20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

ESPN Attempts to Revive the Tim Donaghy Scandal

ESPN has published a very lengthy piece about disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, and has made the very inflammatory declaration that their story explains how Donaghy "conspired to fix NBA games." There is a saying that applies equally to science and to the law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Just because something may seem plausible when viewed in a certain way does not make it true, or likely to be true, or even admissible in a court of law. Much has been made of the size of the ESPN article but an article's length should not be construed to signify its depth: a 10 line poem can be profound and deep, while a 10,000 word article can be superficial and shallow.

The factual background concerning the allegation that Donaghy conspired to fix NBA games is that the federal government and the NBA conducted separate, independent investigations and could not prove this to be the case. Donaghy pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to transmit wagering information. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison. In an attempt to draw attention away from himself, and perhaps get a lighter sentence, Donaghy alleged to the court that the NBA conspired to alter the outcomes of various games--including the much-discussed game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, a game that Donaghy did not officiate--but no proof was ever presented or discovered to support that allegation.

After Donaghy made the accusation about the league conspiring to fix multiple games, I wrote that the NBA should publicly release the grades for the three referees from game six of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Does the NBA classify that as a well-officiated game or a poorly officiated game? How did each of the controversial calls grade out? Such transparency would be welcome. The closest that the NBA has come to doing this came within the Pedowitz Report, which contained the findings of an independent investigation conducted in the wake of the Donaghy scandal; Pedowitz' team broke down game six in great detail and concluded that, while the game was poorly officiated, there was no evidence that the officiating was biased in favor of the Lakers.

When the Donaghy case first became publicized, then NBA Commissioner David Stern publicly stated that Donaghy had graded highly as a referee. That may be true but it is also worth noting that Donaghy never officiated in the NBA Finals--which is where the highest graded referees go--and he did not officiate a large number of playoff games. It would be helpful if the NBA released the data concerning how Donaghy graded out.

It is difficult to reconcile the conflicting notions that (1) Donaghy was objectively a good referee and (2) Donaghy deliberately made incorrect calls and/or incorrect non-calls in order to change the outcomes of games. How could both statements be true? That would be quite a tightrope act., to figure out how to influence the outcome of games by generally making calls that favor one side, but doing so predominantly on calls that are so close in nature that no matter which way they went they would not be graded as incorrect. If the NBA has objective data that shows that Donaghy did not make an unusual number of bad calls/non-calls, that data could put to rest any notion that Donaghy fixed games.

The ESPN article does not present much new information, and the new information that it presents does not prove anything; just counting the number of foul calls that went for or against one team is not meaningful without supplying context concerning time, score, playing style/philosophy of both teams, individual matchups/mismatches, etc. Is it unusual that one team was whistled for x number of fouls in a row? Maybe yes, maybe no. It may be "statistically significant" in the sense that a coin flip would not be expected to generate x number of heads or tails in a row but that statistical significance does not prove that a certain official made those calls to change the outcome of that game.

Other than the number crunching--and the NBA disputes the conclusions that ESPN drew from the number crunching--the rest of the ESPN article primarily consists of statements about Donaghy from dead people, anonymous people and/or convicted criminals. Little if anything in that article that was not already presented in court would be admissible in a court of law. The ESPN article does not prove how Donaghy allegedly conspired to fix games but it presents a scenario that may or may not be true about how he could have conspired to fix games.

Do I believe that Donaghy fixed games? It is certainly possible, and that possibility is very disturbing to me as a lifelong NBA fan who loves pure athletic competition. That which we know Donaghy did is bad enough, and a black eye for him and for the league that did not figure this out sooner. If he fixed games, that is awful; if he is right that the league fixed games and that many referees were involved, that would make me incredibly sad.

However, more than a decade after Donaghy's illegal activity was discovered, there is no smoking gun, no proof that he did more than bet on games that he officiated and provide inside information to gamblers. The league would have everything to lose and nothing to gain by conspiring to fix games; the NBA has been booming financially for decades, and changing the outcome of a few games is not going to provide enough financial upside to cover against the huge downside of getting caught committing such a crime. If it were proven that the NBA fixed games, that would be the end of the league.

I agree with one assertion in the ESPN article: the advent of widespread, legalized betting on NBA games opens up the potential for a large number of problems; as the ESPN writer noted, citing some research done on this issue, the more money that is added to this situation the greater the likelihood for wrongdoing and scandal. Just look at the recent Anthony Davis melodram; is he going to play, is he not going to play, is he going to play hard, is the team going to play him in the fourth quarter--there are numerous ways for one or more unscrupulous parties to manipulate the point spreads for New Orleans' Pelicans' games. Then you have the issue of rest (or "load management," the new catchphrase for sitting out otherwise healthy players), not to mention the issue of tanking. What if someone is able to get the inside scoop about which stars are going to rest for which games, or which teams decided to tank 10 games before the general public could tell that those teams are tanking? The NBA's recent embrace of widespread legalized gambling is fraught with peril.

It has been interesting for me to look back on my coverage of the Donaghy scandal. When the Donaghy story first broke in the summer of 2007, I was several years away from even considering going to law school; now, I am several years removed from graduating law school, passing the bar and being a licensed attorney. So, understandably, I view the Donaghy story--at least in terms of the legal aspects concerning burden of proof and other issues--through a different prism than I did when I was a journalist who did not have any formal legal training. That being said, when I review what I wrote at that time--see the links below--I stand by my coverage; I grasped the issues and I raised pertinent questions without jumping to conclusions or succumbing to unsupported speculation.

The ESPN story is a page-turning drama but it does not provide any new facts or evidence, just speculation. I am not naive enough to say that there is no way that Donaghy was fixing games but I would be interested to hear an explanation for how he could grade out at least adequately while also deliberately making enough bad calls/non-calls to fix the outcome (or cover the point spread) of multiple games for a period of several years.

20 Second Timeout's Coverage of the Tim Donaghy Story:

New York Post Reports that an NBA Referee is Under Investigation for Fixing NBA Games (July 20, 2007)

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case (July 21, 2007)

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation  (July 24, 2007)

Tim Donaghy's Media Guide Bio Contains Discrepancies (July 26, 2007)

How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating? (July 28, 2007)

Are Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell Really the Best Authorities on Refereeing? (July 31, 2007)

What is the Purpose of a Basketball Blog?  (August 2, 2007)

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy (August 5, 2007)

The Other Shoe Set to Drop in Donaghy Case (August 15, 2007)

Donaghy Pleads Guilty to Two Felonies, Faces Up to 25 Years in Prison (August 15, 2007)

When Donaghy Starts Singing Will 20 NBA Referees be Sent Dancing? (August 18, 2007)
Tim Donaghy's Tales (June 12, 2008)

Donaghy Sentenced, Key Questions Remain Unresolved (July 30, 2008)

Pedowitz Report Implicates Only Donaghy but Recommends Several Changes to NBA Officiating Program (October 2, 2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM


Monday, February 18, 2019

Kevin Durant Wins his Second All-Star MVP as Team LeBron Overcomes 20 Point Deficit to Defeat Team Giannis, 178-164

The NBA All-Star Game is not as good as it used to be, and it probably never will be again. If one understands and accepts those premises, it is possible to still derive enjoyment from watching the world's best basketball players showcasing their athleticism and skills. I have been watching the NBA All-Star Game since the 1980s and I have seen highlights--if not complete game footage--from many of the pre-1980s All-Star Games as well. The All-Star Game used to showcase both a higher fundamental skill level and a greater level of competitiveness than it does now. Today's players can do incredible things but they don't understand that those things are even more incredible when accomplished against defensive resistance as opposed to defensive indifference.

The All-Star Game sunk to such depths a few years ago that there were even whispers that it might be discontinued. Instead, the league changed the format from East versus West to a format in which the top two vote-getters conduct a draft consisting of a pool of other All-Stars selected by fans, coaches and media members. LeBron James faced off against Giannis Antetokounmpo in this year's All-Star draft. Popular consensus was that James, whose draft strategy seemed to be focused on acquiring every major player who will be a free agent soon, got the better of Antetokounmpo--but it did not look like that initially, as Team Giannis led 53-37 after the first quarter and 95-82 at halftime. Antetokounmpo scored a game-high 38 points on 17-23 field goal shooting, including 10 dunks. He also had 11 rebounds and five assists. He set the tone in the first quarter with 16 points. Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee teammate/All-Star teammate Khris Middleton added 20 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, including 6-10 from three point range. Middleton scored 12 first quarter points.

To coin--or repeat--a phrase, it seemed like Team LeBron was in "chill mode" during the first half, but in the second half they exerted at least some defensive effort and they rained down a barrage of three pointers. Team LeBron outscored Team Giannis 96-69 in the second half while shooting 22-49 from three point range. The teams combined to attempt 167 three pointers during the game, compared to 108 two pointers attempted.

Kevin Durant earned MVP honors by scoring 31 points on 10-15 field goal shooting (including 6-9 from three point range) while also contributing seven rebounds. He had 11 points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. Durant's Golden State teammate Klay Thompson finished second on Team LeBron with 20 points on 7-16 field goal shooting (6-12 from three point range) and he had eight rebounds and four assists as well.

James had a subdued game by his standards, finishing with 19 points on 9-17 field goal shooting (including 1-8 from three point range), plus eight rebounds and four assists. Kawhi Leonard also had 19 points, along with five rebounds and two assists. Leonard had nine points--all on three pointers--in the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving was the unlikely Team LeBron rebounding leader with nine. He also had 13 points and six assists, one behind Ben Simmons' team-high seven assists. Simmons contributed 10 points and six rebounds. Damian Lillard had 18 points, six rebounds and five assists while compiling a game-best +20 plus/minus number. He scored nine points in the third quarter to help kick-start the comeback.

Paul George scored 20 points for Team Giannis, doing most of his damage from beyond the arc. His Oklahoma City teammate Russell Westbrook added 17 points, four rebounds and three assists. Westbrook shot too many three pointers--ending up just 1-8 from beyond the arc--and his gait has not seemed quite right all season in the wake of his knee surgery, but he played with his customary energy and made a point of trying to get his teammates involved, twice passing up shots in the paint to set up open three pointers.

Stephen Curry had some nice moments but he fell apart in the fourth quarter, shooting just 3-11 from the field (including 1-8 on three pointers) as Team Giannis collapsed down the stretch. Curry finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists but he shot a woeful 6-23 from the field (4-17 on three pointers), and one of his six makes was an uncontested dunk as time ran out.

Joel Embiid led Team Giannis with a game-high 12 rebounds but he scored just 10 points on 4-12 field goal shooting and in the fourth quarter he fumbled the ball like he was Edward Scissorhands, repeatedly letting smaller players slap the ball away on plays when he should have scored or drawn a foul. Officially, in the final stanza he shot 1-4 from the field and had one turnover but it looked/felt like he squandered more possessions than that.

Charlotte fans enjoyed watching the Hornets' Kemba Walker amass a game-high eight assists, but he shot just 2-8 from the field and scored only four points.

The Commissioner's special selections, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade, delighted the fans during their cameo appearances for Team Giannis and Team LeBron respectively. Nowitzki scored 9 points on 3-3 shooting from three point range in four minutes, while Wade had seven points, four assists and two rebounds in 10 minutes. Nowitzki moves like he is encased in ice and he looks like he will need a week long ice bath for recovery after every game, but he shoots like he will be able to make spot up, tippy toe three pointers forever.

The golden age of the NBA All-Star Game took place in the 1980s, when perennial All-Star point guards Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas set a tone that nicely balanced showmanship and competitiveness. For example, look at the 1988 contest (Magic Johnson was injured and did not play in the 1989 game 30 years ago): the East won 138-133 over the West in a high scoring, up tempo game, but a game that was not completely out of the context of how the regular season games were played during that season when the average team scored 108.2 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Denver Nuggets) averaged 116.7 ppg. Also, the East shot 3-6 from three point range and the West shot 1-5 from three point range. The East shot .519 from the field, while the West shot .426 from the field. No one is suggesting that the 1988 All-Star Game was a defensive slugfest but there was at least some defensive resistance and it looked--both visually and statistically--like some semblance of a "real" game. Players shot from the post, from midrange and on drives, showcasing a variety of skills.The East had 11 steals and 11 blocked shots, while the West had 11 steals and seven blocked shots. The East committed 29 fouls, while the West committed 27 fouls.

In contrast, this season, the average team is scoring 110.7 ppg and the top-scoring team (the Golden State Warriors) is averaging 118.8 ppg but the All-Star game made a run at matching those totals in the first half. As noted above, the vast majority of shots attempted in the 2019 All-Star Game were three pointers, many of which were fired up early in the shot clock from well beyond the arc. Team LeBron had nine steals and six blocked shots while committing nine fouls and Team Giannis had eight steals and one blocked shot while committing six fouls; those numbers starkly contrast with the 1988 numbers, and suggest that the 1988 All-Star Game at least resembled a real game, while the 2019 All-Star Game was much more like an intra-squad scrimmage--and a low intensity one at that, not like the famous Dream Team scrimmage pitting Michael Jordan's squad against Magic Johnson's squad.

NBA players have remarkable athletic ability and shooting skills but those abilities and skills are best demonstrated in an environment that is at least semi-competitive.

Recent NBA All-Star Game Recaps:

LeBron James Earns Third All-Star Game MVP as Team LeBron Outlasts Team Stephen, 148-145 :

"LeBron James scored a game-high 29 points on 12-17 field goal shooting, grabbed a game-high tying 10 rebounds and dished eight assists as Team LeBron defeated Team Stephen 148-145 in the first year of the NBA's new All-Star selection format; instead of the traditional matchup featuring the Eastern Conference facing the Western Conference, a team of All-Stars picked by LeBron James faced a team of All-Stars picked by Stephen Curry. The NBA tweaked the All-Star Game in the wake of several subpar All-Star Games, culminating in last year's farce.

Before the 2018 All-Star Game, James already held the NBA All-Star Game career scoring record (314 points) and yesterday he surpassed Julius Erving (321 points) to set the record for most points scored in ABA and NBA All-Star Games combined. Bob Pettit (1956, 58, 59, 62) and Kobe Bryant (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011) share the record with four All-Star Game MVPs each, while James joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as three-time winners; James previously earned the All-Star Game MVP in 2006 and 2008."

The NBA All-Star Game Has Become a Farce (2017):

"The Western Conference's 192-182 victory over the Eastern Conference is without question the worst NBA All-Star Game that I have ever watched. Other than the MLB All-Star Game that ended in a tie (and many NFL Pro Bowls of recent vintage) it may be the worst major professional league All-Star Game ever. When the reigning two-time regular season MVP literally lies down on the court instead of attempting to play defense, you know that the event has jumped the shark"

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM


Wednesday, February 13, 2019

George Mumford and Julius Erving Discuss Mindfulness

I mentioned the House Call With Dr. J Podcast last October and it is worth emphasizing again how wonderful these episodes are. They cover a lot more than basketball and it is a shame that no episodes have been added to the archives in recent months; I hope that does not mean that the project has been shelved.

I recently listened to the George Mumford conversation--the podcasts are much more like a dialogue than an interview--and it was the highlight of my lunch break, a great way to feed my mind while I fed my body before completing the work day.

Mumford was Erving's roommate during their college days at the University of Massachusetts. They hit it off immediately and developed a lifelong friendship. Mumford, a year behind Erving in school, looked up to the young basketball star not only because of Erving's on court prowess but also because of Erving's demeanor when interacting with people regardless of their station in life.

As Mumford put it during the podcast, "No matter what you're doing, it's who you're being that is really important."

Mumford's basketball career ended prematurely due to injuries, and eventually Mumford transitioned from the painkillers that he took to deal with those injuries to harder substances. Mumford prevailed over his drug addiction and became a world-renowned expert on mindfulness; Phil Jackson brought Mumford in to work with both the Chicago Bulls and also later with the L.A. Lakers. Mumford has trained a host of world-class athletes from a variety of sports about how to be in the moment and calm their racing thoughts.

Mumford cites Erving as both an influence and an inspiration and he sees similarities in the mindsets of Erving and two of the most prominent basketball players with whom he has worked: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Erving and Mumford discussed the mindset that it takes to be successful. Erving described himself as a "square" who has "never smoked a joint" and sees no reason to do so now. He said that his focus on what he needed to do to get where he was trying to go enabled him to sidestep the temptations that lured others away from the path to success. Erving was careful to say that he was not judging Mumford or anyone else who succumbed to drug addiction. Mumford said that when he was at his lowest point he distanced himself from Erving because he did not want to bring around Erving the kinds of people with whom he was associating.

Mumford admired the dedication that Erving showed to perfect his craft, always working on a new move or a new shot. Erving noted that it has always irritated him when people emphasize his "natural talents" as opposed to acknowledging how hard he worked, adding that it took him his whole life to become a so-called overnight success (success being defined by when the general public knows about your skills, as opposed to when and how those skills were actually developed).

Mumford pointed out that many people say that they want to be like Erving or Jordan or Bryant but few people are willing to pay the necessary price in terms of work and sacrifice.

Regarding Jordan, Mumford was struck by his tremendous concentration level. He began working with Jordan during Jordan's first comeback and they focused on changing Jordan's leadership style now that he had so many teammates who had not been members of Chicago's first three championship teams.

As for Bryant, Mumford told him, "Kobe, the best way to score is not to try to score...there is a difference between willing yourself and forming the intention and then allowing it to happen."

Mumford listed several characteristics that Erving, Jordan and Bryant share, with two of the most important being a basic intelligence about life--not just sports--and a singular commitment to excellence. Mumford cited as an example the way that Bryant persevered through an avulsion fracture to the index finger on his shooting hand by completely changing his shooting stroke and ultimately leading the Lakers to the 2010 championship. Mumford described what Bryant did as higher level thinking; if there is not a way, then you just figure out a way or make a way, something that most people cannot do. Mumford said that to do this you "Train the mind, connect it to the spirit."

Mumford mentioned three other traits that Erving, Jordan and Bryant have:

1) Positive energy
2) Social support
3) The ability to see stress as a challenge

When someone is on top of the world, it is easy to delude oneself into thinking that this was meant to be and had been smooth sailing but the reality is that it takes tremendous energy, support and persistence to achieve anything significant.

This podcast lasts less than 30 minutes and is well worth your time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 AM


Monday, February 11, 2019

James Harden's Travels Through the NBA Record Book

Back in the day, when someone traveled in one of my rec league games and the referees missed it, a friend of mine used to yell, "Ref, he took a bus!"--as in, the offender did not just slightly travel, but he took an extended journey so far beyond the confines of the traveling rule that Stevie Wonder could have made the call.

There is a backlash against the backlash against James Harden and it goes something like this: "Why is everyone hating James Harden's greatness? He makes stepback threes that no one else can make, he has a knack for drawing fouls and he has a combination of strength/quickness that enables him to get to the hoop and finish in traffic. No one else can score as prolifically as Harden, nor can anyone else score in the variety of ways that he scores."

I will stipulate that the court of basketball truth may take judicial notice of the following facts: Harden is capable of making difficult shots, Harden is both strong and quick, and Harden has a knack for finishing in traffic/drawing fouls.

All of that being stipulated for the record, I cannot speak for all of the so-called "haters" but I can state clearly and simply why I am not impressed by what Harden is doing this season: James Harden travels on a regular basis, and this is a major reason accounting for his ongoing travels up the charts in the NBA record books. There are other reasons to be skeptical of Harden's supposed greatness, but that is the biggest single one--at least for me. I would estimate that Harden is scoring an extra 8-10 ppg purely based on being permitted to blatantly and repeatedly travel. Those extra points are the difference between being the 28-30 ppg scorer that he has been in recent years, and the 35-40 ppg scoring machine that he has been in recent weeks.

Harden's traveling is not a subject for debate; just watch the tape, with the understanding that the traveling rule remains the same as it has always been: after a player stops dribbling, he must pass or shoot without taking more than a "1, 2" step. In other words, if you pick up your dribble in midstride then you can put one foot down and then put down the other foot (or come to a two-footed jump stop immediately after picking up your dribble) but before you take a third step the ball must be out of your hands via shot or pass.

P.J. Carlesimo recently did a segment for ESPN that lasted about 90 seconds and that showed several different examples of Harden taking three or more steps before draining a shot. Carlesimo commented that if he were coaching against Harden then he would be yelling at the officials all the time to enforce the traveling rule because there is no way to guard Harden if he is going to be allowed to blatantly and repeatedly violate the traveling rule.

There is no doubt that Harden is a talented scorer. There is no doubt that he makes some shots that are very difficult.

There is also no doubt that any above average NBA player is going to score a lot more points than usual if he is permitted to take extra steps.

The issue is compounded by the fact that Harden often pushes off first before he takes his three steps backward. In other words, he commits an offensive foul, then he travels, and then he scores. He often looks with disdain at his discarded defender before making the wide open shot. Forgive me for not being entertained by this nonsense.

I don't know how to guard Harden under the current set of circumstances but a couple thoughts come to mind, beyond the obvious "high hands" strategy that San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich has advocated for a while:

(1) No soft fouls. If Harden pushes you and then travels, live with the outcome, because lunging at him and committing a soft foul just results in a potential four point play.

(2) Many hard fouls. Old-timers may recall that Dave Cowens was once whistled for what he deemed to be a questionable call, whereupon on an ensuing play he basically laid out an opposing player, turned to the ref and declared, "Now that's a (bleeping) foul!" That kind of blatant hard foul would almost certainly be considered a flagrant foul today but one possible answer to Harden's shenanigans is to put a non-essential player on him for a stretch of a few minutes and instruct that player that every time Harden does the foul/travel combo whack Harden's shooting hand as hard as you can. I don't believe that fouling a shooter's shooting hand would be deemed a flagrant foul, particularly if you look like you are going for the ball, and it would be interesting to see if Harden retained an appetite for violating the rules after receiving a steady diet of such fouls.

Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that there are ways to get someone to stop being foolish and to simply play the game without doing anything that is flagrant or dangerous. I think that it was Charles Barkley who once said that every time he played against Dennis Rodman he would elbow Rodman in the ribs the first time Rodman yanked his shorts or did some other offense that went undetected; the message was, "Do you want to play ball or do you want to do something else?" Rodman was much more successful against players like Alonzo Mourning who fell for the proverbial banana in the tailpipe then he was against players who neither tolerated shenanigans nor let shenanigans distract them. If I were coaching against Harden I would not complain to the referees and I would fine any of my players who got technical fouls for doing so; if this nonsense is going to be legislated out of existence then it is going to take place league-wide and not by lobbying individual officials. However, as a coach or player I would make sure that my team takes countermeasures against Harden, as described above.

As a competitor, one thing that I would not do is just accept that a player on the other team is allowed to get away with violating the rules.

If Harden can score 35-plus ppg within the confines of the rules, more power to him and I have never believed that it is appropriate to hard foul a guy just if he is beating you within the confines of the rules--but let's be honest and admit that is not what is happening with Harden. Harden has had some legitimately great moments and great games but the bulk of what he is doing would not be possible without the traveling violations.

As for the large number of free throws that Harden shoots, after watching him play a lot I have reached two conclusions: (1) He is awarded a lot of questionable calls and (2) he does have a knack for baiting unfocused defenders into fouling him. These are not mutually exclusive concepts; it is possible--and, in fact, true--to say both that Harden benefits from a favorable whistle and that Harden is very good at drawing fouls.

Saturday night's Oklahoma City-Houston game was a microcosm of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding Harden. The Rockets built a 68-42 first half lead as Harden scored on a variety of shots/moves, some of which were incredible but legal and others of which involved the push off/travel duo. Predictably, once the Rockets stopped making three pointers the Thunder came roaring back to win, 117-112. Most of the in game commentary focused on Harden--who scored 42 points on 11-28 field goal shooting--and Paul George, who scored 45 points on 12-22 field goal shooting. Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook "merely" amassed his ninth straight triple double (21 points, game-high tying 12 rebounds, game-high 11 assists), tying the all-time triple double streak set by Wilt Chamberlain. Westbrook struggled with his shot and he had several sloppy turnovers but, as George noted after the game, Westbrook had his fingerprints on just about everything positive that the Thunder did as well.

Harden's poor shooting is justified by some because he shoots so many three pointers and free throws but the reality is that regardless of Harden's points per shot or true shooing percentage 17 Houston possessions ended in missed shots by Harden; that is a ton of empty possessions and that is a recipe for blowing a lead. Harden had a -9 plus/minus number, which means that the Rockets had the advantage when he sat and lost the lead while he played. George had a +16 plus/minus number, while Westbrook's plus/minus was +2. Westbrook's miscues played a role in Oklahoma City falling behind, but his rebounding, passing and defense--plus a few timely shots-- also played a role in the comeback.

The ebbs and flows of that game strongly suggest that no matter how much the league tilts calls in Harden's favor it will still be difficult for Houston to consistently beat good teams, which means that their 2019 postseason run will most likely end in a meltdown similar to the ones that punctuated each of Harden's previous Houston postseasons. Basketball purists who are not entertained by the Rockets and by Harden's shenanigans cannot wait for the madness to end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:04 AM


Saturday, February 09, 2019

Remembering the Day When Ron Artest Thanked His Therapist After Game Seven of the 2010 NBA Finals

After the L.A. Lakers won game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals over the Boston Celtics to capture their second title in a row, Ron Artest conducted a free flowing post-game press conference. He candidly admitted that the pressure of a close game could negatively affect him and he thanked his therapist for teaching him how to relax in such situations: "Usually I am not good at these moments and I know that about myself. So, what do I do to be good at these moments? Figure it out. I needed some type of way to relax during these moments...I just trusted everything that she told me as far as relaxing and, bam, the big three goes in." There should not be a stigma about seeking help from a therapist and Artest's willingness to be open about his struggles hopefully provides strength to other people facing similar struggles.

How is Artest doing now? Shaun Powell's article Ron Artest finds peace amid mental health journey
provides some answers. Powell begins, "What about the demons? Well, they never really left him. They hibernate and lurk and stay on standby. Lord, how those demons created a mess for him. At times they nearly stole his soul, although it is the now-retired Artest who is winning that war. He's moving forward--triumphantly and surprisingly so, you soon learn--while never too embarrassed or hesitant to survey what he left behind."

Artest is candid about some of his past behaviors/misbehaviors: "Showing up to practice and disrupting practice, showing up a coach or a teammate, just going over the line. There's a lot of things I wish I had done differently. But maybe I couldn't at that time. I felt trapped."

Artest's battles with anxiety and depression began during his tumultuous childhood: "I always had anger issues because that's all I grew up around, anger. I also had love and that's why people see two sides from me. I saw my parents happy and mad. I grew up with friends who were happy and the next moment guns were firing. As a kid it was unbalanced and confusing. There was never a chance to relax. It was just get up and see what's going to happen today. I might have a good day. I might wake up on the other side of the bed. I was suspended in nursery school, kindergarten, first through 12th grade every year for fighting. In college I got in trouble and in the NBA I was in trouble for something or another every year except my last year."

A domestic violence conviction in 2007 forced Artest to seek the counseling that he had long needed, and he has been in counseling ever since. Artest recalls, "I was the best two-way player in the league at 24. I was also spiraling downward emotionally. My emotions were eating away at my skills. Like a parasite eating away at your body. It was eating away at my skill and my work habits and my mental focus and my discipline. Before I got into the brawl I wanted to retire. I requested papers to file to the NBA. I knew something was terribly wrong and nobody really knew. The league called and asked if I really wanted to do this. I needed time away because I couldn't get a hold of myself. There were so many things bothering me, so many things I couldn't handle: Taking care of so many people, wanting to have fun, not being a loyal partner with my now ex-wife … I said, 'OK, I need a break. I need to put my life in order.' I didn't go through with retirement but I wish I did. It wasn't about the money. I was going crazy by 2008."

It is a fallacy to assume that money, fame and popularity insulate a person from the effects of mental illness; if anything, those three things can both exacerbate and cover up deep-seated issues.

Artest put his money where his mouth is: he donated his 2010 championship ring, with the raffle proceeds of $651,000 earmarked for mental health charities. He also helped put his brother through law school and he set up a division in his company to help athletes with tax preparation.

If all you think about when you hear the name Ron Artest is the "Malice at the Palace" brawl, then you have missed the point. Artest is an example of what can happen when a person acknowledges mistakes, seeks help and strives to become a better person.

For information about finding a therapist near you, go to BetterHelp.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:23 PM


The 76ers Retire Moses Malone's Jersey, and Include All of his Teammates Per His Request

Last night, the Philadelphia 76ers raised a banner signifying the retirement of jersey #2 worn by three-time MVP Moses Malone but the banner is different from most, if not all, retired jersey banners: per Malone's request, the banner includes the names of all 48 of his Philadelphia teammates--not just the members of the 1983 NBA championship team, but every single person who played for the team during his five seasons with the organization (1983-86, plus a curtain call in 1994). The 76ers also honored Malone with a statute placed on their Legends Walk near their Camden, New Jersey practice facility. Other 76ers who have been honored with Legends Walk statues are Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks

Here is a picture of the banner, and a picture of the statue, with (left to right) Bobby Jones, Julius Erving and Allen Iverson among those present to pay tribute to Malone.

Image result for moses malone bannerImage result for moses malone statue

Malone passed away in 2015 but he would be happy that the team remembered and honored his one condition about his jersey being retired. Malone's request speaks volumes about the kind of person and teammate he was. Michael Lee wrote a nice story about Malone's career and the ceremony and some of the quotes in that piece provide meaningful context about one of the most underrated great players of all-time. His Philadelphia Coach, Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, said, "Moses Malone is as smart a basketball player that I've ever been around." Pat Williams, the general manager who brought both Julius Erving and Moses Malone to Philadelphia, described Malone's style of play: "He wasn't beautiful. He wasn't graceful. He just outworked people. Out-hustled them. Went after every rebound. Never backed down. And we haven't seen that type of player ever again, probably never will." Maurice Cheeks recalled Malone's sense of humor; after a game during which Cheeks only made one shot, Malone quipped that he should have at least made two so that people would not assume that the one was just a lucky shot.

Unlike many of today's superstars who incessantly seek out the spotlight and demand that they are recognized as "The Man," Malone--the reigning (1982) MVP joining a Philadelphia team led by the previous (1981) MVP Julius Erving--quashed any hint of that nonsense with a simple, direct statement: "This Doc's team." Malone deservedly won the 1983 regular season MVP and the 1983 Finals MVP as the 76ers rolled to 65-17 regular season mark and then went on a record-setting 12-1 playoff run, but Malone let his play speak for itself as opposed to running his mouth. Malone and Erving each earned All-NBA First Team honors, and Erving finished fifth in MVP voting. They provided the blueprint for the way that two all-time great players should share the spotlight and the glory while leading their team to the top; it is a shame that they did not get paired together a few years earlier (Erving turned 33 during the season that Malone joined the team) or they might have won several championships in a row. Instead, they enjoyed one dominant season together, plus a strong push to the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals that ended with a defeat at the hands of the younger Boston Celtics, who were in the midst of a run of four straight NBA Finals appearances.

For a variety of reasons that fall outside the scope of this article, it is difficult to determine which basketball team is the greatest team ever but Philadelphia's 1983 championship team takes a back seat to no single season squad in pro basketball history; that does not mean that they are definitely the best, but it means you cannot point to a single team that is clearly better.

Malone was the dominant force on that dominant team, along with the incomparable Erving, and it is fitting that the 76ers honored not only Malone's greatness but that they did so in keeping with his wish to recognize all of his teammates as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 PM


Thursday, February 07, 2019

The Truth About Kevin Durant's Rant

Last night, Kevin Durant's post-game press conference primarily consisted of an anti-media rant, with the two primary themes being (1) he does not trust the media to provide accurate coverage and (2) he does not see how talking to the media will help him do his job better.

Durant is right regarding point one. When I covered NBA games on a regular basis, I witnessed reporters who would go to one locker room, ask a leading question to a player and then go to the other locker room and tell a player, "Player A said X, Y, Z. What do you think of that?" The reporter did not tell the second player that the first player's comments--usually paraphrased to change the meaning--were not just a random statement but were in fact an answer to a question from that reporter!

Other reporters asked questions that betrayed complete ignorance of the NBA game and/or had no meaningful connection to anything that is relevant.

Not all reporters and media members are deceptive and/or incompetent but many of them are; they create "news" instead of reporting facts.

If I were Durant, I would not want to talk to them, either.

As a competent journalist, I often found that I had to overcome the default assumption by players/coaches/scouts that media members do not know what they are doing or, even worse, that media members have a negative agenda. Only after I proved that I know my stuff and that I was working on a legitimate project would they open up.

Regarding point two, Durant is correct that talking to the media will not help him play basketball better. Unfortunately for Durant and other NBA players, part of their job is dealing with the media, because the media provide access for the fans. Without TV and internet coverage, the players would not make the salaries that they make.

Durant has justifiable complaints but instead of ranting he should simply be careful and reserved with the answers that he gives and he should only provide in depth responses to media members who have proven their competence, ethics and reliability.

I interviewed Durant early during his second year and he unhesitatingly provided thoughtful answers to my questions. Sadly, if I were to approach him today he probably would not want to be interviewed at all, unless he happened to remember me from more than 10 years ago.

Some media members do a great job. It is always informative and entertaining to listen to Frank Isola on Sirius XM NBA Radio's morning show during the week; Eddie Johnson provides a great ex-player's perspective on that same channel during a different show. Other media members are outstanding as well, including Roland Lazenby, the longtime Lindy's Pro Basketball editor who has written definitive biographies of Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Unfortunately, the media members who do a poor job make it more difficult for the competent media members to get access and continue to do their work.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:01 PM


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

MVP Musings

For at least 25 years or so--ever since it supposedly became too "boring" to vote for Michael Jordan to be the NBA regular season MVP--I have often not agreed with or even understood NBA regular season MVP voting. Sometimes, the narrative is that the best player on the best team should win, even if that player is clearly not the best all-around player in the NBA. Sometimes, we are told that a player whose team does not rank in the top four in his conference is automatically disqualified no matter how well he plays. Other times, we are told that the best player should win regardless of team success. Basically, the qualifications seem to shift depending on which narrative is preferred by the majority of the media members who have MVP votes in a given season; they decide who they want to win, and then choose to hype the narrative that best matches their choice.

My take on MVP voting has consistently been simple and direct: the MVP should be the best all-around player in the game, with the only exception being if there is a player who is so dominant in one or two areas that he is more valuable/impactful than even the best all-around player; that caveat is how I would justify awarding multiple MVPs to Shaquille O'Neal, who was never the best all-around player but was for a period of time the most dominant player. Team success can be a consideration or perhaps a tiebreaker in an otherwise close race but the problem is that team success depends on many factors that cannot be controlled by just one player. I agree with Kenny Smith's oft-repeated statement that one has to be wary of a "looter in a riot," a player who is amassing gaudy statistics while playing for a bad team, but it is not often that such a player gets serious MVP consideration anyway.

By my reckoning, over the past 20 years or so Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James should have won more MVPs, while Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose and James Harden should have won fewer MVPs.

Glancing at mainstream media coverage, the consensus seems to be that this season's MVP race is a two man contest between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. I am baffled, but not surprised.

The 40-13 Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in the league largely because of the all-around prowess of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 26.7 ppg (eighth in the league), 12.6 rpg (seventh in the league) and a team-high 5.9 apg. A good argument could be made that Antetokounmpo is the best all-around player in the league, which is the primary criterion I consider when evaluating MVP candidates. He is an elite scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. If being the best player on the best team is the MVP standard, how can Antetokounmpo not be considered the clear favorite at this point of the season? 

Last season, the Bucks had the seventh best record in the East. No one expected the Bucks to be this good this season. When the Phoenix Suns exceeded expectations and posted the NBA's best record in 2004-05, Steve Nash won the regular season MVP despite averaging just 15.5 ppg (fourth on his own team) and having no impact whatsoever defensively. Voters were so impressed by what they perceived his impact to be that they gave him the MVP the next season as well, even though the Suns did not post the best regular season record. Nash won the first MVP ahead of Shaquille O'Neal (who he edged out 65-58 in terms of first place votes), Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and a young (but already impactful) LeBron James; Nash won the second MVP ahead of James, Nowitzki, Bryant and Chauncey Billups. In 2005-06, Bryant won the scoring title with the highest average (35.4 ppg) since Michael Jordan scored 37.1 ppg in 1986-87 and Bryant carried a team with non-NBA level players Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting at center and point guard, traditionally the two most important positions. Bryant received 22 first place votes, second only to Nash's 57, but Bryant slipped to fourth overall because many voters did not even rank Bryant in the top five! Ostensibly, this was because Bryant's team did not win enough. Based on that precedent, if the voters are going to be consistent then they can never give the MVP to a player whose team does not finish in the top five in wins, because it is hard to imagine a player ever having a better, more explosive season than Bryant did in 2006 and then not only not winning the MVP but being left entirely off of many ballots.

That brief tour down memory lane takes us directly to James Harden, who is scoring a league-high 36.5 ppg for the Houston Rockets, who currently have the fifth best record in the Western Conference and the 10th best record in a 30 team league. The Rockets started the season slowly, as Harden showed up in less than optimal shape, and although they have played better recently they are 6-4 in their past 10 games even as Harden keeps setting scoring records. Harden remains a subpar defender, and his offensive numbers are indisputably inflated by (1) his team's style of play (every lead guard who plays for Mike D'Antoni--going all the way back to Nash--has inflated numbers relative to what he did/would do in a more conventional system), (2) rules changes that favor perimeter offensive players and (3) the inexplicable but undeniable facts that (a) Harden is permitted to blatantly travel on his patented "step back" move and that (b) Harden is awarded free throws on plays that do not result in free throws for any other offensive player. Harden is officiated so much differently than any other player that opposing players have taken to putting their hands behind their backs when guarding Harden so that referees do not have the slightest excuse to call a foul, but of course such "defense" enables Harden to shoot uncontested shots that any competent NBA player can make without difficulty. The context in which Harden is equaling or surpassing marks set by Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is farcical, and bears no relationship to the context in which those records were set, when players were allowed and even encouraged to play defense and when offensive players were required to at least loosely adhere to the rule against traveling.

Harden is without question a talented scorer but the perfect storm of factors listed above has transformed him into a record-setting scorer--but even with him setting records left and right his team is still not a legit contender well past the halfway mark of the season. When Bryant and Jordan averaged 35-plus ppg they were also All-Defensive Team performers (unlike Harden) but even that was not enough to ensure an MVP (Jordan did not win in 1987 but in 1988 he won his first MVP after his second 35 ppg season, when he also earned the Defensive Player of the Year award and his Chicago Bulls won 50 games, third best in the East). Barring a tremendous jump in performance by Houston down the stretch, an MVP award for Harden would fly in the face of the historical precedents established when Jordan and Bryant did not win MVPs as 35 ppg scorers who had games that were more complete and fundamentally sound than Harden's.

Of course, a flawed precedent should not be followed but the point is there is not a rational set of criteria by which Harden would finish first: he is not the best player on the best team, he is not the best all-around player and he is not better than previous top performing players for non-contending teams who did not win MVPs. On what basis does it make sense to place Harden ahead of Anteokounmpo?

If the MVP race were decided by the criteria that I value, the leading candidates would be Anteokounmpo, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Paul George. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry are each playing at an MVP level but have missed too many games to qualify (barring exceptional circumstances/performance, an MVP should play at least 70 out of 82 regular season games). What about Harden? We have already seen this movie before, albeit with slightly less pyrotechnics, but we know that Harden's gimmicky game does not translate well into the playoffs. Why should that matter when voting for a regular season award? The answer is that this is not just any award but rather the most prestigious individual award and likely the first line on a player's Hall of Fame resume, along with championships won/Finals MVPs won. Harden is a high level "looter in a riot," doing things in the regular season that (1) are not translating into his team having top five status during this season and (2) will almost certainly not translate into postseason success. Does Harden belong on the select list of players who have won an NBA regular season MVP, let alone the even more select list of two-time winners? I don't buy it. I realize this is a minority opinion and I am OK with that. I have been providing minority opinions here on many issues for well over a decade and history has vindicated the vast majority of those opinions.

Antetokounmpo's MVP resume is listed above. It should be added that he has superior size, speed, agility and ball-handling skills. He is a taller version of Scottie Pippen who looks for his own shot a little more than Pippen did.

Westbrook has been the most underrated great player in the league for several years and the gap between his playing level/the perception of his playing level is growing each year. On Tuesday night,  Westbrook had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 16 assists as his Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Orlando Magic, 132-122. That was Westbrook's seventh career 15-15-15 game, tied with Wilt Chamberlain for second on the all-time list behind Oscar Robertson, who accomplished the feat 14 times.

Westbrook has posted seven straight triple doubles, averaging 20.0 ppg, 13.2 rpg and 14.4 apg during that streak as his Oklahoma City Thunder went 6-1 while scoring 124.6 ppg. The Thunder have the third best record in the Western Conference. This is the third time that Westbrook has had a triple double streak of seven games, tying Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson (who each did it just once) for second all-time behind only Wilt Chamberlain, who once had a streak of nine consecutive triple doubles. Westbrook has averaged a triple double in each of the past two seasons and is averaging a triple double this season as well. Prior to Westbrook, Robertson was the only player to average a triple double in a season (1961-62; he also averaged an aggregate triple double during his first five NBA seasons).

The NBA community is acting like averaging a triple double for multiple seasons is no big deal, while simultaneously lavishing praise on Harden for scoring tons of points when no one is permitted to be within a foot of Harden without being whistled for a foul.

Oklahoma City Coach Billy Donovan is baffled that Westbrook's triple doubles feats are largely being ignored: "I think it's crazy that anybody is devaluing that in my opinion. Oscar Robertson did it for a season and it hadn't happened again in 60 years. (Westbrook) is in the process of doing it three consecutive years, so just that is something in and of itself that has not happened in the history of the game. He impacts our team in so many different ways."

Westbrook's teammate Paul George--who defied the expectations of the "experts" and re-signed with the Thunder as opposed to going to the L.A. Lakers to play with LeBron James--declared that Westbrook is the main reason that the Thunder's offense so explosive: "He is definitely the reason for that. He is the reason we have had the highest (offensive) months in Thunder history. I cannot say enough for the credit he deserves for our offense being at the level it is at."

Westbrook is the best all-around player in the NBA--no player possesses his unique combination of scoring, rebounding and passing skills--but I would rank Antetokounmpo ahead of Westbrook now because Antetokounmpo is so much bigger. Size matters in the NBA and even if one argues that Westbrook's triple double skill set may be better than Antekounmpo's skill set, size is the decisive tiebreaker.

There is every reason to believe that both players can and will play the same way during the postseason.

Kevin Durant has won the last two Finals MVPs, outdueling LeBron James, who is the best all-around player in the league when he is healthy. This season, Durant is averaging 27.5 ppg (fifth in the league), 7.1 rpg and a career-high 6.0 apg. He is an unguardable player who can score from anywhere on the court, though he is more effective facing the hoop than playing with his back to the basket, despite being 7 feet tall (or very close to that, regardless of what height he is listed at). Durant has been the most productive player for a Golden State team that has the best record in the Western Conference; his running mate Stephen Curry has a slightly higher scoring average but Curry has played in 11 fewer games and has less of an impact than Durant in every area of the game other than scoring. If Curry had not missed as many games as he has then he would certainly deserve to at least be in the MVP conversation but this year he does not make the cut.

Paul George is the most intriguing player on my 2019 regular season MVP short list. His game and impact are consistently misunderstood by most analysts. First, they widely assumed that he would leave Oklahoma City last summer to join forces with LeBron James in L.A.; the media seems to have difficulty grasping the concept that many players do not want to have anything to do with the drama that inevitably comes with playing alongside James, who thinks nothing of throwing coaches and teammates under the bus. Then, after George stayed with the Thunder and played some of the best ball of his career during the first half of this season, the media--instead of crediting Westbrook for "making his teammates better," which would have been the narrative if George had played this way alongside James--acted as if George is doing well despite Westbrook and that George has supplanted Westbrook as the Thunder's best player. Right now, Westbrook is 1A and George is 1B, an arrangement that is not uncommon on championship contenders. Westbrook is the engine who makes the team go (reread the above George quote about Westbrook) but George's timely scoring/shotmaking nicely complement Westbrook's all-around game, particularly as Westbrook has struggled with his shot at times this season. George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is also averaging a career-high 28.0 ppg (fourth in the league). George is not nearly the rebounder or playmaker that Westbrook is, and George is more comfortable having Westbrook run the show (which is still the case, even though George is scoring more points), but George is playing at an elite level and deserves to be in the conversation for top five MVP candidates.

Barring something unforeseen, the media will turn this into a two candidate race between Antetokounmpo and Harden, with George and Durant receiving some "honorable mention" type consideration and Westbrook probably not getting any votes--but that does not make their presumptive MVP voting pattern this year any more right than it was when they, in their infinite wisdom, gave MVPs to various other players when O'Neal, Bryant and James were more deserving (as was Jordan, in a previous era).

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:47 PM


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

The Advice That DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love Provided Regarding Mental Health Awareness Should Not be Forgotten

Last year around this time, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan bravely brought their mental health issues to the public. DeRozan made his revelation on Twitter: "This depression get the best of me..." DeRozan's admission inspired Love to write an article for The Players' Tribune titled Everyone is Going Through Something.

Buoyed by a positive public response to his tweet, DeRozan gave an interview to Doug Smith of the Toronto Star during which DeRozan elaborated on his condition: "I always have various nights. I've always been like that since I was young, but I think that's where my demeanor comes from. I'm so quiet, if you don't know me. I stay standoffish in a sense, in my own personal space, to be able to cope with whatever it is you've got to cope with...My mom always told me: Never make fun of anybody because you never know what that person is going through. Ever since I was a kid, I never did. I never did. I don't care what shape, form, ethnicity, nothing. I treat everybody the same. You never know."

DeRozan explained to Smith why he suddenly made his revelation: "It's not nothing I'm against or ashamed of. Now, at my age, I understand how many people go through it. Even if it's just somebody can look at it like, 'He goes through it and he's still out there being successful and doing this,’ I'm OK with that."

Love took DeRozan's words to heart and wrote at length about his challenges: 
One of the reasons I wanted to write this comes from reading DeMar's comments last week about depression. I've played against DeMar for years, but I never could've guessed that he was struggling with anything. It really makes you think about how we are all walking around with experiences and struggles--all kinds of things--and we sometimes think we're the only ones going through them. The reality is that we probably have a lot in common with what our friends and colleagues and neighbors are dealing with. So I'm not saying everyone should share all their deepest secrets--not everything should be public and it's every person's choice. But creating a better environment for talking about mental health...that's where we need to get to.

Because just by sharing what he shared, DeMar probably helped some people--and maybe a lot more people than we know--feel like they aren't crazy or weird to be struggling with depression. His comments helped take some power away from that stigma, and I think that's where the hope is...
I want to end with something I'm trying to remind myself about these days: Everyone is going through something that we can't see.
I want to write that again: Everyone is going through something that we can't see.
The thing is, because we can't see it, we don't know who's going through what and we don't know when and we don't always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It's part of life. Like DeMar said, "You never know what that person is going through.
It took a lot of courage for DeRozan and Love to open up like that. They had nothing to gain, and potentially a lot to lose due to the stigma that still exists about mental illness--not to mention the stigma in our society about any male admitting to feeling vulnerable and/or to expressing his emotions.

It is important that the dialogue they began last year keeps going, and that anyone who is having a problem feels comfortable and safe about seeking help.

A lot of useful information about various mental health issues can be found at https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:40 AM


Saturday, February 02, 2019

Madison Square Garden Fans Welcome Luka Doncic and Bid Farewell to Dirk Nowitzki

On Wednesday night, The Dallas Mavericks made their lone regular season visit to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Knicks, which means that--barring an extremely unlikely Knicks-Mavericks NBA Finals--Dirk Nowitzki made his last appearance at the arena often referred to as the Mecca of pro basketball. This was also my first trip to Madison Square Garden. I arrived early to soak up the atmosphere and I very much enjoyed looking at the memorabilia that is displayed on the concourse, including the boxing gloves autographed by Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (first picture), a practice-worn Patrick Ewing jersey (second picture) and a poster of John Starks' dunk versus the Chicago Bulls near the end of game two of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals (third picture).

During the pre-game warmups, I noticed that Dirk Nowitzki can barely move. The 40 year old's gait is very unsteady. It is sad to see an all-time great whose mobility is so limited. However, the other thing that I noticed is that he can still shoot stand-still jumpers; from a pure shooting standpoint, he looks the same as always. Nowitzki is one of just five players who have played 21 seasons (Robert Parish, Kevin Willis, Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter are the others) and he is the only member of that group who spent his entire career with one team. Nowitzki received a standing ovation when he first entered the game.

This was my first opportunity to see 19 year old rookie sensation Luka Doncic in person. While Nowitzki is likely making his final Madison Square Garden appearance, this was Doncic's Madison Square Garden debut. His first shot was an airball but Doncic was not fazed and he had a solid overall game: 16 points on 7-18 field goal shooting (including 2-9 from three point range), eight rebounds and five assists. Doncic is a skillful ball handler who has excellent size, court vision and passing skills. He has a nice shooting motion and he has the ability to score in many different ways from a variety of areas on the court.

TNT's Kenny Smith often notes that the margin between bad teams and good teams can be rather small throughout the course of a game; as he puts it, if a team loses by two possessions each quarter, it is only trailing by four after one quarter and eight at halftime but at that pace the game will result in a 16 point blowout. That was pretty much the story of this game. Dallas led 55-47 at halftime. The Mavericks, 23-27 after this game, are hardly a juggernaut but they are a level above the Knicks, who dropped to a league-worst 10-40 (after losing to Boston on Friday night they are now 10-41).

Doncic hit a three pointer to put Dallas up 72-56 at the 7:17 mark of the third quarter and the Knicks never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The main source of excitement/drama, such that it was, turned out to be the "We want Kanter!" chants from the crowd. The Knicks are in full tank mode and thus have essentially removed Enes Kanter from the lineup lest he spoil their chances to potentially obtain the number one pick in the draft--but with the game safely out of reach, Coach David Fizdale gave in and let Kanter see some action. Kanter seemed genuinely happy and surprised to get to play; he has publicly made it very clear that he does not agree with the tanking plan, nor with being benched in favor of less productive players. After Kanter checked into the game the crowd cheered and he went straight to midcourt, where he knelt down and kissed the Knicks' logo. Kanter finished with five points and two rebounds in nine minutes of action.

The next source of excitement/drama was the "We want Dirk!" chants in the final moments of the fourth quarter. I was not sure if Coach Rick Carlisle would put the future Hall of Famer with the creaky legs back in the game--and I was a little concerned that Nowitzki might pull a muscle or something after cooling down on the bench for so long--but Carlisle gave the fans what they wanted and the fans again gave Nowitzki a rousing ovation. The cheers were even louder after Nowitzki made a three pointer at the 2:42 mark of the fourth quarter to put Dallas up 112-83. I assumed that Carlisle would then take Nowitzki out but Nowitzki stayed in a bit longer and his final points of the night came on a jumper at the 1:38 mark that made the score 114-85. Nowitzki finished with a season-high 14 points on 5-7 field goal shooting in just 12 minutes. He did not have a single rebound, assist, steal or blocked shot; even the mere act of boxing out seemed to be quite a task give his current lack of mobility but it is worth noting that he scored 24.9 ppg in his previous 17 Madison Square Garden appearances, his highest average in any road arena. He was a great player and he seems to be able to accept his limitations and enjoy his limited role during his farewell tour; not every great player would be comfortable going out this way but if he is happy with it then that is nice for him and for his fans who get to see him one last time.

Dallas won 114-90 but the final score was almost an afterthought; the focus was on the past (Nowitzki) and the future (Doncic). Harrison Barnes led Dallas with 19 points but he does not look anything like the franchise player that Mark Cuban thought he was signing; Barnes is a solid player but nothing special and you can go several minutes without even noticing that he is on the court. He does not have the presence or impact of a great player.

Dennis Smith Jr. posted his second career triple double (13 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) and he led Dallas with a +23 plus/minus rating. Wesley Matthews chipped in 17 points.

Kevin Knox led the Knicks with 17 points and Trey Burke added 16 points. The Knicks went 1-12 in January after going 2-12 in December. Their only win since December 14 is against the L.A. Lakers (sans LeBron James) on January 4.

I enjoyed soaking in the Garden's historic atmosphere and it was special to see Nowitzki's Garden finale/Doncic's Garden debut but as a basketball purist/historian/analyst I cannot emphasize enough how bad tanking is for the NBA game, the NBA brand and the NBA product. Under normal circumstances I would not want to watch--let alone comment about--a game played by a tanking team but making a first visit to the Garden is special, as is having the opportunity to bid farewell to Nowitzki while welcoming Doncic.

Postscript: The day after this game, the Knicks and Mavericks did a blockbuster trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis (who has yet to play this season due to injury), Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke and Courtney Lee to Dallas in exchange for DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith Jr. The Knicks also acquired two first round picks from the Mavericks.

Publicly, the Knicks stated that they traded Porzingis--who made the 2018 Eastern Conference All-Star team shortly before suffering a season-ending left ACL tear--because Porzingis had informed them that he did not plan to re-sign with the team. The reality is that Porzingis will be a restricted free agent after the 2019-20 season, meaning that if the Knicks had extended a qualifying offer to him then they could have matched any contract offer he received. So, Porzingis was supposed to be the franchise's cornerstone player and now the Knicks have given him up for a past his prime Jordan, spare parts and a couple draft picks.

The obvious goal/hope/fantasy is that the Knicks will be able to use the salary cap space that they have cleared to sign two max contract stars who will instantly turn the team into a contender.

The reality is that the Knicks have been mismanaged for decades and I would be surprised if a superstar player who can play wherever he wants to play decides to cast his lot with a dysfunctional franchise. Due to the salary cap rules that require teams to spend a minimum amount, the Knicks will end up using that extra cap space whether or not they attract a superstar, which means that the most likely scenario is that they will end up overpaying for someone who is not really a superstar.

Maybe Porzingis is damaged goods who will never be the same. Maybe the Knicks have a wink, wink, nudge, nudge agreement to sign a free agent superstar this summer (which would of course violate NBA rules if it could be proven). This may turn out well for the Knicks but that does not mean that--based on what is currently known and the options that the Knicks had--this was the optimal move.

If the Knicks are so dysfunctional that an All-Star who they drafted and groomed to be a franchise player wants out then why would any top player sign with the Knicks?

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:39 PM


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Revisiting Bobby Knight's 1998 Plan to Reform College Basketball

Bobby Knight is unquestionably a bully but, as could be seen during ESPN's documentary "Basketball: A Love Story," he also has a keen understanding of basketball. In the premiere issue of ESPN: The Magazine, cover dated March 23, 1998, he teamed up with Dick Schaap for an article titled "What I Hate About the Game I Love."

In the past 21 years, many things have changed. Knight, unable or unwilling to control his darker impulses, was fired by Indiana University in 2000. In 2001, he was hired by Texas Tech and he coached there for just over six seasons, setting the all-time NCAA record for career wins by a coach (902, a number later surpassed by Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim) before retiring abruptly just before the end of the 2007-08 season so that his son Pat could take over (Pat went 50-61 before being fired).

Schaap passed away in 2001 after suffering complications from what was supposed to be a routine hip replacement surgery. Prior to that, his son Jeremy interviewed Knight after Knight had been fired by Indiana. Knight, unwilling to answer Schaap's perfectly reasonable questions, barked at Schaap that he had a long way to go to be as good as his father and then stormed out of the interview. Dick Schaap later fired back at Knight that Knight would have been "outraged if someone had used him similarly to criticize his son Patrick, his assistant coach."

Jeremy Schaap later said that the first time he saw Knight after the elder Schaap's passing Knight walked by him without looking him in the eye and without offering condolences. Dick Schaap had considered Knight a friend and had always covered him fairly--but without excusing Knight's excesses--and it is low class for Knight to not acknowledge Jeremy Schaap's loss of his father.

With that background out of the way, let's turn our attention to that 1998 article. How well does it stand up more than two decades later? After a preamble explaining his coaching philosophy--focused on "kids going to class, kids graduating, kids coming to Indiana who don't get a thing other than their scholarship" and winning not based on physical talent but rather "mental toughness--and intelligence"--Knight offered 10 bullet points:

1) "Get rid of the Basketball Bennies who run summer teams, who don't know anything about the game, who don't understand roles and teamwork, who let the kids play any way they want and develop all the bad habits."

Knight was right on target about this one. Both the college game and the professional game would be better off if this suggestion were followed.

2) "Get the sneaker companies out of the recruiting business."

Knight was right on target about this one as well, but it did not happen and much negativity has ensued, including the adidas college basketball recruiting scandal that has resulted in three guilty verdicts in federal court.

3) "Let everybody know that the scouting systems that rate high school players are a joke."

Knight recalled that a few years earlier he had invented a 6-9 Croatian player named Ivan Renko, mentioned him on a TV show and within a short time the "scouting services were saying they'd seen Renko play, and he was a good scorer, or a good rebounder, but a little slow, and they were explaining how he'd fit in to certain offense. They were charlatans then, and they haven't changed."

Knight was right about the scouting systems and you can add to that list the "stat gurus" who think that they can crunch certain numbers and come up with definitive evaluations of individual players; that may work to some extent in baseball and it may work to a lesser, more limited extent on the team level in basketball, but it does not work at the individual level in basketball--but purveying the fiction that it does has been quite lucrative for several "stat gurus."

4) "Eliminate, or drastically limit, the off-season all-star games."

This recommendation is similar to the first one, and is also on target.

5) "Persuade parent to be parents, not surrogate coaches or agents."

Hello, LaVar Ball.

6) "Make certain that referees work realistic schedules."

Knight felt that referees were given travel schedules that contributed to fatigue (and, presumably, to sub-optimal officiating).

7) "Eliminate late-night weekday games."

Knight declared, "Television has made far too great an incursion into college sports. It's like the god that makes all the rules." He was right, and things have only gotten worse.

8) "Eject a player when he commits six fouls, instead of five."

Knight felt that because players are bigger and stronger than they used to be there is more contact and the disqualification rule--unchanged for more than 40 years at the time the article was published--should be altered.

9) "Widen the lane, or perhaps make it trapezoidal, like it is in the international game. That encourages more cutting, more passing."

I am not sure how I feel about this one but I am sure that Knight would share my belief that the isolation heavy game of today is not an improvement over the way that the game used to be played.

10) "These will never happen, but I'd sure love it if they did: Get rid of the three point shot and the shot clock. Nobody agrees with me on this, but the three-point shot and the shot clock hurt a coach like me, a guy who wants control over the game, who, when he gets the lead, says, 'Now you gotta get us, we're gonna spread the offense, we're gonna pass and catch.' I always thought passing and catching were fundamentals of the game, and we would use them in place of scoring. It used to be if a coach like me or Dean Smith was ahead with five or six minutes to go, we hardly ever lost. Not any more."

Knight added, "I don't think any coach who really works at coaching is as effective as he was before the shot clock and the three point shot came in. Those two rules enabled guys who just aren't good coaches to get a couple of players who could shoot threes and one who can penetrate and right away make their teams competitive."

I agree with some of Knight's analysis but I disagree with his suggested rules changes. He is right that the shot clock and the three point shot have taken some control away from the coaches and have made it easier for average coaches to build winning teams, but the problem with not having a shot clock is that the last five or six minutes of the game devolve into boring spectacles of one team not trying to score at all while the other team has to foul. The aim of the game should always be to score and to have activity, not stalling. The shot clock is necessary.

As for the three point shot, it is near and dear to my heart. The addition of the three point line to high school and rec league ball in the mid to late 1980s made me a more valuable player, because my best individual skill was draining shots from long range. When defenders had to run at me, or guard me closely at all times, I was better able to drive or cut despite not having great foot speed. I used to argue with my teammates who kept shooting two pointers at less than 50% accuracy that my three point shooting (typically at 35% or 40% accuracy) was a deadlier weapon and that the idea of always pounding the ball inside was not efficient in the absence of a dominant post player (obviously, when I played with a dominant post player I was all in favor of playing inside-out). However, the three point revolution has gone overboard and is in need of a market correction. I disagree with Knight that the shot should be banned but I agree with him that it is overused.

Basketball cannot just be broken down like a mathematical equation. Midrange two point shooting and the post up game should not be completely abandoned, no matter what "stat gurus" say. As Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams recently put it when asked why he does not shoot three pointers, "You don't have to shoot bloody 3s. Points per possession-- I get it. I get it. But it's not a machine. You can't just throw throw s--- in there and the product at the end should be, 'This, according to our calculation.' That's not how it works."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:27 AM


Thursday, January 17, 2019

One More Reminder of Wilt Chamberlain's Dominance

We live in an era of basketball statistics that seem to be plucked straight from a video game screen: teams regularly score 60 or 70 points in a half and 120, 130 or even 140 points in a game. The usage of the three point shot has exploded to cartoonish levels, as teams treat two point shots as if they are a plague to be avoided at all costs.

Last night, James Harden scored 58 points but his Houston Rockets blew an 11 point lead with just 2:29 remaining in regulation and then lost in overtime to the Brooklyn Nets, 145-142. It should not be surprising that Houston squandered such a large lead in such a short period of time; their collective style of play--and Harden's individual style of play--is high variance or, if you prefer, high risk/high reward. The Rockets shot 23-70 from three point range and 22-35 from two point range. Based on points per shot, their three point shooting percentage was not terrible: it was equivalent to shooting nearly 50% from two point range. The problem is that when you miss 47 shots you have a lot of empty possessions; the possessions with conversions are worth three points (high reward!) but the possessions without conversions are worth nothing (high risk!), which means that it is easy to quickly build a big lead but it is also easy to quickly lose a big lead.

This reminds me of the Run and Shoot offense that the Houston Oilers used to feature--and their 35-3 lead in a playoff game versus the Buffalo Bills that became a 41-38 loss. Houston's defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan derisively called the offense "Chuck and Duck" and during one game he became so frustrated that he punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. Ryan felt that the offense took too many risks and also that by not better controlling time of possession it set the defense up to fail.

That pretty much describes the Rockets in a nutshell. They will score a ton of points this season, and Harden will break many "modern" scoring records (which is a euphemism for "non-Wilt Chamberlain" records, about which see below) but they will also blow many leads and they will lose to the first playoff team they encounter that defends Harden without fouling and does not give up open three pointers (because the Rockets will keep shooting them--from further and further out--as opposed to taking too many of the dreaded two point shots, other than dunks or layups, which good defensive teams will not give up during the playoffs).

Harden has now averaged at least 40 ppg for the past 20 games and he is closing in on the "modern" record of 22, held by Kobe Bryant. Houston General Manager Daryl Morey thinks that Harden may be the best offensive player of all-time, a ludicrous contention that can only be made if one ignores vast swaths of basketball history and if one ignores the tremendous differences between how the game is played now compared with how it used to be played. If prime Michael Jordan were playing today with no handchecking, he would be averaging over 40 ppg for the season even if he did not take a single three point shot; if you could not touch Jordan then you could not stop him for getting off his midrange turnaround jumper and he proved that he could shoot a good percentage from the field--under 1980s rules and playing conditions, no less--with that shot as a major weapon. Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg during the 1986-87 season while shooting .482 from the field and then the next season he averaged 35.0 ppg while shooting .535 from the field.

Let's get back to Harden and the "modern" record that he may soon set. In what I guess must be considered "pre-modern" times, Rick Barry averaged at least 40 ppg for 23 games and Elgin Baylor did it for 33 games, but Baylor does not hold the record. Sirius XM NBA radio host Frank Isola brought this up this morning and it is worth repeating. Wilt Chamberlain holds the record. The record is not 40 or 50 or 60 or even a full season's worth of 82 games. No, the record is 515.

That is not a typo.

Let that sink in for a moment. The media is going bonkers over Harden's streak but Chamberlain's record is nearly 26 times larger!

Isola quipped that if Chamberlain did that in today's game, we would rename the country The United States of Chamberlain.

Charles Barkley often says that if he played today he would make so much money he would be flying to games in a spaceship.

This is not just about statistics or salaries. Remember that the NBA passed rules to make things harder for Chamberlain; they widened the lane and they got rid of offensive goaltending. In contrast, the NBA has changed the rules and the interpretation of the rules to make it easier for Harden and other perimeter players to score: Harden can travel on his stepback move and he can even push off, then travel and then shoot, by which time he has "created" six feet worth of space.

These modern "records" that are not records make a mockery of the sport's history and make the game almost unwatchable at times. Who wants to watch James Harden travel, push off and miss 14 of his 19 three point shots? Sure, many of the games in this "modern era" are high scoring, but the action is chaotic and random, with too many empty possessions.

The beauty of the game is derived from watching teamwork in action, or from watching a virtuoso player master the fundamentals of footwork, fakes and positioning. The three point shot is a great weapon and it was underutilized for too long, but now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, and the sport is not the better for it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:19 PM


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Basketball: A Love Story

ESPN's multi-part, 20 hour documentary "Basketball: A Love Story" is a compelling oral history of the sport. Dan Klores, who directed the film, previously received a Peabody Award for "Black Magic." Klores, along with Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew, co-authored the film's companion book. The series aired on ESPN during the latter part of 2018 and is also available on the ESPN app, where you can watch dozens of individually cut segments in any order you want.

I watched the entire series on the app, so I decided which segments to view first, and I also decided to watch a few segments more than once. There is too much material to summarize the entire series in any kind of coherent fashion but after watching every segment there are certain people, statements, images and concepts that stood out, presented here in no particular order:

1) Ben Jobe, who passed away on March 10, 2017, won over 500 games as a collegiate head coach and he also served for a brief time as an assistant coach with the NBA's Denver Nuggets. Jobe was quoted in many different segments, and he always offered pithy pearls of wisdom but the segment that stood out the most for me is the one that discussed David Thompson's descent from elite player to drug addict. Jobe described trying to counsel Thompson to get help, only to be chided by management for interfering with Thompson's performance. Jobe's description of that meeting and his thoughts are poignant and chilling: as the Denver executive gave Jobe his marching orders, Jobe took out a piece of paper and started writing; the executive thought that Jobe was taking notes but Jobe was writing his resignation, which he delivered on the spot. Jobe looked into the camera and told the interviewer that the decision was simple for him, because if Thompson had suffered a broken leg or any other physical injury the team would get him treatment and Jobe felt that the team was obligated to get Thompson treatment because he was sick in his brain.

2) The L.A. Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1982 Finals in part because of their stingy 1-3-1 pressing defense, which Coach Pat Riley learned from Adolph Rupp during Riley's time playing for Rupp at the University of Kentucky. I remember watching that series and hearing Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham repeatedly screaming at the officials to call an illegal defense. The press itself was not illegal but under the rules at that time the Lakers' zone defense--which involved sagging into the paint to prevent Julius Erving from driving while daring anyone else to beat the Lakers from the outside--was often illegal. Many teams played a form of illegal defense for a few possessions here and there but the problem for the 76ers was that the Lakers not only did this a lot but they were also a lot better at it than other teams!

3) The segment titled "Joy or Relief" explored whether players and coaches feel more joy or more relief after winning a championship. Riley broke down in tears as he described leading the Lakers to a championship over the Boston Celtics in 1985. He said that he knew his job was on the line if the Lakers did not win and that after the Lakers clinched the title the main person he looked for was his wife. That championship was about relief not just for Riley but also for his family and all the people close to him.

4) The segment about the Portland team that beat Philadelphia in the 1977 Finals made a big deal about the contrast between Portland's team-centric approach and Philadelphia's star-driven approach but a more apropos comparison would be between Gene Shue and Pat Riley. Shue, who coached Philadelphia in 1977, held back his team's best player--Julius Erving--in order to make sure that the team's other two All-Stars, George McGinnis and Doug Collins, got a similar amount of touches. Erving compared his role to being a race horse who has a bit in his mouth and is being held back. In contrast, a few years later when Riley coached the Lakers he had a "greyhound" philosophy that when your team has talent you don't hold it back but you let that talent run up and down the court in full expression.

Although the segment did not discuss what happened after the 76ers fired Shue six games into the 1977-78 season, it is worth noting that Shue's replacement Billy Cunningham declared that the 76ers "had too many chiefs and not enough Indians." Cunningham made it clear that the offense would run through Erving, who led the 76ers to three Eastern Conference Finals and two NBA Finals during the next four seasons. I remember Cunningham explaining years later that during Erving's ABA years the New York Nets made Erving the focus of their attack "and all they did was win championships." The acquisition of Moses Malone prior to the 1982-83 season filled the gap at center that had plagued the 76ers for years and they romped to the title that year, setting an NBA postseason record by going 12-1 (the 2001 Lakers later went 15-1 in the playoffs to break that record during an era when the NBA added an extra playoff round).

Although Phil Jackson used the Triangle Offense to create structure and make sure that the entire team was involved with the offense, he also gave his top stars--first Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls, later Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the L.A. Lakers--a lot of space to utilize their individual talents. It would have been interesting to see Erving spend a larger portion of his NBA career playing under that kind of philosophy, though perhaps Erving did not have quite the thirst to score that Jordan, O'Neal and Bryant did. By the time that Cunningham had the roster that he wanted and was able to really implement his approach, Erving was already a nine year veteran past the age of 30 who now had to battle younger stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird for NBA supremacy (not to mention the ageless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was on the same team with Magic).

5) Bobby Knight received a lot of coverage, which is understandable because he is a compelling, successful and deeply flawed person. Knight coached for decades, won three NCAA titles and there was never a whiff of scandal around him in terms of recruiting violations, academics or issues of that sort--but Knight was a bully and that led to his downfall. That is the tragic paradox; he preached doing things the right way but he often did not live up to his own standard and he never developed the self-awareness to either realize that or seek help.

Billy Packer told a great story about when Knight coached the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. After Knight first saw Jordan, he told Packer that Jordan worked hard but he did not see how he could keep a shooting guard who could not shoot. Then, after a few practices, Knight reconsidered and concluded that Jordan was so competitive and so effective in other areas that it did not matter that Jordan could not shoot. Not long after that, Knight watched Jordan dominate experienced NBA veterans in exhibition games and he told Packer that Jordan was the greatest player he had ever coached!

Knight was not good at self-reflection but he had a flexible and keen mentality about basketball.

6) The Detroit Pistons marketed themselves as the "Bad Boys," so perhaps it is fitting that they are considered the exemplars of a certain brand of physical play, but in fact the Pistons learned that style by watching and competing against the Boston Celtics. The Celtics were not averse to undercutting a player in midair (see M.L. Carr versus Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals, a dirty play that sparked an Erving scoring eruption) and clotheslining a driving opponent (the infamous Kevin McHale foul on Kurt Rambis during the 1984 NBA Finals). The 76ers and Lakers during that era rarely if ever stooped to such conduct but the Celtics did it a lot, even if that has been largely forgotten/whitewashed. The Celtics thought that kind of play was a wonderful way to slow down the fastbreaking 76ers and Lakers--who did not respond in kind but who had to learn to rise above such tactics--but the Celtics did not very much enjoy it when the Pistons met force with force and ultimately put an end to the Celtics' dynasty by beating Boston in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals.

7) Hakeem Olajuwon performed so marvelously during 1994 and 1995 while leading the Houston Rockets to back to back titles that it is easy to forget his lack of leadership and, at times, lack of composure during the first stage of his career. Olajuwon deserves credit for his remarkable transformation from, as his teammate Kenny Smith put it during one segment, "selfish" to "honorable." Smith also noted that championships are won before the games even start, based on the collective mentality that each team brings to the court.

8) It was cool to see footage of the young, gangly Dirk Nowitzki, a player who had good agility and instincts but no skill set "tool box." Holger Geschwinder approached young Nowitzki and offered to supply those tools. Nowitzki accepted and the rest is history, as Geschwinder's unorthodox methods helped mold Nowitzki into an MVP and a champion. Nowitzki said simply that Geshwinder taught him everything that he knows about basketball.

9) The segment about LeBron James' tone-deaf handling of the "Decision" includes an interesting interview with David Stern, who states that he begged several people at ESPN to not turn James' announcement into a TV show. Stern could not conceal his complete and utter disdain for the entire process that culminated in what what observer described as a broadcast that looked like a hostage crisis being filmed on the set of Howdy Doody (referring to how uncomfortable James looked and the fact that he was surrounded by a captive audience of children who had to sit there as ESPN dragged the show on and on before getting to the point).

James, asked when he realized that the idea was a mistake, claims that he did not realize the impact until the season started and he was treated like a villain in every road arena. If James really did not understand how badly that fiasco went until months later then he is even more tone deaf about the whole situation than I had thought.

10) James had been part of another fiasco a few years earlier, as Team USA got humiliated in the 2004 Olympics and finished with the bronze medal. David Stern noted that since the NBA would be blamed for everything that went wrong with Team USA, it was time to step in and make sure that USA Basketball was operated better. Stern asked Jerry Colangelo to take over and Colangelo agreed provided that two terms were met: (1) He wanted complete autonomy to select coaches and players and (2) he wanted no budgetary restrictions. Stern laughingly says that he remembers the negotiation a little differently but he credits Colangelo for getting the program back on track. Colangelo convened a panel of 30 basketball experts--including Michael Jordan and Dean Smith--to analyze what had gone wrong and to brainstorm about possible solutions.

The main thing that Colangelo did was restore structure/organization and pride to USA Basketball.
Colangelo did a masterful job and, with Kobe Bryant leading the way during the 2008 Olympics, Team USA reclaimed its rightful spot as the best team in the world.

Colangelo's basketball career is remarkable, from his long tenure with the Phoenix Suns to his success with rebuilding USA Basketball to keeping his pledge to make sure that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame would recognize worthy players who had "slipped through the cracks."

11) A lot of footage deals with the San Antonio Spurs' remarkable run of success that dates back for more than two decades. Coach Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan were the two mainstays of that success but one of the few glitches happened late in game six of the 2013 NBA Finals versus the Miami Heat. The Spurs had seemingly wrapped up the title and the arena support staff was preparing to encircle the court with yellow tape to keep fans out during the ensuing celebration/trophy ceremony--but there was still time left and still coaching decisions to be made. Popovich took Duncan out of the game on two different possessions in order to match up with Miami's small lineup and both times the Heat burned the Spurs by getting offensive rebounds. The Heat tied the game on Ray Allen's three pointer after one of those offensive rebounds and then the Heat won the game in overtime. Pat Riley commented that Pete Newell once told him that as a coach you should never outsmart yourself, particularly at the end of the game. Riley said that in the moment he was happy that the Spurs were taking their best winner and best rebounder off of the court. Popovich simply called it "a great game" and Duncan noted that the Spurs had been subbing him out at the end of games all season long (which does not mean that this is the correct strategy in general, let alone that it is the correct strategy in the closing seconds of game six with the championship on the line).

Popovich, in response to an asinine question about how he would get his team ready for game seven, went into full sarcasm mode, detailing how the team would leave the hotel, get on the bus, ride to the arena and get off of the bus. The question was stupid, but perhaps a little humility was in order after making two questionable substitutions that might have cost the Spurs another championship.

The Spurs lost in game seven but they were on a mission during the 2014 season and they put on a clinic against the Heat during the 2014 Finals, perfecting ball movement and player movement in a way that perhaps has never been seen before or since.

A dour Shaquille O'Neal, who battled the Spurs in the playoffs over a decade earlier as a Laker, noted that he likes to watch flashy individual plays and he deemed the Spurs' style "boring," which says a lot more about O'Neal than it does about the Spurs.

Meanwhile, Phil Jackson insists that Spurs are not a dynasty because dynasties are, by definition, “successive. You can use another word" to describe San Antonio's five championships won from 1999-2014 but Jackson claims that you have to win at least two titles in a row to be a "dynasty." Most of the people interviewed in the film disagreed with Jackson but I see his point. In a purely literal sense, the Spurs are not a dynasty , but they are a team that has sustained a high degree of success for a long period of time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM