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Friday, January 26, 2007

Brad Daugherty: From the Court to the Race Track

Brad Daugherty and Mark Price might have become Cleveland's version of "Stockton-to-Malone" if a back injury had not ended Daugherty's career at the age of 28. Daugherty had three straight 20-10 seasons before his back went out in the 1993-94 season; he did not officially retire until 1997 but he never played again. While Daugherty set the screens, grabbed the boards, made good passes and showed a soft shooting touch, Price pushed the ball up the court, shot an excellent percentage and was a very good distributor. In 1988-89, he shot better than 40% from three point range, better than 50% from the field and better than 90% from the free throw line, a feat only matched by Larry Bird, Reggie Miller and Steve Nash; Price finished 10th in MVP voting that year even though, as I noted a couple weeks ago, his numbers were in the same ball park with what two-time MVP Nash has done the past two seasons--but don't just take my word for it. Johnny Bach, who has seen six decades of NBA players and was the de facto "defensive coordinator" of the Bulls' first "three-peat" team, told me this about the Daugherty-Price pick and roll combination: "They were the best in the business. Cleveland was the best in the business because of Price; he could get across that screen and make that pass. He actually probably shortened his career because he used to love to make the change (change of direction move) in between the screen and the defender who came up. He was knocked down a lot of times.”

Daugherty is a life-long racing fan and he has found an outlet for that passion as the newest member of ESPN's NASCAR broadcasting team. I recently spoke with Daugherty about Michael Jordan, NASCAR--and the pick and roll play he ran to perfection with Mark Price (10/5/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Brad Daugherty patrolled the lane as an All-American center at North Carolina and then as a five-time All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He never forgot his childhood love of racing, though, and now he will share that passion with a wide audience as the newest addition to ESPN's crew of NASCAR broadcasters.

Daugherty arrived at North Carolina as a 16-year-old freshman in 1982, just after Michael Jordan hit the jump shot that propelled the Tar Heels to Dean Smith’s first NCAA title. Daugherty played two seasons alongside Jordan. "Michael was an outstanding one-on-one basketball player and he had a lot of talent and was a super player when we played pickup basketball," Daugherty recalls. "But a lot of guys had a chance to expose the guy who was guarding them in pickup basketball. You knew that he was a better player than most of the guys there--you could see that--but not at that level (that he achieved in the NBA). I mean, that was unbelievable. There was no one outside of maybe Coach Smith who could see that. I know that Mike Krzyzewski said that he and Len Bias were two of the best players he ever coached against. Guys like that may have been able to see it, but there was no way that any other player could see the future for Michael Jordan at that point in time. You'd never think that he would become, probably, the greatest player to ever play."

The Tar Heels twice made it to the Elite Eight and on two other occasions made it to the Sweet 16 but did not win a championship during Daugherty's career. "It is so difficult to do," Daugherty says of capturing that elusive NCAA title. "We had some weird things happen injury-wise. My whole four years, there was always some odd thing that would happen. My sophomore year we were a really good basketball team and Kenny Smith, who was a freshman, broke his wrist. Steve Hale broke his collarbone--injury after injury after injury. We found out how fragile our existence was as a basketball team."

The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Daugherty with the first overall pick in the 1986 draft, and he made a smooth transition to the NBA game, averaging 15.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg and earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team. "I give all of that credit to Coach Smith and that's why I say that his impression upon my life was just incredible," Daugherty tells of how he was able to so quickly adapt to both college and pro basketball. "He took me and was almost like a father to me because I was so young. There were so many things that I had to make adjustments to, not only athletically but socially. He just spent a lot of time helping me hone my skills as a basketball player and as an individual. He prepared me throughout my four years there to be able to take that next step and do it seamlessly."

Daugherty's coach in Cleveland, Lenny Wilkens, eventually broke the record for most NBA coaching wins; Smith held the NCAA career wins record until Bobby Knight recently passed him. "Coach Smith was more of a mentor and really worked hard on implementing life lessons into the game of basketball," Daugherty recalls. "It was a tremendous learning experience being around Coach Smith and he made indelible impressions upon each of us because of his ability to really take (lessons) from the game of basketball and help you grow as a person. That impact was everlasting. Lenny Wilkens is just a classy guy. The similarity between he and Coach Smith was the manner with which they approached the game. They both approached the game with a high level of integrity and sportsmanship. They wanted to win, but they wanted to do it fairly and in a just manner. They wanted to compete above board at all times. That is the quality that is similar. The difference is that Coach Smith could be really fiery, not in the sense of a Bobby Knight or Mike Krzyzewski with the profanity laced tirades--he wasn't that kind of guy--but he was very competitive and very fiery and challenging his guys to be their best. Lenny Wilkens was very strategic, but he also was more apt to take a guy who was willing to do things himself and give that guy an opportunity to flourish. If you didn't bring your best product to the table, then he would just move on. So that was the difference. Both very effective, but both different."

Daugherty's teammates Ron Harper and John Williams joined him on the All-Rookie Team as Cavs' GM Wayne Embry assembled a young nucleus that Magic Johnson later predicted would become the "team of the 90s." Another rookie, Mark Price, did not receive much playing time in 1986-87, but would soon become a key piece in the Cavs' resurgence. The next season, Embry pulled off a multi-player trade with Phoenix--the key element being the exchange of point guard Kevin Johnson for power forward Larry Nance. That move both shored up the frontcourt and paved the way for Price to become the starting point guard. Daugherty and Price became one of the deadliest pick-and-roll combinations in the league.

"They were the best in the business," declares Johnny Bach, one of Phil Jackson's assistant coaches during the Chicago Bulls' first three-peat. "Cleveland was the best in the business because of Price; he could get across that screen and make that pass. He actually probably shortened his career because he used to love to make the change (change of direction move) in between the screen and the defender who came up. He was knocked down a lot of times." That extra contact happened because Price did not simply use the screen to get a step on his defender to shoot an open three-pointer or make a pass to a big man who now had a mismatch down low. "He dove through," Bach explains. "In other words, he would change direction and split the defenders. Split was an invitation to disaster because the big guys consider that an insult and he (Price) has to go down. Well, he went down a lot. Coach would say, 'Explain to me how he got through there.' So next time or next game, he wasn't going to get through. He's going to be knocked down."

"Splitting the double-team, obviously you had to have a good pick," Daugherty says with a chuckle. "Mark was obviously a tremendous ballhandler and in order to get through the double-team you just have to have a great angle and a great pick. Your big guy has to set the pick and hold the screen and give the guy time to get through. A lot of times when you run the pick-and-roll, your forward or your center is looking to roll immediately because after you set the screen you are wide open. It's hard sometimes to go over to that point guard and really hold on to that screen because you know that as soon as you roll that you have a chance for a shot. I think that the number one key is making sure that the guard doesn't move until the big guy sets the screen and once the screen is set in place that the big guy does not move until the guard comes off of his hip. It is easy to split it that way because as the big guy sets the screen the big guy guarding him--the other center or forward--has to pick up the point guard. Usually that big guy will drop off because he knows that the point guard is quicker than he is. That creates a gap and Mark was just really good at cutting through that gap."

Daugherty is not convinced that Price's ability to split the double-team led to him getting injured. "I don't know if I agree with that," Daugherty says. "In the era that we played in, you could still use your hands and take people to the ground and most times that guards drove to the basket they got popped pretty good. I don't necessarily think that it was in retaliation for Mark embarrassing someone...When little guys went to the basket they were going to get hit, just because the rules allowed for that."

Jordan's Bulls were the main stumbling block that prevented the Cavs from becoming "the team of the 90s," eliminating them from the playoffs in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993. "Michael, by the time I got to the pro game when he had already been there for a couple of years, had started to blossom and mature," Daugherty remembers. "He had changed the dynamic of the game somewhat from the generation before when they really tried to have the post play and the inside-out game. Phil Jackson was innovative enough to come in and make he and Scottie Pippen the primary ballhandlers for that basketball team. His first couple years he was not a very good jump-shooter, but he got better as a jump-shooter and that just made him impossible to guard. He could just take his game to such levels. It was fun playing against him. He was a heck of a player."

Daugherty's best NBA season was probably 1991-92, when he averaged 21.5 ppg and 10.4 rpg, earned an All-NBA Third Team selection and led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference Finals. Daugherty put together three straight 20-10 seasons before a 1994 back injury ended his career. He averaged 19.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg in eight years.

Daugherty is well prepared for his NASCAR assignment with ESPN. He already has on-air experience as a basketball commentator for various outlets and his roots in racing are very deep. "Growing up as a kid, my dad was a race fan," Daugherty explains. "I had uncles who were race fans. I watched a lot of races with my dad. As I grew up, one of my best buddies was Robert Pressley, whose dad is a legendary short track racer throughout the Southeast...I've done some stuff with a couple of NASCAR boards--I've been on the Rules and Competition Committee and I've just been in and out of the sport doing a lot of different things with NASCAR over the years."

Daugherty co-founded a late model stock race team in the late 1980s with Robert Pressley, who drove that team's car to back to back Mid-Atlantic Region championships. Daugherty's experience as a Busch Team owner influenced his perspective on the sport.

"The racing environment is such a fickle environment. When you have someone who is just truly dominant--say like Jimmie Johnson, who is just a tremendous racer and has the best of the best equipment--those people get on rolls when everything is going right and they're not having any problems and they're going to win. But for the smaller guys, the independent guys who go out and bust their butts and they don't get on the rolls and they have the little problems that leak into every team and they can't overcome those little problems because they don't have the support that they need, it can be a catastrophic day because of small things. There is a huge gap there and I'm all for the little guy. Hopefully we are going to get to do a lot of diving into topics covering those guys who are there working just as hard as the guys on the mega teams but maybe don't get the attention."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:29 PM


Fear the 'Fro: Bulls Gore Mavericks

Chicago had too many "Bens" for Dallas in a 96-85 victory in the first game of TNT's Thursday night doubleheader. Ben Gordon scored 30 points and Ben Wallace snared a game-high 17 rebounds. Gordon also had six rebounds and five assists, while Wallace blocked four shots, passed for three assists and grabbed four offensive rebounds--showing that a player can make significant offensive contributions even on a poor shooting night (1-5). Speaking of poor shooting, Dallas shot just 29-93 (.312). Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks with 28 points and 11 rebounds but he shot only 7-22 from the field. The Bulls hardly burned up the nets (36-84, .429), but if you bring it on defense every night then you don't have to depend on your shooting. That was the formula that Larry Brown's Detroit Pistons used to win the 2004 NBA title, with Ben Wallace the centerpiece of a stifling defense, and Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton providing timely offensive contributions.

Chicago roared out to a 23-6 first quarter lead. Despite their poor shooting, the Mavericks chipped away until they only trailed 79-76 with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter. An 11-5 Chicago run in the next three minutes sealed the victory for the Bulls. P.J. Brown scored three baskets during that stretch.

There is a lot of talk about the Bulls possibly acquiring Kevin Garnett or Pau Gasol but I think that the Bulls should stand pat. Team chemistry is a delicate thing and, after their customary slow start--which is exacerbated every year by the "circus road trip" at the beginning of the season--the Bulls seem to be putting things together. Who is to say that adding Garnett or Gasol at the cost of subtracting guys like Gordon, Luol Deng or Andres Nocioni would really improve the team? Obviously, Garnett and Gasol are more talented than the players that the Bulls would trade for them but if all it took to win a title was acquiring talent on paper then the turn of the century Portland Trail Blazers would have cruised to a championship. This Bulls team is certainly good enough to win the East. Granted, the West may have several teams that seem to be better than any of the East's squads but if you make it to the Finals you only have to beat one Western team, not several of them. Miami did it last year and, as Thursday's game indicated, the Bulls may be capable of doing the same thing. The next step for the Bulls is to play this way on the road. John Paxson should give this unit an opportunity to make one playoff run before he does any further tinkering.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:08 AM


Thursday, January 25, 2007

NBA All-Star Starters Announced, Charles Barkley Offers His "Unique" Choices

TNT devoted an hour "Tip Off" pregame show largely to announcing who the 2007 NBA All-Star starters will be--and debating who the seven reserve players in each conference should be. The starters are selected by the fans, who cast their votes at the games or online. Of course, since fan balloting seemingly starts about a minute and a half after the season begins the choices do not necessarily reflect which players have performed the best in the first half of the season. Fans vote for their hometown players or their favorite players or players who have played well in previous seasons. Some people decry this and say that voting privileges should be taken away from the fans so that the most deserving players are selected but the fact is that everyone has some kind of bias and the fans, in general, do not do a such a bad job. Plus, the All-Star Game is an exhibition for the fans, so they should have some say in who gets to play--and the coaches select the reserves, so any glaring omissions can be corrected. Over the years, some players have even said that it is more meaningful or significant to be selected by the coaches.

In case you missed it, here are the starters:

Eastern Conference

F LeBron James
F Chris Bosh
C Shaquille O'Neal
G Dwyane Wade
G Gilbert Arenas

Western Conference

F Tim Duncan
F Kevin Garnett
C Yao Ming
G Kobe Bryant
G Tracy McGrady

Note: Yao will not likely be healthy enough to play in the All-Star Game, so Commissioner David Stern will have to select a replacement.

Four of the five Eastern Conference picks look pretty solid. James, Wade and Arenas are legitimate MVP candidates and Bosh is having an excellent season for an improved Toronto team. Of course, Shaquille O'Neal does not "deserve" to be the starting center. He has only played in a handful of games due to injury--and has been less than dominant when he did play. Again, his selection is a product of the voting starting early and of fans voting for someone who has been great for his whole career (and won a fourth championship last summer).

The Western Conference selections are very interesting. Conspicuously absent are Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, both of whom are generally considered to be among the leading MVP candidates this season. Yet the players chosen over them are also having great years. Bryant and Duncan are also viable MVP candidates. Garnett always puts up good numbers, win or lose (usually lose...) but Nowitzki is having a better season individually and, obviously, his Dallas Mavericks are doing a lot better than Garnett's Timberwolves; the fans messed this one up, but Nowitzki will surely be picked as a reserve. Bryant clearly deserves to be a starter but what about the choice of McGrady over Nash? McGrady outperforms Nash in scoring, rebounding and steals, while Nash shoots better and leads the league in assists. Nash receives a lot of credit for making his teammates better and the Suns are having a tremendous year--but McGrady also makes his teammates better. Check out this graphic that TNT showed:

Houston's 2007 Record

Yao and T-Mac both play: 14-6
Without T-Mac: 2-5
Without Yao: 10-4
Without both: 0-1
Total: 26-16

Granted, this is a small sample size and does not factor in strength of opposition, home versus road, etc.--but, as I noted in my previous post, this pattern held true last year as well: the Rockets are a very strong team with T-Mac--even without Yao--and much less strong without T-Mac, even if Yao plays. However one slices and dices the statistics, the win-loss numbers shout T-Mac's value. Nash plays alongside two great players--Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion--and a host of good players. T-Mac only has Yao--who has been out of the lineup since December--and a cast of role players. T-Mac is worthy of being an All-Star starter and Nash, like his buddy and former teammate Nowitzki, will be a reserve, so in the big picture he will not be snubbed.

After announcing who the All-Star starters are, one might think that TNT's show would be over. No, the fun was just beginning. First, Ernie Johnson and studio analysts Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith interviewed Gilbert Arenas. Arenas is thrilled to be voted in by the fans this year. Asked if he has vented all of his anger from not making Team USA's final roster last summer, Arenas replied, in a stage whisper, "Portland here I come" (Portland Coach Nate McMillan was an assistant coach on Team USA). Barkley got right to the point and told Arenas that he is skeptical about how well the Washington Wizards can do in the playoffs because of their porous defense. Arenas answered with a question of his own, asking how many titles did the Showtime Lakers win. Barkley stuck to his guns, saying that those Lakers were one of the greatest defensive teams of all-time, mentioning Michael Cooper, Byron Scott and Magic Johnson (who was a better team defender than one on one defender, like Larry Bird). Arenas conceded that Washington must improve in this area but said that there are still a lot of games left in the season.

Watching Arenas play or listening to him talk is always entertaining but the amusement factor went to another level when Barkley, Miller and Smith discussed who they think the coaches should select as All-Star reserves. The seven reserves consist of two guards, two forwards, one center and two wild cards (any position). There was no debate about who the Western Conference guards should be: Steve Nash and Allen Iverson. There are several good Western Conference guards (Ray Allen, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Deron Williams to name four) but none who should be taken over Nash and Iverson. All three analysts also chose Amare Stoudemire at center and Nowitzki at one forward. At the other forward, Barkley and Smith picked Carlos Boozer, while Miller likes Carmelo Anthony. Smith has Anthony as a wild card, along with Shawn Marion. Barkley's wild cards are Marion and Josh Howard, while Miller's are Howard and Boozer. Basically, Nowitzki and Boozer are consensus picks, while Howard, Marion and Melo vie for the last spot. Barkley stated flatly that he left Melo out because he was suspended for 15 games; he didn't make it clear if he thought that Melo should be punished for his conduct or simply because missing all of those games reduced his impact on his team's success. Miller said that Howard and Marion are toss-ups in his book, with the deciding factor in his mind being that Dallas has the best record so the Mavericks deserve two All-Stars; otherwise, Phoenix would have three and Dallas just one. Barkley and Smith argued that even though Dallas has a better record Phoenix has the better top three players, while Dallas has more depth. I'd take Iverson, Nash, Amare, Dirk, Marion and Howard without question. The last wild card spot is tough. Melo is leading the league in scoring but he hurt his team by getting suspended for 15 games and is a subpar rebounder and defender. Six-time All-Star Ray Allen is averaging a career-high 26.1 ppg but Seattle has one of the league's worst records. Tony Parker is having another excellent season. Boozer is having the best season of his career and his Jazz are in first place, even if they have been somewhat mediocre recently. My choice would be Boozer but I would not have a problem if any of the other guys I just mentioned get the nod.

The discussion about the Eastern Conference was interesting, to say the least. Jason Kidd was a consensus pick at guard. No problem there. Miller and Smith chose Kidd's teammate Vince Carter for the other guard spot. Barkley picked "nobody," eliciting howls of derision from the others. What about Carter or Rip Hamilton? "I ain't giving out no lifetime achievement awards," Barkley declared--about 15 times. Johnson, Miller and Smith tried, in vain, to point out that Carter and Hamilton are both having very good seasons but Barkley would not budge. Even when they mentioned that you have to fill each roster spot, Barkley refused to pick another guard, explaining that he was asked to list which players have had All-Star caliber seasons this year and that Kidd is the only guard he would pick. Moving on to forward, Caron Butler was a consensus pick. Miller and Smith took Jermaine O'Neal at the other forward, while Barkley chose Dwight Howard--who is actually a center. Barkley took New York's Eddy Curry at center even though he previously said that Carter was not worthy in part because of New Jersey's poor record (New York's record is worse). Miller and Smith correctly put Howard at center and each selected Rip Hamilton as a wild card. Miller's other wild card was Alonzo Mourning, while Smith's was Ben Gordon. Barkley completely went off the deep end, nominating Brian Hill and Sam Mitchell--the coaches of Orlando and Toronto respectively; Barkley's reserves thus consisted of three players, two coaches, one "nobody" and one player assigned to a position that he does not actually play. Johnson, Miller and Smith spent the rest of the segment trying to bring Barkley back to reality, pointing out the approximately 200 inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his selections, but no dice (yes, that's a Vegas reference). I'd take Kidd, Carter, Butler, O'Neal, Howard and Hamilton pretty quickly. Once again, the last wild card choice is the toughest. Paul Pierce has played very well but he has missed a lot of games due to injury and the Celtics are terrible (with or without him in the lineup). Michael Redd is having a great year but Milwaukee's record is poor. The Bulls are right in the thick of the fight for the best record in the East, so they probably deserve to have a representative but Gordon is one dimensional and nobody else's numbers stand out. Ben Wallace's numbers are only slightly worse than they were last year when he was an All-Star, his new team has improved over last year and his former team has gotten worse; working against him are the high expectations that were placed on him in the wake of his signing a huge contract and the fact that, as the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith would put it, no one really wants to see a defensive specialist in an All-Star game. Chauncey Billups has been banged up a little bit but is having a good season. The wraps have come off of Andre Iguodala's game since Iverson was traded to Denver and, although his numbers may be borderline All-Star material at the moment, he seems poised to have a breakthrough second half of the season; that may not be a good reason to pick him but when people look back on this season and see his final numbers they probably will wonder why he didn't make the team. So, who would I take? I'd choose Ben Wallace. He's basically the same player that he was last year when he was the heart and soul of the Pistons, so I am not swayed by the "controversy" surrounding him in terms of the headband or how many good seasons he may have left in the tank. I think that the Bulls could replace Gordon's scoring more readily than they could Wallace's defense and rebounding. Really, though, looking at the season as whole, the West deserves to have about 16 All-Stars and the East should have about 8; maybe Barkley's offbeat choices weren't so crazy after all, at least as a "protest vote" of sorts against the East's overall mediocrity.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:26 PM


With T-Mac Back, Rockets Are Rolling Even Without Yao

Careful observation has revealed the reason that Tracy McGrady frequently suffers from back spasms: he is carrying the entire Rockets' franchise on his back. Last year, when T-Mac was out of the lineup the Rockets struggled to win a game, even with Yao Ming putting up dominant numbers; this year, Yao Ming was playing the best basketball of his career before he was sidelined with a broken bone behind his knee, but it has become clear that Houston lives and dies based not on what Yao does but based on T-Mac's mere presence on the court. The Rockets defeated the Spurs 90-85 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moving to 10-5 since Yao's injury. McGrady led the way with 37 points and eight rebounds, shooting 14-24 from the field. That performance raised his scoring average in January to exactly 30 ppg and the Rockets are 7-3 in those games (their other loss in January came last week versus the Suns when T-Mac's balky back kept him out of the lineup). Yes, the ageless Dikembe Mutombo has filled in admirably for Yao on the boards and at the defensive end of the court but the difference for the Rockets--last year and this year--is McGrady. Last year I discussed the T-Mac effect in a March article about MVP candidates:

Some kind of award should be invented for what Tracy McGrady has done this season. His statistics are down from their usual levels and he has missed a ton of games, but if we define “value” purely by how a player affects wins and losses, Tracy McGrady might win the MVP in a landslide.

His Houston Rockets are 27-20 with him in the lineup and 3-20 when he doesn’t play. In other words, with McGrady the Rockets look like a solid playoff team and without him they resemble the woeful 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers from 1972-73 -- despite having an All-Star center in Yao Ming. Has one player ever had that dramatic of an impact on his team’s record?

Seriously, if winning and "making one's teammates better" (the cliche applied endlessly to Steve Nash, as if Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion are not pretty good on their own) are the prerequisites for MVP consideration, how can T-Mac not be in the MVP discussion this season? His team depends on his presence and performance at least as much as any other team in the league depends on one single player. McGrady has been healthy and productive enough to lead Houston to one of the top six records in the NBA despite the extended absence of Yao, who was a viable MVP candidate himself before his injury.

When his back is not acting up, there are few players in the league who can score as smoothly and effortlessly as McGrady does. As Jon Barry put it during ESPN's Rockets-Spurs telecast, "Probably the best 'toughest shot' maker in the league...Tracy McGrady can take any shot he wants at any time and it is a quality shot; it might not look like it at the time, but it is." McGrady produced 24 of his 37 points in the second half as the Rockets outscored the Spurs 54-48. He also tied with Mutombo for the team lead in rebounds, keeping the Spurs' edge on the glass to 40-38 despite Duncan's 10 boards.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 AM


Shaq is Back (sort of...5 points and 5 rebounds)

Shaquille O'Neal returned to action on Wednesday after missing 35 games while he was rehabilitating his knee injury. He did not start and only played 14 minutes in the Miami Heat's 96-94 overtime loss at Indiana; O'Neal did not play at all in the extra session and finished with five points and five rebounds, shooting 2-6 from the field and 1-2 from the free throw line. Troy Murphy led a balanced Indiana attack with 17 points, while Dwyane Wade had 32 points, eight assists, five rebounds, five steals and three blocked shots for the Heat.

Miami stormed to a 65-45 lead despite O'Neal's minimal contributions but the Pacers mounted a furious rally that started late in the third quarter and extended into the the fourth quarter, transforming that deficit into a 75-74 lead. The Pacers eventually built a six point lead but a pair of three pointers--one by Wade, one by Jason Kapono, whose seems to have a radar lock on the hoop this season--deadlocked the score at 87 and sent the game to overtime. Danny Granger scored on a putback to open the overtime and the Pacers never trailed again.

Obviously, Shaquille O'Neal has to work off a lot of rust and, judging by his severely restricted minutes, he is either still not completely healthy or not in normal game condition--neither of which is unexpected considering how long he has been on the shelf. The significant thing is that O'Neal has returned to action early enough to have a real impact on the Heat's season--which means Pat Riley will probably be back on the bench soon and the other Eastern teams will be sweating bullets soon after that. Right now, the Heat are just barely on the outside of the playoff race in the sorry Eastern Conference and there is plenty of time left for Miami to move up and obtain home court advantage in the first round. There is no dominant team in the East this year, so this Heat team will be right in the thick of the battle for conference supremacy if O'Neal and Wade stay reasonably healthy down the stretch of the season. Every year in April we hear the cliche about the "team that nobody wants to face"--and, according to my completely unscientific research, that team loses in the first round of the playoffs 99.2% of the time (think of George Karl's Nuggets in '05 or Ron Artest's Kings in '06 as two examples of this). If Shaq is standing on two healthy legs in April and Dwyane Wade has gotten up as many times as he has fallen down, Miami will really be the team that nobody wants to face in Eastern Conference playoffs.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM


"Short Help is Better Than No Help at All"

The average American male stands approximately 5-9, while the average NBA player is approximately 6-7. How difficult is it for someone who is 5-9 or shorter to achieve sustained success in pro basketball? Only five such players have participated in at least eight NBA seasons: Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, Earl Boykins and Charlie Criss. I look at those players' special qualities--and a current player who may join that quintet, Nate Robinson--in my newest NBCSports.com article:

5-9 and Under

posted by David Friedman @ 12:25 AM


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Answer Hits 20,000, Phoenix Cools off Agent Zero's Hibachi and Dwane Casey Gets the Ax

Tuesday night in the NBA saw Allen Iverson score his 20,000th point, "The Takeover" morph into "The Big Payback" and the Timberwolves jettison yet another head coach after less than two years on the job. Allen Iverson is the most amazing athlete that I have ever seen--not the greatest basketball player (although he is certainly great) and not the greatest athlete (although he is certainly a great athlete) but without question the most amazing. I say that because Iverson is a normal sized human being who excels in a league that consists of super sized human beings. He is listed at 6-0, 165 but both of those numbers are generous to say the least. If he is wearing a warmup suit so that you cannot identify him by his tattoos, from a distance you might think that he is one of the ballboys. Yet he has survived and prospered against elite athletes who, on average, are 6-7, 225. Iverson is just the 30th player in NBA history to surpass the 20,000 point plateau (Julius Erving, Dan Issel, Rick Barry and Artis Gilmore also scored more than 20,000 points when their ABA numbers are included--which they certainly should be). Remarkably, Iverson reached 20,000 points faster than everyone in NBA history except for Wilt, Michael, Oscar, Kareem and Elgin (if you need last names, you are not a real NBA fan); there is not a player under 6-5, 220 in that group and each member of that quintet would be in most people's listing of the top ten players of all-time. Iverson ranks third in career regular season scoring average (28.1 ppg) behind only Wilt and Michael. Say what you want about Iverson, but if you say that he is not amazing then you are simply lying to yourself.

Gilbert Arenas had 54 points on December 22 against Phoenix, putting him more than halfway toward his stated goal of scoring 100 points this season against the Suns in revenge for Coach Mike D'Antoni's supposed role in cutting Arenas from the final roster of Team USA last summer (Arenas has also pledged to torch the Portland Trail Blazers and Coach Nate McMillan in a similar fashion). More significantly, Arenas' scoring outburst resulted in a 144-139 overtime win for his Washington Wizards. Arenas has nicknamed himself "Agent Zero," likes to scream "Hibachi!" or "Quality shots" after his baskets and his termed this season "The Takeover." All of this makes me think of the recently departed James Brown and wonder if the second half of this season may turn from "The Takeover" to "The Big Payback." Larry Bird talked trash and backed it up for years; likewise with Michael Jordan. Arenas has some nice pelts on the wall--as Bill Parcells might put it--with his 60 point game against the Lakers and the aforementioned 54 point game versus the Suns. The thing is, after all the "quality shots" and all the funny comments, he and the Wizards have to play those teams again--and I suspect that his opponents may not be nearly as amused by his act as his fans and the media are.

Agent Zero led the Wizards into Phoenix and the Suns cooled off his hibachi, rolling to a 127-105 victory. Phoenix led 41-20 after the first quarter (Arenas had four points and two assists). Arenas made his first shot of the game and then missed his next six, failing to hit another field goal until the score was 62-36 Suns; Arenas had just eight points at that juncture and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over (the Suns blew some leads early in the year but they are not likely to blow a 26 point lead and even less likely to do so against a Wizards team that is more defensively challenged than they are). Yes, Arenas finished with 31 points, but he shot 11-25 (3-9 on three pointers) and the vast majority of his points came with the game completely out of reach; after the game briefly became "semi-close" in the fourth quarter (Washington was still down by 15), Arenas only scored five points and Phoenix again pulled away. Amare Stoudemire said this about the Suns' dominating performance: "I did hear that they wanted to be the Phoenix Suns of the East. I think there's only one Phoenix Suns, and we rest in the West. And that's how it's going to be for a while." Steve Nash took the diplomatic approach: "I think respect, more than revenge. We know they're a good team, and we didn't want to underestimate them or have a lack of energy to start the game. That was, I think, our motivation. We respected how well they played at our place and we wanted to give them a better game." Nash shot 11-13 from the field (!), scoring 27 points and dishing 14 assists (as many as the entire Wizards team). Phoenix shot .608 from the field and their top seven players each scored at least 10 points.

The Wizards' return engagement with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers is on February 3. Portland makes its only trip to Washington eight days later. We will see if February's theme track is "The Takeover" or "The Big Payback."

If you want job security as an NBA coach, steer clear of Minnesota. Other than Flip Saunders--who coached Minnesota for nine years--no Timberwolves coach has lasted more than two years. Now you can add Dwane Casey to that list. Casey's 33-49 record last year and 20-20 start this season was enough to convince owner Glen Taylor and president of basketball operations Kevin McHale that the team was headed in the wrong direction. Casey will be replaced by assistant Randy Wittman, who will finish the season as interim head coach; Wittman had a 62-102 record in two seasons as Cleveland's head coach (1999-2001). Apparently, Taylor and McHale believe that the mediocre roster that they have assembled around Kevin Garnett should be performing at a better than .500 level in the stacked Western Conference. I don't think that Casey's name was going to appear on too many Coach of the Year ballots but I also don't see any reason to believe that a coaching change will significantly improve the long term prospects of this franchise, which has spent most of Garnett's career in the bottom part of the playoff chase--or out of the postseason completely.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Melo Scores 28 Points, Nuggets Trounce Grizzlies, 115-98

Carmelo Anthony scored 28 points in his return to action after a 15 game suspension and his Denver Nuggets beat the Memphis Grizzlies, 115-98. "It's like a new beginning for us. We're going to give you all something to cheer for," Carmelo Anthony said to the Denver crowd before the opening tip-off. Anthony shot 10-25 from the field and had six assists and five rebounds in only 33 minutes of action. Allen Iverson had 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds, J.R. Smith scored 19 points despite shooting just 4-14 from three point range and Marcus Camby added 17 points, 17 rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists. Pau Gasol led Memphis with 23 points and 15 rebounds, adding six assists (one behind Chucky Atkins for team-high honors in that category).

Anthony scored the game's first basket, converting an alley-oop pass from Camby. The Grizzlies looked lethargic at the start of the game and interim Coach Tony Barone benched three of his starters at the 8:30 mark, by which time Memphis already trailed 10-2. Memphis cut the lead to 18-14, but Denver closed the quarter with a 20-4 run. Iverson and Smith each had 11 first quarter points, while Anthony scored six points.

The Grizzlies went on a 7-0 run in the first minute and a half of the second quarter; throughout the game, Nuggets Coach George Karl emphasized to his players that they must focus more on their transition play and on their defense. Anthony ended Memphis' spurt with an emphatic dunk that he delivered after weaving through most of Memphis' team. The Nuggets never found the rhythm on offense and defense that they enjoyed during the first quarter, shooting only 7-22 from the field and allowing Memphis to score 29 points, the Grizzlies' best quarter of the game. Denver still led 59-47 at the half despite these lapses. Anthony led both teams with 15 points. Memphis kept in contact by scoring 18 points off of turnovers.

The Grizzlies played very well for the first six minutes of the third quarter, cutting Denver's lead to 68-63. After that, though, Denver pulled away quickly, closing the period with a 20-7 run. Smith scored eight of the points and Camby added five. That stretch basically sealed the outcome of the game; Memphis got no closer than 10 points (90-80) in the fourth quarter.

What did we learn from Carmelo Anthony's much anticipated first game as a teammate of Allen Iverson? Obviously, the Nuggets have a lot of firepower. In addition to Anthony and Iverson's well documented ability to put the ball in the hoop, their presence opens up the court for Camby, Smith and the rest of the Nuggets. Memphis had some success in slowing Denver down by employing a zone defense and other teams may have to resort to this as well, packing their defenders into the lane and daring the Nuggets to make outside shots. On the other hand, while Denver poses severe matchup problems for most teams, the Nuggets are not great defensively. Yes, Camby blocks shots and Iverson can be disruptive in the passing lanes but Denver's overall defense is not good. Keep in mind that Memphis has the worst record in the NBA; they "achieved" most of their record while Gasol was on the shelf with a broken foot but they have not been lighting up the league even after he returned and Coach Mike Fratello was fired; the Grizzlies are just 3-7 in their last 10 games. I will remain skeptical of Denver's ability to seriously contend for the NBA title until the Nuggets show that they can beat teams like Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix in a seven game series. Those teams will provide much more resistance--on both ends of the court--than the Grizzlies, who are no more threatening than teddy bears this season.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 AM