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Friday, June 23, 2006

A Scout's-Eye View of the Game

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey and learn how a professional basketball talent evaluator watches a game. First, we went to a Division I college basketball game; later, I took notes as Mackey evaluated a videotape of a Division I college basketball game featuring a prospect. For obvious reasons, I promised not to mention the names of any of the players or teams; in any case, the point is not so much what Mackey thinks of a given player but rather how he thinks about basketball in general and player evaluation in particular. Mackey is perhaps best known for coaching the Cleveland State Vikings to a Sweet 16 appearance in 1986, including an upset over the third-seeded Indiana Hoosiers. Mackey also has head coaching experience in various pro basketball minor leagues, where he coached many future NBA players, including Darrell Armstrong, Mark Blount, Michael Curry and Adrian Griffin. Mackey led the Atlantic City Seagulls to three consecutive USBL championships.

“Seasons begin and end, but player personnel is year-round.”

The above quote is one of the first things that Mackey tells me and it is well worth remembering. Mackey must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the players currently on the Pacers’ roster so that he can properly evaluate whether or not a prospect can help the team. The first thing that a scout must consider is talent: can this player play at the NBA level and contribute in a meaningful way? Physically, a scout is looking for players who have an NBA body and NBA athleticism. Next, a scout evaluates if the player can do these things at the NBA level: (1) shoot; (2) get open; (3) rebound; (4) pass.

However, just because a player has NBA level talent does not mean that he will be an effective NBA player. This is something that a lot of fans—and players—do not understand. Putting up big numbers and filling highlight reels with slam dunks do not prove a player’s NBA worthiness. It is vital to observe the action off of the ball: (1) does the player understand what he is supposed to be doing? (such as setting a screen, cutting, double-teaming, playing help defense); (2) is the player unselfish or is he just trying to pad his own statistics?

As Mackey puts it, some players "suck their thumbs" when they don’t have the ball; their body language clearly communicates that their main interest is scoring and that they are unwilling to do anything else to help the team. Other important characteristics to observe include the player’s attitude toward his coach, his interactions with his teammates and his response to adversity, which could come in the form of missed shots, physical play, a blown call or a mistake by a teammate. These kinds of things are difficult to pick up during a television broadcast; only in person can a scout gauge a player’s presence/dominance.

Mackey says that most players are not equipped to play both ends of the floor and sometimes it is difficult to project how a player’s skills will translate from college to the pros. For instance, will a great college shooter be able to get his shot off in the pros? A scout must determine if the player’s positives at one end of the court outweigh his negatives at the other end. Mackey notes, "Toughness translates from one level to the next. You look for toughness."

Mackey became a scout after a long coaching career, so part of his mindset is to evaluate a player based on what it would be like to coach him; other talent evaluators are ex-players and their experiences on the court shape their perspectives of how a player should move, look and perform. One former player turned NBA talent evaluator insists, "Players tell you if they can play by how they move." He always arrives at games early so that he can observe how fluidly players move during pre-game warmups. I couldn’t help but bring up a football example: Bernie Kosar, who quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to three AFC Championship games but moved so awkwardly that it looked like he could not chew gum and walk at the same time. Of course, there are always exceptions, this talent evaluator concedes, but in general great athletes have a presence and move with a certain grace and fluidity.


When Mackey and I arrive at our seats, he explains that he is focusing on four players in this game, two from each team. Mackey builds a "book" on each player—a combination of their statistics and observations about their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. He says, "Players have DNA"—unique traits that form their identities as athletes. What if a player who is lightly regarded plays extremely well? Then Mackey has to determine if the player just got hot for one game, had a favorable matchup or has in fact improved his skills. He will make a note to follow this player’s performance for the rest of the season. If the player was completely off of the radar, the likelihood is that he just had one good game and will soon revert back to his normal level.

During the game, Mackey fires off comments in a staccato style. After a careless turnover, he says that you "throw a football but you pass a basketball." He waits until stoppages of play to jot down notes so that he doesn’t miss any game action, observing that this part of his job is similar to what a beat writer does while covering a game.

Mackey says of one player that he is small, but, pointing to a stat sheet showing his team-leading scoring average, that he must be doing something right to score this much. Mackey nods approvingly when this player makes a two dribble move and nails a three-pointer. Still, it doesn’t take long for Mackey to identify his weaknesses: he must get tougher and learn how to drive to his left.

When a different player drops some passes and fumbles the ball a couple times, Mackey exclaims, "He has hands like feet." A minute later, Mackey says, "You can find guys like that under a bridge. I bring in guys like that (to training camp), I won’t have a job."

After watching the game for about ten minutes, Mackey says that the four guys he is looking at are limited and that his highest projection for players in this game would be the CBA or the NBDL. The best of the bunch, relatively speaking, is a player who has NBA size and is a good open shooter. The problem is that he is not tough—he doesn’t fight through screens on defense. Still, after he makes a few shots, Mackey says that he "shoots the deep ball. That’s an NBA talent." Because of his build and his ability to shoot, there is a slight possibility that he could develop into a useful NBA player.

Mackey dismisses the most athletic player of this quartet with the acronym "JAG"—just another guy. Playing the devil’s advocate, I point out that his team runs no plays for him. Mackey agrees, but says that how well a player rebounds tells you a lot because that is based solely on the player’s effort, drive and toughness: "You don’t need your mother or your coach or your teammates" to help you get rebounds. This player has obvious physical gifts but he is not doing much and is having little impact on the game. Later, when we look at a halftime boxscore, Mackey circles the number of rebounds by this player’s name and shakes his head; if a reasonably athletic player is not dominating the boards against college players, what chance does he have to succeed in the NBA?

The ability to catch the ball, hold on to it and make a play is rare but very important--players who have great hands are few and far between. Mackey says that hands "are a talent. Good players hang on to the ball." The small guard with the decent scoring average drives to the hoop but has the ball stripped away. He may have been fouled but nothing was called. I ask Mackey about that: When he was coaching, what would he say if he was chewing out a player for losing the ball and the player responds by saying that he was fouled? Mackey replies simply that coaches don’t want to hear excuses. If the referee did not blow his whistle then there was not a foul and the player must be tough enough to retain possession. If a player has any trouble dealing with the level of contact in college basketball then no scout is going to even consider recommending him as an NBA prospect. Players must be able to accept a lot of contact and still finish at the basket in order to play at the NBA level.

Most of the early action involves perimeter players until a reserve big man checks into the game and receives some touches in the post. To be a legitimate NBA prospect, a post player must be able to catch, turn and shoot in traffic. Not long after he enters the game, this post player drops a poorly thrown pass. I ask Mackey if he holds that against the post player or against the guard who threw the pass. Mackey answers that it was the guard’s fault but notes that a great receiver—an upper echelon post player like Tim Duncan--would have batted the ball to the floor and then controlled it. Mackey says that Moses Malone had small hands, so he would sometimes bat the ball until he could grab it. If a skilled player can get a hand on the ball then he will usually find some way to catch it, so this poorly thrown entry pass tells Mackey two things: the guard is not a good feeder of the post and the player he passed to does not have superb hands.

A few possessions later, the post player receives an entry pass that he can handle. His moves around the hoop are so mechanical and plodding that I thought that I was watching an old Godzilla movie made with stop action photography. Mackey puts it a different way: he has no "stuff" around the basket and is "not clever" with his low post moves. A good post player moves crisply and decisively and if the defense cuts off his primary move then he immediately goes to a counter move—stop his baseline hook shot and he spins to the middle for a short jumper. Instead, this player tries to use his size to muscle up a shot. When he is stopped short he has no counter move.

After the game, Mackey says that he does not need to see any of these players again this season; if they are smart, they will stay in school, develop their skills--and earn a degree, because none of them is a serious NBA prospect at this point. Next year, Mackey will probably watch them play again to see if any of them have substantially improved.


Before we watch any tape, Mackey points out some "NBA questions" that he has written on the grease board that hangs on one of his office walls. They are:

--Accomplishments to date
--NBA physical tools
--Skill set
--Size for position

The first two can be classified as "background"—what a player has done until now in high school, college and/or international play. Mackey calls the last three "want to" traits—intangibles such as whether the player will play hard, not back away from physical contact and continue to have a good work ethic if he gets a big contract. Understanding is another intangible—does he make the right pass, is he in the right position, does he recognize situations on the court.

Mackey says that he has not listed the questions in order of importance but, for instance, if a player does not have NBA physical tools or athleticism then he really needs a great skill set to compensate. Steve Kerr is an example of this—he lacked athleticism, but could really shoot and had a good understanding of how to play. Earl Boykins, T.J. Ford and Eddie House are examples of players who are undersized but possess outstanding quickness.

The major advantage of film study over watching a game live is the ability to rewind plays. The two disadvantages are bad camera angles at times (in terms of what the scout wants/needs to observe) and not getting the chance to feel a player’s presence and see his interactions with teammates, coaches and referees. The only way to get a complete picture of a prospect is to combine film study with in-person observations of a prospect. Tapes of college players may either be recorded from regular broadcast television or broken down into clips consisting exclusively of a certain player’s offensive or defensive sequences from a particular game.

Mackey has selected the tape that we are watching to look at one player in particular—let’s call him "the prospect." Early in the game, the prospect takes two dribbles and then hits a jumper in the lane—Mackey rewinds the tape and says that this is an NBA caliber move. The prospect gets where he wants to go on the court, plays under control and is not in a hurry. Mackey likes the way that he uses his off arm to ward off the defender but without doing it so blatantly that he commits a foul. Later on, the prospect scores a basket and draws a foul by giving the defender his hip while protecting the ball. I suggest that his moves are stronger, quicker and more decisive than any moves made by the players in the game that we watched in person and Mackey heartily agrees.

All teams have a book on numerous prospects prepared by Marty Blake’s scouting service. This book contains thumbnail biographies and various statistics. Mackey turns to the page in the book about the prospect and notes some concerns that he has about him, the foremost being his poor free throw percentage—actually, his shooting percentages from all ranges (FG, 3-point FG and FT) are not great. His shooting form is not the best but Mackey is not worried about that. He says that the most important thing in becoming a good shooter is repetition. Larry Bird and Reggie Miller did not have classic form but perfected their deadly shooting via countless hours of repetition.

What Mackey wants to determine is how effectively the prospect would fit in with the Pacers’ players. Can he make other people on the team better by driving to the hoop, drawing the defense and dishing the ball to open shooters? Mackey says that sometimes a player plays better than his numbers might indicate. College coaches move players around to different positions to get wins. This is understandable—winning games is their job—but often leads to players performing in roles that are different from what their roles would be in the NBA, hindering a true evaluation of them. The style that a team plays affects a prospect’s statistics, as does the quality of his teammates. Statistical analysis is very much in vogue in baseball and is rapidly gaining popularity in NBA circles. Mackey agrees that it is an important part of the puzzle but says that the "eyeball is number one."

On a couple occasions, the prospect dribble drives, penetrates and then makes passes to open shooters that are not converted into baskets. Those would be good NBA plays that NBA quality shooters would convert into baskets, but because his teammates missed the shots the prospect’s assist totals do not accurately convey his ability as a playmaker. Mackey likes that the prospect handles the ball well and is an athletic kid. Mackey rewinds the tape again when the prospect gets a strong offensive rebound and converts. Soon after that, he makes another NBA caliber driving move and finishes at the hoop with his left hand. Later, the opposing team tries to apply some ball pressure against the prospect, but he is not fazed. Mackey notes that he’s not a jet, but he uses his body to protect the ball and has a good handle. He uses size to get into the lane and understands how to pass the ball. On defense he is able to keep ball handlers in front of him and is in the right position most of the time. Mackey summarizes the prospect’s performance: "He can come in and play with grown men; he’ll pass the ball"—as opposed to a player who would come into camp shooting all the time and irritating veteran players.

Getting Ready for the Draft

All of the information from the team’s scouts is assembled together before the draft. Technological improvements have helped make scouting more sophisticated and there are fewer secrets now because of it—for the teams that take advantage of the opportunities that the new technology presents. Specifically, there are high quality DVDs or videotapes available of almost any serious prospect that a team may be considering; advances in computer technology make it easy to break down a game tape and extract all of that player’s key offensive or defensive plays for examination. I mention that a few years ago my favorite part of the NBA draft was when a team would draft some foreign player that only Hubie Brown had heard of and then Brown would break down that player’s game while TNT showed some grainy black and white footage that looked like a bad home video. Mackey says that sometimes you still may end up with grainy footage of foreign players, but much less frequently than in the past.

In some cases, a team’s scouts will disagree about how to evaluate a given player and that player’s ability to fit in with the team. More information is gathered when players are brought in by the teams for interviews. These interviews may be conducted by a group of scouts or by one scout individually. If a scout is not present for an interview he can submit a question that came up based on what he saw/researched. For instance, "Why did Player X not play until his senior year of high school?" The answer may reveal academic, legal or family problems that could be red flags about this player. Other parts of the final evaluation process include a medical examination, psychological profiling and the coach’s assessment of what the team needs.

Teams conduct many mock drafts to try to anticipate what the other teams will do and to figure out which players are most likely to be available to them. Of course, Mackey would not say for publication what the Pacers think about this year’s draft but he says that the Pacers did 35 mock drafts at various times leading up to the 2005 draft and that Danny Granger—a player who the Pacers really liked--was never available. The interesting thing about the process is that different teams have different needs and different aversions to perceived risk. Mackey believes that questions about Danny Granger’s knee may have caused his draft status to drop. The Pacers were delighted to get him with the 17th overall pick in the first round. Early in the season, even before Granger received much playing time, Mackey raved to me about his toughness. Granger averaged 7.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg and was selected to the All-Rookie Second Team, just missing the cut for First Team status.

The Pacers—and 29 other NBA teams—hope to select another Granger in the 2006 draft. Their scouts are working 365 days a year to find him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 PM


Brown Out in New York

The brief Larry Brown era is over in New York. Just one year after giving him a contract reportedly valued at $50 million for five years, the Knicks have not only fired the Hall of Fame coach but are asserting that he has been fired for cause and therefore should not receive the full value of his deal. NBA Commissioner David Stern will have to sort out the financial ramifications of Brown's firing. Team President Isiah Thomas will now add "coach" to his job description but this is hardly an instance where having more titles leads to more job security. As Mike Wilbon noted on "Pardon the Interruption," becoming the Knicks' coach just puts Thomas closer to being fired unless he is able to effect a huge turnaround in the team's fortunes. Thomas assembled this roster and now he will be in the trenches with this motley cast of overpaid underachievers. He will either right the ship or go down with it.

Thomas has not done much to increase his popularity or improve his reputation since the end of his Hall of Fame playing career. His associations with the Toronto Raptors and the CBA did not end amicably and his tenure as coach of the Indiana Pacers is oft criticized. The problem is that we live in a sound bite culture, so every person and situation ends up being summarized in a catch phrase that sticks like velcro. For instance, "Isiah drove the CBA into bankruptcy in less than two years after the league thrived for over 50 years." Let's think about that for a minute. One, if the league was thriving, how come Thomas was able to buy the entire operation for $10 million? Two, what does being in business for over 50 years have to do with the CBA's future prospects? When the NBA decided to put its weight behind its own minor league, the NBDL, that moved all of the other minor leagues down a notch or ten. A lot has been written about Thomas' confrontational way of dealing with his business partners in the CBA. I wasn't there, so I don't know if those things are true or not--but the CBA would have had to be reorganized and undergo significant changes whether or not Isiah got involved.

While Thomas owned the CBA he was offered the Pacers' head coaching job. He had to place the CBA in a blind trust because owning a minor league and coaching an NBA team is an obvious conflict of interest. Should Thomas have not taken the Pacers' job at that time? Maybe. Is he blameless with what happened to the CBA? Probably not. However, the suggestion that he singehandedly took down a thriving minor league is an oversimplification at best.

Thomas took over a Pacers team that had just appeared in the NBA Finals after posting a 56-26 record. Thomas led Indiana to a 41-41 mark in 2000-01. Aha, another instance of Thomas ruining everything he touches, right? Well, not exactly. Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Mark Jackson, three key veterans from the 1999-2000 team, did not return in 2000-01. What about Jermaine O'Neal? The Pacers acquired him in 2000-01 from Portland and he responded to the increased playing time that Isiah gave him by having his best season yet. The next year O'Neal was even better but injuries and a lot of roster upheaval led to a 42-40 record. In 2002-03, the Pacers improved to 48-34. That summer, the Pacers hired Larry Bird as President of Basketball Operations and his first move was to fire Thomas and hire Rick Carlisle, a former teammate of his. While Thomas took over a team in transition and helped it to improve each year, Carlisle reaped the benefits of getting a young, improving team. This is not to say that Carlisle has not done a good job, but the idea that Thomas failed as a coach is incorrect.

Similarly, Thomas' brief tenure with the Raptors, which ended when he lost a power struggle for control of the team, is hardly the unmitigated failure that some portray it to be. Thomas drafted 1996 Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire despite doubts about the 5-10 guard, then the next year he selected Marcus Camby--still a productive player a decade later--and the following year he picked Tracy McGrady straight out of high school.

It is easy to boil situations down to sound bites but reality is rarely if ever that simple. So what does all of this mean for the Knicks? At this point it is probably clear that I don't have as low of an opinion of Thomas as many other people do, particularly as a coach. The problem for the Knicks starts in the backcourt, with Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis. They may be great human beings but I cannot stand them as basketball players. Each of them exemplifies the worst of point guard play--they overdribble the ball on offense and are indifferent at best on defense. The point guard's job is to get everyone involved on offense and to be the first line of defense by harassing the other team's point guard. I will be very surprised if a team led by Marbury or Francis ever has significant success in the NBA. Specifically, unless they change the way that they play, neither will lead a team past the second round of the playoffs, at best; maybe when they are 37 years old they will be fortunate enough to be bit players on a championship team, having passes bounce off their heads while jawing at referees during the NBA Finals, but enough about Gary Payton. So, Thomas the coach will have to do something about the roster that Thomas the GM assembled. He will either have to convince Marbury and Francis to play differently or he will have to get rid of them. If Thomas resolves this issue successfully, then I think that he will do well as the Knicks coach. If not, Thomas will very soon join Brown in the ranks of the unemployed.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 PM


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Three Great Quotes And Some Thoughts About the 2006 Playoffs

The 2006 NBA Playoffs were tremendous from start to finish, featuring great individual and team performances. We will no doubt be talking about this postseason for years to come. If this were a TV show, now would be the time to run one of those "sights and sounds" of the playoffs pieces. Instead, here are my three favorite 2006 playoffs quotes and some observations about Miami's championship and what it might mean historically.

Best 2006 NBA Playoffs Quotes:

"They're not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs."--LeBron James after his Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Detroit Pistons to take a 3-2 series lead. In one sentence, James summarized why the Cavaliers were able to push the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions to the brink of elimination: he was not the slightest bit afraid of them and he convinced his teammates to feel the same way (at least until game seven...). What I will remember the most about this year's playoffs is gathering around James with other members of the media for his pre-game standup before game three of the Cleveland-Detroit series. Detroit had just annihilated the Cavaliers in the first two games and what struck me was that James really believed that Cleveland could win two games at home and even the series. Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey once told me that only by seeing a player in person can you get a sense of his presence/dominance. My sense of LeBron James at that moment was that either he was delusional or he knew something about himself and/or his team that no one else knew. He believed in himself and he got the rest of his team to believe in themselves--it was simply awesome to watch his game blossom during the playoffs and just a taste of things to come for him.

"Playoff basketball is war and hell. We go to war and give them hell."--Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan after Washington's game two win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Politically incorrect? Certainly, as is any comparison of a sporting event to war when our soldiers are putting their lives on the line every day around the world. Sometimes these kind of statements pass without mention and sometimes (like the recent situation involving a World Cup soccer player) they create an uproar. Jordan said this right after the game concluded and it was clear that in the heat of the moment he was not making a literal comparison of basketball to war but simply trying to explain the tremendous willpower and determination that it takes to win in the playoffs. After 9/11 we went through a brief period when songs referring to fire or bombs were not played on the radio and we were careful to not make sports=war analogies but the total effort of mind, body and spirit that it takes to win in any competitive endeavor inevitably lends itself to such analogies, even though we all know that they are not literally true.

"You guys probably don’t know what an octagon is. But it’s something that belongs in an octagon. If you want to train and hop in an octagon, we can train and hop in an octagon. That’s not basketball."--Kobe Bryant describing Raja Bell's clothesline against him in game five of the Phoenix Suns-L.A. Lakers series. I rarely watch ultimate fighting, but I liked this quote because it showed Bryant's humor and determination at the same time. He said it with a big smile but--like Magic Johnson's smile and Michael Jordan's smile--you know that underneath that smile Bryant would go into an octagon against anybody and believe with all his heart that he would win. The basketball court is not the right place for that, though. This made me think of something that Isiah Thomas once said. He talked about being at a banquet with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird after all three of them were retired. Magic and Bird, each standing 6-9, towered over Thomas, generously listed at 6-1. Thomas' Pistons beat Magic's Lakers in the 1989 Finals and beat Bird's Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals and he claims to have a personal winning record against both players and Michael Jordan (I'm not sure if he is referring simply to playoff series or all games played). In the heat of battle (another war comparison...) against those guys he never thought of himself as small but at the banquet Thomas thought to himself, "(Expletive deleted), they're big!" A true competitor hops into the octagon at a moment's notice and never thinks about the odds. Kobe was just trying to give a light hearted answer but we all know that humor contains a grain of truth.

Thoughts About Miami's Championship:

1) I correctly predicted the outcome of 10 of the 15 series. As some readers are certain to point out, three of my incorrect picks involved the Miami Heat. In retrospect I should have stuck with my preseason Eastern Conference predictions, when I tabbed Miami as the best team in the East (albeit with some reservations). I was never completely sold on Miami or Detroit from the start of the year but for most of the season I did not see anyone in the East who could beat them. Detroit's regular season record did not convince me that the Pistons would win the title because I thought that the Pistons would lose to the first sufficiently disciplined team that they faced. Miami struggled to beat good teams--let alone division leaders--all season. When New Jersey came on in the second half of the season the Nets seemed like just the team to knock off Miami and Detroit; the Nets played good defense and had three great perimeter players who could attack the paint. I guess New Jersey's struggles against the Indiana Pacers in the first round should have been a warning sign, but I thought back to the 1993 Phoenix Suns who almost lost in the first round but made it to the NBA Finals.

2) I have consistently maintained that Shaquille O'Neal had to win a championship with the Miami Heat to justify the $20 million a year that they are paying him--anything less would be a failure and he would be the first to admit that. Now I must say that, even if O'Neal never plays another game, signing him was worth it.

3) Many people will look at O'Neal's departure from the L.A. Lakers and say that since it has proven to be a good deal for Miami that it must be considered a mistake by the Lakers. I disagree. I have always said that this was a short term deal for Miami but a long term one for the Lakers. We would find out quickly if the deal worked for Miami, because O'Neal is near the end of his career--for him and the team, it was championship or bust. The Lakers are rebuilding around Kobe Bryant, who has many elite level seasons left unless he suffers a serious injury. If Bryant leads the Lakers to a title at some point then the deal worked out for them as well. The simple fact is that for financial reasons Lakers owner Jerry Buss would not have kept both O'Neal and Bryant unless O'Neal accepted a shorter contract than the one Miami gave him. If Buss would have given O'Neal a longer deal then he would have had to let Bryant sign with another team. O'Neal is barely a 20-10 player now and would not have gotten the Lakers anywhere close to a championship without Bryant, just like he would not have gotten the Heat anywhere close to a championship without a superb performance by Dwyane Wade.

4) Despite what I just said about O'Neal's diminishing skills, he had an importance in the Finals victory that belies his rather pedestrian statistics. Dallas had to double-team him regularly and/or foul him, the latter of which put the Heat in the bonus and added to Wade's free throw attempts. Since the Mavericks had to pay so much attention to O'Neal they were never able to get a handle on Wade; you cannot double-team two players and leave one guy guarding three people. The difference between O'Neal now and O'Neal a few years ago is that back then he could score 35-40 points against double-teams while still creating opportunities for his teammates. Now, he cannot play as many minutes as he did then or be so dominant, so he simply accepts the double-team and makes the correct pass.

Bottom line: Miami would not have won without O'Neal, but the Lakers would not have won with him minus Kobe Bryant; O'Neal has every right to feel good about what he has accomplished, but the Lakers may also get a championship out of the deal as well.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:58 PM


No Flash in the Pan: Dwyane Wade Leads Miami to the Championship

Dwyane Wade (36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocked shots) led the Miami Heat to a 95-92 game six win over the Dallas Mavericks, clinching the franchise's first NBA championship. Wade averaged 34.7 ppg in the series and was an easy choice for Finals MVP. Shaquille O'Neal had a quiet game (nine points, 12 rebounds) but is surely delighted to win a championship just two years after his contentious departure from the L.A. Lakers. Udonis Haslem (17 points and 10 rebounds) and Antoine Walker (14 points, 11 rebounds) came up big for the Heat, as did Alonzo Mourning, who had eight points, six rebounds and five blocked shots in 14 minutes of playing time. Dirk Nowitzki had 29 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots but most of his teammates had subpar games. Jason Terry (16 points) shot only 7-25 from the field, Josh Howard (14 points) grabbed 12 rebounds but shot just 5-16 and Jerry Stackhouse (12 points) shot 5-13.

Dallas led 26-12 with less than three minutes remaining in the first quarter. At that point, Nowitzki already had 11 points on 5-7 shooting and Wade had no points on 0-2 shooting. I mentioned in my post about game five that Dallas did a poor job closing out the third quarter and that problem happened again in the first quarter of game six: Wade scored seven points in the last two minutes and Miami slashed the lead to 30-23 by the end of the period. It takes a lot of energy and effort to build a lead over a 10 minute span and you cannot consistently squander such advantages and expect to win the game. Dallas gave away a sizeable portion of its game two lead but hung on to win. In retrospect, the series turned around in game three when Dallas blew a double digit lead late and lost; the Mavericks never figured out how to hold on to leads against the Heat. It is not so much that Dallas lost "momentum" after game three--the Mavericks played well for significant stretches in the subsequent games--but that the close of game three revealed a weakness that Dallas never corrected. The Mavericks had certain obvious advantages that they could exploit to get leads but, for whatever reason, Dallas could not maintain those leads. In the end, Miami must be given the credit for wearing down Dallas' will.

Dallas pushed the lead to 46-36 with 3:31 remaining in the second quarter but by halftime Miami led 49-48. Wade had 19 points on 6-10 shooting in the first half and Nowitzki had 17 points on 8-12 shooting. During most of the games in the series Dallas seemed fresher and livelier at the start of the third quarter and that happened again in game six: Dallas took a 53-52 lead less than two minutes into the quarter but after that Miami took charge and led by as much as nine before Dallas pulled to within 71-68 going into the fourth quarter. Walker had 10 points and eight rebounds in the third quarter.

Miami never led by more than five in the fourth quarter and Dallas pulled even at one point but in the end the Mavericks simply could neither make enough shots nor get enough stops. Wade had another strong fourth quarter with 11 points but he missed two free throws with 10 seconds remaining to give the Mavericks one last chance; Terry's three-pointer bounced harmlessly off of the rim, a fitting conclusion to a game in which Dallas shot 5-22 from beyond the arc.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the historical implications of this championship, both for the young (Wade) and the old (O'Neal, Mourning, Gary Payton), but for now it is sufficient to congratulate the Heat for winning their first NBA championship and the Mavericks for having the best season in franchise history.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM


NBA Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn Explains Some of Game Five's Controversial Calls

There has been a lot of discussion about three controversial calls at the end of game five of the NBA Finals. NBA Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn appeared Tuesday night on "NBA TV Insiders" and explained what he saw on each of the plays:

1) Dallas owner Mark Cuban suggested that Dwyane Wade committed a backcourt violation by jumping from the frontcourt to the backcourt to catch an inbounds pass at the end of overtime. Nunn said that during the last two minutes of the fourth quarter and any overtime sessions that players are allowed to do this. So, Wade's move may have been a violation had it occurred earlier in the game but not at that stage of the game.

2) Later on the same play, Dirk Nowitzki was whistled for a foul against Wade, but many observers felt that the contact was marginal at best. Nunn said that Nowitzki placed his hand on Wade's back and that it was clearly a foul. He also said that Devin Harris fouled Wade earlier on the play and that when Jason Terry fell at midcourt that Terry slipped and was not pushed by Wade. Nunn said that the fact that the officials called a foul on a star like Nowitzki at the end of the game disproves the notion that officials swallow their whistles at the end of games and/or will not call fouls on superstars.

3) A lot of attention has been focused on the Mavericks calling their last timeout before Wade's second free throw instead of after it, when Dallas could have advanced the ball and had a decent chance to get off a shot. Nunn said that Dallas Coach Avery Johnson clearly signaled for a timeout on the sideline and that Josh Howard twice signaled for a timeout on the court and that Dallas players began moving toward the sideline. In such a case the timeout call must be granted. Nunn acknowledged that if there is some confusion that an official may ask if the team really wants a timeout but, "In this case, there was no confusion. There was an overt request."

Here is my take on these three situations:

1) This is clearly explained in the rulebook, so no one can disagree with Nunn about it.

2) Nunn's explanation makes sense, but the contact looked pretty marginal. I'm not sure how it can be argued that Terry simply slipped but that Nowitzki's touch had that dramatic of an effect on Wade's shot. I'm not saying that it was a bad call and I certainly do not buy into any idea that there is some kind of conspiracy but I don't think that call is consistent with the way the rest of that game was officiated.

3) In a "by the book" sense it may be correct that the timeout had to be granted but it is so obvious that Dallas would not want a timeout before the second free throw that some leeway should have been allowed here. Johnson insists that he was not signaling for a timeout at that point but that he was alerting his players to call one after the second free throw. He immediately said that to the officials as well. Since Nunn admitted that officials can use their discretion if there is some confusion Dallas should have been given the benefit of the doubt.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:36 AM


Monday, June 19, 2006

Wade's Clutch Free Throws Put Miami One Win Away From the Championship

Dwyane Wade hit two free throws with 1.9 seconds left in overtime to lift the Miami Heat to a 101-100 game five win over the Dallas Mavericks. Wade shot only 11-28 from the field but he finished with a playoff career-high 43 points on the strength of his 21 free throws, a Finals single game record. Wade shot 5-17 from the field and scored 22 points in the first three quarters before erupting for 21 points on 6-11 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 18 points and 12 rebounds; James Posey was the only other Heat player to score in double figures (10 points). Dallas also had only three double figure scorers: Jason Terry (35 points), Josh Howard (25 points and 10 rebounds) and Dirk Nowitzki (20 points and eight rebounds). Nowitzki now holds the record for most free throws made in one postseason but he only made four (in five attempts), while Wade's 21-25 effort from the charity stripe exactly matched the Mavericks' team totals in both categories. As Dallas Coach Avery Johnson said after the game, it is tough to win when one player shoots as many free throws as your whole team.

Miami's bench outscored Dallas' 23-12, in no small part because Dallas' best reserve, Jerry Stackhouse, was suspended because of his flagrant foul against O'Neal in game four. Stackhouse was not ejected by the game officials but was suspended when the league office reviewed the play. Dallas probably wishes that the league office could review the last foul on Wade, because it appeared to be a phantom foul. Wade always goes sprawling when he drives to the hoop, so when I first saw the play I thought that he had been fouled. Upon further review (as they say in the NFL), there was little if any contact. ESPN's Paul Silas flatly said that Wade was not fouled and other ESPN commentators (Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Scottie Pippen--who was whistled for a phantom foul on Hubert Davis in game five of Bulls-Knicks series in 1994, a call so bad that one of the officials on the court at the time later publicly admitted that it was a mistake) also disagreed with the call.

Howard had a great game, but he will wear the goat's horns in the end because he missed two free throws with 54 seconds remaining in overtime and Dallas leading 98-97. Then, he made an ill-advised timeout call with 1.9 seconds remaining. Wade had just made his first free throw to tie the game. Dallas had one timeout left, which Johnson wanted to use after Wade's second attempt. Instead, Howard apparently asked the officials for a timeout before Wade's second free throw and the officials granted it. I say apparently because Johnson vehemently insisted that he was signaling to his team to call the timeout after the second shot. It certainly makes no sense to use your last timeout before the second shot, because you forfeit the chance to advance the ball and lose any realistic opportunity to get off a good shot. After the game, crew chief Joe Crawford issued a brief statement saying that Howard twice asked for a timeout and that the officials had no choice but to grant it. The fact that he even issued a statement indicates that this was an unusual situation. Clearly, there was a communication breakdown among Johnson, Howard and the officials.

While the game ended with a lot of drama and some controversy, it began rather routinely. The Mavericks got off to a good start, seemingly putting the memory of their game three and game four losses behind them. Dallas led 11-5 with 7:39 remaining in the first quarter but the Heat answered with a 10-0 run and led 24-21 at the end of the period. Nowitzki (8 points) and Howard (6 points) scored 14 of Dallas' 21 points.

Wade gave no indication in the first half that he would end up having such a memorable performance. He only had 13 points on 3-13 shooting from the field in the first half and Dallas led 51-43. Terry and Howard each had 19 points in the first half and they combined to score 27 of Dallas' 30 second quarter points as Miami focused its defense on holding Nowitzki in check.

The Mavericks came out strongly in the third quarter, as they have in most of the games in the series, and pushed the lead to 63-51 with 5:31 remaining. The thing that has been befuddling about this series is that the Mavericks have two offensive sets that produce open shots almost every time that they run them but Dallas seems to go away from these plays down the stretch. During the ABC telecasts, Hubie Brown has repeatedly mentioned that Dallas needs to keep Terry involved and that he can take Gary Payton or Jason Williams off the dribble, with or without a screen. That is one good set for Dallas; the other is running Nowitzki off of screens so that he catches the ball with the defender on the move; that lessens the physical contact that is applied to Nowitzki. Except for forcing a 24 second violation with 1:52 remaining in regulation, the Heat have not shown the ability to stop either of these plays. Expect Dallas to be more dedicated to running these sets at home and more efficient in executing them.

While most people will focus on Wade's heroics and some of the things that happened at the end of the game, I look at how Dallas closed the third quarter. The Mavericks led 71-60 with 2:10 remaining after Terry hit an 18 foot jump shot. On Dallas' next possession, D.J. Mbenga set a moving screen; Hubie Brown correctly noted that Terry has been getting open on the play so easily that there is no need for Mbenga to even think about moving on the screen. Then Marquis Daniels missed a wild running shot; on the next possession he committed an offensive foul. Dallas could have taken the last shot of the period, but Harris forced a rushed attempt, giving Miami the chance to attempt a long three as time ran out. Meanwhile, when Miami had the ball in the last 2:10 Wade made two jump shots and James Posey hit a three-pointer, cutting Dallas' lead to 71-67. TNT's Doug Collins always talks about the importance of closing quarters in a strong fashion; the Mavericks closed the third quarter like a race car running out of gas or a boxer who is spent--the focus, concentration and discipline that are necessary to win these kinds of games were not there in that critical strech.

Wade hit a jump shot less than one minute into the fourth quarter to give the Heat their first lead of the second half. Neither team led by more than five points for the rest of the game. There were several plays that seemed like they might turn out to be the play of the game, only to be superseded by a bigger play a moment later. Dallas went to the "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy with just under five minutes to go in regulation and O'Neal only made 1 of 4 free throws before Heat Coach Pat Riley took him out of the game; Riley put him back in with less than 2 minutes remaining, when away from the play fouls such as the "Hack-a-Shaq" result in one free and retaining possession of the ball. Terry hit a jumper to put Dallas up 83-79, but Gary Payton immediately responded with a three-pointer. Terry answered with an old fashioned three point play when Payton fouled him on a running jumper. Wade and Howard each hit a pair of free throws but then Wade scored Miami's last nine points in the final 2:25 of regulation, including a running bank shot with less than two seconds left to send the game to overtime. Just a few seconds earlier, Erick Dampier dunked off of a beautiful feed by Nowitzki to put Dallas up 93-91. Any one of those free throws or shots could have potentially been game winning plays, but they all get kind of lost in the wash since the game went to an extra session.

The overtime was closely contested, with neither team leading by more than two. Dampier made one of two free throws with 1:41 remaining to put Dallas up 98-97 and neither team scored again until Payton hit a left handed layup that bounced high off of the backboard with 29 seconds left. Nowitzki hit a tough fadeaway jumper with nine seconds remaining to put Dallas up 100-99 and set the stage for Wade's final heroics.

I picked Dallas to win this series in six games. Obviously, that will not happen--but I still think that the Mavericks will win the series. It has been a homecourt series so far and Dallas is perfectly capable of winning games six and seven at home. This is a team that overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat Houston in last year's playoffs and a team that eliminated the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on the road in a seventh game this year. Dallas does not need to make any major adjustments. Stackhouse will be back for game six, so the Mavericks will have some additional firepower. Games three and five were right there for the taking, so if the Mavericks play the same way on Tuesday there is every reason to believe that their role players will perform better in Dallas and that Miami's role players will perform worse. The two areas for concern for Dallas in this series have been rebounding and finishing out the fourth quarter strongly. Dallas won the battle of the boards in game five and will likely do so at home. Dallas' tentative and at times inept fourth quarter play cost the team dearly in games three and five. If the Mavericks can shore that up then the championship is there for the taking.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM