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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lakers Lose to Rockets in Overtime Despite Kobe's 53 Points

It was the best of times and the worst of times for Kobe Bryant versus the Houston Rockets on Friday night but Houston escaped with a 107-104 overtime victory at the Staples Center. Bryant made 10 of his 19 first half shots, scoring 25 points. Then he went Arctic cold for most of the second half and the Lakers trailed 88-76 with just 4:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. Just when the Lakers seemed to be dead in the water, Bryant scored 17 of the team's next 19 points; the last three points came when he rebounded Kwame Brown's missed free throw and sank a three pointer falling out of bounds to tie the score at 95. Bryant guarded Tracy McGrady on the Rockets' last possession of regulation, forcing him to fall short on a tough jump shot. Bryant scored the Lakers' first eight points in the extra session and they led 104-100 with 1:03 left after Lamar Odom split a pair of free throws. That is when Bryant's night turned sour. First he was whistled for a foul while McGrady attempted a three pointer. Bryant claimed that Yao Ming pushed him into McGrady. ESPN's Tom Tolbert thought that Bryant exaggerated that contact to try to draw a foul but that it backfired because the call went against him. McGrady made all three free throws, Bryant missed a jumper and the Rockets took a 105-104 lead when Yao scored off of a nice Juwan Howard feed. The Lakers elected not to take a timeout and as Bryant crossed midcourt to presumably attempt the winning shot he was called for travelling. Replays showed that he took a jump stop and then switched his pivot feet, so it was a good call. Rafer Alston concluded the scoring with two free throws and Bryant missed a potentially tying three pointer as time ran out.

Bryant finished with 53 points on 19-44 (.432) field goal shooting (3-9 on three pointers) and 12-14 free throw shooting. Odom shot just 3-9 from the field but contributed 16 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and four steals before fouling out. Yao led the Rockets with 39 points, adding 11 rebounds, and McGrady finished with 30 points, 10 assists and five rebounds but shot just 7-24 from the field. Bryant guarded McGrady often but not exclusively, while Shane Battier guarded Bryant most of the time. Contrary to those who criticize Bryant's defense, he took the challenge of guarding one of the most potent offensive threats in the league and did a pretty good job on him, although the foul in overtime was obviously a big play. Certainly, all of Bryant's "fans" will be quick to say that Bryant "lost" the game there, disregarding the fact that without his 17 points in the last 4:30 of regulation the Lakers would not have even made it into overtime. Where the Lakers really lost the game was in the paint: the Rockets outrebounded the Lakers 56-47 and had no answer for Yao, who shot 17-21 from the free throw line; all three of the Lakers' centers had five fouls each (Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf) and Odom fouled out. Not all of those fouls came against Yao, of course, but a lot of them did. Bryant's field goal percentage was not great--mainly due to his bad third quarter--but the rest of the team shot even worse. At least Bryant has the capability to heat up, as he showed down the stretch; if those late field goal attempts had been taken by somebody else the game would certainly have been over in regulation.

The 53 points enabled Bryant to etch his name in a couple more spots in the record book. He averaged 40.4 ppg in March, the fourth calendar month in which he has averaged at least 40 ppg (40.6 ppg in February 2003, 43.4 ppg in January 2006 and 41.6 ppg in April 2006--a short, 8 game month, since the regular season concluded before the month ended; I don't recall previously seeing April 2006 included as a 40-ppg month for Bryant, but apparently in this category the Elias Sports Bureau counts all calendar months that have at least five games; the other three months during which Bryant averaged at least 40 ppg comprised 13 or 14 games). Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player to do this multiple times. Elgin Baylor did it once and no one else has ever averaged 40-plus ppg in a calendar month. This was Bryant's 19th career 50 point game, breaking a tie with Baylor. Only Chamberlain (118) and Michael Jordan (31) have more 50 point games.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Tex Winter Compares Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan

Roland Lazenby, the fine editor of Lindy's Pro Basketball--for which I have written several articles during the past two years--recently posted an interview with Triangle Offense guru Tex Winter on the subject of the similarities between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. You can read the complete interview here. Winter concludes, "I tend to think how very much they’re alike. They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don’t know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best." He also dismisses the idea that Bryant took bad shots during his recent scoring binge: "We study the tapes. Actually, for the most part, he’s not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in. He’ll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them." These statements come from the person who invented the Triangle Offense and helped Phil Jackson implement it as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls to six titles; then, Jackson utilized the same Triangle Offense to win three more titles in L.A. with Shaq and Kobe--and Winter says that Jordan and Bryant are "very much alike." The one caveat that Winter offers is that Jordan held his ground on the post better, while Bryant sometimes allows himself to get pushed off of the block and toward the three point line on offense.

Of course, these statements are perfectly in line with what I've written about Bryant for quite some time. Not surprisingly, someone who adds up 32 points and 16 assists and thinks that this is greater than 65 points would bypass the bulk of the article that equates Bryant with arguably the greatest player ever and zero straight in on something that Winter says near the end of the piece. "I’d like to see him play better defense," Winter comments, referring to Bryant. He added that he told this to Bryant directly but is not sure that Bryant will change his recent approach: "You know Kobe. He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense. He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception. The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team. Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly." Note that Winter did not call Bryant a poor defender; he wants Bryant to more consistently play "good defense." He also singled out the Lakers' number one defensive problem, which I have been harping on for months: poor screen and roll defense.

If Tex Winter thinks that Bryant can/should play better or more sound defense, I certainly would not argue the point--but what Winter said is a long way from saying that Bryant is a poor defender or that he has been a poor defender for some time. I think that the reason that Bryant "feels there's a certain way he's got to play the game" is because of the Lakers' overall defensive deficiencies. He knows that there are going to be miscues by the frontcourt players, so he can play "basically sound defense" until the cows come home but all it takes is one breakdown by someone else to turn that into wasted effort. So, Bryant is gambling in the passing lanes.

It is important to keep in mind that Winter, who has an absolutely brilliant mind for basketball and should be in the Hall of Fame, at times argued with Jackson and even Jordan during the Bulls' title runs. Winter is a perfectionist, as all great coaches are, so the slightest deviation from his fundamental view of the game will meet with disapproval.

Roland Beech's 82Games.com site tracks every player in the league and how his team does with him on and off the court. Bryant's offensive rating is 103.3 and his defensive rating is 101.2; his net value of 2.1 is better than anyone else on the team except for Brian Cook, who does not play nearly as many minutes. Bryant's +/- rating of 116 total points is by far the best on the team, meaning that the sum of his offensive and defensive contributions is greater than anyone else's. His "certain way...to play the game" is working better than anything else the Lakers have going, even if in theory it could be tightened up in certain areas. Just as significant as Bryant's 2.1 positive value is the stunning -7.4 value when he is not on the court, which gives him a net total of 9.5 (his 2.1 positive value plus the 7.4 his team loses when he is out). As most people can figure out by watching the Lakers play, the team is pretty crappy when he is not in the game--a -7.4 point differential means that you are a lottery team. The Memphis Grizzlies have the worst record in the league and their point differential is -5.3. How do Bryant's numbers in this regard compare to some of the other top players? LeBron James is 4.8 on and -4.0 off, for a net of 8.8. Dirk Nowitzki is 11.9 on and -3.0 off, for a net of 14.9. Steve Nash is 11.7 on and -2.3 off, for a net of 14.0. Tim Duncan is 12.5 on and +.1 off for a 12.3 net (there must have been some rounding here...). Beech stresses that these ratings are most useful for assessing a player's value to his own team and not necessarily for determining who is the most valuable player in the league. It is interesting to see that the Lakers are far worse without Bryant on the court than the Cavs, Mavs, Suns or Spurs are when their main guy sits. By extension, one would assume that when Bryant is on the court he also has to shoulder a greater load then those players; if the team is just bad when he is out, that suggests that when you sub him in for one player he is still "stuck" with the other four guys who were not doing enough to move the numbers in a positive direction. Bottom line: maybe Winter is right that the Lakers would be better off if Bryant got in a fundamental defensive stance on every possession and never gambled in the passing lanes--and maybe Bryant, who is carrying a greater load than any other superstar in the league who is on a playoff team, is right that he has to take some chances, whether to preserve energy or simply to disrupt the other team, because the other four guys will break down defensively sooner or later. If Bryant can get a steal or a deflection or force the offense to go in another direction--buying more time on the shot clock--this may not be "sound" but it may be the best chance that a flawed Lakers' team has. On the other hand, if Bryant's gambling is influencing the other guards to do the same thing then that is not good, because his instincts and skills are much better than theirs, so a decent gamble for him is probably a poor one for someone else.

Of course, over at "Basketbawful" headquarters there is much rejoicing that I have supposedly been proven wrong (even if you have to quote Winter out of context, ignore the rest of the article and disregard Bryant's statistical impact to come to the conclusion that I am wrong about Bryant). Apparently, they are unaware that Winter has said for quite some time that Bryant is the best player in the game. Last year's NBA Finals performance caused Winter to alter that opinion slightly and place Dwyane Wade equal to or even slightly ahead of Bryant but I've yet to hear Winter say that he would take Basketbawful's beloved Nash over Bryant. So, in the main issue at hand, Winter's comments comparing Bryant to MJ reinforce what I have said all along.

Interestingly, the comments section over at Basketbawful doesn't seem to be working--at least for me; maybe I've been blackballed. Maybe somebody else could pay them a visit and read the rest of Lazenby's article to them--slowly, so they can follow it--so that they understand that Winter sees many similarities between Jordan and Bryant. While they're at it, maybe we could also hear why Bryant's 43 points versus Golden State were meaningless--even though they came in a victory--but those same Warriors just ran the Suns off of the court.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:01 AM

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You Can Definitely Spell "Suns" Without A "D"

Supposedly, Kobe Bryant's recent string of five straight games of 40-plus points was diminished in value because they came against teams with losing records, including the Golden State Warriors. Well, those Warriors ran two-time MVP Steve Nash and his vaunted Phoenix Suns up and down the court in a 124-119 win on Thursday. The Suns trailed 109-86 going into the fourth quarter and were still down 10 with about two minutes to go, but a Boris Diaw three pointer with two seconds left made the final score deceptively close (the margin had not been five points since the 9:53 mark in the first quarter). Golden State scored 45 points in the first quarter and led 77-63 at halftime, prompting TNT's Charles Barkley to ask, "Seriously, do you really think that a team that gave up 80 points in a half is going to win a championship?" Ernie Johnson retorted, "Well, they gave up 77." Barkley said, "You round up. Don't you remember that from school?" The Warriors shot 60% from the field and outrebounded the Suns 25-17 in their highest scoring first half since April 1994. Jason Richardson led Golden State with 36 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 8-13 from three point range. Stephen Jackson had 29 points, seven assists and six rebounds and Baron Davis contributed 21 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. Leandro Barbosa led Phoenix with 27 points, while Steve Nash had 14 points and nine assists.

The Suns are now 3-4 since their win against Dallas, including blowout losses to Denver and Detroit; the Suns' three wins are against Minnesota, Sacramento and Memphis. Contrary to what Bryant's critics bleated last week, the whole schedule is significant, not just the games that the pundits single out, and any NBA team can pose a threat on a given night. Bryant's ability to carry the Lakers to five wins, particularly at a time when the team was reeling and in danger of falling out of the playoff hunt, is very meaningful.

A couple weeks ago it looked like Phoenix had a chance to make a run at the number one seed but the Suns are falling apart down the stretch and are now just two games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs for the third seed. Dropping one spot in the standings would be very significant because it would mean that the Suns would likely have to beat both Dallas and San Antonio to make it to the NBA Finals and would not have home court advantage in either series. The Suns have spent most of the season beating up on the weaker teams while losing to Dallas, San Antonio and Utah but now, with the playoffs looming, some of the lesser teams are revealing chinks in the Suns' armor that the stronger teams will be even more equipped to exploit in a seven game series. The Warriors showed that it is possible to run against Phoenix if you have enough athletic players; they showed that with the right kind of lineup on the court there are all kinds of matchups that can be exploited on the post, including Steve Nash.

Of course, it would be just as wrong to read too much into this one game as it is to simply dismiss the Lakers' wins--but this is not just one loss, it is part of a most unimpressive seven game run since the Dallas game. That should concern anyone who roots for Phoenix. If the Suns do not greatly tighten up their defense and rebounding they will again fail to make it to the NBA Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:37 AM

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part XIV

Kobe Bryant took a narrow lead in the race for the scoring title prior to Leaderboard XIII. Then, he started channeling the spirit of Wilt Chamberlain, producing a total of four straight 50-plus point games and tacking on 43 points in the fifth game for good measure. He slumped to 23 points in his most recent game but has a commanding lead over Carmelo Anthony and Gilbert Arenas. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks keep rolling right along and are still in the hunt for 70 wins.

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

1) Dallas Mavericks, 60-11
2) Phoenix Suns, 53-17
3) San Antonio Spurs, 51-20
4) Utah Jazz, 47-24
5) Detroit Pistons, 45-25

Dallas went 6-0 since the last leaderboard, Phoenix went 3-1 and San Antonio went 5-0. ABC can hype the Mavericks-Suns showdown all it wants--and the game does figure to be fun to watch--but the Suns should be more worried about holding off the surging Spurs than catching the Mavericks.

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

1) Kobe Bryant, LAL 30.8 ppg
2) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 29.0 ppg
3) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 28.8 ppg
4) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.7 ppg
5) LeBron James, CLE 27.3 ppg

7) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.9 ppg

10) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.9 ppg
11) Vince Carter, NJN 24.8 ppg
12) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.3 ppg

Kobe Bryant's surge to the top has been well documented here. Meanwhile, both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson's scoring averages are dropping. Anthony could easily fall to third place by the next leaderboard and LeBron James has already supplanted Iverson in the top five.

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

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.7 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.4 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.2 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, BOS 11.0 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
7) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.6 rpg
8) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.1 rpg

22) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.0 rpg

26) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.8 rpg

The top four are familiar names but a new player has moved into fifth place: Al Jefferson of the Boston Celtics. He is having a very solid year for a very bad team, averaging 15.6 ppg while shooting .509 from the field in addition to his rebounding exploits. You hardly ever hear anything about Tim Duncan this season but he has inched his way up to sixth. Ben Wallace has supposedly been a disappointment yet he is seventh in the league in rebounding, is averaging a career high in assists and is blocking shots at nearly the same rate that he did last year.

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.5 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.5 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.1 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 8.6 apg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.2 apg

Once again, no news to report here.

Starbury is hanging on to the 20th spot (5.6 apg).

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 9:35 PM

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Dan Patrick-Mike Wilbon Podcast, Part II

In my previous post I talked about a Dan Patrick-Mike Wilbon podcast in which Wilbon used some "new math" to compare Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Wilbon asserted that Bryant attempts about four shots per game more than Jordan but this is not the case; he also greatly inflated Jordan's 1987 shooting percentage. There were a couple other interesting comments in that podcast that deserve attention, too.

One, Patrick mentioned that he has spoken with several coaches--who he would not name--who told him that Bryant is a better scorer than Jordan was for several reasons, including better three point range and better ballhandling skills. Wilbon literally laughed those points off and said that he and Patrick need to get a bottle of wine and watch some ESPN Classic tapes of Jordan to refresh their memories about how great MJ was. I'm not sold on the idea that Bryant is better than Jordan, either, but I think that one thing that a lot of fans and outsiders don't fully comprehend is that the notion that Bryant is the best player in today's game has nothing to do with his fancy dunks or his point totals: scouts and coaches recognize Bryant's complete mastery of fundamental skills, plus his high level of conditioning and his competitive spirit, which certainly rivals that of MJ or anyone else.

Two, Wilbon reiterated the popular canard that Jordan would never have performed like Bryant did in game seven of last year's playoffs versus Phoenix. This is an issue that I have discussed numerous times here. In game seven versus Detroit last season, LeBron James had virtually identical numbers to Bryant's game seven numbers versus Phoenix but nobody suggested that there was anything peculiar about how James played--and there was not anything peculiar about it: in both cases, a young team got overwhelmed on the road in game seven. As for whether or not Jordan would go through a long stretch of a playoff game without shooting the ball--the crux of the criticism against Bryant in this instance--the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith covered Jordan and offered his take on this issue last summer. I quoted him in a post titled Thoughts on the Second Round So Far--and Kobe's Game Seven Performance Revisited:

This is what I think happened and it is Jordanesque. I don't buy that sabotage thing. Bryant had 23 by halftime and was on the way to 50 and the Lakers were in trouble, down 15 and going nowhere. So knowing Phil Jackson, he told Bryant the first four games they went inside and distributed the scoring and got up 3-1, that was their only chance. Kobe has been buying in and did so early in the series. So he does in Game 7 and the plan doesn't work and they're down 30 and can't guard the mop kids. It's over, so Kobe packs it in. If he shoots crazy now they lose and he's blamed for being selfish. So he shuts it down. Jordan did something similar in the 1989 conference finals against the Pistons. The Bulls were losing and the Pistons were double and triple-teaming Jordan, so Doug Collins told Jordan to move the ball and not shoot so much. OK, you think those guys can win! Jordan took eight shots in 46 minutes. Michael Jordan could get eight shots off on anyone getting off the bus. The Bulls couldn't recover and Jordan just stopped shooting. It was Game 5 of a six-game series loss. But Kobe is a villain and lightning rod too, so much of the blame goes to him. I don't think he was deserving of so much criticism.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:08 PM

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Mike Wilbon and the New Math

It is amazing to see and hear the funny tricks that people do with numbers in order to find a way to denigrate Kobe Bryant. First, someone tried to say that 32 points plus 16 assists adds up to more than 65 points. Today I listened to a podcast of Mike Wilbon on the Dan Patrick Show. The subject was whether or not Kobe Bryant is better than Michael Jordan. For the record, I'll take Jordan; Bryant is the current player who is most like Jordan and closest to Jordan's abilities but I'd still take Jordan--Bryant's career is not over, though. Anyway, Wilbon mentioned that he had been looking up some numbers (here's where the trouble always begins) and was amazed that Bryant shoots so much more often than Jordan did, claiming that Bryant shoots 29 times per game while Jordan shot roughly 25 times per game. Wilbon asserted that Jordan shot .540 from the field during his 37 ppg season and if he had shot an extra four attempts then he would have averaged 41 ppg. He also said that the NBA's recent changes restricting defensive contact on perimeter players favor Bryant; that is true, but it also favors every other great perimeter player in the league, none of whom have scored like Bryant has the past two seasons--but let's get back to Wilbon's numerical "research" because I don't think that "Stat Boy" Tony Reali is going to want to take any credit for it. Here are Jordan's actual numbers from 1986-87, when he averaged 37.1 ppg: 1098 FGM, 2279 FGA, .482. Jordan shot 12-66 (.182) from three point range that season. Jordan played in all 82 games that year, so that works out to 27.8 FGA/game, not 25. Also, note that MJ shot .482, not .540. Here are Bryant's numbers so far this year (he is averaging 30.8 ppg): 671 FGM, 1449 FGA, .463. Bryant has shot 125/347 (.360) from three point range, which of course drags down his overall field goal percentage; Bryant's "adjusted field goal percentage" (calculated by subtracting free throws made from points scored, dividing that number by field goals attempted and then dividing again by two) is .505, compared to .484 for Jordan in '87. Bryant has played in 66 games, so he is shooting 22.0 FGA/game, not 29.

In Wilbon's defense, maybe he was just looking at the numbers for Bryant's five game streak of 40 point games, when he shot about 35 times per game--but in those contests Bryant shot nearly .530 from the field, including .477 from three point range, far better than Jordan's percentages in 1987, so the numbers still don't add up the way that Wilbon said. Was Wilbon referring to Bryant's numbers from last season? Bryant averaged 35.4 ppg (the best average since Jordan's 37.1) with these shooting numbers: 978 FGM, 2173 FGA, .450. Bryant shot 180/518 (.347) from three point range, so his adjusted field goal percentage was .491--not as good as this year, but still better than Jordan's in 1987. Bryant played in 80 games, so he attempted 27.2 FGA/game--again, not 29 and not more than Jordan shot in 1987.

What does all of this mean? Wilbon is wrong to say that this year Bryant is shooting four times per game more than Jordan did in 1987. In fact, Bryant is attempting nearly six fewer shots per game this year than Jordan did in 1987. Even last year, Bryant attempted more than half a shot a game fewer than Jordan did in 1987. Jordan's 1987 field goal percentage was better than Bryant's from last year or this year but when you factor in three point shooting Bryant's adjusted field goal percentage moves ahead of Jordan's. By the way, the free throw percentages are basically a wash: .857 for Jordan, .850 for Bryant last year, .866 for Bryant this year.

Jordan did have three seasons in which he shot .535 (1988), .538 (1989) and .539 (1991) from the field, averaging 35.0 ppg, 32.5 ppg and 31.5 ppg respectively. He attempted 24.4, 22.2 and 22.4 FGA/game in those seasons and his adjusted shooting percentages in those seasons were .537, .546 and .520. However, if Wilbon meant to reference Jordan's seasons after 1987 he did not make that clear because he kept emphasizing the erroneous .540 number in connection with Jordan supposedly being able to score 41 ppg if he shot as much as Bryant. Looking at the three years when Jordan did shoot close to .540 from the field, his adjusted shooting percentages in those seasons are better than Bryant's from last year or this year--but Wilbon is still wrong about the field goal attempts, because in each of those three seasons Jordan shot more than Bryant is this year.

Maybe Wilbon meant to compare Bryant's numbers from last year to Jordan's numbers from 1988. If so, would it be too much to ask to say what you mean and mean what you say? With the whole weight of the research staff of the "Worldwide Leader" behind you it shouldn't be too much to get the years and the numbers right.

The bottom line is that overall Bryant is shooting less than Jordan did in his prime, not more. When Bryant's greater three point range is factored into the equation, he shot better in his career-high 35.4 ppg season than Jordan did in his career-high 37.1 ppg season. Jordan's main trump in this regard are three seasons during which he averaged at least 31.5 ppg while maintaining a terrific adjusted shooting percentage.

What are their career numbers? Jordan's statistics are skewed a little by his comeback with the Wizards, while Bryant's numbers are dragged down by his low key first few years coming straight out of high school. Jordan averaged 30.1 ppg while shooting 22.9 FGA/game for a .509 adjusted field goal percentage; Bryant has averaged 24.5 ppg while shooting 18.7 FGA/game for a .484 adjusted field goal percentage.

To summarize, Jordan's career numbers are somewhat better than Bryant's but the story is not the one that Wilbon told: Bryant is not shooting more than Jordan; Jordan shot more than Bryant did. Jordan did not shoot .540 from the field in his 37.1 ppg season; he shot much worse than that--.482, his worst shooting percentage in a full season prior to the last season of his first comeback. Also, Jordan's best shooting seasons coincide with the emergence of Scottie Pippen, whose playmaking provided Jordan and the other Bulls with easier scoring opportunities. Bryant does not have a Pippen; in fact, during the Lakers' title run he was Pippen--albeit a higher scoring version--leading the team in assists while Shaquille O'Neal generally took on an attacking role in the triangle offense (in theory the offense is "equal opportunity" but in practice an O'Neal, a Jordan or now a Bryant looks to attack more aggressively from certain areas than other players do).

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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Jamal Mashburn Says Kobe Bryant is the Best Player--AND the MVP

Unlike nearly everyone else who is pontificating on the MVP race, Jamal Mashburn actually knows first hand what it takes to score 50 points in an NBA game; he accomplished that feat twice in his injury shortened career. While many observers draw an artificial line between being the best player in the league and being the MVP, Mashburn argues that Kobe Bryant has earned both titles:

Before he went on this latest run, he was taking seven fewer shots per game and still averaging 29 points per game. He was making his teammates better, Luke Walton and Andrew Bynum in particular, getting everybody involved. And in the last few weeks, when his team needed him to take over in scoring, he did. He's my call for MVP. However, Bryant had an off night Tuesday, scoring 23 in an 88-86 loss to the lowly Grizzlies. That snapped the Los Angeles Lakers' win streak at five. And it snapped Kobe's 40-point-game streak at five, too. Overall, though, he has done more for his team (compared to other MVP candidates) even though his supporting cast isn't as good. The Lakers might not be winning at the level of the Spurs and Mavericks, but without him they're a lottery team. I don't think the award has to go to the best player on the team with the best record, even though I really like what Dirk Nowitzki has done this year. Kobe's popularity might show he's the people choice. His jersey is No. 1 in sales -- when I think MVP, I look at somebody with star power. No shortage of that here. Let's not forget about his defense. There are questions that could be raised about parts of most candidates' games, but there really aren't a lot of weaknesses in Kobe's game.

I would not throw jersey sales in as a factor to be considered in this context, but Mashburn's other points are very solid--and are things that I have raised for consideration in some of my posts.

ESPN.com researcher Michael E. Jackson broke down the Lakers' record this year and found that the team is 6-1 when Bryant scores at least 50 points, 5-2 when he scores 40-49, 7-10 when he scores 30-39, 13-13 when he scores 20-29 and 4-5 when he scores less than 20. In other words, the Lakers are 11-3 (.786; equivalent to 64-18 for a whole season) when Bryant scores at least 40 points and 24-28 (.462; equivalent to 38-44) when he doesn't. The Lakers, as currently constituted, are heavily dependent on Bryant scoring a lot of points; the idea that it is selfish for him to do so or that the team would be better off if he shot the ball fewer times simply is not supported by the team's record--and Bryant has had 50 point games in wins against Utah and Houston, so his super performances are not limited to games against teams with losing records (he also outscored Dallas 62-61 in three quarters last year).

Memphis used a combination of a two-three zone and a box and one zone against Bryant on Tuesday. Have you ever heard of an NBA team using a box and one? That is what college teams do when one opposing player completely overmatches their personnel and/or his teammates are incapable of threatening the defense even with a 4 on 3 advantage. Yeah, Bryant had a poor shooting performance (7-26 from the field)--but the other Lakers shot 26-70 (.371) despite the other team's defense focusing on Bryant. I did not see this particular game (I was in Indiana at the Pacers/Cavs game), so I don't know how many of Bryant's shots were what I call hand grenades--shots that he has to take after he gets the ball back from his teammates with the shot clock winding down. A few of those can turn a bad shooting night into a really bad one. From what I've seen and read about the game, though, it seems that Bryant took a lot of shots from his normal scoring areas but just did not make them. Frankly, I expected him to wear down a couple games ago but he willed himself to 50 points versus the Hornets by putting his head down, driving to the hoop and drawing fouls in the fourth quarter. Scoring 50 points once takes a lot of energy, let alone doing it in four straight games. That is why Wilt Chamberlain--who once averaged 48.5 mpg for an entire season--is the only player other than Bryant to ever do this. With a few days off before Friday's game against Houston, a refreshed Bryant will most likely shoot closer to his normal percentage; after all, he even missed three of his nine free throws against Memphis after only missing five of his previous 59 attempts, a sure sign of fatigue. Whether or not he scores more than 40 will have a lot to do with how much his teammates are able to contribute. Based on the results so far this season, the Lakers will probably need at least 40 points from Bryant to beat a Houston Rockets team that has won two in a row and eight of their last 10.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen Weighs in on the Best Player Debate

While the issue of who should win the MVP makes for interesting water cooler discussion, those who watch the NBA closely and analytically know that there is no doubt who the league's best player is: Kobe Bryant. Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen writes:

"We ask that question all the time," says an NBA advance scout. "When a bunch of us (scouts) are together, we say, 'Who is the best player in the league?' The answer is always Kobe. 'If you needed one basket, who would you want to have shoot it?' Kobe.

'If you needed to make one defensive stop, who would you want?' Kobe.

'If I was starting a team, he's the guy I would build around. He's the best player in the league, there's no question.'"


When I interview players, ex-players, coaches, scouts and other people who truly understand the game, they say much the same thing. The question of the day/year is not whether Bryant is the best player in the NBA but whether the MVP should go to the best player or if it should go to the best player on the best team. Thomsen adds that Bryant's skills do not make him a slam dunk to win the MVP because that award generally goes to a player from one of the league's best teams. Thomsen also makes a point that I have repeatedly stressed here: "This Lakers team has a 19-year old center in Andrew Bynum and an undrafted D-League point guard in Smush Parker. Also, injuries have sidelined Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, Vladimir Radmanovic and Chris Mihm for a combined 170 games. Yet they've beaten all of the best in the West. Give Bynum another two years of experience and add a couple of veterans while keeping everyone else healthy, and Bryant will be more than capable of leading the Lakers to a championship."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 PM

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Cavs Down Plummeting Pacers, Clinch Playoff Berth

LeBron James led the Cavaliers in scoring (26 points), rebounding (seven) and assists (six) as Cleveland defeated Indiana 105-94 at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The victory clinched a playoff spot for the Cavaliers, marking the first time that the team has made postseason appearances in consecutive seasons since 1995-96. Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 23 points and three Cavaliers tied James with seven rebounds (Drew Gooden, Eric Snow and Anderson Varejao) as Cleveland outrebounded Indiana 43-33. Jermaine O'Neal led the Pacers with 32 points on 11-18 field goal shooting and 10-10 free throw accuracy but he had just five rebounds and one blocked shot. O'Neal was clearly hobbled by his troublesome left knee and he lacked his usual explosiveness around the rim. Still, even a limited O'Neal represented enough of a scoring threat that Cleveland chose to double team him in the second half. Of course, that decision also had something to do with the fact that O'Neal did not receive a lot of help from his teammates. Danny Granger (22 points, 10-17 field goal shooting) and Troy Murphy (16 points 6-12 field goal shooting) were solid but even including their contributions the Pacers other than O'Neal shot just 25-58 (.431) from the field.

The Pacers got off to a good start and led 14-8 at the 6:01 mark of the first quarter after O'Neal hit a jump shot--but barely three minutes later the Cavaliers were up 20-16 and never trailed again. The Cavaliers pushed their advantage to 14 points before settling for a 52-45 halftime lead. Cleveland again built a double digit lead in the third quarter but James picked up his fourth foul at the 5:08 mark and sat out the remainder of the period. O'Neal hit the resulting two free throws to cut the margin to 69-60 and by the time the fourth quarter began Cleveland was clinging to a 75-72 lead. James played the entire fourth quarter but shot just 2-6 from the field, while O'Neal went 3-3 and Murphy shot 4-7. O'Neal's jump hook with 8:13 left made the score 81-80 Cleveland but the Cavaliers slowly pulled away after that, sealing the deal by shooting 12-13 from the free throw line down the stretch.

The Pacers recently ended an 11 game losing streak but overall they have dropped 15 of their last 17 and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. Their next two games--road contests against New Jersey on Wednesday and Orlando on Friday--are vitally important because the Pacers will be playing the teams that are right in front of them in the standings.

In his postgame standup, Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said, "We couldn't get a pivotal basket or stop or combination of the two... He (Jermaine O'Neal) has been a horse and a warrior. He's played through a lot and he had a mammoth game tonight...We're just one game out in the loss column. We have to keep our heads up and keep battling."

To a man, the Cavaliers took a very matter of fact approach in response to clinching a playoff spot. Their words and demeanor made it very clear that just qualifying for the playoffs is not a big deal; their goal is advance deep in the postseason and contend for a championship. Coach Mike Brown said simply, "We are a playoff team. We expect to be in the playoffs, but we are going to take things one day at a time, one game at a time, one shootaround at a time. We still have time to improve before the playoffs."

On Tuesday morning, James called a players only meeting. In his postgame remarks, he explained why he did that: "I just wanted to make sure everybody was mentally ready and on the same page as we prepared for this long road trip. I just want us to play great basketball. I want to win every opportunity we have. I can't live with us not playing hard. This is my team. I feel that I have the responsibility to make sure everyone knows where they are on the court...I applaud my teammates. There are going to be times when I might yell at them, but I want them to get better. I have no personal agenda. I just want to win basketball games."

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

Prior to the game I spoke with a couple members of the Cleveland and Indiana organizations respectively. Granting them anonymity, I asked them to share their thoughts on this year's MVP race. Here are the key points that interview subject number one made:

* The MVP selection process is so "subjective" that he "does not give a crap" about it or really dwell on who will win. That being said, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are all worthy of winning the award this year because each of their teams would be much worse without their main guy. Tim Duncan also deserves to be mentioned in this group.

* The Suns play a style of defense that matches their personnel. They do not have a great paint presence as a team, so they want to not foul, give up twos as opposed to threes, keep the clock moving and run teams out of the gym. I then asked if this style can be effective in the postseason, especially considering that the Suns are just 2-6 against Dallas, San Antonio and Utah. Whether or not this style can win a title, the Suns have no choice but to play this way based on how their roster is put together; they don't have the personnel to be a grind it out, lock down defensive team. On the other hand, the Spurs are equally able to run or slow the game down. The Spurs rank near the bottom of the league in forcing turnovers and in offensive rebounding because their philosophy is to get back on defense and force the other team to shoot contested shots in a half court set; that is why the Spurs are number three in defensive field goal percentage and number one in scoring differential.

Interview subject number two answered immediately that Dirk Nowitzki should be this year's MVP "without question." He cited not only Dallas' record but Nowitzki's high level of play and how much it has contributed to that success. The remainder of his ballot would include, in no particular order, Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Arenas caught my attention because I certainly would not place him that highly; I mentioned his poor shot selection and shooting percentage. My interview subject agreed that those things are true but said that despite those things Arenas still often "comes out smelling like a rose" and leading his team to victory. As for Garnett, he said that even though "Minnesota is getting their head beat in" that you have to give props to KG because he is very productive.

I also spoke with a writer who has been an MVP voter in recent years; the NBA rotates voting duties among various local beat writers--many teams are covered by several beat writers from various outlets, so one year writer "A" may vote for MVP and writer "B" may vote for Coach of the Year and the next year the NBA may swap their assignments. I knew that the voting panels comprised local beat writers and national writers but never had heard that each panel can change this way from year to year. Anyway, this writer told me that if he is an MVP voter this year he would vote for Nowitzki. He added that Nash and Bryant also deserve consideration, but that he would not place either one ahead of Nowitzki. Duncan and James would round out his ballot but he is not sure in which order.

I've made my views on this subject pretty clear but it was interesting to me to hear the perspective of two league insiders and one beat writer who may actually cast a vote this year--and, no, before anyone asks, I did not lobby for Bryant, either with the potential voter or with my first two subjects. I simply asked their opinions.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 AM

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Old Bait and Switch

Not surprisingly, I never received a direct response when I pointed out that Kobe Bryant's recent scoring binge is much more historically rare than Steve Nash's 32/16 or 28/22 points/assists combos (which came in different seasons, not consecutive games). Instead what I got was the classic "bait and switch," shifting the discussion from consecutive 50 point games versus points/assists combos to whether Nash has ever done something as historically rare as what Bryant just did. The answer is that Nash has done some pretty nice things in playoff series, such as posting double figures in assists in seven straight games (only Magic Johnson and John Stockton have done that) and being the only player ever to have four straight playoff games with 25 points and 10 assists.

There were a couple others, but the main idea is that Nash has done some things in the playoffs that are allegedly as rare and significant as Kobe Bryant's recent scoring run. I wouldn't think that playoff accomplishments are where Nash advocates would want to go in the Bryant-Nash debate, because then they have to address the fact that Bryant has three rings plus one other Finals appearance. Yes, Kobe played with Shaq--and Nash played several seasons with MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki and is currently playing with All-NBA caliber players like Amare and Marion.

Kobe Bryant led the Lakers in assists each of the three championship years. He made the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams each year. In the '01 playoffs, Kobe averaged 29.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.1 apg, leading the team in assists and ranking second in scoring and rebounding (Shaq averaged 30.4 ppg). This is a shooting guard leading a championship team in assists and ranking second in rebounding while scoring almost 30 ppg.

You want great individual playoff games by Kobe Bryant? OK, how about leading his team in scoring, rebounding and assists (25, 11, 7) in a game 7 come from behind win over Portland in the 2000 Western Conference Finals? Without that win there might not have been a Lakers dynasty. Two years later in game seven of the Western Conference Finals Kobe had 30, 10 and 7. How about game four against Sacramento in 2001? All Kobe had was 48 points and 16 rebounds. In his next game he had 45 and 10 versus the Spurs in the first game of a Western Conference Finals sweep.

I know what comes next. The "bait and switch" happens again, all of the above is ignored and the discussion moves straight to game seven last year against the Suns. What happened there? Kobe scored a ton in the first half to keep the Lakers close. In the third quarter he tried to get his teammates involved, they kicked the ball all over the place and the Suns blew them out. By the way, check out what happened to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in game seven versus Detroit: almost exactly the same thing. The Suns had the better team but somehow Kobe and the Lakers took them to a seventh game.

A couple other things to consider:

1) If scoring a lot against losing teams is so easy how come no one other than Wilt has scored that much in the history of the NBA? Also, Kobe had 62 points in three quarters last year against eventual NBA Finalist Dallas. By the way, since Nash advocates are so fond of W-L records, check out the Suns' record against the top teams this year (Mavericks, Spurs, Jazz): 2-6.

2) The same person who confused Jeff Foster with Greg Foster and thinks that Phil Jackson used to hide Michael Jordan on defense claims to remember several games in which Larry Bird had 40+ points but sat out at the end of blowouts rather than going for 50 or 60. That may be true, but I'd like to know which specific games that he is talking about. Meanwhile, here's a game to think about: Bird's career high 60 versus Atlanta. Check out the end of the game: it's a blowout and the Celtics are fouling the Hawks to get the ball back so that Larry can go for 60. Classy. At least Kobe's 50+ games came in competitive contests.

I know that the only likely response to this post from the person in question is mustache jokes, the "bait and switch" and so forth--but the good thing about all of this is that readers can digest all of this information and see that things are not quite the way that they are often presented to be. Why should we just accept that Steve Nash is "better" than Kobe Bryant? On what basis? There is not a statistical justification for this, nor is Nash more of a winner than Bryant. Nash is a great point guard in the 80s/90s mold. Bryant is the best player in the game today and will go down in history as one of the very greatest who ever played. If/when the Lakers assemble a better supporting cast around him he will again be in the thick of the hunt for a championship. Even this current Lakers team could still pose a challenging matchup in the playoffs, particularly to the Suns, who struggled against the Lakers in last year's postseason.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:43 PM

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Kobe's 50 Point Streak Ends, But the Lakers Winning Streak Continues

The Golden State Warriors stopped Kobe Bryant's streak of consecutive 50 point games at four but Bryant scored 43 points in a 115-113 L.A. Lakers win. Bryant had 12 fourth quarter points as the Lakers overcame a 10 point deficit with less than 10 minutes left in the game. He shot 15-33 from the field (4-11 on three pointers) and 9-11 from the free throw line, adding nine rebounds but also committing seven turnovers. Bryant did not have any assists but the team has won five in a row during his current scoring explosion so I don't think that Phil Jackson is real concerned about getting more shot attempts for the other Lakers at the moment. L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers had the perfect take on that subject in this March 18 piece: Bryant is facilitating more shots for himself. Simers wrote, "So much for the great facilitator, the ball hog is back, and this is the way the Lakers should be entertaining everyone. At the very least, 'anything to keep the ball out of Smush Parker's hands' should be the motto of every Lakers fan these days." I wouldn't call Bryant a "ball hog" but Simers is right on target when he notes that the Lakers are better off when Bryant "facilitates" shots for himself than when he "facilitates" shots for guys who either can't shoot or don't want the responsibility to shoot. It is not coincidental that Bryant's scoring feats and the current Lakers winning streak come on the heels of two blowout losses to the Dallas Mavericks and Denver Nuggets. Having Kobe Bryant play passively and share the ball sounds great in theory but on the court it led to disaster because his teammates did not carry their own weight. Now Bryant is carrying such a heavy load and attracting so much defensive attention that it is easier for his supporting cast to make some contribution to the cause. He is making his team and his teammates better by not forcing them to shoulder a greater load than they can handle and by drawing double-teams that open up the court.

Bryant has scored 268 points in the Lakers' five game winning streak (53.6 ppg), shooting 91-173 from the field (.526), 21-44 on three pointers (.477) and 65-71 (.915) from the free throw line. Those percentages would rank 15th, second and second in the NBA respectively this season. Although Bryant's 50 point streak is over, he has scored at least 40 in five straight games. Topping the 40 point park with regularity is nothing new for him, of course. Bryant has 81 career 40 point games (the Lakers are 57-24 in those games, including 11-3 in 2006-07). He just passed Oscar Robertson (77) and trails only Wilt Chamberlain (271), Michael Jordan (173) and Elgin Baylor (88) on the all-time list. Last year Bryant set a Lakers franchise record by scoring at least 40 points in 27 games. He also had 19 such games in 2002-03 (fourth on the Lakers list) and now has 14 this year (sixth on the Lakers list). Bryant had nine straight 40 point games in 2002-03 (the Lakers went 7-2), which tied Jordan for the fourth longest such streak in NBA history; Chamberlain had two 14 game streaks and one 10 game run. Bryant averaged 43.4 ppg in January 2006 and 40.6 ppg in February 2003. He is the only player other than Chamberlain to twice average at least 40 ppg for an entire calendar month; Chamberlain did it 11 times. Baylor did it once and no one else has done it at all in the history of the NBA. Bryant is averaging 40.8 ppg in March 2007, with two games remaining: home contests versus Memphis and Houston. He just scored 60 against Memphis and had 23, 53 and 20 in his three previous games against Houston this season.

After Sunday's game, Warriors Coach Don Nelson said, "We held him to 43, by God. We did a good job. I think our defense was solid. We tried to make it hard for Kobe. What a great performance--I can't imagine what he's been doing."

***

Recent Quotes About Kobe Bryant:

"He's an indomitable warrior, that's who he is. He really has an incredible arsenal. He's one of a kind--he can play point guard or number 2 guard or small forward. It doesn't matter. He's going to score." Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, six-time NBA MVP, NBA career scoring leader and currently a Lakers assistant coach.

"He and I would sit down and talk about the '80s teams, the championship teams we had. [Bryant] wanted to know how good we were, what did it take for us to win, why were we so successful. All the questions that are normally asked by guys that are 20-something, not 18. I would expect an 18-year-old to ask where do we party, how are the girls in L.A. He didn't care about that. He just wasn't a regular 18-year-old kid. I knew that. He was very mature, already had in his mind pretty much what he wanted to accomplish. I remember we did an interview together in his rookie year. I called Kobe over and told the guys doing the show, 'You see this kid? He's going to be the best player in the league.' Three or four years later, I thought he was. To this day I still do...He has the competitive edge just like Magic [Johnson]. Whatever it was going to take to win, he was going to get it done." Byron Scott, member of three Lakers championship teams, teammate of Bryant's during Bryant's rookie season and currently Coach of the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.

"Let's be honest. Bryant isn't judged the same as other players. If personality didn't color judgment, if effort and understanding of the game could be quantified in a boxscore, there would not be any confusion over who the game's best player is. That wasn't his fault until he proved over the last 10 days that he could overcome all that, could force the most anti-Kobe soul to concede that there's no one who can do what he can." Ric Bucher, writing in Daily Dime at ESPN.com right after Bryant's 43 point game. Bucher indicated how high Bryant has set the bar: a game that would be a career night for many players was anticlimactic coming from Bryant: "If there's such a thing as a dissatisfying 43-point performance, Kobe Bryant delivered it Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors. Yeah, he still hit an array of momentum-swinging shots, and yeah, the Los Angeles Lakers still won, 115-113, and, yeah, it was a performance that by almost any other player would be considered pretty damn good." He made an excellent point about Bryant's supporting cast when he added, "I noticed the weird listlessness of Lamar Odom on D and the careless ballhandling of Smush Parker and the general ambivalence of Kwame Brown that makes it astounding that the Lakers are six games over .500."

posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

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Suns Set in Sacramento

Road wins are hard to come by in the NBA; only six teams have winning records away from home (that is yet another reason that Kobe Bryant's two most recent 50 point performances are so impressive--they came in road wins). The Phoenix Suns have the NBA's second best road record (24-9) but on Sunday the 30-40 Sacramento Kings dealt a serious blow to Phoenix' chances to catch the Dallas Mavericks for the best overall record in the league, knocking off the Suns 107-100 in Arco Arena. The Suns are now 5.5 games behind Dallas and just 4 games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs for the third seed in the West. Sacramento point guard Mike Bibby torched the Suns for 37 points, nailing nine of his 12 three point shots, and the Kings shot .521 from the field as a team despite playing most of the game without leading scorer Kevin Martin, who got scratched in the eye and did not return to action because he was experiencing double vision. The Kings also got a big game from Ron Artest, who contributed 24 points and nine rebounds. He is like a modern day Micheal Ray Richardson--because of his off court issues you never know if he is going to show up or how well he will play but at his best he can be a serious difference maker. In 1984 Richardson spearheaded a first round upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers. Two years later he was banned for life due to drug use. Artest has his own pending legal issues--and according to one report has spoken of retiring after this season, a comment he now denies making--but when he is on the court and focused on basketball he definitely has a major impact.

Steve Nash had 18 points, nine assists and seven turnovers for the Suns, who were led in scoring by Leandro Barbosa (25 points) and Amare Stoudemire (23 points, 11 rebounds). The Suns were unable to get the tempo of the game quite to the speed that they like, nor did they shoot well (.461 from the field, .304 from behind the arc). The Suns are not a lock down defensive team, so when they can't push the ball and make three point shots they can be beaten.

Next Sunday, the Mavericks come to Phoenix for a game that, according to the talking heads, will decide whether Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki wins this year's MVP. The more you think about that idea the less sense that it makes. Dallas has 13 games remaining, while Phoenix has 14 games left. If the Mavericks go just 9-4 (the Mavs are 58-11) then the Suns cannot catch them even if they go 14-0. Dallas leads the season series with Phoenix 2-1. So, with virtually the entire season over, Dirk Nowitzki's team has all but clinched having the best regular season record and will do no worse than split its head to head games with the Suns. Why should next Sunday's game decide the MVP award? Maybe if the Suns win that game by 20, go 14-0 and Dallas goes 6-7 down the stretch then it could be said that Nash outperformed Nowitzki in the most important part of the season. At this point, all of that is more than just a slight reach. If the MVP race is truly only between Nash and Nowitzki then it would be more accurate to say that Nowitzki has all but clinched it instead of pretending that it is up for grabs based on one game that is unlikely to affect the final standings.

Meanwhile, the L.A. Lakers have won five straight games, with Kobe Bryant averaging 53.6 ppg in those contests (he had 43 points on Sunday night against Golden State, which will be the subject of the next post). What if they go 8-4 in their last 12 games, with Bryant leading the charge? He's not participating in Sunday's Dallas-Phoenix game but if he carries an injury decimated team that is not overly talented in the first place to the sixth seed in the Western Conference does he not deserve some MVP consideration? It's fine to handicap the MVP race with three or four weeks to go but how can anyone declare that after one particular game the race will be over, especially when that game will not likely change the overall standings?

After the Kings-Suns game, ABC color commentator Mark Jackson--who usually offers insightful analysis--declared that the Suns can win at home or on the road so staving off San Antonio for the third seed is not vitally important. This was in response to play by play man Mike Breen noting--as I mentioned above--that the Spurs are actually closer to the Suns than the Suns are to the Mavs. In last year's playoffs, the Suns trailed the Lakers 3-1 in the first round and won the series in no small part due to the fact that game seven was played in Phoenix. In the next round the Suns lost by 12 on the road in game six and needed the seventh game at home to prevail against the L.A. Clippers. Without home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix fell in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. If home court advantage mattered against the Lakers and the Clippers last year--neither of whom were as good as this year's Spurs--it will certainly matter if Phoenix plays San Antonio in the 2007 playoffs.

Nash's 32 points and 16 assists in the Suns' 129-127 double overtime win over Dallas on March 14 supposedly "clinched" the MVP for him but since that game the Suns have gone just 2-3 so now the talking heads speak of the Suns' fatigue after such a draining game and point to next Sunday's game as allegedly the real MVP clincher. Dallas has won six straight since that loss, including five in a row on the road. Shouldn't the Mavericks have been more drained? Why don't those games apparently count in the MVP race? If the Suns had also been perfect since their last showdown with the Mavs they would only be three games behind Dallas and it would make more sense to speak of a one game battle for MVP.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tying Up Some Loose Ends Regarding "Awful Analysis"

After I tried to set the record straight regarding whether Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash is a better player only to receive a response that focused more on facial hair than basketball, one of my regular readers summed up the exchange quite nicely: "Don't feed the troll." The thing is, though, if you don't feed the troll it doesn't stop him from being a troll and may convince some people that he actually knows what he is talking about. Perhaps the troll should starve, but the readers deserve the best possible basketball analysis.

I don't know what the deal is with the comments section at this person's site but rather than write something there that may or may not see the light of day--and will only be read by people who think that 32 points and 16 assists is better than 65 points and that Phil Jackson hid Michael Jordan on defense--I decided to tie up some loose ends here.

One person asked me to explain the difference between Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas in terms of shot selection. Arenas' shot selection is something that I have addressed previously at this website: here and here. He differs from Bryant in many ways: most notably, Arenas dribbles up the court and jacks up long jumpers and three pointers with plenty of time left on the shot clock, while Bryant generally does not do that unless it is at the end of a quarter for a 2 for 1 possession. Yesterday, I charted what Bryant did at the offensive end of the court for the entire third quarter of his most recent 50 point game. Obviously, he doesn't always shoot 6-7 from the field, but the moves were fairly typical. He catches the ball, reads the defense and shoots within one or two dribbles (or passes when he is double-teamed). Arenas just fires at will from all angles. He is very talented, so he makes some of these shots but he also has some horrendous games--15 times this year he has shot below .300 from the field. His repertoire does not include the footwork or ball fakes that Bryant smoothly employs. Bryant is fundamentally sound and that--coupled with his great athleticism--is why he can do things that few other people in the history of the game have done. Arenas' main two "moves" are shooting deep pull up threes and driving hard to the basket. Before some Agent Zero fan angrily denounces me, yes I'm sure that there are examples of Arenas making other shots--but he does not have a back to the basket game that is as refined as Bryant's or an arsenal of turnaround jumpers, pump fakes and so forth the likes of which Bryant uses to attack defenses.

The conclusion of my comment at the other site speaks for itself: "You're right, though. Arenas does 'occasionally' win playoff series. He also 'occasionally' misses two free throws after LeBron psyches him out. Last I checked, Kobe was an All-NBA and All-Defensive Team player while he was a member of three championship teams. Good luck to Arenas on matching that."

As for Nash's "64 point game" (32 points plus 16 assists equals 64 points in the new math) and his 28-22 game and how common those feats are, it should be obvious that Bryant's current 50 point string--now at four and counting, exceeded only by Wilt Chamberlain all-time--is much more rare and difficult. Basketball Reference.com has all the boxscores since 1986-87 (not including this season, yet). There have been 34 20 point/20 assist games since that time. Some notable ones include 32-20-11 (rebounds) by Magic Johnson, 30-21 by Kevin Johnson, 29-21 by Magic, 31-20-16 (!) by Fat Lever, 29-21 by Magic (no, I'm not stuttering; he did it again), 37-20 by KJ, 30-20 by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. What about the exact 32-16 combo that Nash had? There have been 22 other games since 1986-87 in which a player had at least 32 points and at least 16 assists. I'm not trying to take anything away from Nash; 32-16 and 28-22 are excellent--but they are neither as rare nor as difficult as 50-plus points in four straight games. Scoring 65 points in and of itself is very noteworthy. Since 1986-87, that has only happened three other times: Bryant famously had 81 last year, David Robinson had 71 on the last day of the 1994 season when his teammates force fed him the ball so he could win the scoring title and Michael Jordan scored a career high 69 in an overtime game in 1990.

There is no question that Nash is a great player. I think that some of his forerunners--Mark Price and Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway and John Stockton--were in many ways underappreciated. Nash is not "better" than Kobe Bryant when it comes to overall skills and completeness. Nash plays on a team that has a lot more talented players than the Lakers do--and yet barely beat the Lakers in a seven game series last year. Frankly, anyone who thinks that the series would have been that close if Nash and Bryant switched teams is simply delusional. Bryant is scoring 50-plus points game after game despite not having even one reliable outside shooting threat on his team or even one bonafide 20 ppg scorer. How exactly would teams guard him if he were playing alongside Marion and Stoudemire? Plus, it is more difficult--if not impossible--to double team a great player in an open court, fast break situation, so Bryant would absolutely thrive in the Suns' offense. If Nash played for the Lakers, he would still score 18-20 ppg--maybe even a little more. He would not shoot as well, because teams could guard him tighter without worrying that his teammates would make shots. Nash's assists would be cut by 20%, at least, as Kwame Brown fumbled the ball out of bounds and Smush Parker clanked shots left and right.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:29 AM

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