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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Surprise, Surprise: Lakers Totally Eclipse Suns

Kobe Bryant is a distraction--not to the Lakers but to the Chicago Bulls, whose fans chanted his name as their team fell to 0-2 with a 96-85 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Meanwhile, Bryant had 16 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals as the Lakers delivered the stunner of the first few days of the 2007-08 season, routing Phoenix 119-98 in the Suns' home opener. Bryant (+27), Jordan Farmar (+26) and Derek Fisher (+19) had the three best plus/minus ratings in this contest. In more conventional terms, Fisher scored 14 points on 7-9 shooting, while Farmar had eight points and three assists off the bench. Vladimir Radmanovic led the Lakers with 19 points and Andrew Bynum added 14 points and 13 rebounds as the Lakers annihilated the Suns 54-34 on the boards; Shawn Marion had 10 rebounds, Brian Skinner grabbed eight, Boris Diaw had five and no other Sun had more than three. Leandro Barbosa led Phoenix with 23 points. Steve Nash scored 19 points on 7-15 shooting but had just three assists, one steal and no rebounds while committing five turnovers. Stoudemire shot 2-10 from the field and finished with seven points and one rebound.

Early in the game, ESPN color commentator Hubie Brown agreed with Houston's Shane Battier, who said of Bryant that he never takes off even one possession in a 48 minute game. However, right after that, ESPN sideline reporter Ric Bucher described Bryant warming up by himself before the game and concluded his report by solemly intoning, "Whether he is showing it on the court or not, there is clearly a separation between he and the rest of the Lakers." Play by play announcer Dan Shulman then asked Brown if a team can be successful despite such a separation (never mind that how a player warmed up before one game hardly proves that there is such a separation). Brown replied sensibly, "Listen, that happens on a lot of great teams, depending upon how good that player is. Kobe Bryant is the number one player in this league. He is going to come out here and show everybody. Until management takes either a no trade (stance) or Kobe himself decides that he does not want to be traded, this is going to be fodder for the media. The big thing is, night in and night out, he is going to come out and show you that he is the number one player in the league."

Phoenix took an early 8-2 lead but the Lakers then went on a 17-4 run, with Fisher scoring eight points and Bryant scoring seven points; apparently, it does make a difference to have a legitimate point guard who not only puts defensive pressure on Nash but who also forces Nash to have to guard him--call it the anti-Smush Parker effect (Parker was a defensive sieve while shooting 2-13 from the field in the Lakers' five game loss to the Suns in last year's playoffs). By the end of the first quarter, the Lakers led 33-20. The Suns briefly cut the margin to nine in the second quarter but the Lakers eventually went up by as much as 17 before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead. The Lakers blew the game wide open in the third quarter, taking a 90-61 lead after Bryant fed Ronny Turiaf for a dunk. Bryant sat out the last 13:42 of the game.

It's such a shame for the know-it-all pundits that Kobe Bryant can go out and attempt 27 free throws in the first game of the season to refute questions about his commitment and that he can lead his team to a blowout road win against one of the top teams in the West despite his injured wrist and without the services of Lamar Odom, the Lakers' second best player. So many media members constructed their anti-Bryant stories with such care, only to have the cold, hard results of the basketball games--nationally televised for everyone to see--refute their "analysis."

It is fascinating to watch tremendous talent honed to a razor's edge sharpness by hard work. As much as people try to hate Bryant, he is so exceptional that at the end of the day he inevitably earns people's respect. In the Lakers' home opener, fans booed him at the start of the game but chanted his name at the end as he almost delivered victory from the jaws of defeat. On Friday, Phoenix' fans predictably booed Bryant at the start of the game but by the end they were booing their own team, a reversal of fortune perhaps even more shocking than the stark and completely unexpected verdict displayed on the scoreboard.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:37 AM

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Gilbert Arenas is the NBA's "Ocho Cinco"

It is one thing for fans to like a player based on some combination of his skill, charisma and production but I just don't get the media's love affairs with Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson and Gilbert "Agent Zero" Arenas, two players who are such legends in their own minds that they nicknamed themselves (which is not quite the same as earning a nickname like "Dr. J," "the Pearl" or "the Glide"). I guess their popularity shows the value and power of being accessible to and friendly with members of the press. Arenas is everywhere now--he blogs at NBA.com (or, more accurately, he dictates some things to an actual writer who organizes these thoughts in a blog format) and he contributed to not one but two national magazines' NBA previews.

I talk here about how Johnson's act is wearing thin with the 2-5 Cincinnati Bengals, so let's look at Arenas' resume. He displayed such a bad attitude during Team USA practices in 2006 that it is unlikely that he will ever be invited back. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant--the man everyone seemingly loves to hate, the "bad" teammate, the "selfish" scorer--revitalized Team USA (along with Jason Kidd) in 2007 with his work ethic, unselfishness and defensive intensity. Arenas responded to being let go by Team USA not by trying to figure out how to get back in the good graces of the coaching staff but by lamenting that he has no college eligibility left to torch Mike Krzyzewski's Duke squad with 50 or 60 points and vowing to drop 50 on both Phoenix and Portland (whose coaches are Team USA assistants). While Arenas did score 54 points in an overtime victory against Phoenix, he delivered just nine points in a 94-73 loss to Portland--and that was not for lack of trying, as he shot 3-15 from the field and had just two assists. Undaunted by either his failure or by how his misguided goal negatively affected his team's performance, Arenas told me during All-Star Weekend that he was just "playing possum. I just tried to win the game. I want to hit 50 in their building; I didn’t want to hit 50 in my building...At the end of the day, I still have one more game against them. So if I score 50, hey, everything that I said was true." Arenas came up a mere 31 points shy of 50 in the rematch with Portland, shooting 4-16 from the field in a 100-98 loss. Prior to that game, he dictated this to his blog's ghostwriter: "I know coach is going to get mad for me saying this, but if I don’t score 50, damn it, there’s going to be a lot of shots to get to 50. You know, last time I shot 15 shots. At the end of the day, I want to win. It’s harder in this situation now because it’s winning time. Early in the season I can do that, I can go out there and just play reckless. But it’s more of a team thing now that we get these wins and we don’t droff – we don’t drop off. If I’m on fire, I’m on fire. If I’m not, just like last time, I’m not going to force anything" (yes, I left the typos uncorrected). Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan was less than thrilled by Arenas' shenanigans but the unsinkable Agent Zero, asked if he regretted his actions, replied, "No. I was a marked man in Phoenix and they couldn't do anything about it. Sometimes you shoot the bull's-eye and sometimes you don't."

Remember, this is the guy who many "experts" were trying to push as the MVP of the NBA last year.

Fast forward to this season. Arenas' newest brainstorm, conveyed via his ghostwritten blog on September 28, involved getting revenge on Jim O'Brien and the Boston Celtics: "Now, if anybody remembers back when I got drafted, I got a report back that the reason I dropped so far in the draft was that Jim O'Brien of the Celtics said that I was too immature and that I wasn't ready for the NBA. What really happened was that I had an Achilles injury and I went back to L.A. to go get it healed when I was supposed to have a two-day workout in Boston with O'Brien. He didn't like that. So word came back to me that he was trashing me and it put this knife through my chest about the Boston Celtics. Back in the day when I would day dream I thought that if I could score 100 points against any team it would be the Boston Celtics. Now, I knew it would never happen, but if I could do one thing in the NBA it would be to score 100 against Boston. So anyway, since everybody is back on the Boston bandwagon it brought back old memories. So listen here. On November 2nd, we're going to go into that building, we're opening up Boston. Right now I'm telling the Boston fans: You guys are going to lose. It's not going to be a victory for Boston. You might as well just cheer for me, because Boston isn't winning in Boston for the season opener. I'm sorry. "

Conveniently, Arenas' Wizards opened the season against O'Brien's Pacers before helping the Celtics kick off the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen era in Boston on Friday night. Arenas scored 34 points on 10-25 shooting as Indiana beat Washington 119-110 in overtime on Wednesday. Arenas had a -10 plus/minus rating in that contest. After not accomplishing that mission, Agent Zero came up with an even worse performance against the Celtics, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and just three assists, while shooting 5-20 from the field, including 0-5 from three point range--thus making a sizable contribution to Washington's record-setting 0-16 three point shooting; no other NBA team has ever attempted that many treys without hitting at least one. Boston routed Washington 103-83.

Arenas' guarantees are no more fun loving or harmless than Johnson's antics in Cincinnati; each player is distracting himself and his team. It is simply amazing how much nonsense we hear about Kobe Bryant being a potential distraction to the Lakers or Owens and Moss being possible time bombs on their teams but Arenas and Johnson are looked upon as harmless court jesters. Talk about a double standard--and the media's reaction to these players bothers me far more than anything that the players have done. What's more, while both Arenas and Johnson are All-Star level performers, neither one is dominant enough within the context of his sport to consistently deliver on his bold words. In the vernacular, their mouths write checks that their bodies cannot cash. All-time greats like Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson and Michael Jordan talked trash and backed it up. Arenas and Johnson are not at that level and they should really consider ratcheting down their rhetoric a few notches and taking a look around their own sports at players who are better than they are. Terrell Owens, the wide receiver everyone loves to hate, says "Get your popcorn ready" but he does not hang a laminated sheet on his locker a la Chad Johnson asserting that no defensive back can cover him, nor does he wear a jacket trumpeting his eventual Hall of Fame induction. Randy Moss has acted a fool in a lot of ways in years past but this season he has been a model of decorum as he sets his sights on numerous receiving records. Does LeBron James call out teams and brag that he is going to drop 50 on them? Does Kobe Bryant do that? If anybody in the NBA has the skills to say such things and back it up it would be those two players.

James did trash talk Arenas once, but in a very subtle way and not for public consumption (though, ironically, Arenas himself later revealed what happened and James confirmed it); James walked up to Arenas prior to two last second free throws in game six of the 2006 playoffs and calmly told Arenas that if he missed then the Wizards would lose. Deep at the heart of all of Arenas' bragging there is most likely a lot of insecurity (unlike Jordan, who would invent grievances and then use them as motivation to annihilate his opponents) and James' cold blooded remark hit pay dirt. Arenas, normally an excellent free throw shooter, missed both shots and the Cavaliers won the game and the series. Arenas does not have to worry about that happening this year, because he and Ocho Cinco have one other thing in common: they will both be sitting at home come playoff time.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:12 AM

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Rush, Rush: Pacers Rally From Seven Point Deficit to Freeze the Heat

The Indiana Pacers trailed the Miami Heat 82-75 with just 3:17 remaining but scored 12 straight points to escape with an 87-85 victory, Indiana's 11th straight win over Miami at Conseco Fieldhouse. Kareem Rush, who shot 0-2 from the field in the first three quarters, nailed back to back three pointers in a 36 second span to tie the game and then give Indiana an 85-82 lead. Rush is an aptly named player for a Jim O'Brien-coached team that wants to play an uptempo game and he also brings to the table a skill set that O'Brien loves: the ability to make three pointers. O'Brien told reporters before the game that he will never bench a player who has missed five shots in a row "as long as he is willing to take the sixth" but that he will sit down a player in a heartbeat if he fails to attempt an open shot. Rush has obviously completely bought in to that philosophy, saying after the game, "The gun is always loaded. If I'm open I'm going to take the shot. I knew we needed threes when I came in, so I came in firing. That's what they've got me here for."

Danny Granger led Indiana with 25 points and nine rebounds. He is thriving so far under O'Brien, averaging 22.5 ppg in two wins while shooting 17-30 from the field (.567). Ike Diogu had a strong performance off the bench (16 points, six rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy added 15 points. Jermaine O'Neal, who missed the first game of the season due to a knee injury, fouled out in only 24 minutes and showed his rust on offense (10 points on 2-9 shooting) but he contributed in many other ways, including nine rebounds, a career-high tying seven assists, three blocked shots and two steals. The Pacers blocked 13 shots, tying the team's Conseco Fieldhouse record and setting a single-game high in the young NBA season. Rookie guard Daequan Cook, making his first appearance in a regular season NBA game, led Miami with 17 points, shooting 7-12 from the field (including 3-4 from three point range) while also having five rebounds and three assists. Ricky Davis scored 13 points on 5-13 shooting but at least he chased after his misses, grabbing a career-high 14 rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal had his second consecutive double-single (eight points, seven rebounds) before fouling out with 5:26 remaining. The Heat led 76-74 at that point and, although Heat Coach Pat Riley said after the game that the team missed O'Neal's presence down the stretch, Miami went on a 6-1 run to take their biggest lead of the game right after he departed. O'Neal shot 4-13 from the field and committed six turnovers.

Indiana took a 12-4 lead to open the game but Miami rallied to tie the score at 22 before Diogu's layup gave the Pacers a 24-22 advantage at the end of the first quarter. Cook put his stamp on the game in the second quarter, scoring nine points on 4-5 shooting as Miami went up by as many as seven points. Indiana closed the quarter with a 12-4 run, capped off by two Granger three pointers, including one at the buzzer that gave Indiana a 48-47 halftime lead.

Miami took a quick 54-50 lead early in the third quarter but Indiana tied the score on Granger's three pointer at the 6:53 mark. Granger then hit another three pointer and Indiana stayed in front for the rest of the quarter. Neither team led by more than three points in the fourth quarter until the Heat made their mini-run right after O'Neal fouled out and then Rush responded with his dagger three pointers. Granger hit a jumper to put Indiana up 87-82 with just under 41 seconds left. Davis closed out the scoring with a three pointer from halfcourt just before the final buzzer sounded.

O'Brien was understandably happy with his team's effort, saying in his postgame standup, "People who don't believe this group is never going to give up should have been here. The harder you work, the more difficult it is to surrender. Larry (Bird) did a great job getting us some quality depth...he improved the team greatly."

Riley summed up the loss simply: "When it gets real, real, real competitive in two or three minute spurts, we won a number of them tonight and then at the end when it got real competitive they won the last one--a 10-0 run."

Cook was pleased, but not surprised, by his performance: "I felt great and I took advantage of my opportunity, like I've been saying for a while now...I've been working hard and coach told me, 'Always be ready and just bring energy.' That's what I did tonight. I was ready just like I was ready last night, whether I played or not."

After Miami's loss to Detroit in the season opener, O'Neal complained that he did not get the ball enough in the post. I asked O'Neal if he was satisfied with the number of touches he got versus the Pacers and he replied, "It was OK--13 shots and I missed nine of them, so I was satisfied with the touches I got tonight. I just have to continue to take high percentage shots and just hit them."

While O'Neal had no complaints, point guard Jason Williams provided a strong indication that Miami's team chemistry is less than optimal. Asked to describe how the team adjusted after O'Neal fouled out, Williams instead offered this general comment about the game: "We played selfish as a team tonight. We played selfish. It's pretty self explanatory." Someone asked if he thought that the Heat gave the game away. Williams answered, "I don't think we give away anything. They might have took it more than we gave it away." Williams also said that he is not worried about the team's long losing streak (which includes the entire preseason plus being swept 4-0 by the Bulls in last year's playoffs) but rather is focused on the Heat's next game. His body language communicated how negatively he feels about the team's situation but before anyone could ask further questions a Miami Heat p.r. person thanked the media, which essentially means, "interview over."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, O'Brien was asked what has been the most pleasant surprise for him since taking the Indiana job. He answered, "Overall, I've been really happy with the work ethic that our guys have had from day one...We put them through a lot of pain preparing for the kind of tempo that we play and our attitude has been just fantastic. I have a group of guys who work hard together and really enjoy being around one another...I think that this team, if we can string some wins together, will maybe start believing that we are a little bit better than people think we are."

The only thing that he did not like about the team's season opening win against the Wizards was the number of first quarter turnovers: "The rest of the game, we did a good job of taking care of the basketball. When we run, that is no excuse for being lazy with your passes and throwing the basketball all over the place. We need to keep our turnovers down." There are a couple other areas that he also monitors to guard against slippage: "We need to start keeping our opponents off the foul line...and I always look for consistent (fast) tempo. Only in the (preseason) game against Memphis did we run for four quarters."

O'Brien also explained his philosophy for guarding Shaquille O'Neal: "We don't want him to get deep catches. If he gets deep, the ideal--and this is easier said than done--would be to get around and front him. That's hard to do. We will play him mostly one on one tonight. If he gets the ball out of the paint and starts to back his way in then we will come after him." Indiana stuck with this plan, validating my observation that O'Neal's skills have declined to the point that teams can get away with not double-teaming him in certain situations. He is still a huge, physical force but he is no longer an explosive jumper, nor does he move well laterally, so his force is confined to a narrow area. Teams can guard him one on one unless he is so close to the basket that he can just turn and dunk the ball. Otherwise, it takes him so long to maneuver into the paint now that he is very prone to turning the ball over or committing an offensive foul; that extra time he spends backing down also leaves him vulnerable to guards swiping down and stealing the ball. He used to be so quick that if he was not doubled immediately on the catch that he could score at will.

O'Brien has a simple and direct way to convince his players to not be afraid to shoot open shots: "You tell each individual during practice one time after he passes up a shot that if ever he does it again you'll yank him. They immediately know that we want them to take open shots. We don't want any surprises. If you get open and you're a shooter, shoot the basketball. If you pass up an open shot early in the shot clock then all of a sudden you're up against the end of the shot clock struggling to get a good shot. From my standpoint, you have to take the first open look that you can get but you have to make sure that it's an open look; you don't want to take a bad shot early in the shot clock."

***

Cook played his high school basketball for Dayton (Ohio) Dunbar but he has received some bizarre coverage from the local newspaper, the Dayton Daily News, which ran an article before the NBA draft asserting that scouts "question everything about him, including his ability to understand the game." The truth is that scouts raved about his athletic ability and his shooting skills. That same piece suggested that the term "stat-stuffer" has negative connotations, when in fact it refers to a player who can fill up several box score categories. Just before the season, the DDN suggested that Cook may be headed to the NBA Development League, so I can hardly wait to see their story about this game. As the saying goes, don't believe everything you read in the newspaper.

***

I asked an NBA scout to offer an off the record opinion about Miami's acquisition of Ricky Davis and Smush Parker. "They are desperate to bring in athletic talent," he explained. Davis can score but he also takes a lot of bad shots--some of which he makes. He added that, like Davis, Parker is a good athlete. "He needs to settle down and use his head" during games: "All he has to do is listen to Riley and use his athletic ability to do whatever Riley tells him to do." I countered that this sounds fine in theory but that Parker did not heed Phil Jackson's counsel so why would anyone think that he's going to listen to Riley? It's not like Parker was disobeying a fledgling coach who no one respects. My source conceded that since Parker did not respect Jackson's nine rings he may also not respect Riley's five rings. Riley found a good solution for the Parker problem, at least for one night: Parker received the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision).

posted by David Friedman @ 2:57 AM

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Friday, November 02, 2007

You Can Bank(s) on It: Three Marcus Banks Three Pointers Help Suns Rally to Beat the Sonics

The Seattle SuperSonics led at halftime and at the end of three quarters of their game with the Phoenix Suns but--as TNT's Doug Collins suspected--they did not possess the veteran savvy or toughness necessary to seal the deal. Marcus Banks made three three pointers in 55 seconds at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth quarter to erase an 82-73 Seattle lead. Phoenix never trailed again en route to a 106-99 win; Banks finished with 12 points in 14 minutes and posted a +7 plus/minus rating. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Steve Nash overcame a slow start to finish with 18 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. It was not a vintage performance for the two-time MVP, though, as he shot 6-13 from the field and committed seven turnovers. Shawn Marion had a double double (14 points, 11 rebounds), while Grant Hill contributed 13 points, six rebounds and five assists in his debut as a Sun. Kevin Durant had a game-high 27 points in the first home game of his NBA career. He shot 11-23 from the field but still does not display much of a floor game, recording just five rebounds, one assist, one blocked shot, no steals and six turnovers. Chris Wilcox had 23 points and 11 rebounds, helping Seattle to enjoy a 50-44 advantage on the glass and showing once again that teams can punish Phoenix' soft interior defense.

The game was close during the entire the first half, with Seattle claiming a 58-55 halftime lead after Damien Wilkins' buzzer beating three pointer from halfcourt. Durant had 18 points on 7-14 shooting. He connected on pullup jumpers, stepback jumpers and some fast break layups/dunks. Take a look at the score, though; Phoenix likes to seduce its opponents into a run and gun style, figuring that their superior athletes will prevail in the long run in that type of contest. In other words, Durant was not battling in the trenches against physical defenders.

Seattle began to pull away in the waning minutes of the third quarter as Durant took a breather. Wally Szczerbiak scored six points in 27 seconds as the SuperSonics took an 82-73 lead. As Collins said several times during the telecast, Nash and the Suns looked out of sorts. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Banks, a .326 career three point shooter who had just subbed in for Nash, started hitting three pointers like his name is Jason Kapono. The young Sonics never recovered from that barrage, though they did manage to keep the game close. Durant shot 2-7 from the field in the second half before hitting back to back jumpers, one of them a three pointer that pulled Seattle to within 96-93 with 3:44 remaining. He followed that up with two costly turnovers, though--a bad pass and an offensive foul. Nash and Stoudemire scored Phoenix' last 10 points.

The early returns after two games--Seattle lost to Denver 120-103 on Wednesday night--suggest that Seattle is going to play hard and maybe even be competitive for stretches against good teams before ultimately losing due to mental errors and lack of concentration. The fact that Seattle has looked good at times against two playoff teams should not confuse people into believing that the SuperSonics are going to be a playoff team themselves. The season has just begun and the young Seattle players are full of energy and enthusiasm; let's check back in a few months after Durant hits the rookie wall and some of the initial team spirit has been dulled by fairly constant losing. Even Collins, who offered nothing but praise for Durant during the telecast, conceded that Durant is too young to be expected to grab a game by the throat in the fourth quarter and lead his team to victory.

We no longer have to speculate about what Durant's summer league and preseason performances mean, so let's examine what he has done so far in his first two real NBA games. Everyone is so sure that Durant will be great that there is a real need for some objective evaluation. Charles Barkley lent some needed perspective after Ernie Johnson mentioned that the Phoenix-Seattle game would feature rookie "sensation" Kevin Durant; Barkley asked how someone can be a sensation after only one game. Johnson replied that he was referring to Durant's college achievements. They were just engaging in light hearted bantering but Barkley is right: just because someone did well--or even great--in college it is not guaranteed that he will be an NBA star. That said, Barkley believes that Durant will be very good once he puts on some weight; that will enable him to withstand body contact and finish plays in the paint. Kenny Smith noted that Durant already performs well in situations that require finesse but is much less effective when players have a chance to muscle him.

My two critiques of Durant during the summer league and the preseason were that he shot a very low percentage and that he did little to fill out any categories in the boxscore other than points and field goal attempts. Those things held true on Wednesday as Durant shot 7-22 from the field, scoring 18 points. He also had five rebounds, one assist, three steals and one blocked shot. NBA boxscores contain two additional statistics this season: plus/minus, which I discussed in my previous post, and blocks against, which records how many times a player has his shot blocked. Durant had four of those in the Denver game, two more than anybody else on either team and a rather high number for a tall, athletic shooting guard. Obviously, Durant experienced some rookie jitters but despite that it is interesting that his plus/minus of -8 was actually significantly better than any of the other Seattle starters did. The fact that he can get off 22 shot attempts against NBA competition--and is confident enough to keep firing despite all of the misses and blocks--should not be taken lightly.

Durant looked much better against Phoenix. His shooting percentage was good and none of his attempts were blocked. However, there is still the issue that at this point in his career he does not do much other than shoot the ball. He does not rebound in traffic and has little to offer defensively beyond being long armed enough to deflect some balls to get steals. Durant made a nifty bounce pass early in the game that Nick Collison converted into a layup but that turned out to be Durant's only assist. Durant's length and athleticism already make him a difficult player to guard but he nullifies some of those advantages by playing a bit out of control at times, resulting in turnovers and rushed shots. The minutes and the shot attempts are obviously going to be there for him, so Durant will put up numbers but he is not truly an impact player yet at this stage. He is supposed to be a quick study but the advantages he gains by better understanding the NBA game will probably be minimized somewhat as the season progresses and his frail body wears down. Durant's biggest obstacle may very well be some of the ludicrous comparisons that are made in reference to him. Why on Earth did the AP writer who filed the Phoenix-Seattle game story feel it necessary to include the little nugget that Michael Jordan scored 16 and 21 points in his first two NBA games? Jordan averaged 28.2 ppg that year on .515 field goal shooting; he also led his team in rebounding, assists and steals. Durant is not going to approach Jordan's numbers in any of those categories.

LeBron James entered the NBA with a grown man's body; no veterans pushed him around because he was as big or bigger than they were. Jordan was on the slender side but he was wiry strong and much, much more polished than Durant is at this stage. In other words, Jordan and James were largely finished products by the time that they entered the league. They were All-Star level players right from the start--though James did not make the All-Star team as a rookie--and then they tweaked elements of their game in order to ascend to the All-NBA/MVP level. Durant is not a finished product like those guys, which is why I have not joined the herd that seems to take for granted that he will be an All-Star for years to come; Durant will have to both gain weight/strength and improve his floor game to reach All-Star level. Maybe he will do those things but that is not a given. Ralph Sampson entered the NBA as a lean finesse player. He tried very hard to gain weight but could never really keep it on due to the rigors of the long NBA season. He won Rookie of the Year and an All-Star MVP but then he got hurt and never reached the level that he had been expected to attain. Was his physique a factor with his injury problems? No one can really answer that definitively, just like no one can say for sure that Durant will put on--and maintain--the needed weight or that he will expand his game to include more than just shooting. However, I am encouraged by the progress that he has made since summer league and hopefully that is a sign of things to come.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:49 AM

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King for a Day: Tayshaun Prince Leads Detroit to a Victory Over Miami

Tayshaun Prince set his career-high in scoring (34 points) and tied his career-high in rebounds (12) as the Detroit Pistons beat the Miami Heat, 91-80. Both teams played without their All-Star shooting guards: Miami's Dwyane Wade is still at least a couple weeks away from being cleared to play after his offseason surgeries, while Detroit's Richard Hamilton missed the game due to a family emergency. Hamilton's absence placed an added burden on Prince and he proved to be more than equal to the task. Chauncey Billups contributed 19 points and 11 assists but shot just 5-14 from the field. Rasheed Wallace (11 points on 4-13 shooting, eight rebounds) and Antonio McDyess (four points, four rebounds) did not contribute much, so Pistons fans should not treat this win as anything other than a victory over a team that is going to have to fight to get the eighth playoff spot; the jury is still out on how good Detroit really is this year and I suspect that those who place the Pistons among the three best teams in the East are overrating Detroit's playoff prospects. Ricky Davis led Miami with 23 points on 10-19 shooting; the athletic swingman is the main legitimate scoring option that the team has at the moment but his numbers are like cotton candy--nice on the surface but devoid of substance. Davis can easily average 18 ppg this season and thrill Heat fans by putting up 30 or 40 points in some games but he is a subpar performer in most other aspects of the game (three rebounds, no assists versus Detroit). It will be interesting to see how Davis reacts to having his minutes and shot attempts reduced when Wade returns. Shaquille O'Neal was the "Big Zero" in the first half, scoring no points on 0-1 shooting; he finished with nine points on 4-6 shooting, seven rebounds, two assists, no blocked shots and four turnovers. Udonis Haslem had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Jason Williams added 11 points and nine assists.

Miami took an early 10-4 lead, largely on the strength of Jason Williams breaking down Detroit's defense; he made a three pointer and had two assists during that stretch and he finished the quarter with six points and four assists. Detroit's defensive strategy regarding O'Neal quickly became apparent--double-team him and force other Miami players to make jump shots. O'Neal's first shot attempt was blocked by Wallace. O'Neal's post moves look labored and slow and he is not generating much lift or explosiveness. Double-teaming him is a good strategy as long as Miami continues to brick jumpers but if the Heat start connecting from outside it will be very interesting to see what O'Neal can still do against one-on-one coverage. It could very well be that he has slowed down to the extent that at least some teams can get away with not even bothering to double-team him, something that would have been unthinkable in previous years. By the end of the first quarter, Detroit led 26-22 and the Pistons would never trail again (Miami did manage to tie the score once).

O'Neal committed his third foul at the 6:30 mark of the second quarter, bowling over a hapless defender--something that, as TNT's Reggie Miller mentioned, used to be a trademark move for O'Neal and that used to be considered either a no-call or a blocking foul. Coach Pat Riley elected to sit O'Neal down for the remainder of the half. Miami trailed 35-29 at that point and the Heat did not lose any ground by halftime as Detroit enjoyed a 48-42 lead.

O'Neal's charging foul provides a good segue to an issue that has been discussed recently in the comments section to this post at Best Ever Sports Talk: how important is a player's turnover rate in determining his overall value? Although an offensive foul is recorded as a turnover, the other team still has to score against a set defense. On the other hand, if a player throws the ball away or gets stripped then the other team may have an opportunity to score quickly in transition; for example, after O'Neal was stripped of the ball at the 7:33 mark in the third quarter the Pistons scored a fast break layup within five seconds. This is why team turnovers may be an important statistic but individual turnovers must be considered in the context of a player's role (his overall production and how much he handles the basketball) and also in the context of what kind of miscues he committed. For instance, even though Steve Nash has one of the highest turnover rates in the league he is not really hurting the Suns because the team's overall turnover rate is better than the league average; he has the ball in his hands the vast majority of the time--which by necessity limits his teammates' turnovers and leaves most of the ballhandling responsibilities in his capable hands--and when he gives it up then his teammates usually shoot without dribbling much. That means that they are less apt to turn the ball over; he keeps the ball, makes the decisions and therefore the seemingly large number of turnovers that he commits are more than acceptable in light of his total production.

Detroit briefly took an eight point lead in the third quarter but Smush Parker's layup at the 1:13 mark tied the score at 62. The Pistons then reeled off 12 straight points in the next six minutes to take control of the game. Parker made several poor plays during this stretch, forcing shots and turning the ball over when he committed an offensive foul after making an ill advised behind the back dribbling maneuver, leading TNT's Mike Fratello to say, "Pat Riley sees that they're not getting into anything (offensively). The ball is not getting into spots on the floor where they can attack and score. So he has to put Jason Williams back in." Riley did just that, but he left Parker in, electing to remove Davis, who he then put back in a minute later to replace Dorell Wright; Riley does not really have a wealth of options until Wade returns--Penny Hardaway was scoreless in eight minutes of action in his first regular season game in two years. Once Detroit built the double digit fourth quarter lead Miami never again got closer than nine points.

This year, the NBA is including plus/minus statistics in the box score for the first time. This measure, borrowed from hockey, simply shows a team's point differential during the minutes that each player was in the game. Plus/minus statistics can be "noisy" (imprecise) due to factors such as a small sample size of minutes, not accounting for which other players were on the court during the minutes in question (i.e., some players mainly compete against bench players, not starters) and not distinguishing between different phases of the game (such as meaningless garbage time production versus what a player does down the stretch in a close game). On the other hand, they can offer an interesting "quick and dirty" look at which players had the biggest impact--or at least which players were on the court during the biggest scoring runs. Miami's two big offseason acquisitions were Ricky Davis and Smush Parker. Although Davis led the Heat in scoring, they were outscored by 13 points when he was in the game. Parker's conventional numbers were terrible (seven points, 3-9 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, one steal in 26 minutes), and even a casual, uninformed fan watching the game could tell that he made several bad plays, so it is not surprising that he had the worst plus/minus total (-19) by far of any player on either team. This is actually pretty representative of how he played toward the end of his time with the Lakers, which is why I wrote in my Eastern Conference Preview that if Parker plays significant minutes he will cost the Heat five wins.

Let me stress again that one cannot get too carried away over unadjusted plus/minus data--let alone unadjusted plus/minus data from just one game--but if you combine that data with actually watching the game then you can begin to get some understanding. As TNT's broadcasting trio of Fratello, Miller and Marv Albert mentioned more than once, Davis seems to think that the entire Heat offense is simply built around him catching the ball and shooting it. O'Neal, for one, has already voiced his dissent: "We took a lot of jump shots, way too many jump shots. I'd like more than six shots if we're going to win, especially until Dwyane comes back."

Why do I expect Cleveland to bounce back from a horrible opening night performance but blithely dismiss Detroit's win and take such a negative view of Miami's prospects? The first thing that must be noted is that these were just the opening games of the season for all three squads, so it is too soon to make grand pronouncements about anything; I'm just relaying what I saw and trying to project what it most likely will mean down the line. Cleveland's nucleus is young (other than Ilgauskas) and displayed a commitment to defense throughout last season. Also, Cleveland's best player, LeBron James is young and healthy. Miami's commitment to defense is tenuous at best, their young superstar is not healthy and their other superstar is old and, realistically, is not a legitimate superstar at this stage of his career; the Heat should be a lot better once Wade makes a healthy return but there is a limit to what can reasonably be expected from this roster. Detroit's nucleus is aging and is not always on the same page with Coach Flip Saunders. The Pistons' performance level has gone done in recent postseasons, not up. Just based on talent and muscle memory alone the Pistons will easily post a solid regular season record but to call this a top three team in the East seems to be a bit of a stretch. Think about this logically: the "experts" keep saying that Cleveland is horrible and did not improve in the offseason--yet that horrible team beat Detroit in four straight playoff games last summer. Why should we believe right now that Detroit is a top three team in the East? Frankly, even if the Pistons post that kind of regular season record it would still be legitimate to wonder if Saunders can navigate them safely through the early rounds of the playoffs and all the way to the NBA Finals, something that he has yet to accomplish even once.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Not a Treat: Cleveland's Halloween Home Opener Delivers More Chills Than Thrills

The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to the 2007 NBA Finals on the strength of LeBron James' brilliant play plus great team defense and rebounding. Neither of the first two elements were up to par in Cleveland's home opener, a 92-74 loss to Dallas. The evening at Quicken Loans Arena began with the unveiling of the 2007 Eastern Conference Championship banner but by halftime the fans were serenading the Cavaliers with boos and shortly after the 9:00 minute mark of the fourth quarter many of the fans began heading for the exits in disgust. James finished with 10 points, five rebounds, four assists and five turnovers while shooting 2-11 from the field and 6-10 from the free throw line in what may very well rank as the worst performance of his young career; he actually played even more poorly than those meager numbers suggest, because he collected virtually all of his points, rebounds and assists in the second half when the outcome of the game was never seriously in doubt. Jason Terry led the Mavericks with 24 points, nailing six of his eight three point shots, including four of six in the second half; every time the Cavs even came close to threatening to possibly make a run it seemed like Terry hit a dagger from long range. Jerry Stackhouse added 17 points, Dirk Nowitzki had 15 points on 6-15 shooting from the field, eight rebounds and six assists and Devin Harris also reached double figures (13 points on 5-9 shooting). Ex-Cav Desagana Diop, now in shape and mobile, had eight points and 11 rebounds, doing most of that damage in the first quarter as Dallas took command of the game right from the jump. The only Cavalier who played well was Zydrunas Ilgauskas; he led the team in both scoring (17 points) and rebounding (18 rebounds). Drew Gooden had a decent game (12 points on 5-12 shooting, 10 rebounds) and guards Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson (eight points each) nailed some jumpers but did little else. Larry Hughes had an odd stat line: seven points on 2-13 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, seven steals and no turnovers in 36 minutes; his floor game was reasonable but not good enough to make up for that atrocious shooting.

Diop and Terry had eight points each in the first quarter as Dallas raced to a 29-15 lead by the end of the first 12 minutes. James put up a nearly invisible stat line: 0-3 shooting, no rebounds, one assist. Cleveland shot just 7-22 (.318) and provided no defensive resistance, allowing the Mavericks to connect on 12 of 22 attempts (.545). While fans will likely focus on James' bad game and the Cavaliers' poor shooting as a team, Coach Mike Brown offered a different perspective in his postgame standup: "The thing that we have to remember is that we're a defensive team first and that did not show tonight. In the first half we didn't defend at all. We've got to get back to the basics defensively. We need to shrink the floor. We've got to be in the right defensive position in order to help our teammates so they don't get layup after layup or dunk after dunk. It's paramount that we have to defend and then the rest of the game will come eventually." He noted that Cleveland has won 50 games each of the past two years by relying on playing good defense night in and night out, the theory being that even when the Cavaliers shoot poorly they can still be competitive by getting stops.

James picked up his second and third fouls within a 15 second stretch in the second quarter. The Cavaliers trailed 43-25 at that point and Coach Brown elected to sit James for the rest of the half. ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy disagreed with that decision, saying that he does not believe in reflexively benching a player just because he gets two fouls in the first quarter or three fouls in the second quarter. In this particular instance, Van Gundy said that without James the game could get so out of hand by halftime that his foul situation could be rendered irrelevant. Granting that leaving James in would incur some risk, Van Gundy concluded that the risk/reward ratio favored not benching James, particularly because he is an intelligent player who would likely know how to play effectively while in foul trouble. Of course, on this night James' game seemed off regardless of how many fouls he had. The Cavaliers pulled to within 43-30 with James sitting but by halftime they trailed 54-34. In just under 14 minutes of play in the first half, James shot 0-4, scored no points, grabbed no rebounds, had one assist and turned the ball over twice. Anybody can have an off shooting night but it is difficult to recall an instance of a player of his caliber having that little of an impact on a game without an injury being a mitigating factor. The sellout crowd of 20,562 voiced its displeasure very loudly as the teams headed to the locker rooms. As Larry Durstin said to me while we looked at the halftime stats, the fans were saying "Boo" and it had nothing to do with Halloween.

When ESPN's Steve Levy anchors SportsCenter, he will often quip during NBA highlights as a team mounts a comeback, "It's the NBA--everybody makes a run." Well, the Cavaliers never did, unless you count getting within 15 points. For a good portion of the third quarter, Dallas led by more than 20. Back to back three pointers by Damon Jones cut the margin to 67-50 and near the end of the period James made two free throws to trim the lead to 72-57 but then Terry answered with a three pointer and Harris hit a long three pointer at the buzzer to put Dallas up 78-59 going into the fourth quarter. Dallas slowly pulled away in the final period and after Terry's three pointer made the score 84-61 at the 8:47 mark it was like someone gave out an evacuation signal: seemingly all at once a sizable portion of the crowd stood up and left. The brightly lit Eastern Conference Championship banner suddenly looked very lonely.

Short of an injury to James it is hard to imagine a more deflating or discouraging beginning to the season for Cleveland. Anyone can have a bad shooting night but it was strange to see a player as talented as James not impose his will on the game in some fashion; for long stretches you didn't even really notice that he was on the court. Imagine if Kobe Bryant had played like that on Tuesday. However, just because most of the media goes overboard in reacting to and overanalyzing every move that Bryant makes and every shot that he takes or doesn't take (see below for Van Gundy's take on this), it is not fair to dissect James' performance in that fashion. The simple truth is that even great players sometimes just have an off night; if James strings together several games like this, then there will be something to analyze and talk about. Meanwhile, Charles Barkley and other critics of the Cavaliers certainly must feel very justified in their stance now, while my pick that Cleveland will successfully defend its Eastern crown does not look great at the moment. It is important to maintain some perspective here and not race to conclusions after one game. Dallas lost its first four games last year and still finished 67-15; speaking of that, it's not like the Cavaliers lost to the Sisters of the Poor. Dallas is a very good team--first round playoff exit notwithstanding--and I expect the Mavs to battle the Spurs tooth and nail in the Western Conference Finals to determine which team will beat the Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals. Also, the Cavaliers played without key rotation players Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic (though, to be fair, the Mavs were without suspended All-Star Josh Howard). Pavlovic just re-signed with the team and is expected to play on Friday. The bottom line is this: Dallas is very, very good and--unless you believe that James has suddenly and completely forgotten how to play and that the Cavaliers cannot regain their stride defensively--Cleveland is not nearly as bad as this performance suggests. Many people make a big fuss about the fact that several Eastern Conference teams upgraded their rosters while Cleveland basically stood pat--but this ignores the reality that Cleveland proved to be the best team in the Eastern Conference last year. For some reason, everyone acts like that was a fluke but the onus was on the other teams to try to better themselves to knock off Cleveland. It made no sense for Cleveland to make a deal just to make a deal if there was not a real opportunity to improve the team.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him the following question: "Despite making the Finals last year, there are a lot of people who are predicting that the Cavs might not even make the playoffs this year. In a strange way, does that actually provide a motivational tool for you to use with the team to fight against complacency, to kind of have an 'us against the world' philosophy?" He answered, "I've never been a bulletin board guy with newspapers or clippings from TV or magazine articles or anything like that. I guarantee if you go back to last year there were a lot of people who did not pick us to win 50 again or make it to the NBA Finals. A lot of people get paid money to write things and say things on TV. That's great because it is entertaining but I don't listen to it." I followed up by asking him if it is possible that people underrate the Cavs because they simply look at the roster on paper and do not take into account that the team hangs its hat game in and game out on playing good defense to provide a winning foundation. Brown smiled and said that this is certainly the foundation that he is trying to lay (little did we know some of the cracks that would appear in that foundation less than an hour later) and added, "I don't spend time at all trying even to figure out what guys think and say (about the Cavs) or why they are saying it, so I don't know why people think that (the Cavs won't do well this year) and I don't even want to assume why people pick us where they pick us."

***
During the ESPN telecast, Van Gundy offered his take on the Kobe Bryant saga: "Stop already with the Kobe stuff! There should be a moratorium on that right now." Play by play man Mike Breen countered, "This is the number one story," to which Van Gundy replied, "The guy got 27 free throws in a game is the number one story. That guy was on the attack the other night. I'm just saying, can we let a situation (develop)? It's like constant bombardment; I mean, people are taking shots at this guy. He could have had 50 easily if he had not missed so many free throws, with a sore wrist I might add, and without practicing and he looked like he could have played 48 minutes. Sometimes we get so wrapped up--a player's greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. He's passionate, he's competitive. Has he said some things that he would probably would like to take back? Maybe so, but everything is overanalyzed to the point where it is harmful." Breen responded that this media feeding frenzy creates a distraction for the Lakers but Van Gundy does not buy that: "They didn't lose the other night because they were distracted. They lost because they have a very weak starting unit. Think about who is starting around Kobe Bryant: Derek Fisher, Luke Walton, Ronny Turiaf and Kwame Brown. That is not good enough to be a really good team. They miss Lamar Odom badly."

***

The loudest cheers of the night, by far, came during the timeout between the third and fourth quarters when the Cavs' "Scream Team" dancers reenacted part of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Their costumes and moves really captured the feel of that classic video but when your dance team is getting way more applause than your basketball team it is not a good night for the franchise.

***

During a couple timeouts, the huge video screen on the overhead scoreboard displayed some spoofs of Mark Cuban's famous stint on "Dancing With the Stars." After one of these satires, the camera panned to where Cuban was sitting in the stands. He offered a good natured smile and thumbs-up while mouthing, "Go Mavs."

posted by David Friedman @ 8:00 AM

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kobe's 45 Points not Enough, Lakers Fall to Rockets, 95-93

Kobe Bryant scored 45 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, but his L.A. Lakers fell 95-93 to the Houston Rockets after Shane Battier made a three pointer with less than three seconds left. Tracy McGrady led Houston with 30 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. Yao Ming had 25 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Mike James contributed 13 points, while Battier added 11 points before fouling out on the last play, wrapping up Bryant before he could attempt a tying three pointer; that forced Bryant to make the first free throw and intentionally miss the second, which Bryant did. Bryant grabbed the loose ball, but it was slapped away as time ran out. Houston's rookie power forward Luis Scola was largely invisible in his NBA debut, not attempting a shot and grabbing three rebounds in nine minutes. Like all FIBA players (and like NBA players who play FIBA ball for the first time), he must get used to the differences between FIBA and NBA officiating; he committed three fouls in his brief time on the court.

Bryant not only led the Lakers in scoring but he tied for the team lead in rebounds (eight), assists (four) and steals (four), picking up the slack for the injured Lamar Odom, the second best player on the squad. Derek Fisher (17 points on 6-9 shooting, four assists) was the only other Laker to reach double figures in points. Houston outrebounded L.A. 49-37, reinforcing a point that I made during the preseason: "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 Staples Center crowd serenaded Bryant with boos at the start of the game but his performance won them over and they were chanting "Kobe, Kobe" by the end of the game. Bryant can thank Coach Phil Jackson for those boos since they were no doubt largely in response to Jackson's assertion that Bryant is not fully committed to the team. Jackson has always known how to work an audience, while Bryant at times seems tone deaf in that regard; on Tuesday, though, he let his game do his talking. This was Bryant's 10th 40 point effort in his last 18 regular season games; the Lakers won seven of the previous nine such games as Bryant carried the team to a playoff berth last spring. No one could watch this game from opening tip to final buzzer and doubt Bryant's commitment to the team and to winning basketball games. That is not the same thing as saying that Bryant's performance was without flaws--far from it: he shot 13-32 from the field and 18-27 from the free throw line. He also wore a sleeve from his elbow to his wrist to keep his right (shooting) wrist warm; the wrist was noticeably stiff and balky and it clearly affected his game: he finished many of his drives to the hoop with his left hand in situations when one might have expected him to keep the ball in his right hand. Also, last year he shot .868 from the free throw line, so his career-high nine misses are highly unusual. If he were not committed would he even have played in this game, let alone drive to the hoop so frequently that he established a career-high in free throw attempts? Bryant also accepted the challenge of guarding McGrady for substantial portions of the game, while McGrady guarded Bryant much less frequently. McGrady ended up with good numbers but a lot of his points were not at Bryant's expense; for example, on one screen and roll play Bryant switched off but Jordan Farmar neglected to bump the cutting McGrady (as TNT's Doug Collins pointed out), enabling McGrady to convert a lob into an easy dunk.

Neither team scored until Bryant's layup at the 9:01 mark in the first quarter. He got off to a quick start, scoring 13 points in the period as the Lakers raced to a 25-16 lead. Houston trimmed that margin to 27-23 by the time Bryant took his first break at the 8:59 mark of the second quarter. When he returned to action roughly three minutes later, the score was tied. A few minutes after that, the Rockets took their first lead of the game and they went up by as much as four before Bryant made a couple great plays. First, he blocked a dunk attempt by Yao, then he dribbled up court and fed Fisher, who drained a three pointer. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant drove baseline and converted a reverse layup. The score was 43-43 by halftime. Bryant had 19 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, shooting 6-16 from the field and 7-10 from the free throw line. TNT's Craig Sager asked him about his state of mind considering everything that is going on and Bryant replied, "I'm ready to play and represent this organization the way that it should be represented." Yao had 13 points and five rebounds, while McGrady had 10 points.

The Lakers got off to a very slow start in the third quarter, making just one field goal in the first 3:10. Meanwhile, McGrady got hot, scoring 14 points as Houston went up by as many as 12. Bryant did not guard McGrady exclusively during this time and one of McGrady's baskets came on a play so bizarre that Collins said he had never seen anything quite like it: the Lakers' Kwame Brown whiffed on a rebound, deflecting it to Luke Walton, who slapped the ball off of the backboard and into the hoop for two points (credited to McGrady because he was the closest Rocket to the play). That looked like just a funny blooper reel clip at the time--but it turned out to be the final margin of the game.

The fourth quarter was a war of attrition, as both teams again started off slowly, just like in the first quarter. Then, as Collins put it, Bryant started putting his head down and driving to the hoop, repeatedly drawing fouls; Bryant apparently realized that his jumper was not on, so he tried to find a different way to score. Bryant split three pairs of free throws but even though the three misses were unusual (and potentially costly in what turned out to be a close game), Collins noted that what Bryant was doing helped the team in two ways: it enabled the trailing Lakers to score with the clock stopped and it put Houston in the penalty with six minutes to go, meaning that every subsequent Houston foul of any Laker would result in free throws (that is one value of having a foul-drawing star that is not reflected in conventional box score statistics). Unfortunately for the Lakers, they started committing fouls, too, and with 1:36 left Houston led 92-80. Bryant scored six points in the next 16 seconds--a three point play followed by a three pointer--to put the Lakers right back in the game as he, Fisher and Luke Walton applied pressure defense that forced several Houston turnovers. Farmar scored on a layup, Bryant snared a defensive rebound and raced downcourt for a a layup and then Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a double-team and passed to Fisher for a jumper that tied the score at 92.

Naturally, Bryant guarded McGrady on Houston's last possession, keeping him from driving to the hoop. McGrady passed to Battier on the wing, who had inexplicably been left open by Walton. Battier's trey enabled the Rockets to escape with the win.

Some people will glance at the boxscore and say that Bryant shot the Lakers out of contention with his low field goal percentage. Certainly no one would suggest that he shot well but it is worth noting that Houston is considered one of the better teams in the West, while the Lakers are supposed to struggle to earn a playoff berth even with a healthy Odom. Another thing to consider is that the Lakers have no real choice other than to have Bryant shoulder a heavy scoring load; Jackson himself realized this in the second half of last season when he told Bryant to start shooting more. Nobody else on the current roster--other than Fisher--has proven that he can even be a consistent double-figure scorer in the NBA, let alone put up 20 or more points on anything remotely resembling a regular basis. That is why Bryant wants out of L.A. in the first place. He understands better than anyone that a team that relies on him to score as much as the Lakers do cannot win a title--but he also understands that if he does not score 35-40 points then this team has little chance to win at all. Once Bryant's wrist heals, his field goal percentage will go back to the .450-.460 range and he will again shoot better than .850 from the free throw line but Bryant faces a long season of having to author superhuman performances just to make the playoffs and lose in the first round.

Asked after the game what he thought of the fans' booing, Bryant replied, "I understand where they're coming from. They didn't really understand the whole situation because I'm keeping my mouth shut like I should." While some of Bryant's shots were off target on this night, that one--directed toward Coach Phil Jackson and Owner Jerry Buss--hit the bullseye. Bryant was roundly criticized months ago for his one day of marathon radio appearances--after the Lakers' season was over--in which he offered seemingly contradictory statements about whether or not he wanted to be traded. Then he met with Buss and the two agreed that in the future such matters should be handled privately. Bryant kept his mouth shut after that and all of the drama and controversy died down until Buss blurted that he is willing to trade Bryant and then Jackson publicly questioned Bryant's commitment, an assertion that was refuted by Bryant's 43 minutes of work--more than any other player on either team--on Tuesday. Why exactly are Buss and Jackson's utterances being held against Bryant? Magic Johnson, a Lakers executive who also offers commentary on TNT, suggested that the Lakers feel betrayed by Bryant because they stood behind him during various situations over the years--but shouldn't Bryant also feel betrayed by his owner, his coach and, most importantly, a management team that has completely and utterly failed to upgrade the roster for several seasons?

Refusing to add more fuel to the fire, Bryant offered the only sensible statement that has been made in recent days about this whole ongoing drama: "The business side of it should remain behind closed doors."

posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 AM

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Spurs Ring in New Season With 106-97 Win Over Trail Blazers

It was a routine opening night for the San Antonio Spurs. First they received their 2007 championship rings and then they beat the Portland Trail Blazers for the tenth straight time, 106-97. While some people speak of a "Big Three" in Boston, the real Big Three--the Big Three that has won two of the last three NBA titles--once again led the way for the Spurs: Tim Duncan had 24 points and 13 rebounds, Tony Parker added 19 points and five rebounds and Manu Ginobili contributed 16 points, eight assists and five steals. Brent Barry provided a spark off of the bench with 12 points. This was a far cry from Miami's listless 108-66 loss to Chicago during the Heat's ring night opener last year. LaMarcus Aldridge scored a game-high 27 points on 12-19 shooting for Portland and Martell Webster chipped in 21 points on 9-15 shooting. Aldridge and Webster each narrowly missed matching their career-highs (30 and 24 respectively). Last year's Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy--battling injuries and Bruce Bowen's defense--had just seven points on 2-10 shooting, though he did have five rebounds and a team-high six assists.

Aldridge got Portland off to a good start by hitting his first two jumpers and then making a hook shot but Parker used his speed in the open court to reel off 11 quick points as San Antonio took a 19-12 lead by the 4:31 mark of the first quarter. Travis Outlaw checked in for Aldridge at that point and he also showcased his jump shot, scoring seven points as Portland rallied to cut the deficit to 29-26 by the end of the period.

Ginobili's three pointer pushed the margin to 39-30 early in the second quarter. A little bit later, Duncan blitzed off seven points in less than two minutes to give San Antonio a 55-39 advantage and it looked like the game might be over by halftime. Instead, the young Trail Blazers kept their poise, made some shots and only trailed 59-49 at the break. Duncan, Aldridge and Parker each had 13 first half points. TNT's Mike Fratello made an interesting observation about the Spurs, comparing their approach to that of a veteran baseball player patiently taking a lot of pitches until he gets one he can hit; the Spurs never rush and never do anything out of character--they stick with their system and execute it very efficiently.

Nearly halfway through the third quarter, the Spurs still led 69-59 but Portland outscored San Antonio 22-14 to get within 81-77 going into the final 12 minutes. Aldridge scored eight points in the quarter. A key momentum shift happened with 2:23 left. Spurs' center Francisco Elson missed a fast break dunk, Portland got the rebound and Aldridge converted a dunk at the other end, a four point swing that left San Antonio clinging to a 73-69 lead.

San Antonio briefly built an eight point lead in the fourth quarter but Aldridge's jumper with 2:01 left made the score 98-95 Spurs. Then Parker took over, nailing a jumper and converting a layup to put the Spurs back in control. A Duncan layup and two Ginobili free throws closed out the scoring for San Antonio. Portland shot 39-78 from the field and battled the Spurs to a 40-40 tie on the boards. The difference in the game was that San Antonio committed just nine turnovers while Portland coughed up the ball 17 times.

What more can be said about the Spurs? They are picking up right where they left off last season. As for the Trail Blazers, it certainly looks like they have a promising young nucleus and if Greg Oden returns to health next year this team could become really good. The one caveat, though, is that every team is going to bring its best game against San Antonio; it remains to be seen if the Trail Blazers will play at this level on a consistent basis.

***Notes***

*Prior to the game, TNT aired a one-hour pregame show. Naturally, the Kobe Bryant saga was a prominent topic. Magic Johnson, who is a Lakers executive, summed matters up very succinctly: "It's a mess." More specifically, he said that one of the problems is that there are too many voices speaking for the Lakers. Johnson recalled that when Jerry West was still running the show that he was the public voice of the franchise. Johnson criticized Bryant for going public with his trade request last summer and Kenny Smith opined that when Bryant did that it made it more difficult for the Lakers to fulfill Bryant's other request, namely to provide him more help if the Lakers did not trade him; Smith suggested that if the Lakers try to make a move now then other teams are going to ask what it would take to acquire Bryant as opposed to figuring out how to hammer out other deals. Charles Barkley, who talked his way out of Philadelphia when the Sixers had a roster much like this Lakers' one that Bryant has complained about, insisted that the Lakers should get whatever they can for Bryant now because if they wait too long then he will opt out of his deal in a couple years and they will get nothing in return. Johnson disagreed, saying that Lakers' fans will not accept Bryant being sent away unless the team gets a legitimate star back; he would like to see the Lakers keep Bryant and try to improve the supporting cast around him. David Aldridge said that a Bryant trade is very difficult to pull off due to Bryant's salary and his no-trade clause that allows him veto power. Both he and Johnson expect Bryant to remain a Laker for this entire season.

*Smith has first hand experience being a solid point guard playing alongside All-Stars and he offered this piece of advice to Boston's Rajon Rondo: learn to say "No." Smith explained that it is the point guard's job to run the team smoothly. Even though Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are unselfish players there will be times when one or more of them come up to Rondo and say that they are open or that they have a favorable mismatch. Rondo must not succumb to even polite pressure and say "no" if the situation calls for it.

*Barkley, Johnson and Smith all stated with conviction that Cleveland will not win the Eastern Conference this year. Barkley went so far as to say that the Cavaliers might not even make the playoffs. Usually when players or teams say that they have been "disrespected" this is just a combination of hype and self motivation but if I were a Cavalier player or coach I would resent that so many analysts--not just the TNT guys--so bluntly call Cleveland's playoff run last year a fluke and dismiss their chances this season.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:23 AM

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

NBA General Managers Predict What Will Happen in 2007-08

For the sixth consecutive year, NBA.com polled NBA General Managers to get their predictions for the upcoming season. You can find the complete results here.

Hitting the highlights, 37% of the GMs picked the Spurs to repeat as champions. Phoenix (25.9%), Dallas (14.8%) and Detroit (7.4%) rounded out the top four, while Boston, Houston, Miami and Orlando received the remaining votes. I also like the Spurs to win it all but I am surprised to see Detroit in the top four and shocked to see Miami get even one vote.

The GMs equally like Boston and Detroit (25.9% each) to win the East, followed by Chicago (22.2%) and Miami (14.8%). Cleveland, Orlando and Washington also got votes. I still like Cleveland despite the two holdouts (unless Chicago gets Kobe Bryant without giving up half the team) but I am surprised to see Miami and Washington get any support.

The GMs like San Antonio (51.9%), Phoenix (29.6%), Dallas (14.8%) and Houston (3.7%) in the West.

LeBron James is the clear winner as the most athletic player in the NBA, getting 46.2% of the vote. Vince Carter (11.5%) finished second, while Kobe Bryant, Shawn Marion and Gerald Wallace (7.7%) tied for third. James seems to be the obvious choice here.

Ray Allen got the nod as the best pure shooter (59.6%), with Michael Redd (11.5%), Jason Kapono (7.7%) and Kyle Korver (5.8%) following distantly behind. Richard Hamilton, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic also received consideration. I'd also go with Allen, whose shooting stroke is a thing of beauty just like Ken Griffey, Jr's swing. Something about Allen that does not really show up on TV but is very apparent if you watch him in person is that he has huge, well sculpted calves; I think that is a big reason that he can so effortlessly and quickly elevate from long distance. My second choice would be Nash, who not only makes a high percentage of shots but also has an assortment of off balance runners in his arsenal. Watching him in person while he warms up before a game is scary.

Kobe Bryant easily wins as the best player at getting his own shot (88.5%). Gilbert Arenas, LeBron James and Tracy McGrady each got 3.8% of the vote. Bryant also got 88.5% of the vote in the category of the best player taking the shot with the game on the line. Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash each got 3.8% of the vote. Bryant is the obvious choice in both categories, as the voting reflected.

The interesting thing is that when the voting turns to defense we largely see a completely different set of names--except for Bryant and Duncan. Bruce Bowen gets the nod (38.5%) as the best defensive player, with Duncan (28.8%), Bryant (9.6%) and Ben Wallace (7.7%) getting most of the other votes. Bowen also is considered the best perimeter defender (53.8%), with Ron Artest (23.1%), Kobe Bryant (19.2%) and Raja Bell (3.8%) getting all of the other votes. Bowen is considered the best on the ball defender (46.2%), beating out Bryant (23.1%), Artest (7.7%) and Kyle Lowry (7.7%). Allen Iverson, who gets a lot of steals but is not universally considered a standout defender, is notably absent from the previous categories but came in first as the best at defending passing lanes (19.2%). Bryant and Caron Butler (11.5% each) tied for second. Duncan easily wins as the best interior defender (46.2%) over Marcus Camby (15.4%) and Ben Wallace (15.4%). These choices all seem reasonable to me.

The GMs think that LeBron James (29.6%) will win the MVP, with Tim Duncan (22.2%), Kobe Bryant (18.5%), Steve Nash (11.1%), Kevin Garnett (7.4%), Dwyane Wade (7.4%) and Yao Ming (3.7%) also receiving consideration. Notice whose name is missing? Dirk Nowitzki, the reigning MVP. That tells you how much his status fell after Dallas' first round loss to Golden State. James looks like a player who will win multiple MVPs and with two key reserves missing he may have to put up big numbers early like Bryant had to late last season. I expect that Bryant will again be the best player but whether or not he wins the award will depend on which team he ends up playing for and what kind of record that team has. If Boston wins at least 50 games then Garnett will get a lot of consideration. Duncan is a valid choice almost every year.

James is the hands down choice as the player who the GMs would pick first to build a team around (59.3%), with Dwight Howard (25.9%), Kobe Bryant (11.1%), Tim Duncan (11.1%) and Dirk Nowitzki (3.7%) getting fewer votes combined than he did. The thinking here obviously encompasses not just current value but also youth, which explains Howard finishing second and Garnett and Nash getting no votes. Wade's injury history probably discouraged voters. Bryant is the best player but if you are starting a team today then you have to choose James because he is so much younger.

Bryant is deemed the player who forces coaches to make the most adjustments (34.6%). Nash (15.4%), Duncan, James, Shaquille O'Neal (11.5% each) and Dirk Nowitzki (7.7%) got most of the remaining votes. O'Neal would have been the easy choice as recently as two years ago but Bryant's ability to seemingly score 40 or 50 points at will is unmatched in today's game.

The GMs largely agree that point guard Nash (85.2%), shooting guard Bryant (92.6%) and small forward James (74.1%) are the best players at their respective positions; point guard Jason Kidd (14.8%) and small forward Carmelo Anthony (14.8%) are the only other players to get more than 10% of the vote at those spots. Tim Duncan wins at both power forward (48.1% to 25.9% for Kevin Garnett and 18.5% for Dirk Nowitzki) and center (48.1% to 33.3% for Yao Ming and 7.7% each for Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal). I agree with the first four choices but would select Yao as the best center.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 AM

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Michael Jordan: "If Someone Interpreted Me as a Tyrant, I'm Pretty Sure They're Appreciative Now"

The fact that Michael Jordan was a dominating and at times overbearing presence on his teams has been well documented, even if the images of him punching teammate Steve Kerr or being confronted by teammate Bill Cartwright never altered fans' adoration of him. In the October 2007 issue of GQ, Jordan tells interviewer Larry Platt that there was a method behind his conduct: "That was leadership. I was the only one there from 1984. I was there when there were 6000 people in the stands. So I took pride in making sure every guy understood what it took to get us to that point, and by no means am I going to allow you to come in and change what we'd begun--the transformation of a city that's never had a championship. I used my criticism, my aggressive language, my aggressive behavior, to make you conform. Some people, like Sam Smith (author of The Jordan Rules), looked at this in a whole different frame of mind. At first I was offended. Then I realized, people don't understand our journey. I bet if you ask anyone now on those teams, they have a greater appreciation for what we achieved as opposed to the method we went by to achieve what we achieved." Jordan tells Platt that it was essential for him to maintain that stance even after the Bulls became perennial champions, saying that if he took a day off then that would have a negative trickle down effect. That is why when I contrast Shaquille O'Neal's work ethic/focus during his career with Jordan's, Russell's and Duncan's that I find O'Neal lacking. O'Neal has always believed that he can take the regular season lightly and then turn it on in the playoffs--but even if that is true for him, it sets a terrible example for other players on the team who are much less likely to be able to just turn up their performance at the drop of a hat (and O'Neal has not always been able to do so, either, which is why he has won fewer championships than he probably could have won).

Jordan credits Tex Winter's Triangle Offense for keeping everybody involved by defining each player's roles but he adds, "The Triangle won't work without a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant." Speaking of Bryant, Jordan recognizes a kindred spirit in the Lakers' star--to a point. Jordan acknowledges that after drafting Kwame Brown and other players as a Wizards executive he learned the hard way that not every player is willing to make "the sacrifices I made" or shares "the tunnel vision I had." Jordan says, "I had to realize that their passion may not be to be a better basketball player. It may be to maximize the financial aspect of it, to get their own shoe line...No one's going to play the game the way you played it and you just have to accept that. If I do see that dedication, I recognize it in an instant. I'd say Kobe Bryant would have some of those characteristics but a lot of the things Kobe does I would never have done." Pressed to elaborate about that last sentence, Jordan refuses: "I ain't going to go further on that one." It is not surprising that Bryant finds it as frustrating to play with Brown as Jordan did during his Wizards comeback.

Perhaps the most bizarre portion of the interview concerns Jordan's passion for racing motorcycles, one of the diversions into which he is now pouring his legendary competitive drive. Jordan not only owns a motorcycle racing team but he talks about personally riding "crotch rockets" and "popping wheelies" on the streets of Chicago in the wee morning hours. Has he not heard of Ben Roethlisberger, Kellen Winslow and former Bull Jay Williams, each of whom sustained serious injuries while riding motorcycles? As the cliche goes, in the battle between riders and concrete, concrete is undefeated.

Jordan explains his notorious unwillingness during his playing career to take public political stances by saying, "My whole life had always been about being the best basketball player I could be. I had absolute tunnel vision--everything was channeled toward that. So I thought it was kind of unfair that people asked me to do something that I wasn't accustomed to doing just because of my profession." He adds that while he felt comfortable helping kids from the Special Olympics or Make-a-Wish that he did not feel comfortable making overt statements about politics or social issues because, "I'd only be setting myself up for someone to scrutinize my opinions, which were limited, because I never channeled much energy into it." It could be argued that prominent public figures like Jordan should speak out about political issues--but Jordan raises a good point: if a public figure is so completely consumed by his job that he is not really well informed about larger issues then it makes no sense and does no good for him to say anything. Not everyone is cut out to be Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown. As more than a few people have noted, it might not be a good idea to increase voter turnout because a lot of the people who aren't voting are not very well informed; the same reasoning could be applied about athletes/entertainers who choose to not step to the forefront regarding political issues: maybe they realize that they have nothing intelligent to say on these subjects because they have not had the time to really study them.

posted by David Friedman @ 7:33 PM

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kobe: "I'm Ready to Play. Period."

Prepare for a new onslaught of Kobe Bryant media overkill focusing on two themes: a possible trade of the Lakers' superstar to the Chicago Bulls and a quote from Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson questioning Bryant's commitment to the team. This site does not usually give much credence to rumors but where there is smoke there is fire and there are indications that the Bulls and Lakers are seriously contemplating a deal. Bryant's no-trade clause gives him veto power over any move but Chicago has enough young talent to put together a package that can be satisfactory to all sides: L.A. would obviously be rebuilding without Bryant and would need an infusion of young talent, while the deal can only work for Chicago if the Bulls retain enough of their core group to be a contender with the addition of Bryant, who would obviously not agree to any trade that guts his prospective new team.

Jackson's broadside is what makes me really believe that the Bryant era in L.A. is coming to an end. In addition to being a great coach, Jackson is a master of office politics and public relations. In Chicago, he rallied the Bulls around him in part by nurturing the players' us versus them relationship with General Manager Jerry Krause (which is not to say that Krause was blameless). In L.A., Jackson understood from the start that he must win Shaquille O'Neal's loyalty and he did a masterful job of that, culminating in making some comments--including some passages in his book The Last Season--that gave many people the erroneous perception that Bryant forced the Lakers to trade O'Neal; when Jackson returned to the Lakers he admitted that this was not true and said that his book was a diary reflecting his feelings at a particular moment and not necessarily an objective view of the overall situation. Bryant accepted this explanation and he and Jackson have seemingly had a closer relationship than ever since then--a relationship that will be tested by this cheap shot by Jackson: "Obviously he hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor. That hurts me a little bit...He was going to work at this thing and [would] put his full being into this. Right now, he's having a hard time doing that." That is the surest sign yet that Bryant is about to be shipped off and Jackson is attempting to shore up his relationship with the Lakers' ownership and management. Until Jackson made that statement on Saturday he had been squarely in Bryant's corner, agreeing with the two-time scoring champion that the team has done a poor job of surrounding him with enough talent.

Not surprisingly, Bryant--whose work ethic and dedication are legendary and have never been questioned by anyone, even his biggest detractors--took great umbrage at Jackson's assertion: "That [should be] the least of his concerns or anybody's concerns. You don't have to worry about that...I'm ready to play. Period. You don't have to worry about me." Bryant's preseason statistics have not been great and he is currently dealing with a wrist injury but he brushed off any concerns that he won't be ready to go when the regular season begins, noting that Jackson has asked him to be more of a playmaker this season: "I experimented with different things. I have a different role this year. It's not something where people should be concerned that I'm going to come out and play like [bleep]. Let's not push the panic button over a couple of preseason games."

When Bryant missed Friday's preseason game due to the wrist injury, Jackson gave no indication that anything was amiss in terms of Bryant's dedication. Jackson's sudden about face says a lot more about him--and about the increasing likelihood that Bryant will be traded sooner rather than later--than it does about Bryant, who was the widely acknowledged leader of Team USA this summer and who carried the Lakers to the playoffs last year by posting the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in the past 43 years.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:00 PM

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