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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lindy's Pro Basketball 2007-08: Hot off the Presses

For the third straight year, I wrote the Denver Nuggets preview for Lindy's Pro Basketball (I hope Nuggets' fans aren't blaming me for their team's failure to advance past the first round of the playoffs during this period); this year, I also wrote the previews for the Sacramento Kings (second year in a row), Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns. As always, each team preview includes a brief sidebar story. I chose Allen Iverson, Reggie Theus, Luis Scola and Grant Hill, respectively, as the subjects.

The issue contains a feature story by Jon Marks about the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers championship team, a feature story by Roland Lazenby about the rise of LeBron James--and a feature story by Lazenby about Greg Oden/Kevin Durant, only one of whom will actually be able to play this year, sadly.

If Lindy's is not on the shelves of your local bookstore, complain to the management! Or, you can click here and order a copy with the cover of your choice (14 different options).

posted by David Friedman @ 5:50 AM

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Portland's Worst Fears Confirmed: Greg Oden Has Microfracture Surgery

The nightmare scenario involving the ghosts of Bill Walton and Sam Bowie has indeed happened: Greg Oden's exploratory knee surgery revealed further damage that required him to have microfracture surgery. Based on the recovery and rehabilitation time that is typically involved with this procedure, Oden will likely miss the entire 2007-08 season.

The Portland Trail Blazers issued a statement that read, in part:

Greg had an arthroscopy and a micro fracture surgery today," said team physician Dr. Don Roberts, who preformed the surgery. "He was found to have articular cartilage damage in his right knee. The area of injury was not large and we were able to treat it with micro fracture, which stimulates the growth of cartilage. There are things about this that are positive for Greg. First of all he is young. The area where the damage was is small and the rest of his knee looked normal. All those are good signs for a complete recovery from micro fracture surgery.

As I explained in two previous posts about microfracture surgery (which can be found here and here), "the surgeon actually punctures (fractures/breaks) the patient's kneecap, with the idea being that this will stimulate the development of scar tissue that will replace the damaged, non-functioning cartilage." Except for Jason Kidd and Amare Stoudemire, most of the players that I know of who have had this procedure do not perform as well afterwards as they did previously but, as Oden's surgeon suggested, Oden's youth and the relatively small nature of his injury work in his favor; many of the players who did not fare so well after having microfracture surgery were older athletes who had sustained more severe knee injuries and whose knees already had undergone a lot of wear and tear.

Still, there is no getting around that this is a devastating blow to Oden and Portland and that Oden has a lot of rehabilitation work ahead of him before he can be a productive NBA player. If Oden is not able to play this season then he will become just the second number one overall pick since 1966 to not play in the NBA in the year that he was selected; in 1987, David Robinson did not join the San Antonio Spurs because he had to fulfill his commitment to the Navy. However, there have been several number one overall picks whose rookie seasons were impacted in some way by injuries, including future All-Stars Bob Lanier, Doug Collins and Bill Walton. Lanier actually did not miss a game during his first season but he was playing hurt and he told me, "In hindsight, what we should have done--if I had had any sense and if there was some sophistication with the powers that be way back then in Detroit--is have me sit out the first half of the season, at least, and just worked on getting my knee right, getting the swelling down, strengthening it up. But rehab wasn’t as sophisticated then and there was so much pressure to get Bob Lanier out there playing--even on one knee--because I was a No. 1 draft choice and because Detroit was a fledgling team. I think, consequently, because of that I had so many problems with my knees over the years because I started out my career that way as opposed to really getting myself together." Hopefully, Oden's microfracture procedure and rehabilitation will be 100% successful and in 2008-09 he will make a return like Stoudemire did in 2006-07.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Champagne and Charity

There has not been much real NBA news since Team USA won the FIBA Americas tournament. Greg Oden's upcoming knee surgery is potentially bad news, of course, but it could also end up being a non-story, so while Portland fans swear that they see the ghost of Sam Bowie I'll reserve comment until Oden's doctor issues a post-surgery diagnosis. I have no interest in who is getting divorced or who was supposedly getting divorced but may not be getting divorced after all, nor am I intrigued by various arrests for low level offenses. One story that does not interest me at all attracted my attention simply because of how much play it got in the national media; the coverage--and the motives behind the coverage--is more worthy of analysis than the story itself.

In case you missed it--and I don't know how you could--during a night on the town, Kobe Bryant supposedly spent $21,000 on champagne. Like I said, I don't find that particularly interesting, nor do I know if it is even true. Somehow, this non-story managed to grab the attention of national media outlets and it apparently outraged some people who decried the wastefulness/vanity of this act and wondered why Bryant did not donate this money to charity. If Bryant did in fact spend $21,000 on champagne, one could certainly make a good case that this was a wasteful and vain act but that is not really the point. Earlier this year, Gilbert Arenas held a birthday party for himself, sending out invitations that--according to the Washington Post--cost him $40,000 to make and another $20,000 to send out via Fed Ex. As Clinton Portis might say, it's Arenas' money and it's Arenas' party, so who cares? That seemed to be the approach that most of the media took regarding Arenas' party: this is just Gilbert being Gilbert. So why is what Bryant allegedly did apparently so newsworthy and offensive?

There are two things that need to be considered here. First, according to HoopsHype.com, Bryant will make $19,490,625 this season just in salary from the Lakers and not including his endorsements. Let's say that the average NBA ticket buyer makes $50,000 per year. What Bryant allegedly spent on champagne is the equivalent of that ticket buyer spending $53.87. If you spend a night on the town or go out to eat after a day at the office would it seem right if someone questioned your character because you spent $53.87? Second, Bryant and many other NBA players are very generous in contributing their time and money to worthy charitable endeavors. Some people mock the NBA Cares advertisements but there is a reason that the league bought air time to present this information: the mainstream media does not give anywhere close to adequate coverage of all of the good work that the league and its players do. For those of you who did not click on the above link, it is a piece by Kevin Ding that lists some of the charitable activities of Bryant, Chauncey Billups, Luol Deng and Steve Nash, the four nominees for the 2007 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, which is presented by the Pro Basketball Writers Association (Nash won the honor this year). All of these players' charitable resumes are impressive and they are not alone: Dikembe Mutombo has spent millions of his own dollars to build a much needed hospital in his native Congo and David Robinson has spent millions of his own dollars to build the Carver Academy, to cite just two more examples. Here is what Ding noted about Bryant:

Bryant launched his charitable foundation (The Vivo Foundation) for young people, offering educational and cultural enrichment such as travel to Italy for Hispanic College Fund students and Phase3 (black youth leaders) students. Hosted a Christmas celebration at Disney World for the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Florida. Has granted nearly 125 wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, most through the Make-a-Wish Foundation, including follow-up calls, out-of-state travel and personal parties. Financed improvements and partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Los Angeles and St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Previously donated $100,000 for Hurricane Katrina relief and raised money for South Asia tsunami relief. Active in the Lakers' Read to Achieve and Season of Giving activities.

Here are three relevant questions:

1) Why is flamboyant spending "tolerated" by some celebrities and not others?

2) How much money, as a percentage of one's income, do critics of celebrities' spending habits spend on alcohol and/or other forms of entertainment?

3) How much money, as a percentage of one's income, do those same critics spend on charitable endeavors?

In case I have not made this perfectly clear, I could not care less about Arenas' party or Bryant's champagne and this post is not really about either player; it is about how the media determines what is newsworthy and attempts to shape the public's views of these stories. Bryant's critics are hypocritical in this instance if they don't apply the same standard across the board from A to Z--from Gilbert Arenas to themselves. Many of the top national sportswriters and broadcasters make millions of dollars per year. How much do they spend on champagne? How much do they contribute to charity? If they are going to venture away from discussing what athletes do professionally to applying a microscope to their personal lives then perhaps these "watchdogs" can enlighten the rest of us about their own actions, too.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Carnival of the NBA #49

Carnival of the NBA #49 is being hosted by Passion and Pride, a blog that focuses on the Philadelphia 76ers. I contributed my post explaining The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events. Although the numbers clearly show that Team USA's primary problems happened on defense, I have no doubt that prior to the 2008 Olympics we will once again be bombarded by "expert" commentaries that declare how important three point shooting will be for Team USA--and we will be told that, based on his scoring average, Michael Redd played a "critical" role in the FIBA Americas tournament, even though Redd did enough "garbage time" work in that tournament to join the sanitation workers union.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 AM

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Indiana Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien on the Connections Between Basketball and Chess

In two previous posts I discussed some connections between chess and other sports (Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part I and Basketball, Chess and Boxing, Part II). Indiana Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien has been coaching for three decades but he has been playing chess even longer than that. He learned the game of kings in college and O'Brien sees similarities between what it takes to become proficient at chess and what it takes to become a good coach. O'Brien also has a strong answer to anyone who thinks that college basketball is more strategically complex than NBA basketball. These subjects and more are discussed in my newest article for Chess Life Online:

Chess and Basketball

posted by David Friedman @ 2:22 AM

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Phil Jackson: Zen and the Art of Winning Championships

Phil Jackson headlined the 2007 Basketball Hall of Fame class, speaking last at the enshrinement ceremony--and for good reason: it is impossible to write the history of the NBA over the last 20 years without prominently mentioning his name. Before looking at the methods and philosophies that led to his success, here are the raw numbers that delineate his greatness:

* Ranks first in career regular season winning percentage (.700; 919-393)
* Ranks first in career playoff winning percentage (.699; 179-77)
* Ranks first in career playoff wins (179)
* Set record for most wins in one regular season (72 in 1995-96)
* Has coached four different teams to at least 67 wins in a season; no other coach has done this more than once
* Set record for best playoff winning percentage in one season (.938; 15-1 in 2001)
* Tied for first with Red Auerbach for most championships won as a coach (nine)
* Ranks ninth in career regular season wins (919)
* Named to the list of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history (1996)

Jackson's critics are quick to say that he was fortunate to coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in their primes in Chicago and then to coach Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in their primes in Los Angeles. During his speech, Jackson himself mused, "Who could have been more fortunate than I am, to have stumbled into this success?" The reality is that few people ever truly stumble into success and no one does so nine times at the highest level of his profession. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, Michael Jordan had amassed a playoff record of 14-23 in five seasons. Chicago went 10-6 in the playoffs in Jackson's first campaign and then won three straight titles. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, Shaquille O'Neal was a seven year veteran who had made one trip to the NBA Finals when his Orlando Magic were swept in 1995. O'Neal's teams were also swept out of the playoffs in 1994, 1996 and 1998. The Lakers went 67-15 in Jackson's first season and won the franchise's first championship since 1988 and followed that up with two more titles and a run to the 2004 Finals.

Jordan and O'Neal have become so popular and iconic that it is almost considered sacrilege to even suggest that neither of them is perfect but under Jackson's tutelage both players corrected flaws in their approaches to the game. In Jordan's case, he needed to trust his teammates more fully and not try to do everything himself on offense; O'Neal needed to get into better shape, become more of a defensive force and function as the hub of the Triangle Offense (O'Neal's blocked shots, rebounds and assists all soared in Jackson's first year in L.A.). Jordan and O'Neal had already proven that they could have great individual success but Jackson helped them to channel their skills into transforming their teams into championship squads.

Here's an interesting quote: "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He's just not a basketball player." Who do you suppose is the subject of those remarks? None other than Michael Jordan. The speaker was his teammate Bill Cartwright, as recounted in Sam Smith's 1992 book The Jordan Rules (p. 249). Cartwright uttered those words after a 1991 loss versus Detroit when Jordan, according to an unofficial count by one courtside observer, failed to pass to Cartwright on nine separate occasions when the center was wide open. This was during Jackson's second season with Chicago and, though the Bulls won the championship that year, Jordan had yet to completely accept what he derided as Jackson's "equal opportunity offense." After Jackson first became the team's head coach, Jordan said, "He's the coach. I'll follow his scheme but I don't plan to change my style of play. I'm sure everything will be fine if we win, but if we start losing, I'm shooting" (p. 67, The Jordan Rules).

Doug Collins, Jackson's predecessor at the helm in Chicago, had tried unsuccessfully to get Jordan to play differently. Once, after Collins upbraided Jordan for shooting too much during a playoff series, Jordan attempted just eight shots in the next game. Jordan always wanted to win but he did not always know how to accomplish this at the NBA level. "I thought of myself first, the team second," Jordan once admitted of the mindset that he had early in his career (p. 66, The Jordan Rules). "I always wanted my team to be successful. But I wanted to be the main cause."

The difference between Jackson and Collins is that Jackson better understood how to convey his message to Jordan in a way that Jordan would--begrudgingly--respect. Jackson knew when to be confrontational and when to defuse situations with humor (after the game when Jordan refused to pass to Cartwright nine times, Jackson's whimsical response was, "Well, at least he was under double figures"). Jackson had not been an All-Star player like Collins nor did he have any NBA head coaching experience but he found a way to not only get Jordan to buy into his system but to convince the rest of the team that Jordan would do so and that they must be ready to step up their games.

It is easy to simply give Jordan the lion's share of the credit for Chicago's success but it is possible that Jordan may have never won a championship if Jackson had not put into place a system that allowed the whole team to shine. Interestingly, during the 1991 championship season, Pippen said, "We know that everyone says that the Bulls would be nothing without Michael, so there really isn't much respect for the other 11 guys, even after I made the All-Star team. You take Michael off this team and give us a consistent two (shooting) guard and we'd still be a top, contending team." Of course, when Jordan retired just prior to the start of the 1993-94 season the Bulls had a very successful season without him--and his spot was taken not by a "consistent two" but rather by Pete Myers, a career journeyman. Jackson did a masterful job coaching that team and Pippen finished third in the MVP voting that year, becoming the leader of the team but not substantially increasing his shot attempts.

By the time Jackson arrived in L.A. he had already won six titles and earned acclaim as one of the greatest coaches ever, so he had a pedigree that commanded instant respect. Still, Jackson faced a daunting challenge: melding the skills and egos of dominant center Shaquille O'Neal and budding star Kobe Bryant into a championship quality dynamic duo. Regardless of whatever drama took place off of the court, under Jackson's leadership the O'Neal-Bryant tandem emerged as one of the best one-two punches in NBA history, winning three straight titles and enjoying the best single-season playoff run in NBA history (15-1 in 2001).

Yes, the old cliche is true: you cannot win the Kentucky Derby with a mule. Phil Jackson has had the "horses"--but he has also driven those horses to achieve their maximum potential. There is a quite lengthy list of Hall of Fame players and talented teams that never won championships; it takes much more than just assembling a lot of talent in one place to win a title. Jackson imbued each of his teams with his philosophical approach to the game, a mindset that was shaped by his upbringing by parents who were both ministers, his readings about Zen and Native American thought and the wisdom of his New York Knicks Coach Red Holzman. In Sacred Hoops, Jackson details how each of those elements influenced his thinking.

Jackson places value on the printed and spoken word and is renowned for giving his players books that he thinks will have special meaning to them, so it is only fitting to revisit some key quotes/phrases that Jackson has employed during his coaching career:

* "Go down as you live." This was the "rallying cry" of Jackson's New Jersey Nets' teammate "Super" John Williamson. Jackson explains (p. 112, Sacred Hoops): "Don't hold back. Play the way you live your life, with your whole heart and soul." This attitude is second nature to Jordan and that type of fierce competitiveness created a bond between player and coach even when they did not see eye to eye on everything else.

* "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson placed this quote from Rudyard Kipling's The Second Jungle Book at the top of the scouting reports that were distributed to the Bulls' players before the first round of the 1991 playoffs (p. 262, The Jordan Rules). Jackson thought that his players sometimes snapped at each other like wolves but needed to develop that Pack mentality to survive the playoff grind.

* Perhaps the signature moment of the 1991 Finals--and the final hurdle that Jordan needed to clear to emerge as a great team player--happened in game five. The Bulls needed just one win to take the championship and Jordan was determined to carry the team there singlehandedly if necessary. Of course, that approach was a good recipe for defeat. During a fourth quarter timeout when the Bulls trailed the Lakers 91-90, Jackson looked right at Jordan and barked, "Who's open?" When Jordan did not answer, Jackson repeated the question and Jordan finally relented, "Paxson." Jackson said simply, "Let's find him." John Paxson scored 10 of his 20 points in the last four minutes of the game and Chicago wrapped up the championship. Jackson knew when--and how--to challenge Jordan in ways that led to a constructive response. Jackson did not berate Jordan and did not deliver an expletive filled diatribe. All he said was, "Who's open?" Jackson knew that Jordan had the court sense to understand how the defense was checking him; Jordan just needed a little reminder. Real coaching has nothing to do with ranting and raving during timeouts; real coaching is done in practice, in private moments on the plane or on the bus, so that a simple "Who's open?" leads to the desired result during a pressure-packed Finals game.

* "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." As I wrote in my post about my 10 favorite coaching soundbites, "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." Jackson could have criticized Jordan for shooting too much or lambasted his teammates for shrinking under pressure but he instead delivered a powerful message with a few simple words. It cannot be emphasized enough that the ability to communicate this way is set up by all the work that is done in practice during the course of the season; that is when great coaches earn their pay. When I see a coach spend an entire game prancing up and down the sidelines ranting and raving I assume that one or more of the following is true: he loves to be on camera, his players are too stupid to know what to do no matter how many times he has told them or he is too stupid to know when to sit down and let his players do their jobs. Anyone who mocks Jackson for his generally placid demeanor during games and his reluctance to call timeouts simply does not understand what coaching is all about.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:01 AM

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