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Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

The three pointer has become an integral aspect of basketball at all levels of the game. This was not always the case. The trey is generally identified as an ABA innovation, even though it actually predates that league's existence. For several years after the NBA-ABA merger the old guard NBA owners refused to institute a three point shot. Even after they relented it took quite some time before coaches really integrated the three pointer into their offensive game plans. My latest NBCSports.com article looks at how the usage of the three point shot has evolved since the founding of the ABA in 1967-68:

The Evolution of the Usage of the Three Point Shot

posted by David Friedman @ 10:48 PM

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Why the Heat Won't Miss Dwyane Wade as Much as Most People Think

The Miami Heat moved to 3-2 since Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury after Shaquille O'Neal had 31 points and 15 rebounds in an 85-82 win over the Detroit Pistons, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Everyone's been writing eulogies for the Heat since Wade was wheeled off of the court but Miami is far from dead, particularly considering the state of the "Leastern" Conference. The Heat are now the seventh seeded team in the East and only trail Indiana by a half game for the sixth spot. The Pacers have lost four straight, all by double figure margins, and are moving south so quickly that they will be in the Caribbean by next week.

Has anyone noticed that Dwyane Wade was not even able to carry last year's champions to a .500 record when O'Neal was injured? Wade is a great talent but he cannot carry a team like Tracy McGrady does in Houston without Yao Ming or like Kobe Bryant does in L.A. despite losing Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Vladimir Radmanovic for all or part of the season. Give Wade all the credit in the world for his Finals performance last year but there is a reason that Dallas did not double-team him: the Mavericks knew that if they did not slant their defense toward O'Neal that he would beat them, as he did to the tune of 30 points and 20 rebounds in the clinching game of the first round versus Chicago. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson understood O'Neal's capabilities during last year's Finals, which is why he single-covered Wade, taking his chances on Wade beating the Mavericks as opposed to having O'Neal shoot 60% from the field on shots in the paint.

Bryant and McGrady score points and make plays despite facing double and triple teams. Prior to Houston's 108-97 win over Denver on Friday night, Nuggets Coach George Karl called McGrady the second best playmaker in the game behind Bryant, adding, "I think that the presence of McGrady is probably as powerful as Nash." Bryant and McGrady are the ultimate playmakers because of their size, speed and unstoppable scoring ability combined with their passing skills and willingness to give up the ball. Nash is a wonderful shooter and a gifted playmaker but he has two All-Star level finishers (who finished just fine in the All-Star Game without him) and several excellent shooters flanking him. Bryant and McGrady are keeping patchwork teams afloat because of their overpowering ability to score regardless of the defenses that they face and because of the way that they force double teams, affording their less gifted teammates the opportunity to shoot wide open shots.

There are a couple reasons that the Heat will do better down the stretch with O'Neal and without Wade than they did earlier in the year with Wade and without O'Neal. One, O'Neal is well rested after sitting out for most of the season. Meanwhile, most of the players he is facing are worn down after playing so many more games. In 1961-62, Elgin Baylor played in only 48 games because of his military obligations. He averaged a career-best 38.3 ppg, including 41.3 ppg in December 1961 (Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant are the only other players who have ever averaged 40-plus ppg for a calendar month). During that season's NBA Finals, Baylor scored a playoff record 61 points in game five, a mark that stood until Michael Jordan's 63 point game in 1986. Baylor later mentioned that he had the advantage of being more well rested and less beat up than the players who had played for the entire season.

A second thing in O'Neal's favor is that the finish line is in sight, so he does not have to pace himself, as he would have had to do if he had played an entire season. O'Neal is not as quick or explosive as he once was but he still cannot be covered one on one--and he takes pride in this fact: "I take it personal when people don't double me. It's against my religion not to double me. It upsets me. It makes me think they're saying to themselves I don't have it anymore," said O'Neal after he destroyed the Pistons' frontcourt on Friday. The greatest thing about O'Neal has always been that he understands what he can and cannot do--and what he should and should not do. He is a devastating inside scorer, so he stays in the paint. O'Neal does not shoot three pointers and does not try to prove that he can hit face up jumpers; he plants himself in the paint and dares the other team to stop him. He cannot perform at a high level for an entire season anymore and last year he understood that it would be better for all concerned if Wade took the leading role most of the time.

O'Neal will spend the latter part of this season shooting high percentage shots, getting the opposing team into foul trouble (and the Heat into the bonus) and drawing double-teams that will lead to open shots for his teammates. O'Neal is still capable of being a dominating force, particularly against single-coverage.

Now, let's play the "what if?" game. What if O'Neal had recognized a few years ago that his skills were starting to erode and that it was time for Kobe Bryant to be option 1 and O'Neal to be option 2? The formula that worked for one title last year in Miami could have worked for multiple titles in L.A. Bryant has shown that he can average 40 ppg for a month and 35 ppg for a season. He has shown that he can carry an otherwise mediocre team into the playoffs. In other words, he has shown that he can do more with less compared to what Wade can do. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, these are not new developments. Back in 2002-03, O'Neal was banged up and Bryant averaged 30.0 ppg as the Lakers tried to win a fourth straight title. Instead of petulantly feuding with Bryant, O'Neal should have dealt with him the way he dealt with Wade last year; that should have been the time that Bryant became the main option, with O'Neal being an even deadlier second option than he was last year. Yes, O'Neal and the Heat got one championship by the skin of their teeth after Dallas blinked with a 2-0 lead. No, the Heat will not win another title. So, the "what if?" question is what would have happened if O'Neal would have accepted Bryant's emergence as the number one option in 2002-03 instead of fighting it every step of the way? I have always said and still believe that if O'Neal would have been willing to work with Bryant the way that he worked with Wade that the Lakers would have continued to win titles--not every year, but they would be like the Spurs: in the hunt perennially. The Spurs won three titles in a seven year stretch (and are not out of the race for this year's championship, either). O'Neal and Bryant won three in a row and could have continued to win titles in O'Neal's declining years. If O'Neal and Bryant were on the same team this year, Bryant would have kept the team in the hunt to a greater degree than Wade did in O'Neal's absence. Furthermore, Bryant has played longer than Wade and has yet to have an injury serious enough to cause him to miss the playoffs. If things had gone differently, O'Neal could be chasing his sixth title instead of being stuck on four.

Back to reality: if O'Neal avoids further injury, the Heat will move up to sixth in the East. The idea that they will miss the playoffs because of Wade's injury is nonsense. In fact, even without Wade the Heat could conceivably win first round matchups with either Washington or Toronto; those teams do not have the inside presence or playoff savvy to beat Miami in a seven game series. The Eastern team that is best suited to beat Miami in a playoff series right now is Chicago. The Bulls gave the Heat a dogfight last year, but could not deal with O'Neal inside. The presence of Ben Wallace will make a big difference this time around, plus the Bulls will have a decided advantage on the perimeter with Wade on the shelf.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part XI

All-Star Weekend is over and the stretch run to the NBA playoffs has now begun in earnest.

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

1) Dallas Mavericks, 48-9
2) Phoenix Suns, 44-14
3) San Antonio Spurs, 39-18
4) Utah Jazz, 38-19
5) Detroit Pistons, 36-19

The Suns are having a tremendous season but cannot gain ground on the Mavericks, who have a chance to post one of the best records in NBA history. The Eastern Conference finally has made its presence felt in the top five, as the Detroit Pistons supplanted the Houston Rockets; Detroit's acquisition of Chris Webber has made up for the mistake of losing Ben Wallace and has positioned Detroit as the team to beat in the East (of course, Flip Saunders' history as a playoff coach suggests that someone will indeed beat them).

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

1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 30.6 ppg
2) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 29.2 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 29.0 ppg
4) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg
5) Allen Iverson, DEN 28.1 ppg

7) LeBron James, CLE 26.7 ppg

10) Vince Carter, NJN 25.4 ppg

12) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.6 ppg

Since the last leaderboard, Kobe Bryant moved up one spot and cut the deficit separating him from first place from 2.1 to 1.6 ppg. With Anthony's average inching downward and the Lakers once again becoming increasingly dependent on Bryant's scoring, Bryant's chances to repeat as the scoring champion are looking better by the day. If Wade is unable to return to action then he will of course eventually drop off the list because he has not played in enough games or scored enough points to meet the NBA's minimum qualification standards for a complete season. McGrady's average has gone up more than two ppg since January 10.

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

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.8 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.4 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.2 rpg
4) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.7 rpg
5) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.5 rpg

7) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.8 rpg

9) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.4 rpg

11) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.2 rpg

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

Marion slipped just outside of the top ten but is still having an incredible season for an undersized inside player. The top three players each increased their averages by about the same amount since the previous leaderboard.

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.9 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.3 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.9 apg
4) Baron Davis, GSW 8.7 apg
5) Chris Paul, NOK 8.6 ppg

Davis and Paul switched spots and the rest of the top five stayed the same, as it has for most of the season. Starbury fell out of the top 20 and now ranks 23rd (5.5 apg), but he is just percentage points behind the players who are in the 19th-22nd positions.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 1:22 AM

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Suns Eclipse Pacers, 103-92

The Phoenix Suns rallied from an 18 point third quarter deficit to defeat the Indiana Pacers 103-92 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The Suns improved to 14-0 on the road versus the Eastern Conference this season and if they win in Philadelphia on Wednesday they will become the first team in NBA history to post a perfect road record for an entire season against teams from the opposite conference. Steve Nash led the Suns with 25 points and 11 assists; he scored eight straight points in a one minute stretch during the fourth quarter, transforming an 88-87 deficit into a 95-88 Suns lead. The shell shocked Pacers scored just four points in the last 6:35 of the game. Amare Stoudemire added 23 points and 18 rebounds, while Shawn Marion had 22 points and six rebounds. Indiana squandered a fine performance by Jermaine O'Neal, who seemed unstoppable at times and finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and six blocked shots; he did have seven turnovers, though. Darrell Armstrong, the team's 38 year old point guard, started for the ailing Jamaal Tinsley and had a season-high 17 points while nailing five three pointers, which equals the Pacers mark for most three pointers in a game this season.

Both teams sleepwalked through the first quarter, which ended in a 19-19 tie. The Suns shot just .318 from the field, while the Pacers shot .400. The action heated up in the second quarter as both teams improved their shooting markedly. Indiana outscored Phoenix 31-30 to take a one point halftime lead. O'Neal had 12 points on 5-8 shooting in the quarter, while Marion countered with 11 points on 5-7 shooting.

Mike Dunleavy scored nine points in the first 4:15 of the third quarter and a few minutes later Danny Granger's layup gave the Pacers a 77-59 lead. Just when the Suns seemed to be out of it they closed the period on a 14-2 run. The concluding 8-0 portion of that run happened with Nash on the bench. Nash returned to action with 8:46 left in the game and the Pacers leading 84-80. He scored 10 points down the stretch, including the personal 8-0 run that gave the Suns a lead that they would not relinquish.

"We played two and a half great quarters," Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said in his postgame standup. "Then the latter part of the third we had a run of turnovers and they took advantage of it. You turn it over against these guys and they'll convert, probably quicker than anybody else...They're a great team...They're a team that runs well, but I've never seen a team play their style at their level."

"Nothing great on our part," Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. "But we did the job. We are lucky to get this one."

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

Prior to the game I had the opportunity to speak one on one with Coach D'Antoni. I asked him how he would compare the way that Steve Nash plays with the way that John Stockton played. "I think that there are a lot of similarities," D'Antoni replied. "They are probably the best pick and roll guys in the business. Both of them had a great finisher, Karl Malone and Amare Stoudemire. In that sense they are very, very similar. Both are pretty good defensive players. Steve's really improved his defense over the years. Their body types are similar. Stockton was a great player, without a doubt--one of the greatest--but Steve is one of the greatest shooters that I've ever seen. Maybe he has a little edge there. I don't really know; I didn't coach John Stockton. Steve has the complete package."

I noted that Nash often is criticized for his defense and asked D'Antoni point blank if he considers him an above average defensive player. "Oh yeah, by far," D'Antoni answered without hesitation. "I think that he has improved that a lot and he is really conscientious as a team defender. He's always in the right position. He gets overwhelmed sometimes because physically he is not as strong as certain guys but I think that he is definitely above average."

One of the things that intrigues me about Steve Nash winning two MVPs is that historically when a great point guard has been teamed with a great big man it is usually the great big man who receives MVP consideration, not the point guard (Malone and Stockton are the most recent, obvious example of this). I asked D'Antoni if he thinks that Nash has won two MVPs because he is doing something different than what great point guards previously did, if the voters' criteria has changed or if he thinks that some combination of both of those factors is at work. "That's a good question," D'Antoni replied thoughtfully. "I don't really know the answer. One year he won the MVP because Amare was out for the whole year. Amare was young and Steve was older. If I'm not mistaken, Cousy was MVP one year and Russell wasn't because it was early in Russell's career (Cousy won his only MVP during Russell's rookie year; Russell missed nearly a third of the season because he played in the Summer Olympics in Australia, which took place during the early portion of the 1956-57 NBA season). That is probably the parallel. Amare is just now really coming into his own and becoming a more complete player and hopefully he will get an MVP title as we go forward."

I asked D'Antoni to what extent court vision is a natural gift versus something that can be learned or developed by watching film to see how plays develop. "Again, that's a $64,000 question," D'Antoni said. "I don't think that you can answer that definitively. Players can improve their vision and can improve their gamesmanship and how they play the game and how they can trick guys with different things; they can improve with experience, but I don't know that you can take someone who can't do it and teach him how to do it. I think that you have to have a base that you are a point guard who comes into the league with great vision and then you can improve on that. Even in junior high, you see that certain players can see and other players can't see. I think that is just born into you. It's a little bit like playing cards. Everybody knows the rules of the card game but some people have a nice card sense and some people don't. You can play a long time and never really be a great card player, whereas other people just have a feeling for it. To me it is a little bit like that. I think that you are born with something in you that makes you a gamesman, makes you able to understand the nuances of a game and maximize it."

D'Antoni played in the ABA during that league's final season. I asked him what he remembers most about that time. "There was an incredible amount of talent when I was there--there were only about six or seven teams," he said. "Everybody was so loaded with talent. Back then, you probably had the best players in the game (in the ABA)--Dr. J, David Thompson and just right down the line. It was exciting--and rough, because you had to keep playing the same teams over and over. Pretty wacky, there were some great characters, plus the three point shot. Those were interesting times."

As longtime 20 Second Timeout readers know, I have suggested that if Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were traded straight up for each other (which of course would never happen, for a variety of reasons) that the Suns would be just as good but that the Lakers would be worse because Nash's ability to drive and kick would not be as effective on a team that lacks the shooters that Phoenix has. I brought up that scenario to D'Antoni and asked his opinion. "I think that Kobe is an unbelievable player, without a doubt," D'Antoni answered, drawing out the word "unbelievable" for emphasis. "There is no doubt that with Kobe we would win. There is no doubt that the Lakers would win with Steve Nash. How much (either team would win) depends on the other players. We have some phenomenal players on this team with Shawn, Amare, and all those guys. I think that we have more talent than the Lakers have." I followed up by saying that that was my point, that the Suns have a more talented team overall and that Nash's ability to distribute the ball might not lead to as many wins if he were passing the ball to guys who can't shoot. "But you do know that everybody on this team has gone up 10 percentage points with Steve passing to them," D'Antoni retorted, suggesting that Nash's playmaking ability would help players to shoot a better percentage. Of course, that is the essence of the chicken/egg debate here: is Nash racking up assists entirely because of his creativity or is he blessed to play alongside a plethora of talented players? "You can't figure it out," D'Antoni concluded. "That is why, to be honest with you, that every year there are at least two or three candidates who are worthy of being the MVP. If Kobe got it last year and Steve didn't or if Wade got it and Steve didn't or if Dirk got it and Steve didn't, I don't think that anybody could squawk. I really think that those four last year were right there and you could take any of them. They are all so important to their teams because of what they do, I don't know how you say (regarding any of those players), 'He was robbed.' He wasn't 'robbed,' he just didn't quite get it. That is why I have a little issue when Shaquille says that it (Nash's MVP award) is 'tainted.' You could make a case (for other guys) but come on."

As for this year's MVP battle, D'Antoni said, "Right now, it is a two horse race (between Nash and Dirk Nowitzki), with Kobe a little bit (behind those guys). They (the Lakers) did lose six in a row, so you could make a case that Luke Walton is the most valuable player." It should be made clear that D'Antoni laughed when he said that. I quipped that if we are going to base the MVP on what happens when the candidate does not play that Tracy McGrady should get it because the Rockets are simply horrible without him. D'Antoni acknowledged that the Rockets are indeed bad without T-Mac but pointed out that with him they are not as good as the Suns are with Nash. That is true, but that gets back to the fact that the Suns have a much more talented team than the Rockets. T-Mac and Kobe can almost singlehandedly turn a team into a contender. Nash has played remarkably well for the Suns, but could he lift an otherwise mediocre team to 45-50 wins or more? As D'Antoni said before, "You can't figure it out." D'Antoni emphasized that what Nowitzki has done this year is "unbelievable--you could really make a case for him this year," while Nash "has done his thing" and Kobe "has done his thing, too, no doubt about it--but they have fallen off a little bit. There is still a ways to go yet."

If Nash wins his third straight MVP then he will join the likes of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. I asked D'Antoni (1) if he thinks that Nash belongs in that category as a player and (2) if that type of question should be taken into consideration on a year to year basis during MVP voting. "The second part is easy to answer," D'Antoni replied. "It can't influence the voting because they're not playing now. If you have a league where nobody is any good then somebody is going to win three MVPs in a row and that doesn't mean that he is in that category. Having said that, I think that he is in that category. I don't think that anybody can play the game as good or better--it's hard to play better than he is playing, I'm telling you right now. He's in that group of elite players, that's for sure."

I also spoke with D'Antoni about why the U.S. no longer dominates in FIBA play but I will save those quotes for a future post.

---

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the American Basketball Association. The Pacers were a charter franchise in that league, so it is their 40th anniversary as well and to celebrate that milestone the team is giving fans an opportunity to select the 12 members of the Pacers' 40th Anniversary Team. The ballot can be found here. You can vote once per day between now and April 3 and some lucky voters will win tickets to Pacers games and autographed jerseys. The grand prize, a customized 1967 Chevy Camaro, will be given away on April 18 when the Pacers host the Washington Wizards.

Not surprisingly, Reggie Miller currently leads the voting. Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP who was the center on three ABA championship teams, ranks second and current Pacers star Jermaine O'Neal is third. I think that some of the other members of the Pacers championship teams deserve more votes than they have received but it is not surprising that the voters either have short memories or are too young to remember the ABA at all. I just submitted the following ballot: Roger Brown, Don Buse, Mel Daniels, Darnell Hillman, Mark Jackson, Billy Keller, George McGinnis, Reggie Miller, Bob Netolicky, Jermaine O'Neal, Chuck Person and Rik Smits.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:44 AM

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Pro Basketball's Most Decorated Players

It is difficult enough to compare the statistics of two players from the same era and the task becomes that much more challenging when it involves players whose careers are separated by decades. Sure, it is possible to parse the raw numbers into per minute calculations and attempt to factor in variables such as pace, but how realistic is it to compare shooting percentages or rebounding averages when the rules, arena conditions and size/speed of the players have all changed so dramatically?

An interesting point to consider is how a player was viewed during his own era. If someone is a dominant figure for an extended period of time then this largely validates his claim to greatness. It is possible to roughly ascertain how dominant a player was (or at least was perceived to be) by looking at how many MVPs he won and how many times he made the All-League Team.

I examine this subject in detail in my most recent article for NBCSports.com:

Most Decorated List Full of Men from the Middle

posted by David Friedman @ 1:26 PM

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