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

Saturday, July 28, 2007

How Hard is it to Detect Crooked Officiating?

Everybody is trying to find footage of games officiated by disgraced referee Tim Donaghy and then looking for indications that he was manipulating the score and/or result in some fashion. One might think that such signs would be easy to detect but the fact that Donaghy graded out as an above average referee in the NBA's rankings suggests that if Donaghy did something wrong then he was not blatant about it. An interesting article by Jonathan Feigin of the Houston Chronicle reveals just how difficult it is to conclusively prove that a referee is biased.

In the first 15 games that Donaghy officiated last season in which the point spread moved at least 1.5 points, the "big-money" bettors went 15-0. Handicapper Matty O'Shea told Feigin that the odds against that happening randomly are "33,000 to 1." Obviously, that looks suspicious but O'Shea points out that in several of those games there were valid reasons for the line to move dramatically, such as an injury to a star player. So, there is no getting around the fact that you have to go to the tape and actually look at the calls Donaghy made (or didn't make) and see if anything looks odd. Feigin did just that, with the help of Mel Whitworth, who refereed in the NBA from 1985-1990.

Whitworth told Feigin, "I've watched Tim referee on many occasions. I've never thought he was a very good referee. Obviously, the NBA thinks different because he worked the playoffs." However, despite Whitworth's low opinion of Donaghy's officiating skills in general, film study of two Rockets games that Donaghy called last year yielded nothing unusual to Whitworth's trained eyes. "Even knowing what we know, I see zero, absolutely zero (suspicious). There were a couple ticky-tack calls, but we have those in every game. There was one play, with the wrong number (called), but there was no pattern. If I said we're looking at these referees being corrupt, you would have no idea which one it would be. And if I told you which one, you could not say which (team) he was favoring."

The only way that this will ever be fully resolved is if Donaghy or someone else who was involved in this sits down with the FBI or the NBA and explains exactly what was happening in each game--what bets were made and what, if anything, Donaghy did to slant things in favor of the people who placed those bets. I'm not sure that a "smoking gun" is going to be found on video without someone who was in on the plot telling the investigators what to look for and where to find it. As Whitworth said to Feigin, "If you are the FBI, you have absolutely nothing that comes close to saying Tim Donaghy is a rogue referee. In those two games, that's as good as I've seen him referee. I would have given good scores. They'll have to look at every game and see not only calls but enough to know why those calls were made."

posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 PM

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Steve Nash: "The Only Window That Exists is This Year"

Steve Nash told ESPN.com's LZ Granderson that he does not worry about Phoenix' window of opportunity to win a championship with the Suns' current nucleus: "The only window that exists is this year," explained the two-time NBA MVP. On the other hand, he is not concerned that his career will be ending any time soon, declaring, "I feel great. I feel better than I did when I was 25."

Some fans feel like the Suns-Spurs playoff series was tainted by the game five suspensions that were issued to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw and that feeling has no doubt intensified with the knowledge that disgraced referee Tim Donaghy officiated game three of that series, even though it is not yet known if Donaghy did anything wrong in that contest. Although Nash did his share of whining in the heat of the moment during the series, to his credit he has now stepped back from that kind of thinking for the most part, telling Granderson, "I'm always self critical. I always look at myself and feel like I could have played better and done more, no matter what we faced--and a fantastic team, too." The phrasing is a bit awkward, but Nash refrained from elaborating about "what we faced."

When Granderson asked Nash what the Suns need to do to "get over the hump" in 2007-08, Nash replied, "I think this team could have won a championship this year. I'm not going to blame it on the suspensions. We could have been mentally tougher, we could have done things better, played a little bit better and we could have beat San Antonio." As the leader of his team, that should always be the attitude that Nash expresses and conveys. Regardless of what he thinks about certain situations, in the heat of battle he cannot allow his team to lose focus from the task at hand. One of the stages in the evolution of the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls teams from contender to champion was that they stopped allowing themselves to be distracted by physical play and by how games were officiated. Coach Phil Jackson told his players to not respond in kind when the Bad Boys Pistons or Pat Riley Knicks went right up to the edge (or over it) in terms of physical play; getting involved in that kind of thing did not play to the Bulls' strengths, which revolved around skillful execution of basketball plays, not proving who was "tougher." Perhaps Stoudemire, Diaw and the rest of the Suns can take that lesson from the 2007 playoffs and apply it in the future.

Would Nash already have a championship ring by now if he and Dirk Nowitzki were still teammates? "I think so," replied Nash. "Yeah. If we still played together I think that we could have won a title one of the last three years. We were both still growing as players, getting better every season and I think that in some ways being apart has raised our games but (if we had stayed together) we would have continued to grow individually and collectively." That would seem to be a shot at Dallas owner Mark Cuban, who elected not to re-sign Nash, but when asked point blank if Cuban blew it, Nash kiddingly said yes before saying that he respects Cuban's decision and pointing out that Dallas has a very strong team that made it to the 2006 Finals and had the best regular season record in the NBA in 2007. Naturally, Nash believes that Dallas would have been even better if Cuban had retained his services.

This is an important season for Nash. Every other multiple MVP winner in NBA history except for Karl Malone won at least one championship. Nash is not an overwhelming player statistically; no statistical rating system that I know of would have selected him as an MVP either of the seasons that he won the award. His calling card is "making other players better" but that will be a strange thing to be known for if he never even once makes an appearance in the NBA Finals despite playing on some very talented teams that have won a lot of regular season games. With the Spurs and Mavericks still fully stocked and teams like the Jazz and Rockets on the rise, it will not be easy for Nash and the Suns to emerge from the West.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:43 AM

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tim Donaghy's Media Guide Bio Contains Discrepancies

Apparently, the NBA's vaunted background checks and security procedures do not include making a few simple phone calls to verify resume information. According to a New York Times article, Donaghy's bio in the league's official media guide about referees contains some exaggerations regarding his high school and collegiate athletic careers. The NBA told the Times that the information in the media guide is provided by each referee but the Times has not yet confirmed whether Donaghy or another party in fact is responsible for the errors.

Donaghy's bio states that he made the All-Catholic League baseball team while playing for Cardinal O'Hara High School in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, that he also made the All-Delaware County basketball team and that he played varsity baseball at Villanova. None of these claims appear to be true or even close to the truth. Buddy Gardler, Donaghy's high school basketball coach, told the Times that Donaghy did not even start for O'Hara's basketball team.

Donaghy is obviously not the first person who has "polished" his resume a bit but this further indicates a pattern of falsehood on his part presumably dating back further than just the past couple seasons. Also, it makes the NBA's investigative efforts look sloppy at best. How good of an athlete Donaghy was as a teenager is not that important in the big picture but the fact that he could get away with lying about the most basic and easy to research parts of his past does not give one much confidence in the NBA's ability to keep tabs on its employees' possible financial problems, gambling activities and contacts with underworld figures.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:58 AM

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Interview With Filip Bondy, Author of Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever

The 1984 NBA Draft produced four players who later were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. Filip Bondy, who currently writes for the New York Daily News, began covering the NBA in 1979 and he has penned the definitive account of the events surrounding that epochal draft: Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever includes the recollections of many of the movers and shakers from the NBA in that era, some of whom--like Rod Thorn--are still active in the league today. You can order the book here.

I spoke with Bondy on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after he left David Stern's press conference about the Tim Donaghy investigation. We discussed several of the interesting anecdotes that are included in the book and Bondy told me where he thinks the 1984 draft class ranks all-time. I got his take on the Donaghy situation and how it might affect the NBA. We also talked about how the attitudes and perceptions of the New York media in some ways shape the national conversation about the NBA.

Friedman: “What did you find out during your research for the book that surprised you the most?”

Bondy: “I think that the parts that surprised me were, first of all, the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’—I don’t think that I understood the permutations that were possible, that it wasn’t just Portland that blew this. A lot of teams, a half dozen teams, could have had Michael Jordan for various reasons or with various strategies, including the Houston Rockets, who get a free pass (after drafting Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick) but really kind of blew it. They should have traded Ralph Sampson straight up for that number three pick (which became Jordan), which was something that was briefly discussed within the (Houston) organization and the Bulls would have accepted it. They had heard sort of vague rumors about that and they would have taken Sampson for that pick. You can only imagine that team with Olajuwon and Jordan for a dozen years or so. That is just one example. You can’t forget that the Indiana Pacers traded away that pick for Tom Owens (in 1981). A lot of teams had opportunities that they failed to pounce on and it made a huge difference. I came to that revelation. Also, just the storytelling of the individuals who were involved—I learned a lot about Sam Bowie and the strength of his character. I learned a lot about Charles Barkley’s wacky attempt to avoid being drafted by the Sixers. I didn’t realize what a shotgun marriage that was for both sides.”

Friedman: “That was a very interesting situation and I assume that most people don’t know about it. Philadelphia was one of the top teams in the league at the time, so one would assume that with them being high up in the draft that that would be a desirable location, that a player would want to go to a winning team; usually if you are a top draft pick you go to a team that is not that good. Talk a little bit about some of the specifics of that situation and why Barkley was not inclined to want to go there, primarily—as you explain in the book—because of some of the financial considerations at that time.”

Bondy: “Charles was all about the money at the time and probably for a good time afterward. He found out just a few days before the draft that the Sixers were one of the few teams in the league that were capped at the time—although they did manage to unloose themselves from that. Going into the draft, he thought that because they were capped that if they took him he would just get the league minimum of $70,000 (per year) and that was just not at all what Charles had in mind. So he then went about his nefarious eating binge in an attempt to gain enough weight to discourage the Sixers from picking him. The Sixers, meanwhile, were very reluctant about taking him and if they had had a better choice they would have taken it. They were one of the teams that understood Michael Jordan’s worth and they desperately tried to trade up but they failed and then, as Pat Williams, their GM at the time, said, ‘We suddenly were faced with a choice between two guys who tied their shoelaces by memory,’ referring to Barkley and Mel Turpin.”

Friedman: “Obviously, they made the right choice in that regard (taking Barkley with the fifth overall pick). That leads right into another one of my questions. You talked a bit in the book about their attempt to trade Julius Erving for Terry Cummings. That was a story that fans found out about at that time. That became public knowledge. I was a kid at that time but I remember reading about that and hearing about that—but then you mentioned something that definitely was not public knowledge, which was that the Sixers attempted to trade Erving to Chicago for the pick that became Michael Jordan. Talk a little bit about that story. How did you find out about that? To the best of my knowledge, that was never reported at that time or even for years after that.”

Bondy: “I had never heard that story, either. I didn’t hear about it from Rod Thorn, the Bulls’ GM at the time. He never mentioned that. He mentioned all the other trades that the Sixers were desperately trying to put together for the third pick, like Andrew Toney and the fifth pick itself. I’m not even sure to this day whether Rod Thorn ever heard about that offer (of Erving), because I heard about it from Harold Katz, the owner of the 76ers, who apparently took it upon himself—and Harold took a lot of things upon himself back then—to offer this face to face to Jonathan Kovler, the president of the Bulls. Kovler apparently rejected it outright. I mean, it would not have made any sense for the Bulls. Erving had a couple years left but it would have been shortsighted—almost a publicity stunt--to bring Erving to Chicago at that point. But that is how I heard about it, from Harold Katz himself.”

Friedman: “Even though that would have been largely a p.r. move and not in the long term interest of the Bulls, that would have been a blockbuster deal at that time, because Erving was still considered a big star. That was just a couple years after the 76ers had won the championship and the previous season, 1983-84, Erving was on the All-NBA Second Team. He had been with Philadelphia for so long, if that trade had really happened that would still be talked about to this day.”

Bondy: “It’s kind of interesting, also, because Rod Thorn had been an assistant coach with the New York Nets (in the ABA) when Erving was at his peak, so if anybody would have been tempted to make that deal it might have been Rod Thorn. It really never got that far. Thorn is pretty adamant that the only deal that he would have taken for the number three pick was Ralph Sampson and he did turn down Mark Aguirre. We think back now and say how stupid it would have been to take Mark Aguirre for Michael Jordan but at the time Aguirre was the second leading scorer in the league behind Adrian Dantley and he was a Chicago kid, so it would have been a very popular p.r. move to bring Aguirre back to Chicago; that was actually a little more tempting (then) than it sounds (today).”

Friedman: “Sure, and during Aguirre’s college career he had been the national player of the year at DePaul and, as you said, he was a native Chicagoan. He was a big star in the NBA at the time. You have mentioned some of the fascinating connections and quirks of fate that affected this draft. Talk a little bit about the situation with Cleveland and the domino effect that resulted from that. You mention in the book that (Cleveland owner Ted) Stepien’s mismanagement led to Commissioner David Stern deciding that we can’t have this guy owning a team. Take the story from there and how that eventually affected Dallas’ chances of getting Michael Jordan.”

Bondy: “Stepien was the ultimate loose cannon. He said all sorts of crazy things that maybe some other owners thought but they never said them out loud. He actually said that we need white players to market our teams in the NBA. He was sort of the embodiment of political incorrectness. He also traded away the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first round draft picks for years and years to come. Basically, the franchise was doomed forever unless something was done. It was hard to get a buyer. The Gund brothers, who would later build the arena in downtown Cleveland, owned the Richfield Coliseum, where the Cavaliers played at the time. They became the primary potential purchasers of the team and Stern wanted to make the team more attractive to them to get rid of Stepien. So he began to hand out free draft picks to the Cleveland Cavaliers and he asked the Dallas Mavericks, among other teams, to go along with this plan. The Mavericks had feasted off of the Cavaliers’ draft picks for years but they finally agreed to it and the sale was made, the team was stabilized a bit and, as it turned out, the Mavericks missed out (on potentially drafting) Michael Jordan by one game” (the Mavs still owned the Cavaliers’ first overall pick in 1984 but the Gunds stabilized Cleveland enough that the Cavs won 28 games to Chicago’s 27 in 1983-84, so the Bulls got the third pick—Jordan—while the Mavericks, with the Cavs’ fourth pick, took Sam Perkins. Norm Sonju, the Mavs’ president at the time, told Bondy, “I can’t talk about the 1984 draft without me crying a little bit. Perkins was a fine player but he wasn’t Jordan of course”).

Friedman: “It’s just a fascinating story and something that most casual fans would not know about it. Another thing that you noted in the book is that at the time—and even shortly afterward—picking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan did not seem like a disaster. Bowie made the All-Rookie Team and then Jordan missed most of his second season with a broken foot. You were covering the NBA at that time as a beat writer. When you were covering the league and all of this stuff was going on, what were your thoughts about Portland picking Bowie over Jordan, before it became obvious what Jordan was going to become and that Bowie was never going to be healthy enough to really be a major contributor?”

Bondy: “I think that most of us understood that Jordan was an extraordinary talent and then when we saw him in his rookie year we knew that this guy was going to be really, really good. On the other hand, as you pointed out, Bowie was no slouch either during his rookie year and he seemed to fit very nicely in the Portland lineup and there was great upside potential with him. You could almost see him, in today’s terms, being a Tim Duncan kind of player, a nice, heady, passing presence in the paint. It was thought at the time that both teams had done very well for themselves, that Portland was going to be fine and that Chicago got themselves a superstar that they would have to build around and that it would take years and years, we figured, for him to reach a level that would impact the league (in terms of team success). It was clear pretty quickly that Jordan was something special; you just had to watch the moves to understand that this kid was extraordinary. As for deciding that Portland had made a terrible mistake, I don’t think we really did that until, as you suggested, the beginning of the third year. That was when it became obvious that Bowie was never going to amount to much because he had fallen prey to all of these injuries and it was also becoming very obvious that Jordan was lifting the Bulls much higher than most people had thought possible.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that third year is when Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg and you started to realize that maybe he is not just going to be the best player in the league but really start to contend for greatest player of all-time status, perhaps, or really just be at another level than anyone expected.”

Bondy: “He became transcendent. That is the word that I like to use to describe him by the third year. That is when we all said, ‘That was some dumb move by Portland.’ And we were all very happy that we had not been in Stu Inman’s position at the time” (Inman, a great personnel man for many years, will sadly always be remembered, at least in part, as the man who drafted Bowie instead of Jordan).

Friedman: “How would you rank the 1984 draft all-time? There are a lot of different draft classes that are talked about. In theory, this year’s class is going to be good but you obviously can’t really evaluate it yet. The 2003 one, with LeBron, Wade, Melo and Bosh, is considered great. I know that this wasn’t the primary focus of the book, per se, but where would you rank the 1984 draft?”

Bondy: “There are really only three drafts that you can talk about. It is too early to talk about the one that just took place and, frankly, a lot of the scouts who I’ve talked to are not as high on this draft—after the top two picks—as I think that some of the fans are. I may be proved wrong but I don’t think that the 2007 draft is going to rank with the other three that we should be talking about, which are the 1984, 1996 and 2003 drafts. Those are really the three drafts that you could make an argument are the greatest ever. I think that you can go back and forth all you want, but I would just argue that the 1984 draft had the greatest overall impact on the marketing of the league and part of that was just because of the cult of personality and Jordan’s transcendence and also the fact that it came at such an opportune time: a new era, with a new commissioner and a new salary cap, a new broadcasting contract and also the beginning of the slam dunk highlights that you started to see constantly on TV with the advent of more and more sports on TV.”

Friedman: “I was going to ask you about the enduring legacy of the 1984 draft but you basically just answered that in the process of answering my previous question. The other two drafts that you mentioned included Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash in 1996 and then the 2003 draft is the one that I mentioned with LeBron, Wade and so forth.”

Bondy: “Those are the three that I think jump out at you. If you look at some of the names in 1996 it is pretty amazing.”

Friedman: “Yeah and the fact that neither Kobe nor Nash were taken in the first ten picks. That could be a book or something.”

Bondy: “Yeah. That was the Iverson draft.”

Friedman: “Right. How could I leave him out? That draft, like you said, was stocked. In a way, that is similar to 1984, because you have great players at the top but also you have Stockton and other guys further down in the draft who became top players. I want to ask you about something else that has come up since we set up this interview. As someone who has covered the NBA for so long, what is your take on the Tim Donaghy situation as it is unfolding? How surprised are you that something like this apparently has happened? During all of your time covering the league, have you ever had a sense at another time that something like this might have been happening?”

Bondy: “No. I just attended the David Stern press conference and the sense that I get is that he is walking a very, very thin tightrope here. He used words like ‘isolated’ and ‘rogue’ about five or six times each; that is what he has to bank on. I think the league can survive this without that much harm as long as Donaghy doesn’t start naming names and bringing other people into it. But the minute that even just one other official’s name comes into this, the dominoes start falling and this gets blown wide open. Then you can no longer say that this is isolated and you can no longer say that this guy is one criminal mind among innocent and decent officials. Stern has got to be silently praying, because his legacy is in the hands of this guy Donaghy. If Donaghy starts talking about other people and corruption then it’s all over. So that is where we are at right now. We’re trying to find out if this is an isolated incident or whether this has been going on and is more widespread than Stern wants to admit. As far as me being suspicious or surprised, I would say that I am not shocked but at the same time I never was suspicious that this was happening. I never looked at a referee and thought, ‘This guy is on the take.’ Not even close. There have been some extremely controversial calls, obviously, that I have covered. I remember Hue Hollins calling the foul that decided the Bulls-Knicks series (in 1994), on the follow through of a three pointer at the buzzer.”

Friedman: “Darell Garretson was a member of that crew and he later said publicly that that was a ‘terrible’ call. I actually cut out that article because it was so unusual for a fellow referee to break that, I don’t want to say ‘omerta’ and bring up the mob, but the code of silence that normally covers that kind of thing. I watched that game and thought, like everyone else, that it was a terrible call. That Garretson actually came out and publicly said that was just incredible.”

Bondy: “I don’t even want to suggest that it was fixed.”

Friedman: “No, no, I don’t think that it was fixed; I just think that it was a horrible call.”

Bondy: “That is an example of how one call can change a whole series. Now we have to look at the Suns-Spurs series, because Donaghy worked one of those games. Over the years, I just remember a bunch of bad calls but I never thought that someone was on the take. I remember Jess Kersey looking dead on as Robert Parish punched Bill Laimbeer during a Pistons-Celtics playoff game and not doing a thing about it. I mean, these days Parish would have been suspended for the whole series. A bunch of calls jump out in my memory but none of them ever triggered the thought that this guy is on the take. At the same time, people are human; I’m a big follower of soccer overseas, so I know what can happen. Basketball is maybe the third easiest sport to fix. I was thinking about this the other day. Soccer is number one because it just takes one penalty call in the box to change everything. Probably horse racing is very easy and then, maybe, basketball. Football is harder because of all the replays and challenges and there are so many officials on the field, although you could call a pass interference call or a holding call and change everything. So, yes, I am surprised but I am not stunned; it was almost inevitable. Let’s see how widespread it was.”

Friedman: “I realize that Donaghy could have been giving out inside information and other nefarious things but the thing that I don’t understand and something that I would like to see explained at some point is how one referee can fix a game in this day and age when, supposedly, the NBA is reviewing not only every call that is made but every non-call and downgrading officials on their reports if they don’t call something that should have been called. If the NBA is monitoring this so closely—and we don’t have any evidence that Donaghy was grading out as a poor official—then how in the world could one guy be doing that?”

Bondy: “He did grade out as one of the guys who called the most personal fouls, which doesn’t mean that much per se, but when you think about it there is so much ambiguous physical action that you could whistle or not whistle a lot of stuff. If you whistle two quick fouls on Shaquille O’Neal early on then you are going to really impact the game. Then he is sitting on the bench for an extended period of time. If you pick your spots and call ambiguous physical action as fouls against key players then I think that you could probably impact the results of a game. But how can you prove that? You can’t.”

Friedman: “Here is a question that ties this whole thing back to something that you wrote about in your book. One of the themes in Tip-Off is that many people in the NBA really believe that toward the end of the previous season (1983-84), some of the teams were dumping games—Houston comes to mind—to move up in the draft and get the number one pick. Obviously, that is why the draft lottery was instituted in the first place. The widespread suspicion, even among NBA insiders, that teams dumped games never really seemed to permanently damage the league. How is this situation with Donaghy different in the way that it might unfold and have a bigger impact?”

Bondy: “That’s a good point. I don’t think that anybody believes that players dumped games (in 1984).”

Friedman: “Right, OK, that would be a difference.”

Bondy: “They saw that the lineups being used were ridiculous. It’s interesting, because these days when teams do it they tend to play young players—when they give up on a season they play young players and their excuse is, ‘We’re playing for the future.’ Back then, the Rockets didn’t do that. They played really old players, like Elvin Hayes, age 38, for 53 minutes in an overtime game. They didn’t even have the usual excuse or rationale to do it. I don’t know, I think that that is just as bad, if not worse, then wondering whether a referee is on the up and up or not. I do think that that (teams dumping games to improve their draft position) is a scandal that the NBA needs to address. They were talking about doing something about it again, because they have weighted the lottery so much now (in favor of the very worst teams) that a lot of teams are being accused of doing the same thing now that teams did before they instituted the draft lottery. I think that before this referee thing happened that this was a top priority for the NBA and that they were going to sit down and talk about flattening the odds a bit again so that they would avoid some of those suspicions. Now they have something else on their front burner but I am not so sure it’s any worse than management deciding to not field their best players in a given game.”

Friedman: “Some of it could also be that the NBA and sports in general are covered so much more thoroughly now than they were back then that something happening that is awry in some way is going to get a lot more coverage than it would have in 1983-84-85. You also made an excellent point when you said that no one ever suggested that the players themselves were doing anything wrong or that the action on the court was not right. It’s just that teams were putting lineups on the court that did not have a good chance to win. The guys who were on the court were playing hard, so nothing wrong was happening on the court in terms of the game itself; it’s just that the coach was putting all of his old players on the court and running them ragged. In that sense, maybe that was not quite as severe as what is allegedly happening now, although you said you think that was more severe. Once the players were on the court, the action itself was real, it was just a case of a team putting a lineup out there that it suspected probably could not make it through a full 48 minutes.”

Bondy: “Right. Well, today the players are still playing hard, they are just (allegedly) being officiated by a crooked referee. I don’t know. No, it’s not a pretty notion but the NBA has not been thriving the past couple years anyway--especially here in New York, where we have such a twisted view of things. As far as we are concerned, the NBA is in its death throes to begin with, so that plays a role in the analysis. That is the backdrop to all of this stuff here in New York. Everyone is so down on the Knicks that that begins to extend to the NBA as whole.”

Friedman: “That is an interesting point, so I’ll close with this question. Do you think that the view that the New York media has about how successful—or not successful—the NBA is, based on the performance of the Knicks, drives the national conversation about the NBA in a sense because there are so many media outlets based in New York? A lot of the media elsewhere perhaps follows the lead of the New York media, so if the New York media feels cynical about the Knicks and then extends that feeling to the NBA that this might drive the national conversation in some way?”

Bondy: “Yes, I think that is true to some degree. I do. I think that Stern at some level understands this but there is not much he can do about it unless he freezes an envelope in the draft lottery for Patrick Ewing again.”

Friedman: “I hope that you didn’t ask that question at the press conference.”

Bondy (laughs): “No. It is true that we are about as down on this league right now as I can ever remember and that includes when I was covering the Knicks in the early 1980s when they were falling apart under Hubie Brown and all of that stuff.”

Friedman: “’The ship be sinking.’”

Bondy: “Yeah. I think that it (the attitude of the New York media) does impact (national) perception but it’s hard for me, being in New York all the time, to know how much impact our negativity has on the rest of the country. It sure seems, though, that we seem to be at least a little bit more important than the San Antonio market, I think. There was a time when this league was so perfectly set up: Boston and L.A. had one rivalry, with Philly sort of being the third team. Then there was the Knicks versus the Bulls—big, big markets. Suddenly it has devolved into the San Antonios and the Utahs. Before you know it, the NBA is the NHL.”

posted by David Friedman @ 6:12 AM

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

David Stern Sheds Some Light on the Tim Donaghy Investigation

NBA Commissioner David Stern held a press conference today that differed from any other that he has previously held. Usually, Stern presents an image of being entirely in control--in control of the league, in control of himself and in control of how the league's image is presented. When he suspended Ron Artest for an entire season due to the "Malice in the Palace," Stern was asked if a vote was taken to decide the appropriate punishment and he replied, "It was unanimous, one to nothing."

Today we saw a different side of David Stern, who frankly admitted that he had to "walk this difficult line" of what he could and could not say due to the FBI's ongoing investigation of disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy. There were some questions that he simply is not permitted to answer and others that led him to pause and state that he has to very carefully choose his words. Contrary to any suggestions otherwise, Stern emphatically declared that the NBA did not know about this matter until the FBI contacted the league on June 20. He indicated that the NBA would have liked to have fired Donaghy at that time but could not do so because this could have potentially impaired the FBI investigation. Ultimately, Donaghy resigned on July 9. Stern said, "This is the most serious and worst situation that I have ever experienced" in 40 years of involvement with the NBA as a fan, a lawyer for the league and as its commissioner for more than two decades.

Before answering questions, Stern made a brief statement. He outlined the security procedures that the NBA currently has in place, managed by a security department that is stocked with former FBI agents, state police investigators and local police officers. Stern also said that the NBA has a Las Vegas consultant who monitors betting lines to make sure that there is no suspicious activity regarding gambling on NBA games. He said that background checks are made of all NBA referees to the fullest extent of the law. In terms of evaluating referees' on court performance, Stern explained that since the 2003-04 season the NBA has had a system that places an observer at every game. This person monitors every call and every non-call "that is deemed by our observers to be incorrect." The observers chart the games and review them on tape as well. Their work is "audited" by group supervisors; this year, the NBA "audited the auditors" by hiring additional experts to oversee this entire process. Stern said that the primary purpose of this system is to "increase call accuracy" and that it is "not predominantly developed as a screen for criminal activity."

Stern gave the following timeline regarding the Donaghy case. In January 2005, the NBA found out that Donaghy was involved in a dispute with his neighbors. The neighbors claimed that he was harassing them but he asserted that they were harassing him. The NBA deployed its own investigators to look into the matter and in the course of their investigation an allegation was made that Donaghy gambled in Atlantic City (not on sports, because there is not a sports book there). Donaghy denied this and Stern said that the investigation of that aspect of the case came up "negative." Nevertheless, the NBA was not pleased that Donaghy was involved in this contentious dispute with his neighbors and informed him that such problems could cause him to be terminated. Donaghy was disciplined by not being allowed to work the second round of the 2005 playoffs; he had worked the second round in 2004. Stern added that Donaghy ranks in the "top tier of accuracy" among NBA referees.

Then came the June 20 call from the FBI, followed by a meeting between NBA executives and FBI investigators the next day. Stern said that he is "unable to comment on the continuing investigation." He added that what he knows now, subject to change, is that Donaghy is accused of betting both on games that he officiated and games that he did not officiate and that he also is accused of providing information to others to enable them to profit from betting on games, all of which took place in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Stern took pains to stress that at this point Donaghy is the only referee known to be involved, referring repeatedly to this matter as an "isolated case." At the FBI's request, Stern informed very few people within the league about the investigation. As a consequence of that, the NBA has not yet been able to involve the number of people it would take to do an adequate film review of the 150 or so games that Donaghy officiated during this time. Stern said that he does not know how many games are potentially involved nor which specific games might have been affected--and that he will likely be in the dark about this until Donaghy is indicted or makes a plea, which Stern indicated may happen. It must be a very strange feeling for someone who usually exercises such total control of things to be so completely in the dark about a matter that could affect the very future of the NBA, as well as his own legacy as commissioner.

Asked about his initial feelings in the wake of the FBI's June 20 phone call, Stern said simply that he thought, "I can't believe it's happening to us." He added that although he is surprised he is no more surprised than the FBI or CIA are when they discover rogue agents who have turned against their country. Stern said that when one person who is acting alone is determined to do illegal activities that it can be very difficult to detect. He pledged to do everything in his power to restore the "sacred trust" that fans have in the NBA and to rebuild the "covenant" between the league and its fans that has been damaged by Donaghy's conduct.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 PM

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Ten Great Coaching Soundbites

Here are ten of my favorite coaching soundbites, as captured on the sidelines over the years by the microphones of NBA Entertainment. I don't know if these will translate well to print without the audio and video and several of them may resonate more to fans who remember the 1980s and early 1990s. Why post this now? Simple--there may be some dark days ahead for those of us who love the NBA but sometimes you just need to take a moment to smile and reminisce:

1) "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." Phil Jackson's exhortation to Jordan's teammates served as both an acknowledgment of how much the team depended on Jordan to carry the day in the fourth quarter and as a reverse psychology tool to goad/shame the other players into performing better.

2) "In my next life, I'm going to come back as an official and straighten that mess out." OK, this one might carry another level of meaning at the moment, but when Cotton Fitzsimmons said it two decades ago it was just one of his many clever sideline retorts. Isn't that much more poetic than saying, "Ref, you blew the call?"

3) "All he did was flop, Hue. I coached him, I know. You haven't coached him. I coached him; I know what he did." That was Fitzsimmons at work again; he probably deserves a top ten of his own.

4) "You get the other (bleeping) stiff." Doug Moe affectionately calls everyone a "stiff," including himself. In this instance, he was doling out defensive assignments in a timeout huddle when he was the head coach of the Denver Nuggets.

5) "You've got a high school player taking a warm up jump shot. Make him do something. Stop being so darn sensitive about everything I say to you...If you listen to me, you're going to be a hell of a player in this league." Indiana Coach Dick Versace did not care much for either Detlef Schrempf's defense or his attitude on this particular occasion. I don't know how much credit Versace should get, but Schrempf did indeed turn out to be a very good NBA player.

6) "That is so selfish. That is so (bleeping) selfish." That's Versace again, grimacing in disgust and speaking under his breath to no one in particular about an unnamed Pacer.

7) "Face him up and bust his ass to the basket." Rick Adelman offered this direct instruction during a timeout when he was Portland's coach. The next frame shows Buck Williams dunking authoritatively but I'm not sure if that wasn't just some creative editing.

8) "They've been known to self destruct and take a bad shot when the time runs down." Detroit Coach Chuck Daly offered these words of wisdom to the Bad Boys Pistons--if I'm not mistaken, this was in reference to Adelman's Portland team in the 1990 NBA Finals.

9) "Did you pay for that seat? All right, keep talking then. I just don't like to hear it from the freebies." Utah Coach Frank Layden could match Fitzsimmons one liner for one liner. Layden once explained his team's acquisition of a certain 300-plus pound player by saying that it balanced the bench (by seating the new 300 pounder on the opposite side from another 300 pounder who was already on the roster).

10) "He don't want to guard you. He don't want to be on the same court with you." Larry Brown can be tough on players--and himself--at times but there were also moments when he decided that the best approach was to boost his players' confidence. I don't know if Brown was right--and I'm not positive who he was saying this to, although I think that it was Allen Iverson--but wouldn't you love to hear something like that from your coach?

posted by David Friedman @ 7:08 AM

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Kobe Bryant Nails Game Winning Shot in State Farm USA Challenge

Kobe Bryant hit the game winning jump shot as USA Blue beat USA White 105-104 in the spirited and hard fought State Farm USA Basketball Challenge; this was a practice game for Team USA to prepare for the FIBA Americas Championship, the upcoming qualifier tournament for the 2008 Olympics. Bryant finished with 26 points, a game-high six steals and four assists, shooting 10-22 from the field and 4-9 from three point range. He scored USA Blue's final seven points in the last two minutes of the game. After making the go-ahead jumper over Tayshaun Prince with six seconds left, Bryant guarded LeBron James on the game's final play, forcing the Cavaliers' star to miss a runner in the lane as time expired. As great as James is--and he is a fantastic player--Bryant's performance in this game highlighted two reasons that he is still a more complete player than James: Bryant is a much better perimeter shooter (James shot just 1-5 from three point range) and Bryant not only makes big buckets down the stretch but he also accepts the challenge of guarding the best player on the other team in those situations. Bryant has already told the Team USA coaching staff that he is more than willing to guard the best player on each opposing team in the FIBA Americas Championship.

Bryant has never played before for Team USA and his addition to this year's squad is, needless to say, a major upgrade. After Bryant made the shot over Prince, FSN/NBA TV commentator Steve Jones said to play-by-play man Joel Meyers, "When we went to practice yesterday, there was a sense and energy out there from all the players that they knew who the best player on the planet was. He (Bryant) was doing all the talking and now you come to close the game, what's your first option, Joel? What's your only option, Joel? And what is the result? Kobe Bryant with the lead." Bryant has clearly taken a leadership position on the team and his clutch performance down the stretch in this game only serves to reinforce that. USA Blue trailed 94-83 with about five minutes left in the contest when Bryant returned to action after a brief rest; of course, he faces that kind of situation all the time with the L.A. Lakers and the combined 6-19 shooting by his backcourt partners Deron Williams, Kirk Hinrich and J.J. Redick also must have seemed very familiar, though Williams did have a good floor game (13 assists). In addition to his second half heroics, Bryant also closed the first half with a flurry, making three late three pointers to keep USA Blue within striking distance at halftime, cutting a double digit lead to 56-49.

Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 28 points for USA Blue, plus eight rebounds and four assists. Kevin Durant played much better for USA Blue than he did in the Summer League, scoring 22 points on 9-14 shooting while also having five rebounds and four steals. He has been one of the team's better players so far in practice, so maybe he will earn one of the 12 coveted roster spots that these 17 players are competing to get. Not surprisingly, the player who got the fewest minutes was Redick, who scored 2 points on 1-4 shooting in 10 minutes of action. He will obviously be the first player to be cut (although USA Basketball officials like to say that no one is "cut," that all of the 32 participants--including the 15 who could not make it on court at this camp for various reasons--are valuable, even though only 12 can play in a given event).

Jason Kidd has a 28-0 record in the last three FIBA competitions that he played in, spanning two qualifying tournaments plus the 2000 Olympics. He was not on the squads that failed to capture the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships but he and Bryant will comprise a super backcourt this time around. Kidd had seven assists and six rebounds for USA White, which led for most of the game. He made his only field goal attempt, a fast break layup that put USA White up 104-103 with less than a minute remaining in the game. Mike Miller led USA White with 22 points, while Dwight Howard added 21 points (9-9 field goal shooting) and nine rebounds. Chris Bosh had a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) and James contributed 21 points and five assists but led both teams with seven turnovers.

Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski observed the action while sitting courtside with the team's managing director, Jerry Colangelo, but assistant coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan ran the show for USA Blue and USA White respectively. Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Deron Williams and Kirk Hinrich started for USA Blue, while LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd and Mike Miller opened the game for USA White.

Steve Jones mentioned during the telecast that this game featured a lot more intensity than an All-Star Game would because these players are competing not only for personal bragging rights but also for roster spots. While it would have been nice to see Bryant and Kidd on the same team, it is understandable that the coaching staff split them up so that each team would have a guard to spearhead the defense and to pump up his teammates' intensity. It will be a lot of fun for Team USA fans to watch Kidd and Bryant defending against other FIBA teams.

There were plenty of highlight reel worthy plays but perhaps the most exciting one happened in the third quarter, when James made a sensational left-handed block of Bryant's attempted reverse dunk on a fast break. As Jones said after the play, though, someone would have to pay for that--and Bryant lived up to Jones' words.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Phoenix Suns Are Going All In

Perhaps in honor of the recently completed World Series of Poker, the Phoenix Suns have decided to go "all in" to try to capture this year's NBA title. Phoenix' trade of Kurt Thomas and two first round picks (2008 and 2010) to Seattle for a conditional second round draft pick and an $8 million trade exception signifies two things: the Suns are desperate to avoid paying the luxury tax and they believe (hope?) that their remaining nucleus can win a championship. They previously traded away the rights to their first round pick this year--guard Rudy Fernandez--and guard James Jones to Portland for $3 million. Technically, I suppose the Suns are not going all in from a monetary standpoint because they are actually trying to curb payroll--but, philosophically, they are taking an all or nothing stance by getting rid of so many first round picks. If they don't win a title soon, the rebuilding process could get ugly.

Jones and Thomas were the seventh and eighth men respectively in Phoenix' rotation last year. Free agent Grant Hill is the only significant player who Phoenix has signed this offseason, so a team that was not very deep last year is even thinner now. Injuries to one or two guys could really wreak havoc on the team. I can understand letting Jones go and replacing him with Hill at a lower cost but trading Thomas does not fit in with a win now philosophy. Thomas' statistics don't blow you away but he was the team's best low post defender last year, even doing a credible job against Tim Duncan. Frankly, the Suns' duel objectives of winning now and avoiding paying the luxury tax are not complementary goals. I see no reason to believe that the Suns will get by the Spurs this year after not being able to do so the past several seasons. It is not at all certain that Phoenix would beat Dallas in a playoff series, either, and Utah could pose a challenge to the Suns as well. I don't think that Suns' fans should be thrilled at how the team seems to be paying at least as much attention to the financial bottom line as to the product that is being put on the court. It is understandable why the Suns want to cut costs but it just leaves a bad taste when a team that is one of the legitimate title contenders gets rid of a solid veteran like Thomas just to save some money. He can be a good mentor to Seattle's young players but the Sonics will likely miss the playoffs this year and by the time their young core matures Thomas will probably be retired. Meanwhile, to paraphrase a lament offered by one coach in the 1970s, when Duncan is torching the Suns in next summer's playoffs, Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni will find that throwing that $8 million trade exception on the court is not a very useful defensive strategy.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM

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