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Friday, August 10, 2007

Comebackitis: The New Fever Sweeping Across the NBA!

It started with Reggie Miller but now Penny Hardaway and Allan Houston are also considering making comebacks to the NBA. What in the name of Han "I'm out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur" Solo is going on here? Hardaway is officially back, signing with the Miami Heat and thus reuniting with his old Orlando Magic teammate Shaquille O'Neal. No word yet on whether Li'l Penny is also coming out of retirement. Houston apparently has been working out this summer and he believes that he can be a contributing player off of the bench for a winning team.

Hardaway and Houston are each 36, nearly six years younger than Miller is, but unlike Miller both of them have had microfracture surgery. Hardaway's last reasonably healthy season was 2003-04 and the last time he averaged double figures in scoring was 2002-03; he averaged 2.5 ppg in four games in 2005-06, his last season. Similarly, Houston's last healthy season was 2002-03, when he averaged a career-high 22.5 ppg--but Houston scored just 11.9 ppg in only 20 games in 2004-05, his last season. Hardaway has been talking about coming back for quite some time, claiming that his knees are healthy and that he is in great condition. When he was healthy, he was a very skillful and exciting player to watch; Hardaway has an excellent understanding of how to play and if he can stay healthy--a big if--then he could be productive as a role player. Houston was really laboring to get up and down the court the last time that we saw him. If his wheels are sound then he, like Hardaway, could be a solid contributor. Unlike Miller, these guys are young enough to reasonably believe that they can play guard in the NBA. The big question for both of them is if their injury-riddled bodies can withstand the rigors of an 82 game season.

Hardaway is the most intriguing story of the three right now because he is the only one who has actually signed with a team and because he has--or at least had--the best all-around game of this trio; he could play point guard and shooting guard and even some small forward in a pinch, with the ability to score, pass, rebound and defend. Of course, a lot of those skills were greatly diminished by the time he retired a couple years ago but it will certainly be interesting to see how he, O'Neal and Dwyane Wade interact. O'Neal and Hardaway did not get along very well the first time around, but O'Neal has said that he is on board with the Hardaway signing and one would think that both players have matured a lot since their Orlando days.

All we need now is for Kobe Bryant to go to Miami and Stephon Marbury to go to Boston to reunite with Kevin Garnett and then the circle of NBA life will truly be complete! Obviously, neither of those things will happen and I think that it is only slightly more likely that Miller or Houston will actually play in 2007-08.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Thoughts on Reggie Miller's Proposed Comeback

Generally, I refrain from commenting on rumors, because if you wait long enough one of two things happens: the rumor is either proven to be true or it is proven to be false. Then, what remains is either a story worth writing about or something that had not been worth discussing in the first place. You probably have already heard that Reggie Miller is considering coming out of retirement to play for the Boston Celtics. Technically, this is not really even a rumor, since Boston's Danny Ainge confirmed that he has "contacted Reggie and he is contemplating a comeback with us." Let's assume for the sake of discussion that Miller does indeed come out of retirement to play for the Celtics. What will that mean for Boston, the Eastern Conference and Miller's legacy as a player?

Looking at the last issue first, Miller has already secured a place in NBA history as a great three point shooter and clutch playoff performer. People talk about how sad it was to see Willie Mays stick around too long but is he really remembered more for that now than he is for what he achieved during his prime? The one thing that a Miller comeback would wreck is the fact that he spent his entire career with the Indiana Pacers. That is no small thing, either, in an era when players frequently leave via free agency or are traded away. We just saw two great baseball players, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, speak at their recent Hall of Fame induction about how much it meant to them to spend their entire careers in one city.

Reportedly, Boston is interested in having Miller play roughly 15 mpg, with the hope that he would provide three point shooting and veteran leadership. With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen taking up virtually all of the team's payroll, the Celtics are desperate to find players who are productive and inexpensive; presumably, Miller would play for the veteran's minimum, so the "inexpensive" part of the equation will not be a problem--but how productive can he be at this stage? Miller will turn 42 later this month and he has been retired for two seasons. There have been fewer than 20 players who played in the NBA after the age of 40; most of them were big men who logged a small number of minutes. Only two NBA guards have been productive after their 40th birthday: John Stockton and Michael Jordan. Stockton played until he was 41 years old but earned the last of his 10 All-Star selections when he was 38. Jordan had been retired for three seasons when he came back at age 38. He played two seasons with the Washington Wizards, participating in all 82 games in 2002-03, turning 40 just past the midpoint of that season. That year he made the All-Star team but averaged a career-low 20.0 ppg.

In other words, if Miller returns he will enter uncharted territory for an NBA guard. His career scoring average is 18.2 ppg but the last time he scored that much during a season is 2000-01 and the last time he made the All-Star team is the season before that. Obviously, no one expects Miller to score anywhere close to 18 ppg or to be an All-Star but considering his age and how long he has been retired it is reasonable to wonder if he can still be an effective NBA player even as a reserve. It will take a lot of mental and physical conditioning for him to play in the NBA. What may sound like a good idea in August may not seem so swell in December after playing four games in five nights.

Dikembe Mutombo can play in the NBA past the age of 40 because he can spend most of the game on the bench and still be fresh enough to rebound and block shots in five or ten minute stretches--but Miller's game is based on movement, timing and precision as he uses screens to get open for long jump shots. Miller spent his entire career playing relatively heavy minutes, so coming off of the bench would be a big psychological and physical adjustment. The question then becomes is he really better suited for that role than a younger player that the Celtics could potentially develop into a significant contributor down the road?

If Miller plays 15 mpg then he would average at most seven ppg. During his prime he generally shot better than .400 from three point range but in his last season he shot just .322 and that number is not likely to improve much as a 42 year old playing sporadic minutes. Miller was never known as a great defensive player and it is safe to assume that this aspect of his game has not improved during his retirement. So the bottom line is we are talking about a team signing the oldest shooting guard in NBA history to contribute, in the best case scenario, seven ppg while shooting .400 from three point range--in other words, the Celtics would in effect be signing an older, taller version of Damon Jones (6.6 ppg, .385 three point shooting for Cleveland last season).

If Reggie Miller comes back it is unlikely that he would play more than one season, so it only makes sense to sign him if this year is viewed as a "championship or bust" campaign. Garnett, Pierce and Allen are not youngsters but they should have perhaps a three year window of opportunity as a trio--and it is unlikely that they will take a team all the way to a title in their very first year together. Bringing in Miller is more likely to slow down the two-three year development of the Celtics than it is to lead to a title in year one. That is why in all likelihood cooler heads will prevail and this story--more than a rumor but less than a fact--will fade away.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:37 AM

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Free Agent Follies

Building an NBA team today is different than it was in previous eras for many reasons. There was a time when most NBA prospects were juniors or seniors at big-time NCAA programs, but now teams must scout freshmen--which means that they have evaluate the best high school players--and must also keep track of the best players on every continent other than Antarctica. The salary cap and luxury tax have combined to curb spending--except for the Knicks--but some of the huge contracts that have been handed out in recent seasons have made for a very interesting distribution of wealth; most teams are spending a significant portion of their payrolls on a few players and then filling out the rest of the roster with inexpensive contracts (inexpensive being a relative term). For instance, Boston--the chic pick by many people to win the Eastern Conference, though I have my doubts--will pay roughly $56 million to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen this season; the rest of the roster will receive in the neighborhood of $13 million, which is $3 million less than Allen's salary.

This system can work out quite nicely if your top three guys are named Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who will comprise more than half of San Antonio's payroll this year. If your leaders are great players who stay healthy and your role players are productive then your team is in fine shape. On the other hand, if a significant percentage of your payroll is devoted to Pau Gasol and Mike Miller, then you will end up with the worst record in the NBA like the Memphis Grizzlies did last year. The important choices do not only involve which big dollar players to build around but also which role players to sign/retain. The Celtics have determined the first part of this equation but how well they deal with the second part will ultimately decide whether or not this team meets the highest expectations that have been placed on it.

All free agent signings have to be viewed in this light, with consideration given not just to a player's on court statistics but also his impact on his team's salary structure. Phoenix considers Grant Hill to be a bargain not only because he is still a productive player but because he is just costing the Suns $1.8 million, which is vitally important to the financial bottom line of a team that has about $50 million tied up in Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Boris Diaw.

However, even taking financial matters into account, some free agent signings simply don't add up. Here are a couple "free agent follies" who may turn out to be overpriced even at bargain rates:

1) Smush Parker, Miami Heat; terms of the deal not disclosed by the team but probably in the neighborhood of $5 million for two years.

Miami is the fifth NBA team to sign Parker since 2002. On the one hand, that means that a lot of teams like him--or liked him at one time. On the other hand, it means that teams have found him to be very easy to replace. His last employer, the L.A. Lakers, signed him in desperation two years ago because their cupboard was completely bare of point guards. That cupboard is still pretty bare--except for Derek Fisher, who dropped in their laps long after Parker was sent packing--but the Lakers figured that getting rid of Parker was addition by subtraction. After signing Parker, Heat Coach Pat Riley declared, "He brings size, shooting and defense to our backcourt. He has been improving every year, and we feel that this could be his best year yet." That just goes to show (1) Riley did not watch many Lakers games last year and (2) hope springs eternal. Speaking of spring, by that time next year, if not sooner, Parker will be firmly rooted to Miami's bench, complaining that Riley does not understand how to properly utilize him--or, Parker will be on the court because every other Miami point guard is injured, in which case Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade will feel first hand some of the pain that Kobe Bryant experienced last season. To paraphrase Ralph Nader's line about "unsafe at any speed," Parker is not a bargain no matter how cheap the price.

2) Jamaal Magloire, New Jersey Nets; $4 million for one year

Magloire averaged a double-double in 2004 for the only time in his seven year career, earning his first and only trip to the All-Star Game. For most of the rest of his career he has been a talented but underachieving player who never quite lives up to expectations. The Nets hope that they will get an inspired effort from Magloire because he will be playing alongside Jason Kidd and because he will be playing for a new contract since they only signed him to a one year deal. Magloire takes the place of the energetic Mikki Moore, who left to sign with Sacramento because the Kings offered about $3 million more in guaranteed money than the Nets did. In order to keep from paying the luxury tax, the Nets also waived Cliff Robinson and Hassan Adams. Robinson is near (or past) the end of the line but Adams is a productive reserve player. It will be interesting to see whether or not these moves really turn out to be a bargain for the Nets.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 AM

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Take This Survey, Get a Chance to Win a $100 StubHub Gift Card!

20 Second Timeout is one of the featured websites in the Yardbarker Network. The folks at Yardbarker are interested to learn a little more about people who read blogs--which is very good news for you. The link below this paragraph leads to a brief, 11 question multiple choice survey that will only take a couple minutes to complete. Every person who finishes the survey will be entered into a drawing to win a $100 StubHub gift card. There will also be 10 additional winners who will receive other prizes from Yardbarker.

Yardbarker Survey

posted by David Friedman @ 4:17 AM

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Check out The Biz of Basketball

Maury Brown, who has written articles for several prominent publications--including the New York Times, Time Magazine and the Boston Globe--is the founder of the Business of Sports Network, which includes the well respected The Biz of Baseball. The Biz of Baseball's coverage has been lauded by prominent baseball executives Stan Kasten and Peter Bavasi and veteran baseball scribes Ken Rosenthal and Rob Neyer.

Brown's newest venture is The Biz of Basketball and I am very pleased to be on board as a weekly contributor. I encourage 20 Second Timeout readers to check out The Biz of Basketball. At the same time, I welcome readers who have just seen my work for the first time at The Biz of Basketball to explore 20 Second Timeout.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:34 AM

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Monday, August 06, 2007

The Legacy Question

Perhaps there has been some kind of mild meld among sports reporters because the legacy question seems to be the theme of the day. J.A. Adande writes that Paul Pierce is "worried about how, ultimately, the story of his career will be written." Pierce told Adande, "It's hanging in the balance. People don't know what to think. I think I have the potential to be a Hall of Fame player. I think I have the potential to be one of the best ever to play the game. It's right here for me. It's all on how hard I work and how far I want to take it."

Pierce has a straightforward plan designed to improve how is legacy is perceived: "Win more games. That's it. People know what I can do as an individual basketball player. The legacy is all about how many games you win, what you do as a team." Now that Pierce's Boston Celtics have acquired All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Pierce will certainly have an opportunity to do that. Adande notes that Pierce "considers himself on a level with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James." I suspect that every All-Star--and even some players who are not All-Stars--believes in his heart of hearts that he is as good as Bryant, Wade and James; you don't make it to the NBA, let alone excel there, without having a lot of self-confidence and pride. Of course, just because a player really believes something does not make it true. James has already made the All-NBA Second Team twice and the All-NBA First Team once in his first four seasons, along the way producing a playoff game for the ages last year versus Detroit and carrying his team to the NBA Finals. In his first four seasons, Wade has earned two All-NBA Second Team selections, one All-NBA Third Team selection and won a Finals MVP while leading his team to a championship. Bryant is widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as the game's best player. He has made the All-NBA Team eight times in 11 seasons, including four First Team selections and two Second Team selections. Bryant has also won two scoring titles, along the way accomplishing some scoring feats that have not been seen since Wilt Chamberlain played--and he has done all of this while making the All-Defensive Team seven times, including five selections to the First Team. Bryant was the leading playmaker on three championship teams. Pierce has never advanced past the Eastern Conference Finals in his eight year NBA career and has never been selected to the All-Defensive Team or to the First or Second All-NBA Teams; he did earn back to back All-NBA Third Team selections several years ago. Pierce will have to do a lot as his career winds down to match what Bryant, James and Wade have already accomplished.

If Bryant never played another NBA game he would easily be a first ballot Hall of Famer. That is why it is so funny when someone suggests that his "place in history" is somehow hanging in the balance. There is no objective way to put Bryant in the same legacy boat as a guy like Pierce, who has never won anything and whose individual accomplishments don't hold a candle to Bryant's. It also makes no sense to compare Bryant's career arc to Pistol Pete Maravich's. Yes, Bryant could enhance his legacy by being the primary star on a championship team but the reality is that Bryant has already won three championship rings. Do John Havlicek's six rings that he won alongside Bill Russell not count? Did anyone suggest that Havlicek had to win the two championships that he captured after Russell retired to "validate" the earlier ones? If Bryant had been a bit player on the Lakers' championship teams then it would make sense to say that Bryant needs to win a title on his own (so to speak, because no one really wins a championship by himself)--but Bryant was an All-NBA performer on those championship teams, putting up 40-point playoff games, playing great defense and being the primary ball handler/playmaker.

Maravich was a wonderful player, one of my all-time favorites. He was ahead of his time, often getting criticized for things that would be applauded today, and he never had the chance to play on a great team while he was in his prime. Isiah Thomas has called him the greatest showman of all-time. I believe that Maravich is very underrated and I have no doubt that he could have been a key contributor to a championship team if that opportunity had presented itself--but Bryant's career is already one year longer than Maravich's was. Bryant is a vastly superior defender, shoots a better percentage from the field and the free throw line, rebounds better, is much more durable and even is within one apg of Maravich's career assists average--in fact, if you take out Bryant's first two seasons, when he wasn't a starter, his apg in the next nine years is virtually the same as Maravich's ten year average. Bryant is already a greater NBA player than Maravich was, whether or not Bryant is able to win a fourth championship.

In 1999, an Associated Press panel voted for the Basketball Player of the Century. The top ten finishers--the players who comprise what I call pro basketball's "pantheon"--were Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Robertson and West each won one title and each did so while playing alongside a center who is in the pantheon. Baylor never won a championship. Bryant already has more championship rings that those three players put together. Bird won three NBA championships, while Erving won three professional titles (one NBA, two ABA). So the question is not whether or not Bryant will surpass Maravich--he already has--but whether or not Bryant will do enough to earn admittance into the pantheon; it could be argued that Bryant already should be considered a member of this group, but one championship ring as the primary guy would absolutely clinch such status for Bryant. The only other active players who could even be considered for pantheon status are Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:47 PM

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ric Bucher Says that the NBA's Officiating Problems Go a Lot Deeper than Tim Donaghy

In an article that appears both at ESPN.com and in the August 13 issue of ESPN the Magazine, Ric Bucher says that some NBA referees hate their jobs so much that one told him, "Guys buy lottery tickets everywhere they go. If they win, they're just going to leave their shirt hanging in the locker." That is certainly an attention getting statement. What exactly has upset these referees? Bucher asserts that it goes well beyond any anticipated backlash next season because of the Tim Donaghy situation and cuts straight to the heart of how the league evaluates their work: "They are convinced that public or team perception of a call will ultimately dictate whether the league finds it correct." He also says that the league chooses "correctness" over "fairness," citing as an example the suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for leaving the area of the bench at the end of game four of the San Antonio-Phoenix series. These two charges are mutually exclusive, though: if the NBA is swayed by "public or team perception" then why did it suspend Stoudemire and Diaw, a move that was hardly popular? Some of the anonymous assertions by referees about how the league is being run are not much more credible than the conspiracy theories that have been uttered by fans who sound like they are wearing tin foil hats and communicating with aliens via transmitters hidden in their dental fillings. Conspiracy theorists believe that the draft and the playoffs are manipulated by the league but cannot explain why the NBA would want San Antonio in the Finals instead of Phoenix or why Greg Oden landed in Portland--or why LeBron James is in Cleveland instead of New York, Boston or Los Angeles; the great thing about being a conspiracy theorist is that no matter which team had gotten James there would be a sinister-sounding theory to explain it.

Bucher adds that the current referees do not respect director of officials Ronnie Nunn or his boss, NBA executive vice president of operations Stu Jackson. Bucher says that the referees view Nunn as someone who was a "competent" referee during his 19 years on the job but not "an authority or the ideal for how the job should be done," while Jackson is looked at with suspicion due to his "undistinguished record" as a coach and general manager. For their part, Bucher claims that Jackson and Nunn have insisted to Commissioner David Stern that the problem is that the referees are resisting the measures that Jackson and Nunn have attempted to implement to improve call accuracy.

Part of the problem in evaluating a story like this is that no one, not even a veteran NBA reporter like Bucher, can get anyone who is currently involved in these matters to speak on the record. Stern, Jackson and Nunn all declined to talk to Bucher for the article, while current referees will only talk to the press without attribution (except for special occasions when one game official will be permitted to talk to a pool reporter). So all of Bucher's quotes in this article come from anonymous sources. Anonymity gives one freedom to say all kinds of things, because your words cannot be traced back to you and your credibility cannot be challenged because no one knows who you are or what ax you might have to grind.

I'll admit that I have not comprehensively studied Nunn's work as a referee but I don't recall him egregiously blowing calls nor do I recall him issuing technical fouls left and right to prove that he is in charge; in my book, that puts him ahead of Hue Hollins and Jake O'Donnell, two former referees who have recently come out of the woodwork to criticize Nunn's performance as director of officials. I cannot speak to what has been going on behind the scenes with Nunn and his employees but I do not understand why it is considered a bad thing that Jackson and Nunn are, in Bucher's words, "trying to develop a corps of interchangeable whistle-blowers, each one calling every minute of every game the exact same way." Didn't people used to complain about "superstar" calls, rampant traveling violations and other inconsistencies? Jackson and Nunn are being made out to be bad guys for trying to eliminate some of the very things that supposedly were turning off basketball purists.

Bucher says that Nunn's weekly show on NBA TV is not popular with the rank and file officials--but that show is one of the few instances of the NBA providing the kind of transparency that so many people have said that the league needs to have regarding its officiating. I think that his show is great because Nunn admits when referees have gotten calls wrong but also defends his referees when they got calls right but were incorrectly criticized by broadcasters or others. Any fan who watches the show gets a better understanding of what exactly referees are supposed to be looking at--and how difficult it is to make split second calls without the benefit of instant replay. The show is very educational and presents referees in a good light overall without sugarcoating the fact that sometimes calls are missed. Nunn repeatedly makes it clear that his goal is for fouls and violations to be called the same way no matter who is involved and regardless of how much or how little time is on the clock.

I realize that Jackson and Nunn are probably going to be made the fall guys for the Donaghy situation and perhaps to appease the apparent general unrest among the rank and file referees--but before heads roll I'd like for someone to explain exactly what Donaghy did and how he got away with it. Maybe there is something wrong with the grading and evaluation process. Maybe other referees were in on the scam or covered for Donaghy in some way. Maybe it is very hard to detect if a highly graded official decides to shade the outcome of a game by making a couple borderline calls while otherwise playing it straight. Based on Nunn's stated objectives and based on his explanations of calls during his TV show, I don't think that his concept of how a game should be officiated is bad. Perhaps some things about the evaluation process need to be tweaked but that cannot be fairly judged until we know what went wrong with Donaghy. Despite what some people may believe, I think that NBA referees do a better overall job than their counterparts in the NFL or MLB. The NFL has had some highly dubious officiating even in the Super Bowl (Pittsburgh-Seattle quickly comes to mind as one example), while baseball's strike zone changes from day to day based on the whims of the plate umpire.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:47 AM

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