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Friday, June 09, 2006

Alex English: A True Basketball Artist

When Alex English played, he considered basketball his art and the court was his canvas. The Hall of Famer, eight-time All-Star and 1983 NBA scoring champion (28.4 ppg) is currently an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors. You can read my HoopsHype.com article about him here (9/30/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Some players' moves look like poetry in motion. Alex English was one of those players and he also was a poet in motion--he has had several books of his poetry published. The soft spoken 6-7 forward was never flashy on or off the court, so his accomplishments are easy to overlook. But, as he says with quiet confidence, "the real basketball fans know."

English averaged 22.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg while shooting .551 from the field as a senior at the University of South Carolina. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him in the second round as the 23rd overall pick in the 1976 draft. Veteran forward Bob Dandridge led the Bucks in 1976-77 with 20.8 ppg and English only scored 5.2 ppg in about 10 mpg of action. Dandridge signed with the Washington Bullets after the season and English's minutes (18.9 mpg) and scoring (9.6 ppg) nearly doubled in 1977-78--but rookie Marques Johnson averaged 19.5 ppg and 10.6 rpg and figured to get the lion’s share of playing time for years to come.

"Indiana offered me my first free agent contract and I got a chance to play," English recalls. "I played for Slick Leonard and we had Mickey Johnson, Mike Bantom--a lot of pretty good players on our squad. We played like I (later) played in Denver--we had a freelance offense but we were more focused on defense. It was an enjoyable time. The other thing I remember is that my second child was born (in Indiana). I got traded right before she was born, so that is something that sticks in my memory."

English averaged 16.0 ppg and 8.1 rpg in 1978-79 but two thirds of the way through the 1979-80 season the Pacers shipped him to Denver. "Going to Denver was probably the best thing that happened to me," English says. "Indiana wanted George McGinnis back home. He had played for Slick Leonard and Slick wanted him back. I got a chance to go to Denver to play for a coach that I had in college, Donnie Walsh," who ironically is now the CEO/President of the Pacers.

English scored 21.3 ppg in the last 24 games of the 1979-80 season as a Nugget. He averaged 23.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in 1980-81, but the Nuggets just missed the playoffs. In 1981-82, English began a streak of eight consecutive 2000-plus point seasons, which stood as the NBA record until Karl Malone had 11 such seasons; English's run is still the second best in NBA history. Denver made the playoffs in 1981-82 and qualified for postseason play each of the next nine seasons that English played for the Nuggets.

The 1980's Denver Nuggets make the current Phoenix Suns look like turtles crawling through quicksand. The 1981-82 Nuggets still hold the records for points in a season (126.5 ppg) and for most consecutive games scoring at least 100 points (136, including every game of the 1981-82 season). Denver led all teams in scoring for five straight seasons (1981-85), culminating in a 52-30 record in 1984-85 and a berth in the Western Conference Finals versus the powerful Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy Lakers. English played brilliantly in that year's playoffs (30.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.5 apg, .536 shooting from the field and a .890 free throw percentage) and believes that a fast paced team is perfectly capable of winning an NBA title.

"I think that if I had not broken my thumb in the third game, we had a chance to beat the Lakers," English says. "We tied them in L.A., so we had an opportunity to go to the Finals. I don't think that it's the style of play, I think that it's the players that you have. I remember that when we played against the Lakers we always had great games because they also pushed the ball up as well. They had great players. We looked forward to going to the Forum. It was one of the great arenas, along with Madison Square Garden and Chicago Stadium. We beat the Lakers during the regular season, so we weren't afraid of them. We just had a great group of players. The camaraderie on that squad was unparalleled in professional basketball."

That turned out to be the closest that English got to winning an NBA title but he proved to be one of the league’s most productive performers in the 1980s, becoming the decade's leading scorer while playing in 80 or more games for 10 straight seasons. His durability is all the more remarkable considering his slender frame. English explains how he was able to be so productive against bigger, stronger players: "What I did a lot is not let them make contact with me. I would move. A lot of players who were bigger did not like running the floor. I ran. I never stopped moving. I was a strong wiry thin, sort of like Tayshaun Prince. I did my best to stay out of their way and make them run. Eventually, they would end up being tired and I would still be at full strength. We didn't lift a lot of weights back then. I was in great shape; I stretched a lot, so I didn’t have a lot of injuries."

"I played for 15 years but as my years progressed I thought that I got better every year," English adds. "I was consistent. You have some guys who might score 10 points one night and the next night they have 30. I prided myself on being a consistent player with my game and, even though I was thin, being durable. Being durable and being consistent."

English offers a very poetic description of his resilience mentally and physically: "It's like being a willow tree that blows in the wind but it doesn't break. It's a strong branch, a strong tree that bends and can withstand all kinds of tornado-type winds but it doesn't break. That is the kind of idea that I played with. If a guy was posting me up, I would hold for a second but then when he was getting ready to pass I would let go and I would get around and get the steal."

Speaking of poetry, English enthusiastically shares his thoughts about his favorite poets: "One guy who inspired me to write because of his style was Peter McWilliams. He's a contemporary poet. I was an English major in school and I enjoyed reading Edgar Allan Poe. I like Robert Frost, Elizabeth Barrett Browning--there are a lot of folks whose poetry I enjoy. A lot of stuff was difficult to understand but (worth reading) when you put the time and effort in. Shakespeare's sonnets are great."

Reading and writing provide great balance to English's life. "It is important because once basketball was done I was still able to enjoy my life because I enjoy doing other things," English says. "I love to read. I still enjoy writing, although I don't write as much. I think that the love of reading that I have is a genetic thing that I got from my grandmother. My kids love to read, my sons. They read some of the same genres that I do. Maybe it's something in the genes."

Before English got his current job as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, he served as the head coach of the North Charleston Lowgators in the NBDL, an experience that he treasures. "What it showed me was what I needed to add to my repertoire to be a coach," English explains. "It also helped me understand where players are today. I had been out of the game for a while. It's a generation thing and the players are different today. It gave me the opportunity to get back into what they're looking for and what they're going to give. It was a great experience to get back in the game and do as well as we did. We ended up losing in the championship in the D-League and that was my first experience coaching. I looked at it as a very positive, uplifting experience in my life."

English elaborates on what he learned about coaching during his time in the NBDL: "It showed me the style that I would like to play and that would win for me. It helped me with my Xs and Os and showed me how important that is. It also showed me that as a coach you don't need to be so stringent or so tight or so structured all the time. I think of Mike D'Antoni--when you look at his team and look at his players you see that they enjoy playing for him. That's how Doug Moe was with us. I knew that all along but it (coaching in the NBDL) only verified that as a coach this is the way you operate. You demand and command discipline and structure. I guess that the way that I coach would also be like being a willow tree. You have to be strong but you also have to be able to bend sometimes."

Great players from all eras share certain traits, according to English. "Great players always had the same mentality. They were always very focused and determined and hard working. They had a vision in mind of what they wanted. They are all that way and they do whatever it takes to get better at the game. The difference that I see is that there are a lot of guys (now) who don't put that effort in, who don't put the time in to be a great player. Once they get that so-called big payday they stop at that and they don't get better. Everything is relative. I got paid well back then--certainly nothing like what they get paid now, but to me back then it was great. It wasn't about the money for me, it was more about my art, which was my game--my ability to play and how I played and what I could do on the basketball court."

English is immersed in coaching now but it is only natural for him to think about his place in the history of the game. He played in eight All-Star games, won the 1983 scoring title (28.4 ppg) and retired after the 1990-91 season with 25,613 points, which still ranks 11th in NBA history and 14th in NBA/ABA history. Other than Dan Issel and Dominique Wilkins, everyone who is ahead of English was selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List.

English is very frank when asked if he thinks that he is underrated: "I know I am. They named the Top 50 players in the league. No player (other than Karl Malone) had scored 2000 points for eight straight seasons. I look at my record when I played. Then I heard that when they (TNT) did the 'next 10' they didn't vote me to that either. They said that they left me off because of the system that I played in. I want to know if they are going to do that with Steve Nash. He's in the same type of system that I was in. Are they going to do that with him? I think that it is unfair. The biggest disappointment in my life--well, not in my life, but the biggest disappointment in my basketball career--is that I don't get those kind of accolades, maybe because I'm quiet and I'm not boisterous. My game was not slam dunks and three-point shots. It was a very simple game but I played it with elegance and fun and I enjoyed it. If that will keep me back from being one of the '50 Greatest,' then I know that the real basketball fans know."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 PM


Mourning, Payton and Walker are Reliving McAdoo's Experiences

During Game One of the Finals, ABC commentators Mike Breen and Hubie Brown mentioned one of the most intriguing aspects of this series--both teams have players who are used to having much bigger roles than the ones that they currently have. Guys like Miami's Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker and Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn have accepted reduced minutes and shot attempts in exchange for an opportunity to win a championship. In Thursday's USA Today, Skip Wood wrote an article about how Heat Assistant Coach Bob McAdoo has helped former All-Stars Mourning, Payton and Walker make this adjustment. McAdoo is uniquely qualified to counsel them about this because he went through a similar transition in his career--the three-time scoring champion and 1975 NBA MVP came off of the bench for two Pat Riley championship teams. I discussed this very subject with McAdoo earlier in the season. There is an interesting "chicken-and-egg" question here: Are these teams successful because they have so many former upper echelon players who accept smaller roles or would these players only agree to take such roles on a team that is a legitimate title contender? In other words, which comes first: does being a legitimate title contender create an environment that makes players more willing to sacrifice or does having players who are more willing to sacrifice create the conditions necessary to be a legitimate title contender?

posted by David Friedman @ 2:19 AM


"Foul" Shooting Sinks Heat In Game One of the Finals

The Miami Heat set an NBA Finals record for worst team free throw percentage (.368) and lost 90-80 to the Dallas Mavericks. Miami's point total is the fifth lowest in game one of a Finals game in the shot clock era (i.e., since 1954-55). Jason Terry led the victors with 32 points on 13-18 field goal shooting. Dirk Nowitzki shot only 4-14 from the field, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Josh Howard also had a poor shooting night (3-14) but filled up the boxscore with 10 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 28 points, adding six rebounds, six assists and four steals. He also had five turnovers and shot only 5-18 from the field in the last three quarters of the game after hitting 6 of his first 7 shots. Shaquille O'Neal had 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 8-11 field goal shooting. Antoine Walker contributed 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. He made some really nice plays but also had six turnovers and shot 7-19 from the field. The blame for the Heat's poor foul shooting lands squarely on the shoulders of their two stars--they accounted for all of the team's free throw attempts, with Wade shooting 6-10 and O'Neal 1-9, not including two misses that were wiped away by lane violations.

Miami came out blazing in the first quarter, shooting .700 from the field (14-20) and taking a 31-23 lead. Wade had 13 points, repeatedly blowing by Adrian Griffin. Late in the quarter, the Mavericks switched Howard on to Wade. More than halfway through the second quarter Miami led 42-36 and Nowitzki and Howard had combined to shoot 3-14 from the field. Dallas then employed a zone defense that seemed to completely befuddle Miami, leading to several turnovers and fueling a 10-2 run to close the quarter. Nowitzki's jump shot at the buzzer gave Dallas a 46-44 lead and it was clear that Miami was in trouble; the Heat had shot the ball well, contained Dallas' best player and kept the pace of the game right where they wanted it and were still trailing. Terry shot 9-11 from the field in the first half and led all scorers with 20 points, making up for Nowitzki only shooting 2-8 and scoring eight points.

Dallas extended the margin to 52-46 early in the third quarter. Then, after only committing three turnovers in the first half the Mavericks had seven in the third quarter alone. Despite his big first half, Terry did not take a shot in the third quarter. Yet, even with these miscues by Dallas, the Heat still trailed 70-68 going into the fourth quarter. Terry hit his first shot of the final period to give Dallas a 72-68 lead and had 12 of Dallas' 20 fourth quarter points, equaling the output of Miami's entire team. His back to back three pointers gave the Mavericks an 82-72 lead with 7:54 remaining but his missed breakaway layup shortly afterward breathed some life into the Heat. Miami went on a 7-0 run after that play but that was as close as the Heat would get.

It is important to not read too much into the outcome of one game or the trends that developed within that game. Each game within a series has a different rhythm. Still, there were some interesting things in game one that bear watching:

1) Shaquille O'Neal's primary complaint about playing with Kobe Bryant is that Bryant tried to do too much on his own and did not pass him the ball. O'Neal shot 8-11 from the field in this game and passed for five assists while commmitting two turnovers. Dwyane Wade shot 11-25 from the field and had six assists and five turnovers. Antoine Walker had 19 field goal attempts, including 9 from three point range. The Heat were most effective when the ball was going in to O'Neal on the block, yet Wade and Walker spent most of the second half committing turnovers and jacking up shots. It is one thing for O'Neal to limit his shot attempts while pacing himself during the regular season but now would seem to be the time to get him the ball frequently. Even if he is missing his free throws he still can get the Mavericks in foul trouble and put the Heat in the bonus. Plus, O'Neal is shooting a good percentage from the floor and making excellent passes when he is double-teamed.

2) ESPN's John Saunders said that if the Heat had made their free throws there might have been a different outcome. That is not really true, because Miami would have had to shoot 17-19 just to tie the score, which is not likely with O'Neal attempting so many of the team's free throws. What really killed the Heat was shooting 20-58 from the field in the last three quarters of the game. "Foul" shooting hurt them even more than their poor foul shooting; Dallas outscored Miami 67-49 after the first quarter.

3) The fact that Wade and O'Neal were the only two Heat players to attempt free throws points out an important problem for Miami--no one else on the team can consistently create a shot for himself or draw fouls.

4) Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard will not likely shoot a combined 7-28 from the field again in the series. That is NOT good news for Miami.

5) Miami looked more clueless trying to attack Dallas' zone than Homer Simpson trying to figure out particle physics.

6) Miami's poor perimeter defense and slow defensive rotations made Jason Terry look like Allen Iverson. Detroit and New Jersey's perimeter players should have made a more determined effort to attack Miami in this way.

7) Dallas' superior depth played a key role in the outcome. Only three Miami reserves played--Gary Payton, James Posey and Alonzo Mourning--and they combined to score two points, while five Dallas non-starters totaled 24 points. As the series progresses this will surely become an even more important factor.

The series is not over after one game, even though history tells us that game one winners ultimately take the series more than 70% of the time. However, this game highlighted a lot of Dallas' strengths and Miami's weaknesses. Dallas played a far from perfect game and still won by 10 points. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Pat Riley makes, particularly in terms of getting more touches for O'Neal and containing Terry without letting Nowitzki and Howard go wild.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Will Cuban Say "Blog This!" to David Stern or Will Shaq Get a Ring for his Middle Finger?

Recently I mused about the possibility of David Stern presenting the championship trophy to Mark Cuban. AP Sports Columnist Tim Dahlberg just wrote about the same subject. If Dallas wins, it certainly will make for an interesting entry at Mark Cuban's blog.

Orlando Sentinel writer Brian Schmitz, noting Shaquille O'Neal's penchant for giving himself nicknames, says that Shaq might call himself The Big I Told You So if the Miami Heat win the title. Usually when players get their fifth title it is called "one for the thumb." This would be Shaq's fourth championship and I wouldn't be surprised if he called it "one for the middle finger." There is no doubt that he would love to flash that digit at Kobe Bryant, the L.A. Lakers' management and anyone else who he feels has disrespected him.

So, whoever wins this year's Finals, someone will be saying--or thinking--"vengeance is sweet."

posted by David Friedman @ 7:58 PM


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

"March Madness" has Nothing on "Win or Go Home"

The NBA Playoffs may never supplant the popularity of the NCAA Tournament, more commonly referred to as "March Madness"--but the NBA's "Win or Go Home" postseason tournament has produced at least as much excitement and higher quality games to boot. During the height of March Madness, I wrote a post comparing the NBA Playoffs to the NCAA Tournament; I noted that this year's Tournament included several games with low scores, low shooting percentages and high turnover totals. I acknowledged that there were some exciting moments but concluded, "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."

The first three rounds of the 2006 NBA Playoffs are now in the books. We have been treated to four series that went the distance; granted, three of the seventh games were duds but the fourth--Dallas versus San Antonio--was a classic and may very well have decided this year's championship. We have seen LeBron James' breathtaking playoff initiation, eight overtime games--including two that were series clinchers--a pair of 50-point gems by Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki and several dramatic buzzer beating shots. Not all of the games have been close but the overall standard of play has been high and very entertaining to watch.

I correctly predicted the outcome of 9 of the first 12 series and batted .500 in the Conference Finals round. The Spurs were my original pick to win the championship but I said from the start that they were "just thismuch better than Dallas," so when the Mavericks eliminated San Antonio it was only natural for me to pick them to beat Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals. As for the Eastern Conference Finals, I have picked against the Miami Heat the last two rounds and been wrong both times. It is possible that I am focusing too much on the Heat's weaknesses (heavy reliance on Shaq and Wade; defending against perimeter players on dribble drives and in pick and roll plays) and not enough on how well the team has come together recently under the leadership of Pat Riley. Nevertheless, I am picking against Miami in the NBA Finals, too; I expect that Dallas will exploit Miami's weaknesses more effectively than New Jersey and Detroit did.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM


Dallas Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

Dallas (60-22) vs. Miami (52-30)

Miami can win if…Shaquille O'Neal averages 25-plus ppg and 12-plus rpg and Dwyane Wade averages 25-plus ppg.

Dallas will win because …Miami has no answer for Dirk Nowitzki or for the Mavericks' depth, which will wear down the Heat as the series progresses.

Other things to consider: Josh Howard is listed as a forward but he can guard 1s, 2s or 3s. He will probably be matched up with Wade at least part of the time and he has enough athleticism and length to cause Wade some problems. Dallas won both regular season meetings, but O'Neal did not play in one of them and the Heat are a much more cohesive unit now than they were when those games were played. Pat Riley is making his ninth Finals appearance as a coach, while Avery Johnson is coaching in his first NBA Finals; each one an NBA championship as a player. Miami will have a difficult time defending against Dallas' versatile offensive attack: Nowitzki is a matchup nightmare, Jason Terry and Devin Harris can create havoc with dribble penetration, Jerry Stackhouse provides bench scoring and Howard is a very good offensive rebounder.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 AM


Monday, June 05, 2006

Dwyane Wade's Sunday Conversation with Rachel Nichols

ESPN's Sunday Conversation featured Rachel Nichols' interview with Dwyane Wade. Wade made a couple interesting comments:

1) Asked how many players he would select before himself if he were starting a team today, Wade said that to build a great team you have to take a dominant center first. His choice would be Shaquille O'Neal, despite O'Neal's advancing age. Then he would pick either himself or LeBron James.

2) Wade explained that the reason that he and Shaq get along better than Shaq did with Penny Hardaway or Kobe Bryant is that Shaq is at a different stage of his career now. The young Shaq and the young Penny were both exciting players who wanted to be the main guy on the team and the same conflict took place with Shaq and Kobe. Wade added that now Shaq realizes that he cannot shoot 30 times a game and is happy to defer to a young, unselfish Wade. Wade indicated that he and Shaq have talked about this subject and that what Wade told Nichols reflected what Shaq said to him.

This made me wonder three things: 1) How do Magic and Lakers fans feel about this transformation in Shaq's thinking? 2) How much better would the Lakers have been in 2003 and 2004 if Shaq would have dealt with Kobe the way he deals with Wade now? 3) How well would Shaq and Wade get along if Shaq resisted deferring to him the way he refused to defer to Kobe? As C & C Music Factory sang many years ago, these are things that make you go hmm.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:00 AM


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dallas Wears Down Phoenix, Advances to the NBA Finals

The Phoenix Suns hit the Dallas Mavericks with their best shot and had a 15 point lead midway through the third quarter of game six of the Western Conference Finals--but the Mavericks stayed disciplined, stuck with their game plan and wore down the Suns in a 102-93 win. It was like watching Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in the famous "Rope-a-Dope" fight. Foreman pounded on Ali for the first several rounds until Ali looked at him and said, "Is that all you've got?" Years later, Foreman reflecting back on how stunned he was that anyone could withstand the onslaught, recalled thinking, "Yeah, that's about it." Ali then knocked him out. Dallas watched Phoenix run up and down the court for two and a half quarters and then collectively looked at the Suns and asked if that was all that they had. The scoreboard told the story from that point, as Dallas outscored Phoenix by 24 the rest of the way.

Dallas will meet Miami in a matchup of teams that have never played in the NBA Finals before. Dirk Nowitzki only scored eight points on 2-9 shooting from the field in the first half but he made five straight shots and scored 12 points in the third quarter as Dallas cut Phoenix' lead to 66-62 going into the fourth quarter. Nowitzki had two big three point plays in the period, drawing Leandro Barbosa's fourth foul and then doing the same to Tim Thomas. Nowitzki finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Josh Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds and Jerry Stackhouse, who played 40 minutes because Jason Terry and Devin Harris got into early foul trouble, contributed 19 points. Boris Diaw scored 30 points and added 11 rebounds for Phoenix and Steve Nash had 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds.

The Mavericks made their first shot of the game and then missed their next eight, shooting only 4-18 from the field in the first quarter. Phoenix bolted out to a 26-10 lead and the score was 29-14 at the end of the period, Dallas' lowest scoring quarter of the 2006 playoffs. Phoenix pushed the lead to 44-26 after Shawn Marion hit a three pointer from the baseline. Nowitzki's three point play with less than three minutes remaining trimmed the margin to 13 and Phoenix led 51-39 at the half. Diaw already had 20 points on 8-11 shooting. During TNT's halftime show, Magic Johnson blasted the Mavericks' performance: "This is not a championship effort. They came out soft." Johnson, who won five championships as a player, should know that it is not how you start that matters but how you finish. Or, as Bjorn Borg might say ("You Gotta Love It": Clippers Force a Seventh Game Versus the Suns), it's the fifth set that matters, not the fourth one. In this game, the second half told the story.

Dallas trailed 53-43 when Diaw went to the bench with his fourth foul, but Barbosa made a three pointer and a fast break layup to push the lead back to 60-45. Then Nowitzki took over, driving to the basket, making two three point plays and setting off a 17-6 Dallas run to end the third quarter. Howard tied the game early in the fourth quarter on his offensive rebound put back and then a DeSagana Diop put back gave the Mavericks a 68-66 lead, the first time they were ahead since Diop made the first basket of the game. Dallas outscored Phoenix 63-42 in the second half, putting the clamps on Phoenix' running game and then pounding the ball inside.

Phoenix battled Dallas very hard throughout this series but Dallas' depth and ability to get defensive stops proved to be too much for the Suns to overcome. The series pretty much went the way that I expected it to go; this is what I wrote in my series preview:

Dallas will win because because…Dirk Nowitzki will have a big series and Dallas has enough athletes to beat the Suns at their own game but has more of a defensive mindset and will be able to get key stops at crucial points during games.

Dallas Coach Avery Johnson has pointed out that his team is capable of playing at a slow or a fast tempo. His Mavericks are very much made in the mold of Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs, who beat the offensive-minded Suns in last year's playoffs and then defeated the defensive-minded Pistons in the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM