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The Week In Sports: NBA And WNBA Newsmakers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Super Bowl is over, but there's still plenty of sports to discuss involving balls of other shapes - in particular, basketball. To do that, we are joined as ever by Mike Pesca. He is the host of The Gist podcast from slate.com. Good morning, Sir.

MIKE PESCA: Hello. I enjoy the spherical balls, as their bounce is true.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: Those oblong things...

MARTIN: They're not so good at the bouncing, yeah.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So I'm not really good at multitasking. And so I go one sport at a time, really. So we did the football thing. And now I'm getting into basketball. But we're already into the season, so catch me up. What are the big storylines happening?

PESCA: Allow me to orient you.

MARTIN: Please.

PESCA: The West is strong. The best team in the West is the Golden State Warriors. The East, the best team should've been the Cleveland Cavaliers just because LeBron James is there. But they had not been playing well for a long, long time - in fact, a huge win streak, which correlated exactly with LeBron James' injury. But I think kind of subtly or secretly, the thing that was really going wrong with the Cavs was that LeBron James, though a great player, isn't a great GM. And by that, I mean he kind of decides who his teammates were, maybe not the best mix. They recently added a couple of guys, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. And you would say, oh, these aren't superstars. But, you know, so often in the NBA, we look at the big three or the top few guys on a team. You know what? Guys four through nine, collectively, will probably play more minutes than a big three on any team. And those guys matter. And now maybe the Cavs are getting a deeper and better bench. So right now, they're doing well, about the fourth or fifth best team in the East.

MARTIN: OK, the Hawks, too, are doing pretty awesome.

PESCA: The Hawks are doing amazing. And the Hawks just beat the Warriors a couple of days ago. And these are two teams with single-digit losses. I mean, the Hawks winning percentage, if they ended the year right now, would put them, you know, something like the fifth best team or sixth best team in NBA history.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Give me a break. Now, the thing about them is they don't have a superstar. So a lot of people will discount them, some just because of the name brand factor, but others - there is this thought in basketball. Oh, you have to have a great player to take that last shot, to take that clutch shot. I think that's an overrated thought. A great player's a great player, but here are a few reasons that the Hawks have been winning without a great player - because they have great teamwork, because their worst player is so much better than your worst player - and that guy's on the court a lot - because they win by so much, it doesn't come down to a clutch shot. Because they don't have one great player, you maybe don't know who's going to take the clutch shot. So I don't know. No one - right now they're likely, you know, statistically, to make the NBA finals. Yet, no one is picking them to win the NBA. Many people aren't picking them to win the NBA finals. And I wonder if it's sort of anti-great player discrimination.

MARTIN: OK. Let's turn to the WNBA 'cause why not.

PESCA: Yes.

MARTIN: There's news that the league's best player is sitting out the season. What's going on?

PESCA: Yeah. So speaking of not turning to the WNBA, Diana Taurasi, arguably the best player, is taking time off for injury and to heal. But really, it's because the WNBA has a maximum salary of $100,000, and she gets paid a million-and-a-half dollars.

MARTIN: Which is criminal - hello - compared to what her...

PESCA: Well, yes. Yes, though on - though on just economic grounds, we're not sure that they would - the league doesn't make that much.

MARTIN: See? You can't even defend it. OK, whatever.

PESCA: OK. So this Russian plutitarch (ph), oligarch, pays them a million-and-a-half dollars. And she's just been playing year-round. And she kind of needs a break. She loves the NBA. NBA is a better class of basketball than anywhere else. WNBA, I mean, is a better class of basketball than anywhere else in the world. But she needs to give her body a rest, you know. She's 32.

MARTIN: OK, all right. We want to end on a bit of sad news in the world of sports. Dean Smith, a legendary coach - former coach - for North Carolina, has passed away.

PESCA: Yes. I mean, OK, so if you want to talk about wins, 879 I think - 10th on the all-time list - and 11 Final Fours, which is tied for second-most, and two championships. No. I mean, he was important. He was a great coach. The joke is he's the only guy who could keep Michael Jordan under 20 points 'cause when Jordan played for UNC, he had to play in that Dean Smith four corner slowdown offense. Dean Smith put on his team Charlie Scott, the first black player in the ACC, desegregating the conference [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Charlie Scott was not the first black player in the ACC, as is said during this interview. In fact, the University of Maryland's Billy Jones was the first]. 1964, Dean Smith segregates a lunch counter in North Carolina by eating there with a theology student, gives all his sneaker money over to the university, stood for a lot more than basketball. I've always enjoyed my time, or always had enjoyed my time talking to him 'cause he was a history buff.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: And I don't know if he remembered me, but we'd always talk about something...

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. Mike Pesca, host of The Gist. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 10, 2015 at 10:00 PM MST
Charlie Scott was not the first black player in the ACC, as is said during this interview. In fact, the University of Maryland's Billy Jones was the first.
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