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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kobe Bryant: 2006 NBA MVP

Kobe Bryant's scoring average has hovered around 35 ppg for most of the year and, with one exception, every player who has averaged 34-plus ppg has finished in the top five in MVP balloting. One could argue that the previous 34 ppg scorers should not have received such strong MVP consideration and that a lot of players could score 34-plus points if they took a lot of shots--but this line of reasoning is faulty because very few players could consistently get off 25-plus field goal attempts a game in the NBA, let alone convert enough of them to score 34 points while also rebounding, passing and defending. It may be true that there are a lot of NBA players who are capable of scoring 34 points in a game but very few are capable of averaging 34 points per game for a season.

The criticism that all Bryant cares about is scoring and that his style of play is not conducive to team success is refuted by the fact that the Lakers have a better winning percentage when Bryant scores 40-plus points than when he scores less than 40 points. He is carrying what otherwise would be a Lottery team to the playoffs. Here is my complete take on this year's MVP race:

The NBA regular season is winding down and it will take about two months for the ultimate reality TV series--the NBA playoffs--to determine the 2006 NBA champion. Before that happens, approximately 125 members of the media will cast ballots to select the 2005-06 NBA Most Valuable Player.

The NBA has never defined the criteria for the regular season MVP award--should it go to the best player on the best team, the most statistically productive player or the player who is most indispensable to his team? My standard for selecting an MVP is simple: if I were choosing up sides among all players in the NBA, which player would I select first on the basis of his play during this season (not during his career), disregarding age, salary and any other factors that do not relate directly to his current on-court performance.

There are several worthy MVP candidates, but I would pick Kobe Bryant. Some might object, based on his team's record or the high number of shots that he attempts. Watching the Lakers play without Bryant—either when he is on the bench or during the two games that he missed, both of which the Lakers lost—it is clear that this team would struggle to win 20 games without him. The Lakers are one of the youngest teams in the league and have a promising future, but right now Bryant's prolific scoring, clutch play and will to win are carrying the team. As for his high scoring average and high number of shot attempts, history shows that Kobe Bryant must receive strong MVP consideration. He almost certainly will finish the season with a 34-plus ppg average, something that has been accomplished only 15 times in NBA history and just twice in the ABA. Only once has a player averaged more than 34 ppg and finished outside of the top five in MVP balloting—Wilt Chamberlain scored 44.8 ppg for the 31-49 San Francisco Warriors in 1962-63 and trailed Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Bob Pettit, Jerry West and Johnny "Red" Kerr in that year’s MVP voting. Bryant's Lakers will have a better record than 31-49 and, to paraphrase Rick Pitino, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor and the others are not walking through the door, so if Bryant does not finish in the top five in MVP voting this year it will be an upset of historic proportions.

Chamberlain averaged 34-plus ppg a record six times, winning one MVP and finishing second in MVP balloting two other times during those seasons. Elgin Baylor had three 34-plus ppg seasons, each of them happening in a year during which Chamberlain also averaged 34-plus ppg. Baylor finished second, third and fourth in MVP balloting; in his fourth place year he played in only 48 games due to a military service commitment. Michael Jordan is the only other NBA player to have multiple 34-plus ppg seasons, winning an MVP in 1987-88 when he scored 35.0 ppg for the 50-32 Chicago Bulls and finishing second to Magic Johnson when he averaged 37.1 ppg for the 40-42 1986-87 Bulls. Rick Barry, the only player to win a scoring title in the NCAA, NBA and ABA, is also the only player to have a 34-plus ppg season in the NBA and the ABA. He finished fifth in NBA MVP balloting in 1966-67; in 1968-69 injury limited him to 35 games for the ABA's Oakland Oaks, but his 34.0 ppg average earned him a berth on the All-ABA First Team (Mel Daniels won the ABA MVP that year but I do not have access to ABA MVP balloting totals to determine how many votes Barry received). The only other ABA player to average 34 ppg, Charlie Scott, also did not play a complete season; he jumped to the NBA's Phoenix Suns before the end of the 1971-72 season and was placed on the ABA's suspended list. This perhaps explains why he only made the All-ABA Second Team despite posting the highest scoring average in ABA history (34.6 ppg) and after making the All-ABA First Team the previous year when he averaged 27.1 ppg and shared Rookie of the Year honors with Dan Issel.

Bryant's MVP resume includes a 34.8 ppg average (first in the NBA), 41.1 mpg (fifth in the NBA), 1.81 spg (tenth in the NBA) and .850 free throw shooting (15th in the NBA). He ranks third in the NBA in free throw attempts and first in free throws made; by drawing so many fouls he not only adds to his own point total, he also gets the opposing team in foul trouble and enables the Lakers to get in the bonus early in quarters, which provides more free throw attempts for his teammates. On January 22, he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, an individual single game scoring explosion that ranks second in NBA history behind only Chamberlain's legendary 100 point game. Bryant also had a 62 point game against Dallas in which he outscored the entire Mavericks team for the first three quarters of the game before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Those are the two highest scoring individual games this season; the next best game is a 53 point effort by Allen Iverson. Bryant owns four of the top ten highest scoring games this season and has a league high 21 games of 40-plus points, eight more than Iverson. The Lakers are 14-7 in those games, reinforcing the point that they need Bryant to shoot and score a lot in order to be successful. If Bryant pushes his average over 35.0 ppg he will finish with the ninth highest season scoring average in NBA history and as long as he stays at or above 34.8 ppg he will rank in the top ten all-time.

My MVP ballot would look like this:

1) Kobe Bryant
2) Steve Nash
3) Dirk Nowitzki
4) Tim Duncan
5) LeBron James

Here are my thoughts on the remaining players in my top five and some other players who have been touted as MVP candidates:

Steve Nash won the 2004-05 MVP and is having an even better season this year. He leads the league in apg (10.6) and free throw shooting (.924) and has increased his scoring average from 15.5 ppg to a career-high 19.5 ppg. Nash is having the best rebounding season of his career (4.3 rpg). Most significantly, his Phoenix Suns have seemingly not missed a beat despite the absence of All-Star Amare Stoudemire. Nash's supporters point out that several of his teammates are having career best numbers playing alongside him—but that can be looked at in two ways: it is certainly true that Nash makes his teammates better but he is also playing with some really good players. As Michael Jordan liked to retort early in his career when critics said that Magic Johnson did a better job of making his teammates better, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. If Nash replaced Bryant on this year's Lakers he would not be averaging 10-plus apg because a lot of his passes would be fumbled out of bounds or lead to missed shots. Nash is also, to put it charitably, a less than stellar one-on-one defensive player.

Dirk Nowitzki is averaging career highs in points (26.3 ppg), field goal percentage (.480), free throw shooting (.898) and three point shooting (.417). His stellar play is the biggest reason that the Dallas Mavericks are fighting neck and neck with the San Antonio Spurs to have the best record in the Western Conference.

Tim Duncan has had an off year by his standards, but his numbers are still good (18.8 ppg, 11.0 rpg and 1.9 bpg) and his Spurs may very well finish with the best record in the West. He has been slowed by a lingering foot injury but his impact is undeniable; the defensive attention that he demands makes Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili—good players in their own right—even better by providing them with open driving lanes to the hoop. Duncan's shot blocking and rebounding are the cornerstones of the perennially tough Spurs defense.

LeBron James is having a wonderful season--31.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 6.7 apg--and his numbers look even more stunning when one considers that he is only 21 years old—but Bryant is more productive individually and Nash, Duncan and Nowitzki have all led their teams to significantly better records. James certainly looks like a future MVP, but if I were choosing up sides today based on this season I still would not take him ahead of those guys. In Billboard terms, he is number five with a bullet—rising up the charts with each breathtaking performance.

Dwyane Wade's statistics rank with any player's in the league and his Miami Heat are firmly entrenched in the number two position in the Eastern Conference—but when Shaquille O’Neal was out of the lineup due to injury the team looked very ordinary. Therefore, although his team has a better record than Bryant's Lakers and James' Cavaliers, a significant portion of the credit for that belongs to O'Neal.

Allen Iverson is a four time scoring champion who is enjoying a career year, which is remarkable in itself; it is even more noteworthy considering that he is almost 31 years old and is shorter than his listed height of 6-0. He is averaging more points, assists and rebounds than he did in 2000-01, the year that he won the MVP, but his team is struggling to stay afloat in the playoff hunt.

Chauncey Billups has been mentioned a lot in MVP discussions this season, but I disagree that he belongs in the same category with Bryant, Nowitzki, Nash and James. He is not even clearly the best player on his own team, let alone being MVP of the NBA. The Detroit Pistons have the best starting five in the NBA and could probably absorb the loss of any one starter and still be a very strong team; Ben Wallace is likely the most indispensable part of that lineup because of his rebounding, defense and tenacity. Billups deservedly made the All-Star team and should make the All-NBA Team, but he is not the MVP.

Elton Brand is having a very good year and is helping to lead the Clippers from the doldrums into the playoffs—but, other than his career high scoring average, he has had similar years statistically in the past and the Clippers went nowhere. The difference this year for the Clippers is the steadying presence of Sam Cassell in the lineup. Brand is a perennial All-Star caliber player but not a true MVP candidate in my book.

Five guys who are flying under the radar deserve to at least be mentioned: Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. They are not going to win the award or even finish in the top five, but they merit strong consideration for the All-NBA Team. Marion is having a wonderful all-around season as a scorer, rebounder and defender; Kidd just shut down Billups and Nash in leading the New Jersey Nets to victories over Detroit and Phoenix; there is a lot more to Carter’s game than flashy dunks—he is rebounding, passing and hitting clutch shots; Yao—particularly since the All-Star Break—is establishing himself as the best center in the league.

Some kind of award should be invented for what Tracy McGrady has done this season. His statistics are down from their usual levels and he has missed a ton of games, but if we define "value" purely by how a player affects wins and losses, Tracy McGrady might win the MVP in a landslide. His Houston Rockets are 27-20 with him in the lineup and 3-20 when he doesn’t play. In other words, with McGrady the Rockets look like a solid playoff team and without him they resemble the woeful 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers from 1972-73—despite having an All-Star center in Yao Ming. Has one player ever had that dramatic of an impact on his team’s record?

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:53 PM

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Kidd Can Still Play

Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups have been considered top MVP candidates all season, while Jason Kidd did not make the All-Star team for the second year in a row--but Kidd's performances against Billups and Nash the past two days remind everyone that he is still an elite level player (if I had a vote I would select Kobe Bryant as MVP, but that is a discussion for another day).

On Sunday, the Nets defeated the Detroit Pistons, owners of the best record in the NBA, 79-74, Detroit's first loss at home in a non-overtime game since March 28, 2005. Kidd had 7 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocked shots, outplaying Billups--holding him scoreless for the first three quarters--and controlling the tempo of the game throughout; Kidd's ability to get defensive rebounds speeds up New Jersey's attack, because he does not have to wait for an outlet pass to start a fast break.

It is difficult to imagine a tougher back to back sequence then playing the run and gun Phoenix Suns right after battling the physical, gritty Pistons. The Nets not only rose to the challenge, they annihilated the Suns 110-72 on Monday. Kidd had 9 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in only 27 minutes versus the Suns, while holding Nash to 0 points, 5 assists and 3 rebounds in 26 minutes. I wonder when is the last time that a reigning MVP played more than half of a game and did not score? Kidd did not shoot well in either game, but his passing, rebounding and defense dominated the flow of both games. Kidd held Billups and Nash scoreless in seven of eight quarters--and some of Billups' points actually came in transition when he was picked up by Vince Carter.

It's not like Kidd just started playing well these past two games. He ranks first in the league in triple doubles (6), fifth in apg (8.5), sixth in spg (1.9) and 19th in defensive rebounds per game (6.2, an amazing number for a 6-4 point guard). Kidd is averaging 14.0 ppg, 8.5 apg and 7.3 rpg, very close to his career averages in these categories (14.7, 9.2 and 6.5 respectively) and comparable to his production in seasons for which he earned All-NBA recognition.

The Nets' perimeter trio of Kidd, Carter and Richard Jefferson is as good as any in the NBA and if Nenad Krstic continues to provide a solid contribution in the middle then New Jersey will be a very dangerous playoff team. New Jersey has won nine games in a row, the longest current streak in the league, and will soon clinch the Atlantic Division title and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:17 PM

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March Madness, Part III

Now that we know the identities of the Final Four participants--and if you had George Mason, LSU, UCLA and Florida in your bracket before the NCAA Tournament began, congratulations and please email me what numbers I should play in the lottery--let's examine what we've seen so far in the 2006 version of March Madness.

Most brackets have fizzled like cheap fireworks on the Fourth of July. I actually picked Florida as a Final Four team in the ESPN Tournament Challenge, so at this point the best of my five brackets there ranks on the 96th percentile out of more than 2 million brackets; my first bracket contained my actual predictions and the other four were "wacky" brackets filled with bizarre upsets. Ironically, one of those brackets ranks on the 87th percentile, nearly keeping stride with my "real" picks. Unfortunately, in my best bracket my predicted title game matchup of UConn versus Memphis was about as accurate as J.J. Redick's shooting in the Sweet 16, so I assume that my percentile rank will drop next weekend. On the other hand, this year's Tournament seems to have baffled even the "bracketologists," so maybe most brackets will still be more messed up than mine after the championship game.

Speaking of Redick, he closed out his collegiate career by shooting 3-18 from the field in a 62-54 loss to LSU in the Sweet 16. He had great difficulty creating a shot for himself--at least a good, high percentage shot. He had the ball stolen and on the rare occasions that he got into the lane off of the dribble LSU's big men spiked his shot attempts like they were playing volleyball. Too much shouldn't be made of one game--which is why it is interesting to note that in Duke's four NCAA Tournament losses during Redick's career he shot 13-60 from the field. Read that again; it is not a typo. Against the toughest competition, Redick shot 21.7%. There is no doubt that he is great at shooting open jump shots. The question is, how many open jump shots will he see in the NBA? One thing is certain: with that kind of percentage, he is not going to get 18 shot attempts to find his rhythm. Remember, shooting is Redick's strong point; even at the college level he is not a great rebounder, passer or defender. What about the fact that Redick scored over 2700 points in his NCAA career and finished second in the nation in scoring this year? That must mean something, right? Check out these names: Kevin Granger, Charles Jones, Alvin Young, Courtney Alexander, Ronnie McCollum, Jason Conley, Ruben Douglas, Keydren Clark. Do you have any idea who they are? They are the Division I scoring leaders from 1996-2005 (Jones and Clark each won two Division I scoring titles). As the saying goes, most of those guys aren't even household names in their own homes. Being a great collegiate scorer only translates to the NBA level if you have the physical and psychological components necessary to compete against the world's greatest athletes. I love watching great shooters and it would be tremendous to see a marksman like Redick be successful in the NBA--but I think he'll do a lot better in the Three Point Shootout than he will against NBA defenders.

I know that for many fans March Madness is their favorite basketball event. The NCAA Tournament certainly features many dramatic finishes and the one and done format gives underdogs a chance that they would never have in a seven game series. For students and alumni of the schools involved this is a very exciting time--but the idea that the college game is better, more fundamentally sound or purer than the NBA game defies logic. How can the college game be better or more fundamentally sound when the professional players are obviously bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled? Who in college has post moves like Tim Duncan, passing skills like Steve Nash or a shooting stroke like Ray Allen? Much is made about how poorly NBA players shoot. Then I watch NCAA Tournament games and I see scores in the 70s, 60s, 50s and even 40s. Number one seed Villanova shot 24.7% from the field in its 75-62 loss to Florida; number seven seed Wichita State shot 31.3% from the field in a 63-55 loss to George Mason. Heck, Villanova beat Boston in overtime despite shooting 35.0% from the field. Number two seed Texas shot 30.4% from the field in a 70-60 loss to LSU.

The coup de grace was the "epic" battle of number one seed Memphis versus number two seed UCLA. Memphis shot 31.5% from the field (17-54) and 60% (9-15) on free throws, starting the game 1-13 from the field; their only made field goal in the first 8:24 of the second half came on a goaltending call. UCLA won 50-45 despite shooting 35.0% from the field (14-40) and 51.3% (20-39) on free throws; the Bruins shot 4-17 from the field in the second half. But here is the best stat: Both teams had more turnovers than made field goals--17-14 for UCLA and 18-17 for Memphis. Perhaps this is a small, unrepresentative sample of games--but they are also games by college basketball's best teams in the sport's premier event. When NBA playoff games finish with scores in the 80s we hear that the games are bad and boring. At least the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons have rosters packed with athletes who are playing great defense and making spectacular plays at both ends of the court--Tim Duncan with his balletic post moves, Manu Ginobili making slashing drives, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince erasing shots with great blocks. I don't see those kinds of plays and that level of skill in the college game.

I admit that there has been more to this year's March Madness than missed shots and turnovers. One of the most entertaining NCAA Tournament games that I saw was Texas' 74-71 win over West Virginia. The shooting percentages were decent (both teams were over 45% from the field and 70% from the free throw line), there were a lot less turnovers than field goals and the finish was very exciting--Kevin Pittsnogle's three pointer to tie followed by Kenton Paulino's three pointer to win. Perhaps the best part is that Texas did not call a timeout after Pittsnogle's shot, but instead pushed the ball immediately up the court. Texas Coach Rick Barnes had prepared his team for exactly this situation in practice and trusted his players to execute under pressure. I much prefer coaches who emphasize preparation and execution to coaches who seem to be using timeouts as a means to increase their airtime on national television. Does every single late game play in a college basketball game really need to be preceded by a timeout? What are these teams working on in practice? Coaches should follow the examples of John Wooden and Phil Jackson--prepare your players beforehand and don't engage in sideline theatrics during the game (yes, they were both blessed with great players but they also won championships with those players). If I'm not mistaken, Wooden used to tell his players not to look toward the sideline for help during the game because there was nothing he could do for them at that point; the games are won by the preparation that is done in practice and the correct execution of the game plan by the players during the crucible of competition.

As for the supposed purity of the college game, NCAA sports (not just basketball) are plagued by low graduation rates, recruiting violations and players dealing with various legal troubles. Chicago Sun Times writer Greg Couch just wrote about one such situation, involving the theft of four laptop computers worth $11,000: Marcus Williams, UConn's star point guard, received a slap on the wrist from the school for his involvement in the crime. A.J. Price, a backup player on the team, was suspended for the season while Williams was only suspended until the start of conference play.

Couch writes, "The law gave the players similar sentences, by the way. Specifically, Williams was charged with four counts of third-degree felony larceny and later given something called accelerated rehabilitation, basically 18 months of probation and 400 hours of community service, for being a first-time offender." Here is a link to Couch's complete article on the subject:

UConn's just unjust playing Williams

Please don't think that I am picking on UConn. Choose your favorite--or least favorite--NCAA Tournament team and you likely won't have to dig too far to find examples of double standards, hypocrisy and cutting whatever corners are necessary to assemble a winning team.

Justin Wolfers, a University of Pennsylvania professor, has just written a paper titled Point Shaving: Corruption in NCAA Basketball. He researched nearly every NCAA basketball game played in the last 16 years and discovered that in a disproportionate number of games involving a heavily favored team that the favorite just missed covering the point spread. His research suggests that point shaving is occuring in 6% of such games.

Gambling and point shaving are the elephant in the room that is NCAA sports and everybody involved hopes that the elephant doesn't stomp through the room and trample the golden goose--the multi-billion dollar television contracts that are making everyone (other than the players) rich. Point shaving scandals have popped up every few years for decades; the scandals of 1951 almost destroyed college basketball and another scandal in the 1960s not only damaged the game but tainted the names and affected the careers of innocent men such as Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown.

In the March 29, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ian Thomsen quotes an anonymous NBA scout on the subject of NBA basketball versus NCAA basketball: "The college tournament has our playoffs beat in terms of drama, because it's a 100 yard dash and ours is a marathon. But I get tired of hearing that the NCAA Tournament is pure basketball and superior to what we do. The level of play is the equivalent of Double A baseball (it used to be Triple A--before the teenagers started turning pro). And you've got to be real naive to think it's pure. A lot of the best players have their 'advisers' calling guys like me to see whether their NBA stock is up or down after each game and a lot of coaches are using the tournament to angle for their next job."

I enjoy watching college basketball and look forward to next weekend's Final Four--I just don't accept the premise that NCAA basketball is in any way superior to NBA basketball.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM

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