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Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Legacy of the ABA

This year is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the ABA, the league that popularized the three-point shot, the Slam Dunk contest and the concept of players leaving college early to turn pro. The ABA also brought us Julius Erving's incomparable high-wire act, George Gervin's finger roll and four teams that have been part of the NBA landscape for three decades: Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs.

What do you give a league that provided so much--and no longer exists? Recognition. The ABA's history is shrouded in legend, myth and folklore. I don't know if the upcoming Well Ferrell movie that loosely references the ABA will do much to improve that or not but what the NBA and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame should do is assemble a committee--modeled on the one that Major League Baseball formed regarding neglected Negro Leaguers--and acknowedge the contributions of neglected ABA players, including Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and others. Hopefully, that will happen someday. Meanwhile, take a trip down memory lane with David Thompson, Earl Monroe and Maurice Lucas in my NBCSports.com tribute to the ABA:

The Legacy of the ABA

posted by David Friedman @ 3:12 PM


Suns Outlast Lakers, 93-85

Kobe Bryant shot just 7-26 from the field as the L.A. Lakers fell to the Phoenix Suns, 93-85; he finished with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. If you ever wondered what would have happened to the Lakers in March if Bryant had not shot the lights out and averaged over 40 ppg, the answer came during this game--and it was not pretty. Meanwhile, Steve Nash had an outstanding performance, shooting 10-16 from the field, scoring 26 points with 14 assists and just one turnover. The Suns only had eight turnovers and the Lakers committed just nine, but--other than Nash--both teams shot horribly: 34-89 (.382) for Phoenix, 35-89 (.393) for L.A. The game was decided at the free throw line, where the Suns shot 18-20 (.900) and the Lakers shot 8-12 (.667). Bryant, who normally attempts 10 free throws per game, shot 2-2. The Lakers trailed by as many as 16 in the second half but rallied to get as close as five points. The Lakers gave a valiant effort in the second game of a back to back against a superior team but, as ESPN analyst Hubie Brown might say, "Nobody outside of Lakerland cares about that." The end result was a loss--and potentially a very damaging one at that. The Clippers and Warriors are right behind the Lakers, who have not clinched a playoff berth yet; they have just two games remaining and risk falling out of the postseason picture if they don't get their ship righted in a hurry.

How bad was the shooting in this game? Amare Stoudemire had a double-double (15 points, 16 rebounds), but shot 4-16 from the field. Shawn Marion scored 16 points and had 11 rebounds, but shot 7-18 from the field. The leading candidate for the Sixth Man Award, Leandro Barbosa, shot 3-10 from the field and scored only eight points. Luke Walton was one bright spot for the Lakers, leading the team with 19 points while shooting 8-17 from the field. He also had eight rebounds and five assists. Lamar Odom shot 7-19 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line, finishing with 16 points, 13 rebounds and no assists.

The Smush Parker era seems to be rapidly drawing to a close in L.A. He shot 0-4 from the field in just 16 minutes of "action," contributing one rebound and one assist while watching Nash blow by him for 11 first quarter points on 5-5 shooting. Parker made only a cameo appearance in the second half and was on the bench when the Lakers made their comeback in the fourth quarter. Parker jacked up a long jumper on the Lakers' first possession of the third quarter, missing badly. Brown was not impressed: "You're on the road, you had a bad first half, so do not come out and rush a long jump shot to start the second half. Smush Parker has got to understand who he is, what his role is on the team--and if you don't want to play within what we're doing, then we'll put someone else in that spot." Jackson did just that within a few minutes and Sasha Vujacic's defense on Nash played a key role in the Lakers' comeback that fell just short.

Dissatisfied with the production that the Lakers have been getting at center, Phil Jackson started Ronny Turiaf instead of Andrew Bynum. Turiaf is a high energy bench player who is not accustomed to starting or playing big minutes, but he turned in a very solid 10 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 29 minutes. Bynum may have drawn some motivation from the benching, because he responded with eight points and four blocked shots in just 19 minutes.

In many ways, this game was a microcosm of the Lakers' season, the main and obvious difference being Bryant's wayward shooting. The Suns defended him very well, their primary strategy being to double-team him whenever he got the ball. Bryant forced a couple shots, but for the most part he missed shots that he normally makes, including a few that went in and came back out. He was not able to split the double-teams very often, so Bryant spent a lot of the game drawing an extra defender and then passing to the open man; his shot attempts came in transition, off of screen and roll plays or on quick hitting moves before the double-team arrived. How can I say that he spent "a lot of the game" passing when Bryant attempted 26 shots and had four assists? Simple. I watched the game and charted what he did. Bryant's shots came from his normal areas--the post, the elbow and some dribble penetrations in the lane. What about the six three pointers, of which he made just one? One of those was a heave to beat the first quarter buzzer. Two others came in the last 36 seconds when the Lakers were trailing by five or six points. So when "Joe Expert" tells you that Bryant shot too many threes all game long and did not attack the defense, you can inform him that Bryant shot 1-3 on three pointers other than those three desperation shots. Brown noted early in the game that even though Bryant was not hitting his shots he was making things happen off of the dribble and taking shot attempts from high percentage areas. Near the end of the first quarter, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew two defenders and passed to Odom for a layup that put the Lakers up 23-22. Brown said of Bryant, "He'll give it up anytime he's in the post area or off the dribble down in the paint. Anytime he gets double-teamed--that time he was triple-teamed--he'll find the free guy."

An interesting sequence happened near the end of the second quarter. Odom unleashed a contested air ball from beyond the three point line, leading to this comment from Brown: "You had Kobe Bryant posting on one side and Luke Walton cutting through (with Barbosa pinned on his hip) and you miss both guys and end up with an airball." On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant initiated the offense, driving to the hoop and drawing two defenders, then passing to Odom for a wide open three pointer that he made, his only successful three pointer of the game. No matter how poorly Bryant may shoot in a given game, teams will still double-team him and he can still create open shots for his teammates that would otherwise not be there.

The Lakers led by as much as seven points in the first quarter and kept the game close throughout the first half, trailing only 51-50 at halftime. Nash abused the Lakers--mostly Parker--for 15 points on 7-10 shooting in the first half, adding seven assists. Bryant scored 13 points on 5-15 shooting and had four rebounds and three assists. The big story for the Lakers was that they finally got some production from someone other than Bryant: Walton had 11 points on 5-9 shooting, Bynum had six points on 3-4 shooting and Vujacic scored five points on 2-2 shooting. However, those three players shot just 3-12 in the second half.

The game began to slip away from the Lakers in the third quarter. Odom committed three fouls in six minutes and shot just 1-4 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line as the Suns took a 67-56 lead. The Lakers stayed close in the first half even with Bryant shooting poorly because his presence created open shots for others. As Brown put it during the telecast, "Kobe Bryant is a great passer and when you add Walton you have two guys on the floor who can create. Lamar Odom can always be your third distributor." The Lakers fell behind when the offense was run through Odom in the early part of the third quarter. I understand and respect that Odom is playing despite having an injured left (shooting) shoulder; my point is simply that this Lakers team is not nearly as good as the Lakers team of a year ago, which ended the season strongly and almost upset Phoenix in the first round. Odom is banged up, Kwame Brown is out of the lineup and Walton seems to be just returning to form. Meanwhile, Bryant may be worn down from the load that he has carried since the All-Star break.

One more observation about the Lakers and then I'll turn my attention to the Suns. Late in the third quarter, Bryant drew a double-team and passed to Walton, who immediately swung the ball to a wide open Maurice Evans. Instead of shooting a rhythm jumper, Evans hesitated and then missed a contested fadeaway. Hubie Brown made an important observation: "He had a wide open shot. In situations like that out of double teams, when the ball comes to you on the second pass, you have to be ready to shoot." That has been one of my biggest criticisms of Bryant's teammates: they are either unwilling or unable to make the open shots that result from him being double-teamed. The problem is neither that Bryant shoots too much nor that he passes too little; it is that his teammates don't take advantage of playing four on three. Yes, Bryant shot poorly in this particular game, but that is an aberration, because he's been putting up 35-40 ppg or more for the last 40 games, shooting a good percentage plus contributing rebounds and assists; the failure of his teammates to take advantage of open shots is a season-long theme. On the next possession after Evans' miss, Bryant put his head down, drove to the hoop and attempted a running bank shot, which caromed wildly off of the glass. "It's not in the cards for him tonight," Brown said simply after that play. When Bryant came off of the court at the end of the quarter, he and Jackson talked briefly. I don't know what was said but my guess would be that Jackson asked about that shot and Bryant answered something to the effect of "What am I supposed to do? When I give the ball up, no one wants to shoot."

The bottom line is that the Lakers simply are not a very good team now. If they make it to the playoffs they will likely get swept, unless they somehow find a way to start playing the way that they did last April and May. What about Phoenix? This was an important home game for the Suns, who are trying to hold off the charging Spurs and keep the second seed in the West. The Lakers are discombobulated and even Bryant could not bail them out on this night--but it was just a five point game with 1:58 remaining in the fourth quarter. Why couldn't the Suns put this team away? Two reasons: (1) The Suns shot just 7-25 from three point range. Their running attack is fueled not by layups but by long jumpers. If the Suns have a bad shooting night from beyond the arc then they are not going to blow anyone out, even a flawed team like the Lakers. (2) The Suns have been accused of being a poor defensive team but point differential is one of Hubie Brown's favorite stats--dating back to his coaching days--and he mentioned more than once that the Suns have an excellent point differential. They are clearly making a strong effort to play defense and they have enough quick players to bother people on the perimeter. The problem is that Phoenix is soft in the middle and no amount of effort is going to change that. Anytime the Lakers sent someone in the post they did damage: Bynum, Walton, Odom and Bryant got a lot of their points on postups. Jackson called this the "Inside Man" strategy (named after the Spike Lee movie) during last year's playoffs and it almost enabled the Lakers to knock off the Suns. The Lakers are too out of whack to pull that off this year, but the first team that shuts down the Suns' three point attack and pounds the ball in the paint on offense will eliminate Phoenix from this year's playoffs. The Utah Jazz have been slumping recently but they have done well against Phoenix this year and they play the Suns on Saturday night; it will be interesting to see if the Jazz are able to do those two things against the Suns.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:52 AM


Friday, April 13, 2007

Inside the NBA Crew Hands Out Some Hardware

Throughout TNT's Thursday doubleheader telecast--their final regular season games of the 2006-07 season--the Inside the NBA crew of Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith announced their choices for various awards. Here are their picks, followed by brief comments (I gave some more in depth analysis here: ESPN's Shootaround Crew Selects the 2006-07 Awards Winners):

Rookie of the Year:

All three chose Brandon Roy of the Portland Trailblazers. He's my pick as well and should win the award quite easily.

Defensive Player of the Year:

Kenny Smith picked Tyson Chandler of the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, noting that he not only blocks shots but that he also gets defensive rebounds, starting his team's fast break.

Reggie Miller chose Marcus Camby of the Denver Nuggets.

Charles Barkley, apparently not interested in researching the merits of particular players, selected the San Antonio Spurs team. Barkley explained that no individual defender has stood out this year but that the Spurs always play great defense.

My pick is Marcus Camby. When he is healthy, Camby is a tremendous defensive force and his play has sparked the Nuggets' recent winning streak. Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan also deserve consideration. Wallace supposedly had an off year but he is still in the top ten in rebounds, he blocked 100 shots, made 100 steals and the Bulls have a good shot at the number two seed. Meanwhile, his old team the Pistons are supposedly better on offense and no worse on defense without him but they've won significantly fewer games this year and don't play well against the Bulls. Wallace's impact will be even greater in the playoffs.

Sixth Man of the Year:

All three chose Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns. I agree.

Coach of the Year:

Smith chose Avery Johnson of the Dallas Mavericks, Miller went with Sam Mitchell of the Toronto Raptors and Jerry Sloan of the Utah Jazz (tie) and Barkley picked Mitchell. Doug Collins weighed in as well during the Lakers-Clippers game, taking Mitchell narrowly over Sloan. I would choose Johnson, with Mitchell second.

Most Improved Player:

Smith and Miller both chose Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors, while Barkley picked Tyson Chandler of the NO/OK Hornets. Those selections are not bad, but I would go with Kevin Martin of the Sacramento Kings.

Most Valuable Player:

Smith and Barkley went with Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks, who I think will in fact win the award, while Miller chose Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns but said that he would not have a problem with Nowitzki getting the award (note: in an earlier version of this post I said that Miller chose Nowitzki). No doubt shocking my readers, I would pick Kobe Bryant. Barkley and Miller both acknowledged that Bryant is in fact the "best" player but Barkley said that the MVP award should reward winning.

There were also some "special" awards:

Kenny Smith gave the "Silence Your Critic Award" to Chris Webber of the Detroit Pistons. I would agree, so far, but let's see what the Pistons do in the playoffs.

Charles Barkley gave the "Hamburger Helper Award" to the New York Knicks for getting so bent out of shape when the Chicago Bulls kept trying to score at the end of a blowout so that fans could get a free hamburger. Scoring 100 points (the Bulls in fact ended up just short of that) is not running up the score, according to Sir Charles: any NBA team should be able to do that (the Knicks managed just 69 on the night in question).

Reggie Miller, who has his own film company, chose three awards based on TV shows: he gave the "Honeymooners" award to the Toronto Raptors, though the rationale behind this frankly did not make a lot of sense. Something about the team returning to the playoffs. Earlier in the show, Miller talked about a team getting a "steam of head," apparently meaning what most of us call "a head of steam." I don't plan on spending any more time trying to figure either of those things out. Moving on, he gave "The Closer" award to Kobe Bryant because of his ability to finish off games--the loss to the Clippers notwithstanding. Finally, Miller gave the "Happy Days" award to the Dallas Mavericks because everyone is smiling and happy down there after clinching home court advantage. I don't think that there will really be "Happy Days" in Dallas until the team wins a championship--and a series against the San Antonio Spurs promises to be another closely contested, classic battle, just like last year's series was.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:15 AM


Kobe Scores 50 but Clippers Overcome 17 Point Deficit to Win, 118-110

Generally, I am not a big believer in making predictions about the outcome of a single game, particularly in the regular season; there are simply too many variables to consider, from injuries to fatigue to the random bounces that can tilt one game but even out over a season. Yesterday, though, I made a prediction of sorts: the slumping Lakers would need for Kobe Bryant to score at least 40 points to have a chance to beat the (also slumping) L.A. Clippers. I added that Bryant is literally in a "no-win" situation: his team is so injury depleted, fatigued and just generally out of whack that their only chance to win is for him to score a ton of points but he obviously has to shoot a lot to do that, meaning that no matter what he does the critics will say that he is selfish--and the team may very well lose even if plays great, because the Lakers just aren't that good right now. If Las Vegas had a proposition bet that fit what I described, someone could have made a lot of money risking the house on that. Kobe Bryant scored 50 points on 17-33 field goal shooting and 15-15 free throw shooting but the Lakers blew a 17 point lead and lost, 118-110. Bryant played all 48 minutes and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds from the shooting guard position. He also had two steals and committed three turnovers, hardly a high number considering how much he handled the ball. So, what happened?

The superficial "analysis" that you will hear from 99% of "experts" and fan bloggers is that Bryant did not pass the ball--he finished with one assist--and that he "choked" in the fourth quarter--he shot 2-8 from the field in the final period and did not score after his two free throws with 8:46 left gave the Lakers a 102-92 lead. If you hate Bryant and/or are not really interested in understanding basketball, now is the time to stop reading; feel free to celebrate that the "ball hog" got his "rightful comeuppance."

OK, for everyone who did not leave, let's get down to the business of actually analyzing what took place in this game. This was as close to a playoff game as you will get in the regular season, because the Clippers basically need to win their remaining games and the Lakers desperately need to stop their slide before they slip right out of the playoffs altogether. As I explained in the post referenced above, the Lakers' two big problems this year have been lack of production from the center and point guard positions. That, coupled with injuries to Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and others, has caused the Lakers to regress. Last year, for the first 65 games or so they relied on Bryant to score a ton but down the stretch and in the playoffs they finally understood how to utilize the Triangle Offense and how to play sound defense. This season, the team started out playing well, but the injuries and the lack of production from arguably the two most important positions have caused the Lakers to revert back to needing Bryant to score 40-plus points just to have a chance to win; even when he does have monster games, the final scores are often close, because the Lakers simply are not a very good team right now.

The Clippers promptly jumped out to a 6-0 lead. Kobe Bryant had yet to even take one shot at that point. Elton Brand was killing Lamar Odom and eventually the Lakers switched up and put one of their centers--Andrew Bynum or Ronny Turiaf--on him. Brand had his way with them, too, except for a brief second quarter stretch when the Lakers forced turnovers and prevented the Clippers from getting him the ball; he finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots. Bryant attempted his first shot with the Lakers trailing 9-2; he posted up on the left block, made a spin move to the baseline and dunked. Bryant's second field goal, a dunk off of a nice Luke Walton steal and pass, cut the Clippers' lead to 13-10. Brand made four of his first five shots from the field, though, and the Clippers led 17-10 with 6:37 remaining in the period. Bryant scored again on a post up to make the score 17-12. The Clippers pushed the margin to 25-14 but the Lakers were able to counter a bit by establishing a presence inside with Bynum, who scored a basket and two free throws to bring the Lakers back within 10. Bryant, frustrated by a couple no-calls, received a technical foul at the 1:44 mark; a TNT replay showed that on one of the plays that he was upset about he was in fact slapped on his left arm. Corey Maggette made the free throw to put the Clippers up 26-18, but that sequence of events really seemed to energize Bryant. Soon he grabbed a defensive rebound and went coast to coast, finishing with a spin move and a left handed layup. Then he made a turnaround jumper and he followed that up by drawing a double-team and passing to Turiaf, who was fouled and made one of his two free throws. That brought the Lakers to within 28-23 and resulted in this comment about Bryant from TNT commentator Doug Collins: "He makes the game easy for everybody else...He's a three-time champion and if they make the playoffs it's going to be because he put them on his back and carried them there." Note that Bryant does not get an assist for the Turiaf play because no basket was scored, but by drawing the double-team and passing Bryant created that scoring opportunity. Bryant scored 10 points on 5-6 shooting in the first quarter.

Bryant quite simply took over the game in the second quarter, shooting 6-11 from the field and 3-3 from the free throw line, scoring 15 of the Lakers' 32 points. He nailed a turnaround jumper, got fouled and made the free throw to give the Lakers their first lead of the game, 30-28, at the 10:24 mark. Collins noted, "Kobe is an incredible offensive player. I don't think that there is a weakness in his game." A little over a minute later, Turiaf made a jump shot to put the Lakers ahead again, 32-30. Vladimir Radmanovic got the assist on the play, but Collins explained how Turiaf got so open in the first place: "All of that is created when you tilt the defense to get the ball out of Kobe's hands." After Bryant's fast start, the Clippers had to double-team him for the rest of the game, which enabled the other Lakers to play four on three; the sad thing is that this Lakers team simply is not that good at this stage of the season and four on three is not quite enough of an advantage for them.

Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson made an interesting move for a stretch during the second quarter, taking starting point guard Smush Parker out, shifting Bryant to the point guard and playing him alongside Turiaf, Vladimir Radmanovic (soon replaced by Brian Cook), Luke Walton and Maurice Evans. That lineup gave the Clippers some trouble and the Lakers forged a 40-32 lead. Bryant did not get an assist while he played point guard but he controlled the action, making two free throws after drawing a foul on a post up and drawing double-teams that resulted in open shots after he passed the ball and the next player reversed it to the weak side. After a few minutes, Jackson replaced Evans with Jordan Farmar and Bryant went back to shooting guard. The Lakers led by 11, 48-37, but two Odom turnovers were converted into five fastbreak points by the Clippers. Those points were sandwiched around a Walton three pointer that came as a direct result of the Clippers having to double-team Bryant on the post; Bryant passed the ball out and Farmar ultimately got the assist on the play. The important thing to understand is that without the threat that Bryant represents Walton would never have been open in the first place; he can't create his own shot and is only left alone because Bryant must be double-teamed. That is why simply looking at Bryant's assist totals does not tell the complete story. Bryant finished the half with 25 points on 11-17 field goal shooting and the Lakers led 55-51. Collins said, "He's an amazing player. Every night the other team is geared to stop him."

At halftime, TNT's Kenny Smith noted that the Clippers were successfully executing their defensive plan--limiting Bryant to just three free throw attempts--but that Bryant is so good that he scored 25 points anyway. In the third quarter, any idea that the Clippers' plan was working began to look farfetched. Bryant drew two quick fouls, making all four free throws, and then nailed a turnaround jumper, putting the Lakers up, 61-54. Bryant's layup with 8:46 remaining gave him 35 points and gave the Lakers a 71-57 lead; at that point he had shot 13-20 from the field and Collins remarked that Bryant had scored "an easy 35...without forcing any shots." Just 20 seconds later, Bryant had an easy 38 after his pullup three pointer gave the Lakers their biggest lead of the game, 74-57. Collins declared, "It's fun to watch great players make things look so easy."

Let's stop the tape/TIVO here for a minute. Bryant has scored 38 of his team's 74 points, has shot 14-21 from the field and has created many open opportunities for his teammates by drawing double-teams. Defensively, he has been active in the passing lanes, getting two steals and then drawing fouls that resulted in him making four free throws. Can Jackson take him out of the game to rest? Can his teammates pick up the slack in any area for even a two or three minute stretch? The answers to those questions are "no" and "no." If this were a normal regular season game as opposed to virtually being a playoff game, Jackson would almost certainly have given Bryant his normal rest around this stage of the game--but the stakes were too high to risk having him out of the game for even a second. The Clippers made a quick 6-0 run, which was snapped by two Bryant free throws. Then the Clippers made a 7-0 run, ended by a Bryant jump shot. He now had 42 points on 15-24 shooting but the Lakers only led 78-70. Without his points--and the open shots that he created by being double-teamed--the Lakers would have been down 15 or 20. Brand scored 13 points in the quarter and the Lakers were up 93-86 going into the fourth quarter. Bryant scored 19 third quarter points on 4-8 field goal shooting and 11-11 free throw shooting.

Bryant added six points in the first 3:14 of the fourth quarter and the Lakers led 102-92 after he made two free throws, his 49th and 50th points. He had shot 17-28 from the field, with no rest. For obvious reasons, the Clippers' double teams became more and more aggressive as the game went on, basically daring any other Laker to make a wide open shot. Brand scored on a three point play to cut the lead to seven and on the Lakers' next possesion Walton missed an open three pointer that was created after Bryant was double-teamed on the post. Sam Cassell, who is approximately 200 years old and has been hurt all year, drove by Parker's nonexistent defense and made a layup to make the score 102-97. Bryant missed a jumper and Cassell scored again: 102-99. During this time, Bynum also missed a couple of shots in the lane after Bryant had to give up the ball. Then, Bryant drove to the hoop but Brand stole the ball and Maggette converted a three point play to tie the game at 102. You could see all of the air coming out of the Lakers. Bryant was being double-teamed whenever he got the ball but no one else could make a shot. Bynum drew a foul but only made one of two free throws and then Tim Thomas capped the Clippers' comeback with a three pointer, putting them ahead, 105-103. After a miss by each team, Parker threw the ball away to Thomas, who went the distance and scored. Then Parker missed on a wild drive and let Cassell drive right by him for a layup on the next possession. That put the Clippers up 109-103 with 3:50 left. Bryant slammed the ball to the ground in disgust as the Lakers called a timeout. Parker made a three pointer to pull the Lakers to within 109-106 at the 3:23 mark but the Lakers did not score again until Parker made another three pointer with :58 remaining; that made the score 114-109 Clippers, but the Lakers were unable to get any closer.

So, what went wrong for the Lakers? Let's look at the evidence: they needed 50 points from Bryant on .607 (17-28) field goal shooting and perfect free throw shooting just to have a lead in the first place; they also needed him to lead the team in rebounding (they were outrebounded 48-41 despite Bryant's nine boards) and to draw double-teams and kick the ball back out. He supplied all of that in about 39 minutes, which is a typical night's work for most superstars--the problem is that there were still almost nine minutes left in the game. I've commented that one of the most amazing things about Bryant is that he can score 50 or 60 points and not seem tired but it is pretty clear that fatigue played a role down the stretch in this game. He shot 0-5 from the field in the last 8:46 and did not get to the free throw line. Bryant did not force shots to get his 50 but a couple of those last five could be considered forces. Does that mean that he "choked"? Consider this: until Parker's three pointer that made the score 114-109 with less than a minute left Bryant's teammates had shot just 2-19 from the field in the fourth quarter. Now, if you are Kobe Bryant and you have shot 17-28 from the field in nearly 40 minutes, would you pass the ball to guys who are shooting 2-19, even if you are tired and even if not doing so might mean forcing a shot or two? Obviously, he did continue to give up the ball--or the Lakers could not have launched 19 shots--but as the game slipped away Bryant took a couple questionable shots. If that causes some people to say that he choked or that he is not a team player, they are entitled to that opinion. The reality is that the Lakers are simply not a very good team right now. They are playing so poorly that they don't even deserve a playoff berth and if Bryant had not averaged 40 ppg in March they would already have long disappeared from the hunt. To Bryant's credit, he denied that fatigue played any role in his late game performance: "I felt fine physically. I felt like I could go the distance. I didn't feel like my legs were heavy. I didn't feel tired at all. They just double-teamed me and triple-teamed me. You've got the advantage when that happens. But we didn't make the plays and they did." As the Lakers fell apart down the stretch, Collins said of Bryant, "I think he wore down. He expended so much energy." Maggette, who led the Clippers with a career-high 39 points, agreed with Collins: "Kobe ran out of gas. He played 48 minutes." Brand added 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots.

Most of the recent championship teams have won by having one or two superstars who draw double-teams and a supporting cast that makes open shots. Bryant teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to win three titles that way. Bryant is playing the same way that he played then: scoring when he is defended one on one and passing when he is double-teamed (or splitting the double-team and getting to the hoop if the angle is there). The difference is that he does not have a Robert Horry or a Derek Fisher to make open shots--and he does not have another star player who can carry the load for even short stretches. You know what this game showed? It showed the value that Scottie Pippen had for the Chicago Bulls. When Michael Jordan had 40 or 45 points after three quarters, he could rest for several minutes while Pippen and four bench players held down the fort. When Jordan returned to the fray, he had enough energy to finish the deal. Some critics like to minimize what Pippen provided to the Bulls but that is exactly what Bryant needs now. Jackson has not become dumber since he coached the Bulls and Bryant is capable of some pretty amazing things, but no one--not Jordan and not Bryant--can carry a team entirely by himself.


***This was Bryant's ninth 50-point game of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Wilt Chamberlain is the only player to have at least that many 50-point games in one season: he had nine each in 1963-64 and 1964-65, 30 in 1962-63 and 45 in 1961-62, the year that he averaged 50.4 ppg. The Lakers are 6-3 in Bryant's 50-point games this year and 14-6 during his career in his 50-point games. Only Chamberlain (118) and Jordan (31) have more career 50-point games than Bryant.

***This was Bryant's 17th 40-point game of the season; the Lakers are 12-5 in those games and 58-26 during his career in his 40-point games. During the past two seasons, the Lakers are 30-14 when Bryant scores at least 40 points and 51-60 in the other games. Prorated over 82 games, that amounts to 56-26 when he scores 40-plus points and 38-44 when he does not.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:23 AM


Cavaliers Blast Listless Nets, 94-76

The Cleveland Cavaliers outscored the New Jersey Nets 58-44 in the second half, turning a close game into a rout on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron James had 35 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Larry Hughes produced 19 points and six assists while not committing a turnover. Vince Carter scored 26 points on 10-18 shooting for the Nets, but the rest of his team shot just 18-49 (.367) from the field. Jason Kidd nearly had a triple double (eight points, 11 rebounds, eight assists) but he made just two of his nine field goal attempts; Richard Jefferson was even worse: 2-13 from the field, including several missed dunks and layups. The Nets built an 18-12 first quarter lead--their biggest of the game--but the Cavaliers closed the period with an 8-1 run. Both teams spent most of the first half bricking shots from all angles and turning the ball over. It looked like they were rounding into form--not playoff form, but preseason form.

At halftime, TNT's Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith both said that it was "frustrating" to watch Carter and James--especially James. Both players are too talented, they emphasized, to settle for long shots and fadeaway jumpers that let the defense off of the hook; they must drive to the hoop and/or post up. James definitely seemed to get the message, whether he heard it on TV or from his own coaching staff. He posted up and drove to the hoop repeatedly in the third quarter, netting three three-point plays and scoring 15 points as Cleveland outscored New Jersey 36-19. The Cavaliers shot 14-17 from the field in the period and that was, for all intents and purposes, game, set and match: the Cavaliers pushed the margin to as much as 22 in the fourth quarter and never again let the Nets get closer than 14 points.

This game was very important for both teams. The Cavaliers are trying to wrest the second seed in the East from the Chicago Bulls and if they are not able to do so then they will fall to fifth (thanks to the NBA's wacky playoff format) and likely face the defending champion Miami Heat in the first round. The Nets still have not clinched a playoff berth, so it is obvious that every game is crucial for them. They showed so much promise last year, beating the Heat in Miami in the first game of their playoff series but then Jefferson got hurt, key reserve Cliff Robinson got suspended and, in many ways, the team has not been the same since then. They got off to a slow start this season and the season-ending knee injury to Nenad Krstic basically eliminated any chance that they could be a legitimate contender.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:34 AM


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Greatest Power Forwards of All-Time

It is interesting to debate whether or not Kobe Bryant should win the MVP and to compare his performances to those of Michael Jordan--but one of Bryant's contemporaries is quietly building a case to be considered the greatest player ever at his position: Tim Duncan.

Duncan turns 31 on April 25, so he likely will be performing at a high level for several more seasons, and his accomplishments already equal or surpass those of the great power forwards from previous eras. Duncan has led the Spurs to three titles, winning the Finals MVP each time. He also has claimed two regular season MVPs, been selected to the All-NBA First Team eight times and has made the All-Defensive Team every season of his career.

My newest NBCSports.com article compares Duncan to power forwards who are already in the Hall of Fame and/or earned selection to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List:

The Greatest Power Forwards of All-Time

posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 PM


Slumping Lakers Need Kobe to Drop 40 in "Hallway Series" Game

The Lakers' magic number to clinch a playoff spot is two, so tonight's game against the Clippers--who are fighting to get the last playoff berth--is obviously critically important to both teams. While it would be nice if Kobe Bryant "gets his teammates involved," as the cliche goes, the reality is that he cannot make shots for them, and most of the team's recent wins have come largely as a result of his prolific scoring. The Lakers have a 40-38 record, including 12-4 when Bryant scores at least 40 points. You don't have to be a math major to figure out that the team is a less than robust 28-34 when Bryant does not reach the big 4-0--which means that Bryant is literally and figuratively in a "no-win" situation. The only way that the Lakers can win is for him to score a lot, which of course means shooting a lot--but when he shoots a lot, win or lose, critics say that he is being selfish. The reality is that even when he shoots a lot he passes a lot, too, but his teammates often fail to convert their open opportunities.

L.A. Times' columnist J.A. Adande writes:

But the Lakers have been operating with no margin for error lately. Basically, Kobe Bryant needs to make every shot.

His 34 points Sunday weren't enough to get it done. Six of the Lakers' last seven wins came when Bryant scored 43 points or more. Can you say "overly dependent"? Bryant senses the same things everyone else does, that they can win only if he puts up Chamberlainian numbers.

"It seems like that," Bryant said. "I'd rather that not be the case, but it seems like that. Hopefully we can kind of break out of that funk and have guys step up and make contributions."

The Lakers are unlikely to "break out" on Thursday night, so they and their fans better hope that Bryant produces another 40 point game. Otherwise, the race for the last playoff spot could become uncomfortably close. The Lakers are 2-1 this year versus the Clippers; Bryant scored 40 points on 12-23 shooting in a 105-101 win on November 21, 29 points on 11-23 shooting in a 97-88 win on December 2 and 29 points on 13-34 shooting in a 90-82 loss on April 4.

Adande also touched upon the Smush Parker drama that is simmering around the team, noting that the team's starting point guard said, "We lost, but I had fun" after he scored 25 points in the Lakers' 115-107 loss to Phoenix on Sunday. Adande concludes, "Good for Smush. Glad someone in Lakerland enjoyed himself this Easter Sunday. But it just shows how disconnected he is from the team. Parker sulked in a victory at Seattle because he sat the final 16 minutes, and lately he has been more of a problem than a solution to the Lakers' woes...For the most part Parker did more good than bad Sunday. He helped Bryant carry the scoring load in the first quarter. He even made shots in the fourth quarter. But he also made the crucial mistake of the game. With the Lakers down by three points and nine minutes remaining, the New York native got a little too Rucker Park, putting the ball behind his back on a fastbreak, which only gave Steve Nash more time to set up and draw a charge."

The other big problem for the Lakers is the lack of production at center. Kwame Brown is out with an ankle injury and young Andrew Bynum seems to have regressed during the latter stages of the season. The L.A. Times' Mike Bresnahan summarized the situation this way: "Perhaps no player symbolizes the Lakers' regular-season rise and decline more than Andrew Bynum. Time is firmly on his side — he's still six months from his 20th birthday — but the 7-foot center saw better days back in November and December, much like the team." He also cited this interesting quote from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer and Bynum's mentor among the Lakers' coaches: "This is probably his fourth or fifth year in competitive basketball. My fifth year of competitive basketball was the eighth grade. He's got to learn a lot on the fly and that's tough. I don't envy him. I think Andrew wants everything to work and unless it works, he's not going to try, so he's become very tentative."

Ronny Turiaf provides a great energy boost off of the bench, but Coach Phil Jackson has explained that Turiaf cannot be the starter or play 40 minutes because he is not able to sustain that kind of performance over that length of time.

The Clippers have lost three games in a row since beating the Lakers, while the Lakers have lost two in a row and four of their last five. Obviously, momentum is not really on the side of either of these teams. Bryant will have to be the difference maker, either by scoring or by attracting so much defensive attention that his teammates get wide open shots--and make them. Based on the Lakers' recent performances, the team will need him to score 40 points and shoot at least .450 from the field.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:08 AM


ESPN's Shootaround Crew Selects the 2006-07 Awards Winners

On Wednesday's ESPN NBA Shootaround, Greg Anthony, Tim Legler and Steven A. Smith calmly and rationally discussed who should win the major NBA awards this year. Well, actually, they screamed at each other--someday, someone will explain to me why this is supposed to be more entertaining and/or informative than having one person speak at a time so that we actually can tell what is being said--but fortunately their picks were also displayed on the screen. Here are their choices, followed by my comments:

Most Improved Player:

Host Fred Hickman listed six nominees, though he later asked the crew to choose one of the "five worthy candidates"; it is unclear how these six players were selected or which one was magically disqualified between when Hickman read their names and asked the crew to vote (nominees in all categories are listed in the order that Hickman presented them):

Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls
Monta Ellis, Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
David Lee, New York Knicks
Kevin Martin, Sacramento Kings
Deron Williams, Utah Jazz

Anthony chose Ellis, Legler went with Iguodala and Smith picked Lee. All of these players--and the three other nominees--are good choices. In a way, this award is just as tough to vote on as the MVP, because there is not really a set criteria, something that the crew alluded to in their discussion. Should Iguodala receive more credit because he has made a jump from role player to the star of his team? Williams was a high draft pick, so it could be said that his improvement represents the natural, expected progression of his career. My choice would be Kevin Martin, with Deng a close second. Martin has both come out of nowhere (late first round pick) and become a star, averaging over 20 ppg this year after scoring less than 11 ppg last year. Iguodala was a lottery pick, like Williams, and guys like that are expected to become top of the line players. Granted, Deng was a lottery pick as well but he seems to have added more to his game this season (specifically, a jump shot), while Williams and particularly Iguodala are just taking advantage of more touches and more playing time respectively.

I also think that Eddy Curry deserves to be mentioned in this category. After the Bulls recently blew out the Knicks, Chicago Coach Scott Skiles--who coached Curry when Curry was with the Bulls--kind of downplayed Curry's improvement this year, essentially saying that Curry is playing the same way and that his numbers are only up because his minutes are up. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but Knicks Coach Isiah Thomas has made Curry the focal point of the offense, Curry has worked diligently on his post moves with assistant coach Mark Aguirre and teams are now double and triple-teaming Curry. It does not seem like Curry will ever be a great rebounder or defender but legitimate low post scoring threats are hard to find and he has become one.

6th Man of the Year:

Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix Suns
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
Antonio McDyess, Detroit Pistons
Corey Maggette, Los Angeles Clippers
Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas Mavericks

Anthony and Legler both chose Barbosa, while Smith picked Ginobili. Each player comes off of the bench for an elite team and provides energy, speed and hustle. I would take Barbosa, narrowly, with Ginobili second and Stackhouse third. McDyess started the season slowly but has really come on in the second half of the year.

Coach of the Year:

Avery Johnson, Dallas Mavericks
Sam Mitchell, Toronto Raptors
Don Nelson, Golden State Warriors
Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz
Jeff Van Gundy, Houston Rockets

Anthony and Smith both picked Johnson, while Legler selected Van Gundy. A good case could be made for any of these nominees, but I would take Johnson. His team is going to finish with one of the best regular season records in the history of the NBA and that is largely because he has transformed the Mavericks from a run and gun team to a defensive minded one. Before, they had Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash but could not make it to the Finals. Last year, they made it to the Finals without Nash and they followed up that effort with a tremendous wire to wire performance (not counting a slight blip at the very beginning) this season. My second choice would be Mitchell; it was not long along that fans were clamoring for him to be fired but he has done a great job with a young team. Nelson is the king of exploiting mismatches and he is on the verge of guiding the Warriors into the playoffs for the first time since his previous tenure there a decade ago.

Rookie of the Year:

Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors
Randy Foye, Minnesota Timberwolves
Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies
Adam Morrison, Charlotte Bobcats
Brandon Roy, Portland Trailblazers

Anthony and Smith agreed again (must be a full moon), taking Roy. Legler picked Bargnani. Roy is the obvious choice and will no doubt win the award in a landslide. Bargnani may have more of the proverbial "upside" but he has not had a better season than Roy has. I'd take Gay next and Morrison third.

Most Valuable Player:

Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

Anthony and Smith agreed yet again (perhaps a sign of impending apocalypse), picking Nowitzki. Legler took Nash. These five candidates would easily fill the top five positions on my ballot, with Bryant first followed by Nowitzki, Duncan, Nash and James. I would choose Bryant because he is the best player in the game today, as I have explained in numerous posts throughout the season, including here and here. In the latter post, I summarized my reasoning:

Bryant is the game's best and most skillful player because he has no weaknesses. He can score in the post, in the mid-post, from three point range and on the drive. He can finish with either hand. He rebounds, defends, passes well and can handle the ball with either hand. No other player is as complete. Tim Duncan and LeBron James have free throw weaknesses. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are not as good defensively as Bryant, nor can they guard multiple positions as well as he can. Dwyane Wade has no three point shot and is not as good of a ballhandler.

Bryant's well documented scoring feats last season and this season (35.4 ppg, 81 point game, 62 points in three quarters versus Dallas, 30 point quarter against Utah without missing a field goal or free throw, four straight 50 point games, etc.) rival the accomplishments of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan--and he has done all of this while being a member of the All-Defensive First Team last season (voted on by the league's head coaches) and ranking among the best players at the shooting guard position in rebounding and assists.

Nowitzki is certainly a deserving candidate if one subscribes to the theory that the award should go to the best player on the best team. I expect that he will in fact win the MVP this year. Duncan kind of slips beneath the radar because he is not flashy but he is already arguably the greatest power forward ever (which is not the same thing as saying that he has been better than Nowitzki in this particular season). Last year his numbers dropped a bit because of injuries but now he is back to being a 20-10 player who controls the paint defensively. For most of the year I have written that I would take Nash third but looking at this entire season I cannot justify putting him ahead of Duncan. The Spurs and Suns have virtually identical records and the Spurs have the advantage in the head to head matchups. Duncan affects the game offensively and defensively, while Nash's impact is mainly felt on the offensive end. Duncan has proven that his style of play can lead to winning championships. Yes, the MVP is supposed to be based on this year's performance (although there are not any actual written criteria) but the case for Nash is largely a subjective one; as I mentioned in my previous post, if you go strictly "by the numbers" then Nash's name is not even in the discussion for MVP. I think that there is a significant value to what he does but he is not "better" than Bryant, Nowitzki or Duncan, nor has he shown that his style of play can result in a championship. Bryant was an All-NBA and All-Defensive Team performer on three championship teams, Duncan was a three-time Finals MVP and Nowitzki carried a team to the Finals just last year. Before this season, I wrote a cover story for Lindy's Pro Basketball titled "Who's the Boss?" The article looked at who the best players in the league are and I concluded, "The theory behind the International Race of Champions (IROC) is to take the best drivers from various series, put them in identically outfitted cars and see who wins. The NBA doesn't work that way, but because of his drive and willpower, I suspect that Kobe Bryant would emerge as 'the boss' if he and the other contenders were placed in an IROC-style competition that provided each player with equally talented rosters." Look at last year's playoffs: Nash's Suns were clearly a more talented team than Bryant's Lakers from top to bottom but the series lasted seven games.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What a Fool Believes...

"What a Fool Believes" is a great Doobie Brothers song from the 1978 album "Minute by Minute." It reached number one on the pop charts in 1979 and won Grammys as both "Song of the Year" and "Record of the Year." What does that have to do with basketball? Here are some of the lyrics: "But what a fool believes he sees/No wise man has the power to reason away/What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." That is a good description of Phoenix Suns' advocates who believe that the Suns will win the NBA title this year.

What's so foolish about that? After all, the Suns do have the third best record in the league and split the season series with Dallas, 2-2. As Michael McDonald sang, "What seems to be/Is always better than nothing." The Suns pile up wins in the regular season with a high octane running game, but their uptempo style is not punctuated with layups but rather a record setting barrage of three pointers. This works great against inferior teams that can neither control the tempo of the game nor matchup in the open court with Phoenix' talented group of players. However, there is a reason that Phoenix is just 6-7 versus Dallas, San Antonio and Utah: the elite teams are more equipped to regulate tempo and better able to matchup with Phoenix' personnel.

I just read a blog post by a Phoenix Suns' fan who tried to "debunk" what he called "myths" about the Suns. He questioned why commentators say that the Suns cannot win a championship playing the style that they do and pointed out that there have been previous NBA champions that were high scoring teams. While the latter statement is true, looking at the scoring totals of past champions is deceptive because the NBA was a much higher scoring league in years past. When the 1990-91 Bulls averaged 110.0 ppg they were the seventh highest scoring team in the league and they did not rely on the three point shot nearly as much as Phoenix does. Previous NBA champions that ran a lot (like the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s) ran to shoot layups. The Lakers also had a much better halfcourt game than the current Suns do, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson in the post or James Worthy isolating on a wing.

A more valid historical comparison to the recent Phoenix teams is not the '91 Bulls or the Showtime Lakers but the 1988-89 Suns: that team won 55 games, the second best mark in the West, just two games behind the Showtime Lakers. They even split the season series with the Lakers 3-3. The Suns led the league in scoring and had a point guard (Kevin Johnson) who averaged 20.4 ppg and 12.2 apg (better numbers in both categories than Nash has posted this year or in either of his MVP seasons); they breezed through the Western Conference playoffs--and got blitzed 4-0 by the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Those Suns averaged 118.6 ppg in the regular season and scored at least 130 points in four of their first eight playoff games but in the four games against the Lakers they only once reached their regular season scoring average. While the scoring numbers then and now are vastly different, the moral of the story is the same: teams that rely on pushing the pace but do not have a strong enough post presence can win a lot of regular season games and can even win some playoff series but in any given year there will always be a handful of teams that can slow them down (granted, this is a relative term when speaking of the NBA in 1988-89) and beat them.

Another of the "myths" that he discussed is "Steve Nash isn't the MVP this year." His primary arguments are that Nash's numbers this year are better than they were the previous two years when he won the MVP and that Nash outplayed Dirk Nowitzki in the two most recent Dallas-Phoenix games; I still don't understand why the latter games "count" more than the first two that Dallas won--when Dallas beat Phoenix twice the race for the best record was still up for grabs but by the time that Phoenix beat Dallas twice the Mavericks had all but sewn up the regular season crown. As for Nash's statistics, I have mentioned before that numbers are absolutely the last place that any Nash advocate should go to seek refuge. Contrary to what some people suggest, I am hardly a Nash "basher." I would place him no lower than fourth this year (behind Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki and Tim Duncan)--but I don't make my evaluation based strictly on numbers; I watch the games and evaluate a player's overall impact and skill level. That is why I actually "like" Nash more than people who look at things strictly by the numbers. If the MVP were decided purely on the basis of statistics then all categories have to be considered; this is what Nash fans refuse to accept: they trot out his shooting percentages and assists numbers and declare, "Case closed"--except that it isn't, not by a long shot. Nash is not even close to the top five in John Hollinger's PER (player efficiency rating, the NBA's efficiency rating or the the Roland Rating used by Roland Beech at 82Games.com: he ranks 10th, 12th and 10th respectively in those systems.

I would rank Nash higher than any of those statistical systems do because I think that not all of Nash's contributions are captured by those numbers--but to suggest that his intangibles move him from 10th-12th (note that those three different calculations all place Nash in the same general area) to clear first is more than a bit of a stretch.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 AM


NBA Leaderboard, Part XV

Dallas fell short in the quest for 70 wins, but clinched home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Kobe Bryant scored 40-plus ppg in March, the fourth time that he has averaged 40 ppg in a month (no one other than Wilt Chamberlain has done it more than once); prior to Sunday's game with Phoenix he had the highest post-All-Star break scoring average that the NBA has seen in 43 years.

Best Five Records

1) Dallas Mavericks, 64-13
2) Phoenix Suns, 58-19
3) San Antonio Spurs, 56-21
4) Detroit Pistons, 50-27
5) Utah Jazz, 48-29

The top five has not changed since the previous leaderboard, but Detroit moved past Utah into fourth position and Houston is just hundredths of a percentage point behind the Jazz. Although Utah has already clinched a division title and the fourth seed, if the Rockets pass the Jazz then they would have home-court advantage when the teams meet in the first round.

Top Five Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) Kobe Bryant, LAL 31.2 ppg
2) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 29.0 ppg
3) Gilbert Arenas, WSH 28.4 ppg
4) Dwyane Wade, MIA 28.4 ppg
5) LeBron James, CLE 27.5 ppg

7) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.6 ppg

10) Vince Carter, NJN 25.0 ppg
11) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 24.7 ppg
12) Tracy McGrady, HOU 24.3 ppg

Agent Zero's hibachi has been snuffed out until next year but Dwyane Wade has returned from his wheelchair. Bryant's remarkable post-All-Star break scoring binge has all but clinched his second straight scoring title; assuming Bryant "merely" maintains his average in the last week of the season, Melo would have to average approximately 54 ppg to catch him--which means that if Kobe were chasing him, we couldn't quite say that the race is over but since it is the other way around it is safe to assume that Bryant has it in the bag. We hear so much about Bryant's scoring streaks that it bears mentioning that he averaged 35.4 ppg last year, the best average in nearly 20 years, and he is averaging over 31 ppg this year despite starting the season slowly as he recovered from knee surgery. He also averaged 30.0 ppg in 2002-03. At some point--and we seem to be well past it--Bryant has to be looked at not just as a player who has had some great streaks but as one of the best scorers in NBA history.

Top Five Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Kevin Garnett, MIN 12.9 rpg
2) Tyson Chandler, NOK 12.4 rpg
3) Dwight Howard, ORL 12.2 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.8 rpg
5) Marcus Camby, DEN 11.5 rpg
6) Al Jefferson, BOS 10.9 rpg
7) Ben Wallace, CHI 10.7 rpg
8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg

10) Shawn Marion, PHX 9.9 rpg

23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.0 rpg

28) Rasheed Wallace, DET 7.5 rpg

Garnett is on the verge of winning his fourth straight rebounding crown. That has not been done since Dennis Rodman captured seven in a row for three different teams from 1992-98. The only other players who have won at least four consecutive rebounding titles are Wilt Chamberlain (who did it on two separate occasions and likely would have won eight in a row if not for his devastating knee injury in 1969-70) and Moses Malone (five in a row, 1981-85). Four rebounding titles would equal Bill Russell's total (keep in mind that his career overlapped Chamberlain's) and trail only Chamberlain (11), Rodman (7) and Moses Malone (6).

Top Five Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.5 apg
2) Deron Williams, UTA 9.5 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.2 apg
4) Chris Paul, NOK 8.7 apg
5) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg

The NBA could have engraved Steve Nash's name on this trophy at the All-Star break. This will be Nash's third straight assists title but he has a long way to go to match the record in this category: John Stockton led the NBA in assists for nine straight years and in the first five of those he averaged at least 13.6 apg, 2.1 apg above Nash's best season. Bob Cousy led the league in assists for eight years in a row (1953-60) and Jason Kidd had a three year run interrupted by Andre Miller and then won two more assists crowns for a total of five in six years. Oscar Robertson had a two year streak broken by Guy Rodgers and then added a three year run after that, so he also won five assists titles in six years.

Starbury is still hanging on to the 20th spot (5.4 apg).

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

posted by David Friedman @ 6:44 AM


Monday, April 09, 2007

Billy Knight: The Quiet Assassin

Atlanta Hawks General Manager Billy Knight does not like to boast about his playing skills but his game spoke volumes during an 11-year ABA-NBA career. I recently talked with Knight about his playing career and how he made the transition from being a player to being an NBA executive. You can read my HoopsHype.com article about Billy Knight here (10/12/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Billy Knight takes a low-key approach when asked about his playing days but don't let that fool you: he twice finished second in a scoring title race, trailing only Julius Erving in 1976 in the ABA and beating everyone but Pete Maravich the next year, the first season after the NBA-ABA merger. Knight played his college ball at Pittsburgh, where he averaged 22.2 ppg and 12.0 rpg during his three varsity career. In 1973-74, his senior year, Knight averaged 21.8 ppg and 13.4 rpg, leading the Panthers to a 24-4 record and a berth in the Elite Eight, where they lost 100-72 to North Carolina State.

The Lakers drafted Knight in the second round of the 1974 draft, but he chose to sign with the ABA's Indiana Pacers. The Pacers were known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA, winners of three championships in a four-year span (1970, 1972, 1973) but by 1974-75 the team was in a bit of a rebuilding mode. Center Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP and the inside presence on those championship teams, was traded to the Memphis Sounds along with point guard Freddie Lewis. Roger Brown, a clutch scorer during Indian'’s dynasty years, was hobbled by injuries and played in just 10 games during Knight's rookie year. Despite Brown's limited on-court impact that season, Knight credits Brown for being a great mentor to him, both in basketball and in life in general.

With the Pacers' veteran championship core all but gone, fourth-year forward George McGinnis completed his emergence into superstar status. McGinnis was an important contributor to the Pacers' last two championship teams but in 1974-75 he took his game to another level, ranking first in the ABA in scoring (29.8 ppg), second in steals (2.6 spg), third in assists (6.3 apg) and fifth in rebounding (14.3 rpg). He and Julius Erving shared MVP honors.

Knight had an excellent rookie season, ranking second on the Pacers in scoring (17.1 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.9 rpg). He was selected to the All-Rookie Team. Knight performed even better in the playoffs, averaging 24.1 ppg and 8.9 rpg as the new-look Pacers made it to the ABA Finals, where they faced the powerful Kentucky Colonels. Kentucky was coached by Hall of Famer Hubie Brown and had a talented roster that included Hall of Famer Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore (who ranked second in the ABA in rebounding and shot blocking that season) and Louie Dampier, the ABA's all-time leader in three pointers made.

Gilmore led the Colonels to a five-game victory, averaging 25 ppg and 21 rpg to win the Finals MVP. Knight cannot explain why Gilmore has not been inducted in the Hall of Fame. "He is certainly deserving," says Knight. "Artis was an outstanding player for a long time. I can't answer why his name has faded. I don't know why. He was just a dominating force. He could block shots, he could rebound, he could score. He was a dominating player in the ABA and certainly in the NBA. Coming into the NBA he was (still) a dominating guy; he did all of those same things (in the NBA that he did in the ABA)." Knight averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in defeat, while McGinnis led the Pacers in scoring (27.2 ppg), rebounding (14.0 rpg) and assists (6.4 apg) during the Finals.

McGinnis jumped to the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers for the 1975-76 season, so Knight took center stage in Indiana, producing career-high numbers across the board: 28.1 ppg (second in the league to Erving's 29.3 ppg), 10.1 rpg and 3.7 apg. He earned selection to the All-ABA First Team alongside Erving. The undermanned Pacers lost to Kentucky 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs despite Knight's 33.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 4.0 apg. "I don't have one memory that stands out more than others," Knight says of his two years in the ABA. "I have a lot of good memories...Going to the Finals in my rookie year was certainly special."

The NBA-ABA merger took place in that offseason. The Pacers, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs were the only ABA teams that survived. The Pacers posted a 36-46 record during their first NBA campaign and did not qualify for the playoffs. Knight could hardly be blamed, though; he averaged 26.6 ppg (second in the NBA to Maravich's 31.1 ppg), 7.5 rpg and 3.3 apg in 1976-77. He ranked fourth in the league in minutes played (3,117, 40.0 mpg) and made the All-Star team. Knight denies that he felt any added pressure to prove himself in the NBA because he started his career in the ABA. "You certainly want to show what you can do, but it had nothing to do with the different leagues and all of that," Knight says. "You wanted to play, that's all. You were just out there playing."

In September 1977, the Pacers traded Knight to the Buffalo Braves for 1977 Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley and reserve forward Mike Bantom. Knight averaged 22.9 ppg for the Braves, which would have ranked among the league leaders but he only played in 53 games due to a knee injury and failed to meet the minimum requirements of 1,400 points or 70 games played.

The Braves moved to San Diego after the 1977-78 season and became the Clippers after the owners of the Boston and Buffalo teams swapped franchises. The two teams traded several players as well and Knight became a Boston Celtic--for half a season. He averaged 13.9 ppg in 40 games before the Pacers reacquired him.

Knight finished the 1978-79 season with the Pacers, scoring 14.7 ppg in 39 games. The Pacers acquired and traded several talented forwards around that time: Dantley, Alex English, McGinnis, Mickey Johnson. In 1979-80, Knight averaged 13.1 ppg despite the musical chairs routine and he had the Pacers' single-game scoring high that season with 44 points versus San Diego.

The Pacers finally achieved some roster stability in 1980-81 and Knight reestablished himself as the top player on the team, leading the squad in scoring (17.5 ppg), field goal percentage (.533) and free throw percentage (.832). On November 11, 1980, Knight scored 52 points in a 119-113 win at San Antonio, his NBA career-high and the most points by a Pacers player in the NBA until Reggie Miller’s 57 point outing against Charlotte 12 years later. Indiana finished the season with a 44-38 record, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in the team's NBA history. They were quickly eliminated 2-0 by Erving's Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round mini-series. Knight averaged 18.5 ppg. Jack McKinney won the Coach of the Year award in his first year with the Pacers.

Knight's minutes and scoring dipped in 1981-82 but he bounced back in 1982-83 with another solid season (17.1 ppg). He was no longer the team's top scorer, though. Rookie Clark Kellogg, better known today as a CBS college basketball commentator, averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.6 rpg. The Pacers missed the playoffs for the second year in a row despite Kellogg and Knight's productive seasons and in the offseason they traded Knight to the New York Knicks. Before he could play a game for them, though, he was moved again, this time to Kansas City, where he played for a little more than one year. One of his teammates there was Mike Woodson, who Knight later hired to be the Atlanta Hawks' coach. Knight finished his career with a brief stint in San Antonio, where he played alongside his former ABA rivals Gilmore and George Gervin.

During his playing days, Knight never thought about eventually pursuing a career as an NBA executive. "I didn't plan on doing what I'm doing," he explains. "Players play and when you get too old to play the way that you want to play you'd like to stay around the game. I played the game and had been involved in it at so many levels for so many years that after I finished playing I still wanted to be around the game. This is a way that I could stay around. Donnie Walsh gave me my first job (in the Pacers front office). I worked under him for 13 years. He is someone I look up to and talk to all the time."

Knight moved on to become the general manager of the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies and he held that position when the team drafted Pau Gasol, who became the 2001-02 Rookie of the Year. Knight spent a couple seasons with the Grizzlies before joining the Hawks' front office. He is currently the team's executive vice president and general manager.

Knight focuses on the future and does not dwell on the details of his playing career. "Half the people here weren't born when I played," Knight says, gesturing to the seats in Conseco Fieldhouse about an hour before his Hawks played the Indiana Pacers. He enjoyed his playing days but declares that it makes no sense to "lament that I'm not playing. I'm 54 years old."

Some retired players will swear up and down that if they had played with today's restrictions on defensive contact against perimeter players they would have scored a lot more points than they did during their careers, but Knight refuses to play the "What if?" game. "No. I never look at that. I never look at things that way," Knight says. "That was a different era and a different time. This is the way it's played now, so this is the way it is. Players adjust to it. No matter what the rules are, players will adjust to it. It's not a big help or a big hindrance either way. Those are the rules and you play by the rules."

True to his ABA roots, Knight is a fan of the three-point shot--even though he did not shoot many of them during his career. "I think that it's a good rule. It made a difference in the game by keeping it exciting all the way to the end," Knight says. "I thought that it was a good rule to have (in the ABA) and, obviously, so did everybody else (in the NBA) because they eventually included it." What about coaches who complain that the three-pointer takes the emphasis away from the inside game? "That's their opinion and other people are entitled to different opinions but I think that it is good for the game," Knight replies.

While some executives try to acquire personnel to fit a certain style of play, Knight thinks less in terms of a particular system and more about a player's skill level. "You just want to get good players--the best players you can find," Knight says. "Get the best players you can find, wherever you can get them, whatever positions they play. I think that's the best way to go about it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:38 PM


Sunday, April 08, 2007

Suns Wear Down Lakers in Fourth Quarter

The L.A. Lakers nearly kept pace with the Phoenix Suns for three quarters but Phoenix stepped on the gas to produce a 41 point fourth quarter and emerge with a 115-107 win. Steve Nash had 25 points, 11 assists and five rebounds, Leandro Barbosa provided his customary spark off of the bench with 23 points and Raja Bell scored 22 points, including 6-6 shooting from three point range. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 34 points and seven assists. He shot 14-25 from the field (.560) despite facing tough defense from Bell and frequent double teams. Lamar Odom had 10 points, 14 rebounds and five assists but shot just 4-13 from the field and 1-4 from the free throw line. Even in the best of times, Odom's scoring production tends to fluctuate; now that he is clearly limited by the torn labrum in his left (shooting) shoulder this is even more true. Ronny Turiaf gave the Lakers a huge boost off of the bench with 19 points and 15 rebounds.

In many ways, though, this game was all about Smush Parker. He had 25 points and six assists, including a team-high 17 first half points. Parker has publicly complained recently about being benched in the fourth quarters of games; Coach Phil Jackson has explained that he replaced Parker at those times because of Parker's lackluster defense. Naturally, as a young player, Parker responded to this situation by pouting some more and trying to prove how much of an offensive threat he can be. Despite Parker's first half scoring, the Lakers trailed by six at halftime, as Nash or Barbosa penetrated to the hoop at will, breaking down the Lakers' defense. The Lakers trimmed the Suns' lead to 74-73 by the end of the third quarter. Parker sat out the last part of the third quarter, returning to the game with 11:07 left in the fourth quarter and the Lakers trailing 78-73. He promptly nailed a jumper--and let Nash drive right by him for an uncontested layup. Then, on a three on two break Parker whirled the ball around his back and committed a charging foul. Parker somewhat atoned for this by scoring over Nash in the post a couple possessions later--but then let Nash shoot a wide open three pointer. Sense a pattern here? Parker finished one point shy of his season-high in points but he was leaking points on the other end even faster than he was scoring them. His role is to pressure the opposing point guard, not score a lot of points--the Lakers cannot beat good teams if Parker simply tries to outduel his counterpart as opposed to playing good defense against him. By the 4:58 mark Phoenix had a 92-83 lead, which soon expanded to double digits. Was that all Parker's fault? Of course not, but a lot of the blame certainly falls on him and his lack of enthusiasm for playing the kind of pressure defense that got him to the NBA in the first place.

What about Bell's three point shooting barrage? Doesn't that prove that Bryant's defense is poor? Not exactly. Most of Bell's three pointers either came in transition or after penetration by Nash or Barbosa broke down the Lakers' defense; the team collapsed on Nash or Barbosa, Bryant rotated to cover the first open man and Bell popped open. There was one first half play when Bell came off of a baseline screen, Bryant shot the gap to try to steal the pass but missed and Bell got an open corner three, which he nailed; perhaps that was a needless gamble on Bryant's part but that one play hardly proves that he is a bad defender. The problem for the Lakers, as it has been most of the season, is defending the pick and roll play correctly and limiting penetration by opposing point guards (hello, Smush Parker). Now, if Bryant was supposed to stay home on Bell at all costs and let other players score layups after the initial defense broke down, then he should be blamed--but the fact that the opposing shooting guard made six three pointers does not prove that Bryant played poor defense. The Lakers' defense as a whole was not great, particularly in the fourth quarter. Any team that cannot control penetration by opposing point guards is always going to struggle to consistently get stops. If Bryant were truly trying to "conserve energy" then why wouldn't he simply plant himself next to Bell in the corner? By leaving Bell to contest other shooters and then trying to get back to Bell he is expending more energy, not less. Whether or not he is "supposed" to be doing this in the Lakers' overall defensive scheme is a different question, which can only be properly answered by Phil Jackson. What I see is a guy who is trying to cover up for his teammates' mistakes by forcing the other team to make one extra pass; by flying at the guy who has the ball and forcing him to pass, Bryant at least buys some time for someone to rotate over to Bell. That extra pass might get deflected or fumbled. In general, it is better to force the offense to throw one more pass, unless a certain player has been designated as the guy who should be left open. Another factor to consider is that, although Bell is normally a good three point shooter, he shot 0-10 from three point range in his previous game. Perhaps this factored into the Lakers' thinking. What I don't understand--not just about the Lakers, but about many teams--is why three or four guys converge on Nash when he drives. Nash wants to pass, not shoot. If he beats his initial defender, someone should step in his path to slow him down and then return to the man he was originally guarding. That is how Jason Williams baited LeBron James into a turnover in a recent Cleveland-Miami game; Williams faked a double-team, James jumped to pass and Williams was perfectly placed to steal the ball. Teams should defend Nash in a similar fashion. If that results in Nash taking 20-25 shots, so be it, even if he scores 30-plus points; the Suns thrive on their teamwork and balance and having Nash score a lot of points puts everybody into different, unaccustomed roles. It has not been proven that Nash is willing or able to sustain that kind of a scoring burden. Forcing him to do that combined with attacking him at the defensive end of the court would be a good strategy for any team that has the personnel and discipline to stick with those objectives (the natural tendency is to double-team a penetrating guard, so it would have to be drilled into players to not do this with Nash).

Lakers/Suns Statistical Nuggets

*** The Lakers are 6-7 this year against the West's top four teams (1-3 against Dallas, 1-2 against Phoenix, 2-1 against San Antonio and 2-1 against Utah), while Phoenix is 3-7 against the West's top three (they can't play against themselves...) teams (2-2 against Dallas, 1-2 against San Antonio and 0-3 against Utah). What does that mean? It might not mean much, depending on which teams were playing their fourth game in five nights and which teams may have been missing key personnel during those contests but two things do come to mind: (1) Kobe Bryant's ability to completely take over a game makes the Lakers a dangerous team on any given night; (2) the Suns' run and gun style works better against overmatched teams than it does against teams that have the personnel, coaching and discipline necessary to slow the game down.

*** Not including Sunday's game (which wouldn't change this stat much, anyway), Bryant is averaging 37.2 ppg since the All-Star break. That is merely the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in the last 43 years. That must mean that he is not rebounding or passing, right? No; he is averaging 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg in those games. That rebounding average would rank fifth among shooting guards in the NBA this season (based on the positional designations at ESPN.com) and is actually slightly higher than his pre-All-Star break average. That assists average would rank sixth among NBA shooting guards this season and is just slightly worse than his pre-All-Star break average. Only one shooting guard has higher seasonal averages in both categories than Bryant has posted since the All-Star break--Andre Iguodala, whose numbers in each area are marginally better than Bryant's. So, Bryant is putting up Wilt Chamberlain-level scoring numbers for the second half of the season while still ranking among the best rebounders and passers at the shooting guard position.

*** Several times on Sunday, ABC ran a "crawl" that stated that the Lakers are 11-3 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points. Apparently, nobody at ABC has read the Lakers' game notes or the game logs at NBA.com; the Lakers are in fact 12-4 this year when Bryant scores 40-plus points and have a 58-25 record during his career in such games. Here is the complete list of Bryant's 2006-07 40 point games (I placed those dots in the chart in order to create better spacing, which will hopefully make the chart easier to read):

Opp..Res....Score...FG...3 Pt....FT.....Pts...Reb...Ast...Rec

11/21 vs. LAC...W..105-101...12-23...1-1...15-18....40....5.....5....1-0

11/30 vs. UTA...W...132-102...19-26...2-3..12-15....52....4.....3....2-0

12/15 vs. HOU...W...112-101...17-38...5-8..14-16....53...10.....8....3-0

12/17 vs. Was...L...147-141...15-24..7-11...8-10....45....8....10....3-1

12/29 at Char...L...133-124...22-45..4-11...10-12...58....5.....4....3-2

1/4 at Sac....W...132-128...11-21..3-5....17-20...42...10.....9....4-2

1/22 vs. GSW...W...108-103...11-22..4-7....16-19...42....8.....1....5-2

1/31 at Bos....W...111-98....13-25..7-9....10-13...43....8.....8....6-2

3/6 at Minn....L...117-107...13-30..3-10...11-13...40...13.....8....6-3

3/16 vs. Por...W...116-111...23-39..8-12...11-12...65....7.....3....7-3

3/18 vs. Minn..W...109-102...17-35..4-9....12-14...50....6.....3....8-3

3/22 at Mem....W...121-119...20-37..3-7....17-18...60....5.....4....9-3

3/23 at NO/OK..W...111-105...16-29..2-5....16-16...50....7.....1...10-3

3/25 at GSW....W...115-113...15-33..4-11....9-11...43....9.....0...11-3

3/30 vs. Hou...L...107-104...19-44..3-9....12-14...53....2.....2...11-4

4/6 at Sea.....W...112-109...13-27..1-4....19-24...46....5.....6...12-4

..............(.514)...(.500)..(.853)..(48.9 ppg)..(7.0 rpg)..(4.7 apg)

No, those are not typos--Kobe Bryant has averaged 48.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 4.7 apg in his 16 40-point games this year. The Lakers are 12-4 in those games and he has shot .514 from the field, .500 from three point range and .853 from the free throw line. That works out to a .575 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), which is simply mind boggling. His shooting percentages, rebounding numbers and assist totals--and the Lakers' record, markedly better than their overall record--all refute suggestions that Bryant is forcing shots, neglecting other aspects of the game or cares more about scoring than winning. The reality is that the Lakers need his scoring--and his rebounding and assists, which are better than the numbers put up by most other shooting guards--in order to win.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:44 PM


Cavaliers Slipping Closer to First Round Elimination

Detroit defeated Cleveland 87-82 in the first game of ABC's Sunday doubleheader. Richard Hamilton led a balanced Pistons attack (six players in double figures, including all five starters) with 21 points. Antonio McDyess had 18 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Cavaliers nearly matched Detroit's balance, with all five starters scoring in double figures, but it will almost always be tough for Cleveland to win when LeBron James (20 points, six assists, five rebounds) shoots 5-16 from the field. He also committed five turnovers and, though he shot a strong 9-11 from the free throw line, he missed two free throws in the closing minute that could have cut Detroit's lead to two. James also missed his last two attempts from beyond the three point arc, following his pattern this season of shooting very poorly from distance down the stretch of close games; he desperately needs to do two things in the offseason: work on developing a more consistent shot (free throws and three pointers in particular) and cultivate a mindset to not settle for three pointers down the stretch of close games. That may sound contradictory but it's not. If James were a bonafide three point threat throughout games then teams would have to play him closer, which would open up more driving lanes. James could then attack the hoop without fear, with the confidence that if he is fouled he will make the free throws.

Detroit has all but sewn up the number one seed in the East but it will be interesting to see how significant homecourt advantage turns out to be for the Pistons; they have not played nearly as well at home this year as they did last season. Both Chicago and Miami are certainly capable of coming into the Palace and winning a playoff game. As for the Cavaliers, it is looking more and more like this team could be a first round casualty in the postseason. Chicago has passed Cleveland in the standings and this is very significant because of the NBA's quirky seeding system. The Cavaliers dropped all the way from the second seed to the fifth seed. If things remain the way they are now, Cleveland would play the defending NBA champion Miami Heat in the first round. At this point, Miami would be the fourth seed but Cleveland would have homecourt advantage according to the NBA's "playoff seeding primer." Cleveland's real problem in that matchup is that Miami is a battle tested team that is playing well down the stretch and will likely have Dwyane Wade back in some capacity. Meanwhile, Chicago's late season push has likely earned the Bulls a first round date with the New Jersey Nets, a talented but underachieving team. If the Cavaliers do not find a way to climb back into the second spot then they better hope that Miami moves up to third, which would then pit Cleveland against playoff neophyte Toronto in the first round; otherwise, this year's postseason figures to be much shorter than last year's for King James.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:38 PM