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Friday, October 09, 2015

2015-16 Western Conference Preview

Perennial Western Conference contenders San Antonio and Oklahoma City both fell short of expectations last season. For most of the 2014-15 campaign, the Spurs seemed on track to mount a strong title defense but Coach Gregg Popovich's strategic resting of key players backfired as San Antonio ended up with the fifth seed despite finishing just one game out of second place in the conference. Instead of hosting a first round series against the vulnerable Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs lost a tough seven game heavyweight clash with the L.A. Clippers. I will never buy into the idea that regular season games do not matter; Phil Jackson never bought into that theory--leading the Bulls to 72 and 69 wins in back to back seasons and winning at least 65 games on three other occasions en route to capturing a record 11 NBA championships as a coach--and neither does Bill Belichick of the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Thunder did not voluntarily surrender any games but significant injuries to several key players resulted in Oklahoma City missing the postseason on the basis of losing a tiebreak to the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams have reloaded and figure to once again be serious championship contenders.

With San Antonio and Oklahoma City out of the way and the L.A. Lakers punching a Draft Lottery ticket early in the season, it was inevitable that new blood would represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals for just the third time since 1998. The Golden State Warriors, owners of a league-best 67-15 record, filled that void very adroitly. Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors did not vindicate small-ball or analytics or Mike D'Antoni's philosophy as much as they reaffirmed the truth that NBA championship teams are almost always very good defensively in addition to having some kind of offensive system that fits their personnel. The Warriors do not have a dominant scorer in the paint but they use dribble penetration and ball movement to collapse the defense and they have an armada of three point shooters who punish slow or non-existent defensive rotations. D'Antoni's formula has never included defense, which is why his teams never won a title and why other run and gun outfits that ignored defense also fell short of the ultimate prize.

If all three of those teams stay healthy throughout the 2015-16 season we could see one of the most intriguing battles for conference supremacy ever, as a defending league champion battles against the previous league champion and a team with the league's best 1-2 punch. This could be a real treat!

Of course, several other teams expect or at least hope to be in the mix, including the Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies.

This preview has the same format as the Eastern Conference Preview that I posted yesterday; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:

1) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs' dynastic run that started in the late 1990s and continues until the present day began with the pairing of an aging former MVP big man (David Robinson) with a young, upcoming big man (Tim Duncan). Robinson displayed a lot of grace and class with the way that he accepted a lesser role for the betterment of the team as the Spurs won two championships (1999, 2003) with a Twin Towers system. Duncan then led the Spurs to three more championships sans Robinson (2005, 2007, 2014) while surrounded by two future Hall of Famers (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) plus a variety of solid role players. Kawhi Leonard emerged as the Finals MVP for the 2014 championship team and he has established himself as the third member of the Spurs' Big Three (along with Duncan and Parker) as Ginobili has transitioned from All-Star to role player in the past few years.

Now the Big Three is a Big Four, as the Spurs made their most significant free agent move of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, signing Portland's four-time All-Star/three-time All-NBA selection LaMarcus Aldridge to a four year contract. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge brings Duncan's career full circle and Duncan will surely embrace the role of second big man to Aldridge the same way that Robinson did with Duncan. Aldridge is not the defender that Robinson was or Duncan is but Aldridge provides the Spurs with their best, most consistent and most versatile scoring option since Duncan was in his MVP-caliber prime more than a decade ago.

If the Spurs stay healthy and do not sabotage their playoff seeding by taking too many games off, they will be the best team in the NBA.

2) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors will not likely approach their 2014-15 regular season win total but they will once again be serious championship contenders. Coach Steve Kerr's back issues are a legitimate cause for concern to some extent but even if he has to miss the whole season (which is not expected to be the case) there is some precedent for a contending team to replace a coach and keep right on rolling. Remember how Pat Riley originally got the Lakers' job? Jack McKinney almost died in a bicycle accident, his assistant coach Paul Westhead won one championship before clashing with Magic Johnson and suddenly Riley--a broadcaster turned assistant coach--was at the helm of one of the sport's great dynasties.

Many people will focus on Golden State's small lineups and large number of three pointers attempted but what interests me is watching the Warriors play defense this season. Will they continue to work hard at that end of the court or will they rest on their laurels? Defense is what separated the 2014-15 Warriors from previous teams that ran, gunned--and failed to win a title.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: When healthy, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are clearly the best 1-2 punch in the NBA. If Westbrook had been healthy enough to play in just a few more games last season then he would have pushed, pulled and dragged an injury-depleted Thunder into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference and quite possibly added an MVP award to his scoring title. If Durant returns to form and Westbrook remains healthy, the Thunder will give opponents the business and exact some revenge against teams that enjoyed beating the depleted Thunder last year.

I am skeptical about Billy Donovan as an NBA coach, for the same reason that I am skeptical of most coaches who try to jump from the NCAA to the NBA: the NBA game is much more sophisticated than the college game. Donovan would be wise to lean heavily on his staff (including former NBA head coaches Maurice Cheeks and Monty Williams), much like NBA rookie David Blatt did last season (most memorably when assistant Tyronn Lue prevented Blatt from calling a timeout that his team did not have at a crucial moment in a playoff game).

Nevertheless, much like the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals while Blatt learned on the job, I do not think that Donovan's inexperience will prevent the Thunder from advancing in the playoffs if their core players are healthy.

4) L.A. Clippers: It would be tempting to give up on the Clippers as viable championship contenders after they blew a 3-1 lead against a not ready for prime time Houston team that promptly got waxed by Golden State but there is precedent for teams enduring painful setbacks before taking the next step. In 1981, the 76ers blew a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals only to beat Boston in seven games in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The mid-80s Pistons suffered repeatedly against Boston before breaking through to win two titles. Similarly, the late-80s Bulls had to go through the Pistons before starting their dynasty.

Mind you, I do not think that the Clippers are as talented and tough as any of those teams--but it is possible for a team to overcome a tough loss to reach greater heights.

The Clippers' problem, though, is not so much forgetting about last year as dealing with some harsh present realities. Chris Paul is a great player but he is also overrated and declining; there is just so much that a barely 6-0 point guard can do and the idea that he is a legit MVP candidate stretches credulity. He is not the best player on his team and he will never be the best player on a championship team. Paul monopolizes the ball; it is supposedly harmful when one player shoots a lot but not harmful when one player dribbles a lot but the reality is that if one player shoots a lot AND scores a lot then he will tilt the defense in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates even if he is not racking up assists. What Paul does is hold on to the ball until he wants to get rid of it, making everyone dependent on him. An even bigger problem, pardon the pun, is that the diminutive Paul annually gets worn down during the playoffs as teams punish him physically. How many times do so-called experts have to see this happen before they realize it is not a fluke?

Blake Griffin is the Clippers' best player. The Clippers need him to not just put up numbers but to control the flow of the game and the flow of a series.

Newly acquired Paul Pierce is well past his time but he fit in well as a role player for Washington last season and, if the Clippers are going to make it to the NBA Finals then they will need for him to play a Bob McAdoo/Mark Aguirre kind of role.

I greatly respect Doc Rivers' coaching ability but it should be noted that his Clippers have more talent and experience than the Clippers had under his predecessor Vinny Del Negro but they have yet to advance further in the playoffs than Del Negro 2012 team did.

5) Houston Rockets: I do not believe in luck regarding games of skill but the Rockets were lucky last season. The Rockets were fifth in the West in point differential and seventh overall--a reliable predictor of success--yet they finished second in the West during the regular season and improbably overcame a 3-1 deficit versus the L.A. Clippers to earn the right to get waxed by Golden State in the Western Conference Finals.

During Daryl Morey's eight years as Houston's General Manager, the team has missed the playoffs three times and advanced past the first round just twice. If his use of "advanced basketball statistics" is going to translate into some kind of tangible, real world advantage we may not see any evidence of this until he is well into his second decade at the helm.

As I have indicated before, I do not think that Morey is a bad executive but I think that he blew into town with too much hype and too many expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. James Harden has become the poster child for "Morey ball" but what Harden actually represents is what happens when a very good player is given the opportunity to monopolize the ball; each NBA team probably has two players who could average 20-plus ppg if given the requisite minutes/shot attempts/freedom. The ability to average 20-plus ppg means something and I do not think that anyone can do it but I also reject the notion that a player's value can be determined based purely on numbers.

There are some tangible and intangible factors that prevent Harden from being as valuable as some people claim that he is. One tangible missing factor is defense: Harden is still bad at it, despite all of the hype about his improvement. Morey wisely surrounded Harden with good to excellent defenders and that is why Houston's overall defense does not suffer even though Harden's defense is poor. The intangible missing factors showed up in Oklahoma City when he disappeared in the 2012 Finals despite only being the third option on offense and they showed up again during key moments of the 2015 postseason, as I documented.

How far the Rockets go will largely be determined by Dwight Howard's health and effectiveness; it is no coincidence that the Rockets' playoff run coincided with his late season return to action.

6) Memphis Grizzlies: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. The Grizzlies lack consistent outside shooting, which means that even though they can physically pound some teams during the regular season their big men will have no room to operate during the playoffs. Memphis may finish higher than sixth in the standings but in four of the past five seasons the Grizzlies have exited the playoffs no later than the second round and that trend figures to continue.

7) New Orleans Pelicans: The "advanced basketball statistics" say that Anthony Davis is already a historically great player. The box score numbers and the eye test also speak highly of Davis. I did not expect Davis' offensive game to blossom to the extent that it has but his ceiling is higher than I anticipated and I think it is reasonable to believe/predict that he will not only put up gaudy individual numbers but that he will figure out how to translate statistical dominance into greater team success.

8) Utah Jazz: Utah started slowly in 2014-15 but went 19-10 after the All-Star break. Sometimes such numbers can be deceptive because teams are tanking or resting players for the playoffs but the Jazz' run was based on improved defense and that formula should be sustainable. The Jazz are far from being a championship contender but seizing the final playoff berth is a very attainable goal.

The Dallas Mavericks have reached the playoffs in 14 of the past 15 seasons but the Deandre Jordan fiasco will probably be too much to overcome. I am not at all convinced that Deron Williams will rejuvenate his career and I think that Tyson Chandler's defensive presence will be hard to replace.

The Sacramento Kings have an intriguing talent mixture and Coach George Karl is known for getting the most out of teams with disparate personalities but there is a little too much volatility in the organization for this team to earn a playoff berth.

If Kobe Bryant were five years younger, he could lead this ragtag Lakers team to the playoffs. When Bryant was healthy and his legs were a bit springier he did not need much help to at least qualify for the postseason, as he demonstrated in 2006 and 2007 (the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker era).

Even now, Bryant could possibly push, pull and carry the Lakers to close to a .500 record in the first portion of the season but his body will not likely withstand that kind of workload over 82 games. If the Lakers can generate enough production from the rest of the roster without demanding more than 30 mpg from Bryant then the Lakers could be a dark horse playoff contender.

As for all of the commentary about how no one wants to play with Bryant and how the Lakers would be better off without him, let's be real. Most, if not all, of the only people who have complained on the record about playing with Bryant are lazy and/or soft; Bryant would not want them as teammates, anyway, and they did not do much before or after playing with Bryant.
The issue is not who Bryant is/what Bryant represents but rather that he is old and his body is breaking down. How happy were the Wizards to play alongside an old Michael Jordan who still barked at them like he barked at his teammates during his prime but who could not play at an MVP level for four quarters on a nightly basis?

As for the Lakers being better without Bryant, the Lakers stink without Bryant, point blank. Injuries have limited Bryant to 41 games in the past two seasons and the Lakers have been horrible. The last season that Bryant was healthy (2012-13), the team went through three head coaches, Pau Gasol missed 33 games, Steve Nash missed 32 games, Dwight Howard was hobbled by injuries and Bryant carried the Lakers to the playoffs while averaging 27.3 ppg and finishing fifth in the MVP race. Yes, even at that time Bryant had lost some bounce physically but he more than made up for it mentally--and if he can keep his body together there is little doubt that he can play at an MVP level, albeit probably only for 30 mpg and with some days off for recovery.



I correctly picked seven of the eight 2015 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2015 Total: 64/80 (.800)

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:07 AM


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Thursday, October 08, 2015

2015-16 Eastern Conference Preview

LeBron James' return to Cleveland proved to be successful by any objective measure, as he lifted the Cavaliers to the franchise's second NBA Finals appearance.  With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined by injuries during the NBA Finals, the supposedly pass-first James fired up nearly 33 field goal attempts a game and averaged 35.8 ppg, 13.3 rpg and 8.8 apg as the Cavaliers fell to the Golden State Warriors in six games. James' raw box score numbers were incredible, but he shot just .398 from the field and .687 from the free throw line and he could not seize the championship despite having a 2-1 series lead with Game Four at home. As is often the case with James, his play and his statistics were simultaneously astounding and mystifying. He largely escaped any criticism for being inefficient and taking so many shots, as commentators felt that he had no choice with the team's second and third best players on the shelf. I think that James played the right way and that if he had played that way throughout his career--accepting the challenge to be great, instead of being passive in key moments against top teams--he would have more than two championships now. I also think that if Kobe Bryant ever attempted 33 shots a game in the NBA Finals that several NBA commentators would spontaneously combust. It is worth noting that in the pivotal Game Four, when the Cavs could have put a stranglehold on the series, James shot 7-22 from the field. That performance sticks out not just for James' poor shooting percentage but also because he took far fewer shots in that game than any other game in the series. Why take your foot off of the pedal with an opportunity to go for the kill?

The Atlanta Hawks surprised just about everyone by leading the East with a 60-22 record but the Hawks faded down the stretch before righting the ship and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history (the Hawks made it to the Western Division Finals 12 times between 1956 and 1970, winning the NBA championship in 1958). The Hawks proved to be no match for the Cavaliers, though, falling in four straight games.

The Chicago Bulls had a typical season for them, finishing third in the East with 50 wins despite battling through injuries to several key players. After a second round loss to Cleveland, Chicago's management decided to get rid of Coach Tom Thibodeau in favor of Fred Hoiberg, who will install a run and gun offense featuring a lot of three point shooting.

If Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade stay healthy, the Heat might pose the biggest threat to Cleveland. Miami's projected starting lineup of Bosh, Wade, Hassan Whiteside, Luol Deng and Goran Dragic looks formidable on paper.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs:

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers had an up and down season before ultimately arriving in the NBA Finals. They started out just 5-7 before winning 12 of their next 15 games. Not long after that, James took an eight game hiatus during which the team went 1-7. Was that a brilliant strategy to rest and recharge, did James just need to heal some minor injuries or was that James' way of getting some of his teammates in line by withdrawing and in effect asking them, "How far do you think you can take this team without me?" We will probably never know the real answer but we do know that after James exited his tent and rejoined the battle the Cavs went 32-10 the rest of the way, aided by some shrewd midseason roster adjustments that added Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the rotation. 

First year Coach Dave Blatt looked clueless and overwhelmed at times and he never seemed to fully win James' support but the East crashed and burned around the Cavs while James and his new teammates found their way. Blatt was exposed in the NBA Finals as Golden State's Steve Kerr completely outcoached him by going small when it became clear that the Warriors had no way to match up with Cleveland's big lineup. Blatt should have stuck with his best players but instead he went small as well and the Cavs lost three of the last four games of the series.

The Cavaliers' projected "Big Three" of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love did not look entirely comfortable playing together but when Irving and Love suffered injuries during the playoffs the Cavs discovered that a big frontline of Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and James created a lot of matchup problems. It will be very interesting to see how Blatt deploys his roster this year if all of his players are healthy. It will also be interesting to see if Tristan Thompson--who is represented by LeBron James (I mean, Rich Paul)--reports to camp and what kind of deal James (I mean, Rich Paul) negotiates for Thompson. James (I mean, Rich Paul) is seeking maximum dollars for a player who had a good postseason run but is projected to come off of the bench.

The bottom line is that there will likely once again be drama, injuries and strange coaching strategies in Cleveland but would you bet your life that any Eastern Conference team can beat the Cavs four times in a seven game series if James is physically healthy and mentally engaged?

2) Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were a surprise team last season and I sense that some people still view them as a fluke. I certainly underestimated the Hawks but now that I see that they have a good coaching staff in place, a sound system and a deep roster--albeit one devoid of a superstar--I fully expect them to remain in the upper echelon in the Eastern Conference. Losing Demarre Carroll hurts but let's not go crazy about a guy who averaged 12.6 ppg. His contributions can be replaced collectively, which is the way the Hawks do things; no one on the team averaged more than 16.7 ppg but six Hawks averaged at least 10.0 ppg and four Hawks made the All-Star team.

3) Toronto Raptors: General Manage Masai Ujiri is a very good talent evaluator. The Denver Nuggets have not been the same since he left and the Raptors have been a team on the rise since he arrived. The Raptors needed to bolster their defense and so in the offseason Ujiri added Demarre Carroll and Bismack Biyombo to a team that won 49 games despite being hampered down the stretch by a back injury that slowed down All-Star guard Kyle Lowry. Yes, I just wrote that the Hawks can replace Carroll but that does not mean that he will not help Toronto.

4) Miami Heat: The Miami Heat have a stacked starting lineup. As I noted above, if things break right they could very well be the biggest threat to knock off the Cavaliers. So why do I rank the Heat just fourth? Except for Dragic, each of Miami's projected starters missed at least 10 games last season. The team's three most valuable players--Wade, Bosh and Deng--each missed at least 20 games. I think that we are going to spend a lot of the season hearing about how good this team could be but I am not quite convinced that everything will hold together through 82 games plus the postseason. 

5) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls could be anywhere from the second best team in the East to a team struggling to make the playoffs but fifth sounds about right. Pau Gasol enjoyed being freed from the shackles of Mike D'Antoni's offense but he does not figure to be featured in Fred Hoiberg's run and gun attack. It is not clear if Derrick Rose will ever regain his MVP form. At this writing, Rose is recovering from an orbital fracture and facing the prospect of sexual assault charges. Chicago's offense may be better under Hoiberg but it is doubtful that the defense will be as good as it was under Thibodeau and the net result figures to be a slow but steady slide from contending status.

6) Washington Wizards: I like Washington's young nucleus, particularly the dynamic John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt. However, the Wizards did not do enough in the offseason to move up in the standings. It seems like they are treading water hoping that their core players will continue to improve and/or that Kevin Durant will join the squad when he becomes a free agent.

7) Milwaukee Bucks: Remember when many members of the mainstream media questioned Jason Kidd's coaching ability? Kidd silenced a lot of his critics while guiding the surprising Bucks to the sixth seed last season. The addition of Greg Monroe will help but is somewhat offset by the loss of Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova. The Bucks just do not seem to have enough talent to take the next step.

8) Boston Celtics: The battle for the last playoff spot will probably be won by a team with just 40-42 victories. The Indiana Pacers, with a healthy Paul George, could make the playoffs, as could the Orlando Magic with Scott Skiles at the helm or the Detroit Pistons in year two under Stan Van Gundy. However, I like Boston's program, mainly because the Celtics are not buying into the nonsense that it is better to be really bad, miss the playoffs and get a Lottery pick than to build a team piece by piece while gaining postseason experience along the way. The Celtics are the anti-76ers. Not that there is anything wrong with Indiana, Orlando or Detroit--those teams are also on the right track--but I think that Boston's playoff experience last year will be an asset for the team's core players this year.


I correctly picked five of the eight 2014-15 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2015 Total: 61/80 (.763)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 AM


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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Clowns Like Stephen A. Smith Ruin Things for Real Journalists

No one has ever mistaken Stephen A. Smith's overheated TV ramblings as real journalism but the most recent misadventure of ESPN's clown prince demonstrates how much harm fake reporters cause to real journalists. Smith asserted that if Kevin Durant does not re-sign with Oklahoma City then Durant could end up with the L.A. Lakers. Smith cited no source for his statement and Durant responded by emphatically declaring that neither he nor anyone in his camp spoke with Smith and that therefore Smith is lying. Durant has every right to publicly correct non-sourced reports about him and to make it clear that he does not provide information to Smith. Things went south in a hurry, though, when Smith took a bunch of ad hominem shots at Durant on ESPN before issuing a direct warning to Durant, "You don't want to make an enemy out of me."

My response to Smith is simply one word: "Why?" Why act like an idiot on national television (not that acting like an idiot is new for Smith, but the question is still valid)? Why threaten a pro basketball player just because he refuted the notion that he speaks with you and provides you with information?

One might be tempted to laugh at Smith's self-important cries for attention and his apparent belief that every NBA player must bow down to him but Smith's antics are the symptom of a deeper problem that is endemic at ESPN and also applies to many other media outlets; basically, ESPN either hires people who are buffoons and instructs them to act like buffoons or ESPN hires people who used to be real journalists and pays them a lot of money to act like buffoons. I don't want to paint everyone at ESPN with a broad brush. Hubie Brown is one of the greatest NBA analysts of all-time. Jeff Van Gundy is great, even if his knowledge of pre-1980 basketball history seems sketchy at times. Steve Young's NFL commentary is masterful. There are a few other ESPN reporters and commentators who do great work as well--but the overall trend is buffoonery and sensationalism, exemplified by the network's shameful coverage of the deflated football "scandal" that they helped to create and perpetuate.

Why does this matter? Athletes are understandably fed up with dealing with buffoons, so when a real journalist attempts to interview an athlete the real journalist is often met with resistance. When I first started interviewing current and retired players in the early 2000s, many of my subjects were initially reticent or even hostile because they had been through so many bad experiences with media members who misquoted them, took things out of context and just generally did not know what they were doing--and the situation is even worse now than it was a little more than a decade ago. I broke down those walls by proving that (1) I know my stuff and (2) I am trustworthy with my word and reliable when quoting their words.

During last season's NBA All-Star Break, Durant blasted the media for playing favorites and twisting people's words, indicating that he only spoke to the media now to avoid being fined. Durant also declared to the media members surrounding him at that moment, "You guys really don't know s---." Not surprisingly, many media members took offense and criticized Durant but Durant spoke the truth. Many people who are covering the NBA do not understand the sport, nor do they know basic principles of journalism.

I have interviewed Durant a few times, with my most extensive interview coming in November 2008, during the early portion of his second season in the league. He came across as an earnest and nice person, not yet cynical about media members. I asked him about Coach Scott Brooks shifting him back to his natural forward position after previous Oklahoma City Coach P.J. Carlesimo had inexplicably played Durant at shooting guard. My Durant article was both fair to Durant and informative to my readers. I did not misquote him or write anything sensationalistic but I provided a glimpse into how he and Brooks (who I also interviewed) felt about the situation. Now, thanks to clowns like Smith, it would be much harder to get that kind of access to Durant and conduct that kind of interview, because Durant rightly views with suspicion anyone who wears a media credential.

Smith's tired act is a disservice to real journalists everywhere.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:35 AM


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Friday, October 02, 2015

Genius Talks: Kobe Unplugged

On July 3, 2015, Jemele Hill conducted an interview with Kobe Bryant that BET aired under the title "Genius Talks: Kobe Unplugged." Hill's questions were predictably pro forma but some of Bryant's replies provided insight into his approach to basketball--and life. Here is a summary of some of Bryant's more thought-provoking comments.

Bryant said that he has tunnel vision about criticism, comparing his approach to Secretariat flying down the track with blinders on, unaware of anything happening on either side and only focused on running. I believe that Bryant has long adhered to this philosophy, though his staunch denial that he was even aware of public criticisms made about him early in his career seems a bit disingenuous; it is difficult for a public figure to be completely oblivious to how he is perceived and Bryant often seems very focused on refuting his doubters, which would be hard to do if he were not even aware of the criticisms.

Bryant declared that Phil Jackson's coaching gave him an advantage over Allen Iverson, Ray Allen and the league's other top guards. This is very interesting because Bryant is a straight-shooter both with praise and with criticism. Some people attempt to diminish Jackson's accomplishments by suggesting that many coaches could have won just as often as Jackson did if they had coached the same players but Bryant firmly believes that Jackson's approach gave him an advantage over the other great shooting guards of his era.

Bryant stated that failure does not exist because "the story continues." He added, "I play to figure things out. I play to learn something." Bryant believes that there is weakness involved with either playing with a fear of failure or playing with pressure to win and that the best method is to center himself and focus on the process. This is not easy to do but it makes a lot of sense; if you focus too much on what you have to lose (or gain) then you lose sight of what you have to do next.

As the story continues, one can learn from previous chapters. Bryant noted that failure in one setting just teaches you what you need to do better next time. Success teaches you what you should continue to do but you still have to evolve because the competition will adapt and evolve.

Bryant acknowledged that he pushes his teammates and he hates excuses. Bryant said that Shaquille O'Neal played "mean," which Bryant respects, but O'Neal also put his arm around guys and encouraged them. After his difficulties relating to O'Neal and some of his other teammates, Bryant "self-assessed" and learned not to be a jerk (though Bryant used a different word), which Bryant half-jokingly said means either changing or being the same way all the time so that people get used to it.

Examining his self assessment seriously, Bryant said that an important moment in his personal evolution was when Rick Fox told him during a team meeting, "We just want to feel like you are a part of us." Bryant admitted that he had never looked at things that way. Bryant began to "approach the game on a human level" and tried to connect with his teammates emotionally instead of just continually pushing himself and them.

Bryant believes that the most important thing for young players is to ask why things happen. If a screen/roll play results in an open shot in the corner a player should understand why that happened, what adjustments the other team might make and how to counter those adjustments so that someone else will be open if that first option is covered. This analysis reminded me of something that Phil Jackson once said about Bryant. Jackson called Bryant a "hard-headed learner" because Bryant would not do anything unless someone could explain to him why he should do it that way. This trait can be viewed negatively or positively but I think that it is positive. A smart person questions authority and questions what is happening as opposed to just passively accepting things. Bryant is "hard-headed" but in a good way--and if a coach cannot articulate a good reason for doing things a certain way that could be a sign that things should be done a different way.

Bryant concluded the interview by describing how he wants to be remembered after he retires: "I think it's that I reached my highest level of potential. As much as I could have accomplished I accomplished. I left no stone unturned. I tried and learned as much as I could to be the best possible player I could be to help my team be the best possible team it could be." Bryant recalled that when he was 16, he vowed to himself that he wanted to be a "talented overachiever" and he hopes now that this is his legacy, that he will be remembered as someone who did not rely just on talent but who also worked very hard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:36 AM


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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

King James Reigns in Houston (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 20, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

I began the final day of All-Star Weekend by attending the NBA Legends Brunch, which brings together an impressive array of basketball talent representing several generations of excellence. The National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) held the seventh edition of this event on Sunday morning at the Hilton-Americas hotel. Emceed by TNT Studio host Ernie Johnson, this year's brunch recognized Cynthia Cooper, Marques Haynes, Calvin Murphy, Kenny Smith, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. There was a moment of silence in memory of the 14 NBRPA members who passed away in 2005 and the issuing of Commemorative Championship Awards to the 1993-94 and 1994-95 Houston Rockets teams.

NBA Commissioner David Stern began his remarks to the group by saying, "It's been a spectacular week" and he praised the retired players for demonstrating their "commitment to community" by their actions during the week, including hospital and school visits and charitable donations. Stern said, "Respect for the tradition of the game is so important" and concluded by noting, "If you forget where you came from you will never get where you are supposed to go."

When Cynthia Cooper received her award, she emphasized the perseverance that carried her from growing up in Watts to 10 years of playing pro basketball in Italy before winning four WNBA titles with the Houston Comets. Cooper told me that the brunch "is incredibly special. Just being one of the honorees and being a part of the NBRPA is incredible. I grew up watching a lot of the veteran talent in this room." I asked her who in particular she admired as a kid and she enthusiastically replied, "Norm Nixon, Magic and Jamaal Wilkes--all of the Lakers. I was an L.A. girl and grew up as a Lakers fan. Oscar Robertson is so incredible. I feel incredibly honored to be part of such a talented group."

She is pleased to be on the same list with Murphy: "Calvin is a great guy. What happened is unfortunate but it's good to see him bounce back. It's so wonderful for the NBA and NBRPA to honor Calvin for his contributions to the sport of basketball--not men's or women's but basketball in general." Some players struggle to adjust to retirement. Not Cooper. "The adjustment was easy for me because I have twins," Cooper said. "They keep me pretty busy. I have boy-girl twins and I've always put family first, so it wasn't hard for me to make the decision or the transition to go from being an active player to a retired player."

Haynes, who received the Humanitarian Award, paid tribute to the Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters and other pioneering black teams of the early 20th century. He reminded the audience that his 1948 Globetrotters defeated George Mikan and the world champion Minneapolis Lakers, debunking the idea that the Globetrotters were merely showmen. This achievement paved the way for the eventual desegregation of the NBA. Haynes said that there must be a dialogue established with the NBA to create a pension program for Globetrotters players who were denied the opportunity to play in the NBA. Haynes' fascinating stories exceeded his allotted time, leading to an awkward moment when Ernie Johnson came back to the podium while Haynes was still talking.

I spoke with Haynes after the brunch and he told me, "I tried to say as much as I possibly could. They wanted me to keep it to five minutes." But the pension issue is so important that Haynes had to bring it up in the hope that he could generate some movement on that front. "We've been around a long time. We call ourselves 'the survivors.' We were denied the opportunity to play pro ball for the same reason the Negro Leaguers were--the color of our skin. This is something that could be rectified by the NBA instituting a plan similar to if not identical to what Major League Baseball did for the Negro Leaguers."

During his acceptance speech, Kenny Smith described the feelings of anger and helplessness that swept over him when Hurricane Katrina cut its path of devastation through the Gulf Coast. He decided to do something immediate to help the storm's victims and within four days he organized a charity basketball game that was televised on TNT and raised significant funds to help the displaced people. Smith insisted that each NBA player who participated must donate at least $10,000 in goods, services or products and that the player must distribute those wares personally, not via his agents or handlers.

Calvin Murphy's remarks were tinged with great passion and emotion. He lost his job as a Rockets broadcaster in the wake of some allegations that proved to be baseless and Murphy noted how much he misses being on the air talking about basketball, a job he held for 13 years after his Hall of Fame playing career. Before he went on stage, I asked Murphy what this award means to him. He replied, "With what I've just been through in my life, this is perfect timing--to be honored by your peers--people who believe in you and want you to know that they believe in you; this is the first day of the rest of my life."

Julius Erving said that Clyde Drexler had the complete package as a player and that Drexler was part of the showmanship lineage that began with Bob Davies and Bob Cousy and continued with Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins. Erving praised Drexler's "special flair and elegance." Erving played against Drexler for several years but they did not have a chance to interact much until Drexler invited Erving, who was by then retired, to a ceremony in Portland honoring Drexler. At that time Erving found out how much Drexler had always admired Erving and a big brother-little brother bond formed between them. Erving suggested that just as he played second fiddle to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Drexler was the second-best player in the game behind Michael Jordan and that there is no shame in that. When Drexler spoke he dismissed the notion that Dr. J played second fiddle to anyone, observing that every kid wore Dr. J shoes and wanted to be like Dr. J.

Olajuwon was unable to attend the brunch, so Yao Ming accepted the award on his behalf, noting, "Houston has always had a tradition of great big men." Next, Shaquille O'Neal spoke about the achievements of George Mikan, who passed away in 2005, describing him as the first great NBA big man. O'Neal said that he paid for Mikan’s funeral because that is what a son should do for his father. Rudy Tomjanovich, who coached the Rockets to titles in 1993-94 and 1994-95, thanked the NBRPA for honoring those teams and called to the stage several members of those teams who came to the brunch: Carl Herrera, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie and Clyde Drexler. The brunch concluded with a hysterical standup routine by Chris Tucker, who did impressions of O’Neal as a police officer, Allen Iverson, Dikembe Mutombo and others.

Afterwards I spoke with more legends than I have space to quote here, but it is always special to hear from George Gervin. The Iceman was happy to see Murphy honored: "Murphy looked good. He has always been a strong individual. We all knew he would bounce back. It's so unfortunate that he had to go through things but that's what life is about: life is about recovery and he's doing that." With everything else that has gone on these past few days it is important to remember that All-Star Weekend does in fact culminate in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.

Some anticipated themes played out: the West players fed local hero Tracy McGrady the ball and for a while he was on pace to threaten Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record 42-point outburst. As Fred Carter might say, when I was inquiring earlier in the week about the possibility of Kobe Bryant breaking that mark I was in the right church but the wrong pew; Bryant finished with eight points, although he did play a strong floor game with a team-high eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals. He also hit a spectacular fadeaway 20-foot jumper to tie the game at 120 with 32.3 seconds left.

East Coach Flip Saunders did put all four Pistons on the court at the same time on a couple occasions, with Paul Pierce in the role of "fifth Beatle." The West led by as many as 21 and McGrady seemed to have MVP honors sewn up, but the East, spearheaded by the Pistons/Pierce combination toward the end of the third quarter, made a spirited rally and eventually took the lead. Then, LeBron James took over, finishing with 29 points, defending McGrady's attempt to tie the game at the end and becoming the youngest All-Star Game MVP, surpassing Oscar Robertson.

In his postgame remarks to the media, James made a very candid statement about McGrady's shot: "On his way up, I got a piece of his arm and a piece of the ball, which made it short." Reflecting on winning the MVP trophy, James said that individual accolades are not as important to him as being on a successful team.

Starting the day talking with the legendary Marques Haynes and finishing the day watching a potential legend in the making in LeBron James is the perfect way to conclude an intense and wonderful basketball weekend.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:55 AM


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Spud Helps Nate Steal the Show (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 19, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Saturday began with the Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars practicing at the George R. Brown Convention Center. As Rasheed Wallace told me, All-Star practices are "for the fans. They get to see us do some dunks and hit some half-court shots."

The Eastern Conference took the floor first. Coach Flip Saunders had the players do the three-man weave, after which he split the team into two groups for a series of shooting contests to see which team could be the first to make 10 shots from various spots: the elbow area next to the free throw line, the baseline just inside the three-point line and then three-pointers from the wing. Next he walked the players through some basic screen/roll sets. Paul Pierce teamed with the four Piston representatives at one basket. I asked Rasheed Wallace if Pierce will be the "fifth Beatle" during the game or if he just randomly ended up teaming with Detroit's finest and he replied, "It was pretty random, but it worked out." The East practice concluded with the traditional half-court shot contest. LeBron James, Jermaine O'Neal and Richard Hamilton each made one half-court shot. Then the West All-Stars took the floor and the media availability period commenced.

Like yesterday, Kobe Bryant was swamped, but I managed to obtain "pole position" and ask a few questions of the NBA's leading scorer. The first thing that I wanted to know is if he thinks that he can break Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points. Bryant said, "In these games I just come out and read the flow of the game. The object is always to win, so whatever that means for me to do is what I’m going to do."

Bryant added that he was made aware of Chamberlain's record recently: "Yeah, someone asked me about that a couple days ago in L.A. I think that he has a story that he wants to write on Monday, so he's trying to lead me to get 43."

Since Bryant was criticized for his early departure from his 62 point game against Dallas and then also criticized for staying in the Toronto game to get 81 points, I asked him if he felt like he was in a no-win situation: "No, that's the essence of the sport. You can't please everybody. The people who like you are going to like you and the people who criticize are going to criticize. So it's important to just go out and be yourself and do what you think is best."

I suggested that since he received flak either way that perhaps the next time he has a big scoring game he might consider staying in and getting as many points as possible, but Bryant disagreed: "No, I do what I think is right. When I checked out of the game I didn't do it because I thought people would like it. I felt like it was the right thing to do. The game was in hand and we had another game coming up. There was no point in risking injury or tiring my legs out. I do it because I feel it's the right thing to do. I couldn't care less what anybody else says."

Chris Bosh told me that the best thing about being a first time All-Star is "getting to play with everybody, getting to see everybody and joking around. I've been dreaming about this a long time and it came true."

When the media availability period concluded, coach Avery Johnson and the West All-Stars began their practice session. Johnson explained that he was not going to put in anything too complicated but that he just wanted to make sure that there was "some organization" to what the team does on Sunday.
He walked the team through some basic, standard NBA sets. If you see Steve Nash or Tony Parker flapping a hand over their head while dribbling downcourt then the West is going to run "floppy up" or "floppy down" (depending on whether they point their hand up or down). Floppy up means that when the baseline screens are set the two players that are using the screens will emerge from opposite sides, while in floppy down the players will both come out on the same side, one after the other.

The West also had several shooting contests and the mood was more lively than it was during the East's practice. First team to make 11 shots won and the contests pitted the starters versus the reserves. Locations included the elbow area, a bank shot contest from the mid post (Johnson called this the "Tim Duncan" drill and, appropriately enough, Duncan and the starters won that one) and a baseline shot inside the three-point line. Then Johnson involved the crowd, assigning one side's fans the responsibility of counting out loud for the starters' makes while the other side kept track of the reserves' progress. The reserves won two out of three contests in this format.

Johnson also walked the team through some basic pick-and-roll defenses and two out-of-bounds plays--one to set up for an open two-point attempt and one to spring open a player for a three-point shot. Johnson announced that he plans to play a lineup of five seven-footers for a couple minutes, possibly when Saunders puts in all four Pistons so that Chauncey Billups has to guard one of them.

Bryant was the only West All-Star to make a half-court shot before the practice ended.

During the time between the end of the All-Star practices and the beginning of the All-Star Saturday night contests, I was able to walk through the Jam Session and see some other exhibits. Artist Kelly Sullivan has a "finger smear" painting display consisting of huge basketball themed drawings that were commissioned by Radio Shack, a Jam Session sponsor. Fans can dab paint on a finger and take part in finishing the artwork. She explained to me that "finger smear" is less intimidating to some people than trying to paint with a brush. Ian Naismith stopped by her exhibit earlier and participated in the project, signing his name by his "finger smear."

I'll go light on describing the All-Star Saturday night action since TNT and SportsCenter are providing saturation coverage. The Spurs won the Shooting Stars contest in a record 25.1 seconds. Their secret weapon? Steve Kerr was wearing his 13-year-old son's LeBron James shoes because he forgot to pack his own sneakers.

Dwyane Wade outdueled James to win the Skills Challenge and Dirk Nowitzki won the Three Point Shootout, defeating Gilbert Arenas and Ray Allen in the final round.

Slam Dunk Contest judges Elvin Hayes, Kenny Smith, Rudy Tomjanovich, Moses Malone and Clyde Drexler worked overtime because Nate Robinson and Andre Iguodala battled to a tie and had to decide the title with the contest's first ever "dunk-off." Iguodala scored two perfect 50s in his first four dunks, but Robinson won 47-46 in the "dunk-off" and is the 2006 Slam Dunk champion. Iguodala's best dunk came when teammate Allen Iverson tossed the ball off the back of the backboard and Iguodala swooped in, caught the ball and soared underneath the backboard for a reverse dunk; Robinson electrified the crowd and forced the "dunk-off" by leaping over Spud Webb for a powerful slam.

Next I headed to the Houston Marriott-Medical Center, site of the second annual ABA "Ole School" Reunion. I wrote about the first ABA Reunion last year for HoopsHype and when I arrived I saw several familiar faces, including organizer Fatty Taylor, "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and Al Smith. I also had an opportunity to speak with several ABA players who I did not get a chance to meet before, including Gus Gerard, George Tinsley and Ollie Taylor. Gerard played on the 1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis team that pulled off one of the great upsets in pro basketball history by defeating Dr. J and the defending champion New York Nets in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

Tinsley is a successful entrepreneur who runs a chain of food and beverage franchises in Florida. He told me that he is the "unofficial secretary" between the National Basketball Retired Players Association and many retired players who are not active in the group. He conveys to them information from the NBRPA and relays their feedback to the group. Tinsley also has worked as a coach, both in his native Kentucky and in Florida; two of his former players are Darrell Griffith and Tracy McGrady

Before Ollie Taylor said anything about his own career, he had a very important message to convey: "The ABA existed before Spencer Haywood, but the storyline really begins with him because he was the first one to challenge the undergraduate rule, paving the way for all these guys who are high school players or undergraduates to come into the NBA and make the kind of money that they are making. Spencer went through a lot of stuff that people don't realize--escorted off of the court, being locked out of the arenas and stuff like that (while his case was making its way through the courts and various injunctions restricted him from playing). Spencer was only 19-20 years old and going through a real trauma in his life and questioning whether or not he should continue to battle. He's not a guy who's going to toot his own horn but, when you see the story of 'Glory Road,' that's one story but there is another story and it is a very important story because eventually the ABA became the cornerstone for the NBA. The dominant players after the merger were ABA players--George Gervin, Dr. J, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone. There is a real, untold story there and I don't think that many people realize that."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:30 AM


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Honoring the Past, Anticipating the Future (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 18, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

My first stop on Friday was the Hilton-Americas Hotel, site of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame press conference announcing the 2006 Finalists for election. Dick Stockton stood on a stage flanked by Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Bill Walton, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Gail Goodrich, David Thompson, Clyde Drexler and Moses Malone and read off each of the names of the 16 Finalists, followed by brief career summaries. Ten candidates were nominated by the North American Screening Committee--players Charles Barkley, Ralph Sampson, Chet Walker, Adrian Dantley, Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins, coaches Don Nelson and Gene Keady and contributors David Gavitt and Dick Vitale. The Women's Screening Committee selected coaches Van Chancellor and Geno Auriemma, the International Screening Committee chose coaches Pedro Ferrandiz and Sandro Gamba and the Veterans Screening Committee tapped player John Isaacs and contributor Ben Kerner. The final vote takes place later in the year and the results will be announced on April 3 during Final Four weekend; at least 18 votes from the 24 member Honors Committee are required to earn induction.

When Stockton concluded, Barkley came to the podium and addressed the assembled media, saying "Moses Malone was most influential in my career" while also acknowledging guidance provided by Adrian Dantley and John Drew. He thanked the Hall of Famers for taking the time to come to the event and offered much respect to Oscar Robertson, saying that there is a "short list" of players who can legitimately be considered for the title of greatest ever: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

After Barkley's remarks, the Hall of Famers were available for media interviews. Barkley was the center of attention, attracting a media horde three rows deep packed tightly around him, jockeying for position and lobbing questions toward him. Asked about the difference between playing in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996, Barkley noted that in 1992 the players from other countries did not mind losing by 40 or 50 points as long as they received some signed jerseys or shoes but by 1996 the foreign players were telling Barkley where he could stick the shoes--the intimidation factor was gone and Barkley knew then that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. lost to a foreign team.

I asked Drexler if he thinks that Kobe Bryant has a realistic shot to break Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points. He thinks that this is very unlikely because of the energy expenditure it would require and because it is difficult for one player to cast up so many shots in an All-Star Game. When I mentioned that Michael Jordan once had 40 points in an All-Star Game, Drexler correctly noted that that took place in Jordan's home city of Chicago and that when you are playing in your home city, the other players are more apt to feed you the ball.

Next came the media availability sessions for the All-Star Saturday participants, followed by the All-Stars themselves. That rapidly turned into a three-ring--or, to be precise, dozen-plus table--circus. The crowd at Kobe Bryant's table dwarfed the one that had been around Barkley and some media members seemed to be employing martial arts maneuvers in an effort to cut in front of others and get better access. Of course, that meant that it was the perfect time to talk to other players.

Slam-dunk contestant Hakim Warrick told me that Dr. J was his favorite dunk artist as a kid; his pick among recent dunkers is Vince Carter: "He raised the bar," Warrick said. He noted that his Memphis teammate Shane Battier has been offering unsolicited dunk contest advice and claims to have won a dunk contest in the county where he grew up. Warrick agreed with me that he needs to see some footage of that before he listens to Battier, who is not known as a high flyer.

Shooting Stars contestant Steve Kerr has done no preparation for the event other than playing in some pickup games but believes that shooting, like riding a bike, is something that you never forget how to do. I asked him who he thinks will win the Three Point Shootout and he chose Ray Allen. Allen, however, does not consider himself the favorite and thinks that any of the contestants could be hot or cold on a given night. He told me that he does not have a strategy for the contest and does not consider contest shooting to be fundamentally different from game shooting, although he noted that some players rush because they don't think that they will have enough time to shoot all of the basketballs.

Vince Carter likes Josh Smith's chances to defend his Slam Dunk title, but he added that he thinks most people do not really know how well Nate Robinson can dunk; Carter played against him in the preseason and was very impressed. One reporter noted that this was his first All-Star Weekend and asked Carter, a veteran All-Star, to tell him one "do" and one "don't." Carter's "do" was to see the Slam Dunk Contest in person to fully appreciate it. He drew some laughs when he hesitated before offering his "don't," finally saying, "Don't try to go to every party because you might miss the game." Rasheed Wallace likes Warrick, who he calls "my Philly boy," to win the Slam Dunk Contest.

Now that it is all but impossible for Detroit to win 70 games, I asked Detroit assistant coach (and a player on the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 games) Ron Harper if he thought that any team would ever win 70. He doubts it, saying that the Pistons faltered because too much was made of it too soon. He thinks that it just has to happen, that you can't set it as a goal at the start of the year. I also asked him to name some players who simply have to be on TNT's Next 10 List (a supplement to the 50 Greatest Players List from 1996) and he chose Bob McAdoo and Dominique Wilkins. He also mentioned Sidney Moncrief.

At 5 p.m. the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian National Men's Basketball Team Foundation held a "Lithuanian Basketball Party" at the Hilton-Americas. The back wall featured a big screen showing footage of great Lithuanian stars, many of whom are quite familiar to American fans, including NBA players Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis (the first Lithuanian in the NBA) and Sarunas Jasikevicius.

The wall to the left as you entered the party had giant posters of numerous Lithuanian stars with NBA ties plus one of Donn Nelson, son of Hall of Fame Finalist Don Nelson, who has worked with the Lithuanian national team since 1992. Regimantas Silinskas entertained the partygoers by playing a traditional Lithuanian instrument known as a skrabalai (wooden bells), which bears some resemblance to a xylophone that is standing upright instead of flat. Later, Zilvinas Zvagulis and Irena Starosaite performed Lithuanian folk music.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA Vice President for International Basketball Operations Kim Bohuny each received The Cross Commander of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. Both gave brief speeches discussing the longstanding ties between the NBA and Lithuanian basketball. Bohuny recalled that she brought Lithuanian sharpshooter Rimas Kurtinaitis to the 1989 All-Star Game in Houston for the Three Point Shootout. He was jet lagged and fared poorly in the event, but when the two of them went to a bar afterward no one knew who he was and they played Pop-a-Shot for drinks, wiping out everybody in the place. Detroit coach Flip Saunders, Dallas assistant coach Del Harris, Donn Nelson and Rolando Blackman and TNT's Craig Sager were among those in attendance.

Blackman's favorite All-Star moment is obviously his two free throws with no time left in regulation to send the 1987 game to overtime. Isiah Thomas memorably tried to distract Blackman before he went to the free throw line; Blackman told me that Isiah was just messing around but to him those free throws were "life and death." He believes that making them was a big milestone in his career. As he declared while the ball was going through the hoop, "Confidence, baby, confidence."

Many people wanted to get their picture taken with Manute Bol when he arrived. He walks with a cane now but seemed to be in good spirits, particularly when he exchanged a warm greeting with Marciulionis, his Golden State teammate.

It is only a short walk from the Hilton-Americas to the Toyota Center and I easily arrived in time to see the Rookie Challenge. Andre Iguodala offered a possible preview of tomorrow's Slam Dunk Contest, delivering nine dunks en route to 30 points and MVP honors in a 106-96 victory for the Sophomores over the Rookies. In his postgame remarks, winning coach Del Harris noted that he was pleased not only with the victory but the fact that this contest more closely resembled a real game than many previous Rookie Challenges, which have all too often degenerated into sloppy play. Harris noted that this is one of the few times that a team has been held below 100 points in the Challenge.

After the game I headed over to the 1001 McKinney Building, site of the Air Jordan XXI Launch Party. In honor of the 21st edition of Air Jordans, Michael Jordan brought in three-time Grammy winner John Legend and a host of other performers to entertain some of the most well-known figures in sports and entertainment. At the end of the evening, a special auction of items--including a rare set of one pair of each of the 21 Jordan shoes--was held to benefit Habitat for Humanity Relief for Hurricane Katrina.

I received a media credential for this event. Unfortunately, most of the attending players and celebrities chose not to be interviewed by the assembled media, which would seem to defeat the purpose of assembling us there in the first place. As a writer for People Magazine commented to me, no one wants to read an article listing the names of a bunch of people who refused to talk. I'll leave it to People to list their names if they so choose.

I did get a chance to ask Antoine Walker some questions. He told me that the All-Star event that he is most looking forward to is the Slam Dunk Contest. He expects Josh Smith to repeat as champion but added, "Don't sleep on Iguodala." Walker had just seen Iguodala's Rookie Challenge performance and was very impressed. As for the Three Point Shootout, Walker said, "I've got to go with Chicago--Quentin Richardson, the defending champion.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM


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Observations from Barkley and Naismith (2006 NBA All-Star Weekend)

Note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2006 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below. 

All-Star Weekend actually began several days before most of the players, celebrities and fans arrived in Houston. The NBA Read to Achieve Caravan, led by Bob Lanier, conducted Reading Timeouts at three Houston elementary schools on Monday. Three Jr. NBA/Jr. WNBA fitness clinics were held on Tuesday and on Wednesday the NBA and NBA Players Association partnered with Habitat for Humanity to break ground on the first of two houses that they will build this week. Thursday activities included an NBA Cares hospital visit and the eighth National Wheelchair Basketball Association All-Star Classic at the NBA All-Star Jam Session, which is located in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The 13th NBA All-Star Jam Session opened to the public at 4 p.m. on Thursday and it will be open daily starting at 9 a.m., Friday through Monday. It features clinics, contests, basketball collectibles for sale and the opportunity to get autographs from NBA players and legends.

Thursday night it was also the site for TNT's studio show featuring Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith (who left after the halftime of the first game to go host his party). Fans ringed the set to take pictures and get autographs. After the halftime show for the Chicago-Philadelphia game, I had the opportunity to speak with Barkley as he and the rest of the TNT group relaxed in their trailer to watch the second half of the game.

I had introduced myself to Barkley a few minutes before the interview, but wasn't sure that he heard what I was saying with all of the Jam Session commotion, so when I came into the trailer I introduced myself again. Barkley, looking serious, remarked that I had just told him that a minute ago and he hadn't forgotten my name. When I mentioned the noise outside, he retorted that he had read my name tag also. Then he paused a beat and said, "Relax, man. I'm just messing with you."

With my "initiation" out of the way, I asked Barkley what he is most looking forward to this weekend. He answered, "I get nominated for the Hall of Fame tomorrow, so that makes it a little bit more special for me. I would be disingenuous if I said that I am thinking about something else. I am really honored and flattered. It's going to be pretty special. This is the first time that I've been eligible and when my name is mentioned tomorrow it’s going to be special."

I said that I thought that his induction is a foregone conclusion and Barkley replied, "That would be cocky of me to say. This is the first time that I've been eligible and when my name is mentioned tomorrow it's going to be very special. Obviously I feel good about my chances, but it's a long, drawn-out process. I don't even know when they do the voting, but everything starts tomorrow."

Ernie Johnson walked by and deadpanned, "You didn't hear?" and Barkley quipped, "Me and Dominique both got left off?"

I asked Barkley what his favorite All-Star memories are and he said, "The first time that I played, in Seattle, that's special--the first time is always special--and the time that I received the MVP (1991)."

Naturally, Barkley can't reveal who TNT's "Next 10"-–their additions to the 50 Greatest Players List--will be but I asked him to speak a little about Bob McAdoo, the subject of my recent HoopsHype.com article and a teammate of his in 1985-86. Barkley said, "I can't remember, but I think that I put McAdoo on my next 10...He was nice and quiet. I grew up watching him as a little kid. He was a prolific jump shooter. It's pretty cool to play with somebody you watched as a little kid."

Barkley had not seen Michael Jordan's new shoe commercial, so we stopped talking when it came on the air. Before it came on, Miller told Barkley that it was good and that Barkley should watch it. After seeing it, Barkley agreed and added that he is not a big fan of the "LeBrons" commercial: "Let him talk and show his personality. I don't know what they're doing with his commercials--he's dressed up as his grandfather. He needs to showcase his personality. He's a terrific player (but) when you are out there to represent your league and sell products you have to let people get to know you."

Barkley is a fan of Bob Lanier, another player who did not make the 50 Greatest Players List but was nominated for TNT's Next 10: "I know Bob personally. He lives in Arizona. Obviously, he was a great, great, great player, but the one thing that I'll say about Bob is that Bob is one of the nicest men I've met in my life, period. He's a wonderful person. You can look at his stats and the fact that he's in the Hall of Fame and see that he was a great player. Living in Phoenix, I've gotten to know him really well and he's just a wonderful person."

After talking with Barkley, I walked through the Hall of Fame exhibition at Jam Session, which displayed items ranging from a 1974-75 ABA basketball to a pair of Dr. J's shoes to a photo of Michael Jordan playing against Chris Mullin in the 1982 Hall of Fame tipoff classic and much more.

My next stop was a display organized by the Naismith International Basketball Foundation. Sitting behind the counter was none other than Ian Naismith, the non-profit organization's founding director and the grandson of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Ian Naismith opened up a bulletproof briefcase and showed me the original 13 rules of basketball that were typed up by his grandfather. The Foundation is offering the document for sale, but with some important stipulations: the buyer must donate it to the Smithsonian Institution and the funds must go to support children's charities.

Naismith told me that he gets varying reactions when people hear his last name, depending on how well versed they are in basketball history. My first thought was to wonder if he had a chance to talk to his grandfather about inventing basketball.

This is what he told me: "I was born in Dallas, Texas and my grandfather lived in Lawrence, Kansas for 41 years after he invented the game. When I was born he took a train from Lawrence, Kansas to Dallas and baptized me. He stayed for three days with my parents and then he went home and passed away three months later. I didn't get to know him, but he baptized me, which is very important to me. He put his hands on my head and the family joke is that he called me the first dribbler."

Naismith is conducting a 43-city tour to spread the word about his Foundation and to promote good sportsmanship. He feels very passionately about how the game should be played and since 1998 the Foundation has honored individuals and groups who represent the game positively. Michael Jordan was the first player who won the award; winners are selected by a nine-member committee whose names are not divulged to the public. The Naismith Good Sportsmanship Tour is in its fifth year and has made stops at each All-Star Game and Final Four during this time. Over 1.5 million visitors have seen it. Naismith says that his grandfather stood for "respect, dignity, positive role-modeling and teamwork. Sportsmanship was his biggest thing." He cited Steve Nash, Tim Duncan and John Stockton as three players who embody these traits.

I couldn't have asked for a better start to All-Star Weekend than talking to Charles Barkley and Ian Naismith. Here are some things that I am looking forward to seeing during the rest of the weekend:

*The moment when Flip Saunders puts four Detroit Pistons on the court at the same time facing off against the Western Conference’s best players.

*Watching 5-9 Nate Robinson in the Slam Dunk Contest. Many people are down on this event, saying that it is played out, but Robinson will almost certainly bring the fans out of their seats. It is unfortunate that we won't get to see Kobe, Vince or LeBron but Andre Iguodala, Hakim Warrick and defending champion Josh Smith are all outstanding dunkers.

*Will Kobe Bryant make a run a Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points?

*Watching Ray Allen in the Three-Point Shootout. Allen has the game's sweetest, most effortless looking shooting stroke from deep--it's like watching a healthy Ken Griffey, Jr. swing a baseball bat.

*A moment or play that no one predicted--and no one will ever forget.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM


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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2005 NBA All-Star Game Media Availability Session With Kobe Bryant: "The Truth Always Comes Out"

Many Kobe Bryant interview sessions get sidetracked by non-basketball issues. This is not one of them. During the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend media availability periods, Kobe Bryant offered his thoughts on many basketball related subjects. This transcript was originally published on March 1, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted it in its entirety below.

In the game in Cleveland (Bryant's first game back on February 13, 2005 after missing 14 games because of a severely sprained ankle) you were still getting your legs under you in terms of jumping and finishing. How much better did you feel in the game in Utah (February 15, 2005) when you went out and got 40 points?

Kobe Bryant: Oh, man, it was night and day. The game in Cleveland, that was only the second time that I had played in like a month. So I missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of layups. Defensively I had to get my rhythm. Against Utah my legs felt great. It felt like it just came back. We've done such a good job throughout the injury-training, lifting weights, doing rehab.

What kind of exercises are you doing?

KB: It's a myriad of things. We have a great staff. Obviously, we have (trainer) Gary Vitti, who treats the injury; we have (physiotherapist) Alex McKechnie, who does a lot of physical rehabilitation work; we have Joe Carbone, our strength coach. Between the three of them--and (director of athletic performance) Chip Schaefer-- we have been able to devise a scheme for me to get back to full throttle.

Do you still have to ice the ankle and treat it post game more than you did before the injury?

KB: Yes. I pack it in ice and continue to keep it moving so it doesn't stiffen up. So, for example, when I'm out of the game, you'll see me constantly moving it around so it stays loose.

Do you do the exercise in which you spell out the letters of the alphabet with that foot?

KB: (eyes widen a bit in recognition) Yes. That's what I do. When I sit on the bench, that's what I do. Spell out the alphabet.

That's a great exercise for sprained ankles.

KB: Yeah. I'm glad I know my ABCs. (laughs)

What's your favorite dunk from the 1976 Slam Dunk Contest?

KB: Wow. There are so many of them. The one that gets replayed over and over is obviously Julius' dunk from the free throw line. I think that is the most memorable one just because it revolutionized the dunk contest. It was just the momentum of it, of who Dr. J was and who he became, that now when you go back in time and you see that free throw line dunk it makes it that much grander.

He milked the drama of it, because he took those long strides to the other side of the court before the dunk.

KB: He worked the crowd there. He was an actor. He built up the drama and then took off, which just culminated it.

Have you seen Thompson's 360 from the left baseline?

KB: Oh, of course. Of course.

What do you think of that?

KB: I think it was sick.

What was the best advice that you received when you made the jump from high school to the NBA?

KB: KG just told me to have fun. Just enjoy yourself. People are going to be pulling at you from all sides and placing expectations on you. Just block that out. Go out there and have fun.

How have you embraced the challenge of a new era in Los Angeles and the burden that has been put on your shoulders?

KB: I think that we have embraced it and we look forward to this challenge. At first it took a little while for the people of Los Angeles to get used to it because they are used to being on top for so long. But there is something about starting down at the bottom again and working your way back to the top that is really appealing to people. You put on your hard hat and go to work. I think that it is refreshing.

Is it as much of a challenge to fight for the final playoff spot as it was to fight for the championship?

KB: The challenges are in essence the same. Once you get to the top, the hard work becomes staying on top. But you have to work to get there. Sometimes it is really, really tough to get over that hump. You saw Minnesota last year was able to get over that hump and this year it is a struggle for them. It is a work in progress. You always have to be on edge. You always have to take every practice, every game, like it is your last.

It's tough. If we weren't so optimistic, we'd think that the second half of the season is going to be the absolute pits. But we look forward to this challenge. When your back is against the wall, you have no other option but to come out swinging. We have to approach every practice in an extremely detailed and extremely methodical manner.

Your team is increasingly using a little more of the triangle all the time. How do you feel about the constitution of this team to run the triangle?

KB: We're doing a good job. It's tough because we're trying to learn it on the fly. You know how hard it is to learn it when you have training camp. We're doing a good job, though. Got a call from Tex (Winter) and he told us that we're doing well. That's the biggest compliment in the world, when you get a compliment from Tex. Tex is such a great basketball mind. When he gives you a compliment it really warms up your heart.

Do you ever call him?

KB: He came down early in the season and then he came again recently, maybe it was two and a half weeks ago. We exchanged numbers. I've called him several times since then. I love Tex. If it weren't for Tex, I wouldn't look at the game or interpret the game the way that I do. The way that he teaches the game is different than any other coach that I've ever been around.

What specifically is different about it?

KB: He looks at the game in a different way. He actually teaches momentums--how to build momentums and how to break momentums. He looks at the total concept of the game and then plays it like chess. It's amazing to sit there and learn. When he teaches you something, you go out on the court and you apply that knowledge and it actually works. You start looking at him like he's Yoda.

A Jedi master.

KB: I'm telling you, it's just incredible.

Tex has always had testy exchanges with the people he's coached. When you had your testy exchanges with him people didn't quite understand that. Why is that?

KB: I don't know. It doesn't really matter what they think. It's obvious to see that when we had those exchanges, people just really blew it out of proportion. If it were true (that there is friction), Tex and I would not be as close as we are today

So the press somehow got that distorted?

KB: Yeah, it usually shakes out that way. The truth always comes out, so I don't worry about it. I don't think about it. It's going to shake out. People who talk about me in a negative manner don't know me. They don't know me. If they had a chance to be around me and kick it with me and get to know me, then they can judge. I think that will come out as years go by. People will see how I truly am and what I'm truly about and everything will be all right.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:11 AM


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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Three-Time MVP Moses Malone Dies Unexpectedly at Age 60

Moses Malone and Julius Erving at the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver
(photo copyright David Friedman)

This has been a terrible recent period for the NBA family. Darryl Dawkins passed away less than three weeks ago, Roy Marble just succumbed to his battle with cancer, Flip Saunders is taking a leave of absence to fight cancer and it has just been reported that Moses Malone (who replaced Dawkins at center for the Philadelphia 76ers) passed away. Malone jumped straight from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the ABA in 1974 and he enjoyed a 21 year career during which he became one of the most decorated players in pro basketball history, winning three regular season MVPs (1979, 1982-83), one NBA Finals MVP (1983) and six rebounding titles (1979, 1981-85). 

Malone made the All-Star team 13 times (once in the ABA and 12 times in the NBA), earned eight All-NBA Team selections (including four All-NBA First Team honors) and was twice chosen for the All-Defensive Team. Malone led the league in total offensive rebounds a record nine times (this statistic has been charted since 1967-68 in the ABA and since 1973-74 in the ABA). He ranks third in pro basketball history (behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell) with 17,834 career rebounds and he ranks seventh in pro basketball history with 29,580 career points.

The numbers and honors speak to Malone's dominance, durability and dedication but you had to see him play to fully appreciate his impact. Malone was not flashy but he was relentless, energetic and powerful. He was the best rebounder of his era by far and the most dominant inside player in the NBA from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s. He was also a tremendous scorer who finished in the top five in that category five times, including two times as the runner-up (27.8 ppg in 1980-81 and a career-high 31.1 ppg in 1981-82). Although best known for his rebounding and scoring prowess, Malone was an above average defensive player as well.

Malone posted his best individual statistics during his six year run with the Houston Rockets and he carried the Rockets to the 1981 NBA Finals but he will always be most remembered for his four year stint with the Philadelphia 76ers. When Malone arrived in Philadelphia in 1982, the 76ers had posted the best overall regular season in the league since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger and had made it to the NBA Finals three times but they could not get over the hump. The 76ers had no answer in the middle for Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Malone changed all of that. Malone teamed up with Julius Erving to form one of the best single season one-two punches in pro basketball history as the 76ers made a run at 70 wins before settling in at 65-17. During the playoffs, they were even more dominant, setting a record by going 12-1, punctuated by a 4-0 sweep of the defending champion L.A. Lakers.

Injuries and aging ensured that the 1983 championship represented the culmination of the Julius Erving era as opposed to the start of a dynasty but for a one season stretch that starting five was as good as any that has ever been assembled: Malone (the 1982 MVP who went on to win the 1983 MVP) and Erving (the 1981 MVP) had great chemistry together, point guard Maurice Cheeks was a top notch playmaker, defender and efficient shooter, shooting guard Andrew Toney was headed for the Hall of Fame before injuries shortened his career and power forward Marc Iavaroni did all of the dirty work (five-time All-Star Bobby Jones ranked fifth on the team in minutes played, providing firepower of the bench en route to capturing the 1983 Sixth Man of the Year Award).

The last hurrah for the Malone-Erving 76ers came in 1984-85, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling in five games to the Boston Celtics. Near the end of the 1985-86 season, Malone suffered an orbital bone fracture that forced him to miss the playoffs. The 76ers traded Malone prior to the 1986-87 campaign, which turned out to be Erving's "Farewell Tour," and in the nearly 30 years since that time the 76ers have never come close to matching the sustained success that they enjoyed during Erving's prime.

On a personal note, I met Malone during the 2005 ABA Reunion in Denver. Malone was famously reticent in his dealings with the media and he declined my request for an interview--but he agreed to let me take a photo of him alongside Erving (see above). I will always treasure the memory of sharing that moment with the two stars of the 1983 NBA champions and I think that the arm in arm pose aptly captures the feelings of camaraderie that the two men shared. When Erving and Malone teamed up it was never about who was the man but only about one thing: winning the title together. It is a shame that they did not join forces about five years earlier, because it would have been a sight to behold if they had been paired during their primes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 PM


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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Kobe Bryant: Perception Versus Reality

This article was originally published on February 25, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Kobe Bryant (27.8 ppg, 6.6 apg and 6.2 rpg), LeBron James (25.4 ppg, 7.7 apg and 7.1 rpg) and Dwyane Wade (23.5 ppg, 7.3 apg and 5.2 rpg) are three of the top perimeter players in the NBA. Each ranks in the top ten in scoring and is a nightly triple-double threat, yet James and Wade are lauded for making their teammates better while Bryant has been widely labeled as selfish. Among those who consider that criticism unfair is veteran NBA player, assistant coach and head coach Fred Carter, who currently analyzes games for NBA TV.

"For some people perception is reality," Carter said. "The echoed word becomes the accepted word. It becomes the choice phrase. But he won titles and he does get the assists. He does get steals and he does get blocks. He's not a guy who just plays on the offensive end. What happens is that people have the tendency to echo the words of everyone else. It's unfortunate."

Bryant's field goal percentage is hovering around the .410 mark, which would be a career low. This is the main statistical ax that critics grind against Bryant, saying that he is more focused on winning the scoring title than making his team better. But that argument has flaws, according to Carter. "Any time a guy is a volume-shooting guy like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, the shooting percentage is going to be down because they attract a lot more defensive attention. Spot-up shooters or stand-still shooters, plays are run for them and that's basically all they can do, spot up and shoot, so they get open shots and knock them down. People kind of get confused with field goal percentages and the quality of the baskets that you make. Kobe makes a lot of quality baskets. I don't look at his field goal percentage. I look at the productivity of his shots in terms of the fourth quarter and what shots he makes then."

Bob Chaikin, whose fine statistical research can be found at bballsports.com, ranks shooting efficiency with a statistic called scoring field goal percentage. The formula is: (Two point field goals made + 1.5 X Three point field goals made + Free throws made/2) / (Field goals attempted + Free throws attempted/2). This method provides a more complete picture than field goal percentage does because it accounts for the added value of three-pointers made plus the points produced by drawing fouls and making free throws.

James (.491) and Wade (.478) have better field goal percentages than Bryant does, but neither makes as many three-pointers or free throws as Bryant. Consequently, as of February 22, Bryant's scoring field goal percentage of .529 is not much worse than James' .551 and Wade's .544.

The league average for scoring field goal percentage is around .520, a figure that Bryant and each of the Laker starters exceed. Bryant is not merely padding his individual scoring numbers. The defensive attention that he attracts and his playmaking skills are leading the team to an above average level of shooting efficiency. This is significant, especially considering that the other four starters are Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, none of whom has played in even one All-Star Game. Meanwhile, James and Wade are each teamed with All-Star centers. Laker center Mihm, a career journeyman, has benefited greatly playing alongside Bryant, enjoying career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists. In addition to their above average scoring field goal percentages, each Laker starter (other than Bryant) is also posting a career high in traditional field goal percentage.
NBA analyst Fred Carter notes that by getting to the free throw line frequently Bryant does not just enhance his individual statistics, but he also creates more free throw opportunities for his teammates and causes foul trouble for the opposing team.

"When Kobe is out of the offense the Lakers do not get into the bonus as quickly as they normally do. Check free throws attempted and see how they were with Kobe playing versus now (when Kobe missed 14 games)."

Another area worth examining is versatility. One would expect that a selfish player does nothing but shoot. Nine NBA players have amassed triple doubles this season. Bryant and Chris Webber are tied for second with four, trailing only Jason Kidd's five. James has two and Wade has one. James has 18 double doubles, while Wade has 13 and Bryant 12.

Bryant's critics are quick to counter that he leads the league in turnovers at 4.4 per game, but Wade ranks second at 4.2 and James is seventh at 3.2. MVP candidate and league assists leader Steve Nash ranks eighth at 3.1. Turnovers have only been recorded by the NBA since 1977-78, but since that time it has been common for great playmakers such as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas to rank among the league leaders in this category. Players who commit a lot of turnovers generally fall into one of two categories: great players who have tremendous scoring/playmaking responsibilities and big men with bad hands.

Ultimately, making one's team better is reflected in wins and losses and most NBA games are decided down the stretch. While great players strive to keep their teammates involved throughout the game, in the closing moments it is often necessary to take over the game. Tracy McGrady's 13 points in the final 35 seconds to defeat the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season are perhaps the ultimate recent example of this.

Bryant consistently elevates his game in clutch situations and this year he is leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at over 8.5 ppg. Carter says that Bryant has two traits that enable him to thrive in crucial moments. "One is competitiveness. He stays at a high level of competitiveness. Also, energy level. A lot of players get tired (but) the great players don't get tired. They have a special level of energy; they can tap that source and they can still stay at a high level of efficiency and proficiency. That's Kobe Bryant; he is able to do that. MJ was the same way. There are certain players who can raise their energy level for the fourth period and Kobe Bryant can do that."

Of course, offense is only part of the game. Second-year players James and Wade have each made notable progress this season on the defensive end, but Bryant has already made the All-Defensive Team five times during his career, including three First Team selections. Bryant made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team each of the last two seasons.

When Bryant missed 14 games due to a severe right ankle sprain, the Lakers struggled to a 6-8 mark and his absence was felt at least as much on defense as on offense, Laker coach Frank Hamblen points out: "He is one of those guys who is talking defensively and helping defensively. The way he plays, as hard as he plays, the other guys feed off that."

TNT analyst Charles Barkley has mentioned on several occasions that he believes there are only three true superstars in the NBA: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. A glance at the Western Conference standings shows that Garnett's Timberwolves and Bryant's Lakers are among the teams fighting for the final playoff spot. Garnett has two former All-Stars playing beside him and basically the same nucleus that made it to the Western Conference Finals last year, while Bryant's Lakers have been almost completely reconstituted. Postseason success is the best way to silence critics. If Kobe Bryant stays healthy for the remainder of the season, he will have a great opportunity to refute not only those who question his ability to make his teammates better but also Barkley and anyone else who denies that he is a true superstar.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM


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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

We Are Family

Note: Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" was released a few years after the NBA-ABA merger, but it is the perfect theme song to represent how ABA players feel about each other. This article was originally published on March 2, 2005 at HoopsHype.com but the link no longer works, so I have reprinted the article in its entirety below.

Loyalty and togetherness.

These unbreakable bonds connecting most ABA players were renewed and strengthened throughout the "ABA Ol' School Reunion," which took place in Denver during the 2005 NBA All-Star Weekend. The Reunion was organized by Fatty Taylor, who played seven years in the ABA, and his longtime friend James Render.

"I got the idea for the Reunion because the NBA All-Star Game was coming to Denver, Colorado, which is an ABA city," Taylor said. "So it is only fitting to have a Reunion for all the ABA guys. I just decided to get all the guys together in a spirit of fellowship. We figured that it is a chance just to see each other again. There is no telling when your day will come. It started off as a big party, but it turned into more than I thought it would."

The ABA Reunion is not an "official" NBA All-Star Weekend event and this does not bother Taylor at all. "I just thought that it was something that I really wanted to do--getting in touch with guys who I haven't seen in years. They were happy and wanted to see each other. See, the ABA players are a little different from the NBA players. We had a close-knit league. The NBA tried to destroy us and never wanted to see us make it. We played hard and we tried hard (to not let that happen)."

Taylor would like to make the ABA Reunion an annual event. "This is something that could be for us every year at the All-Star Game--an ABA Reunion, having different festivities. Everybody likes each other and we are happy to see each other. When we played against each other, we went out there and played hard, but after the game we would go out and party and have a good time. We just want to relive some of those good times."

The festivities began on Thursday, February 17 when several ABA players--including Rick Darnell, Mike Davis, Willie Davis, Joe Hamilton, Eugene "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and James Silas--gathered at Denver's East High School to sign autographs and reminisce. Riding in a yellow Hummer stretch limo to the school, the players regaled each other with stories. Not surprisingly, Julius Erving featured prominently in several of them--both for his ABA exploits and for his summer-league displays.

Joe Hamilton described a Dr. J move that was so otherworldly that Hamilton fell off of the bench in amazement and was fined by his coach for not keeping his mind on the game. Several players mentioned the Doctor destroying Sidney Wicks in a summer-league game after Wicks had proclaimed that he was going to shut down Erving. Asked about this later, Erving remembered the incident, saying that it happened at the Willie Naulls game in Los Angeles.

Mike Davis described a Rucker League encounter when Connie Hawkins blocked Wilt Chamberlain's patented fadeaway jumper, except that he was not satisfied to just block it--he wiped the ball all over the backboard before sweeping in the rebound. After that, Chamberlain discarded the fade away for that evening and proceeded to dunk on everybody in sight.

Davis, who lives in New York, got up at 4 am and had to take a flight with a Las Vegas connection to arrive in Denver. When the pilot said that the plane was flying over Colorado, Davis felt like saying, "Hey, drop me off here!" He was tired and hungry during the drive to East High School, but would not have missed the ABA Reunion for the world. Signing autographs and interacting with fans has a special meaning to Davis, who explained that he'll never forget meeting a professional basketball player for the first time when Carl Braun, the New York Knicks' star guard in the 1950s, spoke at the Boys and Girls Club that Davis went to as a child.

Many of the fans at the East High School event had not even been born when the ABA existed, but others had vivid memories of the league. One older gentleman brought with him a program from the 1984 NBA All-Star Game, which was held in McNichols Arena in Denver and featured several ex-ABA players. When he seemed a bit reticent about asking for autographs, Darnell came over, talked with him, asked him which players he was looking for and made sure that he got the signatures he wanted.

Warren Jabali is a very interesting figure. When it is suggested to him that it is amazing that one year he averaged 10 rpg as a 6-2 guard/forward going against much taller players, he says simply, "They couldn't jump." There is no pretense to his comments and no extra words--he gets straight to the point. Most of the ABA players are quick with a joke or a comment, but Jabali is more reticent, perhaps because he feels that he has been misquoted and misrepresented previously. He has a Jim Brown-like presence--quiet, but strong and confident.

After the appearance at East High School, which was covered by the local Fox television affiliate in Denver, the players headed back to the Doubletree Hotel for the Welcome Reception. While a DJ spun songs from the 1970s, the ABA players renewed acquaintances and interacted with fans who bought tickets for the event.

That night Hamilton told me about playing on the 1974-75 Kentucky Colonels team that won the ABA Championship. He recalls that when Coach Hubie Brown arrived, things changed. "We're like, 'Hubie, come on, we're veterans.' We practiced like it was the first day. It could be February the 15th and we've played 60 games. We're still practicing like it's the first day, but that's Hubie. Hubie knew every nook and cranny of this game. Any situation that would come up, Hubie Brown had something for it. His knowledge of the game was just so amazing."

Hamilton indicated that Brown's encyclopedic understanding of basketball mirrors the football wizardry of the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick. Hamilton knows something about football. He used to work as the Athletic Director for Louisville's youth programs and his son Joey III is an assistant coach at Male High School in Louisville, winners of three state football championships under the direction of Bob Redman (father of NFL quarterback Chris Redman).

On Friday, the players did more autograph signings. During the Reunion weekend, Lelands.com donated its expertise to coordinate in person signings by over 20 ABA players--including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone--of 300 basketballs and will sell the limited edition balls over the next year, with some of the proceeds benefiting the Colorado Hawks, Taylor's AAU team for fourth through twelfth graders.

Friday night's "Ol' School ABA Reunion Party" at Invesco Field featured a performance by India.Arie, daughter of five-time ABA All-Star Ralph Simpson. She performed several of her hits, including "Video" and "Talk to Her," plus material from her new CD. Throughout the evening, video screens showed montages of ABA highlights, which were provided by Arthur Hundhausen, webmaster of the Remember the ABA website

ABA players frequently point out that at the time of the merger, the NBA needed what the ABA had: the best young players--like Erving, Gervin, Malone, David Thompson and Artis Gilmore--and an exciting, free-flowing game. Hundhausen's videos provided evidence of this, showcasing a fun, fast-moving game featuring ball and player movement, good shooting, dramatic dunks and devastating blocked shots.

It is amazing that Gilmore, one of the great all-around centers in the history of the game, is not in the Hall of Fame and is not even among this year's finalists for the honor. Gilmore is stoic and resigned about the mystifying snub, although he poignantly notes that induction would have meant more to him if he had received it before the passing of his mother within the last year.

Saturday was an open day for the players to rest and unwind. On Sunday morning, hundreds of retired NBA and ABA players attended the NBA Retired Players Association's annual brunch at the Hyatt Regency/Denver Tech Center. Cedric the Entertainer served as emcee and several ABA players and coaches received awards--including Byron Beck (Original Denver Nugget), Larry Brown (Coach of the Year; he was unable to attend the ceremony), Spencer Haywood (Legend Award), Dan Issel (Founder Award), Doug Moe (Humanitarian Award) and David Thompson (Mr. Denver Nugget Award). Lafayette "Fat" Lever (Community Service Award) and Kiki Vandeweghe (Basketball Executive Award), who both played for the Nuggets in the NBA, were also recognized.

The ABA Reunion concluded Sunday evening with a gathering at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center of Performing Arts, just a few blocks from the Pepsi Center. The ABA players joined fans to watch the NBA All-Star Game on big screen TVs. After the game ended, the party was just beginning, as the screens switched to Hundhausen's ABA highlight video montages. The After Party lasted until past 1 am. Some retired NBA players stopped by as well, including current Hall of Fame finalist Adrian Dantley.

Four-time All-ABA guard Mack Calvin put the whole weekend into perspective: "I think that what is important and special about this is that the ABA players--Doc and Gervin and all the guys--have always been a unit. A lot of guys can think about doing their own thing, but those guys have always been team guys. There has always been some camaraderie. I think that this exemplifies the overall attitude for over 30 years. The ABA guys are like a family. We had to stick together in order to survive. It's all about seeing these guys and talking about the old days."

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM


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