has infected every level of basketball. The NBA may deserve some benefit of the doubt, as most NBA defenders won’t be fooled by a simple give-and-go or backdoor cut. Still, the lack of creativity is astounding. So many last-second plays end up with the team’s star struggling to free up space by himself, which results in a low-percentage shot that needs a miracle to go in.

I was watching a Spurs-Warriors game (which became a preview to a Western Conference semifinal series) late last regular season. The Spurs, down two, had just called a timeout to advance the ball to halfcourt. Gregg Popovich, being the basketball genius he is, drew up a play where Manu Ginobili inbounded to Tim Duncan at the elbow. Then, a backscreen was set on Manu’s man as he sprinted at Duncan, who completed a simple handoff to Manu. Duncan’s defender (I believe it was David Lee) didn’t have the speed or anticipation to cut off Manu and it was an easy layup to tie for San Antonio. Everyone I was watching the game with (including myself) took a few minutes to express our admiration for the Spurs system. But really, what was so amazing about it? The worst JV high school teams have executed a backscreen and a handoff. What’s amazing is how the Spurs’ ability to run sets and get high percentage shots is an anomaly in the NBA. The next play of the game featured Golden State Warrior guard Jarrett Jack going one-on-one in an isolation set that ended in him taking a contested shot that clanked off the rim as time expired.

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This is Hero Ball: A post-Jordan crunch-time strategy that is employed by almost every NBA team. All those highlights of Jordan ripping the net with step-back, midrange jumpers to win the game have played a major part in this. The problem? Not everyone has a Michael Jordan on their team. In fact, no one does. The poster boy for this era is, of course, Kobe Bryant. Like most, he undoubtedly grew up idolizing MJ. So much so, that Kobe’s game has always resembled – nay, mirrored – Jordan’s style. Bryant has some natural similarities of course, such as his height, weight, and his leaping ability when he was younger. However, Kobe hijacked many of Jordan’s moves and aesthetics, all the way down to MJ’s fist pump and fierce expression after hitting a big shot. Obviously, Kobe Bryant has been good enough over his career to create his own brand, but he remains an ideal post-Jordan player – a hyper-competitive guard with athleticism, an excellent jumper, and a ton of swagger. I don’t believe Kobe has ever been even close to Jordan’s level of dominance in the 90s, but he’s probably as close a player stylistically to Jordan that we are going to get.

The problem, though? Kobe was never up to Michael’s level and it has showed when he has resorted to Hero Ball throughout his career. When Bryant takes it upon himself to win games for the Lakers without trusting the system or his teammates, things usually turn out bad. He takes consecutive contested jumpers or forces the issue trying to get to the rim, and his “clutch-time” stats back this up. These are both low percentage ways to get a basket when it should be about making the right play.

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Okay, full disclosure: Everything above was written in June of 2013, almost two years ago. I found it while rummaging through random old Word docs on my laptop. I’m posting it now because my thoughts have evolved somewhat on the topic. Basically, this is me responding to myself two years ago.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I’ve spun 180 on the issue. Most of what has happened in the NBA since then actually turned out to (very fortunately) prove my point. I wrote it smack in the middle of the epic 2013 NBA Finals between the Spurs and Miami Heat. Both teams were built heavily on ball movement and spacing. While the Heat took the title on the back of LeBron (and, of course Ray Allen’s legendary last-second Game 6 bomb) in seven games, the Spurs would get their revenge a year later via zippy “extra pass” ball movement and unthinkably accurate shooting. This season, the Warriors and Hawks lead their conferences through smart, modern offenses that value these same principles.

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We’re starting to see the consistently successful teams eschew iso-based attacks in favor of off-ball motion and quick passing; essentially, the system is triumphing over individual will. Is this simply an anomaly or the beginning as we move further away from the shadow of Jordan’s “Be Like Mike” influence?

I won’t be able to answer that today, but I do want to provide a dash of nuance in my opinion on this. What I wrote two years ago sounds kind of like a grumpy, grey-haired 63-year-old bemoaning the devolution of my sport that was invented to allow high-minded concepts like Unselfishness, Discipline, and Playing the Right Way to flourish. The result is that I totally shortchange the value (and fun) of Hero Ball.

Without it, we wouldn’t have half of the most famous plays in the league’s history. Allen Iverson, Kobe, T-Mac, Wade, LeBron, Westbrook, Steph Curry, and so many more have all minted classic moments through this type of play; and that’s just post-Jordan players. It’s one of the reasons we love this game so much. This section from a Grantland article on Hero Ball speaks to this:

No kid stands in his or her driveway counting down the imaginary seconds of the big game just to then pass the ball. The hero ball shot, inefficient though it may be, speaks to the innate spirit of human ambition. It takes very little imagination to live by the percentages, and quite a bit of imagination to think you can beat them. To dare is risky. Which is why it’s entertaining. If I have to choose between a one-man show or the safest way to win, give me the show.

Efficiency is a smarter and more advanced way to run your offense. But it doesn’t make for the same kind of insanely high drama and against-the-odds playmaking. As fans, we shouldn’t necessarily wish this kind of selfish play become obsolete. I think as I drift further away from my playing days and my relationship with basketball becomes almost purely entertainment, I’m starting to realize how much we rely on Hero Ball to thrill and inspire us, which would be blasphemous to me a couple years ago. 

Of course, I love to watch the Spurs’ “beautiful basketball” style of rapid passing and open 3s — a team as a complex organism working together. It’s just now I’ve learned to actually enjoy, guiltlessly, when Curry has a hot hand and splashes an off-balance 3 with a defender in his face. Shot selection and efficient play matter more than ever, but allowing room for the best to gamble occasionally on a slightly ill-conceived Hero Ball shot heightens the game to atmospheric levels. Maybe sometimes I should be thankful when players have the audacity to try and “Be Like Mike”.

It’s a Spectacle: Remembering the Greatest Show on Turf

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“We bring you the circus — that Pied Piper whose magic tunes lead children of all ages into a tinseled and spun-candied world of reckless beauty and mounting laughter; whirling thrills; of rhythm, excitement and grace; of daring, enflaring and dance; of high-stepping horses and high-flying stars” – Cecil B. Demille, director of the Greatest Show on Earth

The TV didn’t work so well. It was one of those great big, heavy, square box TVs that sat on the floor, very 1990s; the kind that sits dust-encased in your basement now. If you walked or stood near it, the screen would immediately begin to turn to static. This was a problem while the St. Louis Rams were playing in Super Bowl XXXIV.

When Isaac Bruce broke free toward the endzone with just two minutes remaining, I began screaming and leaping in front of that enormous box on the floor. Sit down! came the chorus of thrilled yet annoyed family members behind me. The picture had gone all black-and-white with static, so much so that you could hardly see if Bruce scored. I don’t even remember noticing, this circus-esque football team had me too ecstatic.

Ecstasy came easily if you watched anything the 1999 Rams did that season, but the feeling that more often came across was probably pure wonder. What this team did was unlike anything that had been done in the history of the NFL. Their offensive philosophy and practice transcended the game and effectively changed how offenses were run. It was the unbelievably fortunate alchemy of the perfect coach and system meshing with the perfect cast of ultra-talented players at the perfect time. It became the Greatest Show on Turf.

“It’s like basketball on grass.” – Super Bowl announcer

Since this season is the 15th anniversary, there is plenty of flowery praise getting lofted toward that intrepid 99 Rams team. There’s a reason we didn’t do this last year for the 98 Rams. That season St. Louis finished a putrid 4-12, with no signs of improvement to be found. The Rams hadn’t made the playoffs since 1989, moving from LA to St. Louis in 1995 after several consecutive seasons of mediocrity following their last playoff exit. Coach Dick Vermeil’s seat was starting to get a little hot because of back-to-back seasons without even sniffing a winning record. That was, until he brought Mike Martz in.

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Martz spent about two decades (most of the 70s and 80s) meandering through various universities as an assistant. In 92, he became the LA Rams quarterbacks coach. After leaving for Washington to become quarterbacks coach for two seasons in 97-98, Martz would come back to the Rams after a disappointing season, bringing St. Louis native Trent Green with him, who was coming off a good, not great, season as Washington’s QB. Martz also ushered in his Air Coryell offensive system, which essentially altered the Rams future for good.

Don Coryell had created this offense – one that relied heavily on the defense-stretching, downfield pass – in his time as San Diego State and San Diego Chargers head coach. Instead of setting up the pass by running the ball, as many teams did and continue to do, Coryell decided he didn’t agree with that. He wanted to throw, a lot. And not just dinky, short, horizontal passes like Bill Walsh’s successful West Coast offense, but vertical bombs that force the defense to defend the entire field.

Martz basically took this and cranked up the dial. He knew he was armed with blinding speed at wide receiver and running back and could use this to put his dream system to work. At receiver, he had an in-his-prime Isaac Bruce, who had already asserted himself as one of the league’s better wideouts. Rookie Torry Holt had just been taken by the Rams with the 6th overall pick and was eager to prove himself in Martz’s high-powered scheme. In the fourth round of the previous draft, the Rams had selected another receiver, Az-Zahir Hakim, who had Flash-type speed and returned punts. At running back, the Rams had just dealt a couple draft picks for one of the best backs in the game. Marshall Faulk came into St. Louis, fresh off a season with just over 1,300 yards rushing and 900 yards receiving. Great numbers, but they were about to get even more ridiculous. Everything was in place.

“We will rally around Kurt Warner…”

Until it wasn’t. You see, every great story needs a conflict, something for the main characters to overcome. During the Rams’ preseason game vs. the Chargers, we get just that. Chargers safety Rodney Harrison undercut Trent Green from behind, sending the St. Louis starting QB down in a heap with a season-ending knee injury.

The Rams 1999 campaign seemed to be over before it even got started. Famously, a tear-streaked Vermeil (never afraid to get emotional) proclaimed “We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football.” It seemed like rote, boilerplate coachspeak, like something you say to get past the depressing questions, to attempt to rouse up some motivation out of thin air. As it turned out, Vermeil wasn’t messing around. The offense remained the same, no changes to accommodate a backup quarterback who hadn’t ever started in NFL game. To properly illustrate how nervous the Rams organization and all of St. Louis was feeling at the time, there are a few things you need to know about Kurt Warner: 1) After getting cut by the Green Bay Packers in 1994, he worked as a stock boy at a local Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa. 2) He played in the Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers for two years after that (actually becoming one of the greatest Arena League players ever in his short time there). 3) The Rams signed him in 98, but he sat third-string behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. Who? Exactly.

So the 28-year-old, who had been stocking shelves and tossing TDs in tiny arenas for the past few years, assumed the starting role for one of the most offensively gifted rosters in the NFL. Improbably, Warner was up to the challenge. The first game he threw for over 300 yards and 3 TDs in a comfortable victory. The second game he tossed 3 more, while Faulk was running roughshod over the Atlanta Falcons defense. Both of those games were in St. Louis’ friendly TWA Dome. When they traveled to Cincinnati and beat the Bengals by four touchdowns (Rams WR Hakim scored four by himself), it was clear this team not only had frightening offensive firepower, but they could attack you in a number of different ways. Warner chucked TDs to his talented crop of receivers, Faulk went HAM on helpless defenses, Hakim and kick returner Tony Horne inflicted damage on you on special teams, and even the defense was capable of making plays.

In fact, that defense was the most underrated aspect of the Greatest Show on Turf. I’m going to perpetuate that by only giving them one paragraph, but it’s true. Defensive ends Kevin Carter (17 sacks) and Grant Wistrom (6.5 sacks) terrorized opposing QBs, while Pro Bowl defensive tackle D’Marco Farr held up the middle. The linebacker core featured a young London Fletcher (who would go on to a very prosperous career) and soon-to-be Super Bowl hero Mike Jones. In the secondary, Todd Lyght (6 INTs), Dexter McCleon, and rookie Dre Bly waited to disrupt whatever passing attack you hoped to build. That defense actually ended up ranked 4th overall in DOVA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, the football analytic’s favorite way to rank teams) by the time the season ended. Sure, the offense was throwing up crazy points, but the defense wasn’t giving up much either.

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While this team continued to torch opponents with their overwhelming talent, they spiced it up with some flair as well. The Bob ‘N Weave became an indelible part of what attracted people to this team. Before players got excessively flagged for even hinting at some kind of organized celebration, the 99 Rams would orchestrate a small circle post-TD, drop the ball in the middle, and bob and weave around it. You can really only know what the heck I’m talking about unless you watch it. This became the go-to celebration when it was apparently debuted (in mini-form) by Holt in Week 3. I can tell you as a young Rams fan back then that the Bob ‘N Weave was all any kid wanted to do when throwing the football around in the backyard. A silly dance around the ball became the coolest thing in the world.

The celebration halted briefly in Week 8, when a 6-0 Rams squad went into Tennessee and lost to the Titans. Quarterback Steve McNair’s team got out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, the first real test of adversity for the Greatest Show on Turf. The Rams clawed back in it with Warner TD passes to Faulk and Bruce. Yet another St. Louis touchdown made it a 3 point game, and a couple minutes later, the Rams offense positioned kicker Jeff Wilkins for a 38-yarder to tie it. He missed; the Rams had dropped their first game of the season. Both McNair and Warner ended up with 3 TDs a piece. But this game just set the stage. These teams would see each other again.

The very next week the Rams dropped a road tilt against Detroit in another tight contest. At 6-2, the Rams had to feel like they could easily be 8-0. No matter. They won the next seven games by at least 13 points every time. The consecutive losses had steeled this team for the stretch run and now they were in full destroyer mode. Still, even as they were beating teams into submission by double digits, it was a joy to watch. The way they aired it out with ease, with no inhibition, was something the league hadn’t really seen. They put up 34 points like it was a walk to the mailbox.

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With a regular season record of 13-3, it was, by most accounts, the best Rams season in franchise history. Warner assaulted the NFL passing record books. He completed 65% of his passes (the third-best ever, at the time), he threw 41 TDs (also third-best at the time), with only 13 interceptions, and his passer rating of 109.1 (good for second all-time) outpaced every other QB by a hefty margin. Warner may have won the MVP award, but Marshall Faulk shouldn’t have been far behind. While striking existential dread into every defender who saw him with the ball, he put up over 2,400 rushing/receiving yards and 12 TDs. Forming a dynamic 1-2 punch, Bruce and Holt had two of the best years at the receiver position because of their role in the Greatest Show on Turf. The third option at receiver was only Hakim, who added 677 yards and 8 receiving TDs. Individually, these guys put up unreal numbers.

Collectively, they changed NFL offenses. They threw the ball a league-leading 59% of the time, but somehow did it with insane efficiency, scoring on over 7% of their passes, way higher than the league average. Over the next few years, things would start to change rapidly around the league. Pass-happy offenses were installed almost everywhere and teams based their philosophy around the chucking the ball. Peyton Manning was just getting started. Tom Brady’s best seasons would come along in about eight years. Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees after him. Warner’s magical season started to drop in the single-season statistical ranks. The Age of the Gunslingers started to arrive after the Greatest Show on Turf entertained the world.

“Everybody scores in this offense. Everybody…agghh! It’s a spectacle! It’s a spectacle!” – Roland Williams

The 99 Rams’ regular season numbers had a profound effect on the league. But it was their Super Bowl win that cemented their legacy.

The Minnesota Vikings provided the first test. With a receiving core of all-time greats Cris Carter and Randy Moss, and a capable QB in Jeff George, everyone knew the Vikings offense would test the Rams passing D. It ultimately didn’t matter, because the Vikings had no answer for the Warner Brothers. The Rams’ first play from scrimmage went for a 77-yard TD to Isaac Bruce, with the TWA Dome louder than ever. Although at halftime, the Vikings led by 3.

The kick to begin the 3rd quarter went to Tony Horne at the Rams own five-yard line. Ten seconds later Horne, always chock full of swagger and confidence, was dancing in the opposite endzone. From there it was a rout. Four unanswered Rams touchdowns gave them a 32-point lead. The Vikings saved some face with three garbage time touchdowns, but the game was over by then. The 49-37 final was the second-highest combined NFL playoff score ever.

It was a postseason offensive firework exhibition as exciting as they come. Warner put up gaudy numbers (391 yards, 5 TDs) while spreading the ball to ten different receivers. It was clear the Vikings defense had worked to take away the Rams biggest threats (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and it still didn’t work. The Greatest Show on Turf marched on to the NFC Championship Game to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

acircus004p1

Billed on paper as a showdown between the league’s top offense and top defense (the Bucs ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA that year), the reality was… a strange, strange game. Whether it was nerves or bad luck, the Rams came out of the gate bumbling. An uncharacteristic Warner interception and a dropped Bruce would-be TD made for a weird 1st half that ended in a 5-3 baseball score. With Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch leading the way, the Bucs defense was all it was cracked up to be.

A Tampa Bay field goal made it 6-5 early in the fourth quarter. With about eight minutes left Bucs QB Shaun King threw a terrible interception to young Dre Bly who took off horizontally across the field. I can remember sitting on my grandparent’s bed watching the game, celebrating that play, freaking out as Bly almost had the ball stripped. I may not have understood the intricacies of an NFL game quite yet, but I knew we had a chance now.

I was right. With just under five minutes to go, the Bucs brought the house on a blitz. Warner let loose a back heel throw toward the far left side of the endzone. Ricky Proehl (who hadn’t caught a TD pass all season) leapt and the ball landed on his left arm, balancing on that tightwire between drop and Biggest Catch of Your Life. Proehl collected it safely just as he hit the ground, giving the Rams a clutch five-point lead. I still remember my jubilant disbelief. Ricky Proehl?!? Of all people.

After Tampa Bay turned it over on downs, the Rams celebration began. It was an ugly game, the kind St. Louis didn’t want to play. Warner threw three picks, and Faulk and Bruce were stymied. Still, the defense showed up and then some, collecting five sacks and two interceptions. Super Bowl XXXIV awaited.

“Let’s go have some fun, kick their ass.” – Vermeil, at halftime of the Super Bowl

The Tennessee Titans were also coming off a 13-3 season with heady, mobile QB Steve McNair and magnificent running back Eddie George leading the way. Although they needed the Music City Miracle to get here, they were a worthy Super Bowl foe.

Despite moving the ball into the Titans’ red zone with ease, the Rams just couldn’t get in the endzone to start the game. While they could’ve had about 28 points, four Jeff Wilkins field goal attempts in the first half converted to just 9. Meanwhile, the Rams defense, overlooked all season long, had come to play. The first half ended 9-0. A tame half of football compared to the craziness that would ensue.

An early Rams touchdown drive began the third quarter. They finally broke through when Torry Holt caught a 9-yard needle-threaded pass from Warner. Holt barely held onto the ball between his hands and his facemask. The rookie sensation had arrived with the most important catch of his career. With a 16-0 lead, we were feeling, as politicians like to say, “cautiously optimistic”.

Next came the comeback. The Titans started consistently moving the ball on offense via runs from McNair and George. Back-to-back George touchdowns made it 16-13. A Tennessee FG a few minutes later tied the game at 16 apiece. I’ll never forget the feeling as the Titans were crawling back in it. As far as prolonged sports dread and anxiety go, there’s not much worse than losing a lead in a big game. And this was the Super Bowl. Eddie George became Public Enemy No. 1. We were regretfully recalling how Holt dropped a TD pass back in the first quarter. We were mostly just confused how our spectacular high-wire act of an offense had been held to just 16 points.

“And they won’t catch him today” – Super Bowl announcer

With two minutes to go, our Mediocre Show on Turf walked back onto the field looking to create some late-game magic. So much for mediocre. On 1st and 10, Warner launched a deep pass down the right side. On TV, it was surreal. Bruce appeared from behind his defender (who had his head fatally turned the wrong way) to snatch the pass, make a cut around the safety, and shoot toward the endzone. Then the screen went to pure static.

As I found my seat, the picture returned and Bruce and co. were celebrating. Disbelief and euphoria reigned as the 99 Rams were just two minutes from winning it all.

Starting from their own 12-yard line, the Titans were not going down easy. McNair engineered a remarkable drive, including a Houdini-act sack escape to sling a pass to receiver Kevin Dyson at the Rams 10-yard line. Six seconds remained on the clock. It was unbearable drama as the teams lined up for the final play. As the final seconds ticked off, McNair flung a pass to Dyson at about the four-yard line. Rams linebacker Mike Jones threw himself at the waist of Dyson, two athletes colliding on possibly the biggest play in Super Bowl history, fighting over a few yards of real estate. You know what happens next. Dyson comes up a single yard short. The 99 Rams win the Super Bowl.

If the Bruce TD caused disbelief and euphoria, Mike Jones’ play spurred relief and euphoria. Now referred to as The Tackle, it remains the most indelible play in possibly the greatest game in Super Bowl history. Competitive action and high drama, all the way to end of the line.

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The 99 St. Louis Rams were never actually referred to as the Greatest Show on Turf during that season. It wasn’t until next year, when ESPN’s Chris Berman, while running through Week 5 highlights, exclaimed, “Forget Ringling Brothers; the Rams are the Greatest Show on Earth”. The last word was altered to “Turf” and the name stuck.

After getting bounced in the first round of next year’s playoffs, St. Louis’ high-flying show returned to the Super Bowl the season after, only to lose on a game-ending field goal to Bill Belichick’s (cheating) Patriots. After that, the team started to dissipate. Warner was replaced in 2003 by Marc Bulger. Faulk, Bruce, and Holt all departed at some point in the next few years. Martz left in 2005.

As for Dick Vermeil, he “retired” (he would come back a couple years later to coach the Chiefs) after the 99 Super Bowl victory. It was a fairytale ending for the man at the helm of one of the most exciting teams in NFL history. Every good show needs a compelling cast of characters, people you can root for. Vermeil, who wore his emotions heavily on his sleeves at all times, was one of the most likable coaches around. It was a team full of both gifted stars (Faulk, Bruce, Holt) and unexpected heroes (Warner, Proehl). It was part of what drew us to them.

Ringling Bros Circus Train, ca. 1963

Thinking about that team made me seek out old circus photographs lately. Like early 20th-century images, right after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was founded in 1907. What stands out most is that the audience had clearly never seen even anything remotely like this before. They were filled with profound awe and wonder. They came from miles around to see the circus. Today, we have the Internet. We’ve seen it all. It takes quite a bit to really impress us, to move us. Circuses aren’t nearly as popular now, because no amount of flipping acrobats and giant elephants and fiery rings can shock us.

This is another part of what drew us to the 99 Rams. They did things many NFL fans didn’t even know was possible. They put up mind-blowing numbers and they did it in style, with mad spectacle. As a St. Louisan, you feel a twinge of melancholy, because it’s unlikely that something that special will be replicated in your hometown again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. But then you remember the joy, the child-like euphoria you got from watching the Greatest Show on Turf. And you remember how awesome it was when the circus came to town.

Internet Groupthink and Slippery Slopes

fucking internet

To be the kajillionth dude writing about the Donald Sterling controversy  had me thinking twice about doing it. However, now that we are almost a month removed from the Racist Comments Heard Round the World, I think we can reflect on the events (and the national discussion) in ways that we could not a couple weeks ago. Not every scandal or controversy (sports or otherwise) has me as riveted as this one, and I think part of this is because of the swift and extreme reaction.

After the tapes of Sterling’s ridiculously nonsensical and bigoted ramblings were released, it was met with widespread condemnation instantly. Why? Because we knew (or were quickly informed) of Sterling’s horrid past. Still, we are used to seeing a backlash to the backlash, right? A counterpoint to the initial opinion. I mean, remember the Richard Sherman Incident last January? Almost immediately following the outrage over Sherman’s rant was a defense of either his actions or Sherman himself. People brought up how he was still in the heat of the moment or his Stanford education (as if either of those are actual excuses for classless behavior). Not that you can equate blatantly racist remarks with postgame competitive trash talk, but Sherman is no longer really seen as a full-on villain. A counter had formed on the Internet and other places that didn’t allow him to be universally reviled.

With the Sterling controversy, there was no other side to take. His comments were akin to those of a plantation owner and no reasonable person could defend him. He’s a racist dinosaur in an age of smartphones and Twitter.

However, is this kind of one-sided reaction the best thing for our future? I’m not so sure. In this case, I’m not really talking about the reaction to Sterling’s comments, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the NBA’s decision to boot him from the league and force him to sell his team. For those who value nuanced conversation and greater understanding, this kind of Twitter pile-on – where there is no room for any further discussion – is not something we should welcome.

To be clear, the NBA probably did what they had to do. With a potential player boycott during the playoffs threatening the short term and an anemic franchise due to no one wanting to play there looming over the long term, Adam Silver didn’t have much of a choice. While the NBA looked the other way during Sterling’s previous issues, they couldn’t allow him to stay in the league after this.

However, that doesn’t mean this is a simple situation. It is still immensely complex, even if most people would rather see it as cut-and-dry. This is where that Internet groupthink comes in. With all the Sterling condemnation raining down, there wasn’t any allowance for clarification or perspective. What about the fact that these comments were made in private and sleazily released to TMZ? Surely freedom of speech has to fit into this somehow?

I’m not saying Sterling shouldn’t be punished or banned, I’m speaking more about the precedent this sets. When a team’s owner can be forced to sell his team because of personal views that were privately expressed and then illegally recorded for public consumption, what does that mean for the future? I only saw two high-profile figures even wondering about this issue. Soon after the release of Sterling’s tape, Mark Cuban made the point that this is a “slippery slope”. He expressed concern that the league could hand down extreme punishment because of “what people say and think, as opposed to what they do”. Of course, soon after the NBA banned Sterling, Cuban tweeted his full support of the decision, possibly thinking it’s not worth it to deal with the backlash that would come from semi-opposition to the NBA’s conclusion.

The second figure to openly wonder about this was actually Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – yes, he of Airplane! fame. In a piece for Time, he called for outrage over not just Sterling’s racism, but the fact that intimate conversations can be sprayed all over the Internet without any foreseeable repercussions other than newfound fame and an eventual book deal. Abdul-Jabbar is essentially saying that while he is angered by racism, he is also perturbed by the violation of basic freedoms. I don’t know his politics, but here Kareem sounds straight libertarian.

Do NBA owners now have to watch what they say privately, in fear of what might happen if the wrong sound bite gets out? For example, if an owner makes comments disparaging same-sex marriage or criticizing feminists, can the league move to ban him for his views? It’s a question worth considering before we all instantly applaud Adam Silver for his decision.

In the Internet age, particularly the Twitter era, does the number of voices lead to better discussion? I would say no, it doesn’t. Groupthink can be a powerful thing.  With the 160 characters of Twitter, many times complex circumstances can be oversimplified and all those voices tend to just collapse into one mindless mob. We essentially end up with discussion that is less dynamic – not more. In events such as the Sterling controversy, perusing the Internet to form your opinion can just lead to a quick dismissal of anything that might question the majority viewpoint. And, without a chance to voice a differing opinion, nothing can ever really change.