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Saturday, March 10, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part XII

Two of the big questions down the stretch are "Will the Mavs win 70 games?" and "Will Steve Nash join Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Larry Bird as winners of three straight MVPs?" My answers are "No" and "Maybe, but Dirk Nowitzki will probably get the award this year."

Best Five Records
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1) Dallas Mavericks, 51-9
2) Phoenix Suns, 48-14
3) San Antonio Spurs, 44-18
4) Utah Jazz, 42-19
5) Detroit Pistons, 38-22

None of the top four teams lost a game since the previous leaderboard. The Mavericks became the first team to clinch a playoff berth. Detroit went just 2-3 but still has the best record in the East.

Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 29.9 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 29.2 ppg
3) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.8 ppg
4) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 28.7 ppg
5) Allen Iverson, DEN 27.9 ppg
6) LeBron James, CLE 27.4 ppg

9) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 25.3 ppg
10) Vince Carter, NJN 25.0 ppg

12) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.7 ppg

Kobe Bryant is now one big game away from being the NBA's leading scorer. In a little over a week he has moved up to second place and cut Carmelo Anthony's lead from 1.6 ppg to just .7 ppg--the equivalent of about 42 points. In other words, if Bryant has a 71 point game--or a couple 50 point games--then he will pass Anthony. Given the lack of production from the rest of the Lakers' injury-depleted roster even if Bryant scores at that rate it might not be enough to reverse the team's slide. Wade actually moved up a spot despite not playing but if he does not return before the end of the season the NBA will drop him from the list because he will not have scored enough points or played in enough games to meet the minimum qualification standards. Nowitzki's average is lower than it has been the previous two seasons but he is still in the top ten and probably has the inside track for MVP honors based on his all-around game and the tremendous success that the Mavericks are enjoying.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.7 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.6 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.1 rpg
4) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.7 rpg
5) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.6 rpg

8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
9) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.4 rpg
10) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.3 rpg

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

The top five remained exactly the same but Chandler inched closer to Garnett, so we may have a photo finish for the title in this category. Marion moved back into the top ten.

Top Five Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.7 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.1 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.9 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 8.7 apg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.5 apg

Davis and Paul again switched spots and the rest of the top five again stayed the same, as it has for most of the season. Starbury just missed the cut for top 20 status, ranking 21st (5.5 apg).

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 8:34 PM

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Kobe Suspended One Game, Lakers Routed by Milwaukee

On Wednesday, Kobe Bryant received his second one game suspension of the season. Bryant's first suspension happened in January after he elbowed Manu Ginobili in the face during the follow through from a jump shot; this time, Bryant's offense took place on a very similar play, with Minnesota's Marko Jaric on the receiving end of Bryant's elbow. The Lakers lost to the Knicks the first time that Bryant was suspended and, not surprisingly, the Milwaukee Bucks blew them out 110-90 this time. Yes, the Lakers are missing several other key players but don't forget that with Bryant on the court they only lost to Phoenix by five and took the Timberwolves to double overtime. Without Bryant, a competitive Laker team instantly becomes a doormat.

What is the deal with Bryant's errant elbows? After the first incident, I wrote , "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." I don't think that Bryant's action in either case is nearly as bad as what Gerald Henderson did to Tyler Hansbrough recently in the North Carolina-Duke game. Trying to block a shot with one's elbow is 100% "unnatural" and dirty and Henderson should have received a lot more than a one game suspension. As for Bryant, I am less disappointed about this suspension than I was about the first one. The first time set a precedent, in my opinion; I cannot recall an NBA player being disciplined so harshly for an apparently inadvertent act but, as Stu Jackson explained, the NBA deemed Bryant's action to be an excessively violent blow to the head, did not believe it to be accidental and is determined to get rid of such plays. NBA Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn reiterated those points on his excellent NBA TV show, "Making the Call with Ronnie Nunn." I think that the NBA should have fined Bryant for the first infraction and said that future such actions would lead to a suspension but so be it--whether Bryant, Phil Jackson or anyone else agreed with Jackson and Nunn, the rules of the game have been clearly stated. No one should be surprised that Bryant was suspended for elbowing Jaric in the wake of the NBA's swift action after the Bryant-Ginobili play. As long as the NBA remains consistent with its rules interpretation and enforcement it is up to the players to adjust their actions accordingly.

Watching Bryant's elbow strike Jaric, I got the impression that it was not 100% on purpose but that it was not 100% accidental, either. I don't believe that he intentionally hit Jaric in the face, but I do think that he can exercise a little more control of where his arm goes; I also think that Ginobili fouled Bryant first before Bryant elbowed him and, although it is hard to tell from the available camera angles, it looks like Jaric may have fouled Bryant first as well. I point that out not to "justify" Bryant's flailing arm but to suggest the possibility that whatever flailing Bryant normally does may have been accentuated by him being hit at the same time. If you shoot the ball and are hit in the head or shoulder while you are flailing you arm then your arm may flail a bit more erratically. I'm not sure that this is what happened--and Stu Jackson clearly does not go along with this view.

Interestingly, Jaric told ESPN's Chris Sheridan that does not think that Bryant hit him on purpose: "I haven't seen the replay, but if you ask me what I thought about the play when it happened, I don't think he did it intentionally, and I don't think players should be suspended for things that happen unintentionally. I think he was trying to draw a foul, and he swung his hand out to make it look dramatic, and he hit me by accident. He apologized right after."

Great offensive players are aggressive and they use their shoulders, elbows and hands to clear space. Bryant tends to flail when he shoots and I think that he does this for two reasons: (1) he may be able to draw a foul; (2) the possibility that he may strike a defender could cause that defender to give a little ground. Now that the NBA has made it crystal clear that this kind of flailing will not be tolerated I trust that Bryant will find a way to create space without elbowing people in the head. If he doesn't, he runs the risk that the next time he pops someone the NBA will suspend him for more than one game. Stu Jackson told Sheridan that he considered suspending Bryant for more than one game after the Jaric hit. Whatever advantage Bryant may be deriving from this maneuver is not worth the risk of being suspended again.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 AM

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Is Carmelo Anthony an Elite Level Player?

Carmelo Anthony's act of shoot first and don't answer questions later has worn thin with Denver Coach George Karl, Nuggets fans and the media--not that what the media thinks of Anthony should be his top priority but it is also is not a great sign of leadership when he is "ducking out the side door at practice while Iverson is stuck with the media nags," as the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla wrote in a scathing indictment of Anthony's deficiencies. Karl's biggest concern about Anthony is his overall maturity level: "I've told Melo in the last two weeks, 'I don't think you're listening. I don't think you're listening as well as you need to listen.' For me, the next step is to change the democracy back to a dictatorship." What exactly does that mean? Karl spelled it out point blank when he was asked if he would bench the NBA's leading scorer: "I think that's the next move." Karl dug up an interesting statistical nugget (no pun intended) to support his contention that Anthony is focusing too much on scoring: Anthony had more points/rebounds double-doubles in one year at Syracuse than he has had in nearly four NBA seasons.

Some observers tried to sell the public a bill of good about Anthony, starting last summer during the FIBA World Championship. Supposedly Anthony had turned things around and was now worthy of being included in the same category as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. I watched Team USA's games and was much less impressed than others seemed to be with Anthony's play. Anthony was later honored as the 2006 USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year--but, as I noted during the summer after Anthony was selected to the All-World Championship Team, he offset the fact that he was Team USA's leading scorer with his poor defense. After Greece defeated Team USA, one commentator went so far as to write, "The one player who I found myself most often rewinding and saying 'what the hell was he doing?' was Carmelo Anthony. Most of the time he was away from the play and managed to simultaneously not guard his man and not help either. I have not watched the other games this closely, but after watching this game I would have a very hard time making a case for Anthony being our MVP."

I did the Denver Nuggets preview for Lindy's Pro Basketball 2006-07 and clearly stated that Anthony's name should not be mentioned in the same breath with the game's top players: "Carmelo Anthony's third season was his best one yet, but the time when he was compared to fellow '03 draftees LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seems like a distant memory now. Anthony improved his questionable shot selection and lackadaisical defense, but still needs more work in both areas. He does have a propensity for hitting game-winning shots but has yet to show the ability to dominate an entire game or a playoff series like James and Wade can. The difference is that those guys can affect a game in multiple ways, while Anthony's impact is felt almost exclusively in the scoring column. He is a subpar rebounder for his size and the position he plays, nor does he get a lot of assists, steals or blocks."

The sad part is that Anthony clearly has a lot of talent and at some level he knows how to play the game the right way; after all, he led Syracuse to a national championship as a freshman. Somehow, Anthony's game has regressed in the NBA even as his scoring average has soared. Karl is equally frustrated and hopeful, saying in one breath, "And, right now, what you're saying is basically, 'When is Melo going to get it?' Is it going to be next month?' As a coach, there's no one more frustrated, there's no one more angry than me, because I feel the pain" and then noting, "I think what you're baffled by is you see a guy who could be a top-five player in basketball." The question is whether Anthony is willing to adjust his attitude in order to reach his full potential as a player. On Tuesday night Anthony had 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a 106-91 win over the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. Those are the kind of all-around numbers that Karl would like to see. Was that just a one time deal against a sub-.500 team or has Anthony taken his coach's words to heart?

posted by David Friedman @ 11:58 PM

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The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Monday Night's Action

Monday night saw Yao Ming returning to action and the entire Detroit Pistons team taking a roll of stamps and mailing it in (as Keith Olbermann would say).

The Score: Cleveland 91, Houston 85

The Key Stat: Houston shot just 32-89 (.360) from the field; Yao Ming shot 5-15 and scored 16 points in his first game since December 23.

The Bottom Line: The Rockets are a strange team. They went 20-12 without Yao as Tracy McGrady carried the team on his back and then they have a lackluster performance when their All-Star center returns to action. A big part of the problem versus Cleveland was that Houston tried to force feed the ball to Yao, who was understandably tentative and rusty after being out of action for so long. The Rockets trailed by as many as 14 points but cut the deficit to two points as McGrady scored 21 second half points (he finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and four assists). Assuming that both of their stars are healthy the rest of the way, Houston should be a formidable postseason force.

The Score: Golden State 111, Detroit 93

The Key Stat: The 27-35 Warriors led by as many as 26 points in this crushing defeat of the team with the Eastern Conference's best record.

The Bottom Line: Rasheed Wallace did not play due to a left foot injury but his absence alone cannot explain how Detroit fell to a team that had lost six straight games and whose coach, Don Nelson, essentially threw in the towel on this season a few days ago when he said, "I thought I could get this team in the playoffs and it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to do it." Detroit led 53-46 with 3:18 remaining in the first half but then completely collapsed, trailing 61-55 at halftime. Why exactly should Chicago, Cleveland or even Miami be afraid of facing Detroit in the playoffs?

The Score: Miami 88, Atlanta 81

The Key Stat: The Heat improved to 4-2 since Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury and pushed their overall record above .500 for the first time since November, when they started the season 3-2.

The Bottom Line: Atlanta is not a good team and this was hardly an artistic victory but Miami found a way to get it done while still keeping Shaquille O'Neal's minutes under 30. He contribued 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds, while Eddie Jones led the Heat with 21 points.

The Score: Orlando 99, Milwaukee 81

The Key Stat: Coming off a 52 point game on Sunday versus Chicago, Michael Redd shot just 3-16 from the field, finishing with 15 points.

The Bottom Line: Orlando started the season 14-5 and has been in free fall ever since (15-28). Do you think that the Magic might want a "do-over" for the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft, when they picked J.J. Redick with the 11th selection overall? Redick is averaging 6.0 ppg while shooting .407 from the field. They could have chosen Thabo Sefolosha, Rodney Carney, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Williams or Paul Millsap, each of whom looks like he will be a more productive pro. Meanwhile, Redick generally only appears on the court in blowouts (he did have a nice game recently against the Spurs--16 points in 31 minutes--but that was the only time this season that he has played more than 30 minutes in a game); he had seven points on 3-7 shooting in 15 minutes against Milwaukee. The Magic are fighting to get the last playoff spot in the East and could use one more guy who can actually contribute something.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Suns Squeak by Undermanned Lakers, 99-94

The Suns defeated the Lakers 99-94 in Phoenix on Sunday in a rematch of one of last year's most exciting first round playoff series. The big difference this time is how depleted the Lakers' roster is due to injuries. Starting forwards Lamar Odom and Luke Walton are out. Key reserves Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm are also sidelined, while starting center Kwame Brown has just returned to action and is still shaking off rust. The Suns suited up all of their key players except for the multi-talented Boris Diaw (back spasms), so one would think that they would win easily--but that was not the case at all. Steve Nash overcame a sluggish first half (2-11 field goal shooting) to finish with 23 points and 10 assists, shooting 9-21 (.429) from the field. Kobe Bryant scored 31 points and had six assists, shooting 11-28 (.393) from the field. Each MVP candidate shot worse from the field than he usually does. Interestingly, from a statistical standpoint, they accounted for an identical number of points: valuing each assist at two points, they each contributed 43 tangible points. I say tangible because each player has value beyond his statistics. Bryant draws double-teams, which leads to wide open shots even on plays when he does not deliver the scoring pass. Nash's dribble penetration similarly distorts the opposing team's defense even though it is not necessary (or even desirable) to double-team him. Their similar production should not surprise anyone because both players' numbers--other than their mutually subpar shooting--were right in line with their season averages.

Bryant and Nash are playmakers in the truest, fullest sense of the term because their actions set the table for the vast majority of what their teams do offensively. They score, they break down the defense and they make great passes. Bryant's performance enabled the Lakers to stay close (never trailing by more than 10) even though their patchwork lineup included Shammond Williams and Aaron McKie, who had played in just 15 and five games respectively this season. The only Laker other than Bryant who scored more than eight points was Brian Cook (22 points), who started at power forward in place of Odom. Bryant played virtually the entire game (44:51), faced two great individual defenders (Raja Bell, then Shawn Marion, who eventually fouled out) and had to deal with frequent double-teaming. When Bryant was single-covered he generally scored or drew fouls (8-10 free throw shooting); when he faced double-coverage he made a number of gorgeous passes. Unfortunately, many of them did not result in assists because his teammates either fumbled them or missed the ensuing shot attempts. In the first half, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several Phoenix defenders and delivered a point blank behind the back pass to Kwame Brown. This is the kind of pass that Steve Nash fans rave about and that usually results in a dunk by All-Stars Amare Stoudemire or Shawn Marion; instead, the ball went straight through Brown's hands. The most enjoyable part of the game was a six minute stretch in the fourth quarter when Bryant and Nash alternated great plays. Bryant scored or made a great pass and then Nash answered with a basket or a nice feed. Bryant had seven points and three assists during that time, while Nash had eight points and one assist (both players also had passes that led to free throw attempts and/or eventually resulted in baskets).

Bryant's sweetest pass of the game came with 7:59 remaining in the third quarter when he delivered a no look feed to Cook for a fast break dunk that gave the Lakers a 55-54 lead. Nash had several bounce passes that came from unreal angles and landed right on target.

These teams are heading in opposite directions right now and the reason why can be seen by looking at the boxscore. We've already looked at the performances delivered by the team's respective MVP candidates. They essentially canceled each other out. Four Phoenix players other than Nash scored in double figures, paced by Sixth Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa, who had 20 points, four rebounds and four assists. Meanwhile, the Laker guards other than Bryant (Smush Parker, Shammond Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Aaron McKie) shot 5-18 from the field and combined to score 15 points. The Suns could basically ignore those guys and run double-teams at Bryant. The Lakers simply did not have enough scoring threats on the court to run a viable offense. This led to shot clock violations, turnovers and some "hand grenade" shots by Bryant (a "hand grenade" is when the play breaks down and someone passes the ball to Bryant with less than five seconds on the shot clock, ensuring that a desperate, low percentage shot will ensue before the shot clock "explodes"--the equivalent of throwing away a hand grenade before it explodes). Jordan Farmar will be a solid point guard at some point but he has hit the rookie wall like a ton of bricks and did not play at all versus Phoenix. The Lakers are really struggling to put a legitimate team on the court--their frontcourt is decimated without Odom and Walton and the guard situation (other than Bryant, of course) may be even worse. It will take a tremendous performance by Bryant down the stretch to keep the Lakers in the playoff hunt if they don't get some of their injured players back quickly. Prior to the game, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson indicated that he reached out to 41 year old Scottie Pippen to see if the six-time champion is serious about coming back. Pippen's ballhandling and defense could be just what the Lakers need, assuming that his body is physically up to the task.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:24 PM

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