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Friday, October 20, 2006

"A Scout's-Eye View of the Game" Featured at Pacers.com

Pacers.com has posted a link to my two part series "A Scout's-Eye View of the Game." In case you missed it the first time around, these articles look at NBA scouting from the perspective of Kevin Mackey, a Pacers scout who also has extensive coaching experience in college basketball and various pro basketball minor leagues, where he coached many future NBA players, including Darrell Armstrong, Mark Blount, Michael Curry and Adrian Griffin. Here is the link:

Pacers News Digest

posted by David Friedman @ 3:40 PM

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Clippers Squeak by Kobe-less Lakers, 91-90

The L.A. Clippers defeated the L.A. Lakers 91-90 in the first round of the preseason Laker Shootout Tournament at Staples Center as TNT kicked off its 2006-07 NBA preseason coverage; in an earlier game that was not shown on TNT, the Golden State Warriors beat the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets 112-103, so the Clippers will face the Warriors in Friday's championship game while the Lakers will play the Hornets in a consolation matchup. Cuttino Mobley led the Clippers with 26 points, Elton Brand scored 20 and Corey Maggette contributed 14. Sam Cassell and Chris Kaman did not play due to injuries. Second year center Andrew Bynum scored 15 points for the Lakers and Smush Parker added 13. Rookie guard Jordan Farmar had 14 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant is still recovering from knee surgery and has yet to play in the preseason, although he has done some light practicing and says that he feels good and that his rehabilitation is going according to schedule. Lamar Odom had a subpar game--9 points, 6 rebounds, 7 turnovers, 2-8 shooting from the field. The Clippers are now 3-1 in the preseason, while the Lakers fall to 2-3.

The list of injuries for the Lakers is truly daunting: Kobe Bryant is of course the foremost name, but Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm, Vladimir Radmanovic, Shammond Williams, Aaron McKie and Von Wafer are all nursing various ailments--plus Phil Jackson just had hip replacement surgery, so Kurt Rambis is coaching the team during the preseason, although Jackson has been present at some of the practices and expects to return to the bench in time for the regular season.

This game had a disjointed rhythm, which is not surprising considering how many players from both teams' regular rotations sat out or played fewer minutes than usual. The teams combined for 59 fouls, 45 turnovers and only 56 field goals made; the Clippers shot 28-66 from the field (.424), while the Lakers shot 28-72 (.389). NCAA basketball fans won't like this comparison, but what the game reminded me of most was last year's last year's NCAA Tournament. The good news is that this was just an exhibition game (even though the NBA and NFL hate that term and prefer "preseason") and when the regular season starts in less than two weeks the quality of play will be a lot higher. TNT's Steve Kerr said that the "intensity goes up 80%" in regular season games compared to preseason games and that this is the biggest adjustment that rookies have to make. He and fellow analyst Reggie Miller agreed that the game might seem easy to young players during summer league or the preseason but then they get a rude awakening when the real games start.

Much like when Al Michaels and John Madden broadcast the preseason NFL Hall of Fame Game, Kerr, Miller and play by play announcer Marv Albert spent at least as much time talking about general league issues as they did specific plays. One interesting discussion centered around Kobe Bryant. Albert mentioned that in 2005-06 the Lakers were 18-9 when Kobe Bryant scored at least 40 points, seemingly refuting the notion that it is a bad thing for his team when Bryant shoots/scores a lot; Albert asked Kerr and Miller for their thoughts about that statistic and Kobe's style of play in general. Kerr replied that Kobe must find a balance to his game the same way that Michael Jordan eventually did and that Kobe seemed to make a lot of progress toward that end last season and particularly in the playoffs. Miller said that he likes it when Kobe puts up a lot of shots because Kobe is the only player on the team who has a killer instinct and that there are not a lot of other credible late game scoring options on the team. My take on this is that Kobe Bryant is a fierce competitor whose foremost objective is to win; if the best way for his team to win is for him to shoot a lot, then he will drop 81 points, as he did in a come from behind victory against Toronto--and if the best way to win is to pound the ball inside to Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom to exploit mismatches, as the Lakers did against Phoenix in the playoffs, then he will do that as well. Kobe still averaged 27.9 ppg (and a playoff career high .497 field goal percentage) in that series, including a 50 point game, so he showed that he can "defer" and still hit crucial baskets. One thing is certain, Albert, Kerr and Miller agreed: if the Lakers don't win, Kobe will be blamed whether he shoots a lot or a little.

Mobley scored 19 of his points in the first half but the Lakers had a 53-51 lead. Sideline reporter Cheryl Miller asked Odom how the Lakers had managed this and he replied, "Teamwork; team effort running our Triangle; staying disciplined." He also cited the efforts of coaches Jackson, Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Craig Hodges, concluding, "We're well prepared."

Admittedly, it is hard--no, impossible--to draw meaningful conclusions about either team from a game like this, but it is interesting to observe the development of some of the players who saw extensive action. First, the Lakers: Bynum looks bigger and his game is smoother and more confident. Don't get me wrong, he still has a long way to go, but he has a lot of tools and has clearly worked on his game; Ronny Turiaf provides a lot of energy and hustle and even displayed some nice postup moves; Farmar's physique resembles Mike Bibby's and, like Bibby, he showed that he can hit open shots and get in the lane and make plays despite not having blazing speed or dazzling jumping ability; Sasha Vujacic can hit open shots and is a "pesky" defender, as Kerr put it; Parker plays hard and is athletic but he shot only 3-11 from the field, and if he cannot hit open shots then he will lose playing time to Farmar, Vujacic and/or Shammond Williams. Some thoughts on the Clippers: Brand, like Phoenix' Shawn Marion, puts up "quiet" numbers. It doesn't always seem like he is doing a lot and then you look at the boxscore and he has 20 points, five rebounds and four steals. He seems to be coasting at times in the preseason but I'm sure that he will have another All-Star season; Maggette had 14 points in only 19 minutes and if he stays healthy he will really provide a good scoring punch either as a starter or a sixth man; Tim Thomas shot 1-11 from the field, his only make coming on a three pointer near the spot where he hit the dagger for Phoenix against the Lakers in game six of last year's playoffs. Miller made the point that Phoenix' system, with Nash driving and kicking to open shooters, was perfect for Thomas and that none of the Clippers' guards will be spoonfeeding Thomas for open shots in a similar manner. It will be interesting to see what kind of role Thomas plays for the Clippers this year; Livingston is clearly a talented player but he still makes a lot of mistakes and is not always on the same page as Coach Mike Dunleavy in terms of shot selection and decision making.

A funny moment happened at the start of the second half. The fans started booing, which seemed to disorient the players momentarily because nothing dramatic had happened on the court. Albert explained that the fans were upset because game seven of the National League Championship Series between St. Louis and New York was no longer being shown on the giant overhead screen. Kerr wondered why the fans didn't stay home and watch the baseball game if they were that interested in it but the Staples Center came up with a unique solution by utilizing picture in picture (!), something that I've never seen before on an arena's overhead screen; Miller had never seen it either but said that in Hollywood anything can happen.

The Lakers outscored the Clippers 23-17 in the fourth quarter and had the ball for the last possession with less than 20 seconds left and the Clippers clinging to a 91-90 lead. After a timeout, the Lakers inbounded the ball to Farmar, who did a lot of dribbling before Odom set a screen, forcing the Clippers to switch Tim Thomas on to Farmar. Farmar tried to drive past Thomas, but Thomas poked the ball away and time ran out before the Lakers could recover the loose ball and get off a shot. Suffice it to say that I don't think we will be seeing that play too often when Kobe is in the lineup. It's easy for guys to say that they want to take more shots when Kobe is doing all of the heavy lifting, but when Kobe is not around and everyone else can be guarded man to man it is not so easy to be a hero. Kobe's presence, even if he is used as a decoy, makes things easier for everyone; the defense would have been positioned a lot differently with Kobe on the court even if the Lakers still decided to run the Farmar/Odom screen and roll play. On a previous possession, Odom drove to the hoop and was also stripped. A lot of players say that they want the ball at the end of the game but few really do and even fewer can produce in that situation--but the good news for Lakers fans is that this team plays hard, seems to be coachable and is good enough to keep games close enough for Kobe to have a chance to make a difference at the end.

As for the Clippers, it has a been a long, strange preseason for them, starting with traveling to Europe for two games against Russian teams as part of the NBA Europe Live Tour. Then they came back to the United States and had a training camp in Santa Barbara. The issue of whether or not Kaman will sign a contract extension hangs over the team, as does the question of how minutes will be allocated between veteran point guard Cassell and point guard of the future Shaun Livingston. Albert, Kerr and Miller talked like it is a foregone conclusion that the Clippers will win 50-55 games and make a run at the Western Conference Finals but I am not convinced. For all the talk of how the Clippers have supplanted the Lakers in L.A., the Clippers only won two more games than the Lakers last year and the teams split the regular season series. Assuming that Bryant returns to health soon, there is just as much reason to believe that the Lakers--in the second year of Phil Jackson's new regime--can show improvement in their implementation of the Triangle Offense that will lead to more wins as there is to believe that the Clippers will be better.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:11 AM

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Monday, October 16, 2006

Part II of an Interview with Andrew Blauner, Editor of Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference

Andrew Blauner, founder of Blauner Books Literary Agency, is the editor of the anthology Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference. He assembled an all-star team of writers—including Ira Berkow, Buzz Bissinger, Frank Deford, Robert Lipsyte, David Maraniss, John McPhee, George Plimpton and George Vecsey—to not necessarily write stories about great coaches but rather to craft great stories about coaches. The result is 25 disparate and fascinating perspectives on the dynamics of the coach-player relationship. You can find ordering information for Coach here. I recently spoke at length with Blauner about this book and the subject of coaching in general. In Part I , we talked about some traits that are shared by great coaches and how the coach-player relationship involves a lot more than just conveying techical information about how to play a sport.

Friedman: “My next question is kind of the opposite of one of my earlier questions, when we talked about some of the commonalities among successful coaches. What common thread—whether it relates specifically to coaches in your book or just thinking about the subject in general—is shared by unsuccessful coaches? I don’t necessarily mean coaches who aren’t winning but rather coaches who do not develop those kinds of relationships or engender those positive memories that we just spoke about.”

Blauner: “That’s a great question. The first word that came to mind as you were asking that question is ‘callousness,’ but I’m not sure if that is the most apropos word. The second thought, maybe the one that is more applicable, is a bigger point, going back maybe to something that I foreshadowed: coaches who have their own way of doing things and don’t tailor that in any way.”

Friedman: “Inflexible.”

Blauner: “Exactly. That’s a good way to put it. As much as I had great experiences with my coaches, I know plenty of people who just (had bad experiences)—like you said, sometimes it’s the way something is said, or the timing of it. In the introduction, Bill Bradley says that a well timed ‘well done’ from a coach can go so far. Especially when we are at school-age, confidence is just such a critical element. Leading to the analogy that a lot of people like to make from coaching to business today, it is said that the best managers or bosses are those who bring you up when you are down and take you down a peg when you are riding too high. The only time that I can remember my old coach sort of getting ticked off at me is when I had a quote in the school paper in which I basically said that we played well enough to win or that we played to the level of our competition—something like that. That just struck a chord and didn’t play for him. He said that, no, you don’t just play well enough to win or play to the level of your competition; that is the exact opposite of what we are trying to do or what you should want to do for yourself. He had all of these great expressions—‘Don’t measure the size of the man, measure the size of his heart.’

There are a couple of pieces in the book that are a little bit subversive: Francine Prose’s piece about her old phys ed instructor or gym teacher who was just cruel in some ways and how it took her a long time to forgive. That gets into another element which, for me at least, was an interesting part of putting the book together: How are we even defining what a coach is? Today, there is a whole industry of personal coaches, business coaches, life coaches. Some of the writers who I invited to contribute responded that they would love to and wanted to write about an oboe instructor or math teacher and I thought that it was so interesting that they took the invitation in that direction. In the book, the sport that is written about the most is basketball, but there are also stories about horseback riding, wrestling, tennis—in addition to baseball, football, basketball—and something about that was interesting to me, about how people view what a coach is. When I invited Ben Cheever he said that he could write something but didn’t think that I would like it. I asked why and he said that it wasn’t a very positive piece, so I also found it interesting that people inferred that all I was looking for are valentines to coaches, which was not the case. In one case, David Maraniss—who wrote a great biography of Vince Lombardi and also one about Bill Clinton—said that he would love to write for the book but he didn’t have a coach. That led to a stream of thinking that there is a population of people out there who have ‘coach envy,’ who have read stories in this book or elsewhere about these great relationships and wish that they had had that. Maraniss ended up writing a piece about what he calls his ‘coach less’ youth. People use the expression ‘chick-lit’ for these pink covered novels by women about women, and you could almost say that there is ‘coach-lit,’ with (Gus Alfieri's book) Lapchick and Halberstam’s book about Belichick and Michael Lewis wrote a book about his old coach. There is a book about Joe Paterno, who went to Brown. I don’t know if there is sort of an opening up or a new understanding or appreciation for coaches but it certainly seems to be manifesting in more books being written about the subject.”

Friedman: “Paterno and Belichick are two of the most fascinating coaches to me. Is part of the reason that they are not represented in your book the very thing that you just mentioned, that they have been written about and discussed so much and you wanted to go in a different direction? You mentioned that most of the coaches in your book—other than McGuire and Stengel—are probably not as well known to the general public.”

Blauner: “Exactly. I’m a huge Joe Paterno fan. In fact, I sent him a copy of the book and got a very nice note back from him; the same with Bobby Knight and some of the best coaches around. When I first started telling people about the book, some of them understood it to mean stories about great coaches, meaning Lombardi, Bobby Knight, Paterno, but obviously, with very, very few exceptions, there are not a lot of—let’s say--accomplished writers who became pro athletes or who were even great athletes in college who played for those kinds of coaches. In other words, if there had been a great writer who played for Bill Belichick, then that person would probably have been at the top of my list.”

Friedman: “Instead of looking for stories about great coaches you were looking for great stories about coaches, whether or not that coach was great in terms of national acclaim.”

Blauner: “Precisely. Coming from the world of books, on some base level, it is a book that I wanted to read that I found didn’t exist. In a way, it is a collection of 25 mini-memoirs but, with all due respect to pro athletes and great college athletes who go on to write books—you know the old expression in basketball, ‘shooters shoot’?”

Friedman: “Yes.”

Blauner: “In my role as a literary agent, I’ve always had the comparable idea that ‘writers write’ and shouldn’t be asked or expected to do more. Obviously, in this industry and culture they need to be promoters and business people and all these things. It actually reminds me of some expression that our old coach had, something about you are either a carpenter or a plumber—something about doing what you do best: if you are a big man, don’t bring the ball down the court, just go to the blocks and set up. If you are a point guard, don’t go to the low post. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t want stories about great coaches but there was anything but a premium on them being famous coaches. I’m as thrilled to have Ed Swift’s piece about Coach Ward who probably no one has heard of—although I hope they do soon, because the piece is supposed to go on SI.com. With the exception of the ones that you mentioned (none of the coaches are famous) and one other, a short piece by the great Robert Lipsyte, formerly of the New York Times, about his day playing tennis with Althea Gibson, the great, pioneering tennis player. She was his coach for a day. Unless somebody has read Pat Conroy’s books and feels like they already know his coach from the Citadel, about whom he writes in this book as well, then none of the names of the coaches will be familiar. Like you said, I was looking for great stories, but by writers, not by athletes. If there was a writer out there whose work I admired, who happened to have played for Joe Paterno, I would have absolutely included him.”

Friedman: “I have one more question, getting back to the issue that we discussed about Xs and Os. I’ve always been interested in both aspects of coaching, the motivational aspect and the technical aspect. A subject that I have written about and often discuss with people concerns when most coaching is actually done. I think that the layman’s perception—exacerbated by television showing coaches jumping up and down and doing all these gyrations on the sidelines—focuses on what is happening during the game but I believe that the most significant aspect of coaching happens during practice and preparation. If a team is properly prepared, then they go out and execute. If they haven’t been properly prepared, it’s too late by the time the game happens. I would be interested in your perspective on this. You mentioned your high school career and you have read all these stories about coaches. Expound on that subject a little bit.”

Blauner: “I love that subject. In fact, every time I watch a close basketball game, college or pro, when it gets down to the last possession or two if a team has a timeout left and doesn’t use it, the announcers say, ‘You have a timeout left. Use it.’ The first time I remember being aware of this is with Bobby Knight’s teams at Indiana. Knight’s philosophy, if it’s not too much of a stretch to call it that, goes to what you are saying, which is there shouldn’t be anything new that I can introduce in a 45 second timeout. All the work, all the preparation has been done in practice long before that point in the game, before the game even started. If there is one characteristic of all successful coaches—if this is not way too much of a blanket statement—it is this almost obsessive work ethic. The classic stories, not necessarily in this book, are about the coaches who go back to the office after the game, watch game film, sleep at the office and if they weren’t doing this they don’t know what they would be doing. This is what they were born to do: it’s a mission, it’s a calling, it tears their insides out when they lose or when a kid doesn’t develop. For so many of them, whether it’s Belichick or—“

Friedman: “Joe Gibbs sleeping on the cot in his office, at least during his first time as Redskins coach. When he started there, he had a cot at the Redskins facility and I don’t think he went home for like five months, supposedly.”

Blauner: “Yeah. Over the years, for different reasons—not just for this book—I’ve wanted to contact a college or pro coach and almost every time the response that I would get from an intermediary is that I should wait until the season is over, because during the season the coach just doesn’t deal with anything. He can’t lose his focus and his concentration is all on the last game, the next game, today’s game. Now there might be no window because even during the offseason, depending on the level, there is scouting or recruiting; it’s become sort of a year round profession and obsession. That’s not a bad lesson to impart, even if the coach is not saying, ‘Look how hard I’m working or how much time I’m putting into coaching you guys.’ In the book, it comes out that the appreciation for what these coaches did, not surprisingly, is not felt at that time. The classic thing is that a coach gets on a player and is just riding him and riding him and the player cannot understand what he did to deserve this. It takes either someone else seeing it and saying it or it just takes the passage of time and some perspective to realize that the reason was that he cared about you and you weren’t working hard enough or he saw some potential in you that you didn’t see and weren’t going to actualize yourself. If you didn’t like him at the time because he was riding you, then so be it: it comes with the territory. The ones who were on me during my youth and riding me and driving me crazy were the people who, when I got to be an adult, said that if I ever got into a jam or needed a place that they always had a room for me. What is the expression, ‘home is where they always have to let you in’?”

Friedman: “I think so.”

Blauner: “I literally have a couple coaches who I could show up at their doorsteps today and it has nothing to do with Xs and Os or sports—they’d take me in like family. To go back to the real genesis and basis for all of this—maybe burying the lead a little bit—is that part of the reason that I and a lot of other people have these kind of relationships with coaches is there is so much divorce and kids often end up spending more time with their coaches than they do with either of their parents. There is sometimes that need for some other authority figure or connective tissue or whatever you want to call it. It’s not going to come from your parents and it’s not going to come from your teachers. There is something that comes out in the passion for basketball or whatever the sport is and that’s not just a surrogate: that is the person who you are looking up to and learning from. It’s not to sentimentalize any of this; that’s just reality. It sometimes seems like not a week goes by without a story in the New York Times or a national magazine about someone wanting to pay back or pay tribute (to their coaches), whether it’s Avery Johnson with the Mavericks or some CYO league kid who credits his coach for keeping him alive or off the streets and out of trouble. There are some people who will always dismiss or diminish sports and the ‘jockocracy’ or whatever you want to call it, but I think that if you read this book and read these stories (you will think otherwise)—partly because these are not just professional writers, but wonderful writers who not just have great stories to tell but who tell them so piercingly, insightfully well.”

Friedman: “What you mentioned about work ethic is interesting. On my website, I wrote a couple articles called ‘Basketball, Chess and Boxing.’ Part II ties into an article in Scientific American by Philip Ross, who is an expert level chess player and whose daughter is a master level chess player. He talked about what he called ‘effortful study’ and how research has shown that the common thread among people who are successful—chess players, musicians and so forth—is years and years of study—of course, not years of non-productive work, but years of concentrated, focused study. I think that relates to what you are talking about in terms of coaching and work ethic and the single mindedness that the coaches have. I think that it also applies to great players and not just to great athletes but to people who are successful in other fields."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:03 AM

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