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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Potential Pip Comeback Creates Extra Buzz

Scottie Pippen's plans to come back headlined a busy Friday at NBA All-Star Weekend (10/5/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Will six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen shift the balance of power in the NBA this season? He appears determined to do just that, saying with conviction that he would like to come back for the latter part of this season to play for a team that has a chance to win the title. "I've been thinking about this for the past couple months," Pippen told me at Friday's media availability session for All-Star participants (he is the Bulls legend on that team's entry in Saturday's Shooting Stars competition). "I felt like I could do it all along, even though when I retired I knew that I needed some time away from the game. I knew that my body had been through a lot over 15-16 years and it was time to give my body a break."

He knows that it is not a sure thing that anyone will sign him and he also knows that his body cannot withstand playing more than 15-20 minutes a night. "It's a challenge for me," Pippen added. "I feel that I bring more to the game than just six championship rings. I have the experience and I have the knowledge (to help a team become a champion)." Pippen indicated that there are several teams for which he would consider playing if they are interested in signing him but clearly expressed a preference for joining the Miami Heat. "They have a great center and probably the best player in the game when you look at Dwyane Wade," he explained.

Pippen even said that he would consider playing for Minnesota. That surprised me because Minnesota is not a championship contending team and because Pippen has previously made some harsh--but justified--comments about Kevin Garnett. I asked Pippen if he felt less critical about Garnett’s game now. "I'm not critical of his game. I was just saying that he is a guy who doesn't want to get to the end of his career as just a stat stuffer. His career has had a great start, but it hasn't led him to the pinnacle." Is that Garnett's fault or because his supporting cast has not been good enough? "I think that it is more the fault of who he has been playing with," Pippen added. "He is doing all that he can out there on the basketball court."

Without question, Pippen's most noteworthy statement came just as his media availability period was ending. Someone asked him if he still felt underappreciated as a player. "If you ask people who understand the game, the GMs and the coaches, they'd rather have a Scottie than a Michael," Pippen stated matter of factly. Pressed to explain this remark, he added, "I'm an all-around player. I make the people around me better."

With so much attention focused on various aspects of All-Star Weekend, Pippen's slight dig at Jordan may pass unnoticed but there is in fact some truth to what he said--not so much that GMs would prefer Scottie to Michael but that they would prefer the way that Scottie played. Jordan was a more naturally gifted scorer but as a rebounder, playmaker and defender Pippen did not have to take a back seat to any midsized player--even MJ--and he consistently played, as Larry Brown would say, "the right way," supporting his teammates and trying to get them involved. He never felt the temptation that MJ often did to try to simply shoot his team out of trouble single-handedly.

As for Saturday night's competition, Pippen said that he is relying on Ben Gordon to make the halfcourt shot. I asked Pippen which station he will be at and he said that he will probably shoot the bank shot. That, of course, is largely a lost art in today's game, used only by Tim Duncan and one or two other players.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. I asked McGrady why the Rockets seem to struggle so much more without him than they do without Yao. "It's really tough for a big man to carry a team that doesn't have a creator, a go to guy down the stretch of games to take over," McGrady answered. "Big men have to get the ball. It's not fair to Yao to say that he can't really carry a team because he has to get the ball...It all revolves around me. Regardless of how great a big man is, it is still tough for him to carry a team without a creator on the court."

McGrady also revisited a little bit of history concerning his departure from his hometown Orlando Magic. "You guys know the situation (a reference to then-Orlando president John Weisbrod) and why I couldn’t return to that place," McGrady said. "I'd be stupid to sit here and say that I wanted to leave home. I can't believe that people actually believed that I really wanted to leave Orlando. I wasn't in the city and didn't really have a chance to defend myself, but the truth came out and everybody saw what the problem was and that problem is not there anymore."

McGrady expressed skepticism about Pippen's comeback plans. "Scottie really said that? He's joking. I can't even take him seriously," McGrady suggested. "I don't believe it. We'd love to have him back, but I don’t believe it."

When I asked Bryant for his take on Pippen coming back and whether Pippen could help the Lakers, he replied, "He's serious about that? I'm going to have to call him and see what is going on. When he worked out with us in training camp last year he looked like he was in tip top shape--like he never left the game. If he is really serious about coming back, I would love for him to be in the triangle with us. He could help us out tremendously (with) his leadership, his experience, his professionalism and obviously his know-how about executing within the (triangle) system."

I asked O'Neal how he is dealing with making the transition from being someone who dominated night after night to being a player who has to kind of pick and choose his spots in that regard. "The older you get, you start to lose a little bit, especially in terms of your athletic ability. I've had a lot of knick-knack injuries that have slowed me down a little bit. One thing that Mr. (Bill) Russell taught me is that you never lose your mind. When you are playing on a great team, it is all about the one-two punch. When I came to Miami, I said to myself that it would be foolish for me to take 20-30 shots while this youngster that we have here who is full of energy takes 9-10 shots. It would be foolish for me to do that. Let's just change things around and see how it works--and it worked. So Dwyane is going to get the bulk of the shots and I will probably take the second most shots and that's just how it is. That is how it was for every dominant center. Patrick's shots decreased. David's shots decreased. We can win like that; we proved that we can win like that. As long as we keep playing together we can win like that."

I followed up that question by asking O'Neal if it is difficult for him to deal with that aspect of the aging process. "No," he replied. "It's all about winning. You have to put winning first. You just have to know the game and understand that it would be foolish for a 35-year-old to take 20 shots while he's got a young energetic guy just throwing the ball to the 35 year old." O'Neal smiled his trademark wide grin. "It just don't work like that."

Earlier in the day, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame held a press conference at the Lounge in the Palms Hotel. Dick Stockton emceed the event and announced the names of the 15 finalists for enshrinement this year, as chosen by the Hall's four nominating committees (North America, Women's, International and Veterans). NBA fans will recognize the names of Richie Guerin, Adrian Dantley, Pistons owner Bill Davidson, Phil Jackson, Chris Mullin and referee Mendy Rudolph. The 1966 Texas Western team that became the first NCAA basketball champion with an all-black starting lineup could join the small group of teams that have been enshrined.

After the press conference, eight Hall of Famers who attended were available to speak to the media. "When I heard Phil Jackson's name announced (as a Hall of Fame finalist), I reflected right back to when I took a team of (retired) players to China (in 1984)," Earl Monroe told me. "Rick Barry was one of them, plus Cazzie Russell and Connie Hawkins and Pistol Pete Maravich. We had a great bunch of guys together to play against the Chinese national teams. I had to make a decision whether to have Cazzie Russell coach us or Phil Jackson. I decided that Phil would coach us, so I take credit for Phil making it happen (as a championship coach in the NBA)."

Mullin told me that being selected as a finalist made him reflect back on all of the people who helped shape him at key points in his career. I asked him who some of those people are. "Back when I first started playing a guy named Jack Alesi basically taught me from scratch everything that I know," Mullin recalled. "Coach Carnesecca, of course. Bobby Knight in '84 (the Olympics). Then on to the Warriors with Nellie. I played for Chuck Daly in '92. I played for Larry (Brown) at Indiana. The people I have been able to play for and with are just incredible."

The recent history of the Rookie-Sophomore Challenge is that the games tend to be lopsided wins for the Sophomores. Friday's game was emphatically not an exception to that rule, as the second year players routed the rookies 155-114.

After the game, I asked Mike O'Koren, the Wizards assistant coach who coached the Rookie squad, why the sophomores generally have such an easy time in this event. "The Sophomores understand that there is hype involved with this game," O'Koren replied. "Our players got caught up in the hype a little too much. You can only say so much as a Top 50 player (referring to assistant coach Dave Bing) or as an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. I would think that they will learn from this and they will come back next year and play a lot better and probably win the game."

The New York Knicks' David Lee won MVP honors, scoring 30 points on 14-14 field goal shooting. He also had 11 rebounds and four assists. After the game, I asked him about why the sophomores consistently seem to have such an advantage in this event. "The difference between a rookie and a second-year player is bigger than the difference between a sophomore and a freshman in college," he explained. "You have an extra year of experience and you know the nuances of the game, especially on the defensive end of the court."

Oscar Robertson was the assistant coach for the Sophomore team. "What you saw today are the stars of tomorrow," he said after the game.

"Oscar said it best right before we came out," concluded Sophomore coach Marc Iavaroni. "'Let's make sure we jump on them.' I think that pretty much told the story tonight."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:03 PM


Friday, February 16, 2007

Day One of All-Star Weekend

You better get your rest beforehand if you ever plan on coming to an NBA All-Star Weekend--because you sure won't get much sleep while you are there. Here is a link to the first of my four daily All-Star Weekend reports for HoopsHype.com (10/5/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

NBA All-Star Weekend is the place to see and be seen--and that goes double this year with the festivities being held in Las Vegas. Naturally, over the next few days I expect to speak with many current and former NBA players, but my first celebrity sighting of the weekend came much earlier than I expected: noon on Thursday to be precise. Warren Sapp of the Oakland Raiders was on my flight from Cincinnati to Las Vegas. I introduced myself and said that I just wanted to ask him a couple questions. "I'm off duty," he replied gruffly--not exactly the quote that I was seeking but I guess it will have to do.

The flight was otherwise uneventful, but the three-hour time zone shift brought to mind Bob Costas' favorite Marvin Barnes story: when the Spirits of St. Louis forward saw that the team's itinerary involved taking off at 8:00 and landing at 7:59 he declared, "I ain't getting in no time machine"--or so the story goes. Time disappears quickly in Vegas--casinos have no clocks, after all--and the only thing that disappears faster here than time is money.

I had thought that there was a free shuttle from the airport to the hotel, but when I mentioned that to one of the shuttle service people he chuckled and said, "The only thing that is free in Vegas is the air." I suspect that I will hear that phrase more than once before the weekend is over.

After you arrive in Vegas, the first thing that you notice is the subtle, understated approach that the city has about hosting All-Star Weekend--not! Images of All-Star Weekend participants such as Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul are on the walls and ceilings in many building and are even taking up the entire sides of some of the hotels. The NBA Communications office's Vegas headquarters is located at the MGM Grand Hotel, so I stopped there to pick up my credential for the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday night and the other events.

The MGM Grand is the second largest hotel in the world. Remember Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back? It is something like that, only with more gambling and no Darth Vader. The place is massive! It's always nice to see a familiar face when you are in a new environment and the first one I saw today was Branson Wright, the Cleveland Cavs' beat writer for the Plain Dealer. Actually, I saw him twice--once when I was leaving the Communications office and he was just arriving and then again when he was leaving the Communications office and I was arriving again after wandering in circles; I told you the place is huge, but I've got my sea legs now.

Whoever decides on the playlist for the songs that are piped into the lobby/hallways at the MGM Grand has a nice sense of irony; one selection was Steely Dan's "Do It Again" ("Now you swear and kick and beg us that you’re not a gamblin' man; then you find you're back in Vegas with a handle in your hand.")

After I got my credential I headed straight for the Mandalay Bay Hotel's South Convention Center, site of this year's NBA Jam Session. You know that you've taken a long walk when there are video screens overhead offering encouragement: "Almost there, just a little further." After the second one, though, my faith was beginning to weaken. I arrived in time for the official Opening Ceremony, hosted by NBA TV's Andre Aldridge and featuring NBA Commissioner David Stern, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman (flanked by two showgirls, naturally), NBA legend Dominique Wilkins and various other local political leaders and Adidas corporate figures.

Commissioner Stern began his remarks by noting that the Mandalay Bay's facilities for Jam Session exceed 400,000 square feet, making it perhaps the largest Jam Session yet. He also noted that a record 8,000 tickets have already been sold for the event, which lasts throughout All-Star Weekend. Jam Session is really an excellent opportunity for fans to participate in All-Star Weekend, because tickets for the game itself and the other side events are almost impossible for most people to get. Jam Session features contests involving every form of basketball imaginable: pop a shot, video games, full court games and more. There are also a variety of types of food available, although the fare is a touch on the pricey side. There are also autograph sessions with current and retired players, a large section featuring basketball collectibles for sale and various interactive exhibits.

Mayor Goodman mentioned that he attended last year's All-Star Weekend in Houston and then declared, "What Las Vegas is going to do is going to dwarf the events that took place last year because we're the greatest city in the world and the Jam Session is going to be the greatest Jam Session in the world...The NBA comes into town and they have embraced the city of Las Vegas and the city of Las Vegas has shown our love for the NBA. What they have done since they've been in this community is awesome. They've been to the schools, they've been to the community centers. Today they went over to Sunrise Hospital to visit with children who are ill."

Wilkins did not speak at the press conference, but spoke to several members of the media afterwards. Asked what he hopes to get out of this year's All-Star Weekend experience, Wilkins noted that previous All-Star Weekends have been very tiring, concluding, "At the end of the day, if I get a little rest, I’m happy."

The NBA has put in a regulation size court on the Jam Session site. A short time after the opening ceremony, two All-Star wheelchair teams squared off on that court in the NBA/National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) Wheelchair Classic. NBA Legend George Gervin served as an honorary assistant coach for the West squad, while WNBA players Ruth Riley and Shona Thorburn filled that role for the East team.

These wheelchair athletes are highly skilled and if you think that they take it easy on each other because of their handicaps then you are sorely mistaken. I don't think that I had ever previously seen a wheelchair basketball game from start to finish. They play a very physical game, crashing into each other while setting screens or on plays that involved a block/charge call. On several occasions, wheelchairs were flipped sideways with the athlete still in them. He either righted himself quickly or the person who hit him helped him up, if he could. The way that they could land on their wheels (or at least be quickly back on them) is like the way that cats always land on their feet.

Riley was very involved on the sidelines, cheering her team on, laughing and joking with the players, slapping five with them as they came out of the game and even fetching water or Gatorade for them. I asked her about that and about how All-Star Weekend has come to embrace so many more elements--legends, WNBA players, wheelchair athletes, the Saturday night competitors--than just the game on Sunday.

"The NBA All-Star Weekend is definitely about more than just the game," Riley replied. "It is a week long event filled with things like this (All-Star Wheelchair Game) where we get out in the community and are interact with different groups. It is a fun week for whatever ever city the All-Star Game is in. I had a great time today. Just talking to the players and hanging out with them as a coach is a lot of fun. I've been an honorary coach for a couple years now. It is something that I like to do and is a lot of fun. It is one of my favorite events of All-Star Weekend."

I mentioned that the skill level of the players is quite amazing and Riley said, "I actually played in a (wheelchair) against the guys in a game in Detroit and it was very difficult."

Later in the evening, the Jam Session Center Court hosted the NBA Legends Shootout, which pitted Jo Jo White, George Gervin, David Thompson and Randy Smith against each other in a modified version of the three-point shootout. They only used three racks of basketballs (one on each baseline and one at the top of the key) and each rack contained four basketballs instead of five. The last ball is worth an extra point, just like in the three point shootout. Also, the players shot from about 20 feet out, not from the three-point line. There did not seem to be a definite spot from which they all shot. Thompson inched up the closest during his attempts. Watching the warmups, Randy Smith not only looked like a shoo-in to win the contest but he looked like he was in good enough shape to sign a ten day contract. He went first and disaster struck as he scored just five points, which turned out to be the worst total in the first round. Afterward, I asked Smith what happened. "I jumped to shoot (during the first round) and it just pulled," Smith said of a balky muscle in his leg. He had a slight but noticeable limp as he left the court after the event. Hopefully it is nothing serious.

Jo Jo White went next, scoring seven points. Thompson took the lead with nine, canning the money ball at the buzzer. Gervin, the only player to start on the left baseline and work himself around as opposed to starting on the right side, tallied just six, missing the finals. Thompson went first and put up a 10 spot, placing the pressure on White, the oldest player in this competition. White managed just four points and Thompson earned the trophy as the Legends Shootout winner.

The city of Las Vegas is on a 24-hour-a-day adrenalin rush right now. There are parties everywhere, the casinos are packed and the nightclubs and restaurants are bustling. The Vegas hotels are so huge (I've been in the MGM Grand, Excalibur and Mandalay Bay so far) that the casinos, nightclubs and restaurants all basically meld into each other, a blur of sound, color and movement as people shift from eating and drinking to gambling to dancing and back again. Sleep is an unspoken four letter word as All-Star Weekend kicks into high gear.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 AM


Thursday, February 15, 2007

NBA Alllows Their Stars to Shine

My newest NBCSports.com article takes a look at the statistics of some of the NBA's greatest All-Star Game performers. Here is the first paragraph:

The NBA All-Star Game showcases the most supremely talented players in the sport in a format that more closely resembles a "real" game than the All-Star Games in other sports do. The NFL Pro Bowl has a laundry list of alternate rules pertaining to permissible formations, in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game you may only get to see some players take one swing of the bat (if they pop up or ground out) and in the NHL's All-Star Game--well, viewers are still trying to find that one. The NBA All-Star Game is not played with the same ferocity as a playoff game--no All-Star Game is---but in recent years we have seen big comebacks and some strong defensive plays, which would not be the case if the players were just content to run up and down the court.

Click on this link to read the rest of the article:

NBA Allows Their Stars to Shine

posted by David Friedman @ 4:04 PM


NBA Leaderboard, Part X

Just two games remain before All-Star Weekend. I will be filing daily reports from Las Vegas for HoopsHype.com, so I decided to post the final pre-All-Star Game Leaderboard now; the rankings don't figure to change substantially after TNT's Thursday night doubleheader.

Best Five Records

1) Dallas Mavericks, 43-9
2) Phoenix Suns, 39-12
3) Utah Jazz, 35-17
4) San Antonio Spurs, 35-18
5) Houston Rockets, 33-18

Phoenix has been slowed by injuries to Steve Nash and Boris Diaw and Dallas is starting to pull away. The Jazz, Spurs and Rockets are still bunched closely together. The Lakers have gone just 3-7 in their last ten to slip a bit behind that group. Detroit has the sixth best record but is number one in the East--for now; Miami has creeped up to .500 by going 7-3 in their last 10 games.

Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 30.8 ppg
2) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.0 ppg
3) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg
4) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.7 ppg
5) Allen Iverson, DEN 28.7 ppg

8) LeBron James, CLE 26.2 ppg

11) Vince Carter, NJN 24.8 ppg

13) Tracy McGrady, HOU 23.8 ppg

Arenas' average dropped by .4 ppg after his hibachi melted down in Portland, but he still retains the number two position. Melo and Iverson's averages moved downward slightly.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.5 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.1 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 11.8 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
5) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.5 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.8 rpg

9) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.3 rpg

11) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.3 rpg

23) Rasheed Wallace, DET 8.1 rpg
24) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.0 rpg

Chandler vaulted from fifth to second and Duncan and Marion each moved into the top ten (Marion is mere percentage points ahead of Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace). Howard continued his retreat from the top spot.

Top Five Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.8 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.1 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.7 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 8.7 ppg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.7 apg

The standings have not changed much in this category since the season began. Starbury moved into the top 20 (19th) with a 5.5 apg average.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 12:06 AM


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Mark Aguirre: Dropping Knowledge

Mark Aguirre earned three All-Star appearances and played on two championship teams during a golden age of NBA small forwards, the 1980s. During that decade, legends like three-time MVP Larry Bird and 1981 MVP Julius Erving headlined a group of forwards that included Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy. Aguirre could score from anywhere: on the post, facing up or bombing away from outside. He also was an excellent passer, very capable of making teams pay for double-teaming him. Now he works as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks, tutoring their big men on the finer points of post play.

Here is a link to my article about Aguirre (9/3/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The 1980s were a golden age for NBA small forwards, headlined by three-time MVP (1984-86) Larry Bird and 1981 MVP Julius Erving. Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy are a few of the talented forwards who had at least some of their prime years during that decade. Another player also deserves to be included in that group: Mark Aguirre

Aguirre starred at DePaul University from 1979 to 1981. He won the Naismith Award in 1980 and was also named Player of the Year by the AP, the UPI and the USBWA after averaging 26.8 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .540 from the field. DePaul finished the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country in 1980 and 1981 but on both occasions the Blue Demons were upset in the NCAA Tournament. Ray Meyer helped Aguirre to hone his skills.

"I was always physically strong," Aguirre says. "When I got to him, he turned what I was doing into more of an art, if you want to call it that, where I would totally be in control of my pivot. You would never be in control of me. I could pretty much say that I'm going here and when you do what you do I'm going to have you either this way or that way. It took knowing angles, locking people, understanding my leverage and things like that."

Aguirre left DePaul after his junior season and the Dallas Mavericks selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 draft. Aguirre missed 31 games due to injuries but still averaged 18.7 ppg and ranked seventh in the league in three-point field goal percentage (.352). He clearly established himself as the team's best player in 1982-83, ranking sixth in the league in scoring (24.4 ppg), a better average than either Bird or Erving posted that year. He also ranked third on the team in rebounding (6.3 rpg) and second in assists (4.1 apg).

He earned his first All-Star selection in 1983-84 when he ranked second in the league in scoring (29.5 ppg) and maintained his status as Dallas' third best rebounder (5.9 rpg) and second best playmaker (4.5 apg). He also shot a career-high .524 from the field. Dallas qualified for the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, beating Seattle in the first round before bowing to the powerful Lakers. Aguirre's scoring averages in December (32.3 ppg) and January (30.5 ppg) that season are the two best monthly averages in Mavericks' history.

Aguirre posted good numbers in the first half of the 1984-85 season, but was not selected to the All-Star team. After learning of the snub, Aguirre scored a career-high 49 points and grabbed nine rebounds against Erving's 76ers in a 111-109 Dallas win."When I wasn’t selected, that was upsetting and, sure, I wanted to let everybody know that it was a mistake and I had one of the better forwards in the league to do that against," Aguirre says of his performance against one of the legends of the game. "That happened to be the first game, but from that night on I was going to go after everybody. It helped me; it made me better." Aguirre had four more 40-point games in the last 30 games of the season.

The 6-foot-6 foward earned All-Star selections in 1987 and 1988 as the Mavericks emerged as a real force in the Western Conference, winning 55 games in 1987 and 53 games in 1988. Seattle stunned Dallas in the first round in 1987, but the Mavericks made it to the Western Conference Finals in 1988 before being eliminated in seven games by the defending champion Lakers.

In the decisive game of the Mavericks’ first-round series versus Houston, Aguirre put on one of the best offensive displays in postseason history, scoring 27 points in one quarter, which still trails only Sleepy Floyd's NBA record of 29 set the previous year.

"The biggest thing is that it came after being in a slump," Aguirre explains. "I have to give a lot of credit to a good friend of mine--Brad Davis. We had been pressing, trying to move deep into the playoffs and I knew that I had to perform in order for that to happen. I kind of pressed myself and I wasn't playing well. Brad took me to play golf. That was my first time ever playing golf. That was the day before we played Houston. He said, 'You need to relax.' He just came to my door, knocked on my door, pulled me out of my room. I had no idea what golf was. That relaxed me but when it came I knew it was there. Derek Harper just stopped running plays and he just said, 'Wherever you are at, just ask me for it.' That's what happened."

"He had the softest shot of anybody I have ever seen," John MacLeod, Dallas' coach at that time, recalls. "That is how he got it off over bigger people. He'd get it on the rim and instead of bouncing back out the ball would kind of roll around like it was massaging the rim before it went in. Mark was a tremendous offensive player. He had a complete offensive game. He was a passer, he was a power player inside--he played against bigger people--and then he had the ability to drive the ball to the basket. So, he was a complete player."

"Having a smaller forward guarding me was never, ever going to work," Aguirre says simply. "So I played against mostly power forwards, but I could take them down (on the block), too--but I could also take them outside."

The next season, Dallas had the best record in the Western Conference on December 29, 1988 (17-9) but soon after that the team was rocked by the loss of talented young forward/center Roy Tarpley, who was suspended indefinitely for violating the NBA's substance abuse policy. Then the Mavericks took the strange step of trading their best player away, shipping Aguirre to Detroit for Adrian Dantley and a 1991 first-round draft choice. Dantley finished that season with his worst statistics in more than a decade and played in only 55 games in the next two seasons before retiring.

Aguirre was keenly aware that the spotlight was on him after Detroit traded away the popular Dantley. "We had to win the title," he states with conviction. "There is no question. Before I came, I let them know that if we don't win the title this is a bust. I was totally confident in looking at their team (that I could help Detroit win the championship). I knew what Adrian was and he's a great player, but he wasn't an absolute post player. He faced up more than he posted up. So with me being on the post, I created more spacing for the Pistons offensively."

The Pistons went 31-6 after the trade, 29-4 after Aguirre got fully acclimated and became a starter. He proved that he was willing to do whatever it took to win a championship, seamlessly accepting fewer minutes and shot attempts than he was accustomed to getting in Dallas."That was the hardest thing that I ever did," Aguirre recalls. "It was extremely difficult to produce 14 points in like 24 minutes. So I got through it and nobody will know how difficult that was."

The Pistons won back-to-back titles after acquiring Aguirre and statistics do not completely capture his impact on those teams. "He was very underrated," says Scottie Pippen, who squared off against Aguirre in some memorable playoff series. "He was a very dominant player when he was with Dallas. Even when he came over to Detroit and won championships, Mark was still a very bona fide scorer."

Aguirre often drew double-teams and made a crisp bounce pass out of the post, initiating a sequence in which the ball got swung around before Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson or Bill Laimbeer made an open shot. Aguirre's post-up and his pass out of the resulting double-team led to the score, but there is no statistical record of his contribution. "No, there’s no stat for that," Aguirre says. "Maybe there will be one day."

In hockey there can be two assists on a play, recognizing the importance of the pass that led to the final pass. "Oh, I would have had a lot of those," Aguirre agrees.

Mentoring the Knicks' Young Post Players

Aguirre has been an assistant coach with the New York Knicks since 2003. He teaches the team's young corps of big men the fundamentals of post play that he first mastered at DePaul. "If you think about basketball, the closer you can get, the better it is," Aguirre says of his coaching philosophy. "So I start there. Being able to be close to the basket in a manner that is effective for you takes a few things. It takes cleaning up your footwork first, then understanding leverage and then understanding how to read your defender. Those I take in sequence just like that. The first thing I have to teach them is how to move and get to where you have to go."

Fortunately for Aguirre and the Knicks, the young players that Isiah Thomas has drafted and acquired are proving to be good pupils. "The guys I'm teaching now are really learning," Aguirre notes with approval. "Eddy Curry, David Lee and Channing Frye have been really great--I'm really happy with where they are."

I've always felt that one of Curry's biggest problems has been poor hands. I asked Aguirre if he agreed with that and what could be done about it."You are right," Aguirre said, "but what you have to understand is that when I don't know where my man is I tend to not be able to keep a constant focus on where the ball is coming from. If I post up and I don't know where my man is, then I take my eye off the ball and try to find him and then the ball is there. When I looked at film of him, I saw that he bobbles the ball if he doesn't get locked in on the ball. When he sees the ball coming at him then he's fine."

In order to improve Curry's hands Aguirre literally rebuilt his game from the ground up."That's footwork and that's leverage and that's learning how to lock the defender," Aguirre explains. "See, once I do those things I don't have to look at you; I know where you are."

Aguirre teaches his young charges how to seal the defender on their hip."Now I can focus on the ball, which makes it easier for me to catch the ball," he says. "If I'm looking for you and then they throw me the ball, I'm going to miss a few of them. So we had to solve that problem...With a guy who is supposed to have bad hands, you can look at him a lot of times and see that he is out of rhythm with the pass. A guy with soft hands is always in rhythm with the pass. A guy with bad hands is always out of rhythm with the pass, so you can try to create a rhythm for a guy-- teach him to get in rhythm with the ball and that will help him a little bit."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:07 PM


Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Warner Brothers NBA DVD Trivia Contest, Part III

The newest Warner Brothers NBA DVD hits the streets today. It is titled NBA Street Series Volume 4: Class of '03 and features highlights of 2003 NBA draft picks LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Josh Howard and T.J. Ford.

You can win a free copy of it by being the first person to answer the following trivia question:

1) Who had the best career college three point field goal percentage among Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Josh Howard and T.J. Ford? What percentage did that player shoot?

Contest Rules:

1) Answers must be submitted in the "comments" section of this post; the winner will the first person who correctly answers both parts of the question.

2) To win, your answer must include one of the following: your real name, your email address or the name of your blog/website (I can't mail a DVD to "anonymous").

3) One entry per person (this eliminates random guessing).

4) Contest winners' names will be announced in the "comments" section of this post and in a separate, new post on 20 Second Timoeut's main page; the contest winners will also be contacted via the email address or website information that they provide.

5) In order to receive your prize, you must be able to provide a shipping address within the Continental United States.


The DVD featured in this contest and all of the DVDs featured in the first and the second contests that I held here--plus DVDs about the NFL, NHL and college football--can be purchased at the Warner Brothers website:


posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 PM


Monday, February 12, 2007

NBA Hot Topics: All-Star Reserves, Nash is Out of the All-Star Game, Riley is Back and Agent Zero's Hibachi is Ice Cold in Portland

While I spent the weekend watching LeBron battle Wade and Kobe a lot of things happened around the NBA (and no, I'm not talking about off court items like ESPN helping someone promote a book that was published by, surprise surprise, ESPN). Here are some quick takes on four subjects:

1) Commissioner David Stern selected Carmelo Anthony and Josh Howard as All-Star reserves to take the place of the injured Yao Ming and Carlos Boozer. West Coach Mike D'Antoni will decide which one of the eight reserve players will replace Yao in the starting lineup. He could go small by shifting Tim Duncan to center and picking a guard or he could elevate his own player, Amare Stoudemire, and keep everyone at their usual positions. At this rate, if a few more players get injured, everyone who was "snubbed" will end up being an All-Star after all. League scoring leader Anthony and all-around threat Howard are certainly worthy participants in the All-Star Game.

2) Speaking of injuries, the Commissioner will be choosing at least one more reserve player because it has been announced that two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash will be unable to participate in the All-Star Game because of the right shoulder injury that has sidelined him recently. He will also withdraw from the Skills Challenge. Ray Allen would be a worthy replacement for Nash; he is having a career year for a poor Seattle team. Zach Randolph is putting up a quiet 24 and 10 in Portland--it is quiet because their games are not on national TV. Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams are each having good seasons for a solid Utah team that lost its only All-Star representative when Boozer got hurt. Elton Brand is having a good season but he and the Clippers got off to such a slow start that he probably will not be picked. My hunch is that Stern will select Deron Williams, replacing a point guard with a point guard and giving Utah an All-Star Game participant.

3) He's baaaaack! Who would have thought that Pat Riley would return to the Miami Heat bench after Shaq got healthy and had some time to work his way back into shape? Seriously, who could have imagined this--other than anyone who as been following the NBA for any time at all. The Associated Press and several other media outlets are reporting that Riley will resume his coaching duties in the first game after the All-Star break. The Heat went 13-17 before his sabbatical and have gone 12-9 since then under Ron Rothstein as Shaq and other players returned to action. I mentioned previously my skepticism of the cliche about the "team that nobody wants to face" but if Riley returns and Wade and Shaq are healthy in May you can rest assured that no one in the East will be looking forward to playing against Miami, regardless of the playoff seeding.

4) Agent Zero's mission in Portland failed miserably on Sunday. Gilbert Arenas pledged to drop 50 points on the Trail Blazers because Portland Coach Nate McMillan was on the Team USA staff that cut Arenas this past summer. Arenas has been blogging about this game, talking about this game and building it up for months. He said that the networks should change the schedule and televise the game. Considering what happened, I think that would have been a great idea, because it would have helped people who only look at his scoring average and three point shooting percentage to understand why he is a solid All-Star, not an MVP candidate. He shot 3-15 from the field, including 0-8 from three point range, and fell a mere 41 points shy of his goal, finishing with nine points, two assists and five turnovers. His turnovers + missed three pointers to assists ratio was 6.5/1. Washington, a first place team in a weak Eastern Conference, lost 94-73 to a bottom feeding team from a strong Western Conference. Yes, it was just one game, but it was a game that Arenas literally circled on the calendar. He is not the kind of player who can just decide to go out and get 40, like MJ used to do or like Kobe Bryant can do for stretches of several games. Arenas is a good player who has worked hard to maximize his talents and should be applauded for that but he is no Kobe, LeBron or Wade. Check out what Arenas' own coach, Eddie Jordan, said about Agent Zero after the Portland disaster: "First of all, we didn't have the leadership out there that we needed with Antawn out. And no one else has stepped up into a leadership role." The "no one else" line is of course a direct shot at the misfiring Arenas. The Washington Post's Mike Wise wrote an interesting article detailing how Washington's season seems to be on the verge of unraveling. Jordan and Arenas are openly feuding because the coach thinks--correctly--that the Wizards must become better defensively, while Arenas believes that the Wizards should stick with the same style of play that led to a first round exit from the playoffs last year.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:27 PM


Kobe Sizzles, Lakers Fizzle in 99-90 Loss at Cleveland

The L.A. Lakers wasted a scintillating performance by Kobe Bryant--who outscored LeBron James 25-0 in the first 22:01 of the second half--and fell 99-90 to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Bryant had 36 points, seven rebounds and six assists, shooting 12-24 from the field and 11-11 from the free throw line. He was particularly dominant in the second half, scoring the Lakers' first six points of the third period and their first 14 points of the fourth period. Bryant received little help from his teammates, especially the bench players, who scored just 15 points on 3-17 shooting from the field. James had a subpar performance (18 points, eight rebounds, five assists, 5-16 field goal shooting, 8-12 free throw shooting) but the Cavs' reserves came through with 46 points on 15-29 field goal shooting. Sasha Pavlovic led the way with 21 points. James' only second half field goal came on a spectacular dunk that put the Cavaliers up 97-87 with just 21.9 seconds remaining in the game.

In the early going the game looked like the Vladimir Radmanovic Show. The fifth year Lakers forward has been on the receiving end of some pointed barbs from Coach Phil Jackson and he made his first four field goals in the opening quarter, helping the Lakers build a 16-9 lead by the 5:23 mark. Pavlovic entered the game at that point and provided an immediate spark, blocking Radmanovic's next shot attempt and making both of his field goal attempts, including a fast break dunk at the buzzer that put Cleveland up 24-23.

Bryant sat out the first 3:49 of the second quarter and the Lakers fell further behind, trailing 33-27 when he returned to action. Bryant's two hand fast break dunk at the 2:23 mark trimmed the Cavaliers' lead to 43-40. The Lakers missed their last five shots of the quarter and Cleveland closed the half with a 9-1 run to lead 52-41 at halftime. Radmanovic cooled off considerably after his fast start and had 11 points by halftime (he finished with 12). Bryant and James each had 11 points as well. Bryant shot 5-11 from the field and did not attempt a first half free throw, while James shot 4-9 from the field and 3-4 from the free throw line. Bryant added four rebounds and four assists, while James had six and three respectively. The Cavaliers' bench outscored the Lakers' bench 18-4, with Maurice Evans supplying all four points on 1-4 shooting.

With Radmanovic's brief scoring burst over and the rest of the Lakers team looking pretty lethargic it was obvious that the Lakers would need a big second half from Bryant. He set the tone from the start of the third quarter, forcing Larry Hughes to miss a layup, grabbing the rebound and dribbling coast to coast for a dunk. Bryant's aggressiveness helped to put the Cavaliers in the penalty with nearly eight minutes remaining in the quarter and his defensive intensity proved to be contagious; the Lakers even forced a five second violation at the 6:44 mark. The Lakers led 67-64 by the end of the quarter, with Bryant contributing 11 points, three rebounds and one assist while playing all but 18 seconds. James had no points, rebounds or assists in his 11:31 of action, missing five field goals and two free throws.

Pavlovic opened the fourth quarter with a three pointer to tie the score at 67 and neither team led by more than three points until James' two free throws with 2:59 left--his first points of the second half--put Cleveland up 85-81. James scored seven points in the closing 2:59, shooting 5-8 from the free throw line and delivering the soaring dunk that punctuated Cleveland's win. Hughes made a big defensive play with 1:26 remaining, knocking the ball out of Bryant's hands. Pavlovic ended up with the ball, scoring a layup despite getting fouled by Smush Parker. The basket plus the free throw made it a two possession game, 91-85, and the Lakers never got closer than four points after that sequence.

Notes From Courtside:

Kobe Bryant's supposed "transformation" is one of the big stories in the NBA this season. One questioner asked Lakers Coach Phil Jackson during his pregame standup if Bryant has "evolved" to the point that Michael Jordan reached when Jordan was willing to pass the ball to players like John Paxson. Jackson replied: "He has shown the ability to do that and the willingness to do that. You know, he did that (in his fourth year) on the (2000) championship team when he had (Robert) Horry and (Derek) Fisher and guys who were really shooting the ball well and Shaq could finish. To regain the confidence with some of the young players who haven't shown the ability to meet that pressure situation is still a work in progress."

Is it really that hard to understand that Bryant is more eager to pass the ball to guys who prove that they will take and make big shots than he is to pass the ball to guys who don't want to take and/or cannot make such shots? Bryant would have had at least 10 assists against Cleveland if guys knocked down open shots that he spoonfed to them. Bryant delivered a couple Steve Nash-like passes along the baseline that resulted in wide open three pointers that were missed. In his postgame standup, Bryant said, "We've faced this before and sometimes I have to remind them that I haven't lost confidence in them." He emphasized that he wants them to keep shooting, adding that they should adopt his way of thinking: "If I'm 1-5, I feel like I'm due. You just have to be assertive." Bryant's unselfishness or his "transformation" cannot be judged just by looking at his field goal attempts or his assists. The important issue is the decision making process that he employs: does he attack the basket when the opportunity presents itself and not settle for three pointers? When he is double-teamed does he read the defense and find the open man? When he has an advantageous one-on-one situation does he use that opportunity to score? The latter is important, because some "unselfish" NBA stars are really just guys who don't want/can't make pressure shots, so they pass up good shots to give the ball to teammates who have less talent and are not in a better position to score. Not shooting when you are the open guy is just as bad as shooting when you are not open because it results in the same thing: a low percentage shot by someone on your team.


During the pregame warmups, Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis worked with forward Brian Cook on his footwork in the right elbow area (the "pinch post" in the triangle offense). Some of the moves he practiced included a reverse pivot followed by one dribble and a jump shot, a jab step followed by a jump shot and faking a dribble hand off followed by a jump shot. Cook is an excellent catch and shoot player but if he is able to utilize some of these moves in game situations he will be a more effective player in the triangle offense and not just someone who is stationed on the wings waiting for Bryant to find him. He only played three minutes versus the Cavaliers, shooting 0-3 from the field.


Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has been criticized for his team's slowdown offensive style and for his emphasis on defense when the "experts" have figured out that Cleveland's problems are on offense. He addressed these two issues in his postgame standup: "When we move the ball and when we execute we play good basketball. We did a decent job pushing the ball; we had 12 fast break points. The bottom line is that we have to defend. The media and fans think that running is the answer to everything but we have to make sure that we get stops. Prior to this game we had four games where our opponents were averaging around 82 points a game. We came in tonight versus a very good Laker team that averages over 100 points a game and they score 90 and shoot 39 percent from the field. Our guys had a little something to do with that."


In his postgame standup, someone asked Jackson what he said to his team and he replied, "That we gave this game away. We had a 12 point defensive (third) quarter against Cleveland, played really exceptional defense and kept them off of the foul line and did the things that we asked them to do in the locker room. In the fourth quarter we came out and gave them a 35 point quarter, which is exactly the opposite type of defense. We got in foul trouble right away and they just capitalized by going in there, smashing around and getting to the foul line."

He also had a pithy explanation for why Bryant had to shoulder such a heavy offensive load in the second half: "He had a hot hand and we went with the hot hand." Earlier in his remarks, Jackson noted, "According to Kobe, nobody else wanted to step up and that was one of the things that we were looking for, to get somebody else going. Mo (Maurice Evans) had an opportunity underneath the basket and lost the ball and Lamar (Odom; 5-13 from the field, 11 points) looked like he wasn't stepping into the vacuum."

Bryant played all but 18 seconds in the second half as he tried to carry the team to victory. Jackson commented, "I may have played Kobe too many minutes out there. I thought that he might have gotten tired there at the end."

Someone asked why the Lakers went to a zone defense but Jackson replied that they never used a zone in this game: "It might have looked like a zone but it wasn't," he quipped, alluding to players being out of position and not attached to the players who they were supposed to guard.


Lakers forward Lamar Odom is frustrated at the Lakers' lack of communication at the defensive end of the court: "We have to become better as a team defensively if we want to win consistently...We don't communicate. It's funny, as a team everybody is so close off the court but on the court we don't talk at all. If you go by the park where I grew up and watch some guys play four on four you'll hear 'pick,' 'help,' 'rebound,' or whatever. We don't do a good job of that."


Bryant offered this take on the Lakers' fourth quarter woes: "Our defense pretty much caved. We gave up a lot of easy opportunities at the basket and a lot of free throws."

The combination of Bryant's scoring and the complete disappearing act by the rest of his team enabled the Cavs to get away with simply swarming Bryant. Whenever Bryant caught the ball in the frontcourt late in the game, Coach Brown frantically waved both of his hands toward himself, imploring the Cavs to basically ignore the other Lakers and surround Bryant. That led to Hughes' key steal. Someone asked Bryant if he thought that Hughes fouled him on that play and Bryant replied, "It was a great defensive play. I was looking to read some of my cutters and try to get other guys involved in that particular situation and he made a great defensive play."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Transcript of February 9 Online Chat at Sports.Sina.com

After the Cavs-Heat game on February 9, I participated in an online chat at Sports.Sina.com. Fans submitted their questions in Chinese; Renjun Bao translated the questions into English and then translated my answers into Chinese. I tape recorded the questions and my answers in order to produce a transcript for 20 Second Timeout readers who are not fluent in Chinese. Two notes about the chat: (1) As soon as the chat was publicized at Sports.Sina.com fans began submitting questions for me to answer, so I received the first seven questions in advance; I did not know what would be asked in the remaining ones until I heard them on February 9; (2) I have slightly edited the transcript for clarity and to remove redundancies. I think that the participants asked some interesting questions and I did my best to provide informative answers:

1. If you rank the NBA's all-time great centers, what's Yao's standing? Top 10, Top 15 or Top 20?

A: I think that it is too soon to put Yao in the top ten or top 15 of all-time. I think that he has the potential to eventually get into that category--but right now if you were going to list the top ten or top 15 centers of all-time you would have to include Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, George Mikan, Robert Parish, Willis Reed, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore and Bill Walton (note: I should make it clear that I listed those names randomly, not necessarily in the order that I would rank them, and that this was not meant as an exhaustive list, just an indication of some players whose careers would still rank ahead of Yao's). Those are all players who have had longer careers than Yao has had at this point while performing at a very high statistical level and several of those players took their teams to at least one championship. For Yao to get into that group he would have to continue to play at a high level and then it would help also if he would lead his team to a championship or at least take his team deep into the playoffs.

2. Among those great NBA centers, whose game is similar to Yao's?

A: I wouldn't compare Yao's style to some of the centers that I just mentioned. I would compare him to some of the super tall centers, guys who stood at least 7-3. In that group you would have guys like Mark Eaton, Rik Smits and Ralph Sampson. Of the guys who had that kind of size, I think that Yao is most similar to Smits in terms of the way that he plays, except that Yao is a better player than Smits was. They are similar in terms of their shooting ability. Sampson was more athletic than Yao in terms of blocking shots and his general mobility. He moved laterally better than Yao does. Most of the guys who were 7-3 or taller--other than Sampson and Smits--were limited players. Yao is not a limited player. He has a lot of skills. So I think that Yao is already well on his way to being the greatest player in that group of the super tall centers. The previous category--the greatest of all-time--is something to be discussed a little bit further down the line.

3. With Yao as the leader of Rockets, the team was struggling. With T-Mac as leader, they are doing much better. Can you explain this?

A: This is not an easy question to answer. It is difficult to explain because Yao was playing well before he got injured. You would think that the team's record would drop off without him in the lineup. Obviously, the biggest factor in the Rockets' current success is how Tracy McGrady is playing. I think that McGrady is really playing at an MVP level; he is making everyone around him better. Of course, I think that when Yao Ming returns to health that the team will reach even greater heights than where it is at now.

4. With Steve Francis as the sidekick, Yao was not that great. With T-Mac as the sidekick, we are not sure yet. Do you think the Rockets have a chance to win it all?

A: I think that the Rockets have a chance to win the title if Yao Ming comes back soon and is healthy but I wouldn't call them the favorite to win it all. They are one of a few teams that has a legitimate chance. The other thing that I would say is that trading Francis for McGrady is the best thing that has happened for Yao. He is much better off playing with McGrady than playing with Francis; I think that the same thing is also true for Dwight Howard in Orlando; he is much better off now that he is not playing with Francis. Francis dribbles the ball too much and does not pass enough to his big men, so it is not good for Yao or Howard to play with him.

5. In your opinion, who will be a perfect partner for Yao to win a ring?

A: I think that a healthy Tracy McGrady is a very good partner for Yao. One thing that would help Yao a lot would be to play alongside an athletic power forward who could help him in terms of rebounding and who could assist him in guarding the paint.

6. Somebody argued that the only reason Yao was voted as the starter in the All-Star Game are the Chinese fans (via internet voting). We really want to know, how many votes could Yao have gotten without votes from China?

A: To the best of my knowledge, Yao Ming led in the paper balloting--the in arena voting--in previous seasons, including 2004. In this year's voting, 75% of the votes came from paper ballots, the English language section of NBA.com or from the 1250 T-Mobile stores in America where fans could submit a ballot. Based on that, I don't think that it is accurate to say that Yao was only voted in because of votes from China. All of the evidence that I've seen from this season and previous seasons suggests that that is not the case at all, that he is in fact getting voted in by fans in America, not just fans in China.

7. Which weakness restricts Yao's development most?

A: I would list three things, two in particular. The first thing is his lateral mobility. The second thing is how quickly he gets fatigued. I don't think that the third thing is as much of a problem as it had been but Yao needs to maintain his aggressiveness and attack other players. He should not be passive during games but should always be active and aggressive. I think that he has made progress in all three areas. Obviously, there is only so much that he can do about his lateral mobility.

8. In China, there are two groups: one loves Yao Ming and one dislikes Yao Ming. Do you think that it is the same in America?

A: I don't detect that there are people here who dislike Yao Ming. Obviously, people are fans of various teams, so he probably would not be a favorite player of someone who roots for a team other than the Rockets, but I don't think that there is a negative feeling toward him. I think that the feeling toward Yao is generally positive. I think that when Yao first came over there was a lot of curiosity about him and people wondered how well he would do. Charles Barkley made the statement that Yao would never score 20 points in a single game, so people wondered how much Yao would develop and how quickly it would happen. Now people see that he is a top level player.

9. When Yao does not play, the Rockets do fine. When T-Mac does not play, the Rockets struggle. Which team would go further in the playoffs, the Rockets without Yao or the Rockets without T-Mac?

A: You have to say the team with T-Mac would do better because their record in the last two years shows that. In the past two years when T-Mac has been out the Rockets have tended to lose, regardless of whether or not Yao plays. So it seems that the group of players that they have are more dependent on T-Mac than Yao. I think that one reason for this is that T-Mac creates offense for everyone by drawing double-teams, which creates open shots for other players. The thing that is strange to me is that it would seem like Yao should be able to do the same thing but for some reason it doesn't seem to happen that way or they don't use him in a way in which he would get double-teamed and pass the ball to the other players. He doesn't get a lot of assists, so it seems like they are not fully taking advantage of his passing ability.

10. The uptempo style that Phoenix plays is popular but the Rockets play a slower style. Are the Rockets too conservative?

A: The Rockets play a more conservative style than Phoenix does but that is the right style to take advantage of Yao's skills. The way Houston plays, with a heavy emphasis on defense, is actually, from a historical standpoint, a more successful way to play in the playoffs. If Houston can ever get T-Mac and Yao healthy at the same time and then get a little bit more production from the bench the Rockets could win a championship. The reason that I don't think that Houston will win a championship this year is that championship teams usually have to play together a little while and get used to each other. They added some players this year, like Battier, and I don't think that there is enough time to get everybody healthy and used to playing with each other in order to win a championship this year.

11. How would you characterize Jeff Van Gundy's coaching ability? Where would you rank him among NBA coaches?

A: I would rank him as one of the better coaches. He has already taken a team to the NBA Finals, the 1999 New York Knicks. He has proven that he is a good defensive coach; his teams perform well at the defensive end of the court.

12. Which team will win the All-Star Game and who will win the MVP award?

A: It is very difficult to predict who is going to win an All-Star Game. It is tempting to pick the West because most of the top teams are in that conference but everyone in the All-Star Game is an exceptional player, so any one player could get hot and take over the game for either team. It is almost impossible to predict who will win the MVP but it probably will be a small forward or a shooting guard, someone who gets to take a lot of shots. A lot of times when there is an All-Star from the host city his teammates try to get him the ball and help him to win the MVP; last year the West tried to help McGrady to win the MVP because the game was played in Houston--but the West didn't win and the MVP usually goes to someone from the winning team. This year, with the game being in Las Vegas, there is no one who plays on a team from the host city. Maybe Shawn Marion will win the MVP because he played college basketball at UNLV; I say that half seriously and half joking.

13. In the long run, do you think that there will be NBA regular season games held in China?

A: I think that in the long run that is the direction that things are headed, to have regular season games outside of the United States. I don't know that it will happen immediately in China but it would not surprise me if it happened eventually. I think that there have already been some regular season games in Japan, so I think that having games in China is a natural thing for the NBA to do eventually.

14. David Stern has been the commissioner for a long time. Who do you think will be the next commissioner?

A: That is an interesting question. Russ Granik just retired as deputy commissioner and Adam Silver was appointed to take his place. I think that one might consider him to be the front runner to be the next commissioner but I don't have any reason to believe that Stern is resigning soon.

15. There was a lot of hype about LeBron James before he came into the NBA. Do you think that he has lived up to the hype?

A: I think that he has. In some ways, he has exceeded the hype and has done even better than people expected. If you look at his statistics from last year in terms of points, rebounds and assists, he performed at a level that only Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan have reached in a single season. He has set a number of records for being the youngest player to accomplish various things. There were enormous expectations, yet he has met or even exceeded them and I think that this is remarkable.

The chat ended at this point before I had a chance to add one more point to that last answer: James has met the challenge individually but the next test for him is to take his team deep into the playoffs and eventually win a championship.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 AM