From the early stages of its inception, the culture surrounding Hip-Hop music has always had definitive traits embedded within it that are deeply intertwined with that of the culture surrounding the game of basketball. There are certain sentiments that are constant within both cultures that not only resonate strongly within the youth of the world, but also carry emotional components that any human being, from any walk of life, can relate to. Both the hip-hop and basketball cultures mirror a sense of individuality, and are pure forms of art which are profoundly rooted with self-expression.
Hip-Hop legend and Queens, New York native, Phife Dawg, from A Tribe Called Quest, is the quintessential standard of the two cultures being unified as one. A sports fan first, and hip-hop icon second, Phife has spent his professional career balancing his love for both sports and music. From his catalogue of lyrics, to his style of clothing, all the way to his daily expressions and interactions in life, sports has been the one constant theme throughout it all. While he’s a fan of all realms of sports, Phife specifically has a deep affinity for basketball, and his knowledge and appreciation for the origins of it are infinite.
Earlier this year, we sat down with Phife Diggy to take a look at the young NBA season and talk about some of the players, teams and storylines that he was interested to see transpire throughout the 2013-14′ season. Now four months later, and deep into the playoffs with the NBA season approaching its pinnacle, we caught back up with Phife, and dissected the current state of the NBA. In this interview Phife talks with us about everything from his predictions on this year’s playoffs, to Kevin Durant’s importance in the league, his thoughts on equality within sports, and the future of the NBA under the guidance of new commissioner Adam Silver.
Phife, as your Twitter followers know, your self-appointed name on there is PHIFEdaPHanalyst, which is a play on both your love for sports as a fan, but also your passion for dissecting them from an analyst’s perspective. So we’ll put on both hats for this interview. First, just as a fan, how amazing was that first round of NBA Playoff action. One of the best ever right?
Absolutely man, it was too exciting. One of the best rounds I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. Everything was crazy.
Before we get into playoff match ups and predictions, some significant things have transpired in the NBA within the past couple weeks. Kevin Durant was recently awarded the regular season MVP, and had one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the prestigious award. This season seems to officially be the year where he entered into that territory of really tapping into the elite potential he embodies. Can you explain what he means to the NBA and the city of Oklahoma City?
He truly means everything to the City of Oklahoma City. If it wasn’t for him getting drafted, I’m not sure if Oklahoma would have ever gotten the team from Seattle. He’s one of those players who doesn’t have a problem lending his hand and taking time out of his life to be there for those fans and those people of that city. If you recall, last year around this time when they had the horrible Tornadoes throughout Oklahoma, he was the main one out there helping people and doing whatever he could to put a smile on everybody’s face. Just that smile can mean so much in a time like that, and he understands that. He knew what it was with that. He’s a great kid. His morality comes into play every single time when it’s needed. Even when it’s not needed, he’s there for those people and his fans.
As far as him as a basketball player, he’s committed to being the best. He gets better every single season. He said it himself, “I’m tired of coming in second place.” He works so very hard at trying to be the best. I’m sure that city loves that about him. I don’t see him going anywhere else. Ever. Although, he was disrespected last week when Oklahoma City’s newspaper labeled him “Mr. Unreliable” or whatever. I thought that was very disrespectful after everything he’s done for that city. There’s no place for that. Of course you know the editor has backtracked since that came out. That was ridiculous.
His acceptance speech displayed for sports fans across the world that for him, it’s not just about the game of basketball. He showed that he has a bigger purpose and that basketball is just a platform for him to help others and change lives. It’s really special to have an MVP and one of the faces of the league understand that, right?
Absolutely. He’s one of those kids that just really appreciates people. His family, his mother, his brothers. And then he singled out pretty much every teammate of his. Then the coaches, too. He just wanted to say thank you to them for being a part of his journey. He really didn’t have to do that, but that’s just the type of person he is. He’s a special dude.
LeBron finished second in the MVP voting, and while he said that KD deserved it, he also mentioned that he felt he played well enough to win it but that his team might not have played well enough. After sweeping Charlotte in the first round, the Heat got to rest for a week. How important is that rest for a team that’s played more games than any team in the past three years? Do you think it’s a huge benefit, or can sitting for so long disrupt the momentum a team has?
I think it could really go either way depending on the team. But for the Miami Heat, I think it’s a great thing they got that rest. They’ve been resting D Wade all year already, you know? Shane Battier definitely isn’t getting any younger. Udonis Haslem, too. They have a lot of players that can benefit from that rest. They already have the experience in the playoffs, too. So when they get that extended rest, it can only help a team like the Heat. Yeah, LeBron finished second in the MVP voting, but I’m sure he’d rather win another championship than win an MVP. When it comes to the playoffs, he’s going to prove to everyone that he’s the real MVP. He’s going to bring it. Yeah, although Kevin Durant is the regular season MVP, when it comes to playoff time, I think LeBron will show that he’s the real MVP. I really do.
Quite the opposite of positive momentum, the #1 seed in the East is having some major issues right now. The Pacers have been playing garbage basketball for a few months and are impossible to figure out. What do you think the problem is? How do you go from having so much chemistry to having no chemistry at all?
Honestly, I think there is something going on behind the scenes. There has to be something crazy going on behind the scenes. I can’t put my finger on what exactly that is, but when you have Roy Hibbert getting zero points and zero rebounds, and playing that way in like 3 or 4 playoff games so far, that’s just ridiculous. How do you go from being an all-star to this? You know, the playoffs are all about all-stars becoming superstars, and with the exception of last night, he has pretty much regressed in all areas of his game.
Great players find ways to contribute even when they’re not getting their points.
Exactly, man. He needs to be out there altering shots. Hitting the boards. Blocking shots. Taking charges. Diving after loose balls. He hasn’t been doing anything! I heard through the grapevine that Roy was upset that the Pacers brought in Andrew Bynum in February. If that’s the case, and I’m Larry Bird, I just go ahead and trade Roy. He knows better. Roy knows it’s all a part of the business, you know what I mean? Deal with it and compete! Compete for your job. That’s what this is all about. Not to mention, you’re already guaranteed a certain amount of dollars. What are you crying and whining for? I don’t get it. However, he did step his game up in game 2, so hopefully for him that’s the start of something good.
Fresh off of being eliminated by the Clippers, The Warriors released the news this week that Mark Jackson will be relieved of his coaching duties. He led Golden State to their best record since 1991 and back to back playoff experiences. Warriors superstar, Steph Curry, was publicly vocal about how much he preferred that Mark Jackson be retained as head coach. From our past talks I know you’re a huge Mark Jackson fan. What are your thoughts on that whole situation?
Same thing as the Pacers situation, you know? Something crazy has to be going on behind the scenes. I mean he came in and made the Warriors a better team. Golden State wasn’t getting the type of wins they are getting now before he became head coach. Then you let him go because of whatever nonsense is going on?
He seemed like a perfect fit there, right? The team was constantly progressing under his leadership, and his players loved him. It’s actually very disheartening.
It is really really sad. I was watching First Take a couple days ago, and Stephen A Smith said something that really struck a cord with me, in a good way. He said that he was upset with the whole Mark Jackson ordeal, but what he was even more upset about is how Steve Kerr has all of these head coach openings at his disposal. He could go to the Knicks, and apparently the Golden State job is his if he wants it, and maybe even the Lakers if he wants that. Whereas, you have these great minority coaches who don’t even get considered for these opportunities. Guys like Sam Mitchell. Guys like Lionel Hollins, who took the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals last year. Nobody is ringing their phone off the hook. A guy like Avery Johnson who took the Mavericks to the Finals a few years ago, and was a coach of the year recently. No one is ringing his phone off the hook. But Steve Kerr, who has no coaching experience, has all of these franchises waiting for him to make a decision on where he wants to go. It makes no sense. Especially with Mark Jackson. I mean, look at the two seasons he had with the Warriors. And think about it, a lot of those games he won were without the services of Andrew Bogut. He did a great job and it’s just real sad. I really don’t know who Golden State is going to hire, but if they somehow end up hiring Mike D’Antoni, man, I don’t even know what to tell them.
I’m sure you would love to see Mark Jackson on the sidelines in New York coaching your beloved Knicks.
I really would, but I just don’t see it happening. Phil Jackson is going to get his guy, so to speak. Someone that knows his system. Yeah, I would love it if it somehow happened, but I just don’t see it working out.
Being a Knicks fan, what were your thoughts on the Phil Jackson hiring? Like you said, it potentially limits your coaching possibilities as he typically hires ex-players or coaches in his coaching tree who have a familiarity with the Triangle offense. But you have to be happy with James Dolan finally handing over the reins though, right?
I mean, I’m happy that Phil Jackson was brought on, but I still don’t trust James Dolan. I really don’t. We’ve been so horrible for so long that I don’t really see him making any power moves to make the situation any better. I hope I’m wrong. I also only know Phil Jackson as a coach. I don’t know him as a front office individual, so I’m not sure. I’ll just say I hope I’m wrong.
Speaking of NBA ownership, Donald Sterling was recently stripped of his ownership privileges and banned for life from the NBA for some appalling racially driven remarks that became public. It was a sickening and untimely series of events for not only the Clippers organization, but for the NBA in general. Considering all of the circumstances and the sudden nature of how it transpired, how do you think newly appointed NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, handled it?
I thought he handled it much better than I’d imagine David Stern handling it (laughs). I’ll tell you that much (laughs). No, Adam Silver did a great job with that. He put his foot down right away. I think he’s very much a commissioner for the players, whereas David Stern, although a very good commissioner, he wasn’t so much for the players as I see Adam Silver being, you know what I mean? Adam Silver had an opportunity to sit back in waiting and observe the league while under Stern, and I think he’s going to do a great job moving forward. NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, is another one like David Stern. They come down really hard on the players, but you never really see them stick up for the players that much. I think Adam Silver will be the total opposite. Not to really pit them against each other so to speak, but I really see him sitting down and listening to a Derek Fisher, listening to a Chris Paul or Roger Mason, you know? Sitting down and really listening to a guy like Kevin Johnson. I think the NBA is in really good hands with Adam Silver.
In the fallout of an unfortunate situation like that, where you see an overwhelming amount of support and backing from all parties involved, including the league office, to the players union, all the way to the fans. Do you see that support and unification as evidence of genuine progression towards a place where equality is becoming a standard within sports?
You know, I’m not sure about that because so many people think so differently. But yeah, I do see that the NBA is getting there and becoming that. I just hope that the NHL, the NFL, the MLB and the MLS can all take a step back and learn from this. What I’m hoping that what they take from it and then apply to their own leagues, is how the NBA stood together as one. That’s really all I can hope for. It does seem to be going in the right direction, but at the same time, nothing ceases to amaze me.
Alright, on to some basketball. Let’s break down these second round match ups. The #2 seeded Thunder and the #3 seeded Clippers match up is probably the most exciting second round series in these playoffs. What’s your thoughts on this series? Who wins and in how many games?
I hope the Clippers win, but I think the Thunder will win in 6. I’m just a big Doc Rivers fan, and being that I’m still upset about Seattle losing the Sonics, I refuse to root for Oklahoma City. But that’s just me, you know what I mean? From an analytical point of view though, I do think that while the Clippers have a better coach, the Thunder have a better overall team. I’ve always been one to say that experience is the best teacher. The Thunder are much more experienced, and if they don’t use that to their advantage, than they really don’t deserve to win. I definitely think they have a better team than the Clippers. The Thunder have a lot of role players who don’t mind being just that, a role player. They play their part and do nothing more or nothing less. A guy like Steven Adams is a great example of that. Or a Kendrick Perkins taking up space, drawing and committing fouls. Derek Fisher is a vet in the game and will need to play his role for the Thunder to keep winning. In the playoffs, it’s guys like that can really come in and affect games when some of the younger players don’t know what to do in certain situations. And of course, if Russell Westbrook is in control likes he’s been the last couple games, I really don’t see the Clippers beating them. But what I really need Russell Westbrook to do though (laughs), is just go ahead and keep giving that ball to Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter (laughs). That’s exactly what I need from Russell Westbrook. If he can do that, I don’t see the Thunder losing. But again, as a fan, I do want the Clippers to win.
When we talked earlier this year, you mentioned that you felt Blake Griffin was a bit overrated and had a lot of maturing to do before he could be considered elite. You did wish to see his improvement, though. Does he get your blessing now?
Yeah, he does. When Chris Paul got hurt earlier in the season and was out for five weeks, I think that was a blessing in disguise for Blake Griffin. He had no choice but to grow up. Grow up quick, too. And I’ll give him credit, he did exactly that. I do think a lot of that has to do with the coaching of Doc Rivers, too. Doc gave him no choice but to step his game up. But yeah, he did his thing this year. I’m not going to sit back and hate for no reason. But, he was overrated when I told you that (laughs).
The other conference semi’s match up in the West is San Antonio and Portland. Portland is coming off an exciting opening round against Houston where they really shocked some people by the way they handled their business in that series. Can they keep that momentum rolling and knock off the #1 seeded Spurs who are full of veterans and experience?
I would really like to see Portland win because I’m a big fan of Damian Lillard. But again, experience is the best teacher, and San Antonio has one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, in basketball right now. I don’t really see them losing to Portland, but I hope I’m wrong once again. I love Portland, and I would love to see them keep moving on. It would be special to see them do it for the late Dr. Jack Ramsay. Their fans are so great, too. Just all of that. I like the whole makeup of the Trailblazers and their organization. I love Damian Lillard, I love LaMarcus Aldridge, and I love Wesley Matthews’ game. Terry Stotts has done a wonderful job out there. I do see big things in the future for Portland, but I don’t think this year will be that year. Next year though, with a healthy C.J. McCollum? That team is going to be crazy, man. If they can keep that roster together, I’m telling you, that team will be crazy.
Again, touching on veteran teams getting that valuable rest throughout the season and as the playoffs approach, I looked at regular season minutes earlier today. While the Blazers starting five all rank in the top fifty for most minutes played in the regular season this year, the highest listed player for the Spurs is… Tim Duncan.. and he’s ranked 102nd! That’s crazy.
That right there goes to show you that Pop isn’t only the best coach in the league, but he’s the smartest coach in the league, too. I mean he’ll take fines from the league just so he can rest his players throughout the regular season. So once playoffs come his players know there’s no excuses, there’s no whining, there’s no crying. Just get out there and do your job and get the job done. I mean, think how great Tony Parker has been the last decade for the San Antonio Spurs, and he still get barked on by Coach Pop the most of anyone. And that’s just Coach Popovich knowing what buttons to push. He knows which buttons to push with his worst players, and he knows which buttons to push with his best players. It’s really why they are always in contention to win a title.
Not many players get to San Antonio and fail to become a more well-rounded player. He extracts the most out of every player he coaches.
Exactly. Coach Pop is the best. It’s as simple as that.
On to the Eastern Conference. The suddenly unstable and #1 seeded Indiana Pacers are matched up against the surprisingly confident Washington Wizards. Can the Pacers get their act together and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals where they’re supposed to be?
I mean, I think the Pacers will win the series. I think. But when it comes to their issues though, it’s not even so much all on Hibbert. Roy is 7′ 2″, you know? So his job is to protect the rim and play big. He really only averages ten to eleven points anyways. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I wish he would have played like this against the Knicks in the second round of last year’s playoffs (laughs). Roy was jump hooking Tyson Chandler to death in that series! He blocked Carmelo at the rim in a big spot, and that was huge! But this time around he disappears? But like I was going to say, It’s not really about Roy Hibbert. It’s about Paul George and Lance Stephenson who have not played well in these playoffs so far. These are the guys who make this team go. I think Roy Hibbert is an easy scapegoat right now for what the Pacers have not been able to do. It shouldn’t take the Pacers seven games to beat a Hawks team that doesn’t have Al Horford. So like I said, Paul George hasn’t stepped up, and from what I’ve heard Lance Stephenson has been a cancer in that locker room. I heard it’s been ridiculous. You know, I guess you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the of the boy. They both need to put aside whatever it is that has them playing like this, and step up for their team and their City. If those two guys step up and play like they should, there’s not many teams they can’t beat. Now can they beat Miami? No, I don’t think so.
Speaking of the Heat, they have looked extremely fresh and energized and have really cruised to this point so far. Miami landed a second round match up with a team of savvy veterans from Brooklyn who are all too familiar with facing the Heat in the playoffs. When the front office of Brooklyn was piecing together the team this off-season, wasn’t this the exact series they had in mind when constructing the makeup and character of the 2013-2014 roster?
Yeah, it really was. To be honest, I think after the Nets swept the Heat in all four games this regular season, I think their heads got a little too big. They need to come back down to earth and realize that one, it’s the Miami Heat. And two, it’s the postseason. The Miami Heat live for the playoffs. The Nets should have known it wasn’t going to be easy to play with them in the postseason. They were bumped back down to earth in game 1, no doubt. I think Miami is going to win this series in five games, I really do.
We have been watching something very special the past few years. LeBron and the Heat are just on a different level come playoff time.
Exactly. They’re just on a different level all together. Also, I’m just a hater. I’m a Nets hater (laughs). Plain and simple.
Just because you’re a Knicks fan?
Yeah. It’s just that simple. I’m a Nets hater. I want them to lose and they are going to lose. Even from an analytical point of view, I can confidently say they’re going to lose. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love Jason Kidd and I want to see him do well, but I don’t believe in the whole rent two hall-of-famers for a year type of thing. I wasn’t really feeling that too much, you know what I mean? Although, I love Paul Pierce. I Love Kevin Garnett. It’s not the same KG that we used to know though. Paul Pierce, he still has some big moments so you can never sleep on him. But Joe Johnson for me, I mean he’s never had much success in the postseason. I’m waiting to see what he does in this series. He had a nice first series against Toronto, but that didn’t really phase my opinion much, you know? You’re supposed to beat Toronto. You’re the experienced team. It shouldn’t have even gotten to seven games. I want to see how he does against Miami though. That’s what I wanna see, you know? He’s an all-star, but is he a superstar? That’s the question. Deron Williams was one of the best point guards in the league like two seasons ago. What happened? I haven’t seen the same Deron Williams. So, yeah I just think the Heat are going to whoop them in five games. I really do.
Alright so you’ve got the top two seeds of each respective Conference moving on to meet in the Conference finals. The Thunder against the Spurs, and the Pacers against Heat. After it all plays out, who’s going to meet in the Finals, and which team is crowned NBA champions this year and gets to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to their City?
Wow man, that’s tough. I still think it’s going to be the Spurs and Miami in the Finals again, and I predict the Spurs to win it in seven games. The Spurs’ hunger is there. And again, they have the best coach in the game. Trust me, they did not forget how they lost last year. Not just the fact that they lost, but how they lost. So yeah, It’s going to be Miami and San Antonio, and San Antonio is going to win it this year. Now, it’s ok for me to be wrong, because I’ve definitely been wrong before (laughs). I was wrong last year, because I predicted the Spurs to win it then, too. But hey, things happen. So yeah, that’s my gut feeling right now. Don’t get me wrong though, the Thunder have a very good chance to beat San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals if they make it, but I just can’t go against Popovich. I can’t, I just can’t. Plus, you just never know which Russell Westbrook is going to come to play. It could be out of control Russell Westbrook, or in control Russell Westbrook, you just never know which one it’s going to be. Me personally, I think Scott Brooks needs to move Russell to the two and start Reggie Jackson at the point. Maybe end games with Russell at the point, or whatever, but definitely switch it up a little bit. It’s becoming a one-dimensional thing where you can pretty much tell what Russell Westbrook is going to do most of the time, you know what I’m saying? That’s what it’s becoming. Now, if he continues playing like he’s been playing the last few games, than Oklahoma City might be alright. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, you know? But right now, it’s only about winning the championship for the Thunder, and the way they are set up at the moment, I don’t know if that’s going to happen this year. Of course it’s a possibility, but I’m not too sure.
Even though I feel like I’ve said this for the past three seasons, this really may be the Spurs final season in that competitive window with the roster that we’ve become so familiar with.
Absolutely. That only adds to the hunger I was talking about earlier. I think that’s exactly why they get it done this year. The Spurs will be your 2014 NBA champions.
Phife, thanks for taking the time and dropping some NBA knowledge. Looking forward to seeing how your predictions play out. We’ll catch up with you soon. Take care and enjoy the playoffs.
Definitely, man. You too. Thanks a lot.
Keep up with Phife Dawg and his opinionated take on sports HERE on Twitter.