20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Friday, June 29, 2007

When Looking for Sports Commentary, Don't Settle for Less Than the BEST

It seems like there are more sports commentators than ever but the dramatic increase in quantity has hardly led to a corresponding increase in quality. It is so easy to start up a website that even a caveman could do it and, judging by some of the ones I've seen, more than a few apparently have. This website only covers NBA basketball, so I have decided to launch a new site as a forum for my commentary on other sports: BestEverSportsTalk.

The acronym "BEST" is both easy to remember and a reflection of the site's credo: "No fluff, no rumors, no nonsense--just the best sports analysis and commentary." The plan is to post at least one essay a week discussing and analyzing an important person or issue from the world of sports. The first essay examines the remarkable career of Frank Thomas, who just joined the 500 home run club:

The Big Hurt Smashes a Powerful Blast For Steroids-Free Slugging

posted by David Friedman @ 5:57 AM


First Impressions of the 2007 NBA Draft, Soon to be Renamed the "Paul Allen Buys Every Draft Pick Show"

In case anyone doubted it, Portland Trail Blazers' owner Paul Allen showed on Thursday night that it is nice to be wealthy (and to be lucky enough to have the Draft Lottery ping pong balls bounce your way). Everyone knew that Portland was going to pick prize franchise center Greg Oden with the first overall selection but Allen and his front office staff did not stop there. Portland also bought two additional draft picks--perhaps costing $3 million each, according to ESPN's Ric Bucher--and traded leading scorer Zach Randolph, Dan Dickau and Fred Jones to the New York Knicks for Steve Francis and Channing Frye. Allen will likely foot the bill (in the neighborhood of $34 million) to buy out Francis' contract. In other words, Allen spent more money in one night than some owners spend all season--and Bucher reported that draft night is Allen's favorite time of the year. This is not the first time that Allen has obtained draft picks by spending cold hard cash. The end result of Allen's wheeling and dealing is that Portland acquired Greg Oden, Josh McRoberts, Taurean Green, Petteri Koponen, Rudy Fernandez, Demetris Nichols, Frye and Francis while getting rid of Randolph, Dickau and Jones.

The Seattle Supersonics also made significant changes to their roster. Taking Kevin Durant with the second overall pick was a no-brainer but Seattle also shipped All-Star Ray Allen and 35th pick Glen Davis to the Boston Celtics for fifth overall pick Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. Seattle also received a future second round pick in the deal. Finally, the Sonics took Carl Landry with the first pick of the second round (31st overall). Seattle is stocked with a lot of young talent now and it will be interesting to see how well--and how quickly--the new mix blends together.

Nothing lends itself more to overanalysis and wild hyperbole than the draft (any draft, not just the NBA's). None of the draft picks has played one second of basketball at the NBA level, let alone 82 regular season games over a period of many months, so the dramatic, overblown statements and projections that are offered up by "experts" are just that: dramatic and overblown. Obviously, we all have seen more than enough to understand that Greg Oden seems to have a great opportunity to become a franchise center and that Kevin Durant may become a big time scorer in the NBA but nobody really knows how either player will respond--mentally, physically and emotionally--to NBA level competition and that goes double for the lesser renowned players in the draft. Logically, it would make more sense to evaluate this draft in about three or four years, so this post should really be about the LeBron-Melo-Wade-Bosh (and Darko) draft, not the draft that just took place. It actually is more interesting at times to comment on the commentators, so to speak. Without further ado, here are some things that caught my eye (or ear) during ESPN's Thursday night draft extravaganza, which seemed to last longer than the recently concluded NBA Finals (and sadly, may have had more viewers):

1) Jay Bilas has more than once referred to Oden as the best center prospect since Patrick Ewing. Last I looked, Shaquille O'Neal entered the NBA after Ewing and won four more rings than the Hoya Destroya did. Maybe Bilas is trying to say something about which centers generated the most buzz prior to being drafted but, any way you slice it, O'Neal has to be considered a bigger prospect than Ewing was--O'Neal was literally bigger, he had bigger college statistics, he produced bigger statistics as a rookie, he generated more endorsement deals and he won more titles. David Robinson was a pretty big center prospect who came into the league after Ewing, also. Oden's game is similar to the young Ewing's--great paint presence and shotblocking, somewhat mechanical offense--but Ewing is most assuredly not the best center or best center prospect to come into the NBA in the past two decades.

2) Atlanta drafted a forward with its first pick for the 23rd year in a row (that might be a slight exaggeration...), taking Al Horford with the third overall selection. Stephen A. Smith opined that the Hawks should have taken a point guard (he never said which one) and Mark Jackson said simply that the Horford pick is a "bad decision" based on Atlanta's needs and the personnel that they already have (namely, a roster stacked with forwards). The Hawks did take Acie Law with the 11th pick, so they at least attempted to solve their point guard problem but I suspect that in a few years they will rue not drafting Mike Conley instead of Horford.

3) Conley instead went to Memphis as the fourth selection, which Bilas termed a "great pick," adding that Conley is the best point guard in the draft in his opinion. He then said that if Conley had been in the draft at the same time as Chris Paul and Deron Williams that it would be a tough decision who to take although he does not mean to say that he would actually take Conley over Paul or Williams. Could you be a little more indecisive, please? In any case, as Charles Barkley might put it, let's not get plumb-damn goofy--Conley is going to be very good but he is going to have to improve his shot to be in the same category as Paul and Williams, each of whom is also both bigger and stronger than Conley.

4) Not only have most writers and fans never seen Yi Jianlian play against top competition (other than a game against Team USA last year), apparently Milwaukee's General Manager Larry Harris has not seen him play, either; if you believe ESPN's account, he chose Yi based on a recommendation by his father, Del, the longtime NBA head coach (and current Dallas assistant) who coached Yi on the Chinese national team. Larry Harris either disregarded or does not believe ESPN's earlier reports that Yi has no intention of setting foot in Milwaukee, let alone playing for the Bucks. Hey, that kind of stubbornness worked for John Elway with the Baltimore Colts, so maybe it will work for Yi. I have no idea whether Yi will play in Milwaukee or how good he will eventually become but that seemingly puts me right on par with what Larry Harris knows, so if the Bucks get rid of Harris maybe they'll hire me as GM. If so, I hereby promise not to use the sixth overall pick on anyone who flat out states that he won't play for my team.

5) Charlotte took Brandan Wright with the eighth overall pick and Bilas immediately called this a "steal," saying that he had Wright as the fourth best player in the draft. That means Michael Jordan must be getting the hang of the whole drafting process, right? Uh, no. Jordan soon traded Wright to Golden State for Jason Richardson and the rights to Jermareo Davidson. When word of this transaction first came down, Smith reacted in his usual calm manner, declaring, "That would be stupid" and looking like his head was about to explode. He later added that the deal was "highway robbery," explaining that Richardson has a huge contract commensurate with being a franchise level player but that, although Richardson is a good player, he does not perform well enough to be worth that much money.

6) The NCAA Championship Game between Florida and Ohio State produced eight draft picks. Three Florida players went in the first nine picks overall (Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah), which has never happened before. In addition to Oden and Conley, Ohio State's Daequan Cook went in the first round, which must be a surprise to Cook's local paper, the Dayton Daily News, which asserted prior to the draft that scouts "question everything about him, including his ability to understand the game." That's funny, because the NBA personnel people I spoke with prior to the draft said that Cook is a great shooter and a first round talent. Cook is young and has room to grow but that is true of almost everyone in the draft--even the two top picks. Of course, DDN also declared that "stat-stuffer" is a negative term, which is news to those of us who use the phrase to mean someone who produces well in numerous categories. I'm going to go out on a limb, but I suspect that Pat Riley and the Miami Heat, who acquired Cook in a swap of first round picks with Philadelphia, don't rely on DDN for information about the NBA.

Here are a few more odds and ends:

Most surprising move:

The Knicks not only successfully getting rid of Francis and his albatross of a contract but actually getting an All-Star level player in return, even if Randolph may very well break "Pac Man" Jones' unofficial record for after hours forays now that he is based in New York.

Least surprising move:

The Spurs used two of their three draft picks on overseas players.

Quote of the night:

"I didn't get enough air time." After Dick Vitale said this, he threw a bunch of papers in the air, saying those were all the notes regarding things he had planned to talk about. He may have been joking or he may have really been perturbed; ESPN panned back to host Mike Tirico before that became clear.

Double cheap shot of the night:

"He's a weight loser but he hasn't been able to keep it off. Sort of like Oprah in that regard." Jay Bilas, simultaneously dissing Glen Davis and Oprah Winfrey. At least he didn't say that Winfrey has a better jumper than Davis...

Most interesting scouting report:

Fran Fraschilla, ESPN's guru regarding players from overseas, said of one prospect that he is 6-9 and can dunk. I hope that he can dunk if he is 6-9. Hell, I'd be able to dunk (well, barely, but I'd be able to) if I were 6-9. Fraschilla is great and he knows his stuff but nothing beats the old days, when Hubie Brown was on TNT and some team would draft an overseas player; TNT would roll out this grainy,out of focus black and white footage that might have been of a basketball game and might have just been 10 guys running around, and Brown would instantly rattle off, in great detail, the strengths and weaknesses of the player in question.


In the interest of full disclosure, here are my posts about the 2006 NBA Draft and the 2005 NBA Draft. For someone who is not a "draft geek" I think that I did a decent job of analyzing those two drafts: in 2005, I lauded Utah's selection of Deron Williams, panned the Clippers' choice of Yaroslav Korolev and wondered why the Lakers--with a coach like Phil Jackson who does not generally give heavy minutes to young players--drafted Andrew Bynum. I liked Boston's pick of Gerald Green who, while he has not exactly lit up the league yet, may still turn out to be a very good player. On the flipside, Charlie Villanueva turned out to be better than I expected--but I also said that he was not a great fit for Toronto and apparently the Raptors felt that way, too, trading him to Milwaukee after his rookie season. In 2006, I liked Toronto's selection of Andrea Bargnani and correctly predicted that he would do well in his rookie season. I also was right that J.J. Redick would have little impact and scoffed at Jay Bilas' assertion that Redick could come right in and start alongside Jameer Nelson. I questioned why Stephen A. Smith was so critical of Portland's moves--something that Smith himself questioned (a year late) at the conclusion of ESPN's 2007 Draft Show, though he muttered something about liking the players that they got in 2006 but not the moves that they made. Huh? Of course, Brandon Roy became the Rookie of the Year and LaMarcus Aldridge played well before being sidelined by injury, so "Screaming A's" 2006 protestations were incorrect; I also wondered why, if Smith felt so strongly, that he did not question Portland's Steve Patterson directly when Patterson was interviewed on ESPN (in 2006). If you are going to blast a guy's decisions, then have the guts/decency to say it to his face and hear his response.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:08 AM


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Interview with Bill Woten, Author of Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown

Nothing in sports surpasses the all-or-nothing drama of the seventh game of a playoff series. In his book Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown, Bill Woten discusses the first 96 game sevens in NBA history, from the Philadelphia Warriors' 85-46 win over the St. Louis Bombers on April 6, 1948 to the Phoenix Suns' 127-107 victory against the L.A. Clippers on May 22, 2006. As for the NBA's 97th game seven, Utah's 103-99 triumph over Houston in round one of the 2007 playoffs, Woten offered his initial take here. Woten plans to continuously update his master list of game seven information and, a few years from now, he will issue a second edition of his book that includes the newest game sevens.

Anyone who is interested in NBA history--or any sports fan who wants to learn about the nature of competition at the highest level of play--should buy Woten's book, which can be ordered exclusively here. In Game Seven, Woten wrote brief recaps of 84 seventh games and more extensive stories about what he considers to be the 12 greatest seventh games in NBA history. He interviewed many of the NBA's greatest players and coaches and each of the game stories includes information that extends well beyond the context of a particular game seven, making the book an interesting oral history of the league.

Woten's painstakingly detailed research also enabled him to provide complete boxscores for each game, so the book is a great one stop statistical resource. There is also a chapter about game seven pressure that includes a chart listing every shot in game seven history that could have tied the score or given one team the lead with less than ten seconds remaining. The book concludes with a 47 page section detailing various individual and team records for seventh games, including an all-time player roster and the won-loss records of every coach who has participated in a seventh game.

Here is the transcript of my interview with Bill Woten, edited for length and clarity:

Friedman: “How long did it take for you to write the book?”

Woten: “From start to finish I think that it took about six years, to be honest. It didn’t really start out as a book. It started out more as a research project. I am kind of a stats nut, if you will. It started out with a desire to track down complete box scores from certain games. Game sevens were always interesting to me, so I headed down the path of trying to track them down. It wasn’t until I got quite a few of them that I thought, ‘Hey, this might be a project that could turn into a book and actually incorporate additional research and interviews.'”

Friedman: “Which game seven did you start the project with and then were you kind of working backwards historically or just from the boxscores that were easiest to find? How did the research process go?”

Woten: “It was kind of a back and forth thing. I think that my interest in game sevens peaked in the early ‘80s. The Celtics and the 76ers met in the Eastern Conference Finals in seventh games in 1981 and 1982. I was kind of a Philadelphia fan at the time and those were two really, really big games that really captured my imagination as a kid growing up and getting involved in basketball. I kind of understood at a young age the special quality of a seventh game; Bird and Magic squaring off in the Finals a couple years later in a game seven in 1984 was a huge game. As for trying to get the boxscores, I was moving backward and forward while working off of a full list (of all the seventh games in NBA playoff history) and then doing a combination of research in libraries tracking down old records while also working quite a bit with NBA teams. The teams were extremely helpful and actually a lot of NBA teams, to my surprise, had better record archives of official game sheets and scoring reports than I imagined, dating all the way back to the 1950s. So it was piece by piece, almost like putting together a puzzle, if you will.”

Friedman: “What did you find out in the course of your research and interviews and looking at the boxscores that surprised you the most?”

Woten: “I think the thing that was most interesting was how vivid players’ memories were of those games and how they would interrupt me mid-sentence or mid-question and then talk for four or five minutes straight about specific details of a certain game. I found that really fascinating because these guys played in hundreds of games during their careers and, obviously, these were big ones but so were other certain playoff games but these (seventh games) were that memorable to them that they could recall specific details about them. I think that was the most interesting thing—how passionate they were about these games.”

Friedman: “How were you able to set up interviews with players who played from the 1950s all the way up to the current time?”

Woten: “That involved mostly working with the media relations departments of various teams. Most of them have a pretty good alumni list, for lack of a better term, to keep track of where various guys are. Most of them were very, very helpful in that regard. The other thing, too, that was interesting, was building (one interview) upon another, talking to one player from a team and then asking him about other players from his team and if they were still in touch; that was quite helpful as well.”

Friedman: “Prior to writing the book, had you covered the NBA or worked as a beat writer or done something else that gave you an ‘in’ with the media relations people?”

Woten: “Yes and no. I did have a newspaper background. I worked for eight years as the assistant sports editor with the King County Journal, which is a suburban daily—-now since closed—-in Seattle, Washington that operated in the shadows of the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I never covered the NBA. I did some Mariners stuff and some other things; mostly, I covered high school basketball, which I really love. I was fortunate enough to cover all of Brandon Roy’s high school career at Garfield High School in Seattle. So I have a background working in the media and with media relations people but I didn’t have any contacts specifically with the NBA. An interesting note about that is that almost every person I contacted did not respond to my initial request, so it did take quite a bit of persistence and multiple requests. I think that they wanted to sense my seriousness or maybe they just got tired of hearing from me and they relented.”

Friedman: “I wondered about that, because whether you are dealing with retired players or current players, some of them are very forthcoming initially while others are not. Since you have a media background, even if it involved covering other sports or other leagues, that gave you an idea or a template of the right approach to take even though you had not dealt with these specific players and teams.”

Woten: “Right. Exactly. The reporting background helped. If you’ve worked as a reporter at all at any level on any subject you learn about persistence and that it takes several ‘nos’ to get a ‘yes’ and that you have to stay after it and try different approaches and different angles. I will say that once I got to the players and coaches that they were extremely gracious with their time. You have probably noticed that as well. Who doesn’t want to talk about the glory days, right? We all want to relive the great moments in our lives. Once I was able to reach them it was very easy; getting to them was a bit more of a challenge.”

Friedman: “Have you attended any NBA seventh games?”

Woten: “I did attend the 1993 Western Conference semifinals between the Rockets and the Sonics; I live in Seattle. That one went to overtime. The Rockets had a couple shots to win, one at the buzzer in regulation and one near the buzzer in overtime. The Sonics won. That is the only one that I have attended.”

Friedman: “Seattle was always a nemesis for the Rockets in the ‘90s. A lot of people don’t know that or don’t remember that. The two years that the Rockets won championships they avoided playing Seattle—I mean, Seattle was eliminated from the playoffs. In ’94, they were the number one seed but they lost to Denver. I think Kenny Smith has even talked about that on TNT, that if they had had to play Seattle that they might have had a problem because the other years that they played Seattle they got eliminated by the Sonics. That was a matchup that was not good for Houston even during the team’s peak years.”

Woten: “Right—-it even went back a little earlier than that, too. I talked with Carroll Dawson the other day and he brought that up, that Seattle was a nemesis for them. I think that Seattle beat them in 1987, 1989, 1993 (and 1996); I think that the Rockets got them back in 1997 in a seventh game when they had Barkley and Olajuwon. It seemed like the home team won most often in that series. In 1993 the home team won every game and Seattle had the better record both of those years (1994 and 1995) so they would have had the home court advantage if the teams had met.”

Friedman: “This may be a difficult question but based on your research on game sevens who would you select for an all-time ‘Game Seven’ team? Who would you pick as a center, two forwards and two guards based strictly on their game seven performances, not their overall careers?”

Woten: “That’s a great question. One thing I did find interesting is that a lot of the players who performed well all-time also performed well in game sevens and I don’t think that we should be surprised by that. Jordan is the all-time scoring leader, by average, in seventh games at a little over 33 ppg in his three games. He didn’t play in a ton of seventh games, just the three, and none of them were in the Finals but he would obviously be on the team based on the three games he played. Jerry West played in a lot of games and was phenomenal but I think that my other backcourt guy would be Walt Frazier. He was fabulous in seventh games but his one (signature) game seven, which I still think is the finest performance of any of them, was his 36 points, 19 assists and five steals against the Lakers in 1970. That often gets overlooked because that was the Willis Reed game and while Reed gave, of course, the unbelievable emotional lift, Reed’s on court presence wasn’t overwhelming at all in that game. Reed only had a couple buckets and three rebounds in over 20 minutes of action. Frazier was the superstar in that game and had an unbelievable performance. At center I’ll go with Bill Russell. He played in 10 game sevens, which is the most of all-time, and he never lost one. He had phenomenal numbers in all of them. At forward, I’ll go with Larry Bird at one spot. He is one of only four players to post a triple double in a seventh game. He played in eight of them and was phenomenal as well, including his great duel with Dominique Wilkins in 1988. (At the other forward, Bob) Pettit was phenomenal, especially in the first marquee game seven, the only one that ever went to double overtime, the 1957 Finals between the Celtics and the Hawks. That turned out to be the first championship of the Russell-Auerbach dynasty. Pettit hit a couple free throws to extend the game and he even had a shot to win at the end of the second overtime. He posted great numbers in all of his seventh games.”

Friedman: “You made five great selections but I would like to ask your thoughts about one guy who you didn’t include: Sam Jones.”

Woten: “Sam was incredible. I think that Russell even said in one of his autobiographical books that if he had to pick one player to be on his side in a seventh game it would be Sam Jones, who shares the all-time single game scoring mark of 47 points in a seventh game--that was later matched by Dominique Wilkins in the duel in 1988. Jones also hit a game-winning shot in the seventh game of the 1962 East Finals.”

Friedman: “Where did you get the boxscore information and the play by play information, particularly for the older games? I know that those boxscores can be hard to find.”

Woten: “They are really, really hard to find. It involved contacting a lot of teams, some of which had better records than others. The other thing that I noticed is that some local newspapers printed more elements of the box score. For instance, minutes played was not always a standard part of the boxscore but maybe for the local team that would be included. It involved looking at all of the local newspapers in a specific area and pulling one or two elements out of each one to kind of reconstruct a complete boxscore.”

Friedman: “Microfilm research?”

Woten: "Yeah--a lot of microfilm research. To be honest with you, if I had to do this all over again and I was starting from scratch I would not do that portion of it.”

Friedman: “You wouldn’t do the boxscores?”

Woten: “I mean, I love them and I’m a boxscore nut and I love that they’re there and I love that they are all complete but of that six years that was four of it--it was the most work for the least amount of stuff.”

Friedman: “I think that you’ve created a great resource. Maybe ESPN or other organizations can call up this information at the drop of a hat if they want to but for the average fan I think that you have created a wonderful resource that is all contained in one book. The first two things that I thought of when I got your book and opened it up were (1) you have all the boxscores dating back to the earliest game sevens and (2) you interviewed a cross section of players covering several decades. Those were the first things that I noticed before I even delved into the specifics of what you wrote about each game. That is why I asked you how long it took you to write the book because I realized that getting all of those boxscores was not a simple thing to do, particularly for the older games.

I have two more questions. First, which player had the most overlooked game seven performance? Obviously, this is subjective.”

Woten: “Two guys, who both played for the Bullets, are somewhat overlooked—-Bob Dandridge and Phil Chenier. In 1978 the Bullets went into Seattle and won the championship on the road (in game seven), which was a well deserved championship for veterans like Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Dandridge played well in that game but a lot of people don’t remember that the following year the Bullets made it back to the Finals. The Sonics won that year but the Bullets’ path to get to the Finals involved two game sevens, one against the Hawks and one against the Spurs. Dandridge was just unbelievable in those two games--(great) fourth quarter numbers, he hit the game-winning shot against the Spurs and I think that in the game against the Hawks he had 15 of their last 19 points. Chenier’s 39 points against the Buffalo Braves in 1975 was another phenomenal, phenomenal performance that I think gets overlooked quite a bit.”

Friedman: “My last question concerns something that I noticed in the back of the book on the Acknowledgments page; one of the people you mentioned is Ralph Wiley. Did you mention him because he is someone who inspired you and you enjoyed his work or is he someone you met or had some contact with before his untimely passing?”

Woten: “Like a lot of people, my first memory of Ralph is from the ESPN show “The Sports Reporters,” which was hosted by Dick Schaap. I was just engrossed by that show when it first came on. It was amazing to see people whose bylines you read and here they were actually talking and giving opinions. To me, Ralph always stood out and I couldn’t get enough of his opinions and his commentary. I went on from there to read all of his books and I continue to re-read them to this day. He’s a fabulous writer but, in my opinion, he’s an even better thinker. I always got the idea that when he said something that he put way more thought into it then I ever would. I’ve always admired that about him. I did contact him by email for a couple stories that I was working on when I was working for the newspaper. One of the things that blew me away initially was that he is someone who I idolized as a writer and I knew that he was super, super busy and probably had very little time in his day but he always responded to my emails. There I was, a nobody, and he responded to my emails and shared his thoughts. I did talk to him a little bit about game sevens in general and his memories and he did mention to me--which I put in the Introduction to the book--when I asked him about Frazier’s performance in 1970, ‘Why do you think I still wear Pumas?’ (the same shoe, of course, that Frazier wore) I thought that was pretty cool. We exchanged emails just a couple days before the shocking news that he had passed away. He is an inspiring, inspiring person to me and I really enjoy his work. I wish that he were still around. A lot of things have happened in the NBA lately and I wonder, ‘What would Ralph think about that?’ That is the first thing that I often think.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that’s the case with him and also with Dick Schaap. Something will happen and one of the first things that you think of is ‘What would Dick Schaap’s take have been?’ or ‘What would Ralph Wiley’s take have been?’ You just know that they would have commented in some way and that their commentary would have more depth and more significance to it than a lot of what is being said or written by other people about that subject. You kind of feel a renewed sense of loss from them not being here because you know that if they were here then they would be adding something else to the discussion that no one else is adding.”

Woten: “Right. All of LeBron’s path through the playoffs, the Tim Hardaway incident, Kobe’s recent stuff--Ralph would have had really, really intellectual things to say about all of those situations. As a fan of his and of great work and of just commentary on the world in general, I feel that we are at a great loss by not having his opinion out there.”

Friedman: “Real quickly, I’ll mention one other thing. You brought up Kobe. I noticed that in your write-ups about Kobe and his game seven performances and just how he plays in general that your take on Kobe is a lot more balanced and a lot more nuanced than most people’s. I don’t know how much you follow what happens at 20 Second Timeout, but I write about Kobe frequently, simply because he is the best player in the game. I’m sure that you know that if you talk to most people who are in the NBA, they will say that. Many fans get so involved with the players that they like that they are blinded to reality and they just don’t want to accept or believe or understand that. I thought that your take, both on how he played in various game sevens and some of the things that happened between him and Shaq, was, like I said, more nuanced and balanced--which is to say, more fair--than what a lot of other people say, including some people who are more famous than either of us, including some who have been covering the NBA longer but whose take I don’t think is correct.”

Woten: “Thank you. I appreciate that. I really enjoy Kobe. I like following him a lot. I think that he is an extremely intriguing person, just how he came into the league and his background (and) for right or wrong, all of the comparisons (to Michael Jordan). In a lot of ways, Kobe is one guy in the league who is in a lot of no win situations. He elicits a lot of hatred from a lot of people. He got grilled for the Phoenix game (game seven in the Lakers-Suns 2006 first round series), when he took three shots in the second half and was accused of quitting. His numbers that year were almost mirror images of Jordan’s and I don’t remember Jordan ever being labeled as a selfish player during that time frame--it was always, ‘Well, he didn’t have very good teammates and he did what he could.’ Nobody looked at the Bulls being swept by the Celtics (in 1986) as an indictment of Jordan--it was more just that the Celtics were better. In the Phoenix series in particular, if Tim Thomas did not hit that three pointer (to force overtime in game six), Kobe had a 50 point game going and the Lakers would have won the series. We would look at that whole situation completely differently: Kobe got his teammates involved early in the series, he had the two clutch shots in game four (including the game-winner), he had the great game six and he led them to victory. All because of one shot by Tim Thomas, Kobe is (supposedly) a bum.”

Friedman: “There was a game seven in 2006 involving LeBron in Detroit and his numbers almost mirrored Kobe’s: LeBron scored a lot of points in the first half but his team fell behind big in the second half and LeBron did not score a lot in the second half. Nobody suggested that LeBron ‘quit.’ I don’t think that LeBron quit and I don’t think that Kobe quit, either. If you watched the games then you could see the rhythm and the pace of what was happening and why they attempted the shots that they did. The phrase that you used is perfect and I have used the same phrase: Kobe is in a no-win situation, because if he goes out and scores a lot of points he gets criticized but if he doesn’t score a lot of points then he gets criticized for ‘quitting’ or ‘trying to prove a point.’”

Woten: “Right.”

posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 AM


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Will This be Remembered as the Tim Duncan Era or the Shaquille O'Neal Era?

After the L.A. Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat prior to the 2004-05 season, I asserted that the deal would only be a success for Miami if the Heat won a championship. Otherwise, O'Neal, who is making $20 million a year, would be perhaps the most overpaid player in the NBA. While Pat Riley may have originally dreamed that the O'Neal/Wade duo would win multiple titles, it must be said that winning the 2006 championship makes the O'Neal trade worth it for the Heat, regardless of what happens subsequently. As for the Lakers, in theory they traded O'Neal in order to rebuild around Kobe Bryant and eventually contend for championships. While the Heat had a small window--which is most likely shut now--to win with O'Neal, the Lakers realized that they were taking a step back in order to (hopefully) take several steps forward. Needless to say, that plan has gone awry; the Lakers are not much better now than they were three years ago and Bryant is so disgusted by the team's direction that he wants out. If the Lakers don't trade him then he surely will leave as soon as he can become a free agent.

It would seem that O'Neal has "won" and Bryant has "lost" but the reality is a little more complicated. O'Neal certainly "won" the short term battle by capturing a ring without Bryant--but Bryant still has several more top level seasons ahead of him and will likely have an opportunity to win a ring as a leader of a team without O'Neal as soon as he is surrounded by a worthy supporting cast in L.A. or elsewhere. If Bryant wins a title without O'Neal, history is not going to care much that O'Neal got his fourth ring first. Meanwhile, a third party has actually emerged as the biggest winner in the aftermath of the O'Neal trade: Tim Duncan.

To understand why this is the case, we have to travel back in time to the summer of 2002. Duncan had just won his first regular season MVP award but O'Neal and Bryant led the Lakers to a 4-1 Western Conference semifinals victory over Duncan's San Antonio Spurs en route to their third straight NBA title. O'Neal finished third in MVP voting and Bryant placed fifth. The Lakers had beaten the Spurs 4-0 in the 2001 Western Conference Finals and at that time there seemed to be no reason to believe that Duncan and the Spurs were a big threat to the Lakers. The O'Neal-Bryant duo had already captured three championships while Duncan's lone title came in the lockout-shortened 1999 season when Bryant was just a third year player and the Lakers went through three different head coaches (Del Harris, Bill Bertka, Kurt Rambis); the hiring of Phil Jackson as the Lakers head coach during that offseason proved to be the decisive factor in molding the O'Neal-Bryant tandem into a championship winning machine.

It was no secret that O'Neal and Bryant were hardly the best of friends off the court but on the court they presented presented a formidable challenge: two of the top five players in the league, one a dominant inside presence and the other an unstoppable perimeter scorer who also played top notch defense. Then, at what should have been the peak of their partnership, it all began to unravel. O'Neal suffered a toe injury that could have been mended by surgery early in the summer of 2002 but O'Neal did not want to spend his offseason rehabbing, saying "I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time." He elected to have the surgery shortly before training camp, missed the early part of the season and was not in top shape even when he returned to action. Bryant stepped to the forefront with the best season of his career to that point, averaging 30.0 ppg (second in the NBA) and being voted to the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team while finishing third in MVP voting (O'Neal placed a distant fifth). O'Neal, who averaged 27.5 ppg in relinquishing the team scoring lead to Bryant for the first time, was not at all pleased to be the second option on offense and he publicly stated that if the big dog was not fed (the ball) then he would not guard the house (play defense in the paint). Bryant retorted that if O'Neal got himself in sufficient shape to run up and down the court then he would get the ball more often. While the two stars may have had a contentious behind the scenes relationship prior to that time, this is when their feud really became public. The issue was NOT Bryant refusing to accept a "sidekick" role--he did that very well during three title runs--but O'Neal getting hurt and out of shape and then being unwilling to serve, temporarily at least, as the second option on offense.

The Lakers got off to a bad start without O'Neal and did not look great initially even when he came back. They were only 21-23 at the end of January. Bryant averaged over 40 ppg in February--including nine straight 40-point games, during which the Lakers went 7-2--as the Lakers went 11-3 and made a late run for a playoff berth. They finished the season 50-32, which was only good enough for the fifth seed. That meant that they would not have home court advantage in any round of the playoffs as they embarked on their title defense. The Lakers beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in six games in the first round but the Spurs used the home court advantage to gain a 2-0 lead over the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, took a close Game Five victory at home and then closed out the series in six. The Lakers' championship run was over, while Duncan and the Spurs went on to claim their second title.

In the aftermath of the disappointing 2003 season, the Lakers made several personnel changes; Robert Horry was not re-signed and ended up with the Spurs and the Lakers brought aboard aging veterans Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Malone proved to be a solid addition to the team but injuries rendered him ineffective in the later stages of the playoffs, while Payton never felt comfortable in the Triangle Offense and seemed to have lost several steps defensively. Unlike O'Neal the previous year, Bryant had surgery in the offseason so that he would be ready to play when the season began--but while Bryant was in Eagle, Colorado he became embroiled in an infamous and well documented situation that further complicated matters on the team. Bryant would have to fly back and forth to Colorado to deal with legal matters concerning a rape charge against him that was ultimately dismissed and he seemed to take it as a personal challenge to prove that he could play well despite everything that was swirling around him, delivering some amazing performances in games that were played on the same days that he traveled to Colorado. The Lakers were hardly a harmonious group but they beat the defending champion Spurs 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals before eventually losing to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.

After the 2004 season, Malone retired, the Lakers traded Payton and Lakers owner Jerry Buss elected to trade O'Neal to Miami instead of extending O'Neal's contract for maximum dollars and maximum years. Buss made it very clear that he did not want to spend so much money that he would have to pay the "luxury tax" and he also said that O'Neal's failure to stay in shape--which made him more susceptible to injuries as he aged--figured most prominently in his calculations.

What does this trip down memory lane tell us? One, even while O'Neal and Bryant feuded, they still combined to beat Duncan's Spurs twice in three playoff meetings between 2002 and 2004, winning one title and making it to another Finals, while Duncan's only championship during that time came in the season that O'Neal derailed with his late surgery and rehabilitation. Two, since the Lakers traded O'Neal the Spurs have won two championships in three seasons and came within an overtime loss in game seven to the Dallas Mavericks of possibly claiming a third championship; it should be added that Duncan was battling plantar fasciitis throughout those 2006 playoffs.

The bottom line is that the O'Neal-Bryant tandem is the only force that was consistently able to stop a healthy Duncan during his postseason career. Here is a look at how the Spurs have fared in the playoffs during Duncan's 10 seasons:

1998: Lost 4-1 in Western Conference semifinals to defending Western Conference champion Utah Jazz.

1999: Won championship.

2000: Duncan missed playoffs due to injury; Spurs lost 4-1 to Suns in first round.

2001: Swept by O'Neal-Bryant Lakers in Western Conference Finals.

2002: Lost 4-1 to O'Neal-Bryant Lakers in Western Conference semifinals.

2003: Beat O'Neal-Bryant Lakers 4-2 in Western Conference semifinals.

2004: Lost to O'Neal-Bryant Lakers 4-2 in Western Conference semifinals.

2005: Won championship.

2006: Lost to Mavericks 4-3 in Western Conference semifinals.

2007: Won championship.

O'Neal has won a title since leaving L.A. and Bryant has perhaps a five year window to lead a team to a championship--but Duncan has won two titles in three seasons since the O'Neal-Bryant duo was broken up and he may yet win more. If O'Neal had not waited to have his toe surgery five years ago would the Lakers have won enough regular season games to earn home court advantage over the Spurs in that year's playoffs? Would the Lakers have then beaten the Spurs and eventually "four-peated"? Would Buss have then decided to re-sign O'Neal, even if he had to pay the luxury tax--or would O'Neal have been more willing to sign the shorter contract extension that Buss offered? It is not inconceivable that instead of sitting on four titles that O'Neal could now have five or six. The championship program under Phil Jackson's direction was already in place; when O'Neal went to Miami the team had to shuffle its roster and change coaches before ascending to the top. Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach on those Lakers' teams, puts it best: "You look at how Shaquille handled the situation in Miami (with Dwyane Wade). If either (Kobe or Shaq) had been willing to be the people they are today, the Lakers probably would have been back and won two more championships. I wish I knew why Shaquille would bend to a second year player (Wade) and say, 'I'm going to help you and help this team win a championship and take a back seat.' Why he was unwilling to do that with Kobe, I have no idea. But from his behaviors and what he's said and done in Miami, I would have to surmise, not knowing the exact reason why, that it had to be the personalities. For some reason or another, he couldn't go to Kobe and say, 'I'm willing to play off you now. You don't have to play off of me. And we can still make a very viable one-two punch'" (that quote can be found on page 149 of Bill Woten's excellent book Game Seven: Inside the NBA's Ultimate Showdown). Instead, the "two more championships" referred to by Cleamons have been won by Duncan, who will now likely receive top billing for a period that would otherwise have been known as O'Neal's era. Ironically, while O'Neal mended on "company time" and fumed at the thought of sharing credit for winning with Bryant he enabled Duncan to slip past him on history's marquee.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 AM


Monday, June 25, 2007

"Revisionist History" About the Shaquille O'Neal Trade

Several national writers and broadcasters have declared that, despite the "revisionist history" that is being bandied about now, Kobe Bryant did in fact play a major role in the Lakers' decision to trade Shaquille O'Neal. The truth is that Lakers owner Jerry Buss' recent statement that he told Bryant in 2004 that he was not going to re-sign O'Neal no matter whether Bryant--then a free agent--elected to stay with the Lakers or not is not "revisionist history" but simply a repetition of we already knew--or should have known. The facts about the O'Neal situation were public knowledge at least two years ago, as Phil Jackson told ESPN's Jim Gray, "Kobe was maligned during the course of the year last year...he had to shoulder so much of the blame of the breakup of the team--which really was not an accurate statement. I kind of felt like this kid needs a break." Later in the interview, Jackson added, "I think that it was all financial. Emotionally, relation-wise, spiritually, Kobe and Shaq coexisted together even though it was not a great relationship or a happy one but it was certainly as fruitful as any relationship has ever been in the NBA." Jackson's 2005 statement should not have been earth shattering news, because Buss had said the same things a year earlier in the wake of the O'Neal trade. For whatever reason, many people chose to ignore both Buss' initial comments and Jackson's later amplification of those remarks.

The idea that Bryant was the moving force behind the O'Neal trade persists only because many members of the media refuse to acknowledge the truth about the situation--then, after two or three years of not reporting the basic facts, they have the gall to say that any disavowal of Bryant's role in the O'Neal trade is "revisionist history."

There is nothing wrong with journalists not accepting pat answers and trying to dig deeper to find the truth--but Buss, Jackson and Bryant all have said that Bryant had nothing to do with O'Neal being traded and O'Neal himself has said that he believes this to be true. In the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, it is simply irresponsible for those who cover the NBA to disregard the public statements of the involved parties and essentially call them liars. That is not objective reporting; it is slanting the truth to serve one's own opinions or agenda. It is one thing to say that Bryant should have done more to persuade Buss to re-sign Shaq; reasonable people can disagree about that, although it is difficult to understand what Bryant could have done when Buss flat out stated that he would not keep Shaq whether Bryant stayed or left. However, it is another thing entirely to persist in reporting that Bryant "broke up" the team when there is no concrete evidence to support that assertion.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:05 PM