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Saturday, February 03, 2007

5-9 and Under Article Reprinted at Legends of Basketball

Legends of Basketball has reprinted my article about the five players who stand 5-9 or less and played at least eight NBA seasons:

5-9 and Under

posted by David Friedman @ 11:54 PM

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A "Sad" Performance for the Lakers at Indiana

The L.A. Lakers squandered a nine point third quarter lead and lost 95-84 to the Indiana Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse on Friday night. The Lakers scored just six points in the first 10:40 of the fourth quarter, their offense grinding to a complete halt after producing 29 third quarter points. In his postgame standup, Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson first offered a serious explanation for the fourth quarter collapse: "I might have been putting too much of a responsibility on Lamar (Odom) out there with the younger kids. They've done pretty well over the course of the season but they weren't ready for that tonight." Pressed further, Jackson turned a bit whimsical, saying, "They just got 'sad' tonight--'s-a-d,' you know what that is, right? It's sunlight deprivation--when you get out here, it's all gray and the California boys get depressed and they can't take it. They were very 'sad' tonight." There you have it--the first NBA loss ever attributed--tongue in cheek--to seasonal affective disorder.

Kobe Bryant finished with 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and a season-high five steals, but he shot just 7-25 from the field. A couple of those misses were desperation three pointers in the last minute of the game but he also made a couple three pointers during that time, so he actually shot better on his late three point attempts than he did during the bulk of the contest. Smush Parker had a nice game with 20 points and a season-high six steals, while Odom had 10 points and 12 rebounds but also shot 4-10 from the field and committed six turnovers. Jermaine O'Neal led Indiana with 22 points, adding nine rebounds and four blocked shots but he shot just 7-21 from the field. O'Neal shot 4-4 in the game's first 3:24 and just 3-17 the rest of the way. Jamaal Tinsley had a solid game (16 points, six assists) and Jeff Foster provided his customary work on the boards (12) and scored nine points. The real story off of the bench for the Pacers was Darrell Armstrong, the 38 year old point guard who seems to have discovered the Fountain of Youth. He had 14 points, three assists, three rebounds and a spectacular blocked shot in less than 16 minutes of playing time.

The first half of the game was marred by sloppy ballhandling--each team had 11 turnovers--and poor shooting (.381 for the Pacers, .368 for the Lakers). Indiana led 44-41 at halftime but it almost felt like the Lakers were winning because Bryant had shot just 1-8 for seven points and it looked like the slightest bit of production from him in the second half would be enough to carry the Lakers to a win. The pace of the game picked up in the third quarter but Indiana maintained a two to five point lead until Bryant's fast break layup tied the score at 53 at the 5:57 mark. The Lakers turned on the defensive pressure in the latter part of the quarter and converted the resulting steals into a 17-8 run to take their biggest lead of the night, 70-61. Armstrong scored on a layup after a defensive breakdown near the end of the period, making the score 70-63 going into the fourth quarter.

Bryant took his customary rest to start the fourth quarter--and the Lakers did not score a point the entire 3:53 that he sat out, during which the Pacers tied the score at 70. As Odom said after the game, "When Kobe goes out, we act like we don't know what the hell we are doing." After Bryant's return, the Lakers took leads of 72-70 and 74-72 but they were unable to regain any real offensive rhythm. Odom's two free throws with 5:04 remaining were the Lakers' only points between the 7:11 mark and the 1:23 mark. Indiana led 89-76 at that point but Bryant's back to back three pointers cut the margin to 89-82 with :58.1 remaining, providing at least a glimmer of hope for the Lakers; the crowd certainly got quieter, at least for a moment--but Bryant subsequently turned the ball over and missed two shots, while the Pacers hit six of eight free throws to clinch the win.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During his pre-game standup, Coach Jackson was asked what he thought of LeBron James' flagrant foul against Dwyane Wade on Thursday night and if James should be suspended because Bryant was suspended previously. With his trademark wry grin, Jackson replied, "I think that we should start wearing helmets with facemasks in the NBA and that will settle it right there."

Jackson also answered a question about the Lakers' next game, a Saturday showdown with Agent Zero, who heated up his hibachi for 60 points the last time the Lakers played the Wizards. Is Jackson worried that Bryant will deviate from the game plan in an effort to either shut down Gilbert Arenas and/or go back at Arenas to score a lot of points? Jackson replied, "We're not concerned at all. Actually, Kobe asked to guard Arenas late in that ball game, in the fourth quarter. I think Arenas had, what, 15 points in the overtime and nine were on free throws? Am I right? (Arenas actually made six free throws in the overtime). That's a very unusual situation with that amount of points scored late. But, there is a rivalry there and there will be a point in the game when I put Kobe on Arenas. That's not how we're going to start and that is not what we are thinking about now." Jackson also asked some of the members of the media about Arenas' catch phrases--Agent Zero, hibachi, "quality shots," calling this year "the takeover"--and after we listed them he said, "I like that. He's got a quirky nature that I like."

Former Laker Caron Butler is now an All-Star with the Wizards. Jackson said, "We didn't want to have to trade him. There's no doubt about it but we had to give up something to get a big man. At that particular point we really needed a big man in this organization. We got Andrew (Bynum) and Kwame in the same year and Caron was the guy who had to go in that situation. I never had the opportunity to coach him but I liked the way that he played." Reading between the lines, you can't help but speculate that if the Lakers had known how quickly Bynum would develop that they might not have traded Butler.

I asked Jackson the following question: "There is a lot of talk about how Kobe is passing the ball more this year but isn't there also an adjustment by the other players, that they are more willing and able to be in the right position in the triangle to catch the ball and make shots? So there has been at least as much a change with how they are playing as there has been with how Kobe is playing. Would you agree with that?" Jackson replied, "Yeah. One of the things that set us off the right way is that Kobe was out early. Early in the season, they came out and played well and understood the offense and (when Kobe came back) he just kept the offense rolling."

I followed up by asking, "Would you say that that change even started to occur a little bit toward the end of last season and into the playoff series, with the players finally getting used to the triangle?"

Jackson answered, "Well, Kobe got off on a scoring run last year that was unbelievable. That was great, but during the playoffs we said that against a great team like Phoenix one person is not going to outscore their team, so we have to have other contributors. We were able to execute it and Kobe really bought in to it and understood that he could get himself a 45 point game but that we needed 100+ points (to win), so we needed some other scoring to do that. We had our chances. That was a good playoff for us, gave us a lot of confidence and guys came back from that with a feel (for how the team needs to play to be successful)."

---

Kobe Bryant was the last Lakers player to emerge from the training room and face the media after the game. He joked that the media members covering this game were the "select few" who were not sent to the Super Bowl and then tried to explain what went wrong down the stretch. Bryant said that the fourth quarter was one of the Lakers' worst of the season from an execution standpoint because "the ball stayed stagnant too much and didn't move."

As for his poor shooting, he shrugged, smiled and said, "The ball just wasn't going in for me. I'm an eternal optimist, so hopefully I will shoot better tomorrow. It was just one of those nights."

Someone asked Bryant why do the Lakers look so good on some nights and so bad on others and how can they sustain a high level of play and he responded, "It comes from maturity. We have to understand how to bring that effort every night, especially on long road trips. On long road trips, (other) teams are going to be ready to play and we have to continue to increase our intensity level and learn how to do that."

As for Saturday's game against Agent Zero and the Wizards, Bryant said, "They're playing extremely, extremely well and we have to be ready. I'm excited for the challenge and I'm sure that everybody else is excited, especially after the way that we played tonight, and hopefully we will give a good effort."

I asked the natural followup: "What are your thoughts about going against Gilbert Arenas? Everyone is talking about this game because he had 60 when he played against you guys the last time. What are your thoughts about going against the Wizards and, specifically, Arenas?"

Bryant answered, "I'm looking forward to the game. I think that it is a 'we' thing more than a 'me' thing. I'm not really tripping about him, to be honest with you. I think that he is a great player who got hot that night and had a hell of a game but for us as a team it is much more important--much more important; this is a big game for us. We're 1-2 on this trip and we want to come out there and try to win this game."

Odom and Sasha Vujacic got into some sort of argument on the sidelines during the game, sparked by Armstrong blocking Vujacic's shot in the fourth quarter. Someone asked Bryant what he thought about this and what he said to them. Bryant replied, "There's nothing you can do about it. That's what I was telling them. It was almost comical. There's nothing you can do about shouting and yelling. If my wife is mad because I didn't put the toilet seat down, what am I going to do? I have to put it down the next time. What are you going to do? You can't sit there and bark my head off. I didn't put it down; I'll put it down the next time. Right? You've got to move on. You've got to forget about it and move on to the next play. Especially as a guard, you have to be able to detach yourself from the game somewhat. Sasha cares so much about trying to do the right thing that he gets too wrapped up into the game emotionally. He's got to be able to step back from that and be more calm...In this type of offense you really have to learn how to be fluid and really separate yourself from the game. That is one of Phil's big teaching points. You can't go out there and play so emotionally that you kind of lose your way."

Vujacic is still learning how to do this, Bryant added: "It's a challenge for him. It's just like learning how to handle the ball or learning how to shoot. It's part of the game. Phil is a master of teaching that and once he (Vujacic) understands how to separate himself emotionally I think that things will sharpen up for him, because then it becomes inconsequential whether you have a turnover or you get fouled or you miss a shot. You just forget about it and move on to the next play."

By this point, it was getting late and the other media members left, so I was the last one remaining as Bryant headed out of the locker room and toward the team bus. I mentioned to him that he always has had the kind of focus that Vujacic is still trying to develop--bad plays never seemed to dissuade Bryant, even as a young player. I said to him, "Other players never learn that (how to focus) or it takes them a lot longer." Bryant replied, "I was a big Bruce Lee fan growing up. Watching him and analyzing him, listening to his philosophies kind of carried with me. Once I came into the NBA and once Phil came on board, he has a similar philosophy--you can't top it."

The classic early example of Bryant's confidence and unflappability, of course, is the three air balls that he shot against the Utah Jazz in a playoff game. I told Bryant, "I'll never forget that game because a lot of people were saying, 'What is that guy doing? He's the youngest guy on the team and he keeps shooting these airballs.' I said at the time, 'No, he's going to be a great player because he keeps thinking he's going to make it. Eventually, he's going to be making them.'"

Bryant laughed as he recalled that snapshot from his early struggles and said, "For better or worse, I'm very optimistic. I'm glad that I don't have a gambling vice."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:55 AM

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

All-Star Reserves Announced on TNT's NBA Tip-Off

The NBA All-Star team rosters are complete now, as the seven reserve players for each conference have been announced. While fan balloting selects the starters, the reserve players are chosen by NBA coaches (who cannot vote for their own players). The Eastern reserves are New Jersey guards Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, Detroit guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, Washington forward Caron Butler, Indiana forward Jermaine O'Neal and Orlando center Dwight Howard. The coaches pretty much "cheated off of my paper," so to speak: in my January 25 post about the NBA All-Star starters, I listed who I would pick for the Eastern Conference reserves and came up with virtually the same group. The only difference is that I would take Chicago's Ben Wallace in place of Billups. When TNT's NBA Tip-Off crew (the usual cast of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith plus guest Magic Johnson) discussed Eastern reserves, Magic Johnson objected to Detroit having two All-Stars, although he didn't specify which one he would not have picked. Magic's point is that Detroit has not had a dominant enough season to deserve having two All-Stars when a team like Chicago has none. Using similar reasoning, Barkley said that New Jersey--which has won less than half of its games--should not have two All-Stars, either. Magic correctly noted that Kidd is having an MVP caliber season, so--without saying it in so many words--Magic and Barkley suggested that Carter should not be on the team. Kenny Smith took a different approach, saying "It is disrespectful to say who shouldn't be there." He thinks that all of the selected players are deserving of the honor but that there are also some players who were left off who could be considered to be equally deserving; Chicago is right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and Ben Gordon is the Bulls' fourth quarter closer, so Smith mentioned him as a worthy candidate, without voting anyone off of the island, so to speak. I still think that Ben Wallace should have gotten that spot. Forget the headlines and the headband and everything else: every year since Jordan, Pippen and crew won their last title, the Bulls have gotten off to a slow start. The Bulls are doing better prior to the All-Star Game this year than they have in recent seasons and the major change that the team made was signing Wallace. Critics have sniped at him all year but he is putting up similar numbers to what he did last year; Detroit's record has also gotten much worse without him, so he has actually had a significant impact on two Eastern Conference teams. He should have made the All-Star team this year.

The Western reserves are Phoenix guard Steve Nash, Denver guard Allen Iverson, San Antonio guard Tony Parker, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, Utah forward Carlos Boozer, Phoenix forward Shawn Marion and Phoenix center Amare Stoudemire. Magic immediately voiced an objection that Phoenix has three All-Stars and San Antonio, Detroit and New Jersey have two All-Stars each but Dallas--the team with the best record in the league--only has one All-Star. Again, Magic did not say who he would take off of the team, but he said that winning should be recognized and that Dallas' Josh Howard should be on the team. Of course, Howard may still end up going to Las Vegas because starter Yao Ming and reserve Carlos Boozer both will not play in the All-Star Game due to injury, which means that NBA Commissioner David Stern will select two replacement players. Barkley insisted that Howard and Denver's Carmelo Anthony must get those two spots. Magic agreed, going so far as to say that Anthony was the best player in the league this season prior to his 15 game suspension--that suspension cannot be ignored, though, and no doubt played a part in why the coaches left him off of the team. Ernie Johnson brought up two interesting facts: the first fact is that the leading scorer in the league at the All-Star break has always made the All-Star team; the second fact came in the form of a question: how many double-doubles does Anthony have this year? Barkley guessed 17, which indicates that he has not watched too many Nuggets' games this year (or followed their boxscores). The correct answer is Gilbert Arenas' number: 0. Melo is a one dimensional scorer and that is why, even though he is leading the league in scoring, I don't have a problem with leaving him off of the team. In the post that I mentioned above, I again agreed with the coaches on six of the seven selections; I would substitute Howard for Parker. With Boozer and Yao out of the mix, though, I would not have a problem with Howard and Melo being the replacements; Melo, Parker and Ray Allen were the top three players I mentioned as alternate choices, so with Parker already on the team and two spots opening up I would have room for Melo now.

TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge weighed in with his take, saying "It's a travesty that Melo did not make it" and adding that Melo "should have made it instead of Allen Iverson" because "Carmelo's season has been more successful than Allen's so far." Aldridge, who saw Iverson up close as a Philadelphia based writer, pointed out that Melo and Iverson both have missed a lot of games and that they have not played too many games together so far: Melo put Denver in the playoff hunt before Iverson arrived, while Iverson's Sixers were well off of the pace even before they dealt him to Denver. Both players have good individual numbers, but the difference in team success is why Aldridge would take Melo over Iverson. Ernie Johnson responded that Anthony probably lost votes because he missed his games due to suspension. Aldridge replied that he understands that but that Melo is leading the league in scoring, which means that he has been productive on a consistent basis. The irony is that the final decision will rest in the hands of Stern, who suspended Anthony in the first place. Will he "forgive and forget?" asked Smith. My guess is that Stern will choose Howard and Anthony.

The Tip-Off show included an interesting "fundamentals" segment on rebounding, featuring Dwight Howard. He talked about the importance of boxing out, locating yourself on the opposite side of the court from where the shot is taken and having the desire to pursue the ball. He also demonstrated the swim move (pushing down the arm of someone who is boxing you out and then stepping in front of them; Howard noted that sometimes you will be called for a foul when doing this) and the tap move (tapping the opponent on one side and then going around him on the other side). Barkley, one of the game's greatest rebounders, enjoyed the segment and liked the fact that Howard understands the importance of positioning. Barkley also joked that when people tell him how good a rebounder Dennis Rodman was that he replies, "Dennis was great and if he gets a few thousand more rebounds he'll catch me." That is a funny line--and Barkley added that he likes Rodman--but in reality Barkley only had 592 more career rebounds than Rodman, who averaged 13.1 rpg compared to Barkley's 11.7 rpg.

While Barkley and Magic are Hall of Famers, Smith is an excellent college player who became a solid pro. He has a different perspective on the game--and I suspect that he would be a very good coach. Smith recalled that when Bill Russell was his coach in Sacramento that he used to instruct that team's big men about rebounding by saying "just go get it." Smith astutely observed, "For a great player, certain things are so simple that he can't even explain them. Everybody can't just 'go get it.'" That is why some of the best coaches--Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich--are guys who were not NBA superstars. They have playing experience and may have even been good players at levels below the NBA, but they had to spend time analyzing the step by step process for doing certain things on the court. That gives them the understanding and the patience to be good teachers. Jackson has always been commended for how well he has done coaching superstars like Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe but I think that ESPN's Greg Anthony makes a good point when he mentions that Jackson gets the most out of his role players and that his teams never underachieve. The fact that Jackson was a role player during his NBA career and that he spent a lot of time talking strategy with his Hall of Fame coach and mentor, Red Holzman, no doubt has a lot to do with that.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:36 PM

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The Ultimate "Five Tool" Players

Versatility is a prized trait in all sports. Baseball scouts have a name for it: a “five tool” player is someone who hits for average, hits for power, runs well, has a strong throwing arm and fields his position well. The basketball version of this is a player who scores, rebounds, assists, steals the ball and blocks shots. Only five players in NBA/ABA history have led their teams in each of those categories in the same season: Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady. My newest NBCSports.com article examines the accomplishments of basketball's "five tool" players:

The Ultimate "Five Tool" Players

posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM

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Two Final Thoughts on Kobe Bryant's Suspension

I don't intend to do a frame by frame analysis of the Kobe Bryant-Manu Ginobili play as if the footage came from the Zapruder film but after seeing the ubiquitous highlight a few more times I noticed something that I did not see before and have not heard anyone else mention: right before Kobe's arm whacks Manu in the face Manu appears to make contact with Kobe's right shoulder. I do not disagree that Kobe's arm movement looks a little "unnatural" but I think that at least part of what Kobe was doing was a combination of trying to fend off Manu's block attempt, trying to draw a foul and reacting to the contact. If you are shooting and someone makes contact with your arm, then your follow through (and the flight of the ball) is going to be altered; think of how much difference it makes if a defender just lightly taps a shooter's elbow--that can be enough to cause an airball and it often goes unnoticed because the official is looking for possible contact at wrist level or above, not by the elbow.

My second thought about this is not about the alleged "crime" but rather about the punishment. The suspension was not handed down until Tuesday, apparently just a few hours before the tip off of the game in question. So the Lakers not only lost their best player but they had to deal with this on very short notice. The NBA should have an appeals process in place whereby if the player appeals then the punishment does not take place until after the appeal is heard. That is what happens in Major League Baseball--except that MLB drags things out so much that even if the player knows that his appeal has no chance he can seemingly time it in such a way that the rejection and subsequent suspension will happen at a relatively more favorable time. The NBA should give 24 or 48 hours for the appeal to be filed, should hear it quickly and then make a quick decision.

The bottom line is that it just would not make sense to intentionally commit a flagrant foul on a defender while you are in the process of trying to make a game winning shot. If the NBA wanted to discipline Kobe for his "unnatural" movement or the extreme nature of the contact, it would make more sense to charge him retroactively with a flagrant foul and assess a fine. If Kobe really becomes a habitual offender in this regard then he would accumulate enough flagrant foul points to get a suspension; meanwhile, this would not have such an adverse immediate affect on the Lakers team as a whole and on the New York fans who missed their one chance a season to see Kobe play. While Kobe's move may seem "unnatural," particularly in slow motion, I don't see how one can conclude that he intentionally hit Manu as opposed to simply fending him off and/or reacting to contact that he felt. Ironically, near the end of the Lakers-Knicks game that Kobe had to sit out there was a similar play but I guess in this instance the movement was deemed "natural."

Suspending someone for a game based on a subjective judgment and then not hearing the appeal until after the suspension has been served just does not seem right. The play in question is a lot different than the ones involving Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett, who each clearly and deliberately threw a punch at another player. Throwing a punch automatically leads to an ejection and a suspension and all of the players know that. Striking a defender in the face with an "unnatural" follow through is a much more subjective call and this is a thin reed upon which to base an immediate suspension.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 AM

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Notes on the Weekend's Action, Thoughts on Kobe's Suspension

I can't let the weekend pass without talking a little bit about Jamal Crawford's eye-popping performance on Friday night and Kobe Bryant becoming the youngest player to score 18,000 points. Of course, there is also the little matter of Bryant's one game suspension.

Crawford scored 52 points in New York's 116-96 win over the Miami Heat, outscoring Dwyane Wade (37 points) and Shaquille O'Neal (11 points) by himself. Crawford set a career-high and is now tied for sixth on the Knicks' single game scoring list with Bernard King and trailing only King (60), Richie Guerin (57), King (55), Allan Houston (53) and Willis Reed (53). Crawford shot 20-30 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range. After missing his first four shots he did not miss again until near the end of the third quarter; his 16 straight makes in one game are the most since the Elias Sports Bureau began tracking that statistic 10 years ago. Elias added, "Jamal Crawford scored 52 points in only 39 minutes Friday. It was the 14th time a Knicks player had a 50-point game, but only the third time one did it while playing fewer than 40 minutes. Richie Guerin had 57 points in 38 minutes in 1959 and Bernard King had 52 in 36 minutes in 1984. Crawford's 52 points were the second-most ever against the Heat; Willie Burton had 53 for the 76ers against Miami in 1994. Crawford now has more 50-point games (2) than all of the following combined: Paul Arizin, John Havlicek, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Of those players, only Pierce scored 50 or more points in an NBA game." Obviously, those numbers do not include the ABA--Erving had several 50 point games in that league--or the playoffs, because Barkley had 56 points in a playoff game versus the Warriors (his "revenge" for the classic commercial during which then Warrior Chris Webber looked at footage of his regular season behind the back move and dunk on Sir Charles and said that Barkley had told him, "I don't believe in role models, but you're mine").

Also on Friday, Kobe Bryant had 32 points, six rebounds, five assists--and nine turnovers--in the Lakers' 106-97 overtime loss to the Charlotte Bobcats; the Lakers lost their earlier game to Charlotte in triple overtime despite Bryant's 58 points. Lamar Odom returned to action for the Lakers after missing six weeks with a knee injury and looked rusty, shooting just 3-10 from the field and finishing with 12 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and six turnovers. The Lakers still don't have their full complement of players: Kwame Brown is out with a sprained ankle and Luke Walton sprained his ankle during the Charlotte game. From a historical standpoint, the most significant thing about the game is that Bryant surpassed 18,000 career points at just 28 years, 156 days and is now the youngest player to reach that total; Wilt Chamberlain did it at 28 years, 166 days and Michael Jordan did it at 28 years, 359 days. Bryant holds--and continues to set--a lot of the age-level records, but LeBron James has a good chance of breaking them; both players came into the NBA straight out of high school, but Bryant served an apprenticeship on a good team while James was immediately thrust into a starter's role on a poor team.

On Sunday, Bryant and the Lakers returned to the court to face the San Antonio Spurs in the second game of ABC's double-header. ABC's Mark Jackson offered an interesting thought about the development process that young Lakers' center Andrew Bynum is going through, declaring that there is no college program in the country that could offer him better instruction on how to be a post player than he is getting from Lakers' assistant coach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, pro basketball's all-time leading scorer. The flip side of that, some would argue, is that the grind of the NBA season does not permit a lot of time for teaching. Players are coached about what to do--what the schemes are on offense and defense--but if they don't have the ability to process this information or the necessary fundamentals to execute then they are cut or traded. Of course, top draft picks like Bynum receive more attention and instruction than other players--and not every team has a Hall of Fame player serving as an assistant coach. I think that Jackson may be right regarding Bynum's specific situation but I also think that there are a lot of young players who come into the league and land on teams with coaching staffs that don't have the desire, inclination and/or ability to teach the fundamentals to them during the hectic NBA season.

ABC ran a clip of an interview with Gregg Popovich during which the Spurs' coach said that Bryant is the most talented player in the game at both ends of the court. Jackson pointed out that this is a pretty notable statement considering that Popovich coaches Tim Duncan. Popovich also told ABC that Bryant is more difficult to guard the way that he is playing this season because he is a threat to pass. Jackson agreed that this is true in terms of winning but said that for Bruce Bowen individually it is tougher to guard the Kobe Bryant who relentlessly tries to score. My take is that Bryant is more difficult to guard this season because the guys he is passing to are legitimate scoring threats, a subtle but significant difference from what Popovich said. Bryant passed the ball last year, too, but his teammates either missed shots or passed the ball right back to him with the shot clock winding down. This year they are making a lot of the open shots that Bryant's presence and passing skills create.

Jackson said that Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant "are far and away at the head of the class in the MVP discussion," adding that he would vote for Nash right now. Gilbert Arenas "has been spectacular" but Jackson would not include him in the first group. I agree with Jackson on his top three but I would vote for Bryant; last year, he averaged the most points per game in a season since Michael Jordan and carried the Lakers to a playoff berth that few thought that they would get. This year, he has cut back his scoring--though he is still fourth in the league--improved his shooting percentage, raised his assists and led the Lakers to an even better seeding despite the absences of Odom, Brown and Chris Mihm, all of whom were expected to be key frontline players. If Bryant can't win the MVP by averaging 35 ppg and he can't win the MVP by reducing his scoring and doing more with less than the other top MVP candidates, then I don't see how he will ever win the award--and that does not seem right for someone who is indeed, as Popovich correctly stated, the most talented two-way player in the game.

The Lakers squandered a fine effort by Bryant (31 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and a nine point fourth quarter lead, losing to the Spurs 96-94 in overtime. More significantly, a play that went largely unnoticed at the end of regulation ended up possibly costing the Lakers a second game as well. With the score tied at 80 near the end of the fourth quarter, Bryant went up for a potentially game winning jumper on the left baseline. Manu Ginobili blocked it and while Bryant scrambled to recover the ball and launch another shot before the clock expired he caught Ginobili squarely in the face with his elbow. Ginobili crumpled to the floor in a heap and had to be treated for a bloody nose, but he eventually returned to the game in overtime. Watching the game live on TV, it was easy to miss what happened because the eye naturally follows the flight of the ball. No foul was called and after the game Ginobili and Popovich rejected the idea that the hit was intentional or that Bryant should be disciplined--but the NBA did just that. On Tuesday, NBA executive vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson announced that he had reviewed the play and that Bryant would be suspended without pay for that night's game against the New York Knicks. Jackson said, "Some of the determining factors were the fact that there was contact made with Ginobili above the shoulders and the fact that this particular action by Kobe was an unnatural basketball motion. Following a shot, he drove a stiff arm in a backward motion and struck Ginobili in the head. We did not view this as an inadvertent action." Jackson added, "This blow was so swift in real time that it's understandable why, in fact, an official would have missed the contact. In our view, this was not an attempt to draw a foul."

ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast crew discussed this situation on Tuesday night and the entire panel--John Saunders, Greg Anthony, Tim Legler, Kiki Vandeweghe, Marc Stein and Ric Bucher--agreed that Bryant did not seem to intentionally hit Ginobili and seemed to be sincerely remorseful that Ginobili was injured on the play. Bucher and Stein said that Bryant's punishment is a result of the NBA's crackdown on any kind of violence, particularly relating to blows above the shoulder area. Bucher felt that the game being nationally televised also influenced the decision. Another contributing factor is that Ginobili stayed on the floor and had to be helped; no one is saying that he was faking--he was obviously in pain--but that made the situation look worse than it would have if he had simply been able to go to the bench. Fortunately, he was not in fact injured to a degree that he could not continue to play.

When I first saw the play, I--like everyone else--did not see what happened to Ginobili because I was watching the ball. After seeing the replay, I thought that Kobe's motion looked a little unusual but I couldn't tell if he was trying to draw a foul, trying to fend off Ginobili from blocking his shot again or trying to deliver a blow to Ginobili. I've seen the replay several times now and I'm still not sure what to think; looking at the play in slow motion, Kobe's movement does seem a bit "unnatural," to use Stu Jackson's word, but I don't think that it warranted a game suspension--unless the NBA will now suspend players for two games or more every time they deliberately throw a punch. Kobe's action was borderline at worst, so it should not be lumped in with deliberate blows--like what Raja Bell did to Kobe in last year's playoffs or any one of James Posey's "greatest hits" versus the Chicago Bulls. It would have made more sense to fine Kobe than to basically cost his team a game and deny New York fans their one opportunity a year to see him play; the faithful at Madison Square Garden booed when it was announced that Bryant would not play due to the suspension.

Since he was already in New York, where the NBA is headquartered, to play the game against the Knicks, Bryant sought to have an immediate hearing with Commissioner David Stern to appeal the ruling. That, however, is not how the appeals process works. Bryant was forced to miss the game and if he wins a later appeal then he will receive the salary that he lost. Not surprisingly, the Lakers lost 99-94 without Bryant. They have now lost three straight games for the first time this season and they will get no relief from the schedule any time soon; the New York game was the first stop in an eight game road trip, the team's longest road trip since 1989.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:09 AM

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Monday, January 29, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part VIII

The Washington Wizards (26-17, .605) are the only Eastern Conference team that currently has a record of .600 or better. You know what that would get you in the West? The seventh seed. Cleveland had the best record in the East for about a minute and a half but the Cavs are now seeded fifth. In the East, you can move up by having a day off while other teams lose--wouldn't it be strange if, somehow, in June, one of these teams gets hot or rides a superstar to a Finals victory?

Best Five Records
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1) Phoenix Suns, 36-8
2) Dallas Mavericks, 36-9
3) San Antonio Spurs, 32-14
4) Utah Jazz, 29-16
5) Houston Rockets, 27-16

We have a new leader. The Phoenix Suns have ridden a 17 game (and counting) winning streak into the pole position on the leaderboard--but previous leader Dallas is only a half game behind. A pair of overtime losses dropped the Lakers to a half game behind the Rockets and cost them an appearance on the leaderboard. The Utah Jazz have not recaptured their early season form but did enough to stay in the top five.

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

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 31.5 ppg
2) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.4 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 28.8 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.4 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.4 ppg

7) LeBron James, CLE 27.2 ppg

10) Vince Carter, NJN 25.1 ppg

16) Tracy McGrady, HOU 23.3 ppg

Yao Ming has been out of action long enough that he no longer meets the points scored or games played minimums; otherwise, he would rank ninth. Melo is back on the court and still ranks number one. Iverson's average has been declining since he arrived in Denver. Arenas' average has also been going down. Bryant started the season slowly--for him, anyway--but he has been locked into the fourth position with about 28 ppg for quite some time now. It does not seem that he will repeat as scoring champion unless the averages of the three players ahead of him continue to march downward, because 28 ppg seems to be about what the Lakers need from Kobe this year.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 12.4 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.3 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
5) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.4 rpg

8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.5 rpg

10-11) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.1 rpg
10-11) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.1 rpg

21) Jason Kidd, 8.4 rpg
22) Rasheed Wallace, DET 8.3 rpg

Howard led for most of the season but has now dropped to third; admittedly the top three are in a virtual dead heat. Shawn Marion is short and skinny compared to most of the other leading rebounders but that does not stop him from getting 10 rebounds a night. Kidd is a master of positioning and reading the flight of the ball. The next time you watch a Nets game, pry your eyes away from the ball and follow Kidd's movements as he guards his man but is prepared to dart into the lane to get a rebound as soon as the shot goes up.

Top Five Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.8 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.2 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOK 9.0 apg
4) Jason Kidd, 9.0 ppg
5) Andre Miller, PHI 8.7 apg

This quintet has been the same for most of the season. Kidd's average stayed about the same, but Williams and Paul had great games to slip past him into the second and third spots respectively. "Starbury" now ranks 17th with a 5.7 apg average.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 5:52 AM

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Brad Daugherty: "DVD Extras"

Just like a DVD contains extra features, sometimes I like to share with 20 Second Timeout readers some material that did not make it to the "big screen" version of one of my articles; here are some Brad Daugherty facts and quotes that I was not able to include in my HoopsHype.com piece about him:

The University of North Carolina--and the aura of legendary Coach Dean Smith--made an immediate impression on Daugherty, a 16 year old freshman: "I think that the biggest thing that I remember is just trying to take it all in," Daugherty says. "It was such a big venue, every time that we stepped on to the floor, whether it was the first practice or the coaches’ clinic—I remember that from my freshman year. There were 200 coaches sitting in the stands and I was just blown away—all these coaches came to watch Coach Smith teach. We had great players, so I tried to learn and absorb as much as I possibly could. I spent a lot of time with Sam Perkins and some of the older players."

******

Daugherty, who shot 65% from the field as a Tar Heel senior, could not name a collegiate player who he had difficulty scoring against or who was difficult for him to guard. Ironically, the player who he had the most trouble guarding in the NBA was one of those older teammates who showed him the ropes at Chapel Hill: Sam Perkins. "Sam was really difficult to guard because of his ability to shoot the three. When he played with Seattle he played center a lot and I’d have to guard Sam. It was really, really difficult just because he’d bring me so far out from the basket in their offense and I just did not want to be (that far from the hoop). I was a pretty good defensive rebounder and I loved to control that end of the floor. Boy, when I had to go out and guard him it took me way out of my comfort zone. It made it hard for me to get back and rebound the ball and if I didn’t come out far enough on him, he could shoot. Sam could really stroke it. I always say that he was the toughest guy for me to guard. The guy I had the most trouble scoring on was Mark Eaton because Mark was 7-4 and 330 or 340 pounds—he was a huge guy--and he was just mobile enough and he was left handed. I loved to turn and shoot hook shots and even when Manute Bol, who was 7-8 or whatever, guarded me, I could score pretty easily because he was right handed and I loved to shoot hook shots. If you can shoot jump hooks or hook shots, which no one does today, a right handed guy—I don’t care if he is 8 feet tall—is going to have an extremely difficult time getting to you."

******

Daugherty has some pointed criticism of the way that the NBA game is played today: "The college game is more about the ten guys on the basketball team. The ability to win a basketball game is stretched throughout your roster of ten and it starts at practice where those guys who might not be starters or getting a lot of minutes do a job helping to prepare the guys who are going to play significant minutes. They help prepare those guys and they do that as one. Then you go and play the game and you’re pulling together as a unified team trying to win. Everybody is doing their job trying to win. Pro basketball is more of an individual game. Even though you have 10 guys on the floor—the two different teams—everyone is playing one on one basketball when they get the basketball. In college basketball you have a set offense that yields an end result but in pro basketball you have one or two guys who are the main scorers on their team and when one of those guys touches the basketball it’s going up at one point or another. It’s more of an individualized game and as an individual you are looked at to do more on a nightly basis. There are guys who score 20-25 ppg and get 8-9 rpg and they are on teams who haven’t won a playoff game but they are considered to be superstars. In the college game, that is not the way it is—you win or lose as a team. In the pro game, you win or lose as an individual. I think that has made the pro game less attractive to a lot of people over the years.”

I asked Daugherty if this difference between the college and pro games is something new. He replied, "I think that the game has been that way for years, I will say that, but I think that (in the past) when the (pro) game was more individualized you had guys who were fundamentally tremendous basketball players who shined: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and, before them, Dr. J (Julius Erving)--guys who were tremendous basketball players. Now you have guys who are tremendous athletes who may not be as fundamentally sound. Those guys—Michael, Magic and the others—were also great leaders. They led their teams. Now you have guys who are tremendous athletes but they might not be very good leaders. I see all the time that they talk about guys and say, ‘We need to get someone else to play with this guy so that he has a chance to win.’ Well, that’s ridiculous. If a guy is a superstar then he needs to lead his team to the best of his ability and make his teammates better. That’s the way I look at it. I think that there is a vast void because of this."

******

Racing is a bond that connected Daugherty with his Cleveland teammate Larry Nance during their playing careers. "Larry’s a drag racer. He loves drag racing. I’m a pretty big drag racing fan as well. We went to a lot of events. Larry had a pro stock dragster for a while and has run a lot of events. We spent a lot of time at Norwalk Raceway (west of Cleveland) testing cars and goofing around. Larry’s got a tremendous passion for drag racing and it is his dream to someday compete fulltime at the NHRA/IHRA levels. I hope that he can do that."

Their other teammates did not share their enthusiasm for racing: "They all thought that we were ding dongs. Most guys, they have no clue as to what is going on in the world of racing. They think it’s all just a hayseed sport. That is where I applaud NASCAR, because they are making a tremendous leap to broaden their horizons. They’re working on diversity initiatives that have to get better but they’re working on those types of things. My teammates, most of them had no clue about racing. They didn’t understand it and most of them didn’t want to understand it. There were a couple guys around the league who were into cars somewhat and those guys would always stop Larry and me and talk to us. Tom Hammonds, who played for the Denver Nuggets, ended up driving a pro stock dragster for a little while and he actually won a race, I do believe, maybe four or five years ago. There was a sprinkling of guys who were either car buffs or race fans who knew that Larry and I love it and we would always have conversations."

Daugherty's first racing love is NASCAR but he also follows other motor sports: "Man, I love speed. I love anything that’s a hot rod. I watch the Dakar Rally, I watch the supercross series, I’ll watch a sprint race, I’ll watch a drag race, I’ll watch when they race transfer trucks. I just love speed, I love cars but I’m a huge NASCAR fan because I understand the sport a little bit and I’ve been in the sport and I’ve been up close to the sport. So I really, really enjoy NASCAR."

Some non-NASCAR drivers he has enjoyed watching over the years include Warren Johnson (Pro Stock), James "Bubba" Stewart (motocross) and Kenny Irwin, Sr. (Sprint Cars). Daugherty adds, "I’ve watched a lot of Formula One racing. I’ve followed Michael and Ralf Schumacher’s careers. I’m a big F1 guy. I like Indy Car racing. I watched Ayrton Senna back in the day. Michael Schumacher has been remarkable in what he’s accomplished throughout his career—just tremendously talented. We’ve got Juan Montoya, who’s coming to the NASCAR ranks and it’s going to be interesting to watch him participate. I’ve watched a lot of series, which would probably surprise a lot of people."

posted by David Friedman @ 4:09 AM

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