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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Kobe Scores 51 but the Lakers Play Like Zeroes

The Phoenix Suns defeated the L.A. Lakers 107-96 on Friday night in an interesting showdown between two leading MVP candidates, the Suns' Steve Nash and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Nash led the Suns with 25 points and eight assists and he had a lot of help--six other Suns scored in double figures, including Leandro Barbosa, who contributed 23 points and five assists off the bench. Kobe Bryant scored a U.S. Airways Center record 51 points, shooting 19-33 from the field (including 5-11 from three point range) and 8-10 on free throws. He also had five rebounds and three assists.

Bryant is criticized for supposedly shooting too much and not making his teammates better but the more I watch this Lakers team the more I am convinced that he in fact is not shooting enough; the rest of the Lakers shot 18-49 from the field against Phoenix but that only tells part of the story. In one sequence Kwame Brown missed three straight point blank shots without once going up strong or drawing a foul. Later in the game Kobe found Smush Parker with a great pass only to have Parker shoot a soft attempt that Boris Diaw easily swatted away. Bryant is an excellent passer and delivers the ball equally well in drive and kick situations or when he is double-teamed. The reason that Bryant is not racking up huge assist totals is that when he drives and kicks to perimeter shooters (or dumps the ball into the post if the big man picks him up) his teammates squander these open opportunities. Bryant's passes out of double teams are usually followed by a second pass to the weak side for an open shot (which is often missed); in any case, unlike in hockey, basketball does not award an assist for the pass that leads to the pass that results in a score. (Speaking of hockey, the way that Nash dribbles behind the basket on one side and comes out the other to either make a shot or deliver an assist is reminiscent of how Wayne Gretzky operated in his "office" behind the goalie.)

Bryant's presence draws double teams and creates openings for his teammates. Why is it his fault if they do not take advantage of these situations? If Nash played for the Lakers would Kwame Brown more frequently convert his passes to scores than he does with Bryant's passes? The other part of the "anti-Kobe" argument is that Bryant takes bad shots and does not shoot a great percentage. In fact, the latter contention does not hold much water when Bryant's three point shooting and free throw shooting are all considered, creating what is known as a "true shooting percentage." As for taking bad shots, Bryant gets stuck with a lot of what I call "hand grenade" shots--the Lakers fumble around for 20 seconds or more and then lob the ball to Bryant as the 24 second shot clock is about to "explode." A perfect example of that came when Bryant hit a long three pointer with 9:53 left in the third quarter to cut Phoenix' lead to 67-57. The Lakers meandered around aimlessly for about 20 seconds before Bryant touched the ball. He makes a lot of those shots but over the course of a season those "hand grenades" destroy his field goal percentage--but at least they have a chance of going in. On the next two Lakers possessions, Kwame Brown had a three second violation and Lamar Odom turned the ball over trying to pass to Brown in the post. The Lakers then got a stop and Bryant cut the lead to eight with his patented turnaround fadeaway from the left elbow. After Odom scored a layup on a nice pass from Brown, Bryant hit a three pointer in transition and the Lakers were only down 67-64. As ESPN went to a commercial break, Mike Tirico stated what should be obvious to everybody: Kobe Bryant is having an amazing season and must receive serious MVP consideration. He scored 30 points on 12-20 shooting in the first half (the Lakers trailed 64-52) and had 38 of the Lakers' 64 points at the 7:35 mark of the third quarter.

Brown managed to get another three second violation at the 3:24 mark and Nash quickly responded with a jumper to make the score 77-70, Phoenix. ESPN commentator Bill Walton suggested that Phoenix should consider simply double teaming Bryant anywhere on the court and make him give up the ball because "this team (the Lakers) is not good at getting the ball back to Kobe." Casual fans may think this sounds insane but if you actually watch the games it is true--as much as Kobe shoots, there are many occasions when he is open or has a favorable matchup and does not receive the ball. This is because his work ethic and knowledge of the offense enables him to get open or use screens to force switches that favor him. After one of Bryant's missed shots earlier in the game, Walton observed that the blame actually belonged to Bryant's teammates for failing to deliver him the ball early enough in the shot clock when he had Nash posted up. By the time Kobe received the ball the clock was winding down and a double team had arrived--and yes, Walton, who is known for making outlandish or tongue-in-cheek remarks, was being serious when he said these things.

Bryant scored 13 of the Lakers' 27 third quarter points and at the start of the final period Phoenix only led 80-79. Bryant already had 43 points--his fourth straight game of 40-plus points--and Nash had 25 points and eight assists. Phil Jackson rested Bryant until the 9:27 mark, by which time Phoenix was ahead 86-79. Jackson used to employ a similar substitution pattern with Michael Jordan during the Chicago Bulls' glory days, resting Jordan during the timeout between quarters and then for the first part of the final period, but the strategy works a lot better when you have Scottie Pippen anchoring the second unit. Bryant did not touch the ball during the Lakers' first possession with him back on the court, which culminated in a wild miss by Odom. Bryant then missed his first two attempts before scoring on a lefty layup to cut the lead to 93-83. By then momentum had completely swung in Phoenix' direction and the Lakers did not mount a serious threat again. I've heard of "icing" a shooter but that is usually done to an opposing player. It seemed like the Lakers "iced" Kobe in the fourth, sitting him when he was playing well and then not reintegrating him into the game until it was too late.

The game was a play in three acts: Act I (first half), Kobe keeps the Lakers in striking distance, scoring 30 points on 12-20 shooting while his teammates muster only 22 points on 8-27 shooting; Act II (third quarter), Kobe pulls the Lakers to within one; Act III (fourth quarter), Kobe sits, Lakers fall apart and are never able to make a run even when he returns. These teams may very well meet in the first round of the playoffs. Walton suggested that if that happens the Lakers should consider going to a small lineup, shifting Odom to center to guard Boris Diaw.

One respondent to my article that touted Bryant for MVP felt that I did not fully develop my argument that Bryant is a better player than Nash, who I picked second. I had said that if Nash were on the Lakers they would have a worse record than they do now because Nash would get fewer assists passing to the Lakers and would not be able to score like Bryant does. My critic asked me to address the flipside--how would Bryant do in Nash's place on the Suns? Friday's game is a perfect example to prove my point: Phoenix only led by one after three, Nash did not play in the fourth and the Suns won going away. They have a much better team than the Lakers; the only factor keeping things close was Bryant's brilliance. If you put him on the Suns and Nash on the Lakers, the Suns would have won by 20--Bryant would score with even less effort because it would not be possible to double-team him and he would get more assists than he does with the Lakers because his passes would be converted to scores. He would not average as many assists as Nash but he would come a lot closer to doing that (probably getting 6-7 a game, with Barbosa or Diaw picking up the playmaking slack) than Nash would to averaging 35 points per game. Nash is a great player--a joy to watch--but Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA right now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM


Friday, April 07, 2006

Patrick Ewing Article Reprinted at Legends of Basketball

My HoopsHype article about Patrick Ewing has been reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Here is the link:

"Where Are They Now?"--Patrick Ewing

posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 PM


Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Foulapalooza" at Conseco Fieldhouse

The Indiana Pacers made 36 of 45 free throws in a 111-103 victory over the Toronto Raptors at Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday night, ending a five game losing streak. As Marv Albert might say, it was a festival of free throws (hence the title of this post).

When exasperated Raptors Coach Sam Mitchell emerged from the locker room to do his postgame standup, the first thing he said was, "What could you guys possibly ask me?" In other words, the free throw disparity was obviously the story of the game. He stated that, like any coach, he did not agree with all of the calls but that most of them were legitimate. He had no explanation for why his players repeatedly fouled players 30 feet away from the basket, replying to queries on this subject, "I don't know. I'm not committing the fouls. Ask them." Mitchell added, "They shot 40% (from the field). I don't think that we can play better defense than that...We had more field goals (38-33), hung in on the boards (52-46) and our turnovers were just OK (14)" but that there is no way to make up for such a glaring free throw differential.

All-Star Chris Bosh did not play due to a sprained left thumb and after the game the Raptors announced that he is being shut down for the remaining seven games of the season--a wise decision, especially since he is their franchise player and the team is not even close to contending for a playoff spot. Mitchell refused to use Bosh’s absence as an excuse, saying that it had nothing to do with his players fouling so frequently.

Mike James kept the Raptors close in the first half by scoring 18 points on 7-11 shooting from the field. Toronto only trailed 54-50 at the break. In the second half James tried a little too hard to win the game by himself, shooting more (16 attempts) and connecting less (6 makes). He finished with 34 points, a career-high 11 rebounds and eight assists. Peja Stojakovic and Stephen Jackson led the Pacers with 25 points each, while Jermaine O’Neal contributed 18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots, several of which were quite spectacular.

Notes From Courtside:

Hall of Famer Alex English, who scored 2000-plus points in eight straight seasons and was the leading scorer in the decade of the 1980s, is a Raptors assistant coach. English led the NBA in scoring in 1982-83 (28.4 ppg) and had his career high scoring average in 1985-86 (29.8 ppg, finishing in a dead heat with Adrian Dantley behind Dominique Wilkins), but did not place in the top five in MVP voting either season. Before the game I asked him about that and what he thinks of this year's scoring leader, Kobe Bryant, and how he should fare in the MVP race. He replied, "I don't think that it should be determined by how many points you score. I think that it should be determined on what you do for your team--do you make your players better? What kind of record does your team have? I would lean more toward a guy like Chauncey Billups--a guy who runs his squad and does so much for his team. Teams like that have people who make the players around them better and who are not so selfish that they feel like they have to be the focus of attention. Look at the teams that have great scorers. Are they doing well?" I pointed out that, at least in the case of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers would win fewer games if Bryant did not shoot 25-30 times a game. I conceded that shooting so much does not on the surface seem to make one's teammates better, but that it appears to be the best winning strategy that the team has at this point. English responded, "I'm sure that you could apply that to a few guys in the league. I felt that when I played that I made my teammates better. I didn't just shoot the basketball. I only did what was required of me. When my team needed me to score, I scored--but I also rebounded, blocked shots, made steals and passed the ball."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Gators Chomp Bruins

The Florida Gators dispatched the UCLA Bruins 73-57 in Monday night's NCAA Championship Game. Florida easily broke UCLA's full court press, resulting in numerous dunks and only six turnovers. At the other end of the court, UCLA's forays to the hoop usually met with rejection (10 blocked shots) and the Bruins shot an abysmal 3-17 from three point range. Florida led by as much as 20 in the second half and even when UCLA cut the lead to 12 the outcome was never seriously in doubt.

This is the biggest margin of victory in an NCAA Championship Game since Duke beat Michigan 71-51 in 1992. While I was watching the game I thought to myself that NCAA Championship Games seemed more exciting and closely contested when I was younger. I wondered if this was really the case or if I was selectively remembering the good games and forgetting the bad ones. Here's what I found in the NCAA Final Four Records Book: From 1979--when Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores--until Duke's rout in 1992, the victory margins in NCAA Championship Games were 11, 5, 13, 1, 2, 9, 2, 3, 1, 4, 1 (overtime), 30, 7. Even including UNLV's rout of Duke in 1990, that adds up to 13 games decided by an average of 6.8 points. Take that anomalous game out of the mix--it is easily the biggest blowout in NCAA Championship Game history--and you have more than a decade's worth of championships decided by less than five points on average. It may sound corny, but it's true: the "good ol' days" really were better.

Give Florida credit--they play hard, they play smart and they play together. I enjoy watching them--but their dismantling of UCLA and the ease with which they scored against the Bruins' vaunted defense suggests that what I said in an earlier post is true, namely that some of the ugliness that we have witnessed in NCAA tournament games this year is not the result of good defense but poor offensive execution. Florida made two or three passes and UCLA's press disintegrated like papier mache in a meat grinder. The same thing happened in the half court set.

Joakim Noah earned Most Outstanding Player honors with his fine 16 point, nine rebound, six blocked shot performance. Still, someone needs to rein in Billy Packer before he adds Noah's name to the list of inductees for the Hall of Fame. Packer mentioned at the start of the game that he thought that Noah had a good chance to break the title game mark for blocked shots (four). Noah did indeed accomplish this and Packer actually compared him to Bob Kurland, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, four legends who attended the game (by the way, how cool is that?). The only problem is that the NCAA did not record blocked shots until 1986; I'm going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that at least one of those Hall of Famers (or Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon, two other great pre-1986 shot blockers) had more than six blocks in an NCAA Championship Game. Packer's been covering these games forever and actually played for Wake Forest in the 1962 Final Four. Doesn't he know that blocked shots have only been recorded for the past 20 years? Isn't that worth mentioning? Play-by-play man Jim Nantz did raise this possibility under his breath, but it was not brought up again. Couldn't somebody at CBS look this up before the end of the game?

But wait--there's more. Packer also suggested that Noah's performance in this Final Four reminds him of Danny Manning and Glen Rice. Huh? Back to the Final Four Records Book, where we find that Manning had 31 points, 18 rebounds, five steals, two assists and two blocks in an 83-79 victory over favored Oklahoma in the 1988 Championship Game. Oklahoma had future NBA players Stacey King, Harvey Grant and Mookie Blaylock. Rice had 31 points (including 5-12 shooting from three point range) and 11 rebounds in Michigan's 80-79 overtime win over Seton Hall in 1989. Of course, Walton's 44 points (on 21-22 shooting from the field) and 11 rebounds in a 87-66 win over Memphis in 1973 is not too shabby, either. Noah is an excellent player and a joy to watch--but let's not put him in the pantheon of all-time greats just yet.

Now that the NBA will no longer be snatching the best players straight out of high school, I look forward to better, more competitive NCAA games in upcoming years. Next season, Ohio State will have a highly touted freshman class, headlined by center Greg Oden, who surely would have at least considered turning pro if that option were open to him. How much better might this year's Tournament have been if LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, etc. were participating? Of course, Billy Packer may think that Noah is already better than all of those guys as well--but that is something that we will be able to evaluate with our own eyes soon enough. Noah will eventually be a good pro but I hope that he stays at Florida and battles Oden as opposed to jumping to the NBA; an extra year of seasoning would do him, college hoops and the NBA a world of good.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:15 AM


Monday, April 03, 2006

Patrick Ewing: From "Hoya Destroya" to Yao's Mentor

Patrick Ewing won an NCAA title, two Olympic gold medals and led the New York Knicks to 13 playoff appearances, including two trips to the NBA Finals. He was selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and ranks 14th in NBA history in regular season points (24,815; 21.0 ppg) and sixth in blocked shots (2894; 2.4 bpg). My HoopsHype article examines his playing career and looks at the next stage of his basketball life: serving as a mentor for Yao Ming, who is emerging as the NBA's most dominant center. You can find the article here (9/30/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Patrick Ewing earned the nickname "Hoya Destroya" while leading Georgetown to three NCAA championship games in four years--taking the 1984 title with an 84-75 victory over the Houston Cougars. Ewing was selected as the 1984 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player. Ewing averaged 16.4 ppg, 10.0 rpg and shot .658 from the field that season for the 34-3 Hoyas, winning the Naismith Award and AP National Player of the Year honors. The Hoyas had a 15-3 NCAA Tournament record during Ewing's career, including close losses in the 1982 and 1985 championship games.

Ewing has fond memories of his experiences in the newly formed Big East Conference. "Georgetown ran the Big East--even before me," Ewing says. "They fell off a little bit after I left, but right now they are on a rebuilding track. Those were some great years. We had a lot of rivalries, a lot of great players and a lot of memories--some good times. It was great. Every school had two or three NBA players on their team. Pitt, Georgetown, St. John's, Syracuse. The conference was great. A lot of those players stayed at home, staying close to the East Coast; most of those guys were East Coast ball players. We were known and revered all over the country."

Bill Wennington faced Ewing both during Wennington's college days at St. John's and in the NBA, most memorably during a couple playoff series when Wennington was a backup center for the Chicago Bulls (1994-99). "Patrick was a guy who improved every time you played against him; he was always getting better," Wennington recalls. "I remember playing against him when we were both freshmen. Going in to play against him, obviously he was the big name and it was always a big game. You could see his game developing as he got older....When I was at St. John's, I always looked to those games during the season as benchmarks in terms of how my game was doing compared to him. In college, I just tried to keep my body in front of his and between him and the basket. In the pros, we tried to double down on him a little bit more, make him pass the ball out of the post."

Concerned that teams might tank games to obtain the first pick in the draft, the NBA instituted a lottery system involving all non-playoff teams. The team with the worst record would no longer automatically receive the first pick.

Ewing was the big prize in the NBA's first draft lottery, selected by the New York Knicks with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 draft. New York lost in the playoffs to the eventual NBA champions in 1983 (Philadelphia 76ers) and 1984 (Boston Celtics) but injuries to star forward Bernard King and other key players caused the team's record to plummet to 24-58 in 1984-85. The Madison Square Garden faithful hoped that Ewing's arrival would immediately vault the Knicks back into playoff contention.

Hall of Famer Hubie Brown--Ewing's first pro coach--recalls his initial impressions of his star rookie center: "The thing that we immediately saw as a coaching staff was that he could score. He was a better scorer than he was a rebounder and shot blocker. He came out of college as a rebounder and shot blocker. Well, for NBA standards he was below average in both of those categories but he was a prime-time scorer." Ewing averaged 20.0 ppg and 9.0 rpg and won the Rookie of the Year award despite a knee injury that limited him to 50 games. He averaged just over two blocked shots per game.

"The blocked shots never came when he was playing his man," Brown says. "The blocked shots would only come in the back of the zone traps when he was moving from one side of the lane to the other. So, that was kind of interesting. What had to happen was that the weight programs designed by the training staff had to build up his lower body strength and his upper body strength for the rebounding and the shot blocking on his man, not in the rotating of the defense--that had to improve. If you go back and check his stats, you will see that. You will see how the stats progressively got better. That came with (A) knowing the league and (B) building his body and changing his physique. He was a scorer from the first day of practice."

Ewing's situation shows how tough it is to be a great NBA post player. Despite being a dominant inside force in the college game, Ewing had to get stronger in order to have similar success at the professional level. Ewing worked diligently and his statistics improved correspondingly. After not producing more than 9.3 rpg in his first four seasons he had a streak of nine straight years of averaging 10-plus rpg. His blocked shots per-game average increased from 2.1 as a rookie to 2.3 to 3.0 to 3.5 to a career best 4.0 in his fifth season. Ewing had six seasons with 200-plus blocked shots and ranked in the top ten in blocked shots 13 times.

The Knicks failed to qualify for the playoffs in Ewing's first two seasons--in no small part because he missed 51 games due to injuries. But after that he led New York to 13 straight postseason appearances, including trips to the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999.

"There are good memories and bad memories, but they are still memories," Ewing says. "It's hard right now because I'm working for the Rockets and the Rockets are the team that we lost to in '94. We came so close. The next one against the Spurs, unfortunately I wasn't able to play. That was the toughest one to swallow because I had to sit there and listen to all the noise that the fans were yelling and I wasn't able to get out there and try to shut them up. That was heartbreaking."

The Knicks went 8-3 with Ewing in the lineup during the 1999 playoffs, but Ewing was forced to the sidelines with a torn Achilles tendon after an 88-86 loss to Indiana in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks eventually won that series but were only 4-5 in the playoffs that year without him.

Just the fact that Ewing was still playing in 1999 is a testament to his work ethic and tenacity, because he suffered a devastating, potentially career-ending injury in a December 20, 1997 game at Milwaukee. Andrew Lang pushed Ewing as he tried to catch a Charlie Ward pass and Ewing crashed to the ground, dislocating his right wrist and tearing ligaments. The injury was so severe that one of the bones almost poked through the skin. Ewing missed the remainder of that season. He never quite regained full range of motion in the wrist but his relentless, determined rehabilitation work enabled him to resume his career. "It definitely affected me," Ewing says of the injury. "My shot wasn't as pretty, wasn't as pure as it had been, but I still was able to shoot and I was still able to get it done."

Ewing helped the Knicks reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 2000 before concluding his career with brief stops in Seattle and Orlando. He only made the All-NBA 1st Team once but he earned six All-NBA 2nd Team selections and finished in the top five in MVP voting six times while playing in an era of great centers--including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Robert Parish and David Robinson. Ewing was selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List, won two Olympic gold medals (1984, 1992) and currently ranks 14th in NBA history in regular season points (24,815; 21.0 ppg) and sixth in blocked shots (2894; 2.4 bpg).

Ewing now works as an assistant coach with the Houston Rockets. He admits that he did not expect to become a coach. "When I retired I didn't want to just sit at home and not do anything," Ewing says. "Michael Jordan offered me a position in Washington and I started out as a coach. That was something he allowed me to try to see if I liked it. I liked it and I kept with it. The situation happened in Washington that he moved on and then Jeff Van Gundy, who I played for in New York, offered me a position in Houston and I took it. I'm still enjoying it, I'm still learning and hopefully one day I will get a head coaching job."

Ewing is very serious about eventually becoming a head coach, declaring, “Why do something if you are not striving to be the best at it?” Ewing can draw on the knowledge he gained while playing for two legendary coaches, John Thompson at Georgetown and Pat Riley with the Knicks. "They are two different people," Ewing observes. "Coach Thompson is a great person and a great coach. I felt that I came to Georgetown as a boy and left there as a man. He taught me a lot of things not only on the basketball court but also in life. He played the position so he could give me a lot of insights about the center position. Pat Riley is more flamboyant. He is a great 'Xs and O's' coach. He made his name in L.A. with 'Showtime' and then came to New York and helped put that franchise into the spotlight. They are two great coaches and I learned a lot from both of them and I admire them both."

Ewing appreciates the importance of preparation: "I think scouting is great. It gives you insight and makes you a better player. There is a saying, 'What puts you apart from the other players and what makes you a great player is if after the scouts see you and they know everything that you are capable of doing that you can still go out there and do it.' That is the mark of a great player. Some people can have good nights every now and then, but the great players have good nights 99 percent of the time."

One of his trademarks as a player was aggressiveness. Is it possible to transmit that trait to others as a coach? "That was just the way that I was," Ewing says. "That’s just in my nature. You can bring it out in a person, but I think that you have to be born with it."

So how does he try to "bring it out" of Yao Ming, who has been criticized for not being aggressive enough? "First of all, you have to be confident," Ewing explains. "You have to believe in yourself. That is one thing that I tell Yao: 'No matter what happens, believe in yourself and never doubt yourself.' I think that Yao is going to be a great player. He has great offensive skills and he just has to believe in himself and dominate."

Yao seems to be taking that advice to heart, particularly since the All-Star break. He is averaging career highs in points (22.5 ppg) and rebounds (10.2 rpg) and is the highest scoring center in the league. Ewing also averaged career highs in his fourth season (22.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg), setting the stage for the highest scoring season of his career the next year (28.6 ppg). It will be interesting to see if Yao can make similar progress in 2006-07. If Tracy McGrady gets healthy and Yao continues to develop, that dynamic duo may yet deliver Ewing the championship ring as a coach that he just missed getting as a player.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:19 PM


Sunday, April 02, 2006

LeBron 47, LSU 45

LeBron James had 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Miami Heat 106-99 in a battle of Eastern Conference contenders on Sunday afternoon. LSU managed 45 points as a team on Sunday night, losing by 14 to UCLA in the Final Four, the showcase event for college basketball. We often hear about assist/turnover ratio in reference to point guards, but my favorite statistic for this NCAA Tournament is team field goals made/team turnovers ratio. LSU made 16 field goals and committed 15 turnovers. UCLA is a good defensive team but, to borrow tennis terminology, a lot of LSU's errors were "unforced." Anyone--other than UCLA fans or alumni--who says that the UCLA victory was more entertaining or in any way superior to the Cavs-Heat game is lying or delusional. Florida's 73-58 win over George Mason in the other Final Four matchup was hardly a barnburner, either. Near the end of the UCLA game, CBS analyst Billy Packer offered this succinct summary: "This was a very weak Saturday evening." He and play-by-play man Jim Nantz tried to soften the blow by suggesting, incongruously, that after two disappointing games maybe Monday's championship game will be a classic. Guys, does a money back guarantee come with that? A free pizza? Something?

If James had not gone straight to the NBA after high school then he would be a junior in college now. James clearly made a wise decision for himself, since he is a leading MVP candidate and has the Cavaliers playing better than they have in years--but the parade of high schoolers and underclassmen to the NBA in the past decade has had a negative impact on basketball at all levels. It's been bad for the high school game because it shifted the focus from having fun and trying to get a college scholarship to trying to impress NBA scouts; NBA scouts don't belong in high school gyms and it is a great step forward that the NBA now has a minimum age requirement that will prevent players from jumping straight from the preps to the pros. The college game has been decimated because the cream of the crop of young players over the past 10 years has either bypassed college or attended school briefly. It might seem on the surface that this influx of young talent has been good for the NBA but it is important to remember that even players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were not great from the start. NBA teams paid their salaries as they underwent accelerated apprenticeships into the pro game--and they are the success stories. What about the host of players who skipped college or left early and are now playing minor league ball somewhere, still trying to develop the fundamental skills and knowledge of the game that they could have learned while benefitting from a full college scholarship? NBA coaches now have to help players to develop practice habits and fundamental skills that used to be honed in college.

Other observers have noticed the sad state of affairs in college basketball. The Chicago Tribune's Skip Myslenski wrote a great article on March 27 about the dearth of truly great teams in college basketball today, pointing out that just 10 years ago the NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats started five future NBA players--Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty. Can you imagine either of Monday's finalists offering much resistance to that team? I'm not sure about Anderson's current health or Mercer's whereabouts, but I might take that Kentucky team today against Florida or UCLA. In the April 7 issue of the Sporting News, Dave Kindred writes, "Anyone who has paid attention knows the cold truth. The games remain dramatically contested (parity at work) and inherently thrilling (youthful enthusiasm). But the quality of play seldom rises past mediocre." Sunday's games failed to even reach the minimal bars of being contested and thrilling. Kindred continues, "With so many talented players gone to the NBA before even pretending to read a textbook, the college game's decline has long been inevitable." He goes on to lament "the college game's sorrowful devolution from the steel-spined days of Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing."

UCLA's dismantling of LSU had barely concluded when ESPN's Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas began discussing the pro prospects of LSU sophomore Glen Davis, who shot 5-17 from the field versus UCLA and clearly is not in proper physical condition to play in an uptempo game; if he can't run with UCLA I'd hate to see him trying to keep up with the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. Bilas explained that Davis is not currently ready to make an impact in the NBA but Vitale delivered the bottom line truth: the NBA is drafting players based on potential, not current ability, and the lure of the guaranteed money is irresistible to a lot of players, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds.

Before Davis leaves Indianapolis and makes a decision about his future he should talk to Tito Horford--father of Florida forward Al Horford--who now admits that he made a mistake when he left college early nearly 20 years ago for what turned out to be a 63 game NBA career. Leaving early can lead to quick money but staying in college to polish one's game can result in making more money in the long run. Remember The Empire Strikes Back? Luke Skywalker left Dagobah before he completed his Jedi training with Yoda, thinking that only he could rescue Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia; all Skywalker got for leaving early was a chopped off hand courtesy of Darth Vader and, as it turned out, his friends escaped on their own and had to rescue him. Somebody please get Davis DVDs of that movie and some of the Suns' recent games. All I can say is, "Big Baby," if you don't believe Jay Bilas, listen to Yoda, who pleaded with Luke Skywalker that only a fully trained Jedi Knight could face Darth Vader. Or, to paraphrase what Vader told Luke Skywalker during their lightsaber duel, "The Force is strong with you--but you are not a legitimate NBA player yet."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM