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Friday, January 22, 2016

Timing of Blatt Firing is Odd

David Blatt is not an NBA championship level coach. I said that from the start:

"How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title."

Therefore, I cannot criticize the Cleveland Cavaliers for firing Blatt. However, the timing and the context are strange. The Cavaliers have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have won two games in a row after their embarrassing 132-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors. We have not learned anything about Blatt in the past week--or in the first half of the 2015-16 season--that we did not already know. General Manager David Griffin said that he replaced Blatt with lead assistant coach Tyronn Lue--who has been given the job outright and does not wear the interim tag--not based on the win/loss record but because Blatt is not creating a championship culture. If that is really the reason that Blatt was fired--and it is a legitimate concern--then Griffin should have fired Blatt after the Cavaliers blew a 2-1 lead in the 2015 NBA Finals.
 
Brendan Haywood, an NBA commentator who played for Blatt's Cleveland Cavaliers last season, gave a very insightful interview today in which he stated that Blatt is a nice man and a good coach but all of the players knew that he could not help them win a game against the likes of Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr. Blatt does not understand NBA substitution patterns and he struggles to design effective end of game plays. Haywood said that the Cavs ultimately had to scrap Blatt's offense and run sets that Lue learned from his time working as an assistant for Doc Rivers. Blatt simply does not know the league well enough and, to compound the issue, he is very stubborn and stuck in his ways because he thinks that decades of minor league coaching in Europe qualify him to run the show in the most sophisticated basketball league in the world. Blatt is overmatched and anyone who understands NBA basketball could see it. Haywood also noted that Blatt would not call out LeBron James during film sessions but would criticize mistakes made by other players. Great players want and need to be coached hard and to be pushed. Julius Erving and Tim Duncan are two examples of great players who did not bristle when their coaches yelled at them, because they understood that if they were coachable then everyone else on the roster would fall in line. 

If Griffin had fired Blatt last summer then he either could have replaced him with a veteran NBA coach or, at a minimum, he could have given Lue the opportunity to have a whole training camp to put in his system. I don't know if Lue is an elite NBA coach or not. Lue was a heady role player during his NBA career and there is a precedent for heady role players becoming championship coaches (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr immediately come to mind) but Derek Fisher was a heady role player who hardly has taken the league by storm as a head coach.

Lue has been on Griffin's radar since Griffin made Lue the highest paid assistant coach in the NBA less than two years ago. If Lue is really a championship level coach, then the Cavs should have hired him in 2014 or 2015; a year and a half of cleaning up Blatt's mistakes has hardly made Lue any more prepared to run the show than he already was. Throwing Lue into the fire in the middle of the season looks like a panic move as opposed to a well thought out decision--or, it looks like a move made to appease the man who really runs the show in Cleveland: LeBron James.

Griffin's defiant assertions that he does not take polls before making decisions and that he did not seek LeBron James' opinion/approval are equally disingenuous and unsurprising. The Cavaliers don't change the toilet paper in the bathrooms at Quicken Loans Arena without having James' approval--and they don't have to ask his opinion about anything because James, through his minions, makes his wishes very clearly known. It is no secret that James does not respect Blatt and it is no secret that James signs short term deals with the Cavs to maximize his leverage based on the very credible threat that he will flee town if he does not get his way. James has every right to conduct his playing and business careers as he sees fit--but his greatest success as a player came in Miami when Pat Riley insisted that James respect his coach and did not let James' crew run roughshod over everyone in the organization.

James says that he left Miami to bring a championship to Cleveland but it is not a stretch to suggest that, after winning two rings in Miami, James grew tired of having to follow Riley's rules and preferred to return to a situation where he knew he could call all of the shots--and that is what he has done: LeBron James the general manager wanted Kevin Love instead of Andrew Wiggins and he wanted reserve forward Tristan Thompson signed to a huge deal. James the general manager wanted Tyronn Lue as head coach. James is the only player in the NBA who checks himself in and out of games on his whim without consulting his coach and that practice is likely to continue with his hand picked man/puppet on the bench.

So, when the Cavaliers are eliminated from the 2016 playoffs, if James blames the general manager for how the roster is put together or the coach for playing him too much/too little, let us hope that the talking heads who keep trying to put James in the same class with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan make it clear that the blame belongs with James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:45 PM

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Rest in Peace, Johnny Bach

One of the best things about getting a press pass to an NBA game is the opportunity to interview and interact with basketball lifers who truly know and love the sport; most of my favorite memories from covering the NBA revolve around the time I spent with these wise basketball lifers--and Johnny Bach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 91, is one of my most special interview subjects. I first spoke with him early in my NBA writing career and I found him to be very generous with his time and his knowledge. One interview with Johnny Bach provided enough material for at least half a dozen articles on a variety of basketball-related subjects. He spoke the truth and did not care if that offended anyone. I just read an article that suggested that when Jerry Krause wanted to trade Scottie Pippen and asked the Chicago Bulls' coaching staff to vote on it, Bach declared that anyone who thinks a vote is necessary is an idiot. Pippen was an all-time great, Bach knew it and he did not want to waste time arguing about it. I don't know if that story is true but it is believable: Bach understood basketball and he had no patience for nonsense. Krause got rid of Bach shortly after that incident but a decade later Bach had a second run with the Bulls (after the Bulls got rid of Krause) and that is when I had the great fortune to speak with Bach.

Among the subjects we discussed were the greatness of the underrated Mark Price, The Art and Science of NBA Defense and the way that Phil Jackson put Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on opposing teams in practice, which inspired one of my questions when I later scored a one on one interview with Pippen. Bach could turn a phrase as well as any writer. Two of my favorite Bach expressions relate to Michael Jordan: the "Archangel" offense and "attack the citadels," referring to how relentlessly the young Jordan drove to the hoop.

Bach was a man in full who knew about and experienced a lot more than basketball. He served in World War II and later in life he became an accomplished painter. Sam Smith, one of the classiest and best writers I encountered during my time covering the NBA, has penned a must-read tribute to Bach in which Smith calls Bach "one of the truly great Americans of the 20th Century" and adds, "I'd exaggerate Johnny's accomplishments if I could, but I’d only end up falling short. This was truly a remarkable and skilled man, principled in his commitment to his nation and his profession, articulate and endearing, tough and scholarly with a passion for learning and sharing. Johnny reached the apex of pretty much every profession and discipline he encountered."

Phil Jackson authored a tribute to Bach as well. Jackson praised Bach's immense contributions to the Chicago Bulls' 1991-93 championship teams and concluded with these fitting words: "Tonight I'll think of him and that spirit he embodied, especially his motto after a late night on the road. 'What? You can't be tired, you can sleep in the grave.' Sleep well, Johnny."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Advice for the Cleveland Cavaliers

At the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the Eastern Conference but they are far from being a championship team. After the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, we heard a lot of noise--at least some of which came from the Cavaliers themselves--about how much different the result would have been if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available. It is fair to assume that the Warriors took notice of those comments. On Christmas Day, during the first of two meetings between the teams this season, the Warriors proved that they could beat the Cavaliers playing a grind it out style game, prevailing 89-83 at home. Irving and Love started for the Cavaliers and combined for 23 points on 9-31 field goal shooting.

In the much anticipated Martin Luther King Day rematch in Cleveland, the Warriors raced to an early 12-2 lead and never looked back, hitting the Cavaliers with their worst home loss in a game during which LeBron James played, 132-98. James--as he has done a puzzling number of times in big games during an otherwise stellar career--was oddly passive and disinterested, posting a quiet stat line of 16 points, five rebounds and five assists in what was supposed to be a statement game. Irving and Love scored 11 points on 4-16 field goal shooting.

Meanwhile, reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry blistered the nets with 35 points on 12-18 field goal shooting--including 7-12 from three point range--in just 28 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Curry could have scored 50 points easily if necessary, which is just one of many reasons that statistics have to be placed in context when they are used to compare players. Andre Iguodala, who earned the 2015 Finals MVP in part because of his role in limiting James' efficiency during the championship series, scored 20 points off of the bench, Draymond Green flirted with a triple double (16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and Klay Thompson added 15 points.

Too much should not be read into one regular season game. I well remember that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls--one of my favorite teams of all-time and one of the greatest teams of all-time--lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks. Two months later, the Bulls smashed the Knicks 4-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the championship.

However, this particular Cleveland loss highlighted some things about the Cavaliers that should not be blithely dismissed. Any team or person can have a bad day but not all bad days are created the same; some bad days reveal some problems/issues that may be glossed over until adversity strikes.

Cleveland Coach David Blatt and his star player LeBron James did not ask for my advice but I will provide it anyway:

1) Committing flagrant fouls and knocking over opposing players does not prove that you are tough; it shows that you lack discipline

You show toughness by playing hard, playing smart and playing through pain. Focus on the game plan and put the team's success above your own individual glory/agenda. Those are the traits of championship teams. Look at the difference between the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. It can be summed up simply: "Dumb gets you beat every time." The Bengals blew a playoff game against their archrival the Pittsburgh Steelers because some of the Bengals players got so caught up in fake toughness and personal agendas that they lost sight of the main goal: win the game.

What does this have to do with the Cavaliers? When the game with the Warriors was up for grabs, the Cavaliers did not play hard or smart and they lacked focus to such an extent that they committed a five second violation, which is rarely seen in the NBA. Then, when the game was out of reach, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert started committing hard fouls. Smith got ejected after making no effort to get around a screen. Even James got in on the act, throwing Curry to the court in the first half. Those kinds of plays do not win games and do no prove that you are tough; they just prove that the other team has gotten into your head to the point that you are so frustrated you can no longer focus on the game plan.

2) Kevin Love seems uninterested in playing good defense; Kyrie Irving may not be able to consistently play good defense

One time when former Georgetown Coach John Thompson was commenting on an NBA game he made the very cogent point that Dirk Nowitzki was athletic enough to accomplish all kinds of things on the offensive end of the court and thus he was athletic enough to at least play competent defense. That was early in Nowitzki's career and Nowitzki eventually became a solid defender as he led Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Nowitzki never became a great defender but he learned how to move his feet better and at least use his size to bother opposing shooters.

Love has the skill set to be an outstanding offensive player, so he has the necessary tools to be at least an adequate defender but far too often he looks disinterested at that end of the court.

Irving has improved on defense and at times he uses his quickness/athleticism to make some good individual defensive plays--but he lacks size and does not seem to have a strong base; the Warriors repeatedly went into the post with whichever player Irving was guarding. Irving's defensive effort is better than it used to be but he is not likely to grow, so unless he develops a better base and learns how to prevent taller players from getting good post position he will always be a defensive liability to some extent.

Therefore, it is up to the coaching staff to figure out how to either motivate Love and Irving to contribute more on defense or else put those players into defensive schemes/matchups that minimize their deficiencies.

3) The Cavaliers do not maximize the talents of their players who are not named LeBron James

It is often said that James makes the players around him better. It is certainly true that James makes his team better; James is a productive scorer, rebounder, playmaker and defender. However, it seems like the players around James have to give up parts of their games to fit in with him. Chris Bosh was a 20-10 guy before playing with LeBron James but when he played with James he was often relegated to being a three point shooter. Similarly, Kevin Love's game has regressed since he joined the Cavaliers to play alongside James. Despite all of the talk about how selfish Kobe Bryant supposedly is, consider how many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside him, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker).

How many players have had career-best years playing alongside LeBron James? The number is rather small and I am not sure why this is the case. There are undoubtedly many factors involved and I do not mean to suggest that this is all James' fault or even mostly James' fault--but James is clearly a prodigious individual talent and it does not seem like he is going to win championships at the level that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did. Many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside those guys. Jordan and Bryant had to fight the "selfish" tag, while Johnson and Duncan are lauded for their unselfishness; there is more than one way to get the job done but each of those players got the best out of their teammates while also playing at a high level individually. James almost seems like a modern-day Wilt Chamberlain; James is the best athlete in the NBA (or he was during his absolute prime) and he is going to own a boatload of records when he retires but his tally of two titles (the same number that Chamberlain won) is surprising considering that he was the consensus best player in the league for several years in a row and that he was blessed with very good supporting casts during those seasons.

4) The Cavaliers cannot beat the Warriors playing small ball

Even without Irving and Love, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. Then, the Warriors decided to go small--inserting Iguodala in the starting lineup--and Blatt panicked, going small by slashing the minutes of center Timofey Mozgov. The Warriors went small because they were trailing in the series and could not match up with Cleveland's big lineup. The Cavaliers should have stuck with what worked in the first three games of the series; the Cavaliers may have lost no matter what they did but they had zero chance of winning by playing small ball against a team who has more good small players ("small" being a relative term, as we are talking about players who range from 6-3 to 6-8) than the Cavaliers do.

I guarantee you that if a fantasy matchup could somehow be arranged between the current Warriors and the 1980s Showtime Lakers there is no way that Lakers Coach Pat Riley would bench Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play small ball. Obviously, Mozgov is no Abdul-Jabbar but the point is that basketball is about matchups and when you have a big guy who can score in the paint you force the other team to guard him, especially when the other team prefers to play small.

Since the Warriors are being compared to the 1995-96 Bulls, I will take this opportunity to throw in my two cents: the 1996 Bulls would beat the Warriors in a seven game series because Jordan and Pippen would be the best players on the court at both ends of the court. The Bulls would not shut down Curry but they would not let him score an efficient 30 points, either. I think that Chicago Coach Phil Jackson would keep Luc Longley in the game to be a post up threat but the Bulls could play small against the Warriors for at least part of the game: a small ball lineup of Jordan, Harper, Pippen, Rodman and Kukoc is a far cry from the small ball lineup the Cavaliers trotted out in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM

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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 100-100 Club Revisited

It takes exceptional defensive versatility to accumulate at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocked shots in the same season. The ABA officially tracked steals and blocked shots from 1972-73 until 1975-76 (after which the ABA merged with the NBA), while the NBA has officially recorded steals and blocked shots since 1973-74. I first wrote about pro basketball's 100-100 Club in the April 2002 issue of Basketball Digest and then I revisited the subject for NBCSports.com in November 2006. The version of the latter article that I posted at 20 Second Timeout was updated to include the 2006-07 season; in the past eight years, there have been nine 100-100 seasons recorded by a total of seven players. Six players joined the 100-100 Club since the 2006-07 season: Dwyane Wade (2009), Dwight Howard (2011), Kevin Durant (2013), Andre Drummond (2014), Anthony Davis (2015) and Nerlens Noel (2015). Josh Smith logged his first 100-100 season in 2006-07 and has added three more such seasons to his total (2008, 2010, 2014) to move into a tie with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Terry Tyler and Andrei Kirilenko for 11th-14th place on the all-time list. Smith is the only player who has had more than one 100-100 season since 2006-07.

Only 58 players have had a 100-100 season and 32 of those players have accomplished the feat just once. Julius Erving not only founded the 100-100 Club in 1972-73 with 181 steals and 127 blocked shots for the ABA's Virginia Squires (ranking third and seventh in the league respectively in those categories) but he remains the 100-100 Club king with a record 12 such seasons, a mark tied by Hakeem Olajuwon. Kevin Garnett had eight 100-100 seasons before turning 30 but injuries and the aging process stalled his attempt to match Erving and Olajuwon.

The all-time top 10 is rounded out by Sam Lacey (seven 100-100 seasons), David Robinson (seven), Bobby Jones (six), George Gervin (five), Vlade Divac (five) and Shawn Marion).

The even more exclusive 200-100 Club still has just four members: Michael Jordan (twice), Julius Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen.

The 100-200 Club has expanded to 14 members, welcoming Anthony Davis last season as he tallied exactly 100 steals and exactly 200 blocked shots. Josh Smith had 123 steals and 227 blocked shots in 2007-08, becoming the eighth player with at least two such seasons. Olajuwon had 11 100-200 seasons, followed by David Robinson (seven), Abdul-Jabbar (three) and Ben Wallace (three).

In 2014-15, Nerlens Noel became the ninth member of the Top Ten Club by ranking seventh in blocked shots per game (1.9) and 10th in steals per game (1.8). Erving had six seasons during which he ranked in the top 10 in both steals per game and blocked shots per game. Olajuwon did this four times and no one else has done it more than twice. Josh Smith very narrowly missed the cut in 2009-10, ranking third in blocked shots per game and 11th in steals per game, just .0247 steals per game behind Stephen Jackson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:38 PM

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Friday, December 25, 2015

The Doctor and the Pistol

Julius "Dr. J" Erving and "Pistol" Pete Maravich were teammates with the Atlanta Hawks for three preseason games in 1972 and my interview with Erving about those games was cited in the book Maravich by Wayne Federman and Marshall Terrill. Erving and Maravich also played for the Eastern Conference in the 1977 and 1979 NBA All-Star Games. This recently posted video includes some great highlights of Erving and Maravich in those two NBA All-Star games. Their connection is telepathic and their chemistry is explosive; if they had played on the same team with any halfway decent big man their team would have been a perennial championship contender.



Around the 3:16 mark of the video, several quotes about Erving and Maravich are displayed, including one from my article. Erving is my favorite basketball player of all-time: I have written a short story about him, plus several poems (Doc on the Break: Early 1970s, The Dunk, One on One and Geometry, Art--and Doc) and of course many, many articles analyzing his impact on the sport. Maravich was one of my favorite players as a kid and I wrote a heartfelt poem after his premature passing. The above video captures at least a small part of why these two players became legends and I am proud that the person who posted this video decided to include my words in this tribute to Doc and the Pistol.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:25 AM

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Julius Erving's Best Scoring Streaks/Most Productive Scoring Months

During his prime, Kobe Bryant had some amazing scoring streaks. He averaged at least 40 ppg in a calendar month four times, more than any player in pro basketball history other than Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged at least 40 ppg in 11 calendar months. During one of those 40 ppg months (February 2003), Bryant scored at least 40 points in nine straight games, tying Michael Jordan for the fourth longest such run in pro basketball history (Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks, plus a 10 game streak). Whenever Bryant went on a scoring tear, basketball historians went to the archives to see whose records he was approaching or breaking. The names that came up most often were Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan. Sometimes Elgin Baylor's name would appear as well but Julius Erving's name was rarely if ever part of that particular conversation.

Erving was just the third player in pro basketball history to score more than 30,000 career points, so he put up some big numbers, particularly during the first five years of his career when he played in the ABA--but the NBA does not officially recognize ABA statistics and most mainstream media outlets ignore the ABA so little is reported about the first third of Erving's Hall of Fame career. For instance, when I researched Erving's playoff career I found out that he posted amazing--and, in some cases, unprecedented--statistics. As a rookie in 1971-72, Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (33.3 ppg) and playoff rebounding (20.4 rpg); the only other player in pro basketball history to average 30-20 in a playoff season is Chamberlain (1960-62, 64) and the only other players in pro basketball history to lead the ABA or NBA in playoff scoring and rebounding in the same year are George Mikan (1952 NBA), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1977 NBA), Hakeem Olajuwon (1988 NBA) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000 NBA). None of those legendary centers came close to matching Erving's 6.5 apg average when they accomplished their league leading scoring/rebounding double. Facing fellow future Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry in game one of the second round of the 1972 ABA playoffs, Erving produced 26 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists as his Virginia Squires defeated Barry's New York Nets 138-91. I have yet to uncover a comparable playoff performance, though Chamberlain had the only 20-20-20 regular season game in pro basketball history (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists for the Philadelphia 76ers in a 131-121 regular season victory over Detroit on February 2, 1968).

I previously compiled a complete list of Erving's 40 point games, so I know that even in the ABA he did not have any streak of 40 point games approaching what Chamberlain, Bryant and Jordan did; Erving's longest streak of 40 point games was two (which he accomplished six times, including once in the playoffs), although he had longer streaks during which he averaged at least 40 ppg overall. Erving never averaged 40 ppg in a calendar month, topping out at 35.1 ppg in March 1973; that is one of 12 calendar months in which Erving averaged at least 30 ppg, all of which took place during his ABA years.

Erving first posted back to back 40 point games in March 1972, near the end of his rookie season (41 points on March 26, 45 points on March 28), which was also the first month that he averaged at least 30 ppg (30.9 ppg). Erving's teammate Charlie Scott--who won the 1972 ABA scoring title with a 34.6 ppg average--jumped to the NBA's Phoenix Suns after the first six games in March; Erving averaged 27.3 ppg in those six games and 32.8 ppg in the remaining 11 games, including three games of at least 40 points.

Erving missed the first four games of the 1972-73 season due to a contract dispute. The Squires went 0-4 in those games but promptly won three in a row after Erving returned to the lineup in late October. Erving did not completely hit his stride in October 1972 (25.5 ppg in six games) but in November 1972 he averaged 32.9 ppg in 16 games (which turned out to be the third highest scoring calendar month of his entire career). Erving's November to remember point totals were 39, 33, 42, 38, 34, 34, 24, 23, 35, 45, 27, 36, 30, 46, 16, 25.

He was almost as prolific in his 16 games in December 1972 (31.3 ppg), topped by a trio of 41 point games (including his second back to back 40 point games, on December 7 and December 8). The December schedule included games on four consecutive nights (December 6-9), with Erving scoring 32, 41, 41 and 30 in those games. Erving also played on four consecutive nights less than a week later (December 14-17), scoring 24, 24, 37 and 35 in those games.

Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 14 January 1973 games--including 46 points on January 16 and 47 points on January 31--but the closest that Erving came to sustaining a Chamberlain-Jordan-Bryant kind of scoring run was in February and March of 1973. Erving averaged 34.8 ppg in nine games in February 1973, scoring 20, 35, 58 (his regular season career-high for a non-overtime game), 44, 35, 44, 20, 31 and 26 points. Erving averaged 45.3 ppg in the four games starting with his 58 point outburst in a 123-108 win versus the Nets. I do not have complete records for highest scoring average in a four game stretch but not including Chamberlain--who averaged a record 50.4 ppg in 1961-62 and 44.8 ppg in 1962-63--Erving's tally as a second year pro must rank pretty high on the list.

Erving averaged 35.1 ppg in 10 games in March 1973, scoring 38, 38, 29, 36, 29, 29, 42, 38, 44 and 28 points. The 29-42-38 run came on three consecutive nights (March 8-9-10) and that type of old-school back to back to back scheduling led to wear and tear which could somewhat explain the chronically sore knees that Erving experienced even early in his career. Erving averaged a career-high 31.9 ppg in the 1972-73 season en route to claiming the first of his three ABA regular season scoring titles.

Erving joined the Nets for the 1973-74 season. He averaged 30.7 ppg in nine October games but after a 4-1 start the Nets lost nine games in a row. Coach Kevin Loughery realized that he was overworking Erving, expecting Erving to lead the league in scoring while also serving as the key figure in the team's full-court press: "My original concept seemed perfectly suited to the Doctor. He plays so hard, so fast. But no one could play that way for 84 games. By the third week of the season, I had run him into the ground. I was in the process of destroying the best player on my team, maybe in the game."

For the remainder of Erving's three seasons with the Nets under Loughery, the team ran and pressed more selectively. Erving did not average 30 ppg in a month again until February 1975--but with Erving leading the way as an all-around threat at both ends of the court the Nets won championships in 1974 and 1976. In March 1974, Erving "only" averaged 27.1 ppg in 17 games but he logged back to back 40 point games for the fourth time in his career (41 on March 16, followed by 41 on March 17).

Erving's 30.7 ppg average in 15 games in February 1975 included three 40 point games: 40 on February 3, a career-high 63 in four overtimes on February 14 and 51 on February 22, Erving's 25th birthday. In a five game stretch from February 14-February 22, Erving averaged 40.4 ppg.

After averaging 27.4 ppg in 1973-74 (good enough to win his second consecutive scoring title) and 27.9 ppg in 1974-75, Erving averaged 29.3 ppg in 1975-76, capturing his third and final scoring title with the second highest scoring average of his career. He averaged 32.0 ppg in five October 1975 games (the minimum number of games used by the Elias Sports Bureau when comparing calendar month scoring statistics), including 39 and 42 in back to back games on October 29 and October 31. Erving averaged 30.2 ppg in 11 November 1975 games. The Nets won three of four games in a stretch spanning October 29-November 4 as Erving averaged 38.0 ppg.

Erving averaged 30.9 ppg in 17 games in January 1976, including 49 points on January 10 and 51 points on January 18. In the five games spanning January 10-18, Erving averaged 37.0 ppg. Erving averaged 31.7 ppg in 17 games in February 1976, including the fifth and final time that he posted back to back 40 point games in the regular season (44 points on February 5, 40 points on February 8).

Erving's performance in the 1976 ABA playoffs--capped off by leading both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in the ABA Finals while carrying the Nets to the final ABA title before the ABA-NBA merger--is as sublime as any accomplishment in pro basketball history. Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (34.7 ppg) for the fourth time in five years and he topped the 40 point barrier in each of the first two games of the ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets, who had assigned Bobby Jones--arguably the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time--to guard Erving. Erving scored 45 points on 17-25 field goal shooting (.680) in game one, hitting the game-winning jumper over Jones at the buzzer, and then Erving poured in 48 points on 17-26 field goal shooting (.654) in a game two loss. Erving scored 41 points in a one point game six loss in the previous series versus San Antonio before scoring 28 points in the Nets' game seven win; thus, in a four game span against the ABA's toughest competition Erving averaged 40.5 ppg as the Nets eliminated the Spurs and gained home court advantage in the Finals with a 1-1 split against the Nuggets.

After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Erving was a very productive and consistent player during his 11 year NBA career but--like many great players, including Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan--his highest scoring seasons happened within the first five years of his pro career. Erving averaged between 27.3 ppg and 31.9 ppg each season during his ABA career, while in the NBA he averaged at least 20 ppg each season until he turned 35 but he never averaged more than 26.9 ppg, when he ranked fourth in the league in scoring during his fourth NBA season, 1979-80. In the final month of that campaign, he hit his peak as an NBA scorer, averaging 29.8 ppg in 13 games in March 1980. In a three game stretch from March 12-16 he averaged 38 ppg, scoring 40, 33 and 41 points.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM

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Monday, December 14, 2015

Terri-Bull: Premature Breakup of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls Demonstrated Why Tanking Does Not Work

When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Jerry Colangelo to fix the mess that Sam Hinkie created, I remembered that Colangelo was aghast and astonished by how Jerry Krause broke up the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Krause ran off Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen after the Bulls had just won three straight NBA titles from 1996-98. In November 2004 Colangelo was the chairman and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who went into Chicago and drilled Krause's hapless Bulls 94-74. Colangelo said, "The concept of taking your championship run and then going all the way back and starting over again? There's no guarantees. You gotta be lucky. You can't afford any mistakes, bad drafts. Your picks don't turn out to be big time-players? You've got a problem. So, in my opinion, you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible. If you back up the truck, you never know. Look, in my almost four decades in sport, I never had the pleasure of having that (Jordan-style) dynasty. Knowing me as I do? I couldn't break it up."

Becoming really bad in order to become really good is not just counterintuitive; it does not work. Colangelo is right: in any endeavor, "you stay as competitive as possible for as long as possible." Krause's demolition of the Bulls' dynasty is a cautionary tale that should be taught in business schools and should be mandatory homework for anyone who becomes a sports executive.

It is easy to refute the revisionist history--propagated by none other than Krause and Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf--that Krause had to do something because Jackson, Jordan and Pippen did not intend to stay around. In a July 24, 1998 Chicago Sun-Times article by Jim O'Donnell titled "Phil's agent has fill of Reinsdorf tactics," Phil Jackson's agent Todd Musburger reminded the world who broke up the Bulls and how he did it:

"Phil's not coming back. That has long been clearly understood. It's been understood since last July, when Jerry Krause told Phil, 'You can go 82-and-bleeping-0 and you're not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls."

Think about that. I have heard of an owner or a GM threatening to fire a coach if he does not win a certain number of games but who tells a coach that he will be fired even if the coach wins every game? Krause was so eager to prove that he was the brains behind the Bulls' championships that he ripped apart a dynasty in order to build a championship team from scratch in his own image--and the aftermath of that foolish decision was so disastrous that it lent a lot of credence to the speculation that instead of being a brilliant talent evaluator he was a solid GM who lucked into having Michael Jordan and then put some good pieces around Jordan.

What prompted Musburger to speak out to O'Donnell on that particular day? During the Bulls' televised press conference announcing the hiring of Tim Floyd as director of basketball operations, Reinsdorf said that the path was still open for Jackson to return as coach and that Floyd would only be the coach if Jackson decided not to return. In other words, one year after telling Jackson he was fired no matter how well the team did in the next season, Reinsdorf and Krause tried to act like the hatchet job never happened.

Musburger declared, "That's why what I heard on the TV Thursday from Reinsdorf was incredible. And what really made my blood boil was that, if nothing else, Phil left in dignity. After all he went through in his final 12 months around that team, all he did was win one last championship, and then fulfilling the expressly stated wishes of Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf, he left. No final cheap shots, no besmirching of any reputations, nothing. Simple, quiet dignity. And now they were going to dredge his good name back up to rewrite history once again and drag him through this."

Musburger called it "obscene" that Reinsorf hijacked a day that should have belonged to Floyd and concluded, "I guess as the work day ended, the thing I was most happy about is that the more dimensional members of the media no longer need a road map when it comes to any of the convoluted paths chairman Reinsdorf and his associates may lead them down. The chairman's ways and means are too well-known by now. But why he couldn't allow Tim Floyd to have his moment without having once again flail at Phil's wonderful legacy with the Bulls remains beyond my comprehension. Thursday simply should have belonged to Tim Floyd."

In his July 24, 1998 Chicago Tribune column titled "Jackson should've called their bluff," Bernie Lincicome wrote that the press conference announcing Floyd's hiring "is so hollow it echoes." Lincicome urged Jackson, "Hey, Phil, you should have called their bluff. Asked for $12 million and demanded they exile Tim Floyd to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. for the duration. I have a map. And a floor plan."

Lincicome continued, "Is this any way to kill a dynasty? There never is a good way, but I'll take the end of the Celtics over this. Larry Bird lying on the floor in a back plaster. Kevin McHale hobbling on one foot. Robert Parish rooted like a lamp post. How is this ending? With lies and dares, and, to use Reinsdorf's own words, 'fairy tales.'"

At the press conference, Reinsdorf said that Floyd was "Director of basketball operations, with duties normally handled by a head coach."

Lincicome scoffed, "When is a coach not a coach? When he is aside. But just for the sake of context, let's grant that it was all true. Floyd would give up a perfectly fine job where he was wanted and respected in order to schlep around as Krause's fanny pack for as long as Jackson and Jordan and the rest wanted to shun him? Would you even want a man like this coaching your team?"

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bill Lyon put it simply in a January 21, 1999 piece titled "Gored to Death: Arrogant acts have gutted the Bulls' dynasty": 
Only scant months ago, there was raging debate about how the Bulls measured up to the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, to the 76ers of Wilt Chamberlain, to the Celtics of Larry Bird, to the Los Angeles Lakers of Magic Johnson. The skeleton that's left may end up being measured against the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, the patron saint of losers, authors of a 9-73 record...

So what, by their hubris, Reinsdorf and Krause have done is deny the rest of us the final act of the dynasty, one farewell championship for Jordan, or one incredibly emotional quest for it.

They have interfered with the natural order of things. To feed their own egos, they have purposefully committed needless folly.

They have killed a dynasty.

If there is justice, the Bulls will be bad for a very long time.
Justice arrived swiftly in Chicago. Floyd went 49-190 in four years as the Bulls' coach. Reinsdorf and Krause replaced arguably the best coach in pro basketball history--a coach who won six titles in Chicago and went on to win five more titles in L.A. with the Lakers--with arguably the worst coach in pro basketball history. Bulls' power forward Charles Oakley summed it up succinctly near the end of Floyd's reign of error (and was fined $50,000 by the team for his candor): "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop." Without Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman and most of the rest of the core members of the Bulls' second three-peat squads, the Bulls promptly posted the worst five-year record of any non-expansion team in NBA history (96-282, a winning percentage of .254). The Bulls missed the playoffs for six straight years, did not win a playoff series until 2007 (four years after Krause retired as the Bulls' GM) and have made it to exactly one Eastern Conference Finals (2011) since Krause dismantled the roster.
 
It is foolish to break up a championship team in order to build from the ground up or turn a mediocre team into a cellar dweller in order to use draft picks to become a contender. After the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 championship, owner Mark Cuban elected to not keep key rotation players Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea; the Mavericks have not won a playoff series since 2011. Instead of continuing to add pieces around Dirk Nowitzki, Cuban wasted the final years of Nowitzki's career. This is not Hinkie-style tanking (though Cuban has said that he believe the strategy is sound--which is an absurd belief), but it is breaking up a championship team without giving that team a realistic chance to defend its crown.

When you are blessed enough to have a championship-caliber team, you should do everything possible to augment the roster and keep the championship window open as long as possible. Two organizations are widely referred to as "model franchises" in the NBA and NFL respectively: the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots. Since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs have won five championships and have never missed the playoffs. Since the New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick in 2000, the Patriots have won the Super Bowl four times and have only missed the playoffs three times (once with an 11-5 record, once with a 9-7 record and once with a 5-11 record in Belichick's first year on the job). Those teams have never tanked and have never prematurely dismantled a championship caliber roster; at times, those teams have phased out individual players who were past their primes but those teams always replaced those players in order to remain at an elite level. Those teams effectively used their draft picks even though their success relegated them to making their selections near the end of each round of the draft; instead of tanking to get higher draft picks, these teams did the necessary scouting/player evaluation to find good players. Also, free agents want to sign with the Spurs and Patriots because they know that those franchises have a winning culture. No talented free agent was ever going to sign with someone like Jerry Krause after he broke up the Bulls or with Sam Hinkie after he plunged the 76ers into the tank.

Rest assured that if Colangelo has anything to say about it the 76ers' tanking days are over (they will still lose for a while until Colangelo brings some real players into the fold but Colangelo will actually be looking for real NBA players, not rejects from the Washington Generals)--and that if Colangelo builds the 76ers up to contender status he will not break apart the team in order to stockpile draft picks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 PM

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Dolph Schayes, Scorer/Rebounder/Passer Extraordinaire, Passes Away at 87

Dolph Schayes, one of the greatest power forwards in pro basketball history, passed away today at the age of 87. Schayes held the NBA basketball career scoring record from 1958-63, succeeding George Mikan before being surpassed by Bob Pettit. Schayes was the first NBA player to score 15,000 career points and when he retired he ranked first in career games played (996), second in points scored (18,438) and third in rebounds (11,256). The NBA does not officially count the 809 points in 63 games (12.8 ppg) that Schayes scored in 1948-49 while winning the Rookie of the Year Award as a member of the Syracuse Nationals in the National Basketball League before the NBL and Basketball Association of America merged to form the NBA in 1949-50. The NBL did not record rebounding statistics, so those numbers are not available for Schayes' rookie campaign. Schayes is one of a select few players in the first quarter century of modern pro basketball (circa 1950-1974) who led his team in scoring, rebounds and assists in the same season (22.5 ppg, 14.0 rpg and 3.2 apg in 1956-57, ranking in the top 10 in the league in each category).

It is difficult to compare Schayes to modern players because his era was so different from subsequent eras in terms of rules, facilities and many other factors but Schayes was without question one of the best players of his time and--based on his accomplishments--one of the greatest players of all-time. Schayes was selected to both the 10 player NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time team (1971) and to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List (1996). He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the U.S. National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Schayes spent his entire 16 year career with the same franchise, the Syracuse Nationals, who became the Philadelphia 76ers in 1962-63. He led the Nationals to the 1955 NBA championship, the first title in franchise history. Schayes averaged 19.0 ppg and 12.8 rpg during that playoff run. Schayes served as player-coach in 1963-64 (his last season as a player) and he went on to win the Coach of the Year award in 1966.

I met Schayes at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland in 2004 and had the privilege of interviewing him. Schayes played against and coached Wilt Chamberlain, so it was interesting to get his take on a hypothetical Wilt Chamberlain-Shaquille O'Neal matchup. Schayes struck me as a nice, down to earth and intelligent man. I wish I had been able to spend even more time with him but I am so happy that at least I had the opportunity to hear about his career and the careers of many other great players in his own words.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:53 PM

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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The 76ers Are the Waterloo for "Stat Gurus"

Tanking is wrong for many reasons--it violates the spirit of true competition, it rips off the fans, it destroys that franchise's opportunity to build a winning culture--but the most basic reason is the proven fact that it does not work. Sam Hinkie was an executive with the Houston Rockets for eight years. The Rockets won one playoff series during that time. Based on that remarkably unremarkable record, the Philadelphia 76ers hired Hinkie in 2013 to run their basketball operations. Hinkie took over a team that went 34-48 in 2012-13. Since that time, the 76ers went 19-63, 18-64 and 1-21 while Hinkie's supporters implored everyone to "trust the process." Hinkie is a "stat guru" whose "process" is tanking and he has dropped the 76ers so far into the tank it will be years before they see daylight again. During Hinkie's reign of error the 76ers have been widely recognized as one of the most analytically minded franchises in sports, so it is not an exaggeration to say that Hinkie's failure is a Waterloo moment for "stat gurus"--at least the self-promoting "stat gurus" who have been saying for years that if they only got the chance to run an NBA franchise they could do so much better than the people who have actually devoted their lives to playing, scouting and coaching.

Hinkie is Ted Stepien with a spreadsheet. Stepien was not intentionally tanking but he did such a horrible job as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the early 1980s that the NBA had to step in and save the franchise--which is pretty much what just happened in Philadelphia, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver reportedly strongly suggested to the 76ers' owners that they bring in some outside help (which means, make sure that Hinkie never makes another personnel decision as long as he lives). Hinkie turned the 76ers into a laughingstock and the team is so terrible that other franchises had trouble selling tickets when Hinkie brought his version of the Washington Generals thinly disguised as a professional sports team into their towns. The 76ers have now hired Jerry Colangelo to clean up Hinkie's mess. As one writer quipped, Colangelo is going to talk a lot less about PER and a lot more about WINS. Colangelo has his work cut out for him but if anyone can turn the 76ers around he can, because he has enjoyed a tremendous career as a sports executive. Colangelo also should be commended for keeping his promise to correct some longstanding Basketball Hall of Fame injustices.

Hinkie's abject Philadelphia failure should also draw some attention to what is happening in Houston, where he served as Daryl Morey's protege. Morey's long tenure in Houston (Morey took over the basketball operations in May 2007) has produced nothing special; in Morey's first eight seasons, the Rockets missed the playoffs three times and won just three playoff series, with two of those victories coming last year. The Rockets are 10-12 this season and may not even make the playoffs just one year after their improbable (read "fluke") run to the Western Conference Finals--speaking of which, just how much does it mean to make the Conference Finals once? It may seem like that is getting really close to winning a title but it is actually only the halfway point, because it takes eight playoff wins to reach the Conference Finals and eight more playoff wins to claim the championship. Since Morey took over in Houston, 10 of the 15 Western Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once (eight of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have reached the Conference Finals at least once during the same period).

Morey loudly claimed--and media outlets like ESPN and the New York Times loudly repeated his claims--that his use of so-called "advanced basketball statistics" created a clear advantage that would translate directly into wins. Or, to coin a phrase, "trust the process." Nearly a decade later, we have a large enough sample size of evidence to make a solid hypothesis: whatever "process" Morey and Hinkie are doing, it does not work, at least if you are trying to win a championship by doing it.

Statistics are a very important tool for executives, coaches, scouts, media member and fans. I have loved sports statistics since I was a kid and this website is chock full of statistics--but any piece of data is only as good as the person who is using it and the context in which that piece of data is applied. Of course the smartest front offices in the NBA are using the most advanced statistics possible--but they are not doing so to promote themselves as geniuses and they are not using numbers devoid of context.

The numbers tell Daryl Morey that James Harden is a "foundational player." Morey does not know or care that the eye test reveals that Harden does not give full effort on a consistent basis, he is an awful defender and he has no leadership skills. Harden has some All-Star level offensive skills but he relies way too much on begging for contact when he drives and on launching three pointers when he does not drive. Harden has little to no post up or midrange game. So, Harden can erupt for 35 or 40 points on any given night--but when his team really needs him in a big playoff game, he can also shoot 2-11 from the field with a playoff single-game record 13 turnovers.

It is no surprise that Harden's Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the team. It is somewhat unexpected that the Rockets made it to the Conference Finals last year but, as noted above, any executive who can keep his seat warm for nearly a decade will more than likely stumble into one Conference Finals appearance. Harden is not the right guy to be the best player on a legit contender. Three teams in each conference made the Conference Finals at least three times since 2007: Miami, Cleveland and Boston in the East and the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the West. We know that Harden would not have been close to being the best player on any of those teams, in no small part because he came off of the bench for Oklahoma City.

This season, we are seeing the real Harden and the real Rockets (which we also saw during his first two full seasons with the team). Harden is scoring a lot of points while not shooting well, his team is far from being a legit contender and his bad attitude played no small part in getting his coach fired. It should be clear to the rest of the world now what should have been clear all along: it would have been a travesty if James Harden won the MVP last year. Harden is Stephon Marbury with an overgrown beard, a coach killer who is more interested in his endorsements and the celebrity life than he is in being a great basketball player. Harden declares that he is better than Stephen Curry and LeBron James. What a joke. Curry actually works on his game and comes back each season with something new. James is a 6-8 beast with an all-around skill set who has led his teams to six Finals and two championships; yeah, there are some gaping holes in James' championship resume and it took him too long to even partially figure out the championship mentality that guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were born with but putting Harden in the same sentence with James is like comparing a Yugo to a Rolls-Royce.

What this all comes down to is character and character is always revealed eventually. Character means doing the right things the right way all of the time. Character means having the courage of your convictions (which is not at all the same thing as sticking with the same course as you plunge into an iceberg). Championships are not won by accident. If you have an overabundance of talent, you may achieve some success without character but that success will inevitably be transitory. Before Mike Tyson fought Evander Holyfield, Teddy Atlas--who trained the young Tyson--said that Tyson was scared of Holyfield, that Tyson lacked heart and that the moment things got tough he would commit a foul to get out of the fight because he did not want to be there and would not be able to accept losing like a real man. Atlas nailed it, because Atlas knew Tyson's character and Atlas was not fooled by the "baddest man on the planet" hyperbole surrounding Tyson.

You cannot win a championship if you have a loser's mentality. That is what Hinkie failed to understand when he sent the 76ers into the tank based on some numbers-based idea of accumulating top draft picks and that is what Morey failed to understand when he decided to make Harden the "foundation" in Houston. Harden's story is apparently appealing to a lot of media members and he fooled a lot of people into giving him recognition that he did not earn but none of that stuff matters when you have to get in between the lines in the playoffs and produce. The cliche is true: you win with character, not characters. I have spent my whole NBA writing career figuratively betting against characters like Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden even when those guys were at the height of their popularity and I will place that eye test evaluation against a spreadsheet any day of the week. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:33 PM

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Tommy Heinsohn Explains the "Secret Weapon" That Helped the Celtics Win so Many Championships

Tommy Heinsohn won eight championships as a player for the Boston Celtics before leading the franchise to two titles as head coach. He is one of just four people--John Wooden, Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens are the others--enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. During his September 2015 speech after being enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach, Heinsohn provided some insights about why the Boston Celtics were so successful for so long. It all started with Red Auerbach, who built the Celtics into a powerhouse in the 1950s and 1960s.

Heinsohn declares, "Red’s style of play: the philosophy was to destroy the will of the other team to beat you and his strategy was to put you to the supreme mental and physical test. We had this uptempo game called the fast break. This put you, including the big guys, to the ultimate physical test of sprinting on every possession. He also implemented an aggressive defense and we had the ultimate stopper in Bill Russell." 

So much is made now of "analytics" and the value of pushing the pace and spreading the court but Auerbach figured all of this out decades ago without using a spreadsheet. Heinsohn states simply, "The secret weapon of the Boston Celtics for over 30 years" was "the pace of the game." This made the other team pay a physical price by forcing the other team to play faster than they were comfortable playing and making them "think fast while running backwards." Heinsohn compares this to racing against the world's best marathoner by using a relay team.

Heinsohn has worked as a broadcaster for decades now and he says that when he meets with coaches before games they will often say that they want to push the pace but Heinsohn believes that most coaches do not understand what that means. Heinsohn is appalled when he sees a big guy retrieve the ball after a made basket and walk out of bounds to pass the ball into play; he trained all of his players--even his big guys--to be able to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense. The point was to get the ball in play and up the court as fast as possible before the defense can get set.

Heinsohn admits that when he became a coach he did not see a reason to deviate much from Auerbach's approach. The Boston teams that Heinsohn coached were small but they were tough, they rebounded ferociously and they ran the court relentlessly. His 1972-73 team went 68-14 in the regular season featuring a lineup of 6-9 center Dave Cowens, 6-7 power forward Paul Silas, 6-5 small forward John Havlicek, 6-5 shooting guard Don Chaney and 6-3 point guard Jo Jo White. The undersized Celtics led the league in rebounding and might have won the championship if Havlicek had not injured his shoulder during the playoffs. In 1973-74, that same group posted a 56-26 record (second best in the NBA), led the league in rebounding and beat the 59-23 Milwaukee Bucks in seven games to win the Celtics' first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. The 1974-75 Celtics tied with the Washington Bullets for the best record in the NBA (60-22), finished second in the league in rebounding and lost to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 1975-76, the Celtics replaced Chaney with Charlie Scott, a 6-5 shooting guard who won the 1972 ABA scoring championship (34.6 ppg) before making the All-Star team three years in a row as a Phoenix Sun. The Celtics went 54-28--the second best record in the NBA behind only the defending champion Golden State Warriors--and led the league in rebounding en route to claiming their second title in three years.

The Golden State Warriors who won last year's NBA title and who are running roughshod over the league so far this season are not doing much that is new and they certainly are not in any way vindicating either "analytics" (an example of the result of blindly following "analytics" can be found in Philadelphia) or Mike D'Antoni (whose teams did not focus enough on defense and rebounding). It does not take fancy calculations and an M.B.A. to figure out how to build a winning basketball team. Red Auerbach proved that more than 50 years ago, Tommy Heinsohn reaffirmed this in the 1970s and Heinsohn's Hall of Fame speech is a nice, brief tutorial for anyone who did not know or who needed a refresher course.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 PM

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Monday, December 07, 2015

Reflections on "Clutch City" and Character

The NBA TV special "Clutch City" is an engaging oral history of the Houston Rockets teams that won back to back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. The quote "Sports do not build character; they reveal it" is often attributed to legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden but most likely was first uttered--perhaps in a slightly different wording--by sports writer sports writer Heywood Hale Broun. It certainly applies to the Rockets, who overcame much individual and collective adversity to become two-time champions.

Rudy Tomjanovich was an NBA All-Star for the Rockets in the 1970s before being hired as the team's coach in 1992. Tomjanovich not only survived an infamous--and nearly fatal--in-game punch from Kermit Washington but after missing nearly a full season to recover Tomjanovich regained All-Star status. Later, he successfully battled alcoholism and cancer. Tomjanovich is sometimes described as a "players' coach"--which can be a backhanded compliment implying that he did not make many strategic decisions and just relied on his players' talents--but Tomjanovich was very detail-oriented in addition to having the right personality to build a culture of togetherness.

Tomjanovich's steady and heady leadership proved to be critically important during Houston's 1994 Western Conference semifinal matchup versus the Phoenix Suns. The Rockets blew an 18 point lead at home in game one and then set an ignominious playoff record by squandering a 20 point fourth quarter lead in game two. Headlines blared that Houston was "Choke City" but Tomjanovich saw two silver linings in what looked like pitch black clouds: not only could those negative headlines provide motivation to his players but a careful and strategic examination of the game film showed that Houston's big leads were not flukes. Tomjanovich gathered his team around and delivered a simple message: There are solid, repeatable actions that enabled us to build big leads and if we do those actions again we will win this series. The Rockets defeated Phoenix in seven games en route to capturing the first championship in franchise history.

Another Rocket who overcame adversity is Robert Horry. The Rockets traded Horry to the Detroit Pistons for Sean Elliott during the 1993-94 season because they thought that Horry was too passive on offense but when Elliott failed his physical due to a previously undetected kidney ailment Horry ended up back in Houston as a changed man: he became more aggressive offensively, reasoning that the worst thing that could happen was that they would trade him and he had already been through that anyway. Horry's drives and three point shots helped create the necessary spacing for Hakeem Olajuwon to go to work in the paint. As Tomjanovich explained in "Clutch City," basketball is a game of inches and if one player is just a little out of place or does not cut at the right time then the whole offense can break down (try explaining that to a "stat guru" who only looks at numbers and does not know how to watch games to figure out things like proper spacing).

Tough times revealed the true character of Tomjanovich and Horry--and, in a much sadder way, tough times also revealed the true character of Vernon Maxwell. Maxwell has made a litany of poor decisions during his life but even before his impulsiveness sent his life completely off of the rails one could glimpse his true character based on how he handled some basketball adversity. Maxwell played an important role for Houston's 1994 championship team but when the Rockets struggled during the 1995 season they traded power forward Otis Thorpe for shooting guard Clyde Drexler, who would soon be chosen as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history. Drexler played the same position as Maxwell, whose playing time understandably declined. Maxwell was not pleased and the situation reached a crisis point after the Rockets lost game one of their first round playoff series versus the Utah Jazz. Tomjanovich kept Maxwell on the bench for most of the game but brought him in at the end to attempt a potentially game-winning three pointer. Maxwell missed the shot but his attitude in the aftermath focused on himself, not the team. Maxwell recalls, "After the game, I lost it. You don't put me in with five minutes and you gonna put me in the last minute of the game to try to make the game-winning shot? Who do that, man? I don't want the shot."

Here is Tomjanovich's measured take about Maxwell (who shot 1-7 from the field in that game): "He did not play well. I know that he wanted to play more. The fact of the matter was he was going to play less."

Maxwell could not take the pressure and could not submerge his ego for the benefit of the team. So, he did what cowards usually do when faced with a challenge: he quit. Maxwell told his teammates, "I'm done. I'm leaving tonight."

Point guard Kenny Smith, now a basketball commentator for TNT, implored Maxwell to stay: "I said, 'We need you. Don't leave.' Couldn't talk him off the ledge."

In "Clutch City," Maxwell explains his thought process: "I just told them, 'I quit.' I hated that I did it that way. I should have just sat down and (thought it through) but I never was a guy to do that, to sit back and think first and react later. I just go, 'I'm gone.' Dumb decision, man. Worst decision of my life." The validity of that last statement can be questioned considering Maxwell's subsequent criminal convictions and his deplorable track record as a neglectful father--but the cowardly way that Maxwell ran when things got tough during his sports career revealed the (lack of) character that he subsequently demonstrated in his personal life. As a father, I will always set an example for my precious daughter Rachel Sophia that you face challenges instead of running from them. What matters in life is teamwork and toughness, not doing what you want in the moment because of anger, fear or jealousy.

Vernon Maxwell's ego and selfishness did not destroy the team but rather destroyed his chance to be part of something special, because the Rockets went on to win the 1995 championship without him. Clearly, Maxwell was not an indispensable member of the first championship team because the second championship team went the distance without him, coming back from 2-1 down versus Utah and later rallying from a 3-1 deficit versus the Suns.

Two decades later, Tomjanovich looks back on those championships with fondness and pride: "We had mentally tough guys and they found ways to get it done. Being a champion doesn't just happen. You've got to go through a war. You've got to go through some adversity, some hard feelings, some tears but the team that doesn't let that stuff bother them has a special quality."

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM

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Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Looking Back on the Kobe Bryant Era

Kobe Bryant has been the NBA's signature player for the bulk of his career, a polarizing figure who was appreciated by basketball purists but not embraced by some fans and members of the media. We now know that the Kobe Bryant era, which has spanned an unprecedented 20 years of service with one team, will conclude after the 2015-16 campaign ends. Bryant understood the challenges and significance of his journey better than most of the people who covered his career. He announced his retirement on Sunday by publishing a poem titled "Dear Basketball."

Here is one stanza from that poem:
You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I'll always love you for it.
But I can't love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it's time to say goodbye.
As a basketball fan/purist, it is painful to watch a player as technically sound as Bryant struggle so mightily to put the ball in the basket this season--but there is also a beauty and nobility to the way he is ending his career, a poignancy that derives from the realization that we are watching a supremely talented and supremely motivated person who has squeezed every last ounce out of his body. There is something to be said for retiring on top and never letting the world see you decline but few athletes other than Jim Brown and Barry Sanders take that approach. Bryant has played in the NBA until his body had nothing left to give; he prepared as much for this season as he has for any other but because of injuries and age his body is no longer responding to his demands.

On Sunday night, the Lakers distributed to each fan a letter from Bryant. Here is the text of that letter:
When we first met I was just a kid.
Some of you took me in.
Some of you didn't.
But all of you helped me become the player and man in front of you today.
You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.
Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.
You witnessed my fears morph into strength.
Your rejection taught me courage.
Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.
What you've done for me is far greater than anything I've done for you.
I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.
I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.
My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.
Thank you for this incredible journey.
During Bryant's post-game press conference on Sunday night after Indiana defeated L.A. 107-103, Bryant answered questions in English, Spanish and Italian. He is a man in full who will likely be just as successful in his post-playing career as he was during his playing career; Bryant is driven, focused and intelligent.

Adrian Wojnarowski's article about Bryant's retirement is a rare mainstream media piece that is both well-researched and contains quality analysis. Wojnarowski describes how Bryant embraced the challenge of holding off young guns like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook--and Wojnarowski notes the sad reality that no amount of working out and no amount of shooting drills will enable Bryant to keep Father Time at bay any longer. Wojnarowski recalls that when Bryant and LeBron James were members of Team USA in 2008 the people most closely associated with that squad observed that Bryant "preyed on James' vulnerabilities." Bryant and James can be distinguished in two important ways: (1) the mental game and (2) skill set completeness. There is a substantial gap between Bryant in his prime and LeBron James in his prime in terms of doing what needs to be done to lift a team to a championship. Media members may not acknowledge this and "stat gurus" may argue vigorously disagree but it is no coincidence that even though James has often had the best regular season team and has made it to the NBA Finals six times he has only won two championships while Bryant captured five championships in seven NBA Finals appearances. When Bryant had the goods around him he produced titles and that often has not been the case for James. Bryant's teams rarely if ever finished worse than they should have finished based on their talent level--and they often did better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Bryant's work ethic, his passion and his complete skill set will not be approached--let alone matched--any time soon.

There are so many statistics and facts that demonstrate Bryant's impact that it is difficult to know where to begin. Bryant will be most remembered for championships and scoring, so those are two good places to start. Bill Russell lapped the field with 11 NBA championships as a player and several of his teammates rank high on the list of most championships won, including Sam Jones (10) and John Havlicek (eight), who is tied with teammates Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Satch Sanders. The player who won the most NBA titles without playing alongside Bill Russell is Robert Horry (seven), who was a superb role player for championship teams in Houston, L.A. and San Antonio. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships apiece. Then there is a 13 way tie among players who have won five championships; Bryant is in that group, which includes elite players such as George Mikan, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan plus rebounder/defensive specialist Dennis Rodman and several high quality players who were not all-time greats. In terms of players who were the dominating forces on championship teams, only Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Pippen won more titles than Bryant. Sam Jones was a great--and underrated--player but he had just five All-Star selections scattered among his 10 championship seasons, while Havlicek was not an All-Star during his first three championship runs.

Bryant made the All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Star teams each of the years he won a championship and he is in a select group of players with five championships plus two Finals MVPs (Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan, Duncan). We are supposedly in the middle of an era dominated by so-called analytics, yet discussions of concepts like "leadership" and "getting the most out of your teammates" repeatedly focus on players like Steve Nash and Chris Paul, neither of whom has made it to even one NBA Finals. Bryant's leadership and his ability to motivate/inspire his teammates are demonstrated by the bottom line, incontestable reality that he has led his teams to more championships than all but a handful of basketball superstars. Of course, some people will counter that statement by arguing that Bryant's first three championships should be properly credited to Shaquille O'Neal but if we are going to apply that line of reasoning then Magic Johnson's championship total should not include the years when Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy won Finals MVPs, Larry Bird's championship total should not include 1981 (when Cedric Maxwell won the Finals MVP) and two-time champion LeBron James--another player who is often lauded for his ability to bring out the best in his teammates--must explain not only his pedestrian 2-4 Finals record but also why during key moments in various NBA Finals he has been outplayed by the likes of Tony Parker, Jason Terry and Kawhi Leonard. Most championship teams feature what O'Neal calls a "one-two punch" and anyone who wants to subtract titles from Bryant's resume is obligated to apply a similar standard to every other elite player.

In his prime, Bryant had no skill set weaknesses: he could score inside or outside, he shot an excellent free throw percentage, he rebounded very well for his position, he was the leading playmaker on his team for most of his career, he was both a lockdown defender and a superb help defender and he possessed great footwork and ballhandling skills. What Bryant did best, though, is put the ball in the basket. Bryant ranks third on the all-time pro basketball regular season scoring list with 32,683 points, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387 points) and Karl Malone (36,928 points). Bryant also ranks third on the all-time playoff scoring list with 5640 points, behind only Michael Jordan (5987 points) and Abdul-Jabbar (5762 points). Bryant won two scoring titles (35.4 ppg--the eighth best single season scoring average in pro basketball history--in 2006, 31.6 ppg in 2007), he led the league in total points scored four times (2003, 2006-08) and he ranked in the top five in scoring 12 times.

Bryant made his mark in several other sections of the pro basketball record book. He ranks 14th in career regular season three pointers made (1712), 15th in career regular season steals (1895), 29th in career regular season assists (6166), ninth in career playoff assists (1040) and 42nd in career playoff rebounds (1119).

Bryant is one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history. He won the 2008 regular season MVP and finished in the top five in regular season MVP voting 11 times, including five times in the top three (2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Bryant finished fifth in the 2013 regular season MVP voting as a 34 year old veteran of 17 NBA campaigns. He won the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals MVPs. Bryant won or shared four All-Star Game MVPs (2002, 2007, 2009, 2011), tying the record set by Bob Pettit.

Bryant's 17 All-Star selections trail only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 19. Considering the way that the NBA consistently ignores the statistics and accomplishments of ABA players, it is worth noting that the third player on that list is Julius Erving, who earned 16 All-Star selections. Bryant, Abdul-Jabbar and Tim Duncan share the record with 15 All-NBA Team selections, while Bryant and Karl Malone are the only players to earn 11 All-NBA First Team selections.

Some people complain about the All-Defensive Team voting. For most of the award's history, the head coaches selected the players and did a solid job, though there are some anomalies (it is not clear why Larry Bird--who always guarded the least dangerous of the three opposing frontcourt players--made the All-Defensive Team three times or why Julius Erving never made the All-Defensive Team during his NBA career). Kobe Bryant's defense has been subjected to more unfair scrutiny and criticism than the defense of any other elite defender, at least in terms of media coverage and commentary by fans. NBA insiders--many of whom I have spoken with over the years--recognize Bryant as one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all-time and this is reflected in the All-Defensive Team voting: Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team nine times, tied for first all-time with Michael Jordan, Gary Payton and Kevin Garnett. Bryant earned 12 All-Defensive Team selections overall, tied with Kevin Garnett for second all-time behind Tim Duncan (15).

All-Star Weekend contests do not tell us much about a player's overall greatness but it is worth mentioning in passing that Bryant is the youngest Slam Dunk Champion ever, winning the contest as an 18 year old rookie in 1997.

What I will remember most about Bryant are the championships, the two years (2006 and 2007) when he carried the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker Lakers to the playoffs--it is ridiculous that Bryant did not win the MVP in both of those seasons--and Bryant's numerous amazing scoring feats. Memory is fleeting for many people, so it is worth recalling some of Bryant's scoring machine exploits.

Bryant did not play in the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 112-90 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on December 20, 2005 but he earned those 12 minutes off because he outscored the Mavericks 62-61 in the first three quarters! Bryant shot 18-31 from the field (.581) in that game, including 4-10 from three point range. Officially, he played just 32:53 that night, meaning that he scored at a rate of nearly two points per minute. Bryant became just the fourth player since 1960 to score at least 60 points while playing less than 40 minutes (Jerry West, George Gervin and Karl Malone are the others).

Kobe Goes Where Only Wilt and Elgin Went Before (January 11, 2006) is one of my favorite short 20 Second Timeout pieces because it was my first opportunity to write about one of my favorite sports books, Wait Till Next Year:
Kobe Bryant scored 45 points in the L.A. Lakers' 96-90 win over the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, becoming the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor to have 45-plus points in four straight games; the feat has not been accomplished since Chamberlain did it in November 1964. The Lakers are 3-1 in those contests and have not lost since Bryant returned from his two game suspension for elbowing Memphis' Mike Miller (Utah defeated the Lakers twice when Kobe was out of the lineup). Bryant has scored 188 points during this four game stretch, the third best four game scoring run in the last 20 years (Michael Jordan had runs of 198 points in '87 and 194 points in '90)--and he is also contributing 8.8 rpg and 4.8 apg while playing 43 mpg. Bryant is averaging 42.4 ppg in his last eight games--starting with his 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas on December 20--and the Lakers won five of those games. Bryant has taken over the scoring lead from Allen Iverson and his 34.1 ppg is higher than any player has averaged in a season since Jordan put up 35.0 ppg in 1987-88.
In Wait Till Next Year, Mike Lupica and William Goldman covered one year (1987) in New York sports. Goldman declared that every great athlete fights a battle "to the death" to avoid being forgotten by future generations. Goldman asserted that one athlete so towered above his peers that he would win this battle: Wilt Chamberlain. I concluded my article with these lines: "That's why every time Kobe has the most 'this's' or 'that's' since Chamberlain that I think not only of Wilt, but also Shaq--and Wait Till Next Year by William Goldman and Mike Lupica. Kobe's feats repeatedly acquaint a new generation with Wilt's name and 50 years from now I believe that both players will survive Goldman's aptly named struggle 'to the death.'"

A little over a month after Bryant destroyed Dallas, he dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors, the second highest single game scoring outburst in pro basketball history behind Chamberlain's legendary 100 point effort. Bryant shot 28-46 from the field (.609), including 7-13 from three point range (.538). This game marked the fifth time that Bryant scored at least 50 points in the first three quarters of a game but that is just one of the ways that Bryant's 81 point game is unlike other high scoring performances:
I've never seen anything quite like this in an NBA game. Consider three games that are frequently replayed on NBA TV and ESPN Classic. Jordan's 63 point game against the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs was remarkable, but it took him two overtimes to score 18 less than Bryant did in regulation, he did seem to tire at the end and the Bulls lost the game (to an admittedly great team that won the NBA title that year). Bernard King's 60 point game came against the New Jersey Nets in a Christmas Day loss in 1984; King also seemed to slow at the end of that game. Larry Bird's 60 point game came in a 1985 blowout against the Atlanta Hawks and anyone who thinks that Kobe or the Lakers employed poor sportsmanship by continuing to score on the Raptors should check out the tape of Bird's game--the Celtics were fouling the Hawks despite being way ahead in the closing seconds, just to get the ball back so that Bird could reach 60 points. These performances are among the most notable high scoring games in the past 20 years and none of them approach what Kobe did: Kobe scored more points and his points were more directly needed to win the game.
In December 2006, Bryant authored a perfect quarter en route to scoring 52 points, a performance that I covered in Perfect Storm: Kobe Bryant Scores 30 Third Quarter Points Without Missing a Shot, Drops 52 as Lakers Rout Jazz, 132-102:
The term perfect game is usually applied in baseball--and not that frequently. If you watched Kobe Bryant's performance in the Lakers 132-102 blowout of the Utah Jazz on Thursday then you saw the closest thing that you will ever see to a basketball player being perfect, at least for 12 glorious minutes. In the third quarter, Bryant made all nine of his field goal attempts (including two three pointers), sank all 10 of his free throws and tied his own Lakers franchise record with 30 points. He also played good defense and made some gorgeous passes. Andrei Kirilenko--one of the league's best defensive players--was guarding Bryant during a good part of this time. Bryant also made his last two field goal attempts of the second quarter, including a slam dunk right in Kirilenko's grill, so he actually made 11 straight field goals. Bryant hit deep threes, running jumpers, turnaround jumpers--he was so hot that when Deron Williams fouled him when he attempted a pull up three pointer on the fast break no one said anything about not fouling a jump shooter; TNT's Steve Kerr said that you have to contest someone's shot when they are that hot. In addition to the flying facial to close out the first half, Bryant delivered an even more impressive dunk in the third quarter, posterizing Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer.

After the game, Bryant said that it felt like he was playing a video game. TNT's Marv Albert, who has seen more than a few great games, declared during the telecast, "This will go down as one of the great performances of all-time for a single quarter." Kerr added, "You get an idea of just how much better Kobe Bryant--or Michael Jordan--is than everybody else out on the floor. When you consider how good NBA players are, that's just amazing. Kobe was just a man among boys tonight." Bryant sat out the last half minute of the third quarter or he might have tied George Gervin's NBA record of 33 points in a quarter. As Albert and Kerr mentioned, Gervin's effort came in the last game of the 1978 season when he was gunning for the scoring title in an otherwise meaningless game. Bryant's performance came in the middle of the season against the team with the best record in the NBA. Bryant made a token appearance in the fourth quarter before returning to the bench. He finished with 52 points on 19-26 shooting from the field and 12-15 free throw shooting, adding four rebounds and three assists and committing only one turnover in 34 minutes. This was the 12th 50 point game of Bryant's career and his highest scoring output since his epochal 81 point game last year; the Lakers are 9-3 in those contests.
In the wake of this astounding performance, ESPN's Ric Bucher asks a very logical question: When will people quit trying to anoint others and simply admit that Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the planet? Bucher writes, "How many times must Kobe demonstrate that no one in the league--and I mean no one--has his combination of skill, tenacity, understanding of time and score, killer instinct and ability to control the game at both ends? And how many times must I be the one taking the flag and waving it? Trust me, if you're sick of me sticking up for Kobe, I'm equally sick of having to do it. It shouldn't be this difficult to have the man recognized as the league's all-around best player. OK, so you don't like him. I'm good with that. But not respect him? Not give him his due? Anoint anyone who hasn't accomplished half of what he has as The King or The One or The Whatever?"
Bryant and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in pro basketball history to 50 or more points in at least four straight games. Bryant accomplished this in March 2007:
Elgin and MJ couldn't quite do it, so now it's just Wilt and Kobe, mano-a-mano. Kobe Bryant scored 50-plus points for the fourth straight game, setting a New Orleans Arena opponents record with 50 points in a 111-105 L.A. Lakers win over the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets. Bryant joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 50 or more points in four consecutive games; his 18th regular season 50 point game broke Elgin Baylor's Lakers franchise record and gave Bryant sole possession of third place all-time in that category. Bryant shot 16-29 from the field, including 2-5 from three point range, and 16-16 from the free throw line. He now has 225 points in his last four games (56.3 ppg), all wins for the previously struggling Lakers, and Bryant has shot 76-140 from the field (.543), 17-33 on three pointers (.515) and 56-60 from the free throw line (.933) during these contests.

It is hard to find anything bad to say about what Bryant is doing--he is shooting extraordinary percentages from all distances, his team is winning and his coach gave his seal of approval to Bryant being this aggressive. Nevertheless, Bryant haters will surely mention two things: New Orleans has a losing record and Bryant had only one assist. If you check the standings, you will notice that New Orleans is still in the hunt for the last playoff spot, so this home game was very important to the Hornets, whose record is not that much worse than the Lakers. If the Lakers did not have Bryant they would in fact be a much worse team than the Hornets, who got great performances from point guard Chris Paul (28 points, 12 assists, six rebounds, four steals) and center Tyson Chandler (22 points, 22 rebounds, two blocked shots). As for Bryant only having one assist, anyone who watched the game understands that Bryant did three things, depending on the defensive coverage he saw: when single-covered, he attacked aggressively, usually scoring or drawing a foul; when double-covered in the post, he hit the open man, who generally fired a brick or passed to someone else who was open and fired a brick; when double-covered on the wing or at the top of the key, Bryant split the trap, broke down the defense and either attacked the rim or shot his patented fadeaway jumper. Anyone who thinks that Bryant is not passing enough or that the Lakers are better off with Bryant shooting less and other guys shooting more is simply not paying attention. If Bryant had some better teammates--say, Raja Bell and Shawn Marion, or Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris--he would be getting a ton of assists--or he would be scoring 75 points if teams stayed at home on those guys and guarded him one on one.
In April 2007, I provided some key statistics about Bryant's unbelievable scoring binges:
*** Not including Sunday's game (which wouldn't change this stat much, anyway), Bryant is averaging 37.2 ppg since the All-Star break. That is merely the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in the last 43 years. That must mean that he is not rebounding or passing, right? No; he is averaging 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg in those games. That rebounding average would rank fifth among shooting guards in the NBA this season (based on the positional designations at ESPN.com) and is actually slightly higher than his pre-All-Star break average. That assists average would rank sixth among NBA shooting guards this season and is just slightly worse than his pre-All-Star break average. Only one shooting guard has higher seasonal averages in both categories than Bryant has posted since the All-Star break--Andre Iguodala, whose numbers in each area are marginally better than Bryant's. So, Bryant is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-level scoring numbers for the second half of the season while still ranking among the best rebounders and passers at the shooting guard position.

*** Several times on Sunday, ABC ran a "crawl" that stated that the Lakers are 11-3 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points. Apparently, nobody at ABC has read the Lakers' game notes or the game logs at NBA.com; the Lakers are in fact 12-4 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points and have a 58-25 record during his career in such games. Here is the complete list of Bryant's 2006-07 40 point games (I placed those dots in the chart in order to create better spacing, which will hopefully make the chart easier to read):

Date/
Opp..Res....Score...FG...3 Pt....FT.....Pts...Reb...Ast...Rec

11/21 vs. LAC...W..105-101...12-23...1-1...15-18....40....5.....5....1-0

11/30 vs. UTA...W...132-102...19-26...2-3..12-15....52....4.....3....2-0

12/15 vs. HOU...W...112-101...17-38...5-8..14-16....53...10.....8....3-0

12/17 vs. Was...L...147-141...15-24..7-11...8-10....45....8....10....3-1

12/29 at Char...L...133-124...22-45..4-11...10-12...58....5.....4....3-2

1/4 at Sac....W...132-128...11-21..3-5....17-20...42...10.....9....4-2

1/22 vs. GSW...W...108-103...11-22..4-7....16-19...42....8.....1....5-2

1/31 at Bos....W...111-98....13-25..7-9....10-13...43....8.....8....6-2

3/6 at Minn....L...117-107...13-30..3-10...11-13...40...13.....8....6-3

3/16 vs. Por...W...116-111...23-39..8-12...11-12...65....7.....3....7-3

3/18 vs. Minn..W...109-102...17-35..4-9....12-14...50....6.....3....8-3

3/22 at Mem....W...121-119...20-37..3-7....17-18...60....5.....4....9-3

3/23 at NO/OK..W...111-105...16-29..2-5....16-16...50....7.....1...10-3

3/25 at GSW....W...115-113...15-33..4-11....9-11...43....9.....0...11-3

3/30 vs. Hou...L...107-104...19-44..3-9....12-14...53....2.....2...11-4

4/6 at Sea.....W...112-109...13-27..1-4....19-24...46....5.....6...12-4

Totals..........256-498..61-122..209-245...782.........112.........75
..............(.514)...(.500)..(.853)..(48.9 ppg)..(7.0 rpg)..(4.7 apg)

No, those are not typos--Kobe Bryant has averaged 48.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg in his 16 40-point games this year. The Lakers are 12-4 in those games and he has shot .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 adjusted field goal percentage (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two), which is simply mind boggling. His shooting percentages, rebounding numbers and assist totals--and the Lakers' record, markedly better than their overall record--all refute suggestions that Bryant is forcing shots, neglecting other aspects of the game or cares more about scoring than winning. The reality is that the Lakers need his scoring--and his rebounding and assists, which are better than the numbers put up by most other shooting guards--in order to win.
In my January 14, 2012 article Kobe Bryant Tops 40 Points for the Third Straight Game, I summarized some of Bryant's accomplishments/records:
...Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in January 2006 (including his 81 point outburst against Toronto), he averaged 41.6 ppg in April 2006 (that month consisted of just eight games at the end of the season; Bryant's other 40 ppg months each included at least 13 games and my understanding is that for these kinds of records the Elias Sports Bureau counts any month that includes at least five games), he averaged 40.6 ppg in February 2003 and he averaged 40.4 ppg in March 2007; Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player in NBA history to average more than 40 ppg in a month on multiple occasions (Chamberlain accomplished this astounding feat 11 times)...

Kobe Bryant's 40 Point Game Streaks

9: February 2003 (7-2 record)
5: March 2007 (5-0 record)
5: December 2005-January 2006 (3-2 record)
4: March-April 2006 (2-2 record)
4: March 2006 (3-1 record)
3: January 2012 (3-0; streak is still active)
3: December 2004-January 2005 (2-1 record)

Total: 25-8 record
THAT Kobe Bryant--the unstoppable, indomitable scoring machine who won five NBA championships and authored so many dazzling performances--is the Kobe Bryant I will always remember and the Kobe Bryant everyone should remember.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:54 PM

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