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Friday, February 24, 2006

Francis and Marbury: Not Exactly the Second Coming of Frazier and Monroe

Isiah Thomas is arguably the greatest 6-1 and under basketball player ever. He did not receive the credit that he deserved as coach of the Indiana Pacers and he got more blame than he should have for the CBA fiasco (the league was in trouble before he got involved and was doomed once the NBA decided to fund its own minor league in the form of the NBDL). As an executive in Toronto and now New York, Thomas has drafted perennial All-Star Tracy McGrady, 1996 Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire, Channing Frye and Nate Robinson. Thomas won an NCAA title and two NBA titles as a player and knows more about basketball than 99% of the people who take such glee at firing shots at him. That said, I am at a loss to explain Thomas' latest move, pairing Steve Francis with Stephon Marbury in the Knicks' backcourt. Francis and Marbury both monopolize the ball, dribbling and dribbling and dribbling until they can work themselves free for a shot. Some have suggested that these two players are in some way similar to Thomas but that is ludicrous: Thomas was a winner at every level of the game, made his teammates better and performed at a high level in the playoffs. Francis and Marbury have never won anything significant, demonstrably do not make their teammates better and scarcely have postseason resumes whatsoever. Marbury has long been the anti-Jason Kidd: Kidd's teams improve when he arrives and get worse when he leaves, while Marbury's teams do the opposite (I know that in some of these cases there were other personnel changes as well, but the trend for both players is very clear). Francis and Marbury are not this generation's Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe and, while Francis' added scoring punch may be worth a win or two this season, there appears to be no semblance of a long term plan of improvement for the Knicks.

Looking at this from Orlando's perspective, the happiest person is probably Dwight Howard, who can actually get some meaningful touches in the post now that Francis is gone. Orlando will now build around Howard, try to find out if Darko Milicic can play or not, and use their extra salary cap room to attempt to woo a free agent; attracting a talented player to come to Florida to play alongside a stud like Howard will not likely be very difficult, so the long term prospects in Orlando are a lot better than they were before. Still, as Orlando Sentinel writer Mike Bianchi points out in his February 23 column, "It's now official: The Magic's trade of Tracy McGrady will go down as one of the worst in recent NBA history. In effect, the Magic traded one of the game's most dominant scorers for what has become Darko Milicic, Carlos Arroyo and Trevor Ariza. Translation: The Magic traded T-Mac for Harpo, Groucho and Darko." I made essentially the same point a month ago in this post:

Revisiting the McGrady-Francis Trade

Bianchi does not share my optimism that Orlando will be able to land a superstar with their salary cap space, suggests that Orlando may be one of the worst teams in the league this year and next year and concludes, "All you can do is shake your head at the fiasco the Magic's trade for Francis has become. Of course, this is what you get when you turn over the keys to an NBA franchise to a minor-league hockey GM. Remember what impressed former GM John Weisbrod the most about Francis before he traded T-Mac for him? True story: Weisbrod was infatuated with Francis because he slugged Phoenix power forward Amare Stoudemire in the mouth after Stoudemire taunted Houston center Yao Ming. In hindsight, Weisbrod wasn't looking for a point guard; he was looking for a goon."

As I have stated and written repeatedly, the Lakers dealing Shaq received a ton of negative publicity but the T-Mac-Francis deal may have more lasting impact by pairing T-Mac and Yao and by setting Orlando back for years; the Magic are very fortunate to have landed Dwight Howard in the draft and his emergence will soften the blow of losing T-Mac for spare parts and loose change.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

All-Star Weekend Recap

NBA All-Star Weekend is a great showcase for the league, from watching future stars in the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge to celebrating the game's history at the Sunday Legends Brunch. During my appearance today on BetUs.com radio, host Matthew Ross asked me what memory stands out most from All-Star Weekend. I told him that it is virtually impossible to single out just one, but that it is hard to top interviewing Charles Barkley, Ian Naismith and Marques Haynes. You can read their thoughts--and take a behind the scenes tour of All-Star Weekend--in the daily reports that I filed from Houston for HoopsHype.com, which can be found here (9/22/15 edit: the HoopsHype links have been removed, so I have reposted the articles at 20 Second Timeout):

Observations from Barkley and Naismith (Friday February 17)

Honoring the past, Anticipating the Future (Saturday February 18)

Spud helps Nate Steal the Show (Sunday February 19)

King James Reigns in Houston (Monday February 20)

In my first report I mentioned five things that I was looking forward to about All-Star Weekend: (1) seeing four Pistons on the court at the same time; (2) watching Nate Robinson in the Slam Dunk Contest; (3) seeing if Kobe Bryant makes a run at Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game record of 42 points; (4) watching Ray Allen in the Three-Point Shootout because he has the game's sweetest, most effortless looking shooting stroke; (5) a moment or play that no one predicted--and no one will ever forget. The first two things came to pass--the four Pistons lineup played a key role in the East's comeback on Sunday and Nate Robinson stole the show by dunking over Spud Webb. Kobe deferred to hometown hero Tracy McGrady, who did make a run at Chamberlain's record by finishing with 36 points. As for Allen, as Charles Barkley said beforehand, he is the best shooter in the contest field whether or not he wins; Dirk Nowitzki defeated Allen and Gilbert Arenas in the finals, but I did enjoy watching Allen shoot. I place Robinson's Spud Webb dunk and Andre Iguodala's flight from behind the backboard in a tie in the category of seeing something that I had not seen before and will never forget. I defy anyone to say that their dunking battle was not electrifying. The misses did detract a little bit from the drama, but I'm sure that I was not the only one who was literally sitting on the edge of his seat waiting to see what would happen next.

Here are some more All-Star thoughts/observations:

When I spoke with Rolando Blackman (at Friday's Lithuanian basketball party) about his game tying free throws at the end of regulation in the 1987 All-Star Game, I mentioned that I was mad at the time because that cost Dr. J (my favorite player) the MVP (the West won in overtime with Tom Chambers capturing MVP). Blackman agreed that his free throws had cost Doc, but I was fascinated by his earnest description of what those two shots meant to him and his career. Most fans probably remember Isiah Thomas playfully trying to distract Blackman before he stepped to the line, but Blackman told me that to him those free throws were "life and death." He did not want to go down in history for costing his team the game. I spoke with him again on Saturday at the All-Star practice. Blackman agreed with me that Rip Hamilton plays a very similar game to his own, coming off screens and being a deadly mid-range shooter. Blackman shot .493 from the field and .840 from the free throw line during his career and prided himself on being a .500/.800 shooter. Like Bob McAdoo, who I wrote about recently for HoopsHype.com (The Numbers Don't Lie), Blackman told me that he valued each shot attempt and would not take low percentage shots.

At last year's All-Star Game in Denver, Kobe Bryant was booed even though he was a Western Conference All-Star playing in a Western Conference city. Obviously, his well documented off-court situation had a lot to do with that, but it is interesting to see how much has changed in a year. Bryant is now a crowd favorite, with fans cheering for him at Saturday's All-Star practice and during Sunday's game. Bryant still receives a lot of criticism in the media, getting negative reviews for leaving his 62 point game early and for supposedly staying in the game too long when he scored 81 points. You can read Kobe's take on all of this in my day three report. I ran into the L.A. Times' Mark Heisler on Sunday and he told me that he thinks that Kobe Bryant is the most driven athlete that he has ever seen--even more than Michael Jordan. He shook his head in amazement when he described Kobe Bryant's grueling workout routine; I said that Bryant reminds me of Jerry Rice, who approached each training camp like he might get cut and ran out every practice play to the end zone, even the short patterns.

During Sunday's Legends Brunch, Hall of Famer Marques Haynes eloquently and passionately urged for the opening of a dialogue with the NBA to set up a pension plan for former Harlem Globetrotters along the lines of what Major League Baseball has done for Negro League players. His remarks from the podium were supposed to be limited to five minutes, but this cause was so important to Haynes that he exceeded that time frame. I spoke with him one-on-one after the brunch and he explained that the Globetrotters and Negro Leaguers were denied professional opportunities for one simple reason--the color of their skin. A pension plan to help the players in their old age is the least that the NBA can do to rectify this historical injustice. This situation is similar to what has befallen the so-called "pre-65ers," the NBA players who retired before the NBA's pension plan was formed. They are not covered by the plan and have had to lobby furiously to receive even token benefits from the league. I asked Dave Cowens, a Hall of Famer, Top 50 player and founding member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, about this and he told me that he believes that the "pre-65ers" will receive more assistance under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. He said that the matter is complicated legally because it is not possible to go into an established pension plan and extend it back further. I suggested that the NBA or Players Association could simply set up a separate fund, which would not be bound by such restrictions, and he agreed that this is a possible solution. With all of the revenue that the owners and current players are receiving it is scandalous that the two groups have not gotten together and set aside a few million dollars to help the players who built the game from the ground up. The "problem" of the "pre-65ers" and the older Globetrotters will disappear naturally in a few years as the members of that generation die off; I would like to believe that David Stern and Billy Hunter are not going to allow this situation to be resolved in that fashion. Shaquille O'Neal paying for George Mikan's funeral is a nice gesture but how about each NBA player--or at least each established NBA veteran--donating money to create a fund to provide for the legends who paved the way for the pot of gold that provides Shaq, Kevin Garnett and others salaries well in excess of $10 million per year?

The All-Star Game is about more than just scoring points; it also showcases basketball’s greatest passers. These are Magic Johnson’s assist totals in All-Star Games between 1983 and 1988: 16, 22, 15, 15, 13, 19. He missed the 1989 game due to injury. Isiah Thomas’ assist totals from 1983 to 1989 were also quite impressive: 7, 15, 5, 10, 9, 15, 14. Those games were high scoring but usually closely contested; two went to overtime (1984 and 1987). Last year at the All-Star Game I asked Magic if he felt that the current All-Stars understand the fine line between showmanship and competitiveness in the All-Star Game and he answered, “They have to understand that there is a fine line. We wanted to put on a show for the fans—let Dr. J be Dr. J, let Dominique be Dominique, Michael Jordan be Michael Jordan, so there were some pretty dunks and pretty moves that they created. But I’m going to tell you something: at the end of the day, both teams were serious about winning. That’s what we’re all about, especially when that second half started—we were at each other’s throats. Shots were being blocked and both teams were trying to win the game.”

The 2004 Rookie Challenge degenerated into a parade of uncontested dunks, a spectacle that is probably my least favorite All-Star Weekend moment. When I asked Julius Erving about that game months afterward, he offered a very passionate reply: “Today’s game, some of these All-Star Games, players have figured out a way to allow guys to dunk the ball and not have it perceived as the guy dunking on somebody. When I was coming up, you rarely could dunk on people and people did not want to get dunked on, it was almost like being ‘posterized’ if somebody dunked on you. Guys tried their best not to let anybody dunk on them. Sometimes they would just grab you rather than let you dunk. That seems to be lost somewhere in what I see with a lot of the high wire act performances. It is almost like, ‘I’m going to let the guy dunk. And I’m going to get far enough out of the picture so nobody is perceiving this as me being dunked on or being posterized.’ I don’t understand the mentality of just letting a guy go in there and throw it down and applauding it, if he’s wearing a different colored uniform. It’s just playing to the crowd but I think that the crowd would respect and appreciate a play being made when somebody is trying to contest it. I think it makes for a great photo-op and a great poster if somebody is there. I remember being in Madison Square Garden and going up for a dunk and Lonnie Shelton was there and my knees were up on his shoulders. He was trying to draw a charge, I guess. Looking at that shot, when somebody is there, it is poetry in motion. Just throwing the ball up and going through the motions, I guess guys don’t want to get hurt. I like watching the dunk contests—but I don’t like a game to turn into a dunk contest with no defense. That does nothing for me.”

After this year's Rookie-Sophomore Challenge, Del Harris--coach of the victorious Sophomore team--proudly noted that his squad held the Rookies below 100 points, a rarity for this event in recent years. Sidney Lowe, who coached the Rookies, said, "In these types of games, players tend to loosen up defensively and allow guys to go in and get dunks. While I think that fans enjoy dunks, I think that they really like the dunk when it is done in competition." No one expects--or wants--All-Star Games to have the defensive intensity associated with game seven of the NBA Finals, but I am pleased that the 2006 Rookie-Sophomore Challenge and All-Star Game were both well contested affairs.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:17 PM