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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Answer Debuts for Denver, Kobe Overcomes the Flu and Yao Leaves the Spurs Yearning for Rasho Nesterovic

The NBA delivered plenty of action on Friday night in addition to Gilbert Arenas' 54 messages to Mike D'Antoni. Here are brief comments about a few other notable games/performances:

***The Allen Iverson era for the Denver Nuggets began with a 101-96 loss to the Sacramento Kings. Iverson came off the bench after sitting out the first 8:35 and played for the rest of the game, finishing with 22 points and 10 assists while shooting 9-15 from the field, an unusually small number of attempts and high rate of accuracy for him. The Nuggets used only eight players and were missing the services of starters Marcus Camby (broken finger), Carmelo Anthony (suspended by the NBA) and J.R. Smith (suspended by the NBA). Earl Boykins led the Nuggets with 25 points but shot 8-23 from the field; the Nuggets shot .371 as a team. Brad Miller and John Salmons topped the Kings with 21 points each.

*** Kobe Bryant had 21 points, 11 assists and six rebounds as the Lakers beat the Nets, 99-95. Bryant battled the flu and a gritty Nets' defense that was determined to force other players to make shots. Of his illness, Bryant said, "It's a struggle. I'm looking forward to going back to the room and getting some rest. I have been struggling with it right before we came out on the road trip. I've been trying to fight it off. Last night it caught up to me."

The Nets' philosophy against Bryant is to swarm him and make him give up the ball. Bryant has no problem doing that: "(The Nets are) one of those teams that is absolutely bent on me not scoring. They throw everything but the kitchen sink. The challenge I have is to make teams see that I can just be as big a threat passing the ball."

Bryant shot just 4-13 from the field, uncharacteristically low numbers for him in terms of attempts and field goal percentage. He shot 11-12 from the free throw line and was the highest scoring of six Lakers who reached double figures in points. Vince Carter led the Nets with 33 points but shot just 13-30 from the field and missed a three pointer that could have tied the game with two seconds left.

***Last year, the Houston Rockets could barely win a game when Tracy McGrady did not play. Couple that with the fact that the Rockets had lost 17 straight games in San Antonio and their chances on Friday night did not look good. THAT, Chris Berman would intone, is why they play the games. Yao Ming had 22 points--including 18 in the first half when Houston built a 53-36 lead--and the Rockets soundly defeated the Spurs, 97-78. The Spurs' center tandem of Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto is not able to deal with Yao, so the task of guarding him falls to power forward Tim Duncan. After the game, ESPN's Greg Anthony said that this assignment wore Duncan down and took away from his rhythm on offense (Duncan finished with 14 points on 4-13 shooting, adding 11 rebounds, four assists, five steals and two blocked shots). Then Anthony uttered words that would surely cause Stephen A. Smith to pass out: Anthony said that the Spurs miss Nazr Mohammed and Smith's favorite whipping boy, the much maligned Rasho Nesterovic. Anthony pointed out that those two players provided a legitimate defensive post presence alongside Duncan that the Spurs are lacking now.

Another key factor for Houston was the play of Bonzi Wells, who scored a season-hihg 15 points. He shot 6-11 from the field as the Rockets shot .514 from the field overall, a very high percentage against the Spurs, a team that always ranks among the leaders in defensive field goal percentage. Manu Ginobili led the Spurs with 23 points.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:06 AM

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Gilbert Arenas Drops 54 Lumps of Coal in the Suns' Stockings

Gilbert Arenas is the NBA's Santa Claus--only the list that he makes and checks twice doesn't contain who is naughty and nice but rather anyone who he feels disrespects his talents. After all, he wears number zero because his doubters told him that was how much playing time he would get at Arizona. When Arenas was left off of the final 12 player Team USA roster last summer he vowed that he would try to score 100 points in his two games against Phoenix and 100 points in his two games against Portland. He targeted those teams because Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni and Portland Coach Nate McMillan were assistants on Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA staff. It took an overtime session, but Arenas delivered the first 54 points on Friday in Phoenix, leading the Wizards to a 144-139 victory that snapped the Suns' 15 game winning streak. Arenas shot 21-37 from the field (6-12 on three pointers) and 6-6 from the free throw line. Arenas had five points in overtime; his teammate Caron Butler, who also had a strong performance (34 points, one off of his career-high, and 10 rebounds), led the Wizards with 10 overtime points. Steve Nash tied his career-high with 42 points and had 10 assists in defeat.

Arenas scored 60 points on Sunday versus the Lakers, so he has gone for 50-plus twice in a six day period. If you are thinking that must be a pretty rare feat, you are correct. The Elias Sports Bureau reports, "Over the past 30 years, only five other players have scored 50 points twice in a six-day span: Kobe Bryant (2006), Allen Iverson (2004), Antawn Jamison (2000), Michael Jordan (three times in four days in 1987 and then in 1992) and Bernard King (1984)."

In case you are wondering, Arenas next faces the Suns on January 23 in Washington, while the Wizards' two games against Portland will be played on February 11 (at Washington) and March 20 (at Portland).

posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Is Gilbert a Gunner?

Gilbert Arenas' 60 point game last Sunday has flown under the radar in the wake of the melee at Madison Square Garden and the Allen Iverson trade. Arenas became just the 20th player in NBA history to score at least 60 in a game and he broke the all-time record for points in an overtime period with 16 but his performance has largely been ignored--and when it is mentioned, more attention is given to the postgame comments of the man who guarded him (and put up 45 points of his own in a 147-141 loss), Kobe Bryant, who said, "You tip your hat and say, 'See you next time.' First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that. But him individually, it's funny. He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time." Pundits spent some time debating whether or not this was a case of someone in a glass house throwing stones, generally coming to the conclusion that Kobe Bryant is the last person who should be criticizing anyone's shot selection; yeah, three-time NBA champion, member of several All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams--what does he know about basketball? Anyway, I already did a post recognizing the historical significance of Arenas' 60 point game, so I thought that it would be interesting to take Bryant's remarks at face value and see if there is any merit to them. Instead of blaming the messenger, let's actually read the message and see if there is any truth in it.

I touched on this subject briefly near the end of the above post, noting that Arenas' field goal percentage is worse than that of every other player who ranks in the top 25 in the NBA in scoring except for Allen Iverson. Arenas generally does a good job of getting to the free throw line, but his 27 attempts are more than double the number that he attempted in any other game this year. He shot just six free throws in the preceding game, zero (!) free throws in the next game and zero free throws in the first half of Thursday's game against the Kings until the closing seconds; in other words, after his 27 free throw attempts against the Lakers he went nearly six quarters without attempting a free throw. I can understand why Bryant was a bit surprised at that part of Arenas' performance; that does not mean that the calls were bad--it may just mean that for whatever reason Arenas went to the hoop more often and more effectively than he has in any other game this season.

Does Arenas have no "conscience" with his shot selection? Back to the boxscores: while he shot 17-32 in his 60 point game, Arenas was 10-23 in the preceding game, 10-30 in the next game and 9-23 on Thursday versus the Kings. So, in the three games surrounding his career night he shot .382 from the field. Add in the 17-32 and, voila, Arenas shot .426 in those four games--virtually identical to his season and career field goal percentages. Bryant's contention is that Arenas takes a lot of low percentage shots but that against the Lakers he made many of them. The numbers bear that out. Arenas got hot and he burned the Lakers, particularly in overtime, producing a performance of historic proportions. That does not change the fact that he is a low percentage gunner, an All-Star player but someone whose overall game is not on the same level as that of Bryant, LeBron James or Dwyane Wade--players who are more efficient scorers, better rebounders, better passers and better defenders (particularly Bryant in terms of the latter item).

Gilbert Arenas is an exciting player to watch and I respect how he has confounded his doubters throughout his career. He has improved to the point that it seems like he will be an All-Star for years to come but, as I wrote in my Eastern Conference Preview, "Gilbert Arenas is not as good as he thinks he is and if he believes that he can carry his team to a title by outdueling LeBron or Wade one-on-one then he will always come up short. LeBron told Arenas before some key free throws that if Arenas missed then he would send him home. Arenas missed and LeBron sent him home. Bottom line: If Washington does not put some more talent around Arenas and ratchet up the defensive intensity, Arenas’ playoff career will resemble Dominique Wilkins’—lots of points and highlights and no conference finals appearances." Yes, Arenas did outduel Bryant on this one night, just as Wilkins outdueled Michael Jordan on occasion during the regular season--but the standings show that Washington is barely above .500, has the fifth best record in the weak Eastern Conference and thus will not likely advance to the second round of the playoffs this year. Bryant may have been the wrong messenger in the eyes of some but, as TNT's old motto used to say, he "Let the truth be told."

Postscript: Washington rallied from a 59-53 halftime deficit to beat the Sacramento Kings 126-119. Arenas scored 12 points and shot 4-11 from the field in the first half, attempting just two free throws. In the second half he shot 5-12--including three makes from long range--and he made all five of his free throw attempts, scoring 18 in the half and finishing with 30 in the game. He also had eight rebounds and seven assists, better than his season averages in both categories--but the difference for the Wizards when they blew the game open were the 20 second half points scored by Antawn Jamison, who shot 9-17 for the game and had 33 points and 13 rebounds. Without his efficient scoring and strong work on the glass the Wizards may very well have lost. Seven Wizards players played at least 16 minutes and Arenas was the only one who shot less than .500 against the Kings' "defense," which was missing Ron Artest.

Artest was a late scratch after he told Coach Eric Musselman that he couldn't go because of sore knees, an injury that no one knew that Artest has. Musselman was very irritated at the timing of this, because if he had known sooner he could have deactivated Artest and activated someone else.

Regarding the Kings' defense, TNT's Doug Collins listed four traits that characterize good defensive teams:

1) Keep guards out of the lane (the Kings rank 14th in allowing points in the paint).

2) Contest perimeter shots (the Kings rank 28th in three point field goal percentage defense).

3) Block shots (the Kings rank 28th in blocked shots).

4) Defensive rebounding (the Kings rank third in allowing second chance points).

The Kings rank third in the NBA in steals, so the bottom line is: they steal the ball and they rebound misses but the Kings are not effective guarding perimeter shooters nor are they able to stop teams from scoring inside. Therefore, a good strategy against them would be to patiently work the ball around because eventually you are going to get an open jumper or a layup. That probably explains why in the opening minutes of the game Arenas launched a three pointer with five Kings back on defense and no other Wizards player visible on that end of the court (Arenas made the shot).

Arenas had some interesting second quarter possessions, too. After he fired up a fadeaway that completely missed the rim and barely grazed the backboard, Collins said, "That was a bad shot by Gilbert Arenas." The next time down the court, he attempted to feed the post while standing about 10 feet behind the three point line but his pass sailed over Jamison's head. Meanwhile, on defense, John Salmons, who averages 9.7 ppg but finished with a season-high 23, was simply wearing Arenas out by taking him to the hoop.

When Arenas finally did make a three pointer in the second quarter, Collins laughed and said, "I love Gilbert Arenas--he can miss 10 shots in a row and think he's hot."

A few minutes later, Collins' partner Kevin Harlan said, "(Wizards Coach) Eddie Jordan told us before the game, 'We need to have patience and discipline on offense.'" Those words were barely out of his mouth before Arenas dribbled up court and missed a contested three pointer from the top of the key. Collins observed, "That's not a good shot. Gilbert is trying to do too much on his own now."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Chauncey B-B-B-Billups' 4th Quarter Shooting Buries the Cavs

The only thing that Chauncey Billups missed in the fourth quarter was hearing Detroit Pistons' public address announcer Mason intone his trademark "B-B-B-Billups" call after each made field goal. While the Cleveland Cavaliers did not allow the Pistons to bring Mason into Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs certainly did everything else they could to make Billups feel like he was at home during the final period. Billups produced 12 points and four assists in the fourth quarter and the Pistons blew open a close game, winning 87-71. He ended up with 17 points and 10 assists in leading the Pistons to their third straight win while handing the Cavaliers their third consecutive loss. Tayshaun Prince also had a strong game, contributing 16 points (8-11 field goal shooting) and eight rebounds. LeBron James shot just 1-6 from the field in the fourth quarter, but still led the Cavaliers in scoring (26), rebounds (10) and assists (five); just like his performance in a loss to the Nets on Wednesday, James put up good numbers but was unable to have enough of an impact at the key moments in the game. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a solid game (16 points, six rebounds, 7-13 shooting from the field) and Larry Hughes chipped in with eight rebounds and four assists but he shot horribly from the field (5-17).

The Cavaliers took an early 10-6 lead and were ahead 24-22 at the end of the first period. James shot 6-7 from the field and scored 12 points, including Cleveland's last eight, punctuated by a buzzer beating jump shot. However, he shot just 3-13 for the rest of the game as the Pistons packed their defense into the paint and denied him driving lanes. Early in the game, TNT's Steve Kerr addressed a pet peeve of mine after Detroit's Richard Hamilton faked Hughes into the air, jumped into Hughes and was awarded two free throws. Kerr said that the defensive player should be entitled to his space, provided that he jumps straight into the air as Hughes did, and that offensive players should not be allowed to jump into the defender in that fashion. Marv Albert wryly commented that he is sure that the competition committee will get right on that but I think that Kerr is 100% right.

It was the Jason Maxiell show for the Pistons in the second quarter as he came off the bench to put in eight points and Detroit outscored Cleveland 20-17 to take a 42-41 halftime lead. James scored two points and shot 0-2 from the field in the period.

The pace slowed down even more in the third quarter, during which Detroit outscored Cleveland 15-14. A low scoring, close finish seemed to be inevitable but Billups--who shot just 1-9 from the field in the first three quarters--changed all of that with eight points and an assist in the first 3:03 of the fourth quarter. That outburst put Detroit up 69-58 and the Pistons never looked back. After Detroit scored the first five points of the quarter, Kerr noted "a 5-0 run in this game is like 25-8" in a higher scoring contest. He also praised Billups for the "supreme confidence" that enabled him to keep shooting even though he had shot so terribly in the first three quarters. Billups' heroics--coupled with the fact that Cleveland point guard Eric Snow shot 0-0 from the field and was a non-factor--prompted Kerr to say that Cleveland needs a point guard who can take pressure off of James by creating shots. The lack of such a player on the Cavs' roster is "a glaring weakness that is showing up tonight," Kerr concluded. Hughes is supposed to be the player who fills that role but he has been in and out of the lineup due to injuries, seemed to tweak his ankle at one point during the game, and was neither able to create enough shots for others nor make outside shots versus Detroit.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:45 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part IV

In golf it is called "moving day"--the time when the contenders separate themselves from the pretenders. Several of the NBA's elite teams and players started off slowly but, as the fourth edition of the NBA Leaderboard shows, they have worked their way to the top. Utah and Orlando led the standings as recently as three weeks ago but now the Spurs and Suns have the two best records.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) San Antonio Spurs, 20-6
2) Phoenix Suns, 18-6
3-4) Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, 19-7
5) L.A. Lakers, 17-9

The Lakers have a better record than every team in the Eastern Conference. The Jazz have gone 6-4 in their last ten games and the Magic have gone 4-6. Two thirds of the season still remains to be played, plenty of time for the contenders to separate themselves even more from the pretenders. For those of you who are wondering, Denver is currently in the eighth spot. Iverson is scheduled to arrive on Friday and Melo will be back in a month.


Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 31.6 ppg
2) Allen Iverson, DEN 31.2 ppg
3) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.1 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.7 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.6 ppg

8) Yao Ming, HOU 26.7 ppg

10) LeBron James, CLE 26.3 ppg
11) Vince Carter, NJN 25.9 ppg

Bryant has moved up from 14th to 4th since November 23. Surprisingly, James' average and ranking have actually slipped slightly since then. Arenas' 60 point game helped him to move into third place. Carter started the season at a career-high pace but has been slipping during the past month. This race will really be fun to watch down the stretch.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.7 rpg
2) Chris Bosh, TOR 12.2 rpg
3) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
4) Kevin Garnett, MIN 11.8 rpg
5) Tyson Chandler, NOK 11.5 rpg

8) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.6 rpg

11) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.1 rpg

14) Yao Ming, HOU 9.8 rpg

18) Rasheed Wallace, DET 9.3 rpg

23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.7 rpg

Howard has led all year, but his average continues to decline. Duncan's average dropped and he fell out of the top ten. As predicted here, Ben Wallace zoomed past former teammate Rasheed Wallace. Will Sheed rank ahead of the 6-4 Kidd by the end of the season? My guess is no. Will Detroit miss Ben Wallace's rebounding and defense a lot more in the playoffs than they will during the regular season? Yes.

Top Five Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.6 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.5 apg
3) Andre Miller, PHI 9.1 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 9.1 apg
5) Deron Williams, UTA 8.8 apg

This top five does not figure to change much (barring injury). If this were an election, Nash would already be projected as the winner. "Starbury" moved up to 24th--and hit a game-winning shot this week, too.

Note: All statistics are from NBA.com.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 AM

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Carter's Scoring, Kidd's Versatility Too Much for the Cavs

Vince Carter broke out of his mini-slump and Jason Kidd displayed his typical all-around brilliance, leading the New Jersey Nets to a much needed 113-111 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carter scored 38 points on 10-18 shooting from the field (including 4-5 from three point range), adding six rebounds and five assists. Carter only scored 35 points in his previous three games, shooting just 12-48 from the field in those contests as the Nets went 1-2. Kidd produced nine points, 10 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot. LeBron James had 37 points and eight assists but only had one rebound and shot poorly for most of the game, although a late flurry brought his percentages up to decent levels (10-22 from the field, 16-21 from the free throw line). The Cavaliers shot just 35-83 from the field (.422) while the Nets hit an outstanding 39-68 (.574).

The game started at a quick pace, with Cleveland leading 11-7 after the first three minutes and each of the Cavs' starters making one field goal during that stretch. ESPN's Hubie Brown shed some light on why the Nets are performing so far below expectations this season. First, forward Richard Jefferson's numbers have dropped dramatically because he has two bad ankles, one of which may require offseason surgery. Second, as indicated above, Vince Carter has been in a slump recently. Jason Kidd has been carrying the team but in order for the Nets to become a contender Carter and Jefferson must step up. Maybe Carter heard what Brown said, because he scored 14 points in the first quarter and the Nets rallied to lead 29-28 by the end of the period. James had just six points on 2-5 shooting from the field, but both of his makes were highlight reel plays: a two handed fast break dunk and a one hand driving dunk from the right baseline.

The Cavs made 13 of their first 20 shots but then hit just one of their next 15 attempts. The Nets pushed their lead to 44-37 but James scored five points in the last four minutes of the quarter and the Cavs took a 52-51 halftime lead. James shot just 4-12 from the field in the first half but he shot 5-6 from the free throw line and had 13 points. Carter did not score in the second period.

Cleveland went into another shooting slump at the start of the third quarter, missing eight of their first 10 shots and shooting just 5-20 from the field in the period--and that includes Damon Jones' three pointer at the buzzer, after which the Nets still led 78-71. Nenad Krstic scored eight points for the Nets in the third quarter.

The Nets pushed their advantage to 86-71 in the first minute of the fourth quarter after a Hassan Adams drive and a three point play by Jason Collins. Drew Gooden was whistled for a flagrant foul on that play, so the Nets retained possession after Collins' free throw; the Nets took advantage of this extra opportunity with a Marcus Williams three pointer. The Nets went ahead by as much as 16 (89-73) before the Cavaliers ran off 11 straight points to get right back in the game. Damon Jones scored five points and James contributed four points during that run. Kidd then scored a very timely layup off of a nice backdoor feed by Carter to put the Nets up 91-84. James answered with a pullup jumper to bring the Cavs back to within five, 91-86, after which Brown chuckled that James was "not having a good night." James had 28 points but had shot poorly from the field and launched several ill advised shots. Brown's point was that James is so talented and so good that even on a bad night he finds a way to score and to keep his team in the game. James scored nine more points in the last 5:13 to push his total well beyond his season average and to get his shooting percentage back to its normal level, but Brown noted again near the end of the game that this was a tough game for James because the Nets made him work for everything he got and punished him physically when he went to the basket. Brown concluded that the Cavaliers can expect a steady diet of such defenses designed to frustrate James and that they will continue to struggle if they don't improve the spacing of the other players.

Carter and Kidd combined to score the Nets' last 14 points as New Jersey held off a late Cleveland rally. A meaningless Jones three pointer with .1 second remaining made the final score deceptively close.

***Notes***

>ESPN's pre-game Shootaround show spent much more time discussing the Allen Iverson trade than the upcoming Cavs-Nets game. Fred Hickman's voiceover for a video montage of previous Sixers greats who have been traded contained two silly errors. First, he said that Wilt Chamberlain led the Sixers to the NBA title over the Boston Celtics before he was traded to the Lakers. That would be like saying that the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Denver Broncos to win last year's NFL title. Chamberlain's Sixers beat the Celtics in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals before defeating Rick Barry's San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals. That may seem like nitpicking but I've never understood how commentators who have teleprompters and notes prepared by a staff of researchers can make mistakes about things that they should just know anyway if they are students of the game. Later, Hickman said that the Sixers acquired Moses Malone, won the NBA championship and then traded him "the very next year." Malone played for the Sixers for four years; the video graphic had the correct information, so if Hickman had just looked at the screen he would have gotten it right. Again, my question is how can any student of the game make that kind of mistake? This is not some obscure piece of information dating back 50 years. When ESPN had the contest a while ago to select a new SportsCenter anchor, Stuart Scott made a big deal about Al Jaffe and his legendarily tough sports trivia questions to prospective anchors. Are NBA commentators not subjected to the same scrutiny?

>Jason Kidd scored his 13,000th career point near the end of the game. He told ESPN's Jim Gray that he feels great and thinks that he is having his best season, even better than when he led the Nets to back to back Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. He is scoring less than he did during those seasons but he is averaging a career-high 8.8 rpg--simply amazing for a 33 year old 6-4 point guard who has had microfracture surgery--and is exceeding his career averages in assists and free throw percentage. He certainly seems to have regained the bounce in his step that was missing after he first injured his knee.

>ESPN ran a graphic indicating that Kidd and Magic Johnson are the only players in NBA history to accumulate career totals of at least 12,500 points, 8000 assists, 5500 rebounds and 1500 steals.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:44 AM

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Will the Answer and Melo Bring an NBA Title to Denver?

No. That was pretty simple, wasn't it? Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will not win an NBA championship this year because the Denver Nuggets are still not a better team than the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks or Phoenix Suns. I doubt that they are better than the L.A. Lakers once Lamar Odom returns to the lineup. The Utah Jazz are the mystery guest in this year's Western Conference playoff picture because it remains to be seen (1) if their key players can stay healthy for an entire season and (2) how well those players will perform in the postseason, regardless of what kind of regular season record the team has. If Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady are both healthy at playoff time, I'm not sure that the Nuggets would beat the Rockets in a playoff series, either.

Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson are ranked 1-2 in the NBA in scoring this season but Iverson has gone further than the first round in the playoffs exactly once since he led the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2001. Anthony's Nuggets have won three playoff games in his three seasons. Compare that postseason track record with the playoff resumes of the Spurs' Tim Duncan (three championships, three Finals MVPs), the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki (one Finals appearance, two Western Conference Finals appearances) and the Suns' Steve Nash (two straight Western Conference Finals appearances with the Suns plus one with Dallas playing alongside Nowitzki).

Does that mean that the trade is a bad move for Denver? Of course not. Trading Andre Miller, a decent NBA point guard, for a future Hall of Famer greatly increases the team's talent level and makes it almost impossible for opponents to double team Anthony. The worst thing that you can be in the NBA is mediocre: you either want to be contending for a title or making an appearance in the Draft Lottery hoping to acquire the franchise player who will help you contend for a title. You do not want to get stuck in the purgatory of winning 40-45 games, getting your doors blown off in the first round and then picking 25th in the first round. The Nuggets have been stuck in purgatory since Anthony arrived and acquiring Iverson is their bid to move into championship contention. I don't think that will happen this year but there will probably never be another opportunity to trade Miller for a player of Iverson's caliber. The Nuggets simply had to pull the trigger on this deal and see how far the Iverson-Anthony duo takes them in the next two to three years; their only other choices were to stay in purgatory--which is unacceptable--or do a complete rebuilding process, which does not make sense when you have a player like Anthony who is just entering his prime.

How will the scoring be distributed now in Denver? J.R. Smith is the odd man out, because there is no question that he is going from the second option to the third option. Iverson will have the ball in his hands all the time, so it is really up to him whether he or Anthony leads the team in scoring. Anthony will miss the next 14 games because of his suspension, so Iverson will hit the ground running in Denver and put up his customary 30-plus ppg for the next month. I think that this makes the dynamic a little different than if Iverson and Anthony played together right from the start. Everyone says that Denver is Anthony's team but by the time he plays his next game Iverson will probably have been the team's leading scorer the previous 12 or so games (it is not clear when he will play his first game for the Nuggets). I think that Iverson and Anthony will make the adjustment more smoothly than Smith will because they are better players and they have more experience. This is the first year that Smith really got to play and I don't think that he will relish having to reduce his role now.

I doubt that either Anthony or Iverson will lead the league in scoring this year. For one thing, Kobe Bryant is going to go on a tear for the next month or so with Lamar Odom being out and may very well have claimed the scoring title anyway. Also, regardless of who becomes the first option in Denver, it is unlikely that either player's scoring average will go up.

For the record, it should be noted that, contrary to what you may have heard on SportsCenter, two teammates have each averaged 30-ppg for a season. In 1961-62, Jerry West ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring with 2310 points (30.8 ppg; the NBA ranked scorers by total points, not average, until 1969-70) and his Lakers teammate Elgin Baylor ranked eighth in the NBA in scoring with 1836 points (38.3 ppg). Baylor only played in 48 games because of a military commitment but he scored enough points to be ranked among league leaders even under current rules (1400 points or 70 games played), so West and Baylor are officially the only teammates who each averaged 30-plus ppg in a season. Incidentally, Baylor has said that because he missed so many games he was fresher than other players during the playoffs. The Lakers made it to the Finals that year, losing game seven in overtime to the legendary Bill Russell Boston Celtics. Baylor averaged 38.6 ppg in that postseason and scored a record 61 points in game five of the Finals. West averaged 31.5 ppg in the 1962 playoffs. Anthony and Iverson are getting Baylor-like rest this season (for different reasons) but that will hardly be enough to vault Denver into the Finals.

What about Philadelphia? Any time you trade one of the premier players in the league you do not get equal value in return. That is obvious. The Sixers received a competent point guard to handle the ball and run their offense. They received a big man who is near the end of his career (Joe Smith) and whose expiring contract gives them financial flexibility for the future. Finally, they received two first round 2007 draft picks that are likely to fall pretty late in the round (i.e., well removed from being lottery picks). They also have their own first round pick but there is a complicated scenario in which it is possible that they would have to give up that pick due to the stipulations of a previous trade (that possibility is as unlikely as it is complicated, so let's just assume for now that it won't happen). After the owner of the Sixers publicly announced that Iverson would never play for the Sixers again and the team cleaned out his locker the Sixers could hardly expect to get too much more than they did. The team will not be very good the rest of this season, so the success or failure of this deal will be judged on what becomes of those draft picks and how the team uses the money that will be freed up once Smith's contract expires. The Sixers will also have to decide at some point what to do with the contracts of Miller and Chris Webber.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 AM

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No Bull: Chicago Stampedes to Fifth Straight Win

The Chicago Bulls defeated the L.A. Lakers 94-89 at the United Center on Tuesday, extending their winning streak to five. The Bulls have won 12 of their last 13 games and have long since put the controversy about Ben Wallace's headband behind them. Wallace played with a lot of energy, contributing four points, nine rebounds, seven assists, four steals and three blocked shots. Luol Deng led the Bulls with 23 points and 12 rebounds, while Ben Gordon added 22 points. Kobe Bryant, who averaged 37.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 6.0 apg in his last five games, simply could not find the range from the field (6-19, including 0-5 on three pointers) and ended up with 19 points, four assists and three rebounds. Kwame Brown (18 points, 12 rebounds) and Smush Parker (16 points, three steals) had solid games.

The Lakers got off to a good start, leading 26-23 after the first quarter. Deng scored 10 points and Bryant had eight. Bryant sat out the first 5:23 of the second quarter but the Lakers were able to widen their lead to 38-29. Bryant did not score after he returned to action but the Lakers still led 48-42 at halftime after Gordon's buzzer beating jump shot.

Bryant made some nice plays early in the third quarter to help the Lakers push their advantage to double digits. On one play he drove to the hoop but was stopped by a quadruple team--two Bulls created a wall in front of him and two more Bulls crossed the lane to help out. Bryant delivered a perfect skip pass across the court to Luke Walton on the left baseline, who nailed a three pointer to put the Lakers up 62-51. That play demonstrated Bryant's great value to his team--even on a night when he is not shooting well the other team's defense must account for him and this opens up opportunities for other players to get wide open shots that they could not create for themselves. Although Bryant had four assists, he made several plays like this during the game that either led to one more pass and then a basket or that led to open shots that were not converted. Later in the quarter, the Bulls had cut the margin to 65-61 when Bryant drew a double team from Ben Wallace and fed Kwame Brown for a layup and potential three point play, but Brown missed the free throw. Chicago continued to chip away and managed to tie the score at 70 by the end of the third quarter.

Bryant sat out the first 3:45 of the fourth quarter and the Bulls went ahead, 80-74. Michael Sweetney scored eight points during that run as the Lakers' interior defense fell apart at the same time that their offense all but completely stalled. Of course, the Lakers really miss the injured Lamar Odom during stretches like that. He could have provided a defensive presence and an offensive threat so that the game would not get out of hand while Bryant gets a few minutes of rest. Bryant hit two of his first three shots after checking back in, cutting the Bulls' lead to 82-78, but then he committed a couple turnovers--one on an offensive foul--and the Bulls built their lead back to 87-80. Bryant fouled out with 52 seconds left and the Lakers trailing 91-86.

The Lakers began the season with a schedule heavily laden with home games and now they will have to play a lot of games on the road without Odom. This is a crucial part of the season for the Lakers that will determine if they can grab one of the top four playoff spots--ensuring home court advantage for at least one round in the playoffs--or if they will slip to the bottom half of the postseason picture. Meanwhile, the Bulls are playing well and will be a force to reckon with in the depleted Eastern Conference.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:12 AM

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Gilbert Arenas Scores a "Quiet" 60

The fracas at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night and its aftermath overshadowed a tremendous individual performance--Gilbert Arenas scored 60 points on Sunday night in a 147-141 Wizards victory over the L.A. Lakers. The NBA's 60 point club is an exclusive group of 20 players who have accomplished the feat 57 times: Wilt Chamberlain (32 times), Michael Jordan (4), Elgin Baylor (3), Kobe Bryant (2), Allen Iverson (1), David Thompson (1), David Robinson (1), Pete Maravich (1), Rick Barry (1), Jerry West (1), Joe Fulks (1), George Gervin (1), Tracy McGrady (1), George Mikan (1), Karl Malone (1), Shaquille O'Neal (1), Larry Bird (1), Bernard King (1), Tom Chambers (1), Gilbert Arenas (1). For those of you scoring at home, Wilt Chamberlain scored 60-plus points 32 times--and the rest of the players in the history of the league did it 25 times.

Arenas broke Earl Monroe's franchise record for points in a game (56) and is only the second player to score at least 60 points versus the Lakers. Arenas shot 17-32 from the field (including 5-12 from three point range) and 21-27 from the free throw line. Arenas also had eight rebounds and eight assists. Arenas, whose previous career-high was 47, was not surprised by his performance: "It was bound to happen. I'm a scorer, so I was going to have one of those days where I was clicking. Most of the time when I've scored 46 in three quarters, we were blowing the other team out, so I didn't get to play in the fourth. But tonight was that time. It was a close game and I stayed in. I found the rhythm, especially in the fourth quarter and in overtime, and I never looked back."

Kobe Bryant guarded Arenas throughout the game. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson considered trying other options but decided that Bryant, a six-time member of the All-Defensive Team, had a better chance than anyone else of corralling Arenas: "Yes, we thought we'd take him off, but he wanted him and he thought that it was the best matchup out there, so I let him have his way. We thought that nobody else had really stepped in and found a way to defend him at all." Bryant, coming off of a 53 point performance in Friday's double overtime win against Houston, scored 45 points, shooting 15-24 from the field (including 7-11 from three point range) and 8-10 from the free throw line. Bryant had 10 assists and eight rebounds. The Lakers overcame a 17 point deficit to force the game into overtime, but the Wizards outscored the Lakers 21-15 in the extra session, with Arenas scoring 16 points and Bryant scoring four points. Arenas broke Earl Boykins' record for points in an overtime period (15), although that is not mentioned in the ESPN or NBA.com game recaps (the Washington Post correctly pointed this out in its coverage of the game).

Bryant and Arenas did not say much to each other during the game according to Arenas: "I'm not a trash talker. He doesn't really talk trash. He just goes out there and plays. A guy who comes off an injury and to be doing what he does, it's unbelievable." Arenas is referring to Bryant's offseason knee surgery and his recently sprained ankle.

While Bryant did not have much to say during the game, he did offer some comments afterward: "You tip your hat and say, 'See you next time.' First of all, he shot 27 free throws. We as a team shot 30. Think about that. But him individually, it's funny. He doesn't seem to have much of a conscience. I really don't think he does. Some of the shots he took tonight, you miss those, and they're just terrible shots. Awful. You make them and they're unbelievable shots. I don't get a chance to play him much, so I haven't gotten used to that mentality of just chucking it up there. He made some big ones, but I'll be ready next time."

Are Bryant's comments just sour grapes? I did not see the game, so I don't know why Arenas shot almost as many free throws as the entire Lakers team. Perhaps he drove to the hoop more aggressively. As for Arenas' shot selection, again, I did not see the game. However, Arenas is shooting .428 from the field this season; only Allen Iverson has a worse field goal percentage among the NBA's top 25 scorers. Bryant is shooting .487 from the field this season, which would be a career-high if he maintains that pace. Bryant has a career shooting percentage of .452, while Arenas' career shooting percentage is .431. Based on that evidence, it does not seem out of line to suggest that Arenas' shot selection is questionable at times. Ideally, it might be better to simply congratulate Arenas and move on to the next game, but right after losing such a close game it is understandable that Bryant was somewhat frustrated. I'd like to actually see some of the shots--and fouls--in question.

When Bryant concludes by saying "I'll be ready next time" I immediately think back to LaBradford Smith. He played for the Wizards back when they were known as the Bullets and he had a big game against Michael Jordan, scoring more than 30 points. Supposedly he had some words to say to Jordan after that performance, although later it turned out that Jordan may have invented that part of the story as further motivation. In any case, the next time Jordan played against Smith, Jordan had 30-plus points--in the first half. The Wizards and Lakers only play twice a year. Their next matchup is on February 3 in Washington. If you a betting person, don't bet on Arenas scoring more than Bryant in that contest.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:38 PM

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Stern Justice: Carmelo Anthony Suspended for 15 Games

The verdict is in from Commissioner David Stern regarding Saturday night's fiasco at Madison Square Garden:

* The Knicks and Nuggets have each been fined $500,000
* Carmelo Anthony has been suspended for 15 games
* Nate Robinson has been suspended for 10 games
* J.R. Smith has been suspended for 10 games
* Mardy Collins has been suspended for six games
* Jared Jeffries has been suspended for four games
* Jerome James has been suspended for one game
* Nene has been suspended for one game

Before I comment on Commissioner Stern's ruling, here is the statement that he issued at the time that the suspensions were announced:

The NBA and its players represent a game of extraordinary skill, athleticism and grace, and, for good or bad, set an example for the entire basketball world, on and off the court. On the positive side, there is our players’ passion for the game, engagement with our fans, commitment to their communities and respect for the history and tradition of the game. With respect to the negative, while we have worked diligently to eliminate fighting from our game, there are failures such as Saturday night at Madison Square Garden that demonstrate there is still more to be done.

It is our obligation to take the strongest possible steps to avoid such failures in the future and to make a statement to all who follow the game of basketball that we understand our obligations and take them seriously. Accordingly, I am issuing the penalties listed below, and will take the occasion to set forth some of the considerations that have influenced my decision here and will continue to guide us as we seek to demonstrate our determination that the NBA and its players be viewed as standing for the best in sports.

Among the considerations that influenced my decision:

Teams will be held accountable for the actions of their employees – management and players alike.

Players must take advantage of a break or pause in a heated situation to stop and restore order, instead of escalating the situation.

Players must heed directions from referees and others who are trying to maintain order and not continue to put fans, referees and peacemakers in harm’s way.


In case his determination to eliminate this nonsense from the NBA is not 100% clear, Commissioner Stern added these comments after his prepared statement: "We're going to go after the players who aren't able to stop. We have set up the goal of eliminating fighting from our game. Clearly, we're not getting through, or players in certain circumstances just don't want to be restrained. I would suggest that those players will not have long careers in the NBA. What happened Saturday night will stop because that is not what we're about."

My bottom line take on this is that Commissioner Stern has done an outstanding job of both issuing the correct penalties and clearly explaining the reasons for these punishments. It is important to note that he fined both of the involved teams, a step that he did not take two years ago after the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl. Commissioner Stern explained simply, "If you continue to employ employees who engage in these actions, your organization is going to have to pay a price." Make no mistake that if there is another such incident that he will not only increase that fine but very possibly suspend coaches, general managers or any other team officials that he deems responsible. That brings us to Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas. Members of the media, fans and Nuggets Coach George Karl have all clamored for Thomas to be punished. Their ire is based on lip reading some remarks that Thomas directed toward Anthony moments before Collins' flagrant foul on Smith instigated the melee and on Thomas' postgame comments that blamed Karl for keeping his starters on the court when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt. Watching the tape, Thomas appears to tell Anthony that it would not be a good idea for Anthony to go into the paint. Thomas is smiling and laughing when he says this. Was that a veiled threat? Was it gamesmanship? Was it, as the Knicks are now suggesting, Thomas simply asking Anthony to ease up and show more class than Karl and not run up the score any further? I defy anyone to watch that film clip and state with certainty exactly what Thomas meant. Moreover, do we know what kind of dialogue went on between the two of them before the now infamous clip that has been shown, Zapruder-like, countless times? Commissioner Stern's response to this is that he issued his punishments based on "definitive information." He understands that you cannot suspend someone based on lip reading.

Anthony correctly received the lengthiest suspension. I thought that he would get at least 10 games and would not have been surprised if he got 20, so 15 sounds about right. Any suspension of more than 12 games can be appealed to an arbitrator, so his punishment could still be reduced. Anthony hit Collins with a punch after the initial confrontation had settled down, thereby reigniting tempers. Commissioner Stern did not mention anything about punching someone who is being restrained and then running away like a little punk, but Anthony--who received criticism for appearing on the infamous "Stop Snitching" video--surely damaged his "street credibility" with that move. What the players--Anthony in particular--fail to understand is that they are no longer playing in the parks or playing in small high school gyms. Each of them is a walking conglomerate and they are being paid significant sums of money by their teams and their commercial endorsers. They have an obligation to stay healthy so that they can perform for their teams and to avoid doing anything that reflects badly on their business partners. Anthony may have cost his team a playoff berth. All of the players risked bodily harm that could impact their own careers and the fortunes of the teams that employ them. In addition, this situation potentially endangered some courtside fans--the very people who are paying the players' salaries by buying tickets, merchandise and the products that are advertised during NBA telecasts. The possibility of having brawling players land in your lap (or worse) is not likely to increase attendance. Steve Kerr put it best in Monday's USA Today by saying that players must learn how to "act tough." Kerr is a former player and he acknowledged that if a player does nothing he will be considered "soft." So, you stand your ground, you run your mouth and you wait for someone to separate the involved parties.

Robinson and Smith received the second biggest suspensions because of their roles in escalating the situation. Smith should have gone to the foul line and shot his free throws. Yes, Collins hit him with a cheap shot, but the officials correctly called a flagrant foul and that should have been the end of it. Instead, after Robinson came over and started flapping his gums, the two of them grappled with each other until they tumbled into the crowd. Robinson seemed like he was anxious to start a fight with anyone.

Collins' flagrant foul on Smith was not just a hard foul--it was a cheap shot on a player who was in a defenseless and vulnerable position. I think that the foul alone was worth a suspension of one or possibly two games. Considering that his actions set in motion the chain of events that led to this fiasco, it is entirely justifiable to increase that one or two game number to six even though Collins did not appear to do anything wrong after the initial foul.

Jeffries ran after the retreating Anthony in the wake of Anthony's sucker punch to Collins' face. The NBA wants players to act in a way to defuse these situations, not exacerbate them, so four games is a good amount of time for Jeffries to think about this. Hopefully, a four game punishment is enough to dissuade other players from acting similarly.

James and Nene received automatic one game suspensions for leaving the bench area during an altercation. Commissioner Stern instituted this rule many years ago and famously suspended Patrick Ewing for a playoff game when Ewing took a few innocent steps on to the court to observe one of the many New York-Miami fights in the 1990s. That made it clear that this rule is enforced without exception, with no regard to superstar status or the "importance" of the next game. The reasoning behind the rule is very sound: there are already 10 players on the court, plus 3 officials; it is their responsibility, along with security personnel and both teams' coaches, to resolve any on court altercations. Players coming on to the court only add to the confusion and the tension. The ugliest incident in NBA history--Kermit Washington's punch that almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich--happened when Tomjanovich ran in to be a peacemaker and Washington, seeing someone running toward him wearing another team's jersey, wheeled around and hit him in the face. Tomjanovich was trying to be a peacemaker (and had in fact been one of the players on the court at the time) but the NBA wants to minimize the chances of such a horrible event ever happening again. This is not the NHL, where players maul each other while the officials skate around in circles making notes on little index cards; the NBA is strictly about the game and players who do not understand that will end up pursuing other employment opportunities.

Fighting is not that prevalent in the NBA precisely because of the rules that Commissioner Stern has established and the fact that he has been firm about enforcing these rules. The sad thing is that negative situations like Saturday's brawl receive so much attention that it gives NBA haters an excuse to say that the league is filled with thugs, which is not an accurate statement at all. The league does have some young players who have maturity and anger-control issues (look at the ages and amount of college playing experience of several of the individuals involved in Saturday's fracas) but it also has many mature, stable and excellent individuals who are great players and model citizens. That is the point that Commissioner Stern rightly made in the opening portion of his statement.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:56 AM

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