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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Defense, Bench Play and a Late Surge From Kobe Lift Lakers Over Pistons

So much for being distracted; so much for not having a good supporting cast. All is well, at least for the moment, for Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers, who improved to 5-3 with a 103-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons, who were without the services of injured starters Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess. In addition to Detroit, the Lakers have recently beaten three other teams that most observers consider to be serious contenders: Houston, Phoenix, and Utah. Kobe Bryant had a poor shooting night but every other facet of his game was on point. "Kobe in the end has to score the basketball but he can be just as deadly when he passes it," ESPN's Jon Barry noted early in the game, pointing out that when Bryant has the ball the entire defense focuses its attention on him, creating open scoring opportunities for other players. Sure enough, the Lakers followed Barry's script to perfection: Bryant had no points and three assists in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 29-20 lead; in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance, Bryant had 11 points on 4-4 shooting. He finished with 19 points on 6-18 shooting, seven assists and four rebounds. Bryant also played outstanding defense, a trait that seems to be rubbing off on his teammates as the Lakers had 13 steals and many deflections. Lamar Odom posted a double double (25 points and a game-high 15 rebounds) and Andrew Bynum headlined an outstanding effort by the bench, contributing 12 points and seven rebounds. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince led Detroit with 16 points each.

Detroit fought back to tie the game near the end of the second quarter and only trailed 48-46 at halftime. The third quarter was tightly contested most of the way but Detroit used an 8-2 run in the last 3:00 to go up 68-62 heading into the fourth quarter. The Lakers scored six straight points in the first 1:31 of the fourth quarter to tie the score and soon built a small lead on the strength of several steals that they converted into fast break points. Bryant's scoring burst began with a three pointer at the 5:37 mark that put the Lakers ahead 83-76. Detroit answered with a Rasheed Wallace three pointer and a Hamilton jumper. On the Lakers' next possession they ran the Triangle Offense to perfection as Jordan Farmar fed the ball to Bynum in the post, who then delivered a slick bounce pass to a cutting Bryant for a layup; back in the Chicago Bulls' glory days when they ran the Triangle majestically, Scottie Pippen used to get at least one layup a game using that baseline cut and receiving a pass from Luc Longley, Will Perdue or Bill Wennington. Bryant drew Hamilton's fifth foul on the play and he made the free throw to put L.A. up 86-81. A bit later, Bryant drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Farmar, whose three pointer made the score 93-83. On the next possession, Farmar returned the favor, passing to Bryant for a three pointer. After Bryant fed Odom for yet another three pointer, the Lakers led 99-85. Not to harp on something that I've mentioned here a few times recently, but those plays by Bryant, Farmar and Odom are just as "clutch"--if not more so--then a desperation shot that someone makes with less than five seconds left in the game; these are winning plays made at a crucial time in the game when Detroit could have otherwise stayed within striking distance.

During the game, Barry listed what he called the five "pure, best talented players--more talented than anyone else in the league": Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James. Mike Breen noted that the past three MVPs--Steve Nash (two) and Dirk Nowitzki--did not make the cut for Barry, yet later agreed with Barry's contention that the aforementioned quintet probably comprises the five most talented players in the NBA. "Talent" is a rather nebulous thing to define: does it refer to athletic ability, fundamental basketball skills or something else? I've always thought that it was silly when people tried to say that Larry Bird lacked athleticism or "talent"; how can it be said that a 6-9 player with superb hand-eye coordination and almost unlimited shooting range lacks "talent"? Bird blocked more shots than many of the game's celebrated leapers (including Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins) and he did not do that merely by outsmarting people; Bird possessed good size and was a decent vertical jumper, particularly early in his career--he never displayed the ability to broad jump, to fly from the free throw line and dunk, but he certainly was more than capable of playing the game above the rim. Nowadays, people similarly try to dismiss Nash's athletic ability--but there is a lot more to athletic ability than just broad jumping or vertical jumping; Nash is very quick and like Bird he possesses great hand-eye coordination and excellent shooting range. Nowitzki is a seven footer who runs the court like a guard and also has tremendous shooting range. He's not athletic? Bird, Nash and Nowitzki are not "talented"? Obviously, the way that athleticism and talent are defined has a heavily racial component to it but the reality is that the NBA's white superstars are more athletic than they are given credit for being and the NBA's black superstars are more fundamentally sound and more well schooled from a technical standpoint than is sometimes suggested.

Rather than ranking players based on talent or athleticism it makes more sense to rank them the way a scout would: how fundamentally sound are they in all aspects of the game and how much of a challenge do they present to the opposing team at both ends of the court? By that standard, Bryant is the league's best player because he has no serious weaknesses offensively or defensively. LeBron James and Tim Duncan--who both struggle from the free throw line--are right behind him (James also needs to show more consistency on defense). One could make a case that Garnett has been the best player in the NBA early in this season but he still lacks a go-to move on the block and has been known to fade--literally and figuratively--in critical situations; for those reasons I would not yet place him above the first three players who I listed. Obviously, if Boston wins 55-60 games or more then Garnett will be a landslide MVP award winner unless Bryant or James do something truly spectacular (Duncan no longer plays enough minutes to put up the stats that wow MVP voters). As for Wade, I would give him an incomplete because we have not seen much of him in the past six months or so; unless he improved his outside shooting and his defense during his rehabilitation period I would not put him ahead of Bryant, Duncan or James. Nowitzki was a worthy MVP choice last year--though I would have voted for Bryant--but his production is not at the same level so far this year; defense is his main weakness. As for Nash, I rate him and Jason Kidd neck and neck as the best point guards but neither one is the best or the most valuable player in the NBA; Kidd's flaw is his shooting, while Nash's flaw is his defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Saturday, November 17, 2007 1:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understood what Barry said as player who has more inate instinct, and flair ofthe game rather than player who are cerebral.
the former Kobe, Le bron,
The latter Steve Nash, Paul, Nowitzki.
For me skill is a combination, a instinct, experience and a cerebral feel for the game.
Manu Ginobli is more of instinct close to kobe than to Steve Nash.

 
At Saturday, November 17, 2007 3:11:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Not saying Nash isn't athletic (I think he is). But if not a lack of physical skills, what do you think prevents him from playing at least adequate defense?

Lamar Odom is playing very well so far. He's being aggressive. If he can stay healthy and keep the same attitude, who knows?

Did you see the Celtics-Heat game yesterday? I think it perfectly illustrated the paradox of KG. He brings an inside presence, yet he's always shooting jumpers and fadeaways. KG was clearly the most important and most valuable player on the court, yet he couldn't get off a decent shot in the last few minutes. After looking for KG a few times and coming up with nothing, the Celtics just handed the ball to Pierce and watched him effortlessly toss it in.

 
At Saturday, November 17, 2007 3:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talent IS a nebulous thing. I think I would define the popular sense of it in basketball as, "best case scenario, how dominant is he capable of being, how dominant could he be." A little bit different from your definition, which is better in my view...

At the end of the day you have to be a high usage player to be considered talent. You have to be able to do great things with the ball in your hands a lot. You need to demonstrate mastery of every part of the game.

 
At Sunday, November 18, 2007 1:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Your question about Nash reminds me of something that John Thompson said about Dirk Nowitzki once, namely that Nowitzki is a good enough athlete to average 25 ppg and 10 rpg so there is no reason that he cannot play better defense (he said that two or three years ago and Nowitzki's defense has improved somewhat since that time). Nash is not exceptionally tall or strong for a point guard, so bigger pgs can post him up or take him inside but beyond that there is not a physical detriment to him being a better defender. There are certainly very few guards who possess his quickness (not the same thing as straight line speed, mind you, though Nash is probably faster than some people might think), his court vision, his hand-eye coordination and his shooting ability, each of which are athletic skills in my book.

Odom is a classic tease--he plays just well enough to get fans' hopes up but he does not do it consistently and he frequently gets injured. Look how long he has been in the league without making the All-Star team even once--and it's not like one can reasonably say that he has been "snubbed."

KG brings an inside presence on the glass and sometimes on defense but he does not bring a consistent inside presence on offense. He is a marvelously skilled player and the best thing for him is to be paired with a couple All-Stars who handle some of the scoring burden and are able to make big shots late in the game. Boston definitely looks like a team that is going to win a lot of games this year--more than I expected it seems--but I'm still not convinced that this team will get it done late in a close playoff game. There are no Finals appearances and not too many conference finals appearance between those three All-Stars and they weren't always playing on bad teams.

 
At Sunday, November 18, 2007 1:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

kobe is my mvp the lakers should be 0-8 right now not kevin garnott what did he do in minnesota. he has better players around him than kobe and james and james is number 2 kobe isnt shooting well but the defense has been as good as i seen look what happened to richard hamilton he was frustrated and got a technical out of chracter for hamiltion of what i remeber. 40 10 and 9 for james was dominant as well. kobe james duncan and wade etc are more athletic than nash nowitzki bird was but of course those other players was still great players no doubt, usually athletiscm ccome by your color those players white and the other players black you make a good point though david bird was faster than people thought and could jump higher than people thought early in his career. nash is fast too and nowitski not slow himself, i never looked at hand eye cordination shooting skills as athletic though i thought it was how high you jump and run.

 
At Sunday, November 18, 2007 2:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

Kobe is actually shooting a career-high .473 from the field through eight games, so he is shooting well this season; he just shot poorly for the first three quarters versus Detroit but he more than made up for it with his defense and playmaking--and in the fourth quarter he shot 4-4 and took over down the stretch.

Rip and Kobe each ranked among the leaders in technical fouls last year but I agree that Kobe definitely had the upper hand in the most recent game and he certainly frustrated Rip right before Rip got the tech.

Athleticism is comprised of a lot of different factors and it is wrong to value jumping ability over quickness, hand-eye coordination and other athletic skills. The league's other top players are bigger than Nash and that is an important advantage but I think that the way many people define athletic ability is very narrow. People try to make Bird, Nash and other great white players seem even better than they are by saying that they are not athletic--and those players use that to their advantage with self-deprecating comments that make it seem like they can't figure out how they're even able to be on the court with such great athletes (Nash in particular does this). Watch Nash dribble through a trap, thread a needle with a pass or shoot an off-balance shot over a much bigger player. Those moves are not athletic? Isn't shooting an athletic skill? Nash is one of the best shooters in the league. I have never bought the idea that Nash is not a good athlete.

 
At Monday, November 19, 2007 1:21:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

you have a very good point in that i never looked at it in that way. kobe is shooting 47 percent i didnt notice he has played great that he is my mvp this year so far this year lakers 6-3 they could be a good team this year and kobe is playing great defense right now, he is a great player never been a big fan personally but he is playing great and the trade controversy is down now becasue of it.

 
At Tuesday, November 20, 2007 2:28:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Nash is listed at 6'3", the same height as Chauncey Billups, so though he isn't exceptionally tall, he's tall enough to be a good defender. As for his muscle, what is preventing Nash, the ultimate competitor, from hitting the weight room?

I must say I agree with your view that white players are too often stereotyped as lacking athleticism, and black athletes are too often considered lacking in the "fundamentals" department.

I think this all stems from a point of view that many sports fans hold: athletic accomplishment resulting from "skill" or "intelligence" is a higher form of accomplishment that that resulting from athleticism.

This point of view has come up in not-so-thinly-veiled attempts at propping up certain white athletes while downplaying the accomplishments of certain black athletes. Ralph Wiley's What Black People Should Do Now, for instance, has an excellent discussion of the different ways the media presented the very similar skill sets of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

The unfairness of this viewpoint extends beyond race though. In the NBA, the accomplishments of big men are often downplayed or overlooked in comparison to those of wing players. Why? Because it supposedly doesn't take much "skill" to rebound, block shots, throw outlet passes, set screens and post people up. That's all supposed to come naturally if you are big and strong (nevermind the numerous 7-foot stiffs we've seen in the NBA, past and present). On the other hand, shooting jumpers, initiating the offense, passing from the perimeter and driving to the hoop appear, on the surface, to be tasks requiring much more skill and intelligence. The truth is, you have to be athletically gifted to do all of these things.

I think it is out of not wanting to acknowledge the skill it takes to play like a traditional big man that people have come up with a "most dominant player" tag, apart from "best player". It is basically a euphemism for "best big man". People don't like to acknowledge a player being the best when their game supposedly doesn't take as much skill as wing players, and the "most dominant" title allows for big men to be excluded from the "best player" discussion.

 
At Tuesday, November 20, 2007 5:39:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Perhaps Nash could "hit the weight room," as you suggest, but not everyone's body responds the same to weight training due to metabolism and other physiological factors. Nash is lean and wiry strong, as opposed to Billups, who is built more like a defensive back. Nash is very well conditioned and I'm not sure that his overall game would benefit from him adding 10 or 15 pounds of muscle--if he is in fact even able to do so; we are increasingly finding out that a lot of people who added weight during their careers in various sports were doing more than just pumping iron. To the best of my recollection, Billups has always been powerfully built while Nash has always been wiry. Phoenix backers will insist that Nash is a good defender based on his ability to take charges but it is apparent to objective observers that Nash can definitely be taken advantage of in one on one situations.

I agree with a lot of what you said regarding the various ways that players are stereotyped. Just to clarify one thing, when I talk of a dominant big man like Shaq (in his prime) compared to a skilled basketball player like Kobe or LeBron I do not mean to suggest that it does not require skill to do what Shaq did during his prime. I'm simply pointing out that guys like Kobe and LeBron have a more complete skill set overall than Shaq. On the other hand, someone like Hakeem or Kareem not only had the ability to dominate using big man skills but they also had well rounded skill sets in terms of shooting, ballhandling and so forth.

 
At Tuesday, November 20, 2007 3:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

shaq is 7ft2 300 pounds kobe going to have a better skill set then shaq based on their size. kg is not dominant inside guy they got pierce for that late at the end of the games to close what kg couldnt do in his career. lamar odom is very good player in years past he hasnt had the ball enough to be able to do what he needs to do kobe giveing the ball up more this year so he has a legit oppourtunity to be great.

 
At Wednesday, November 21, 2007 1:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Skill set has nothing to do with size. Hakeem was a more skilled player than Shaq in terms of mobility, shot blocking and shooting touch; that does not necessarily mean that Hakeem was more dominant than Shaq--that is a different question.

Odom has handled the ball frequently throughout his career. He is a nice, solid player but he is not quite an All-Star level player.

 

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