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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

March Madness, Part II

This is the time of year when "bracket fever" sweeps the nation and the only known cure is to fill out as many brackets as possible before the NCAA Tournament begins. ESPN.com makes this very easy with their free Tournament Challenge contest, which can be found here: ESPN Tournament Challenge Front Page. The winner receives $10,000.

A quick perusal of my preseason NBA predictions shows that, if the playoffs began today, 13 of the 16 teams I selected would qualify--seven of eight in the East (I picked the Knicks instead of the Wizards, which will be fodder for another post) and six of eight in the West (I chose Seattle and Houston instead of Memphis and the Clippers). That indicates a couple things: (1) Even someone who closely follows the NBA cannot predict with absolute certainty what will happen over the course of a season; (2) anyone who is considering making a (legal) wager based on my NCAA Tournament picks should be aware that I keep much closer tabs on pro ball than college ball, so my accuracy percentage with the NCAA figures to work out to something less than a 13/16 ratio.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I can now mention that I filled out the maximum allowed five brackets at ESPN.com and creatively named them "Friedman 1," "Friedman 2," etc. I suppose if things turn out poorly I will regret attaching my name to these selections, but I prefer the simple, direct approach to coming up with some cutesy nickname. "Friedman 1" reflects most closely what I actually think will transpire--a Final Four of Connecticut, Florida, Duke and Memphis, with Connecticut beating Memphis 86-79 in the championship game. I probably did not include enough upsets in the early rounds of this bracket, but so be it. I treated the other four brackets a little like "alternate reality" science fiction stories; the Tournament often resembles an alternate reality, at least in the early rounds prior to the Final Four, which almost inevitably consists of "chalk" teams. One of my brackets has Ohio State beating Texas in the championship game, avenging OSU's football loss to the Longhorns. The others have North Carolina defeating Duke, Connecticut over Syracuse and Connecticut downing Pittsburgh. I included more upsets in those brackets than I did in my first one; it will be ironic if my "wacky" brackets turn out better than my serious one.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:09 AM

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson: More Top 40 Hits Than Anyone on the Billboard Charts

Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson are steadily moving up the all-time charts for 40-point games. Bryant, who has never won a scoring title, currently leads the league in scoring with 35.0 ppg--the best average since Michael Jordan’s 37.1 ppg in 1986-87—and has 19 40-point games in 2005-06. Iverson, a three-time NBA scoring champion, is averaging a career-high 33.2 ppg in 2005-06 and has 13 40-point games this season.

It is undoubtedly true that rules changes restricting physical contact by defensive players against offensive players on the perimeter have boosted scoring, both for individual players and for teams—but Bryant and Iverson were logging 40-point games on a regular basis under the old rules, too. Iverson set a record with five straight 40-point games as a rookie in 1996-97. Bryant had 19 40-point games in 2002-03, including a stretch of nine straight 40-point games, the fourth longest such streak in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks and a 10 game streak).

Bryant has had two particularly remarkable performances this season: an 81 point game, which ranks second only to Chamberlain’s legendary 100 point game, and a 62 point game in which he did not play in the fourth quarter after outscoring the entire Mavericks team by himself in the first three quarters. Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in January, the eighth best scoring average for a month in NBA history (Chamberlain owns the top seven marks). Elgin Baylor is the only other player to average 40-plus ppg in a month; Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to have multiple 40-plus ppg months (Bryant averaged 40.6 ppg in February 2003).

Bryant had 40-plus points in five straight games earlier this season and just had a four game streak, which included a 40 point outing in a 105-94 victory over the defensive minded Detroit Pistons on March 4. Bryant also had a streak of four straight games of 45-plus points this season, a feat which has only been done by Chamberlain and Baylor. Bryant’s best four game span this season is 188 points, the most productive such streak since Michael Jordan had 194 points in four games during the 1989-90 season; Bryant had a four game run of 187 points in 2002-03.

Bryant is known as the NBA’s best “closer” and for good reason: he has scored 18 or more points in five fourth quarters this year, something that no other NBA player has accomplished more than twice in 2005-06. Bryant leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring at nearly 10 ppg (Iverson is second at just over 8 ppg). At this pace Bryant will easily surpass Tracy McGrady’s 8.6 ppg in 2002-03 fourth quarters, the best mark for a complete season in this category since the Elias Sports Bureau began keeping track of individual fourth quarter scoring in 1997-98.

Iverson had five 40-point games in the first 20 games of the 2005-06 season, the first player to accomplish this since Jordan had five in the Bulls’ first 19 games in 1989-90. Iverson has been combining high point totals with high assist totals in many of these games, setting an NBA record by leading his team in points and assists in each of the first 14 games of the season, breaking Oscar Robertson’s record of 13 set in 1962-63. Iverson became only the seventh player in NBA history to have both 40-plus points and 10-plus assists in two consecutive games when he had 40 and 10 versus Houston on Wednesday March 1 and 47 and 12 in a 119-113 victory over Washington on Friday March 3. Jordan and Nate Archibald are the only players to ever have three such consecutive games.

The suggestion that Bryant and Iverson hurt their teams by taking a lot of shots and scoring a lot of points is demonstrably false. Bryant’s teams are 40-19 in his 40-point games during his career, including 12-7 in 2005-06; Iverson’s career record in such games is 49-23, including 8-5 in 2005-06.

Bryant and Iverson’s impressive production this season inevitably inspires an examination of the record book to obtain some historical perspective on what we are witnessing. Chamberlain is the standard bearer in the category of 40-point games, as he is regarding most statistics relating to scoring and rebounding. No one is going to even approach his records, let alone catch them, but they are worth mentioning here just as a reminder of how ridiculously dominant he was: 271 career 40-point games; a 14 game streak of 40-plus points; a nine game streak of 45-plus points; 63 40-point games in one season (1961-62; also had 52 40-point games in 1962-63).

As some additional food for thought, here is the top ten list for career regular season 40-point games by NBA players:

Wilt Chamberlain 271
Michael Jordan 173
Elgin Baylor 88
Oscar Robertson 77
Allen Iverson 72
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 70
Rick Barry 70
George Gervin 68
Jerry West 66
Kobe Bryant 59

Bryant recently passed Bob McAdoo, who now ranks 11th with 58 40-point games. Barry had an additional 45 regular season 40-point games during his four year ABA career, so he actually ranks third on the list of professional regular season 40-point games behind only Chamberlain and Jordan. Only the totals posted by Chamberlain, Jordan and Barry (counting his efforts from both leagues) seem to be definitely out of reach for Bryant and Iverson.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 PM

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March Madness, Part I

I will post my NCAA Tournament picks later today or tomorrow, but first I want to compare two prominent NCAA players. Here are their senior year statistics (I inserted the asterisks to separate the numbers and make them more readable):

*********** FG% *** 3 Pt. FG% * FT %
Player 1 *** .462 *** .441 *** .842
Player 2 *** .477 *** .421 *** .877

Player 1 is 6-3, 197 pounds and averages 3.4 rpg and 1.9 apg; Player 2 is 6-4, 190 pounds and averages 2.0 rpg and 2.7 apg. Player 2 averages roughly six more FGA and three more FTA per game, which accounts for his higher scoring average (27.4 ppg versus 17.3 ppg) despite their similar shooting percentages. Does one of these players "look" like a significantly better NBA prospect?

Player 1 is Trajan Langdon, who the Cleveland Cavaliers selected with the 11th pick in the 1999 NBA draft. He averaged 5.4 ppg in three NBA seasons, never shooting better than .431 from the field. Langdon shot .910 from the free throw line in his NBA career; he was a great pure shooter, but he was unable to consistently get his shot off against NBA defenders (or guard NBA players at the other end of the court). Player 2 is J.J. Redick, who is a better college player than Langdon was and probably will be a better pro--but is he truly worthy of being a Lottery pick? Today on BetUs.com radio I talked about Redick's pro prospects. Someone compared Redick to former NBA All-Star Jeff Hornacek, but Hornacek was a better rebounder, passer and defender than Redick and at least as good a shooter--Hornacek averaged as much as 5.0 rpg in an NBA season, had another year in which he averaged 6.9 apg and had 11 straight NBA seasons with 100-plus steals. Hornacek's NBA career shooting numbers in each category (.496/.877/.403) are as good or better than the numbers Redick has put up against college players this year. I will be very interested to see how highly Redick is drafted and what kind of NBA player he turns out to be. I strongly suspect that he will be selected higher in the draft than he should be, particularly if he performs well in the NCAA Tournament.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 PM

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The Pacers Take Care of Business Versus the Magic

What is the difference between a solid playoff team and a team that is headed straight for the Draft Lottery? The Indiana Pacers' 97-83 win over the Orlando Magic at Conseco Fieldhouse on Monday night provided a concise answer: toughness and the ability to execute down the stretch separate the contenders from the also-rans.

In his postgame standup, Magic Coach Brian Hill said, "We didn't box out. We gave up key offensive rebounds down the stretch. But, I felt where we really got hurt was the first half. I really don't think that we came into the game with the mindset that we were going to come out and win the basketball game. I thought that we were very timid defensively."

Orlando actually led 19-13 with 4:59 to go in the first quarter on the strength of Dwight Howard's 11 points but the Pacers then went on a 21-4 run and never trailed again (Orlando tied the game early in the third quarter and again early in the fourth quarter).

The Magic do have an intriguing blend of young, talented players. Howard's game continues to develop by leaps and bounds--he literally leaps over people and grabs a prolific amount of rebounds, finishing with 22 points and 11 boards versus the Pacers. Hedo Turkoglu had an off shooting night (4-12 from the field) but the soon to be 27 year old forward should provide an outside shooting complement to Howard's inside game for many years. Jameer Nelson and Carlos Arroyo will battle for the starting point guard position now that Steve Francis has been shipped to the Knicks. Perhaps the most intriguing piece to the Magic puzzle is Darko Milicic, the new arrival from Detroit who had been buried deep on the Pistons' bench behind the talented frontline of Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Antonio McDyess. Milicic is playing significant NBA minutes for the first time in his brief career and early returns suggest that he has bona fide skills. Against the Pacers he scored eight points on 4-8 shooting from the field while grabbing three rebounds and blocking five shots in just over 23 minutes of action. He only had two assists but he exhibits good court vision, a willingness to pass the ball and the ability to deliver a variety of passes, including lobs and one hand bounce passes. Orlando uses him mainly as a screener in high pick and rolls or side pick and rolls and most of his baskets came on jump shots after a double-teamed guard kicked the ball back to Milicic.

Danny Granger and Anthony Johnson led the Pacers with 21 points each; Granger also had 12 rebounds.

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Notes From Courtside:

Before the Cavs-Mavs game in Cleveland last April I watched Dallas assistant coach Mark Bryant working with Dallas big men Pavel Podkolzin and D.J. Mbenga. Bryant was sweating so much that I remarked to him afterwards that it seemed like he was getting more of a pregame workout than some players and that he must be the hardest working assistant coach in the league, at least in terms of on court exertion. Now Bryant is an assistant coach with the Magic, but he has not slacked off on his pregame activities. Before Monday's game he played one-on-one versus veteran Magic forward Bo Outlaw. One of them positioned himself on the low left block and received a pass from a ball boy, while the other one tried to stop him from scoring. If the offensive player scored he retained possession. Bryant relied on size and power, while Outlaw used finesse and quickness. On this night, finesse and quickness prevailed. I reminded Bryant about watching him with Pokolzin and Mbenga last year and he told me that he is just trying to teach his players the tricks of the trade, hastening to add that Outlaw has been around so long that he knows most of them already.

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Outlaw exudes as much joy as any NBA player I've ever seen. Whether he's playing one-on-one with Bryant, dancing to the music playing over the p.a. system, chatting with fans or arena personnel or just spinning a ball on his finger, his happiness and welcoming smile are contagious. That spirit is surely one of the things that has helped him to have a 13 year NBA career after not being drafted.

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Jameer Nelson's shooting percentages are up across the board over his rookie numbers--his field goal percentage has increased from .455 to .473, his three point percentage has soared from .312 to .417 and his free throw percentage has improved to a solid .769 from .682. He worked very diligently on his shot before Monday's game, shooting three pointers from the top of the key, the elbow and the baseline and then some free throws, finishing off by draining two straight shots from midway between the three point line and half court. His best spot seemed to be from the top of the key, although he shot well from all locations. Nelson shot 3-7 from the field and 1-2 from the free throw line against the Pacers and did not attempt a three point shot.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM

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