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

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Some Questions to Consider About the Tim Donaghy Case

More information is sure to become publicly known about the Tim Donaghy case in the next few days and weeks but here are some of the questions that I am wondering about:

1) How exactly could one referee on a crew of three make enough bad calls to affect a point spread without getting caught quickly?

Keep in mind that in addition to the watchful eyes of his two partners, Donaghy (and every other NBA official) was subject to extensive monitoring/grading of every call (and non-call) from the games that he officiated. I would be very interested to learn the logistics of what in fact Donaghy is specifically accused of doing and how the NBA graded his performance in the games in question; I'm not saying that all of this information will ever be released but it would be fascinating to look over.

2) As a corollary to the first question, is there some flaw/problem in the grading process that enables a referee to have enough leeway to make point spread altering calls without being detected?

It's possible that any alleged "bad" calls came on plays that contain a certain amount of gray area or leeway and that in a given game Donaghy made more "gray area" calls in favor of one team than another.

3) Were other referees acting in concert with Donaghy?

Of course, if Donaghy had accomplices then it would be easier for him to affect the point spread and/or outcome of a game but it still is not clear how he would have avoided detection during the grading process.

4) Was Donaghy in fact grading poorly in the NBA's evaluation system and perhaps on his way out of the league before the FBI nailed him?

Donaghy has never worked an NBA Finals game, so he clearly was not grading out among the very best officials. He worked a few playoff games this year.

5) How did Donaghy get so deeply in debt to mafia connected figures without NBA security officials knowing about it?

Referees' itineraries are supposed to be closely monitored and they are obviously not supposed to be gambling at all, let alone associating with underworld figures, so it is hard to understand how Donaghy got himself so deeply in trouble without the NBA knowing about it. I wonder if the NBA had some idea of what was going on but was forbidden by the FBI from acting against him until the FBI built up whatever case it is trying to make against not just Donaghy but whatever mob figures they are trying to bring down. While Donaghy is the NBA's primary concern in this matter, the FBI is probably trying to nail a prominent mobster; perhaps if the NBA tipped its hand regarding Donaghy that would have compromised the FBI's investigation. Obviously, I am just speculating here, but I just cannot comprehend how this could have gone on for two seasons without the NBA realizing it.

In recent years, the NBA has been much more vigorous about cracking down on traveling violations, "superstar" calls and other inconsistencies that used to annoy purists. The institution of videotape review and the improvement of the grading process were supposed to weed out the incompetent referees. For obvious reasons, the NBA has never made public exactly how its officials grade out. One can make some educated guesses about this based on which referees have retired/been released in recent years and which referees get the most playoff assignments/Finals games. One thing that may happen as a result of the Donaghy case is that the NBA may start making public at least some parts of the grading process. Clearly, many fans will be clamoring for the NBA to clean up this situation and, just as importantly, to prove that the situation has been cleaned up.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:19 AM

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Friday, July 20, 2007

New York Post Reports that an NBA Referee is Under Investigation for Fixing NBA Games

This could turn out to be the darkest day in the history of the NBA. Murray Weiss of the New York Post reports that the FBI is investigating an NBA referee for betting thousands of dollars on games that he officiated and for making calls during those games to affect the point spread. Weiss does not identify the referee by name but ESPN.com has reported that the referee in question is Tim Donaghy, who recently resigned. At this point, it is not clear how many games were involved, though Weiss writes that a source told him that the number is in "double digits." It is also not clear if the outcomes of games were manipulated or just the point spreads.

The NBA has always vigorously tried to protect itself against even the hint of a gambling scandal. Ralph Beard, Dale Barnstable and Alex Groza--who played together at the University of Kentucky--were banned for life from the NBA because of their involvement in the infamous 1951 betting scandal that almost destroyed college basketball. Jack Molinas was banned from the NBA for alleging conspiring to fix games; he later was the main figure behind college basketball's 1961 betting scandal. Commissioner David Stern has adamantly refused to consider placing an NBA team in Las Vegas unless all NBA action is taken off of the books. Interestingly, the current scandal in the making apparently does not involve legal action in Las Vegas but illegal gambling being done by mafia connected figures in New York.

It is of paramount importance for any sports league not only that everything is on the up and up but that everything is perceived to be on the up and up. Even if this turns out to be "just"--and I use that word advisedly--a case involving one NBA referee, this potential scandal in the making will shake the confidence of fans and cause them to think "conspiracy" every time a call goes against their favorite team. This is a potential legal, ethical and public relations disaster for the NBA.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:10 PM

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Counterpoint: Could Steve Francis be the Rockets' Bob McAdoo or Mark Aguirre?

In the interest of fairness, I have sought out the views of someone who I greatly respect to offer another perspective on the Rockets' signing of Steve Francis. Well, actually, I'm just going to argue with myself. Don't try this at home, kids--this could be fun, it could even be educational or it could just fall flat on its face.

My first reaction to Francis becoming the newest Rocket is that the last thing that Houston needs is an overdribbling point guard, particularly when new Coach Rick Adelman favors an offense that is predicated on ball and player movement. However, what if Francis truly wants to turn over a new leaf? There is no question that he is very talented--any 6-3 guard who can dunk over centers and has, in various seasons, posted averages of 21.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 7.0 apg is obviously capable of being a significant contributor if his mind is right.

Mark Aguirre and Bob McAdoo are two examples of guys who were at various times criticized by the media and/or fans but who accepted lesser roles on new teams and helped those teams to win multiple titles. This is not an easy thing to do. When I asked Bob McAdoo how he made the adjustment from being a starter to being a sixth man, he pointedly told me that he never adjusted to it: he simply "dealt with it." If Francis can similarly "deal with" a reduction in playing time and shot attempts then he could do a lot to change the way that his career will ultimately be perceived, particularly if the Rockets win a championship. Only Francis knows if he is willing and able to make this radical adjustment in his mindset.

As I debate back and forth with myself, I must point out that there is a problem with comparing Aguirre/McAdoo to Francis: prior to winning championships as a sixth man, McAdoo won an MVP, led a team past the first round of the playoffs as "the guy" and performed at such a high level that it is a travesty that he did not make the cut for the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List; similarly, Aguirre was "the guy" on a team that made it to the Western Conference Finals, he averaged at least 24.4 ppg in five different seasons and, if he is not clearly one of the 50 Greatest Players (he didn't make the list either) then he certainly belongs in the top 75. Point blank, Aguirre and McAdoo were much better players than Francis ever will be. That means that they represented a bigger threat to the opposition than Francis does and they were smart enough to understand that it best suited their new teams for them to accept a lesser role. Does Francis have enough self-awareness and enough understanding of his new team to come to a similar conclusion? It is possible, but I am still very skeptical.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Prodigal Son Returns: Houston Signs Steve Francis

Steve Francis has spurned possible opportunities to play for Dallas, the L.A. Clippers or Miami in order to return to the site of his best NBA years, Houston. The Rockets will reportedly officially announce on Friday that they have signed Francis to a two-year deal that ESPN's Chris Broussard says will be worth "roughly $6 million." Of course, money is hardly an issue now for Francis, who just pocketed about $30 million when Portland bought out his contract.

Point guard has hardly been a strength for the Rockets in recent seasons but there is good reason to believe that adding Francis to the mix does not improve matters at all. Francis is what Denver Coach George Karl calls a "ball stopper"--a player who overdribbles the ball without creating good shot opportunities for his teammates. That is the last kind of player that the Rockets need to pair with Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, particularly if new Houston Coach Rick Adelman intends to run the kind of passing game offense that he employed when he coached in Sacramento. At best, Francis will be a poorly fitting third wheel who at some point will complain about his minutes/shot attempts and at worst he will turn into a major distraction. McGrady is marvelous as both a scorer and a creator and the ball should be in his hands as much as possible; it does not benefit Houston at all to have Francis dribbling the ball until it is flat in a vain--in both senses of the word--search for an open shot for himself. When McGrady does not have the ball then Yao or newly acquired forward Luis Scola should have the ball at the top of the key, where they can shoot open jumpers or pass the ball to cutters. Look at Francis' track record: he puts up decent individual numbers (although he did not even do that in his last stop, in New York) but his teams don't win and he frequently becomes a distraction because he complains or misses practices or feuds with his coach.

Francis supposedly talked to Adelman, McGrady and Yao before Houston signed him. Everyone may be all smiles now but it will be interesting to see how many happy faces there are by mid-season. The only way that this can work is if Francis takes it upon himself to act differently than he did in his previous stops; McGrady and Yao are model citizens and Adelman is a proven coach, so the onus is on Francis to get with the new program in Houston. If Francis can do that then he can salvage his declining reputation.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:42 PM

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Man Behind the Suns' Rise

John MacLeod lifted the Suns from expansion team status all the way to the 1976 NBA Finals. Although he never made it back to the Finals, his tenure in Phoenix consisted of much more than that one playoff run; he helped build the Suns into perennial Western Conference contenders. Later, he coached the Dallas Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals, that team's best playoff performance until Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas to the 2006 NBA Finals. MacLeod coached several All-NBA and All-Star performers but you may be surprised to learn who he says "had the softest shot of anybody I've ever seen." You can read all about his career in my newest article for HoopsHype.com:

The Man Behind the Suns' Rise

posted by David Friedman @ 6:56 PM

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Wade Rehabs, Yi Reneges, Team USA Reloads

Summer league play is over and it will be a few days until Team USA opens up minicamp in Las Vegas, so there is no on court NBA action at the moment. However, there are a few interesting stories developing off of the court:

(1) Word out of Miami is that Dwyane Wade's surgically repaired left shoulder and left knee may not be completely healed by October, possibly causing him to miss the start of the regular season.

This is a "developing situation," as news networks like to say. I don't recall anyone previously mentioning even the possibility that Wade may not be ready to go in time for the 2007-08 season, so it is strange to hear that everything is supposedly going according to plan but he may miss some games anyway. The most important thing is not whether or not Wade misses a few games but how close to 100% he is once he does return to the court. Shoulders and knees are delicate and important joints to an explosive athlete like Wade, so both his range of motion and durability will bear watching. In any case, with Shaquille O'Neal aging and Wade at least somewhat banged up, it looks more and more like Superman and Flash will have to be content with one NBA title, which is less than could have reasonably been expected from O'Neal after he led the Lakers to three straight championships from 2000-2002.

(2) Chen Heitao, who runs the Guangdong Tigers, has declared that his player Yi Jianlin, chosen sixth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2007 draft, will not play for Milwaukee. Chen Heitao contends that this has nothing to do with Milwaukee as a city but is purely a basketball decision, indicating that the Bucks have a surplus of big men and that Yi would not get enough playing time to continue his development, which could in turn have a negative impact on his performance for the Chinese national team.

This story makes no sense on every level. First, the Bucks knew that Yi and his representatives had publicly stated that Yi would never play for Milwaukee but they drafted him anyway. Yes, they had every right to do so on principle, but "on principle" will average 0 ppg and 0 rpg this season; why didn't they either draft an equally talented player who they could actually sign or simply trade the pick and acquire a veteran player? Second, neither Yi nor anyone else should be able to manipulate the draft by not reporting to a team. The purpose of a draft is to prevent the best teams/cities from gobbling up all of the young talent. As a human being, Yi has the right to do whatever he wants but as a basketball asset he should be punished for not reporting to Milwaukee; he should never be allowed to play for another NBA team unless he or that other team compensates the Bucks. Milwaukee's problem is that Yi does not have to ever come to the NBA; he could just keep playing in China--again, that is why the Bucks should never have put themselves in the middle of this fiasco. Third, the idea that playing for Milwaukee will impede Yi's development is absurd. If he truly is a legitimate star in the making, then he will benefit from practicing against and playing with NBA players. It didn't hurt Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett to take their lumps as young players before becoming superstars. If Yi's representatives are worried that he will never crack Milwaukee's rotation then maybe he wasn't worth being taken sixth overall. I just don't see how playing in China will help his development more than playing against NBA players. Hasn't Yao Ming's game grown by leaps and bounds since he came to Houston?

(3) In August, Team USA will play in the FIBA Americas tournament in Las Vegas in order to earn a spot in the 2008 Olympics. The revamped national team program has a pool of 32 players, 12 of whom will be selected to play in a given event. Only 17 of the 32 will be available this summer, though. Coach Mike Krzyzewski will likely be choosing his roster from this list: Carmelo Anthony, Shane Battier, Chauncey Billups, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Durant, Kirk Hinrich, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Mike Miller, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, J.J. Redick, Amare Stoudemire, Deron Williams.

One would assume that, barring injury to some of the more experienced players, young Durant and Redick have no chance of making the final cut. Chandler and Miller will also likely be out, although Miller may be worth keeping around because of his shooting. Who will be the fifth man out? Kobe, LeBron, Melo, Bosh, Amare, Battier, Howard, Hinrich, Kidd and Williams seem to be mortal locks to make the team, based either on their skills or their prior participation (and thus greater familiarity with Coach Krzyzewski's system). So I expect Billups, Prince and Redd to fight over the last two roster spots.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:51 PM

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Durant Hardly Dominant as Summer League Concludes

I know that it might seem like 20 Second Timeout has turned into "The Kevin Durant Report" but I find his story interesting on a number of levels. He was selected with the second overall pick in the draft, his team promptly discarded two veteran All-Stars to turn the reins completely over to him and "everyone" seems convinced that he is going to be a "superstar" even though there are some conspicuous red flags about his body and his overall game. Those red flags don't mean that he won't become a very good player, even a superstar in time--but just like we should not read too much into Durant's summer league play we should also not read too little into it, either. My intention prior to the summer league was to focus attention equally on Greg Oden and Durant but of course Oden's tonsils wrecked that plan. Many of the summer league players are going to end up in Europe, the minor leagues or spending most of their time glued to an NBA team's bench this season so I'm not overly inclined to write about their exploits (except when someone declares that J.J. Redick could start for a playoff team; that kind of thinking always gets my attention). So, without further ado, let's take a look at how Durant fared in his final summer league game.

The first thing that should be noted is that Seattle lost 84-78 to the Oden-less Trailblazers; the Sonics went 0-5 in summer league play, with Durant participating in four of those games. Yeah, it is "just" summer league but if Durant cannot dominate summer league and lead his team to wins then how long will it be before he can dominate regular season NBA games? Durant scored 28 points but shot just 8-19 (.421) from the field. Everything that we saw from him in his first three games still held true: he drew fouls and made his free throws (11-13), he rebounded poorly (three boards in 38 minutes), had just one assist and did not block a shot. Durant also had two steals. Durant's summer league averages betray how one dimensional his game is right now: 24.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, .5 apg (that is not a typo), 1.5 spg and 0.0 bpg (also not a typo; Durant was a very good rebounder and shotblocker in college but did not block a single shot in summer league play). Durant shot .333 from the field, .263 from three point range and .848 from the free throw line. It's great that he can draw a lot of fouls in summer league but has anyone stopped to consider what might happen to Durant's scoring in the regular season when he runs into players and teams that can guard him without fouling? You'd think based on Durant's free throw attempt numbers that he is frequently driving aggressively to the hoop but in this game he drew some cheap fouls (for instance, on jump shots) from players who are hardly high quality NBA defenders. When he drives it sometimes seems like he is avoiding contact; perhaps his best move of the night was a left handed drive and finish early in the second half. Gary Payton joined the NBA TV broadcast crew on the air shortly after that play. His evaluation of Durant is that he likes Durant's shooting ability but thinks that Durant should post up more when he is guarded by shorter players and that when Durant drives he should initiate contact instead of taking the ball to the other side and trying to avoid the hit.

The bottom line is that right now Durant is not making his jumpers with any consistency and he has no power game. Barring some dramatic improvement between now and the start of the season I am skeptical that he is going to score 20-plus ppg as easily as so many people seem to believe--he may very well score 20-plus ppg out of necessity because Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are gone but he will likely have to do it on a high volume of shots with a low degree of accuracy.

OK, the numbers are not so great. What kind of presence does Durant have on the court? He looks much thinner than he did in college because now he is standing next to full grown men. Compared to NBA players, Durant looks like a 15 year old kid who hit his growth spurt but has not filled out yet. Also, when guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Patrick Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon were young and slender they clearly had frames that could support more body mass. Durant appears to have narrow shoulders; in other words, he is an ectomorph. Some ectomorphs are able to build up their bodies over time but others, like Ralph Sampson, really struggle to add (or even maintain) body weight. During the Seattle-Portland telecast, NBA TV's Tim Capstraw said that Durant looks taller than his listed 6-9. I'm not sure that I agree with that but if he does look taller than 6-9 it is because he is so painfully thin. Capstraw was impressed by Durant's 32 point showing in his previous game but Capstraw neglected to remind viewers that Durant shot just 9-23 from the field in that contest. Considering Durant's slight frame, it is not surprising that he seems to lack a certain gusto to go into the paint. His offensive game mainly consists of waiting for someone to pass him the ball so that he can launch a shot from the perimeter; he does not cut hard or move very well without the ball. In the first half, Durant got a defensive rebound and went coast to coast to draw a foul; Capstraw waxed poetic like he was watching the second coming of Magic Johnson but what I saw was a player with a high dribble (a quick handed NBA guard would have picked Durant clean at midcourt) who did not attack the hoop straight on but launched a soft shot that turned out to be an airball. Durant was bailed out when a secondary defender plowed into him after Durant seemed to try to avoid contact with the first defender. Yes, Durant is long and athletic and can get his shot off over most defenders but if he continues to shoot poorly and cannot post up, rebound or pass then I don't think that teams will be greatly concerned about him shooting a lot of faceup jumpers.

Fellow rookie Jeff Green (32 points, 13 rebounds, 10-18 shooting from the field) looked much more NBA ready in this game than his teammate Durant but this was by far Green's best game of the summer league; we will see if he can have that type of production on a consistent basis in regular season NBA games. Certainly, Green looks more physically ready for the NBA than Durant does, though.

I have said repeatedly that I know that it is early but, frankly, I am surprised and disappointed by Durant's summer league play. I expected him to shoot much better than he did and even though I had my doubts about his ability to rebound in the NBA I did not think that he would get just 2.0 rpg in over 34 mpg. If you are a University of Texas fan or a Seattle fan and think that I am being too harsh on Durant, just go to NBA.com and watch the webcasts of his games. As they say, the eye in the sky doesn't lie. I have nothing against him and wish him all the best but he's got an uphill climb ahead of him and all of the breathless praise and lofty predictions really do him a disservice; somebody needs to get in his ear about the things that he doesn't do well and help him out. If all Durant hears is how great he is going to be then what incentive is he going to have to work on his game?

posted by David Friedman @ 9:58 AM

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New York State of Mind

The New York Knicks have not seen first place in quite some time but, to mix sports metaphors, they have lapped the rest of the NBA in one regard: they must pay a $45.1 million luxury-tax bill, which is almost $38 million more than any other team in the league. The luxury-tax is a dollar for dollar amount that must be paid by any team that exceeds the NBA's salary cap restrictions; teams can go over the cap in certain situations without facing the penalty--Larry Coon's NBA Salary Cap FAQ offers a very detailed explanation of everything you could possibly want to know about this subject. Five teams (Knicks, Mavericks, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Spurs) currently have to pay the luxury-tax, while the remaining 25 teams will each receive $1.9 million after the luxury-tax funds are collected.

Clearly, New York has yet to receive much bang for all of the bucks that have been spent; the Knicks went 33-49 last season, have not made the playoffs since 2003-04 and have not won more than half of their games since 2000-01, Jeff Van Gundy's last full season as the team's head coach. Many people are quick to blame President/Coach Isiah Thomas for this sad state of affairs but the reality is that he inherited a mess when he arrived on the scene in December 2003--a sub-.500 team filled with mismatched personnel and burdened by excessively large contracts, including Allan Houston's. Owner James Dolan has apparently given Thomas a lot of latitude financially, so if Dolan is willing to foot the bill then the only important question is not how much of Dolan's money Thomas is spending but whether or not he has made the team better in the past few years.

I admit that the idea of pairing Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis together made no sense to me at all but Thomas managed to not only get rid of Francis but he also got someone else (Portland owner Paul Allen, who has even deeper pockets than Dolan) to foot the bill. As things stand now, Thomas traded Penny Hardaway, Trevor Ariza and Channing Frye for Zach Randolph; Hardaway--who is no longer in the league--and Ariza are the players who Thomas gave up to acquire Francis, while Frye accompanied Francis to Portland in this year's draft day deal for Randolph. It was a circuitous path that took some time to wend its way to a conclusion, but at the end of the day these moves upgraded the Knicks' talent level and did not worsen the team's financial situation. Previously, Thomas acquired Eddy Curry--who seems to be on the verge of becoming an All-Star center in the East--without giving up players of any significant value at this stage of their careers (Antonio Davis, Tim Thomas, Michael Sweetney and Jermaine Jackson); several draft picks were also involved in the Curry deal, so perhaps the final verdict may not be favorable to the Knicks but any objective party looking at that transaction has to admit that Thomas did well to obtain a quality low-post scorer without giving up much.

The unfortunate thing for Thomas is that guys like Bill Simmons and others have basically turned his name--at least as an executive--into a punchline, so anything that Thomas does is not judged on its merits but simply becomes fodder for another one-liner. I don't know what Thomas did to so upset Simmons--maybe Simmons didn't like it when Thomas' Pistons ended Boston's Eastern Conference supremacy in the late 1980s--but Thomas knows more about basketball than his critics ever will. Overall, Joe Dumars has done a wonderful job in Detroit, winning one title and building a team that is a perennial contender, but he also drafted Darko Milicic when he could have had Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh and he failed to retain the services of Mehmet Okur, who blossomed into an All-Star with the Utah Jazz; just imagine what people would say if Thomas had made those moves. Every GM or team president makes some mistakes and not every deal can be evaluated correctly the second that it happens. Just like the mainstream media loves certain players but bashes others, some executives and coaches receive the benefit of the doubt while others are reflexively blasted.

Remember how the fans booed and the ESPN analysts jeered when Thomas drafted Renaldo Balkman with the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft? Balkman turned out to be an effective all-around player last year and a Madison Square Garden crowd favorite. He performed very well in the just concluded summer league. David Lee is another productive player who Thomas drafted. Last season, Thomas acquired Randolph Morris by taking advantage of a rules technicality and Morris appears to be a decent big man prospect who will no doubt benefit from being tutored by Mark Aguirre. I think that Mardy Collins will turn out to be a better player than a lot of the guys who were selected before him in the draft.

It is easy to make jokes about Thomas and the Knicks and it is certainly true that the team has not performed well in recent seasons--but look at the Knicks' possible starting lineup this fall: Eddy Curry at center, Zach Randolph at power forward, Quentin Richardson at small forward, Jamal Crawford at shooting guard and Stephon Marbury at point guard. David Lee, Nate Robinson, Renaldo Balkman and Mardy Collins will come off of the bench. That is certainly a younger, more talented and better balanced roster than the one that Thomas inherited a little more than three years ago. I don't know how things will turn out--I'd be more confident in the Knicks' prospects if they did not have Marbury running the show--but while critics have made fun of Thomas' every move he has managed to acquire a lot of talented players. It will be interesting to see how this group responds to Thomas' coaching. Since Thomas has basically hand-picked each player who is currently on the roster one would think that this team will be very loyal to Thomas and will play hard for him.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM

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Basketball Blog Carnival Returns!

Last month I made a post about the basketball blog carnivals that are organized by Matt from Blog-a-Bull. He uses a forum at Ballhype.com to coordinate and publicize the carnivals.

Carnival of the NBA #46 is now up and running, with my post about this year's NBA Draft receiving top billing. Thanks go to "With Malice..." for hosting this event.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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