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

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Payton's Place

Gary Payton, the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year and a nine-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team, played excellent defense against Kobe Bryant in the Miami Heat's 97-92 victory over the L.A. Lakers. Bryant finished with 37 points but shot 12-30 from the field--including 0-8 on three pointers--and only scored 13 points in the second half. Payton also made a significant offensive contribution, with a game-high 21 points on blazing 9-11 shooting.

Dwyane Wade had 18 points, but seemed out of sorts for much of the game, shooting only 5-15 and committing a flagrant foul against Bryant early in the third quarter; just prior to that Bryant had caught Wade in the head with an elbow while jostling for post position but was not whistled for a foul. Wade's foul was his fourth of the game and right after that he received a technical foul and Coach Pat Riley sat him down for the rest of the quarter.

Miami is now 3-0 versus the Lakers since Los Angeles traded Shaq to the Heat. The circumstances that led to that move are still disputed by O'Neal and the Lakers organization, as shown by some of the recent public comments issued by both sides. Lakers owner Jerry Buss said, "I think Laker fans are going to say 'OK, let's see now who was right,' but to me it's obvious I did the right thing. I'd make the same decision 100 out of 100 times. To me, the risk-reward ratio wasn't there. It was not only a question of whether the man was going to be in shape, but what were his true salary demands going to be." In an interview with Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak explained, "If we extended Shaquille, which would have been at the time three years beyond the two years he had remaining, that would be five more years with him. And in this business, great players lead to winning seasons, winning games, lead to rewards which are contract extensions where they get increases. And that's all fine and good until you get to a certain age where you don't want to look around and have your great players at advanced ages locked up for huge amounts of dollars. That's when it starts to get scary and that's what we wanted to avoid--where we would financially strap our flexibility with the franchise. And we in fact offered Shaquille a two year extension to make him the highest paid player in the league. And he wasn't able to accept that deal. He wanted the third year and we weren't willing to do the third year. So that led to the trade."

O'Neal fired back that Buss is not an "honest businessman" because he won't say the real reason behind the trade and, noting that he won three Finals MVPs with the Lakers, concluded, "He had to make a choice, the young guy or the old guy. He made his choice and good luck with his choice." Although Shaq suggested that Buss is lying, when Shaq says that Buss chose the "young guy" (Bryant) he is in fact agreeing with what Buss and Kupchak stated; making a strategic choice to go with the "young guy" is not at all the same thing as being forced into a corner because Bryant was unwilling to play with Shaq and issued some kind of explicit or veiled ultimatum that the Lakers trade Shaq or else. The bottom line is that, contrary to what is repeated ad nauseum, there is no evidence that Kobe forced the Lakers to choose between keeping him or Shaq. It is clear that he did not run off Coach Phil Jackson, either, since Jackson is now back on the Lakers bench and has the team playing much better than it did last year, particularly on defense.

Buss determined that Shaq would not be worth $20 million or more per year three or four years from now. Truthfully, is he worth that even now? Shaq had 18 points and 17 rebounds versus the Lakers. He is not as dominant as he was a few years ago, is carrying extra weight and he seems to be more prone to injury; it is unlikely that he will become more dominant, lose weight or become healthier in the coming years. If Shaq does not lead the Heat to a title then what kind of return does the Heat franchise have on their substantial investment? The Heat are considered to be legitimate title contenders and the Lakers are supposed to be a rebuilding team, yet the Lakers played the Heat right down to the wire; if you watched the game without knowing the back story would you really think that one team is appreciably better than the other? This is probably as good as it will get for Miami. Shaq may very well play a little better as the year goes on and he rounds into shape--but he could also get hurt again and miss more games. The Lakers have one of the youngest rosters in the league and seem to be improving week by week. Shaq and the Heat are no doubt thrilled for winning today's battle but only time will tell if they have won the war; if the Heat don't win a title with Shaq and the Lakers are back in the Finals in three years, Buss will literally be laughing all the way to the bank.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:47 PM


Spurs Shoot Blanks in Finals Rematch

The Detroit Pistons dominated the San Antonio Spurs 85-70 in a lopsided rematch of the tightly fought 2005 Finals. You know the cliche about a game being closer than the final score? This game was not as close as the final score indicated. Although the Spurs made a run in the third quarter and only trailed by four entering the final quarter, Detroit seemed able to pull away at will. The Pistons' paint dominance is demonstrated by their 57-30 rebounding advantage; Ben Wallace's 21 rebounds nearly doubled Tim Duncan's 11. Chauncey Billups led the Pistons with 20 points, while Tony Parker had 19 for the Spurs. Tim Duncan scored 18 points, but shot only 9-20 from the field and 0-3 on free throws.

The first quarter of this game surely ranks as one of the strangest ever played by a defending champion. Detroit outscored San Antonio 18-8--and Parker had all of the Spurs' points. In the Spurs' defense, it should be noted that All-Star Manu Ginobili, who was the best player on the court for significant stretches in the 2005 Finals, did not play due to injury. His energy would no doubt have helped the Spurs to be more competitive; Michael Finley, his replacement, shot 1-7 and scored only 3 points.

The Pistons are without question the top story so far this season; their 22-3 record is tied for the fourth best start in NBA history and ABC studio analyst Scottie Pippen believes that they can make a serious run at 70 wins. The Pistons fly under the radar because they do not possess the star power of the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Jordan-Pippen Bulls teams that won 72 and 69 games or the 1971-72 Chamberlain-West-Goodrich Lakers team that won 69 games. Those teams were coached by Phil Jackson and Bill Sharman respectively, who both already had extensive championship pedigrees--Jackson had won one title as a player and three as a coach by 1996, while Sharman had won four titles as a player and one as an ABA coach. It is important to remember that those three teams capped off their dominant regular seasons by winning championships. Pistons coach Flip Saunders' playoff record is less than stellar and, no matter what Detroit does in the regular season, Saunders must prove that he can lead a team on an extended playoff run. It remains to be seen if the Pistons can (A) keep up this pace and (B) go on to win a championship but there is no denying that the way they are playing right now is most impressive. They are the best team in the league and, assuming that the Spurs are the second best team, no one else is even close.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:15 PM