Sans Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers Sink to Historic Lows
The L.A. Lakers went 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's cameo appearance this season and some commentators wondered aloud if the Lakers were better off without Bryant. The reality is that the Lakers were not particularly good with Bryant but that they are awful without him. I predicted that by the time Bryant returned the Lakers would have the worst record in the Western Conference
; it is not clear if Bryant will play again this season but after last night's 142-94 loss to the L.A. Clippers--the biggest win in Clippers' history and the biggest loss in Lakers' history--the Lakers are 21-41, a half game behind Utah for last place in the West. Even if the Lakers were in the comically inept Eastern Conference they would be 12th in the standings, ahead of only Boston, Orlando, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. The Lakers have gone 9-28 since Bryant last suited up; their defense is non-existent, their effort level is deplorable and Bryant summed up the entire state of affairs by commenting, "It's like when big brother is not around, he starts doing some crazy (stuff). It's been rough."
Yes, Bryant's "little brothers" have been doing some "crazy (stuff)" now that Bryant is not around to police the locker room and the practice court. Say what you will about Bryant's demeanor--and many people have said a lot of negative things about Bryant's leadership skills--but Bryant made sure that his teammates practiced hard, played hard and did not do "crazy (stuff)." That kind of leader/teammate is only considered "difficult
" by people who do not understand how much effort and sacrifice it takes to create and sustain a winning program.
The Lakers' abject collapse without Bryant this season provides some indication of his impact, reaffirming what I have been saying for years: the Lakers' overall talent level has been overrated
. Bryant carried weak Lakers' teams to the playoffs in 2006 and 2007 and he led the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 with a sidekick, Pau Gasol, who had not won a single playoff game prior to becoming a Laker and with a group of bench players who, for the most part, hardly distinguished themselves before or after getting championship rings courtesy of Bryant. It could be argued that the Lakers are even more talent-depleted now than they were in 2006 and 2007 and it is undeniable that injuries to several players have taken their toll but it is odd that more is not made of the fact that without Bryant on the court for most of the season the Lakers have devolved from a playoff team to a laughingstock. Losing Dwight Howard clearly has hurt the Lakers but he was not fully healthy last season and if Pau Gasol were as good as so many people say then he would be able to carry a team at least to within shouting distance of a .500 record sans Bryant and Howard.
After LeBron James left Cleveland, media members incorrectly ignored all of the other changes that the Cavs made
and attributed all of the team's decline to James' departure, without noting that the franchise had also changed the front office staff, the coaching staff and most of the roster. The Lakers have problems that extend beyond Bryant's absence and it would not be correct to say that the Lakers are terrible only because Bryant is inactive--but in his prime Bryant carried some pretty awful teams to the playoffs without getting much credit from the MVP voters, so the Lakers' collapse this season does provide further context regarding just how well Bryant performed during the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker "era." If Bryant can return to full health next season, it will be interesting to see just what the Lakers look like, particularly if they are not able to add much talent to the roster in the offseason.
Labels: Kobe Bryant, L.A.Lakers
posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 PM
Pass First Players Do Not Score 61 Points in a Game
LeBron James scored a career-high/Miami Heat franchise single-game record 61 points in the Heat's 124-107 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday. He shot 22-33 from the field--including 8-10 from three point range--and 9-12 from the free throw line while accumulating seven rebounds, five assists and just two turnovers. James is the 23rd player in NBA history to score at least 60 points in a regular season game; Larry Miller
(67 points), Zelmo Beaty (63 points), Julius Erving
(63 points) and Stew Johnson (62 points) accomplished this feat in the ABA. A journeyman NBA player can get hot and score 40 points and most All-Stars are capable of dropping 50 points under the right conditions but the 60 point plateau is hallowed ground for a scorer: most of the players who scored at least 60 points in a game have either already been inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame or else are certain to be inducted as soon as they become eligible; the few exceptions are the aforementioned Miller, Beaty and Johnson, plus Tom Chambers and Gilbert Arenas: Miller was a good player who had an exceptional game, Beaty made the All-Star team five times in two leagues, Johnson earned three ABA All-Star selections, Chambers was a four-time NBA All-Star and Arenas made the NBA All-Star team three times.
Many of the members of the 60 Point Club were/are great playmakers in addition to being great scorers but none of those players could accurately be called a "pass first" player. James often refers to himself (and is frequently described by others) as a "pass first" player, a contention that I have repeatedly disputed: after James ransacked the Boston Celtics for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Miami's 98-79 victory in the sixth game of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, I wrote
, "Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a 'pass
first' player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer.
Magic Johnson was a 'pass first' player and it was major news when he
scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his
regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four
times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48
times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on
the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably
confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the
first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers
in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the
corner; that is not being unselfish or being a 'pass first' player: that
is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP
level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike
Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say."
James has outgrown his reticence to take over as a scorer in playoff games against elite defensive teams and it is no coincidence that after he accepted that responsbility he led the Heat to back to back championships
. James always had the ability to pile up points by bulling his way to the hoop but now he has added a solid post up game and a reliable perimeter shot to augment his athletic ability and size. He has also vastly improved his shot selection. When James is taking good shots and when his perimeter game is flowing he is unguardable; even when he takes bad shots and his jumper is off it is no picnic to check him but at least in those situations he is not getting dunks, layups and free throws.
James has assembled an impressive resume as a scorer:
- James ranks third in ABA/NBA regular season history with a 27.5 ppg scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg) and Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg).
- James ranks third in ABA/NBA playoff history with a 28.1 ppg scoring average, trailing only Jordan (33.5 ppg), Allen Iverson (29.7 ppg), Jerry West (29.1 ppg) and Kevin Durant (28.6 ppg).
- James has averaged at least 26.7 ppg for 10 consecutive seasons after scoring 20.9 ppg as a rookie entering the NBA straight out of high school.
- James won the 2007-08 scoring title with a 30.0 ppg average and that is not even his single season career-high; he finished third in the NBA with a 31.4 ppg average in 2005-06.
- James has ranked no lower than fourth in the league in regular season scoring average in each of the past 10 seasons; in addition to claiming the aforementioned 2008 scoring title, he also finished second three straight years (2009-11).
- James has scored at least 50 points in 10 regular season games, ranking seventh on the all-time ABA/NBA list behind only Chamberlain (105), Jordan (30), Kobe Bryant (24), Elgin Baylor (14), Rick Barry (13) and Iverson (11).
- Early this season, James reached double figures in scoring for the 500th consecutive game and his still active streak of 551 games ranks fourth in NBA history,
trailing only Jordan (866), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (787) and Karl
- James ranks 33rd in ABA/NBA regular season history with 22,614 points. At his current pace, he will vault into the top 10 in less than three years.
- James ranks 10th in ABA/NBA playoff history with 3871 points. If he continues to score prolifically while leading the Heat on deep postseason runs then he will move into fifth place in two years.
Some commentators seem to take offense when anyone praises James' scoring prowess but it is not an insult to describe James as one of the greatest scorers in pro basketball history--and it is much more accurate to characterize him that way than to act like he is the only elite scorer who allegedly favors passing over shooting. James is unquestionably a great passer--but it is disingenuous to suggest that scoring is an afterthought for him and/or that his scoring ability is not a major aspect of his greatness; it is fair to say that James did not become an NBA champion until he fully embraced the idea that he not only needed to be a big-time scorer in the regular season but that his team needed him to fill that role against elite opponents in the playoffs.
Labels: Allen Iverson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Miami Heat, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 AM
Basketball Hall of Fame Finally Honors Bobby "Slick" Leonard
I am delighted that the Basketball Hall of Fame's ABA Committee has made another fine selection, tapping Bobby "Slick" Leonard for induction in the fall of 2014. Leonard led the Pacers to three ABA titles (1970, 1972-73) and five ABA Finals appearances. Leonard's Pacers were the Boston Celtics of the ABA and they had the upper hand in their "Interstate 65" rivalry with the Kentucky Colonels, winning three of their five head to head playoff series
. Leonard's coaching accomplishments alone merit Hall of Fame induction, but it is worth noting that Leonard also twice earned All-America honors as a player at Indiana University and he starred on their 1953 NCAA championship team. He enjoyed a solid NBA playing career, averaging 9.9 ppg in seven seasons (including a career-high 16.1 ppg in 1961-62), before becoming a coach.
Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Chairman Jerry Colangelo
deserves credit for living up to his pledge to recognize worthy individuals who "slipped through the cracks" and did not get inducted when they should have been. Under Colangelo's watch, the newly formed ABA Committee has finally inducted Artis Gilmore
plus Leonard's Indiana Pacers' stars Mel Daniels
and Roger Brown
For the past 29 years, Leonard has been the color commentator for the Pacers' radio broadcasts. His signature "Boom, Baby!" call is one of the most famous catchphrases in pro basketball. Whenever I cover a Pacers' home game it is always a treat to speak with Leonard about pro basketball past and present
. The stories he told me about Sam Jones
, Gus Johnson
, Roger Brown
and James Silas
and enriched the articles that I wrote about those players.
Labels: ABA, Basketball Hall of Fame, Bobby "Slick" Leonard, Gus Johnson, Indiana Pacers, James Silas, Kentucky Colonels, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, Sam Jones
posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 AM
Kobe Bryant: "I'm a Difficult Person to Deal With"
In an All-Star Weekend interview, a reporter asked Kobe Bryant if his reputation for being a "difficult teammate" might hinder the Lakers' rebuilding efforts. Bryant replied:
No, not necessarily. I'm a difficult person to deal with. For people who don't have the same kind of competitiveness or commitment to winning, then I become an absolute pain in the neck. Because I'm
going to drag you into the gym every single day. If you need to be drug in, that's what I'm going to do.
And for players that have that level of commitment, very, very, easy. And we can wind up enhancing the entire group and elevating them to that type of level. But if we don't have that commitment, man, I'll absolutely be very, very tough to get along with. No question about it.
Bryant may be a "difficult teammate" but it is also rewarding to be his teammate; his impact on the Lakers goes far beyond what statistics can measure: many players have championship rings only because they were fortunate enough to play alongside Bryant during Bryant's prime--and many players had their best individual seasons while playing alongside Bryant, including Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
If I had been blessed with the opportunity to play in the NBA, I would not have found it difficult at all to play with an MVP-caliber player whose main goal is to win championships--but I would have found it very difficult to play with Carmelo Anthony or Gilbert Arenas or Stephon Marbury or any other All-Star caliber player who only gives consistent effort at one end of the court and who often seems to have an agenda that is focused on something other than winning (playing in a big city, getting paid, being quirky, etc.). I don't understand a guy like James Harden; he probably could have won multiple championships playing the Manu Ginobili role for the Oklahoma City Thunder but he preferred to force a trade to Houston so that he could get paid and "prove" that he is "the man." If you are "the man," then beat out Russell Westbrook for the number two role on the team--or, better yet, do whatever it takes to win a championship (a la Ginobili with the Spurs) and don't worry about who gets the credit or who gets paid. The Thunder have not missed a beat without Harden and the Rockets had to acquire the best center in the NBA just to move one step up from battling for the eighth seed.
Harry Truman was renowned for "giving hell" to his opponents but he said, "I never did give them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." Bryant, like Michael Jordan before him, tells his teammates the truth: if they are not playing hard or if they are making stupid plays, he lets them hear about it in no uncertain terms. That may seem "difficult" or feel like "hell" but it also creates a no excuses, no slacking allowed environment. When Bryant plays with an avulsion fracture in his finger or other injuries that would force most players out of the lineup, he sets an example that no one should be visiting the trainer's room unless that player is at death's door.
The Lakers face a challenging rebuilding task not because Bryant is "difficult" but rather because Bryant can no longer carry the Smush Parkers and Kwame Browns of the world into the playoffs; with Bryant injured or absent, all of the Lakers' weaknesses are exposed and there is no relief in sight: that was true during the 2013 playoffs even when the Lakers had a twin towers pairing of Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol and it is true during this season even though the Lakers have at least as much talent now as they did circa 2006 when Kwame Brown and Smush Parker became two of the most improbable playoff starters in NBA history.
Labels: Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Kwame Brown, L.A. Lakers, Manu Ginobili, Smush Parker, Stephon Marbury
posted by David Friedman @ 2:32 AM
LeBron James Explains How Dwyane Wade Helped Him to Develop a Championship Mentality
LeBron James' All-Star Weekend interview with Steve Smith has received attention regarding James' selections for a hypothetical all-time pro basketball "Mount Rushmore" (Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson)--but what I found most intriguing was James' explanation of how he transformed his game during his second season in Miami (2011-12), particularly in terms of his relationship with Dwyane Wade:
It's easy when you sit around in the summertime and say, "Let's team up." That's the easy part. The hard part is when you actually get on the floor and see how similar both guys are and how both guys are used to having the ball in their hands. Two or three possessions go by where you're like, "I've been playing defense for three straight possessions. I need the rock." It's just two alpha males going at it...
We weren't playing good basketball, we were out of sync and me and D. Wade were looking at each other like, "Did we make the right choice, man? Is this what we really want?" Can two guys who basically held franchises on their shoulders and decided to team up give one shoulder to each other to make this happen? There was a clash for sure.
If we can look back on it, I'm surprised we even got to the (2011) Finals. I'm still surprised we even got there...
D. Wade called me (after Miami lost in the 2011 Finals) and we went to the Bahamas...I felt like, if I don't win this year, I'm going to get buried under every cemetery that they've got. So, we went to the Bahamas and had some great conversations there. D. Wade was like, "In order for us to be great, you have to be the guy." I was looking at him like, "What? What do you mean by that? I am the guy but what do you mean by 'the guy'?" He was like, "In order for us to be great, in order for us to accomplish what we want to accomplish while we are playing together, you have to be the guy that you were in Cleveland and I'll take a step back."
Many commentators asserted that what went wrong with James' Cleveland Cavaliers was that James did not have a good enough supporting cast--an excuse that completely went out the window after he lost in the 2011 NBA Finals while playing alongside perennial All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh plus a host of solid role players--but the reality is that on several occasions as a Cavalier when James was challenged in the playoffs by elite level opponents he quit and complained; James went to Miami trying to escape the responsibility of posting dominant numbers in the playoffs against elite teams, so it is very ironic that in order to win championships James had to adopt the very mindset that he was reluctant to have in Cleveland
: instead of griping about a supposed lack of help, James--and any other MVP level player who aspires to win a championship--must embrace the necessity to dominate the game and to impose his will on his teammates and the opposition. This is what Wade implored James to do and this is what Kobe Bryant consistently did while winning five championships with the L.A. Lakers; until the past couple seasons the difference between Bryant and James was that James was reluctant to accept this responsibility
. It is fascinating to hear James now admit that before he had that fateful offseason conversation with Wade he did not fully understand the necessary mentality to be a champion; if James had developed that mentality in Cleveland then he could have led the Cavaliers to a championship but he deserves credit for being introspective enough to accept and learn from Wade's sound advice.
James' explanation echoes what Tim Grover told me
: "When he was in Miami, Dwyane Wade--having gone through all the trials
and tribulations with the Miami Heat, from the (2006) championship to
all the way down to being a Lottery team--learned how to deal with all
the different levels of adversity and success. He was able to teach
LeBron or when he would see LeBron in certain situations playing or in
practice he knew how to put LeBron in position to succeed." Prior to Miami winning back to back titles, I often made the point that the only way for the Heat to be successful is for James to accept the responsibility to be the best player on the court
. James should never take a back seat to Wade or anyone else--and the idea that the Heat could win a title with James in a secondary role never made any sense to me.
Labels: Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, LeBron James, Miami Heat, Steve Smith, Tim Grover
posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 PM
All-Star Weekend Impressions
NBA All-Star Weekend is by far the best event of its kind--the comparable NFL, MLB and NHL talent showcases are not nearly as entertaining--but it is not as great as it used to be or as great as it could be. The best thing about NBA All-Star Weekend is that it provides a platform to show the world just how fast, strong and explosive NBA athletes are. I am not a big fan of the Rising Stars Challenge--mainly because the event is characterized by a serious lack of defensive intensity/competitiveness
--but the game provides national exposure for some talented young players who are members of small market teams. The Shooting Stars competition enables current NBA players to compete with and against
NBA legends and WNBA players. The Skills Challenge is fun to watch, though during a real game one does
not need to master the "skill" of passing a ball into a barrel or
dribbling through cones. The Three Point Contest is a pure demonstration of a fundamental basketball skill being executed at the highest level by some of the sport's top marksmen. The Slam Dunk Contest lets fans live vicariously through the exploits of some of the league's best gravity-defying leapers. Sunday's Legends Brunch pays tribute to the players who built the sport from the ground up and was my favorite event to attend during the six years that I covered All-Star Weekend.
Team Hill defeated Team Webber 142-136 in the Rising Stars Challenge. Detroit's Andre Drummond grabbed MVP honors, leading Team Hill with 30 points and a game-high/Rising Stars record 25 rebounds--but suffice it to say that video of this game will not be used at any basketball camps as an example of fundamentally sound basketball, particularly at the defensive end of the court. Chris Bosh won his second straight Shooting Stars event, leading Team Bosh (including Dominique Wilkins and Swin Cash) over Team Westbrook in the championship round. The problem with this event is that each team is required to make a half court shot in each round, which is much more a matter of luck than skill; I'd prefer that either the half court shot is scrapped or else the entire event is morphed into a HORSE contest, maybe pitting a retired player versus an active player (with no dunking allowed). Damian Lillard and Trey Burke won the Skills Challenge; it is the second such title in a row for Lillard, who took top honors last year when the Skills Challenge was a solo event. Journeyman Marco Bellinelli--who has played for five teams in his seven season NBA career--outgunned a host of All-Stars (including Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Joe Johnson, Damian Lillard and Kevin Love)--to win the Three Point Contest.
The Slam Dunk Contest is the crown jewel of All-Star Saturday night but I about fell out of my seat when I saw the TNT graphic touting the Slam Dunk Contest judges. Who is "Julius Irving"? How is it possible that one of the league's primary networks cannot properly spell the name of one of the sport's all-time greatest players
? Magic Johnson and Dominique Wilkins joined Erving as judges. Team East (Paul George, Terrence Ross and John Wall) defeated Team West (Harrison Barnes, Damion Lillard and Ben McLemore) and Wall was selected by the fans (via online voting) as the Dunker of the Night. Wall's clinching dunk, a double pump after grabbing the ball out of the hands of the Wizards' mascot, was impressive but overall the event lacked star power, excitement and suspense. Almost every year, Kenny Smith, Magic Johnson and/or some other
prominent figure proclaim that the Slam Dunk Contest is "back" and they once again said that after Wall's victory but I don't buy it. The
reality is that there is not likely any way to make the Slam Dunk Contest as great now as
it was in the 1980s. Back then, many of the league's brightest
stars competed on an annual basis and a missed dunk all but eliminated a
player from winning the contest; competing in the Slam Dunk Contest was
like doing a trapeze act without a net but that did not deter all-time greats like Julius
Erving, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Clyde Drexler from participating on multiple occasions. The two biggest problems now are that most of today's biggest stars don't participate and that the format removes suspense/anticipation by permitting players to miss multiple dunks without any penalty. During
a recent "Open Court" program, Wilkins cut to the heart of the matter,
declaring that today's players do not really want to find out who is the
best dunker, because they might risk not earning that title. Erving
amplified this excellent point, mentioning that players have agents and
marketing advisers who tell them that the downside of not winning the
contest outweighs the potential upside of emerging victorious.
people suggest that putting a million dollars--or some other similarly
extravagant sum--on the line might motivate more stars to participate
but that is ridiculous: these are highly paid professionals and if they
don't want to test their skills against their peers while also
entertaining the fans then that is really a shame. Erving participated
in his final two Slam Dunk Contests when he was 34 and 35 years old; he
did not win either event but he defied Father Time by proving that he
could still take off from the foul line and dunk. There is no way that
any 34 or 35 year old all-time great would compete in the Slam Dunk
Contest today; even all-time greats who are in their prime--most notably, LeBron James--refuse to put their dunking reputations on the line.
In addition to being a Slam Dunk Contest judge, Erving also participated in a panel discussion honoring Bill Russell during Sunday's Legends Brunch. Erving described how much he looks up to Russell and how Russell has been providing sage advice to him since he was a student athlete at the University of Massachusetts; Russell told young Erving that the most important building on campus was not the gymnasium but rather the library and Russell told the then-50 year old Erving that as one ages one should pare down one's life to essential people and activities, focusing on what is most meaningful and letting go of that which is less meaningful.
Russell was not a great shooter, he did not possess the all-around skill set of Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson and he was not as statistically dominant as Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan--but a strong case could be made that Russell is the greatest individual performer in team sports history; his teams won the championship in almost every season of his basketball career, extending from high school to college to the 1956 Olympics to the NBA, where he led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented 11 titles in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight crowns (1959-66).
The All-Star Game itself was record-setting (most combined points, most points by one team, most combined three point field goals made, etc.) but watching it felt more like gorging on junk food as opposed to feasting on gourmet fare. The East's 163-155 victory over the West lacked competitive spirit. I know that this is an exhibition but I like what Kobe Bryant--who did not play due to injury
--said during his in-game interview: "The fans want to see us
do what we do best, which is compete hard, and to go up here and run up
and down and just play the game in a silly way, I don't think that
shows much respect to the basketball gods." All-Star Games are often
high-scoring affairs just because both teams have so much offensive
firepower but in the past players competed harder at the defensive end
of the court. The previous highest scoring All-Star Game (the West's 154-149 overtime win over the East in 1987) featured a combined 63 fouls and 14 blocked shots, two indicators that the players played at least some defense; the 2014 All-Star Game included just 21 fouls and no blocked shots--that's right, in 48 minutes of action the sport's best players did not manage to block even one single shot! In 1987, the teams combined to shoot 6-17 from three point range; in 2014, the teams shot 30-100 from beyond the arc. At times, the 2014 All-Star Game looked like a very high level pickup game with players shooting uncontested three pointers and driving through the lane unimpeded, not a competition pitting the world's greatest athletes against each other.
The 2014 All-Star Game featured several outstanding individual performances, though the gaudy numbers would have meant more had they been posted against greater defensive resistance. Kyrie Irving had a fantastic game (31 points on 14-17 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 14 assists), winning MVP honors after leading the East to a come from behind win. Carmelo Anthony scored 30 points, set the All-Star single game three point field goals made record (eight) and he committed three fouls, including one to stop Blake Griffin from scoring in the open court (Anthony playing defense at any time, let alone an All-Star Game, may be a sign of impending apocalypse). LeBron James made a solid all-around contribution to the East's win (22 points, seven rebounds, seven assists). The West's Kevin Durant (38 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Blake Griffin (38 points on 19-23 field goal shooting) both made serious runs at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star single game scoring record (42 points).
NBA All-Star Weekend is a lot of fun, whether one experiences it in person or just watches it on TV. If the league tweaks the Shooting Stars competition and the Slam Dunk Contest and encourages the All-Stars to elevate the competition level of Sunday's game then All-Star weekend will be even better.
Labels: Bill Russell, Chris Bosh, Damian Lillard, John Wall, Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, Marco Bellinelli, NBA All-Star Game, NBA All-Star Weekend, Trey Burke
posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 PM
The LeBron James-Kevin Durant Narrative
The narrative during the NBA All-Star Weekend centered around Kevin Durant all of a sudden becoming
the best player in the NBA. Statistically, Durant has been a beast, and he has
outclassed Lebron James on paper. However, the MVP award and NBA championships
are not handed out based off of production in one day fantasy sports
leagues. Instead, Durant is going to have to show in the second half of the regular season that he can not only lead a team to the NBA finals but also win it.
With back-to-back championships already under his belt, Lebron James has taken it slightly easy
in the regular season so far this year. His numbers in one day fantasy sports
are down, but that is mostly because his minutes are down. The Miami Heat have
played a lot of games in the last few years, and James also participated in the
Olympics in 2012. Even though he seems to be indestructible, Miami is making
sure that he is well rested so that he can have success when it matters most.
For Durant, he has been
dealt a tough hand so far this season. Not only is he in the deeper Western
Conference, but he has had to play most of the season without point guard
Russell Westbrook. Those two factors have made him focus more on putting up big
numbers so that his team can have success. It is certainly not a given that
they can just coast to the playoffs and have home court advantage. That is why
Durant is playing and scoring more when compared to James.
When it comes to the NBA,
it takes time to get the title as the best player in the league. It took Lebron
James a few years before he was pretty much unanimously considered better
than Kobe Bryant. There is a chance that Kevin Durant never gets to that point
when compared to James. There are certainly people who feel like he is better,
but it is hard to compare when both players are trying to accomplish different
things this regular season.
Labels: Kevin Durant, LeBron James
posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM
"Advanced Basketball Statistics" Do not Tell the Complete Andrew Bynum Story
It sounds patently absurd now (and it sounded absurd at the time), but not too long ago some "stat gurus" suggested that Andrew Bynum was more valuable to the L.A. Lakers than Kobe Bryant; these "stat gurus" crunched some numbers out of context and concluded that Bynum was more efficient and productive than Bryant, failing to understand that Bynum's efficiency was a product of the defensive attention drawn by Bryant. As I explained in a 2010 article, Kobe Bryant's Impact on the Lakers Goes Far Beyond What Statistics Can Measure
Bynum essentially played the Luc Longley role for the Lakers teams that won back to back NBA titles; his scoring and rebounding averages during those two playoff runs (2009-10) were 6.3/3.7 and 8.6/6.9 respectively. Throughout his Lakers' career, Bynum was limited by chronic knee problems and he repeatedly displayed immaturity on and off of the court. The idea that he was a franchise player--even during his one All-Star campaign, which happened after the Lakers had already fallen from the ranks of the legit title contenders--made no sense, because Bynum has never been physically and/or psychologically equipped to carry a team.
Bynum was never as good as the "stat gurus" suggested--and much of what he accomplished in L.A. resulted not just from the attention that Bryant drew on the court but also the mentoring that Bryant provided
Although Bynum has made significant strides, his development is clearly
still a work in progress; he does not play hard on a consistent basis,
he frequently says and does boneheaded things (on and off the court) and
he complains about his touches even though he frequently does not
battle for good low post position and even though he is far too often
befuddled by double teams...
Bryant gets it; he understands what kind of preparation it takes to
perform like a champion and he understands the delicate balance between
inspiring a teammate to work on his game and beating a teammate down
through relentless verbal sniping that destroys camaraderie instead of
creating it. Will Bynum use the lessons he learned from Bryant in L.A.
to become a veteran leader for the Philadelphia 76ers and a legit number
one option on a contending team? That remains to be seen but Bryant
provided a nice blueprint for Bynum if Bynum is smart enough and mature
enough to use it.
There is an impressive list of players--ranging
from the sublime (future Hall of Famer Shaquille O'Neal) to the
ridiculous (legend in his own mind Smush Parker) who played for at least
two teams and had the best season of their careers while playing
alongside Bryant. Bynum emerged as an All-Star last season and had the
best season of his career in part because of Bryant's patient tutelage;
it will be interesting to see if Bynum continues the growth process that
Bryant helped to start.
There is no stat for drawing double teams and there certainly is no stat for mentoring, so you cannot convince a "stat guru" that these concepts exist, much less that they actually matter--but, nevertheless, these concepts are important elements in the construction of winning teams. The Lakers' record without Bryant this season speaks for itself
but it is also worth noting what Bynum has been up to since the Lakers traded him to acquire Dwight Howard
. Bynum is gifted with size, strength, agility and other
athletic tools but those qualities are not enough to make someone a great player; Bynum's body and mind were well suited for being a role player on Bryant-led championship teams but when Bynum is asked to be the lead guy the results are predictable: his body falls apart and his mind wanders. Bynum did not play a single game for the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2012-13 season and then he displayed remarkable insubordination this season in Cleveland
, reportedly shooting the ball from anywhere on the court during scrimmages in blatant disregard for the team concept. The Cavaliers got rid of Bynum, who landed in a perfect situation in Indiana; he can once again be a role player whose contributions could be valuable but will not be essential to the team's success.
Chris Grant, the recently fired Cleveland General Manager who brought Bynum to the Cavaliers, is reportedly a big believer in "advanced basketball statistics." There may not be a number to quantify Bryant's impact on the Lakers in general or on Bynum in particular but there is a number to quantify Grant's impact on the Cavaliers: a 20-33 record that places the Cavaliers 11th in the incredibly weak Eastern Conference.
While some "stat gurus" praised Bynum to the hilt and raved about Bryant's supporting cast during the 2009 and 2010 title runs, I called those squads
"among the least talented and least deep champions of the past two decades." Other than Bryant, the top nine players in the 2010 Lakers' rotation (based on total regular season minutes played) were Metta World Peace, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell and Sasha Vujacic.
Vujacic, Powell and Farmar were all out of the league within two years, though Farmar is now back with the Lakers. Brown could barely get on the court for Cleveland's deep 2007 and 2008 teams but he was a key rotation player for the Lakers. Bynum's NBA journey was discussed above. Fisher was the established starter for the point guard-bereft Lakers but he has played a smaller role in most of his other NBA stops. Gasol's field goal percentage and offensive rebounding initially improved after he joined forces with Bryant but his impact sans Bryant has not been impressive and he did not win a single playoff game before teaming up with Bryant. Odom went from being Sixth Man of the Year with the Lakers (which is a little deceptive, in the sense that he often played alongside the starters in crunch time while Bynum rode the bench) to seeing his career completely fall apart as soon as he left L.A. Peace, an All-Star caliber player at his peak, was a solid role player during the Lakers' second championship season and he is now winding down his career as a little-used reserve for the Knicks; Peace was a core member of the Lakers' rotation but now he is, at best, the 10th man for a sorry New York team.
"Advanced basketball statistics" can indicate that Bynum was productive
while playing alongside Bryant--but they cannot explain why Bynum was
productive, nor can they accurately predict how productive Bynum might
be in a different role on a different team; only someone who watches
basketball with understanding can make such evaluations. If Bynum and the other 2010 Lakers were as good as so many people said that they were, it is reasonable to assume that at least one of those players would be doing better without Bryant than they did with him. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Bryant won two of his NBA titles with a career journeyman starting at point guard, with Lamar Odom as the team's third best player and with Pau Gasol as the team's second best player. Most NBA championship teams are stacked with multiple All-Stars and/or future Hall of Famers--players who made their names before the championship run--but the only 2010 Laker besides Bryant who might make the Hall of Fame is Gasol, whose career was not on a Hall of Fame trajectory until he teamed up with Bryant.
Labels: "advanced basketball statistics", Andrew Bynum, Chris Grant, Cleveland Cavaliers, Kobe Bryant, L. A. Lakers
posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM
Anthony Davis Replaces Injured Kobe Bryant on West All-Star Roster
NBA fans gave Kobe Bryant a career achievement award of sorts by selecting him as a Western Conference All-Star starter
but injuries have limited Bryant to just six games this season and will keep him off of the court indefinitely; new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has selected New Orleans Pelicans power forward/center Anthony Davis as Bryant's All-Star replacement. West Coach Scott Brooks will decide which All-Star reserve
will take Bryant's starting spot.
My Western Conference All-Star selections included two players not ultimately honored by the coaches, San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Golden State's David Lee. I still think that Duncan deserves recognition for being the primary post presence at both ends of the court for one of the West's top two teams and I am still impressed by Lee's overall performance for the Warriors. It is worth noting that Davis has missed eight games so far, while Lee
has only missed two and Duncan, despite his advanced age (in basketball
years), has missed just four games.
Although I do not think that I was wrong to tap Duncan and Lee, upon further reflection I can understand why Silver believes that Davis is the most worthy choice: the Pelicans are mired near the bottom of the West with a 22-27 record but Davis has been outstanding individually, ranking first in the NBA in blocked shots (3.2 bpg) while also averaging 20.7 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 1.5 spg. Davis has bulked up this season after being overpowered physically as a rookie and he has improved his statistics across the board.
Labels: Adam Silver, Anthony Davis, David Lee, Kobe Bryant, NBA All-Star Game, Tim Duncan
posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 PM
NBA Enters Post-David Stern Era
David Stern completed his 30 year tenure as NBA Commissioner on February 1, turning the reins over to his long-time trusted deputy, Adam Silver. Until fairly recently, the consensus opinion seemed to be that Stern
was vying with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the title of
greatest sports commissioner of all-time. In the past decade or so, Stern has been assailed by increasingly vocal critics who disapprove of his allegedly dictatorial leadership style and who blame Stern for some problems/controversies that the league faced, including lockouts in 1998 and 2011
, the Tim Donaghy scandal
and the voided Chris Paul trade
. I strongly feel that the NBA should do more to recognize, honor and support its retired legends--including but not limited to the "Pre-1965ers"
--and that the NBA should belatedly complete the ABA-NBA merger by finally granting official status to ABA statistics
; it is disappointing that Stern did not use his power to make those things happen. Nevertheless, Stern's overall track record is very positive. I wrote my David Stern legacy column
in October 2012 after Stern first announced his plan to retire as NBA Commissioner in February 2014 and I stand by the conclusion I declared at that time:
When I think of David Stern, I think of his
response to the "Malice in the Palace"; he immediately issued several
lengthy suspensions, he suspended Ron Artest for the entire season and
when media members asked Stern if a vote had been taken about those
punishments Stern replied, "It was unanimous, one to none." That is
leadership; he did not pass the buck, he did not wait to see which way
the wind was blowing: he made it very clear that players who go into the
stands to fight with fans will not be playing in his NBA. In contrast,
when I think of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, I think of Selig shrugging
impotently as the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie--and, much more
seriously, I think of Selig turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the abundant evidence of rampant PED cheating in his sport.
For 30 years, Stern has looked the part of a commissioner and, much
more significantly, he has acted the part. You never doubted who was in
charge of the NBA with David Stern at the helm.
Stern may have rubbed some people the wrong way by acting like he was the smartest man in the room and by using his intelligence and strong will to lead the NBA on a certain path--but the reality is that he often was the smartest man in the room and the decisions he made resulted in skyrocketing revenue that benefited owners and players alike, a pioneering drug policy,
global expansion of the game, innovative community service programs like NBA Cares, increased executive employment opportunities for women and minorities (the NBA has consistently been far ahead of the other pro sports leagues in this regard) and overall development of the league that would have been unimaginable when Stern first took office; under Stern's watch, the NBA went from having its premier event--the NBA Finals--televised on tape delay to having its top stars become one-name global icons: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron.
Stern does not deserve all of the credit for the NBA's tremendous growth--throughout his tenure the league had a steady stream of great stars and great teams--but he deserves a lot of credit for not only making sound marketing decisions but also for disciplining owners, players and anyone else who stepped out of line and conducted themselves in a way that could potentially damage the league. Stern's leadership was equally evident during good times and during bad times; he not only helped the league derive maximum benefit from the skills and charisma of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and other stars but he also guided the league through the dark days of the Donaghy scandal and through contentious labor negotiations that might have caused serious damage to the NBA if the league had not been fortunate enough to have a strong, wise leader at the helm.
David Stern has carved out a very prominent place not only in NBA and sports history but in the cultural history of the United States and the world, because the NBA's impact cuts across socioeconomic and national borders; in the early 1980s, no one could have imagined that basketball would be the global game that it is today and that the NBA would be able to touch the lives of young people so profoundly in so many different countries.
Labels: Commissioner Adam SIlver, Commissioner David Stern, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, NBA
posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM
2014 All-Star Reserve Selections Feature Veterans Nowitzki and Bosh Alongside Three Newcomers
In 2013, six of the 14 All-Star reserves were first-timers and 2012 featured five newcomers but this year there are only three new All-Stars among the coaches' selections: DeMar DeRozan, Paul Millsap and John Wall (Stephen Curry is the only newcomer among the 10 starters selected by the fans). Dirk Nowitzki returns to the midseason classic after a one year absence, while Tim Duncan was not tapped despite serving as the primary post presence for the San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for the second best record in the Western Conference. Nowitzki has earned 12 All-Star selections, a total exceeded by just 13 players in ABA/NBA history. Overall, the coaches agreed with 11 of my 14 All-Star reserve selections
after agreeing with all 14 of my choices in 2013
and after agreeing with 12 of my 14 selections in 2012
The 2014 Western Conference All-Star reserves are LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and James Harden. I would have substituted Duncan for Nowitzki as a frontcourt player and David Lee for James Harden as a wild card; Duncan's impact for a winning program extends well beyond his individual numbers (though he still ranks among the league leaders in rebounding and shot blocking despite playing limited minutes), while Lee is the main frontcourt threat for Golden State, serving a more valuable all-around role than the one filled by Harden for Houston. That said, Nowitzki and Harden are both playing at an All-Star level this season, so I don't have a big problem with either choice. At least one more roster spot will probably open up in the West because starter Kobe Bryant does not plan to play, so new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will select Bryant's replacement and then West Coach Scott Brooks will decide which reserve will be elevated to a starting slot.
The 2013 Eastern Conference All-Star reserves are Chris Bosh, Roy Hibbert, Paul Millsap, John Wall, Joakim Noah, DeMar DeRozan and Joe Johnson. I picked Lance Stephenson as a wild card instead of Noah. Stephenson has emerged as a valuable, versatile threat for the East-leading Indiana Pacers, topping the team in assists while ranking second in scoring and rebounding. Noah is an excellent player who is having another very good season and he is not a bad choice but I think that this season Stephenson is the better choice. Perhaps Stephenson's checkered history/reputation cost him some consideration.
Bosh is a popular whipping boy for some media members and some fans but he is now a nine-time All-Star, tying him on the all-time list with Hall of Famers Robert Parish, Gary Payton, Dominique Wilkins and Lenny Wilkens.
Labels: Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, NBA All-Star Game, Roy Hibbert
posted by David Friedman @ 12:03 PM
Who Should Be Selected as All-Star Reserves?
The 2014 NBA All-Star Game starters were announced last Thursday. LeBron James led the fan balloting for the third time in his career (2007, 2010,2014), tying him with Kobe Bryant (who received the most votes in 2003, 2011 and 2013) for fourth on the all-time All-Star voting leader list and placing him behind only Michael Jordan (nine times), Julius Erving (four times) and Vince Carter (four times) since fans began voting for NBA All-Star starters in the 1974-75 season.
Here is the list of the 2013 NBA All-Star Game starters:
LeBron James, Miami 1,416,419 votes
Paul George, Indiana 1,211,318 votes
Carmelo Anthony, New York 935,702 votes
Dwyane Wade, Miami 929,542 votes
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland 860,221 votes
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City 1,396,294 votes
Stephen Curry, Golden State 1,047,281 votes
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers 988,884 votes
Blake Griffin, L.A. Clippers 688,486 votes
Kevin Love, Minnesota 661,246 votes
Generally, the fans do a good job of selecting players who deserve this honor but this season the fans chose Kobe Bryant--who has appeared in just six games--as one of the West's starting guards. Many commentators have been griping for years that fans should not be given the opportunity to choose the All-Star starters but, as I noted in my Februray 2012 article about this issue
, "starting in an All-Star Game is a subjective honor (unlike, for
instance, the distinction between making the All-NBA First Team and the
All-NBA Second Team or the All-NBA Third Team) and when we look back at a
player's career we do not consider how many times he started in an
All-Star Game but merely how many times he was selected overall; as long
as the fans choose five players who are worthy of being ranked among
the top 12 players in each conference there is not a problem, because
the league's coaches will fill out the roster by selecting the other
Bryant clearly has not earned All-Star status this season but even though the fans erred by giving him some kind of career achievement award the end result is still going to most likely turn out all right; Bryant has stated that he does not plan to play in the All-Star Game, which means that NBA Commissioner David Stern will select a worthy replacement player (and then the West Coach will decide who takes Bryant's spot in the starting lineup). I still think that it is fine that fans have a say in the All-Star selection process, particularly because checks and balances are in place to make sure that deserving players who do not receive starting nods will be tapped as reserves when the coaches make their selections; speaking of which, the coaches will now complete the All-Star rosters by choosing seven players: three frontcourt players, two guards and two wild cards (coaches are not permitted to vote for players from their own teams).
Last season, the coaches agreed with all 14 of my All-Star reserve selections
and in 2012 the coaches concurred with 12 of my 14 choices.
Here are my picks for the All-Star reserves, with brief comments about each player:
(FC) LaMarcus Aldridge: He is posting career-high numbers in scoring (24.3 ppg, fifth in the league), rebounding (11.5 rpg, sixth in the league) and assists (2.8 apg) while leading the Portland Trail Blazers to the third best record in the West.
(FC) Dwight Howard: Howard has not quite regained the explosiveness and dominance that he displayed prior to injuring his back during the 2011-12 season but he is still a powerful presence in the paint at both ends of the court. He is averaging 18.0 ppg, just slightly below his career average of 18.2 ppg, though well short of his career-high 22.9 ppg in 2010-11 (his last fully healthy season). Howard remains a productive rebounder (12.5 rpg, fourth in the league after winning the rebounding crown in five of the six previous seasons) and shot blocker (1.8 bpg, ninth in the league but his lowest average in this category since the 2005-06 season). He also ranks fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage (.577).
(FC) Tim Duncan: Some "stat gurus" might scream in protest but Duncan is the primary post presence at both ends of the court for a San Antonio Spurs team that has the second best record in the West and the third best overall record. The Spurs rank second in field goal percentage and eighth in defensive field goal percentage in no small part due to Duncan's contributions. Duncan's per game numbers are no longer as gaudy as they were during his back to back MVP seasons (2002, 2003) but despite playing limited minutes he still ranks sixth in blocked shots (2.0 bpg) and 15th in rebounding (9.8 rpg).
(G) Damian Lillard: The 2013 Rookie of the Year is the second most valuable player for the much improved Trail Blazers. His assist average and two point field goal percentage have declined this season but he has increased his scoring average (from 19.7 ppg to 20.8 ppg) and three point field goal percentage (from .368 to .419). His free throw percentage is up and his turnovers are down, so overall he has become a more mature and efficient player.
(G) Tony Parker: Duncan's post presence has been the foundation for San Antonio's success since he arrived in the NBA but Parker's speed, penetrating ability and shooting touch make him the catalyst for the Spurs' offense. His statistics are not as spectacular as the numbers posted by some NBA guards but Parker plays a key role in a winning program. He is not what TNT analyst Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot," a player scoring a lot of points for a bad team.
(WC) Chris Paul: The 32-15 L.A. Clippers are 10-3 without Paul, so perhaps he is not quite the indispensable leader that he is made out to be, but--even considering the fact that his assist numbers are artificially inflated
--Paul is a first rate playmaker who remains on the short list of top NBA point guards.
(WC) David Lee: This two-time All-Star provides inside muscle for Golden State to complement the outside shooting of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He ranks 12th in the league in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and 18th in field goal percentage (.522).
If Russell Westbrook were not out indefinitely due to his knee injury (and thus presumably unavailable to play in the All-Star Game) then he would be my top reserve guard and I would bump everyone else down a notch (meaning that Lee would not be on my reserve roster in that case). Oklahoma City went 21-4 with Westbrook in the lineup, as the dynamic
scorer/passer/defender averaged 21.3 ppg, 7.0 apg and a career-high 6.0 rpg. Kevin Durant
is playing extremely well while picking up the slack for
Westbrook but the Thunder are 15-6 sans Westbrook--Durant's greatness
has kept the Thunder in the mix but they are only a dominant team when
Westbrook is healthy.
James Harden is not an elite or "foundational"
player; he is performing at an All-Star level--ranking seventh in the league in scoring (23.7 ppg)--and I would put him on the team to take the injured Bryant's place but I think that the seven players listed above are more valuable than Harden. Put it this way: Harden would not start ahead of any of the aforementioned guards if they were on the same team, nor would a good general manager trade Aldridge, Howard, Duncan or Lee for Harden (contract status and age notwithstanding but looking only at current on court impact).
Dirk Nowitzki is playing very well for a Dallas team that is clinging to the eighth playoff spot but his numbers and impact do not match the performances posted by the frontcourt players and wild card players who I selected.
Chris Bosh: Bosh is underrated by many fans and commentators but coaches realize his true value: he is an eight time-All-Star, though he has only been voted in by the fans three times. Bosh scores inside the paint and from the perimeter, he ranks second on the Miami Heat with 6.7 rpg despite playing out of position as an undersized center and his defensive versatility is vitally important to the two-time defending NBA champions.
(FC) Roy Hibbert: Hibbert is the cornerstone piece of Indiana's dominating defense and he has come a long way from when his awkward gait reminded me of "Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit."
His numbers do not jump off of the stat sheet--though he ranks second in the league in blocked shots (2.6 bpg)--but his impact is undeniable.
(FC) Paul Millsap: Millsap is the best, most consistent player on the fourth seeded team in the East; that is not much to write home about this year but it is good enough to earn an All-Star selection in 2014.
(G) John Wall: The fourth year Wizard is finally healthy and he is having a career year, averaging 20.0 ppg (16th in the league), 8.5 apg (fourth in the league) and 1.9 spg (fifth in the league). Washington is below .500--like most of the Eastern Conference--but the Wizards would be even worse without the contributions of their versatile point guard.
(G) Lance Stephenson: In his rookie season with Indiana four years ago, Stephenson scored just 37 total points but now he is a key all-around threat for the East's top team: he leads the Pacers in assists (5.3 apg) while ranking second in scoring (14.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.0 rpg). He has authored three triple doubles, topping the NBA in that category.
(WC) DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan ranks 11th in the league in scoring (21.8 ppg) and he is the best player on a Toronto team that surprisingly has the third best record in the East.
(WC) Joe Johnson: The Brooklyn Nets' big name starting five has not produced
many wins but Johnson is the one star on the roster who has at least
come close to meeting expectations; he leads the team in scoring (15.7
ppg) and three point field goals made (83 in 42 games).
Outside of Indiana and Miami, the East is a vast wasteland this season. It is difficult to rave about individual performers on sub-.500 teams; no one on the sorry Eastern teams is playing like Pistol Pete Maravich
in his prime or like Kobe Bryant in the Smush Parker-Kwame Brown years
, carrying decrepit squads to the brink of respectability. Many former Eastern Conference All-Stars are either out of action due to injuries (most notably Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo) or have declined dramatically due to age, changing roles and/or other factors. The situation is so bad that TNT's Charles Barkley could not even come up with seven worthy reserve candidates; he picked Hibbert, Bosh, Stephenson, Wall, Millsap, Johnson and "a Raptor."
Labels: Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, LaMarcus Aldridge, LeBron James, NBA All-Star Game, Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan
posted by David Friedman @ 2:58 PM
Placing Kevin Durant's Incredible Scoring Streak in Historical Perspective
When a player does something great it is not only enjoyable to watch but his accomplishment also serves as a reminder of just how tremendous some of his predecessors were. One of my favorite sportswriting passages is William Goldman's take on Wilt Chamberlain's incredible records, which I discussed in a 2006 article about one of Kobe Bryant's scoring barrages:
Goldman wrote of Chamberlain, who still had offers to play in the NBA
when he was in his early 50s, "the news finds him. Either when some team
wants him to come back and play for them...or whenever a record is
talked of." (the ellipses are present in the original text). Goldman
continued, "During Michael Jordan's amazing '86-'87, Wilt was always in
the papers because Jordan was always scoring the most this's since Wilt Chamberlain or taking the most that's since Wilt Chamberlain. And that ain't gonna change, folks. Not in this century.
Take big-scoring games, for example. Michael Jordan hit 60 points,
twice last year. In the eighties, only two other men have done it, each
once: Bernard King and Larry Bird. Four times this decade. Seven other
guys did it once: Fulks (the first), Mikan, Gervin, West, Barry,
Maravich and David 'oh-what-a-fall-was-there-' Thompson. Elgin Baylor
did it thrice. And Wilt? Well, it's been done 46 times so you subtract.
Wilt: 32. The rest of basketball: 14. At the present rate, we will be
well into the twenty-first century before the NBA catches up."
Kevin Durant is averaging 37.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 5.9 apg in 11 January games while shooting .522 from the field, including .392 from three point range. He is also shooting .884 from the free throw line while attempting 12.5 free throws per game. Durant may very well seize the title of "best player in the NBA" from LeBron James, who has worn that crown since 2009
--and yet Durant's amazing scoring streak does not yet quite measure up to Bryant's best scoring streaks, let alone the unparalleled numbers posted by Chamberlain.
Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in 13 games in January 2006
, the highest scoring calendar month by an NBA player since Chamberlain averaged 45.8 ppg in March 1963. Bryant's total included an 81 point outburst versus the Toronto Raptors
, the second best single game scoring performance in NBA history behind only Chamberlain's legendary 100 point game. Bryant also averaged more than 40 ppg in February 2003 (40.6 ppg), when he had nine straight 40-plus point games, the fourth longest such streak in NBA history; in comparison, Durant's current run features eight straight games with at least 30 points but "only" four games of at least 40 points. Subsequently, Bryant averaged more than 40 ppg in two other calendar months: 41.6 ppg in April 2006 and 40.4 ppg in March 2007. Chamberlain, who authored 11 calendar months during which he averaged at least 40 ppg, is the only player other than Bryant to accomplish this more than once.
Durant is performing extremely well and he deserves full credit for shouldering such a huge load for the Oklahoma City Thunder while Russell Westbrook is out with an injury but the fact that Durant can perform at a higher level than LeBron James--at least for a short period of time--and still not quite match the scoring exploits of Chamberlain and Bryant is a timely reminder of just how great Chamberlain and Bryant were in their respective primes.
Labels: Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Oklahoma City Thunder, William Goldman, Wilt Chamberlain
posted by David Friedman @ 7:21 PM
Ray Allen's Interests and Contributions Extend Far Beyond the Basketball Court
Ray Allen is renowned for his three point shooting prowess and he will long be remembered for the clutch three pointer that enabled the Miami Heat to push the 2013 NBA Finals to seven games
en route to capturing their second consecutive championship
--but he is a lot more than just a guy who scores prolifically from long distance: Allen is a well-rounded person who continually strives to educate himself and educate those around him. He has made it an annual personal tradition to visit the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., bringing along teammates, team personnel and others. In a 2010 interview conducted by Aleisa Fishman
, Allen explained why he first went to the U.S. Holocaust Museum and why he continues to do so:
My first visit to the Holocaust Museum, I had just gotten to the NBA. And I heard about it. I've always been, you know, a guy that's gone to
museums. My coach in college was very much into taking us places and teaching us things while we traveled throughout the course of the season. And so, I just picked up that. When I traveled, I always went to places, cities. I'd try to figure out what different cities had to
offer. And I just remember the first time I went there, it being so
profound. And it's a lesson for everybody. That's something that stayed
true to me. And I've been four or five times. And every time I go, I see something different. And when I come back, I always take somebody
I brought a friend of mine and he was an older black gentleman. And he,
you know, he walked through and he had so many questions, and he
couldn't believe that some of the things that he saw had taken place.
And after we got done, we walked out and the first thing he questioned
was, "What about slavery?" He was an older gentleman but, you know, it
kind of made him angry, because he wanted to see something like that
about the plight of the black people in America, about slavery. And I
told him…I said, "This is about slavery." This is about people being
enslaved and people being annihilated. And this is a lesson, so slavery
doesn't happen anymore, so people don't believe that they're better than
the next person. This is all about slavery. It just so happens to be
spoken through the words of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, people
who the Nazis tried to annihilate.
You take any person through the Museum, based on their experiences and
their life, they're going to see different things. And they're going to
talk about the things they want to talk about. But I think the most
important thing is communication. That's a powerful, powerful tool, just
talking about it and trying to understand it, and learn from it, and
Allen is also playing an integral role in the NBA's celebration of Black History Month; he helped to design a shooting shirt that the Heat will wear during selected games in February.
The shooting shirt features images of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Bill Russell and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. Allen explained, "It's another celebration that we can improve on to try to create
greater awareness, talking about where we've come as a people, as a
league and as a country. It's an opportunity to talk about
a great leader of the past, but even Martin Luther King, what he fought
for was civil liberties not just for black people, but for all people.
So to me, Black History Month has always been about equality of all
He added, "It's not just about the black players in the league. It's about where we've come, what we've fought for, equality amongst
all races, ethnicities, cultures and groups."
Labels: Bill Russell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Holocaust Museum, Miami Heat, NBA, Ray Allen
posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 PM
Lakers are not Good Even With Kobe Bryant--but They are Awful Without Him
The Lakers went just 2-4 during Kobe Bryant's brief 2013-14 comeback from Achilles surgery after starting the season 10-9 without him. Does that mean that the Lakers are better off without Bryant? His critics would like for you to think so, but agreeing with that theory means ignoring several key pieces of evidence. Bryant was clearly not 100% physically during his cameo run. It is fair to wonder if he ever will be 100% again but it is not fair to draw a definitive conclusion about that when he has yet to complete even the equivalent of a full slate of preseason games. Bryant played between 27 and 32 minutes in each of his six games; the Lakers needed a heroic effort from Bryant down the stretch last season just to sneak into the playoffs
, capped off by his unprecedented stat line (47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocked shots, three steals)
two days before he ruptured his Achilles. It is not reasonable to expect anyone--let alone an older player who is recovering from a potentially career-ending injury--to duplicate that performance level.
Bryant looked rusty during his comeback but he showed flashes of his old form and he was still productive in his limited minutes, particularly as a playmaker. His track record in terms of skill set, work ethic and overall conditioning makes it realistic to assume that if he can remain healthy--which is not a trivial question at this stage of his career--then he can still be the best player on a playoff team (though the Lakers in no way resemble a playoff team as currently constructed and coached). Bryant will return to action at some point this season and it will be interesting to see how he plays.
What about the Lakers overall? The small sample size of games that they played with Bryant distorts the picture; five
of the six teams that the Lakers faced when Bryant played would currently
qualify for the playoffs. Bryant was trying to find his rhythm while the Lakers were facing better than average competition. A 2-4 record is not good no matter how you look at it--but what about their 2-11 record since he broke a bone in his leg, including losses by 19, 22, 27 and 36 points? The Lakers won their first game sans Bryant and then proceeded to lose 11 of their next 12. They are not even remotely competitive and their defense is atrocious: they have given up at least 110 points in each of their past five games and they lost four of those five games by at least 13 points. It is funny to hear all of the "expert" criticism of Bryant's individual defense and of his supposedly negative impact on the team's defense. How is that L.A. defense looking now? One of the most revealing moments last season happened during game three of the Lakers' 4-0 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Hubie Brown declared, "You can use all the excuses you want but the defensive game plan was
zero here tonight--the execution of it, whatever it was." That is about as direct of a shot at a head coach as I have ever heard Brown make on-air, because Brown's point was that L.A. Coach Mike D'Antoni had not even created a coherent defensive scheme. Sometimes players miss a rotation defensively and when that happens an astute analyst like Brown can at least recognize what the team is trying to do--but that is not the case at all with the Lakers. I added this comment
: "In one
sentence, Brown cut straight to the point: it is not clear what the
Lakers' defensive game plan was and--whatever it was--the players rarely
played with much energy. Look at the league's best-coached teams,
squads like San Antonio, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Boston; they have
different philosophies and their players have various skill sets but
those teams consistently play hard and they play smart." The Lakers' poor defense last season and this season is a reflection of coaching and the problem with the Lakers' defense is that the coaching staff is either not teaching defense well and/or not holding the players accountable for executing defensively.
Perhaps the Lakers hovered around .500 for the first part of the season because they knew/believed that Bryant would return and provide a boost--but now it is not clear how long he will be out and/or what kind of player he will be when he comes back, so his teammates may have lost heart: they certainly are not playing with much spirit or desire, qualities that do not depend on talent.
The Lakers are heading out on a seven game road trip and they play 10 of their next 12 games on the road. By the time Bryant returns to action and regains any semblance of his old form, the Lakers will almost certainly have the worst record in the Western Conference. The reality is that the Lakers were not a particularly good team last season--Bryant's MVP level play in March and April masked their numerous personnel and coaching deficiencies--but now that Bryant has been out for an extended period of time all of those weaknesses are becoming glaringly apparent.
Labels: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, Mike D'Antoni
posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 PM
Revisiting the James Harden Trade
When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden
, many pundits labeled this a move that would help the Thunder financially but hurt them on the court. The financial benefits are unquestionable but there is little evidence that losing Harden has weakened the Thunder's roster; last season, the Thunder posted the franchise's best regular season winning percentage since 1997-98, finishing first in the West. The Thunder seemed poised to make a run to the NBA Finals before Russell Westbrook suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first round of the playoffs. This season, even though Westbrook has missed 10 games after reinjuring his knee, the Thunder have improved their winning percentage from .732 to .771. It is worth noting that while the Thunder have thrived without Harden they definitely miss Westbrook; they are 21-4 with Westbrook this season and just 6-4 without him, which suggests that if Westbrook had stayed healthy then the Thunder would currently own the best record in the league (they trail the Indiana Pacers by just one game).
Generally, a team that loses a franchise player--whether through injury, free agency or a trade--takes a major step back in the standings. Harden is a very good player but he is not a franchise player, not a guy whose contributions are irreplaceable; the Thunder's record without him shows this to be true and the Rockets' record with Harden further indicates that he is not an elite player, for that is the flip side of this equation: not only have the Thunder thrived without Harden, but the Rockets have not become a powerhouse with Harden. The Rockets had a .515 winning percentage in 2011-12 (34-32 record in the lockout shortened season) and after adding Harden they improved slightly to a .549 winning percentage in 2012-13 (45-37 record in a full-length campaign); the difference between .515 and .549 amounts to three "extra" games over the course of an 82 game season. Harden's arrival did not have much postseason impact, either. The Rockets missed the playoffs in 2011-12 and they sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in 2012-13. Harden's uninspiring 2013 playoff performance
hardly lends credence to Houston GM Daryl Morey's assertion that Harden is a "foundational player." This season, the Rockets acquired Dwight Howard, who is without question a franchise player when he is healthy and motivated--but even with Howard playing at an All-NBA level (ranking third in rebounding, fifth in field goal percentage and seventh in blocked shots) the Rockets are currently just the fifth seed in the West, on pace to post a 52-30 record.
Harden produces gaudy scoring numbers but that is because he has the ball in his hands most of the time and he has a green light to shoot; his field goal attempts per minute have significantly increased since the trade. His scoring totals obscure some weaknesses in his game; not only is Harden a subpar defender who also turns the ball over far too frequently for someone whose primary job is to shoot the ball (Harden led the league in turnovers last season and he ranks seventh in the league this season) but he has a very limited scoring repertoire: he is a big guard who rarely posts up and who does not have a great midrange game, so he primarily relies on shooting three pointers and drawing fouls by driving wildly into the lane. "Stat gurus" will tell you that layups, free throws and three pointers are the most efficient shots--and, from a numerical standpoint, that is true--but the practical downside of how Harden plays is that top notch teams can contain him in the playoffs. All you have to do is blitz Harden on screen/roll plays to prevent him from shooting open three pointers and then also sag someone into the paint to take a charge/block a shot when Harden drives. Teams that execute such a game plan can force Harden into high-turnover, low shooting percentage games; we saw this in the 2012 playoffs when Harden shot worse than .400 from the field in 10 of his 20 postseason games and we saw this again in the 2013 playoffs when Harden struggled against his old team as Houston lost 4-2 even though Westbrook missed most of the series due to injury.
Labels: Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets, James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook
posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 PM
A Young Man's Game
Veteran savvy and playoff experience can be helpful when trying to win a title but ultimately youth and raw talent are the most important ingredients in the championship recipe. Magnus Carlsen demonstrated this in the 2013 World Chess Championship
and the past two NBA seasons have reinforced the value of youth/health/energy relative to experience/accumulated wisdom. The injuries and fatigue suffered by older players more than offset the theoretical advantages that veteran players enjoy in terms of their experience in pressure-packed games.
The 2012-13 L.A. Lakers assembled a starting lineup that would have dominated the NBA just a few years ago: Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Unfortunately for the Lakers, four of those five players have declined, while the fifth--Howard--moved like an old man as a result of his recovery from offseason back surgery. That star-studded quintet started just seven games together and did not win any of those contests. They did not play a single minute together as a collectively healthy unit. Assembling that group looked great on paper--and I thought that the Lakers had the right kind of balance to challenge the Miami Heat
--but expecting those five players to stay healthy and to quickly mesh together was, in retrospect, not realistic. The Lakers were not the 1995-96 Bulls, a squad that partnered three Hall of Famers who were each in--or at least very close to--their primes; Bryant was the only Laker who consistently played at a high level in the 2012-13 season and his left Achilles tendon ruptured under the weight of the Lakers' ineptitude
The Brooklyn Nets did not draw the right conclusions from the Lakers' failed geriatric experiment; the Nets brought in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry--three older players who have championship experience--to bolster the Deron Williams-Joe Johnson-Brook Lopez trio. On paper, a starting lineup of Garnett, Pierce, Lopez, Williams and Johnson looks powerful--but on the court that quintet has gone just 3-5 this season. Much has been written and said about the strategic acumen of first year Coach Jason Kidd but the reality is that he has not yet had the opportunity to direct the squad that he expected to lead; the Nets have been wracked with injuries and several of their veteran players have performed well below expectations: Garnett has appeared in 28 of Brooklyn's 31 games but he looks washed up, averaging just 6.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 1.6 apg while shooting a career-low .364 from the field.
Experience can certainly be an asset--LeBron James became a back to back champion
in no small part because he learned from his failures in the 2011 NBA Finals
and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals
--but the benefits of youth cannot be overstated; LeBron James possesses superior health/conditioning, enabling him to maximize his talent and thus overpower/wear down opposing teams during a seven game series. The NBA season is such a long grind that older teams like the 2012-13 Lakers and the 2013-14 Nets struggle to make it to the postseason at full strength, let alone survive the mental, physical and emotional rigors of playoff basketball.
Labels: Brooklyn Nets, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, Metta World Peace, Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce, Steve Nash
posted by David Friedman @ 11:58 AM
Julius Erving Offers Thoughtful, Moving Reflections in his Autobiography
--Julius Erving's autobiography, written with the assistance of Karl Taro Greenfeld--is a candid, unflinching look at the life of an American sports icon. Erving's rise, literally and figuratively, is described in a captivating, evocative manner; the reader learns how Erving emerged from a single-parent home to become not just one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but also a dignified, highly respected man who has positively influenced many lives. Erving flew to the hoop with grace and power but he never put on airs.
Erving's parents divorced when he was three years old and he only saw his father--Julius Winfield Erving Sr.--a few times before the elder Erving died from injuries that he suffered in a traffic accident. Young Erving was raised by his mother Callie Mae Abney alongside older sister Alexis Alfreda (known as Freda) and younger brother Marvin (who was nicknamed Marky). The family lived in public housing in a racially mixed neighborhood in Hempstead, Long Island. Erving did not face much overt racism in Long Island but he experienced culture shock as a youngster when he, his mother and his siblings visited their relatives in the Deep South. A sign declaring "WELCOME TO KLAN COUNTRY" greeted them when they drove into North Carolina and Erving's cousin Bobby told him, "White people are devils"--but Erving's mother told her son, "All people are the same. Black. White. We're all the same. There's good and bad people among white and black. You remember that."
Erving's character formed early, shaped by his mother's wisdom and his own internal moral compass; Erving would always be a leader but not a radical, a free thinker but not a revolutionary, a man who followed the rules but was never afraid to improvise when necessary (p. 28):
Mom says if I do my homework first, then I can play. I have to keep quiet in class. I must go to school. I should respect my elders.
I stand by the rules, move with care and respect and wariness, and agree to abide by the penalties of failure and rewards of success. Despite what I have seen in the Jim Crow South, the injustice that makes Bobby hate, and even the violence of our own Parkside Gardens, when even as a child I can get a sense that some lives just aren't as highly valued as others, I seek shelter in the security of rules, the snugness of being tucked into a line, of being a number in a column rather than a soul out of place, alone.
Early in his life, Erving dealt with death, loss and suffering. His father was not much of a presence in his life before passing away, cousin Bobby drowned as a young child and Erving suffered a serious knee injury playing street football; for a while it seemed questionable if he would ever walk without a limp, let alone resume being the fastest running/highest jumping kid in his peer group. Erving wore a cast on his leg for three months, during which time he watched basketball both in the neighborhood park and on TV, where he caught his first glimpses of Elgin Baylor--and began to form a vision of how the game could be played artistically (p.35): "For the first time, I have this idea that certain ways of playing
basketball are more beautiful than other ways. That there is scoring,
putting the ball in the basket, but also the artistry of how that
scoring is done. This is a new idea, an idea I have never heard spoken
aloud: that some basketball players look better than other basketball
players because of the way they play."
Erving resumed playing various sports after his leg healed and his streetball exploits attracted the attention of Don Ryan, a 19 year old Salvation Army basketball coach. Ryan invited Erving and Erving's friend Archie Rogers to become the first black players on the local Salvation Army team. Erving won the MVP award in his first season of organized basketball and his squad dominated the local teams. Ryan taught the kids more than just how to play basketball; Erving remembered that Ryan insisted that his players "win without bragging and lose without crying."
After Erving's mother married Dan Lindsay, the family moved to Roosevelt, Long Island and Erving came under the guidance of high school coaches Earl Mosley and Ray Wilson, two men who picked up where Ryan had left off both in terms of coaching basketball on the court and also setting an example for how to act off of the court.
Erving came of age during the 1960s, an era scarred by war, assassinations and civil unrest, but his faith in the American ideal never wavered. He believed in the United States, despite her shortcomings: "It is a force for good. It is the greatest nation. And if I work to the best of my abilities, then I will be rewarded" (p. 123).
The dreadful day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, a group of black kids--eager to exact revenge against any white person they can find--gathered menacingly around Stephanie, one of Erving's white classmates. Erving went into the middle of the crowd, insisted that they stop harassing Stephanie and then he walked her home: "This is our hope, as a nation, I think, that two kids--the little black boys and little white girls of Dr. King's speech--can just walk together, and share their dreams, and in sharing somehow give strength and validity to each other's dreams. Teachers, our parents, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Don Ryan, they keep telling us we are American's future. Adults repeat the sentiment so much it becomes a platitude, as meaningless as a car advertising jingle, but now, at this moment, as Stephanie thanks me for walking her home, it becomes real" (p. 128).
No one is flawless and the one aspect of Erving's life that has surprised and disappointed some of his fans is his infidelity to Turquoise Brown, his first wife and the woman with whom he had three children (at the time that she wed Erving, Turquoise also had a son from a previous relationship). In Dr. J
, Erving frankly describes his attitude toward women and sex; his first sexual experience came at the hands of an older step-cousin who, essentially, molested/assaulted him when he was 13 years old. By the time he reached college and had attained a certain status as a big man on campus, Erving's attitude about sex had been set: "Perhaps it is a product of the impersonal manner in which I was introduced to sex, but I divide women into two categories. There are those who I consider relationship material, who I view as good girls, and then there are those who I see more as objects, as bad girls. I know that's simplistic and even offensive to many women, and that among the so-called good girls there are plenty of bad people and vice versa, but I am mired in that kind of patriarchal thinking on the subject and it will take years for me to break out of it. My struggle to respect women and to see them all as God's creatures is one of the ways I've had to rise above my own circumstances and perhaps the cultural norms of when and where I was raised" (pp. 158-159).
While Erving wrestled with temptation off of the court, he literally rose above the crowd on the court. He earned a slot as an alternate for the 1970 U.S. Olympic Development camp; the camp consisted of a pool of 40 players from which the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball team would be selected. After a player got injured, Erving came to the camp one week into the proceedings, made the squad and earned team MVP honors during a European exhibition tour. He also excelled at the University of Massachusetts; Erving is one of just five
players who averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg during an NCAA
Most fans probably think of Erving as a dunker and/or a flashy scorer but Erving's game was always well-grounded in the sport's fundamentals. Early in his career, he made his name primarily as a rebounder, though he also was an excellent scorer, passer and defender. Erving's big hands, outstanding leaping ability and impeccable timing enabled him to outduel bigger and stronger players on the boards. Erving attracted the attention of the ABA's Virginia Squires, who signed him to a five year contract after his junior season.
Erving made a quick adjustment to the professional game on the court, averaging 27.3 ppg, 15.7 rpg and 4.0 apg as a rookie in the 1971-72 season. He elevated those numbers to 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg in the playoffs, a tremendous beginning to a very underrated postseason career
. Off of the court, Erving experienced some of the challenges typically encountered by young men who achieve fame and fortune very quickly; Erving and a fellow University of Massachusetts student named Carol developed a serious relationship before Erving turned pro but after Erving joined the ABA he enjoyed the company of many different sexual partners. In his book, Erving does not attempt to justify his behavior (he misled Carol to believe that they were still in a committed, monogamous relationship) but he explains his mindset/shortcomings: "But I'm still a young man, just twenty-two now, and while the idea of fidelity to one woman seems the righteous and moral thing to do, I know enough about my own failings to recognize it's not realistic" (p. 219). After his rookie season, Erving traveled back to Amherst (Carol was still enrolled in college) and--without admitting that he had already cheated on her--suggested to Carol that they have an "open relationship," telling her that only after they have had other partners could they truly know if they were meant to be together. She is understandably skeptical of such an arrangement and Erving recalls thinking at that time, "I may have negotiated away the best thing I ever had" (p. 221).
During the summer of 1972, Erving jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, teaming up with the incomparable Pete Maravich
. Erving only spent part of the preseason with the Hawks before a court order forced him to rejoin the Squires but Maravich left an indelible impression on Erving: "One of the things that makes Pete so great is his hang time, and no one talks about that. He can leave the floor and sort of stay up there long enough to fake one way and then pass another...Pete Maravich is the most skilled basketball player I have ever seen" (pp. 226-227).
Erving had already sold his Virginia residence, so when he returned to the Squires he stayed at the home of team owner Earl Foreman; Foreman spent most of his time at his Washington, D.C. home. Erving entertained various young ladies at Foreman's place but then he met Turquoise Brown. Erving knew that he had, as he put it in the book, "problems with fidelity" but he quickly felt a powerful attraction to Brown, who he married early in 1974. By that time, Erving had been traded to the New York Nets. He celebrated his homecoming by winning the first of his four regular season MVPs en route to leading the Nets to the 1974 ABA title.
Erving's Nets fell short in the 1975 playoffs but bounced back to claim the 1976 championship in the final season before the ABA/NBA merger. In the 1976 ABA Finals versus the powerful Denver Nuggets, Erving operated at the highest possible level
, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) as the Nets prevailed four games to two. Erving could have justifiably devoted a whole chapter to that series alone and a strong argument can be made that this was the greatest single-series performance in pro basketball history but Dr. J
describes the series in just two pages.
The financially strapped Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving led the 76ers to the NBA Finals four times in 11 seasons but it took the acquisition of Moses Malone in 1982 to push the team over the hump; the 76ers had long needed an elite big man to match up with Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Walton's Portland Trailblazers defeated the 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, while Abdul-Jabbar teamed with Magic Johnson to knock off the 76ers in the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals.
Erving is justifiably proud of his 1981 NBA regular season MVP, noting
that he was the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar
Robertson (1964): "I am contributing to this transformation of the game,
in that the most exciting players are now playing facing the basket
instead of with their backs to it. I feel like this is some vindication
of my style, of the game played on the rise and above the rim" (p. 338).
Throughout the book, Erving points out that each era has its own
context, making it difficult to fairly compare players from different
eras; for instance, during Erving's career star players tended to not
question the coaches and many coaches favored using a balanced
attack--but more recent superstars such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant
and LeBron James have the power to get coaches fired and do not hesitate
to demand (in word or simply by the way that they play) to fire up more
than 20 field goal attempts per game (a level that Erving regularly
reached in the ABA but that he only topped once in his NBA career while
adhering to the guidelines of coaches Gene Shue, Billy Cunningham and
Erving filled the last blank space on his basketball resume when the 76ers claimed the 1983 NBA championship. Erving does not discuss that magical title run in great detail, concluding, "No matter how old I get, no matter what I accomplish, I still see a lanky fifteen-year-old staring back at me. I'm still Mom's son and Marky's brother. I'm still Junior" (p. 379).
Erving later adds, "Basketball doesn't recede in importance. Perhaps it was simply never as meaningful as it seems. It is why you know me, know my name, but it is not me. It is my profession, what I do--it's a strange profession in that those who become very good at it also become famous. Great dentists and accountants are unremarked upon when they enter a restaurant. Great basketball players are never unnoticed" (p. 389).
During various media appearances to promote Dr. J
, Erving has stressed that his autobiography is not primarily a basketball book and this is true; Erving focuses much more on his upbringing, his internal thought processes about non-basketball situations and his off court life than he does on his basketball career, though he clearly--and quite correctly--expresses the opinion that his basketball accomplishments have not been given their full due.
However, Erving makes a point of mentioning that he does not appreciate Larry Bird saying that Michael Jordan was the best player he ever faced: "...I find that a little disrespectful. We beat them up pretty bad in some playoffs, and they got the better of us in others, but those are the toughest matchups for both of us. I don't think it's fair for Larry to say that Michael is the best based on one great playoff game, the 63-point performance in Boston Garden. But then, Larry is always playing mind games, so he's probably trying to psych out Magic and me" (p. 325). Erving and Bird shared a tremendous rivalry
, a rivalry that has sadly been forgotten by far too many commentators and fans. Erving is right to insist that this rivalry should be remembered and respected. Later in the book, he declares that Philadelphia's game seven win against Boston in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals "may have been the most important game in my career. Back then, those Sixer-Celtic series felt bigger than championship finals, or certainly more emotional. Those games are tougher and more mentally draining than any others I've ever played" (p. 356). As for his infamous fight with Bird in November 1984, Erving is not proud of what happened and he notes that neither he nor Bird will autograph photos of them fighting. Erving also says that he considered it "office politics, the squabbles of men at work" and that it never affected their personal or business relationships.
The 1982-83 76ers set a record (since broken by the 2000-01 Lakers) by going 12-1 in the playoffs but their core players were too old to establish a dynasty; the 76ers failed to defend their title, losing in the first round of the 1984 playoffs. Erving attributes the 76ers' decline to the accumulated wear and tear of the previous several extended postseason runs, noting that Bird's Celtics were swept in the 1983 playoffs and that Erving's 76ers swept Johnson's Lakers in the 1983 playoffs: "Long playoff runs tire out a team, as we are forced to return again and again to our emotional and spiritual wells" (p. 390). During the 76ers' 1984 first round loss to the Nets, Erving realized that his days at the top of the sport were numbered: "My knees are sore and my groin injury has recurred throughout that series, so I'm hobbled, feeling my age and playing through pain, averaging over 18 a game but never exerting my will the way I have in playoffs past" (p. 390).
Ultimately, though, Erving is much more focused on larger issues than he is on his basketball career or anyone else's basketball career. The death of his sister Freda before the age of 40 as a result of colon cancer reminds Erving again of the fragility of life and the mysteries of existence: "I don't understand God's will. I don't understand His plan. The universe sometimes seems arbitrary to me, its cruelty as unthinking as a mousetrap. When Marky passed, I forced myself to keep moving forward, as I did with Bobby, Tonk, and Wendell, but when I go with Mom and Freda to Marky's grave in Rockville Centre, I think again about the substance of this life, about the extinguishing of the body and the mysteries of the soul. I always believe that Marky travels with me, and I sometimes feel him there, but I also know that this is the story I tell myself in order to soften the harsh truth of his being gone" (p. 363; Tonk was his father's nickname, while Wendell refers to Wendell Ladner, a New York teammate who died in a plane crash).
Erving feels like he entered pro basketball through the "side door," so it was very important to him to leave the sport through the "front door," to retire at a time of his choosing when he still could perform at a high level. His 1986-87 Farewell Tour featured an amazing outpouring of love and respect from across the country and around the world.
Erving briefly worked as an analyst for NBC's NBA coverage but he was
never comfortable on camera: "It takes a certain knack, a quickness of
mind, and an ability to say nothing while sounding like I am saying
something. I have to learn to speak while a producer is talking into my
ear, giving me some statistics that I can use in support of a vacuous
thesis about the first half of a basketball game that will be forgotten
tomorrow...I find the analyses numbing. It is remarkable to me how we
can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and
yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the
game. Even here, in this book, I worry that I am not up to the task of
explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest
levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or
to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work,
or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual
of being on the court, or making that move, imposing your will, of the
precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim" (pp.
Erving's life since retiring from the NBA has not been easy; he has weathered the death of his son Cory, the death of his mother and a divorce from Turquoise. An associate ripped off Erving for several million dollars in a golf course deal and--though Erving denied it at the time
--Erving's financial troubles contributed to his decision to sell off over 100 pieces from his personal memorabilia collection, including championship rings and MVP trophies.
It is a natural human tendency to downplay and/or excuse one's own flaws and shortcomings but Erving is very candid and blunt about his personal failures. Many people were shocked about the 1999 revelation that Erving was the father of young tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, who had been raised by her mother Samantha, a sportswriter who had an affair with Erving: "Samantha obviously did a fantastic job as a single mom raising her daughter, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for both of them. As I said, there are facets of my life that are less than heroic. This is an area where I wish I could have done it differently...There is no villain here, though I would say--and this is my book--that there is one person who is more at fault in this affair than the rest, and I raise my hand" (p. 408). Erving later had a second child out of wedlock with a different woman, to whom he is now married and with whom he is raising a family: "Whatever shame I feel at having sired children out of wedlock is balanced by the fierce pride I take in them, all of them...As I say, mine is an American life, fully lived, and I am not above reproach for my shortcomings. I hear my mother's stern voice and still feel her disappointment" (p. 418).
tells Erving's story articulately and passionately; the book provides great insight into Erving's life.
Erving spoke with Keith Olbermann about his life and his philosophy:
The entire interview is tremendous but Erving's comments about basketball and aesthetics struck a particular chord with me and they echo my feelings about the sport. I quoted the passage (from page 35) in which Erving described his first thoughts/visions about playing basketball beautifully and artistically;
Erving told Olbermann that George Gervin possessed that artistic quality and that Kevin Durant is the active player who most embodies this trait.
Labels: Boston Celtics, Don Ryan, George Gervin, Julius Erving, Kevin Durant, L.A. Lakers, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, New York Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Virginia Squires
posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM