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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Commissioner Stern Modifies NBA's Stance About Referees, Prohibited Activities

When the Tim Donaghy scandal first came to light, NBA Commissioner David Stern declared at a press conference that the league had a no tolerance policy regarding referees and any kind of wagering: "The legal betting will cost you your job. The illegal betting, depending upon the context, may cost you your freedom." After further review, Stern has backed away from that all or nothing statement. The NBA has determined that a significant number of referees violated the letter of the league's strict--yet vaguely defined and haphazardly enforced--gambling prohibitions that banned them from even buying a lottery ticket.

Rather than disciplining all of these referees, Stern has elected to take one for the team, so to speak; after meeting with the Board of Governors, Stern explained during a teleconference what the NBA found during its investigation of its officials and what approach he and the league will take going forward regarding referees and betting: "Number one, the current state of the record is that Mr. Donaghy acted alone. There are no other referees that betted on NBA games. Number two, to the extent that we have a very broad rule that says you can't do anything could be read to include lotteries, golf, poker, including the poker game that's conducted annually at the NBA training camp. Someone has probably stepped across the line amongst all of our officials. But the reality is that about half of our officials have told us that they've been into casinos in the course of the last several years. And actually I have made a decision not to discipline them because I think the rule is overly broad. Of course, I take full responsibility for having been responsible for its enactment. I'm the CEO. I think its enforcement leaves something to be desired. So while we reenact--while we look at our rules completely and come up with a new set of rules, which I think is going to allow casino gambling at certain times of the year, I've decided that the better view here is to take my medicine and take it's not the right thing to do, to slap these guys on the wrists. I know they probably shouldn't have done it. They know they probably shouldn't have done it. But I'm not happy with the overall situation of an overbroad rule, spotty enforcement and reinforcement. We give the yearly pep talk about not gambling, and that's it until training camp next year. We've got to decide what to do. We've got to decide to do it firmly, fully throughout the year and have consequences based upon thorough follow-up, enforcement and detection."

Many Phoenix fans were very disappointed with Stern's letter of the law approach in suspending Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw after they left the bench during an altercation in game four of the San Antonio-Phoenix series. I have seen some comments questioning why Stern took such a hard line then yet is apparently letting the officials off of the hook now. The answer is that these are two completely different situations. The rule about players not leaving the area of the bench during an altercation has been uniformly enforced for more than a decade now. Remember Patrick Ewing idly strolling on to the court and being suspended during a New York-Miami series? He was even further away from the "action," if you will, then Stoudemire and Diaw were. This rule is an excellent rule that prevents any possible escalation of fights; the officials and coaches have their hands full trying to deal with the 10 players on the court and in the heat of the moment it is not a good idea to have several more players from both teams venturing into the fray. In contrast, the rules about referees and gambling were outdated and had never been consistently enforced, as Stern noted when he mentioned that the referees conducted an annual poker game at their training camp. Therefore, it makes sense to start over from scratch with some sensible rules. You can rest assured that Stern will enforce those new rules as zealously as he has enforced the league's other rules.

People who do not like the NBA and/or Commissioner Stern will use this as yet another opportunity to fire cheap shots, something that Stern anticipated with his comments about being "responsible" for the lack of enforcement of the previous rules and about taking "my medicine" for that. That is known as being accountable for one's actions. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who has presided over the Steroids Era in baseball and watched with his hands in his pockets--literally--as Barry Bonds broke the most hallowed record in sports, might want to look into that. David Stern realizes that not punishing referees for buying lottery tickets, playing poker or setting foot in casinos may look bad to some people but that it is for the greater good of the NBA.

During the same teleconference, Stern confirmed what many have suspected, namely that Stu Jackson's responsibilities will be diminished. Jackson will still be in charge of "basketball operations" but he will no longer oversee the NBA's referees. Director of Officials Ronnie Nunn will spend more time on the road training younger officials and he will no longer do his "Making the Call" television show on NBA TV. Stern also said that referee assignments will be publicly announced on the morning of game days so that this information will no longer be of potential interest to gamblers and he added that the league will take steps to publicly acknowledge incorrect calls; along those lines, I think that it is a mistake to drop the "Making the Call" show. Nunn did an excellent job explaining what referees see and he did not hesitate to admit when officials had messed up a call (which probably explains why Nunn and the show were not particularly popular with the rank and file officials). "Making the Call" is a perfect forum for the NBA to communicate to fans about the craft of refereeing. If anything, the show should be expanded, not canceled.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 PM

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Celtics Clobber Cavaliers in Preseason Finale

Boston outscored Cleveland 43-21 in the last 15:43 of the game to post a 114-89 win in the preseason finale for both teams. Kevin Garnett not only had a triple double (21 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) but he had game-high totals in all three categories. Ray Allen added 20 points, including 11 in the third quarter; his back to back three pointers near the end of that period kicked off Boston's decisive closing run, quickly pushing Boston's lead from 71-68 to 77-68. Paul Pierce had 12 points--all in the first half--and six assists. Larry Hughes led Cleveland with 18 points but shot just 7-17 from the field. He also had four assists, four rebounds and four steals. LeBron James scored 17 points but he also had a poor shooting night: 7-18. Three things that Cleveland relied on during last year's run to the NBA Finals were great performances by James, solid defense and excellent rebounding; the Cavaliers fell short in all three areas in this game. James played close to his normal minutes but produced subpar numbers across the board, Cleveland got outrebounded 41-32 and the Cavaliers allowed the Celtics to shoot 45-76 (.592) from the field. James would have attempted more than four shots in the second half if this had been a regular season game and the poor rebounding was likely a one game aberration. The third number is undoubtedly the most distressing one to Cleveland's coaching staff. Head Coach Mike Brown and Assistant Coach Hank Egan come from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and they emphasize the importance of contesting shots to lower the opposing team's field goal percentage (yes, that sounds like something obvious that all teams would want to do, but some teams place a greater emphasis on forcing turnovers or keeping the ball out of certain players' hands or certain areas of the court).

Boston took a 5-0 lead in the first :43 of the game. I have not seen all of Boston's preseason games but during the NBA Europe Live Tour I noted that on Boston's first possessions Pierce made strong moves into the paint and drew fouls. As I commented then, "Starting the game with Pierce attacking the hoop is a good idea for several reasons. One, it increases the chance of getting Boston in the bonus (and the other team in foul trouble) early in the quarter. Two, it sets an aggressive tone. Three, I think that his scoring average is a little more important to Pierce than it may be to Garnett or Allen, so it is good to get Pierce involved in the offense very early in the game." Against Cleveland, Pierce got the ball right after the opening tip and drove to the hoop from the left wing, scoring a layup and drawing a foul on James. Pierce made the free throw and this play set the tone for the Celtics, who dominated the paint for most of the game. The Cavaliers missed eight straight shots at one point and they trailed 33-22 by the end of the quarter.

The Cavaliers fought uphill against a double-digit deficit for most of the second quarter but managed to pull within 57-51 by halftime. Garnett already had 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, while James had 13 points on 5-14 shooting. During ESPN's halftime show, Jalen Rose and Stephen A. Smith each offered their Eastern Conference predictions. Rose's top five teams are Chicago, New Jersey, Detroit, Boston and Orlando, while Smith likes Boston, New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago and Miami. Later, during ESPN's telecast of the Lakers' 101-97 win over the Kings, Hubie Brown listed these teams: Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey, Boston, Toronto and Washington. He said that you have to "worry about" whether Cleveland and Miami have enough depth to even make the playoffs. Brown considers Milwaukee and Atlanta to be possible dark horses. I already posted my Eastern Conference preview but I have to comment about what Rose, Smith and Brown said. As longtime readers know, I greatly respect Brown but I think that he and the others all are overrating Detroit. The Pistons' core group is getting older and declining and I don't believe that their rookies will make as big of an impact this season as some people seem to think. I agree that Chicago has to be listed near the top. New Jersey is a team that I have expected to do big things the past couple years but the Nets always fall short. Yes, Nenad Krstic is back but I don't expect the Nets to be one of the top five teams in the East. I am also not convinced that Boston will automatically vault to the top of the conference. I realize that saying that in a post about the Celtics' 25 point win over the defending Eastern Conference champions may sound odd but let's see what happens when the real games begin. Smith is nuts to have Miami fifth; I ranked the Heat eighth and would not be surprised at all if they miss the playoffs. I am surprised that Brown put the Wizards in his top six. Washington does not play good defense, is soft in the paint and it is not yet clear if Gilbert Arenas is completely recovered from his knee injury (he sat out Washington's final preseason game, a 98-64 loss to Toronto, after having fluid drained from his knee). Of course, the most notable missing name on all three lists is Cleveland. The Cavaliers concluded the preseason with a 1-5 record and many people seem to believe that the sky is falling alongside Lake Erie because key reserves Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic are holding out. Obviously, Cleveland misses both players a lot, particularly Varejao, who provided rebounding and defense while also running a very effective pick and roll play with James. If I had really thought that they would miss a lot of regular season games--which now seems to be very possible--then I might not have picked Cleveland to finish first in the East. Still, I am not backing away from that selection just yet and I am surprised that so many people think that the Cavaliers might not even make the playoffs. Pavlovic's contributions can be more than replaced by Daniel Gibson, Shannon Brown, Devin Brown and a healthy Hughes (provided he stays healthy, of course). Cleveland has won 50 games each of the last two seasons, so to say that the Cavaliers will miss the playoffs is to suggest that they will win no more than 40 games this season. Is Varejao really worth 10 or more wins? Superstar players are worth 10-15-20 wins, not energy guys off of the bench. That is why Cleveland is not acceding to Varejao and Pavlovic's salary demands: neither guy is worth what he is asking for and to give in would cripple Cleveland's ability to add more players in subsequent seasons. Cleveland may struggle at first--they have several road games early in the season--but James will be super again, the defense will be very good and the Cavaliers will be contending for the conference title come playoff time.

Damon Jones nailed three three pointers in the first six minutes of the third quarter as Cleveland cut the lead to 63-61. It looked like the Cavaliers had recovered from their slow start and were in a great position to win the game. Then Rajon Rondo started driving to the basket at will, Allen rained down three pointers and Boston led 86-73 by the end of the quarter. That is still a workable margin with 12 minutes to go but Boston scored the first 14 points of the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach; the Cavaliers went nearly five minutes without scoring and they certainly did not make up for that by playing good defense.

The Celtics do a great job of sharing the ball and their three stars are not getting in each other's way on offense. By that I mean that the spacing is good, no one is forcing shots and each player has opportunities to do what he does best--Garnett is slashing to the hoop, shooting face up jumpers, and firing fadeaways from the block (which I still don't think is a great shot but he does make a lot of them); Allen is shooting jumpers from all angles while also showing that he can pick and choose times to drive; Pierce is posting smaller players, facing up slower ones and not forcing anything. The test for the Celtics will be how they perform down the stretch in close games. I'm not saying that they cannot pass that test but there is no getting around the fact that they must prove that they can do this.

The Cavaliers miss Varejao and Pavlovic but they still have the best player in the East in LeBron James and they still have a core set of defensive principles that formed the basis for their success last season. It was not a fluke that they made it to the NBA Finals and they will be a tough out in this year's playoffs as well.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:37 AM

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Strawberry's Long Range Shot Lifts Suns Over Nuggets

With the World Series in full swing, it is only natural to talk of a home run by a Strawberry--but this time the long distance shot came from rookie Suns' guard D.J., not his father, ex-MLB All-Star Darryl. With just 3.3 seconds left, D.J. Strawberry received a pass from Marcus Banks and calmly drained a three pointer to give Phoenix a 116-113 preseason victory over the visiting Denver Nuggets. Strawberry finished with 14 points in 20 minutes. Grant Hill led the Suns in scoring with 17 points. Steve Nash added 14 points and 10 assists but he shot just 3-10 from the field and committed four turnovers. Amare Stoudemire, who recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and had yet to play in the preseason, contributed 10 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. Allen Iverson led Denver with 24 points on 9-14 shooting, while Carmelo Anthony had 22 points but shot just 6-18 from the field. Denver starting center Marcus Camby did not play due to back spasms and Phoenix sixth man Leandro Barbosa sat out because of bruised ribs.

Denver got off to an excellent start by employing the tried and true blueprint that has worked against the Suns for the past few years: pounding the ball inside the paint on offense and defending the three point line vigorously when Phoenix has the ball. The Nuggets led 32-22 by the end of the first quarter. Anthony already had 13 points and Iverson scored 11 points on 5-6 shooting. The first quarter mainly consisted of starters playing against starters.

By the 8:38 mark in the second quarter, the Nuggets led 37-28 and the Suns had committed nine turnovers while making only 10 field goals. Nash, who had been sitting out for several minutes, returned to action and quickly scored a layup and delivered two assists as the Suns went on a 10-0 run to take the lead. Denver answered back with a 29-16 burst to close the quarter and the Nuggets led 66-54 at halftime. Denver outscored Phoenix in the paint 30-18 in the first half and held the Suns to 2-9 three point shooting. Anthony scored 19 first half points and Iverson had 15 points on 7-8 shooting. Kenyon Martin, attempting to come back from microfracture surgery, scored all eight of his points in the first half and moved better and with more explosiveness than he has in a long time.

TNT's Craig Sager asked Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni his thoughts about the first 24 minutes of action and D'Antoni candidly replied, "Being small and slow is not a good combo and that's what we are right now." It is not clear how the Suns can get bigger any time soon, so their only answer is to try to play faster and faster. The Suns have chosen the curious tactic of chasing a championship on the cheap; Kurt Thomas, by far the team's best frontcourt defender last year, was traded to Seattle in the offseason along with two first round draft picks purely to save money, a move that not only impacts Phoenix' chances to win a championship this year but also mortgages part of the team's future by giving up the chance to bring in young talent via the draft. During the telecast, TNT play by play announcer Marv Albert posed a critical question to color commentators Mike Fratello and Reggie Miller--the same question that I have raised about the Suns for years: their breakneck, fast paced style works great in the regular season when teams are worn down and don't have time to prepare for it but can a team win a championship playing this way? In the playoffs the competition is obviously much tougher and there are more days off between games, allowing the Suns' opponents to better prepare for and recover from the way that Phoenix plays. Fratello answered that Phoenix' failure to win a title in recent years boils down to one simple thing: the Suns have no answer for Tim Duncan's ability to score on the block. Needless to say, getting rid of Thomas--who guarded Duncan better than anyone else on the roster--did not get Phoenix closer to winning a title, even though the Suns added free agent Grant Hill. While Hill is a more talented and skilled player than Thomas the Suns have not been coming up short because of a lack of talent or skill. Regardless of how many games Phoenix wins in the regular season there is still no reason to believe that the Suns will be able to get past Duncan and the Spurs in the playoffs. Miller said that we may never know the answer to Albert's question due to what Miller called "Horry-gate"--the incident when Robert Horry fouled Nash during last year's playoff series versus Duncan's Spurs and Stoudemire and Boris Diaw received suspensions for leaving the bench area during an altercation; Miller suggested that maybe the Suns would otherwise have beaten the Spurs and won it all last year. That conveniently ignores the reality that the Spurs did not even need seven games to vanquish the Suns and that even if the Suns had gotten by the Spurs they still would have had to beat the Jazz in the Conference Finals. Utah beat Phoenix 3-1 in the regular season series.

The Suns got their running game in gear in the third quarter and also started connecting from three point range. The Nuggets responded by going away from the inside game that had been so effective in favor of launching some questionable shots. Denver is a very talented team but there are serious questions about the team's mental toughness and commitment to playing good defense. How will the Nuggets respond when everything is not going smoothly? Do they have the necessary focus to sustain solid play for 48 minutes against good teams? The third quarter did not offer encouraging answers to these questions. With their starters still in the game, Denver went from having a 12 point lead to trailing 72-71 in less than six minutes. Three minutes after that Phoenix led 87-76. After that point, both teams began removing their starters from the game--although Iverson played until several minutes elapsed in the fourth quarter--so it is not clear what to make of the last 12-15 minutes of the game. J.R. Smith--who has been suspended by the Nuggets for the first three games of the regular season due to conduct detrimental to the team--scored 11 points in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets rallied to tie the score at 113 with 1:02 left, setting the stage for Strawberry's heroics. It is fitting that the Suns ended the game with a three pointer; they shot 7-16 from behind the arc in the second half.

Phoenix and Denver are two of the biggest teases in the NBA; the Suns tantalize their fans by winning 50-60 games with a style that is ill equipped for championship level success, while the Nuggets have enough talent that they can look like legitimate contenders for short periods of time only to implode due to their lack of commitment, focus and toughness (just consider how many players on the Nuggets have been suspended by the team or the league for various reasons). Can the Suns get a key stop in the paint in the last five minutes of a close playoff game? Will the Nuggets play hard and smart for 48 minutes night after night? If your eyes are open and you are honest, you already know the answers to these questions.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:59 AM

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Milestone Watch

Here are some statistical/historical milestones that are within reach in the 2007-08 season:

1) Kobe Bryant needs just 704 points to join the 20,000 point club. If Bryant matches his 2006-07 total of 2430 points then he could move up as high as 29th on the NBA/ABA career scoring list. Last season, Bryant had 10 50 point games and if he does that again in 2007-08 then he will tie Michael Jordan for second place on the all-time list in that category with 31; Wilt Chamberlain's mark of 118 is well out of range of any mere mortal for the foreseeable future. Bryant had 18 40 point games last year and he only needs four to pass Elgin Baylor (88) to move into third place all-time. Bryant is unlikely to catch Jordan (173) and no one is going to top Chamberlain (271); Rick Barry had 70 such games in the NBA but if you include his 45 ABA games with at least 40 points then he had 115 total, which looks like a reachable number for Bryant in the next two to three years. If Bryant averages 30 ppg and does not miss a substantial number of games then he can raise his career scoring average past 25 ppg and move into the top ten in NBA/ABA history.

2) Shaquille O'Neal figures to move up on the career scoring list and down on the career scoring average list. Assuming he matches last year's average (17.3 ppg) and plays in 60 games then he will move from 15th to 12th in career scoring while slipping from seventh to ninth in career scoring average. O'Neal needs 576 rebounds to move past Dennis Rodman into 20th place on the career list and 111 blocked shots to pass Tree Rollins and take over eighth place all-time.

3) If Allen Iverson returns to being a 2000 point scorer then he could move from 31st to 25th on the career scoring list and that would be enough for him to maintain third place on the career scoring average list.

4) The ageless Dikembe Mutombo grabbed 488 rebounds last year. Another performance like that would vault him from 19th to 15th on the career rebounding list, just ahead of Charles Barkley. Mutombo ranks second in career blocked shots but needs 600 to match Hakeem Olajuwon.

5) Jason Kidd already ranks seventh in career assists and if he matches last year's total of 736 then he will move into fifth place, trailing only John Stockton, Mark Jackson, Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. He ranks 13th in career steals and only needs 98 (he had 127 last season) to reach 2000.

6) Steve Nash is 28th on the career assists list but he has racked up at least 800 each of the past three seasons. If he does that again then he will move all the way up to 17th all-time.

The Spurs are chasing the most significant milestones, though: the first repeat championship of the Tim Duncan era and the fifth overall title since he entered the league, which would be the most championships won by a single franchise since the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Bulls ruled the NBA and captured double three-peats in the 1990s.

posted by David Friedman @ 10:09 AM

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Five Player Trade Upgrades Heat's Talent, Gives Timberwolves Express Ticket to Draft Lottery

In the wake of an 0-7 preseason and facing the real possibility of not making the playoffs this season, the Miami Heat shipped Antoine Walker, Michael Doleac, Wayne Simien and a conditional first round draft pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Ricky Davis and Mark Blount. It is amusing to see this referred to as a "blockbuster" deal--none of the players has been an All-Star in recent memory and none are likely to be one any time soon. The Timberwolves have been headed straight to the Draft Lottery ever since the Kevin Garnett deal (that was a true blockbuster), so getting rid of Davis--even though he was probably the most talented player on the roster--is a good move. Davis is one of the last guys you want to have around if your team is not going anywhere and you have a lot of young players who you are attempting to mold into solid NBA players; the Cavaliers got rid of Davis before his questionable attitude and work habits could negatively affect LeBron James. Just based on that factor alone this is a good deal for Minnesota. Contract considerations always figure into NBA trades and the Timberwolves improved themselves in that regard as well because Doleac and Simien have expiring deals and Walker's contract is "cap friendlier" than what Minnesota gave up, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. Basically, Minnesota has completely hit the reset button; the Timberwolves will have some cap space to sign a free agent or two after getting rid of the three new guys at some point, they will have a lottery pick next year after not making the playoffs in 2007-08 and perhaps they can fight for the eighth spot in 2008-09 en route to becoming a contender after that--if all goes well with the development of the young players.

Meanwhile, it has been a strange offseason for the Heat. They lost three point marksman Jason Kapono and veteran swingmen James Posey and Eddie Jones while getting nothing in return. Their only free agent signing was Smush Parker, arguably the worst starting point guard in the NBA last season and a malcontent to boot. Blount has some skills as an offensive player--the career .513 shooter averaged 12.3 ppg on .509 shooting last season while starting 81 games for Minnesota--that could be very useful for Miami when Shaquille O'Neal takes his annual 15-20 game hiatus from the lineup. Davis, of course, oozes athletic talent but his work ethic and lack of interest in defense do not make him a prototypical Pat Riley player. It is no secret that Riley did not see eye to eye with Walker but now he has two bona fide head cases--Davis and Parker--on the roster. With Dwyane Wade still rehabilitating his injuries, Riley probably believes that it is essential to add Davis' scoring ability. Unfortunately for Miami, Blount and Davis are just patchwork fixes. O'Neal's career is clearly winding down and Miami is going to struggle to make the playoffs with this roster, let alone contend for the championship that O'Neal wants to win to complete his "legacy." Ironically, former teammates O'Neal and Kobe Bryant appear to be facing roughly the same situations this season. Imagine if three years ago the Lakers had managed to retain the services of both players and simply added one or two role players to fill out a roster that had been good enough to help the team get to the 2004 NBA Finals. It is certainly possible that both Bryant and O'Neal will miss this season's playoffs, though one suspects that Bryant will carry the Lakers to the eighth spot unless he is traded to another team in the middle of the season.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:51 PM

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Fundamentally Flawed Lakers Flounder Versus Jazz

Name a basketball fundamental and the Lakers flunked it in a ragged 102-81 preseason loss to the Utah Jazz. Rebounding? Utah 50, L.A. 41. Field goal shooting? Utah .439, L.A. .397. Turnovers? Utah 10, L.A. 20. Mental breakdowns? Utah had very few, L.A. had too many to mention. Ronnie Brewer led the Jazz with 18 points in 19 minutes, Mehmet Okur had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Carlos Boozer struggled with his shot (3-10 from the field, seven points) but contributed 10 rebounds and four assists and Deron Williams had 10 points and eight assists. The Lakers' problems started at the top and pretty much went straight down the roster: Kobe Bryant led the Lakers with 15 points in just under 28 minutes but he missed his first eight field goal attempts and shot just 4-16 from the field. Starting point guard Derek Fisher shot 1-3 from the field, starting small forward Vladimir Radmanovic shot 1-7 from the field and starting center Chris Mihm shot 0-2 from the field. Among the starters, only power forward Ronny Turiaf--four points on 2-2 shooting, 10 rebounds--had a good night. The Lakers did get some decent production from some of their bench players: rookie Javaris Crittenton scored 10 points in 14 minutes, making all five of his field goal attempts, Jordan Farmar had seven points and a team-high seven assists, Maurice Evans scored 11 points in 17 minutes and Andrew Bynum had eight points and eight rebounds.

Utah set the tone right from the beginning, taking an 11-1 lead in the first five minutes; the Lakers missed their first nine field goal attempts and never got closer than eight points the rest of the game. By the end of the first quarter Utah led 34-14, shooting 13-22 from the field (.591) while holding the Lakers to 3-19 shooting (.158). Bryant shot 0-6 but still had nearly half of the Lakers' points on 6-6 free throw shooting. Bryant sat out the last :36 of the quarter and nearly the first eight minutes of the second quarter. When he returned to action the Lakers trailed 46-31 but the Jazz pounded the Lakers on the offensive glass and pushed the margin to 54-33 by halftime.

Bryant scored a driving layup and assisted on a Radmanovic three pointer to open the third quarter and the Lakers got as close as 56-42 before Utah pulled away again to take a 62-42 lead. Led by Bryant's seven points in the quarter, the Lakers made one final run to get to within 76-62 by the end of the quarter. Bryant did not play at all in the fourth quarter. With reserves battling reserves, the Lakers trimmed the lead to 80-71 but then Utah went on an 8-0 run to blow the game open.

There is not much to say about the Jazz other than they look ready for the regular season. Their shooting was not great but their ball and player movement were both excellent and their defense and rebounding were both very good. As for the Lakers, they look like a mess. Certainly, if this had been a regular season game then Bryant would have returned to the game in the fourth quarter once the lead had been cut to nine and maybe he would have scored 20 points down the stretch to carry the Lakers to a win at the buzzer--but a team cannot prosper that way for an entire season. That is the way that the Lakers got by in the final six weeks last season but if the Lakers need that kind of superhuman effort from Bryant for 82 games even he will break down. The team announced that Lamar Odom will likely miss the first two weeks of the regular season--and who knows what kind of condition he will be in when he returns or if he will even be able to stay healthy? Bryant may rue the 15-20 pounds that he lost over the summer because the Lakers are getting nothing from their frontcourt in terms of rebounding and defense; he may have to get seven rpg or more as a shooting guard in order to keep the Lakers from being completely dominated on the glass. The Triangle Offense looks more like a three ring circus, with passes rolling between Kwame Brown's legs and bouncing off of players' hands. Once, Bryant faked to the baseline and cut to the middle only to watch Brown throw a no-look pass out of bounds. With Phil Jackson still laboring physically after his second hip replacement surgery, this team may be one sustained losing streak away from seeing Jackson take a Pat Riley-like midseason sabbatical--only Jackson may decide to not come back. Yes, there is a best case scenario in which Odom returns quickly, Bynum continues to improve, rookie Crittenton and second year player Farmar perform well, Bryant does his usual magic and the Lakers emerge as a surprise team--but it is unlikely that most of those things will happen. The reality is that Bryant's sustained excellence is the only thing that this team can rely upon and one man can only take a team so far. Bryant is certain to exercise his option and jump off of this sinking ship in 2009, so expect the rampant trade speculation to begin heating up again soon.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:28 AM

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Shaq: I Need One More Ring to Complete My Legacy

I recently suggested that Shaquille O'Neal may have to share equal billing with Tim Duncan when history evaluates who was the dominant player of the post-Michael Jordan era. O'Neal believes that he needs to win at least one more championship to cement his "legacy." O'Neal says, "My legacy. Not what people write and create about me. My personal legacy, the one I want to leave for my kids. I'm not done with that yet. People talk about who the greatest players are and right now, my name is in a subcategory. I'm in the big-man category. See, Mike is the greatest player of all time. I want to be up there in that spoken word of players. How? Six championships. I've got four. If we can get five or six, maybe I can get in that conversation--if only for a couple of sentences."

That is a very mature and realistic perspective for O'Neal to take. The problem is that now that he has finally figured it out--that his legacy will be defined primarily by championships--he is no longer dominant enough physically to perform at the level that he did during his prime. What if O'Neal had felt this way about his career when he was young enough to turn those words into action? Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan--dominant players who led teams to at least five NBA titles each--did not have to tell anyone how they planned to ensure their legacies; they put in the work in the offseason so that the results showed during the season and during the playoffs. Those players' games improved and evolved during their careers and they kept themselves in prime condition so that they seldom missed games or put their teams at a disadvantage by being out of shape. Can O'Neal look at himself in the mirror and honestly say that during his career he worked as hard as those guys did? He did work hard at times and he certainly has accomplished a lot but if he really, truly wanted to be mentioned with Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson and Jordan then his actions years ago would have spoken louder than his words do now. In one of his commercials, Jordan said "Love is playing every game as if it's your last"--but he did not just say that: he lived it, approaching preseason games, midseason games against bad teams and NBA Finals games with manic intensity and focus. He once said that he always played that way because there might be someone in the stands who had never seen him play and he wanted to leave an indelible impression. Can anyone honestly say that O'Neal has had the same attitude? Yes, that is a high standard--maybe it seems impossibly, unfairly hard--but that is what it takes to reach the level that Jordan did; you don't get there just by talking about it.

posted by David Friedman @ 8:00 AM

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Monday, October 22, 2007

The NBA Could Field a Good "All-Suspended Team" on Opening Night

Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith has been suspended for the first three games of the season due to the cliched "conduct detrimental to the team" (the Denver Post reports that Smith "has been issued a summons to appear in court to answer to allegations of destruction of private property, disturbing the peace and assault in an incident at DC-10 lounge at 940 Lincoln on Oct. 13.".) Last year, the NBA suspended Smith for 10 games due to his role in the fight between the New York Knicks and the Nuggets at Madison Square Garden. You could form a pretty decent squad with the five players who will be serving suspensions on opening night: in addition to Smith, Ron Artest (out for seven games as a result of his no contest plea for inflicting injury on a spouse), Stephen Jackson (out for seven games as a result of his infamous shooting incident at a strip club), Josh Howard (out for two games as a result of his altercation with Brad Miller during a recent preseason game) and James Posey (out for one game as a result of his no contest plea for reckless driving) will all miss at least the first game of the season. That team would have to play small ball--or perhaps it could pick up Keon Clark.

It is probably just a coincidence that all of these guys have been suspended at the same time--each for unrelated and dissimilar situations--but I cannot recall another NBA season that began with this many guys serving suspensions at the same time, let alone players of this caliber.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:04 PM

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Orlando Defeats Cleveland Again in NBA China Games 2007

Orlando finished the NBA China Games 2007 with a 3-0 record by beating Cleveland 100-84. Previously, Orlando defeated Cleveland 90-86 and then the Magic routed the Team China All-Stars 116-92. Dwight Howard led the way for Orlando with 17 points in less than 24 minutes, while LeBron James and Larry Hughes had 14 points each for Cleveland. Just like in the first matchup between these teams, most of Cleveland's key players sat out the fourth quarter; Cleveland Coach Mike Brown openly admitted after the game that he experimented with some lineups that he definitely would not use during the regular season.

James scored eight of his points in the first quarter as the Cavaliers raced to a 30-23 lead. There is a lot of talk about how weak the East is, that the conference is right there for the taking and that Cleveland not only failed to improve its roster but is currently without the services of holdout free agents Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic. While the East does not have one single team that is as good as San Antonio, Dallas or Phoenix (and you could probably add Houston and Utah to that list) the overall depth is not bad; there will be a dogfight at the top for the best record and another dogfight at the bottom to determine who will get the eighth spot. Boston's massive upgrades ensure that at least one Eastern Conference playoff team from last year will be on the outside looking in this time around, so Eastern Conference games figure to be very spirited and competitive. Cleveland will definitely miss Varejao and Pavlovic--particularly Varejao, who runs the pick and roll with James better than anyone else on the team and who provides energy and hustle while also serving as an irritant to the opposing team's bigs--but don't write Cleveland off even Varejao and Pavlovic stay on the sidelines. A healthy Hughes plus young guards Daniel Gibson and Shannon Brown can more than pick up the slack for Pavlovic. The absence of Varejao could prove deadly if Zydrunas Ilgauskas or Drew Gooden get hurt but otherwise Cleveland can make do, possibly even going with a small lineup for a change of pace when the reserves come into the game. The Cavaliers will be better than some people seem to expect because they play good defense game in and game out and because they have the best player in the conference in LeBron James. The former means that Cleveland will rarely get blown out and the latter means that Cleveland will win a lot of games when James takes over down the stretch.

The biggest news in Orlando--literally--is the development of Dwight Howard's post game. Against Cleveland he showcased hook shots and spin moves that no longer look mechanical and predictable. Howard's improvements will have a trickle down effect on the rest of the team because opponents will have to start double-teaming him, leaving Orlando's shooters open. Speaking of shooters, a recent headline at USAToday.com declared, "Redick's shooting woes, defense may limit role." You really think so? The theory behind drafting Redick with a lottery pick last year is that he could make spot up jumpers when Howard is double-teamed. The Catch-22 is that on defense Redick matches up poorly with most starting shooting guards in the league but if he plays on the second unit--which is unlikely to have a player who is worthy of being double-teamed--then Redick may have to create his own shot, which will not be easy for him even against bench players. Orlando has given Redick a lot of run in the summer league and in the preseason but it looks more and more likely that Keith Bogans will be the starting shooting guard and that Redick will come off the bench. After two abysmal games in China (shooting 1-6 from the field in the first game versus Cleveland and following that with a 2-9 clunker), Redick actually played solidly versus Cleveland, scoring 14 points on 5-10 shooting while adding four rebounds and four assists. He made his first basket in very uncharacteristic fashion, nailing a fadeaway jumper on the move at the end of the first quarter. In both games versus Cleveland he struggled to stay in front of Hughes. At times, Redick seemed to use poor shot selection, though perhaps Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy is OK with Redick shooting pullup three pointers on the fast break because Orlando is making a real effort to generate more transition offense this year; I'm not convinced that this is the way to do it, but right now Van Gundy seems loath to rein anyone in, perhaps wary of damaging the confidence of his three point shooters. Redick scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter as the reserves from both squads finished out the game, with Orlando outscoring Cleveland 29-15 in the final stanza.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 AM

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