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Monday, May 08, 2006

To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

NBA superstars constantly face the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" Their teams depend on them to shoulder a significant scoring load and to make difficult shots under pressure--but they also need them to create open opportunities for their teammates. Let's look at two recent examples of superstars grappling with the question "To shoot or not to shoot?" On Saturday night, Kobe Bryant's L.A. Lakers faced the daunting task of winning a game seven in Phoenix. The Lakers' game plan for most of the series was to pound the ball inside but right from the start of game seven it became apparent that the plan was not working: neither Lamar Odom nor Kwame Brown could make a shot. Bryant did not shoot much in the first quarter but in the second quarter he asserted himself offensively, scoring 18 points, and that turned out to be the only quarter of the game that the Lakers outscored Phoenix (30-28). He scored 23 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in the first half but the Lakers trailed by 15 because their defense was atrocious and nobody besides Bryant could score.

When the second half began, the Lakers again tried to establish their inside game but were never able to do so. Bryant's only point of the quarter came on a free throw after a technical foul and the Lakers trailed by 25 going into the fourth quarter, making that period academic for the purposes of this discussion. During the game and then afterwards, TNT's Charles Barkley first criticized Bryant for shooting too much in the first half and then blasted him for not shooting enough in the second half. On Sunday morning, the ensemble cast of ESPN's Sports Reporters weighed in with their disapproval of Bryant's play as well. The whole scenario is very comical. Critics have spent this whole season--and much of Bryant's career--labelling Bryant a selfish gunner who cares more about scoring than winning, despite the fact that Bryant was the primary playmaker on three championship teams. Bryant did not shoot a lot for long stretches of the first four games of the series against Phoenix. Why should nefarious motives be ascribed to him not shooting during the third quarter of game seven, particularly since he was constantly double-teamed? The same guys who are blasting him now would have blasted him even more severely if he had attempted shots with two defenders on him. Mike Lupica made the comment that two defenders couldn't stop Bryant from hitting the game winner in game four, intimating that Bryant must have been pouting to not attempt more shots against double-teams in game seven. Of course Bryant can shoot--and connect--against double-teams. That is one of the things that makes him special and one of the major reasons that the Lakers even made the playoffs--but against Phoenix, Coach Phil Jackson made establishing an inside game the Lakers' top priority. Bryant went along and the strategy worked, to a point. But, as TNT's Kenny Smith astutely observed, guys who are not accustomed to being big time scorers are unlikely to be able to produce high point totals for the duration of a seven game series.

Bryant's production in the fourth quarter of game seven is a moot point, because the game was long out of reach by then; people who are making a big deal of him only attempting three shots in the entire second half are ignoring the fact that the Lakers had no realistic chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, whether Bryant sat for the whole quarter (like LeBron James did on Sunday--see below) or jacked up 15 shots in 12 minutes--even down the stretch of the third it was apparent that only a complete Phoenix collapse could save the Lakers. What happened in game seven is that Bryant played the same way that he played in the Lakers' wins but his teammates failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to score against one-on-one (or one-on-none) coverage while two defenders shadowed Bryant's every move; how exactly is this Bryant's fault?

On Sunday in the first game of the San Antonio-Dallas series, the Spurs' Tim Duncan put up first half scoring numbers very similar to Bryant's from the night before (20 points on 8-14 shooting). The other Spurs looked sluggish on offense in the first half but they played good enough defense to only trail by six at halftime. Duncan scored only one point from the 5:57 mark of the second quarter until the 1:32 mark of the third quarter. Duncan's slam dunk at that time cut the Mavericks' lead to two and the Spurs eventually won, 87-85. Duncan made several key baskets down the stretch of the game.

No one would suggest that Duncan was pouting when he hardly scored for a quarter and a half, but the biggest difference between Bryant and Duncan in these two examples is not what each one did but the amount of help that each one received from his teammates. Bryant and Duncan are two special players who each do whatever it takes to help their teams win. What other great NBA player has ever had his decision making process as closely scrutinized as Kobe Bryant's is, his every shot attempt (or lack of a shot attempt) placed under a microscope?

In Sunday afternoon's other game, Detroit wiped out Cleveland 113-86. LeBron James had 22 points but he did not score in the fourth quarter--let's start an investigation (just kidding; James did not see a second of playing time in the final period because the game was so far out of reach).

Detroit is a much better team than Cleveland but they are not 27 points better. Last year Detroit lost three game twos but recovered to win the series on two occasions and extended the Spurs to seven games in the NBA Finals before losing. Expect game two of this series to be much closer than game one and don't be shocked if Cleveland pulls off the upset. The Cavaliers will win a game this series before Detroit finishes them off and I think that it will either be game two or game three.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:42 AM

7 comments

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7 Comments:

At Monday, May 08, 2006 8:47:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Wow you love Bryant dont you. I know you dont but look. The point is that it was game seven. They were only down 15. Why should anyone worry if he takes too many shots? Bryant stopped shooting was was something that he will think about all summer. If he would went out shooting against double teams trying to win the game and the critics still call him selfish then the critics are just hating. If he went out shooting and they won the series then the critics would also say how great he is.

Smith's comments that guys arent accustomed to being high scorers for a whole 7 game series means that Bryant should really keep shooting. The 23 he had in the first half was needed to keep the Lakers in the game and was beautiful to watch. Everytime he touched the ball he scored. You think Jordan (who everyone compares and wants him to be) would have went out like that. You know he wouldnt. People say he is a selfish gunner. So what? Wasnt Jordan, West, Barry, Chamberlain or any great scorer a gunner?

Of course the fourth quarter means nothing but to see him score 56 in the second half against the Raptors when the Lakers were down 18 at halftime showed me that he could have brought them back. Of course the Raptors arent the Suns but still he showed he could score whenever he wanted with double teams. When he played Toronto he shot everytime to score those 81. He really wanted that game and its not like the Suns or Raptors play great defense or tried to foul him.

Plus Barkley doesnt like Bryant that much. Remember when TNT picked the next 10. Barkley didnt have Bryant there. When has he said anything good about Bryant?
Also when Bryant played the same way when the Lakers were winning the Lakers werent down by 15. They were leading most of those games.

 
At Monday, May 08, 2006 8:55:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Duncan is not a gunner you know that. The problem I had was that Nowiztki only scored 2 points in the fourth quarter. They wont win that way.
The reason Bryant is scrutinized so much is the Jordan factor. I know you heard Mark Jackson say Bryant will be the best ever. Everyone misses Jordan and wants the next Jordan. I guess everyone forgot how good Jordan was or Magic or Bird. Do you think Bryant is better than Bird or Magic? No. True indeed Bird and Magic had hall of fame players but Bryant had the fifth best center ever. Plus Bryant wants to be Jordan. From the tucking in the shooting shirt to the pump of the fist he wants to be Jordan. It doesnt make sense but most critics dont.

 
At Monday, May 08, 2006 7:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Hey, you write here almost as much I do now :) Keep it up; I appreciate the feedback.

As an observer I admit that I would have preferred to see Kobe go down shooting as opposed to passing the ball to guys who just didn't have it. My point was not to discuss what I would have like to see--or even what Kobe should or shouldn't have done--but to shed light on the type of scrutiny that Kobe receives. How he is discussed and perceived is very interesting and probably reveals more about the commentators than it does about him. I agree that Barkley seems to harbor a deep animus toward Bryant--and I don't think that he is the only commentator who feels that way. Look at the MVP voting. Kobe received the second most first place votes but only finished fourth; that means that a lot of voters left him completely off the ballot, which is completely insane.

Of course Duncan is not a gunner but the point is that he and Bryant did basically the same thing but Duncan received more help from his teammates and critics choose to portray the situations as completely different. The ideas that Kobe would tank a game to "prove a point" or that he doesn't know how to share the ball or win championships are all absurd but this nonsense is all that we will hear about Kobe until next season starts.

At the All-Star Break I talked to Kobe about being criticized for sitting out the fourth quarter of his 62 point game and being criticized for continuing to shoot in his 81 point game. Since he gets criticized either way I asked him if he felt like he should err on the side of shooting too much. He told me that he could care less what critics say and that he always does what he thinks is right, regardless of what critics say. Despite all the psychoanalyzing that is going on now about Kobe's motives I am sure that in game seven he thought that what he was doing offered his team the best chance to win; whether or not he was correct in that assessment is a different question. I thought that the Lakers had a slight chance to win the game before tipoff but within five minutes I thought that they had no chance, regardless of what Kobe would do. The man can't score 100 points and shut down an entire team by himself and that's what it would have taken to win considering how little support he received from his teammates.

ESPN's Ric Bucher made an interesting point today. So many people are saying that Jordan would not go out shooting only three times in the second half, but Bucher turned that around and asked if Jordan would have accepted scoring 22-23 ppg to help his team win like Kobe did during the first part of the series. The answer is obviously no. I believe that Jordan actually cared more about scoring titles and his stats than Kobe does. I'm not saying that this is necessarily bad, but the man did not win 10 scoring titles by being indifferent to his stats. Kobe accepted being second fiddle to Shaq well enough to win three titles. Shaq being unwilling to play with Kobe and wanting a max deal for max years is why he ended up in Miami.

 
At Thursday, May 11, 2006 9:17:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

I love the game and I see that you do so I comment on it.

You say Jordan cared more about scoring and stats than Bryant did. Well what about now? Hes always cared about scoring and stats. The only reason he couldnt as much is because of O'Neal. He had no choice but to play second fiddle to one of the best centers ever. Jordan never had a great center. What if Jordan had a great center in their prime?

If you score 81 in a game you definitely care about stats. He was tripled teamed that game and didnt pass. True indeed Toronto was stupid and didnt foul but Bryant shot everytime.
I think Bryant is a great scorer (the past few years he has fooled people thinking he is so great defensively. He doesnt stop anybody anymore and was at his best defensively when O'Neal was there). People just forget how great Jordan was. There was a season when Jordan was 32,8,8, shooting 54%.

Jordan definitely wouldnt score 22 to help his team win because his team wouldnt win if he did, which is why Bryant should have tried to score more in game 7.

 
At Thursday, May 11, 2006 7:04:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Let's not forget that the Lakers won Kobe's 81 point game and that they were trailing by double digits before he went off. He was only shooting against double teams after his teammates showed that they were not able to make any shots that night. Kobe shot an excellent percentage and his team won the game. At least 70 of his points came when Toronto was at least theoretically within striking distance and I don't think that you can begrudge him the last few baskets considering how he brought his team back from nowhere. It's not like he went into the game thinking that Toronto is weak defensively so I'll jack up a lot of shots right from the start. He keeps saying that he does whatever he has to so that his team has the best chance to win and his actions support that so I don't know why so few people are willing to take his words at face value. He has won three championship rings already, so he knows something about winning titles--and a lot more about that subject than most people who are criticizing him incessantly.

It is easy to forget now how difficult it was for coaches to get Jordan to shoot less and involve his teammates more. Even in the Bulls' first NBA Finals appearance, Phil Jackson had to call a timeout after Jordan went on one of his shooting forays and ask MJ, "Who's open?" Jackson kept asking him until MJ admitted, "Paxson." MJ finally started passing him the ball, Paxson nailed open jumpers from all angles and the Bulls won their first title. We'll never know how a young Michael Jordan who had not yet won scoring titles and MVPs would have handled playing alongside a dominant player like Shaq. Would MJ have liked scoring less than he was capable of scoring at that point in his career? Kobe accepted this role well enough to win three titles. It is easy to forget that in the first seven years of Jordan's career he received a lot of the same criticisms that Kobe does now in terms of shooting too much and not playing a style that is conducive to winning (I think that a lot of the criticism was unwarranted, as is the criticism of Kobe). Yes, Jordan's teams needed him to shoot a lot just to be competitive in his first two or three years but Jordan kept shooting a lot even after Pippen, Grant and others arrived on the scene. He made sure that he always won the scoring title. Again, I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is my opinion that while both Jordan and Kobe care about their scoring numbers that Jordan focused on it even more and was even more reluctant to shoot less frequently.

A perimeter defender is always going to be able to take more chances if he has a shotblocker behind him, so it is true that Bryant had more freedom defensively when he played with Shaq, but I do not think that his defense has fallen off to the extent that you are suggesting.

 
At Thursday, May 11, 2006 11:00:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Jordan definitely received a lot of criticism for his ball hogging. I remember that clip when Jackson said whose open. That was definitely key in the Bulls winning.

Bryant's defense is nowhere near where it was with Shaquille. Obviously having a center helps. But the "analysts" make it seem like he is stopping players. And they say that he is a better defender than James. I see James averaging 2-3 stls a game (a lot of it passing lanes). Bryant is and will be all-defense off of his name, and there is no problem with that.

 
At Friday, May 12, 2006 12:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It was just announced that Bryant made All-Defensive First Team this year after being left off of the First and Second Teams last year. He tied with Jason Kidd for the last slot, so there are actually six First Teamers (the others are Bowen, B. Wallace, Kirilenko & Artest). This voting is done by the NBA head coaches (who are not allowed to vote for players from their own teams), not media personnel, so I don't think that people are making the team based on "name." LeBron gets a lot of steals because he is great at using his athleticism in the passing lanes but he is also out of position a lot and does not appear to be quite as committed to that end of the court as he is to the offensive end. Granted, he has made great strides on defense in a short period of time and he carries a very heavy offensive burden but I can assure you that few coaches or scouts in the NBA would take LeBron over Kobe at the defensive end of the court at this stage of their careers. In case you're wondering, LeBron received one First Team vote and no Second Team votes--so out of 29 coaches (since his own coach can't vote for him) only one deemed him worthy of being on the All-Defensive Team. Kobe will often take the challenge of guarding the other team's best offensive player, particularly at the end of games.

 

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