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Saturday, November 24, 2007

LeBron Lifts Cavs to 111-108 Win Over Raptors

LeBron James had 37 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists as the Cleveland Cavaliers improved to 7-6 by beating the Toronto Raptors 111-108. Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones each scored 17 points, shooting 4-8 and 5-9 respectively from three point range. Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 16 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Chris Bosh led the Raptors with a career-high tying 41 points. Jason Kapono scored 17 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter. Jose Calderon, who started at point guard in place of the injured T.J. Ford, tied his career-high with 13 assists.

James now has 13 career regular season triple doubles, including three in the first 13 games this season; the Cavs are 10-3 when he posts a triple double. Some players have what one might call "small" triple doubles (16-18 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) but James has been putting up some "big" triple doubles: 30-plus points and more than 10 in each of the other categories. In his last five games, he is averaging 39.0 ppg (.534 field goal shooting), 10.0 rpg and 9.4 apg. The only other player in NBA history who exceeded each of those numbers in a five game stretch is Oscar Robertson (40.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 10.4 apg from December 26-December 30, 1960). James has scored at least 34 points in each of his last five games, the second best such run in his career (he did this for nine straight games from March 22-April 8, 2006).

Cleveland's defense was horrible in the first quarter and Toronto raced to a 30-21 lead while shooting .579 from the field. Even the rare good defensive play by the Cavs turned out badly in the end; near the end of the quarter, James stole the ball and raced in for an uncontested shot but he took off too soon, was not able to complete a dunk and then he missed a double-clutch layup. It did not look like he did all that much in the first quarter but then a glance at the box score revealed that he had 12 points on 6-12 shooting; the missed layup and the fact that he only had one rebound and one assist made it "feel" like he was not playing well. He can score so easily in the paint that even if he takes and misses a few questionable shots he still ends up scoring a lot and shooting a good percentage.

The Cavaliers settled down a bit in the second quarter and used some hot shooting (.632) to cut the lead to 56-52 by halftime. James was well on his way to a triple double (16 points, five assists, four rebounds) but Ilgauskas appeared to have a chance at a triple double of more dubious value (eight points, nine rebounds--and five turnovers). Bosh already had 18 points, 16 of which he scored in the first quarter. A knee injury has hampered him early in the season and he was averaging just 16.8 ppg and 6.4 rpg prior to this game; his struggles are part of the reason that Toronto started the season slower than expected, so this breakout game for him is a good sign for the Raptors.

James had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds in the third quarter and the Cavs took their first lead of the game (73-72) after he made two free throws with 3:10 remaining. The Raptors had led for virtually the entire game prior to that but they would only enjoy two brief leads the rest of the way. After the first quarter, the Cavs did a very good job of spacing the floor with three point shooters. James would attack the defense off the dribble from the wing or the top of the key and either score or if the defense trapped him then he would pass to Gibson or Jones for an open three pointer. As Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said after the game, "We decided to go small, spread the floor and put shooters out there. When you do that with LeBron he's going to make plays; you just have to be ready to lock and load or catch and drive."

Many people are probably ready to simply hand the Eastern Conference championship to the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers play the newly revamped Celtics for the first time this season on Tuesday but when I asked James his thoughts about that matchup his answer came straight from the Bill Belichick one game at a time school of thought: "Nah, it's too soon. When we play Boston then you can ask me that" (Cleveland visits Indiana on Sunday before returning home to play the Celtics).

This Cleveland team will not be an easy out come playoff time. They are playoff tested and as a group they rely on defense and rebounding, two constants that stand a team in good stead even on poor shooting nights. They outrebounded Toronto 47-28 and, while their defense was not great, they held Toronto to .429 field goal shooting in a tightly contested fourth quarter. That kind of effort, combined with the all around brilliance of James, is what wins playoff series, as the Cavaliers proved last season by upsetting Detroit and making the franchise's first appearance in the NBA Finals. As Coach Brown put it in his postgame standup, "The thing that I am excited about is that we have time. We don't need to be perfect on either side of the ball right now. We take this one day, one game at a time and--I've said this since I've been here--we use the regular season to get better. We do that, and if our offense continues to get better and our defense continues to get better with our focus on that end of the floor then by playoff time we'll be right where we need to be."

Notes From Courtside:

This game attracted a smaller media contingent than usual. Coach Brown got miked up for his pregame standup but then was informed that no one had any questions for him, so he returned to his office. Raptors Coach Sam Mitchell offered brief answers to some perfunctory questions. For instance, this is his reply to a question about what the Raptors have to do the rest of the season: "Play better."


Cavs assistant coach Chris Jent regularly works with reserve center Dwayne Jones prior to each game, dating back to last year (Jones' rookie season). Jent demonstrates various post moves and footwork techniques and then passes the ball to Jones so that he can practice them. Jones has shot 7-11 from the field (.636) and grabbed 27 rebounds in just 97 minutes of action this season but he received a Did Not Play-Coach's Decision versus Toronto, at least in part because Cleveland used a small lineup for extended stretches.


Toronto assistant coaches Alex English and Mike Evans--former teammates with the Denver Nuggets--took turns guarding Carlos Delfino during warmups as the young Argentinean worked on pullup jump shots and various moves to the hoop. Meanwhile, former Maryland standout Juan Dixon sank three pointers from various spots. Dixon, who is listed at 6-3, 165, looks stunningly small next to most of the other players (the average NBA player is approximately 6-7, 230).


As soon as the game ended, Quicken Loans Arena workers took down both baskets and removed the floor in preparation for tonight's American Hockey League game between Lake Erie and Manitoba.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:50 PM


The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Flash Recharges the Diesel, Celtics Romp, Durant Gets Schooled by Nets

The return of Flash has helped to power up the previously sputtering Diesel; Dwyane Wade had his best game of the season and the extra attention he attracted helped Shaquille O'Neal have his best game of the season as the Miami Heat defeated the suddenly slumping Houston Rockets, 98-91. Meanwhile, the three-headed monster in Boston proved to be too much for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers and Kevin Durant continued to (mis)fire from all angles as Seattle lost yet another game. Here are quick takes on several of Friday night's games:

The Score: Miami 98, Houston 91

The Key Stat: Shaquille O'Neal set season-highs in points (26) and rebounds (14), while Dwyane Wade set a season-high in points (31).

The Bottom Line: No player, regardless of how great he is, can get the job done by himself at the NBA level; if he does not have adequate help then opposing teams will simply feed him a steady diet of traps and dare the other four players to beat them. Shaquille O'Neal's presence in the paint induced the Dallas Mavericks to double-team him in the 2006 NBA Finals, providing a lot of openings for Wade to attack single coverage. O'Neal is no longer the player that he used to be but he can still be dominant in short stretches. When he is on the court with the dynamic Wade the opposing team's defense is stretched to the breaking point. Wade made just five of his first 13 field goal attempts but he warmed to the task down the stretch, hitting six of his final 11 shots and scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter, including seven in the final 2:53 as the Heat closed the game out with a 10-5 run.

The Score: Boston 107, Lakers 94

The Key Stat: Boston center Kendrick Perkins scored 21 points on 8-10 shooting and posted a game-high +30 plus/minus rating; his L.A. counterpart Andrew Bynum scored just four points on 2-7 shooting.

The Bottom Line: The "Big Three" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to produce 59 points, 21 rebounds and 16 assists but the hidden reason behind Boston's early season success is great team defense; the Celtics held the Lakers to .422 shooting from the field and Boston ranks first in the league in this very important statistic. Prior to Friday, the Lakers ranked second in defensive field goal percentage but the Celtics shot .506 against them. Even a great night by Kobe Bryant would not likely be enough to overcome that kind of poor defense; Bryant had a slightly below average game by his lofty standards, scoring 28 points on 9-21 shooting, grabbing four rebounds and dishing off three assists.

The Score: New Jersey 98, Seattle 93

The Key Stat: Kevin Durant finished with 12 points on 4-12 shooting; he was also burned several times on defense by Vince Carter.

The Bottom Line: Durant shot his typically poor percentage but he did not jack up quite as many shots as he normally does and that is part of the reason that Seattle only lost by five instead of the nearly nine points that they have typically lost by this year. ESPN commentator Hubie Brown made some interesting observations about Durant during the game. Brown noted that Durant's 6-10 height should give him an advantage at shooting guard but because Durant has no back to the basket game that advantage is largely nullified; meanwhile, at the other end of the court Durant has to chase around smaller, quicker scorers on a nightly basis. Brown added that Durant must gain upper body strength and lower body bulk so that he can hold his ground on the block and finish strongly at the rim. Brown expects that Durant will eventually be a small forward.

When Dan Shulman said that Durant should be used to dealing with double-teams, Hubie Brown pointed out that at the high school and collegiate level Durant could simply elevate over inferior athletes; that is not an option in the NBA and Durant's decision making versus the trap is very poor precisely because he never has had to make such decisions previously. During the Heat-Rockets telecast, Jeff Van Gundy said that he had thought that Durant would be a better rebounder. I noticed these flaws in Durant's game during the summer league and cautioned even at that early stage that if Durant cannot rebound and pass effectively against fringe NBA players during the summer then he would struggle during the regular season--and this has come to pass exactly as I suggested, contrary to what so many "experts" have been saying for months now. During the halftime of the Heat-Rockets game, Bill Walton acknowledged what I have been stressing from the beginning--Durant has some nice tools but he has a lot of work to do mentally and physically to truly be a standout NBA player.

The Score: San Antonio 101, Memphis 88

The Key Stat: Tim Duncan (28 points on 14-17 shooting, nine rebounds) and the Spurs met little resistance in the paint, outrebounding the Grizzlies 48-39. The absence of second leading rebounder Darko Milicic did not help but Memphis has been outrebounded by nearly two rpg this season even though he has played in most of the games so far.

The Bottom Line: My initial preseason thought about the Grizzlies was that they would be much improved simply by virtue of having a healthy Pau Gasol for the whole season--then I saw how softly they played during the NBA Europe Live Tour and I revised my outlook for their prospects downward, which led one Memphis fan site to to award me its "first ever Overreaction Award." This loss dropped Memphis to 3-9. Maybe the Grizzlies will turn their season around but right now it seems like I can trade my "Overreaction Award" in for a "Nostradamus Prize." No hard feelings, guys; I wish the Grizzlies no ill well but I have to call them as I see them when it comes to analyzing games and making predictions. Unlike other commentators, I have neither a personal agenda nor am I part of a television network that must hype up certain players, teams and matchups.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:04 AM


Friday, November 23, 2007

Durant Has the Hype, but Horford is Doing Work in the Paint

With Greg Oden sidelined for the season, Kevin Durant has received by far the most coverage of any NBA rookie. He has scored the most points--and missed the most shots. Here are the rookie leaders in several statistical categories:


1) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.0 (.374 FG%)
2) Jianlian Yi, MIL 9.9 (.432 FG%)
3) Jeff Green, SEA 9.8 (.453 FG%)
4) Daequan Cook, MIA 9.0 (.465 FG%)
5) Sean Williams, NJN 8.9 (.628 FG%)


1) Al Horford, ATL 10.1
2) Jamario Moon, TOR 6.5
3) Jianlian Yi, MIL 6.1
4) Jeff Green, SEA 5.4
5) Sean Williams, NJN 4.6


1) Mike Conley, MEM 4.2
2) Acie Law, ATL 3.0
3) Kevin Durant, SEA 1.8
4) Juan Carlos Navarro, MEM 1.6
5) Al Horford, ATL 1.3


1) Kevin Durant, SEA 33.8
2) Al Horford, ATL 32.5
3) Jamario Moon, TOR 27.4
4) Jianlian Yi, MIL 25.5
5) Jeff Green, SEA 22.2

NBA Efficiency Rating

1) Al Horford, ATL 15.3
2) Jamario Moon, TOR 12.1
3) Kevin Durant, SEA 11.8
4) Jianlian Yi, MIL 11.5
5) Sean Williams, NJN 11.3

Durant continues to receive the most hype but by any objective measure he is not the best rookie. Don't be deceived by his scoring average; Durant is the only rookie who has a green light to shoot at any time from any spot on the floor--and his field goal percentage and his team's record (2-10) show that neither he nor his Seattle Supersonics are profiting from Coach P.J. Carlesimo's decision to turn Durant into "Agent 35, Licensed to Shoot."

Horford ranks in the top 20 in the league in both rebounding and blocked shots. He is averaging 8.7 ppg while shooting .481 from the field. It may be impossible to win the Rookie of the Year award while averaging less than 10 ppg but there is no doubt that he is a more effective player than Durant at both ends of the court.

Yi's shooting percentage is not great but it is better than Durant's; Yi also grabs more rebounds and blocks more shots than Durant.

Sean Williams ranks sixth in the NBA in blocked shots (2.5 bpg) and is shooting well over .600 while nearly averaging 10 ppg. That kind of production in the paint at both ends of the court is more valuable than the one-dimensional game that Durant has right now.

The NBA Efficiency Rating is hardly the definitive word on player evaluation but it is a semi-useful "quick and dirty" tool to make general comparisons. Kevin Garnett has the best NBA Efficiency Rating (31.8). Horford's rating is slightly worse than Udonis Haslem's rating. Moon's rating is virtually identical with Mehmet Okur's rating. Durant, Yi and Sean Williams are keeping company with veterans like J.R. Smith, Jordan Farmar and Kenyon Martin. The bottom line is that none of this year's rookies--including Durant--are even close to playing at an All-Star level.

As a sidenote, it is interesting to look at what has happened so far with the three Ohio State players who were drafted in the first round. With Oden out and Mike Conley struggling before he too was sidelined by injury, Miami's Daequan Cook is putting up the best numbers among Buckeye rookies. This is no doubt a major surprise to his hometown newspaper, the Dayton Daily News, which for some inexplicable reason published a story at the start of the season that suggested that Cook would be sent to the NBA Development League, a bizarre assertion that looked even more foolish after his performance in his very first game. Cook will no doubt have his ups and downs like most rookies, but he has already displayed enough athleticism, shooting ability and confidence to become a rotation player for the Heat.

Note: All statistics are from NBA.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:12 AM


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Agent Zero is off the Case for Three Months

An MRI on Wednesday revealed a cartilage tear in Gilbert Arenas' balky left knee; the resulting knee surgery will cause Arenas to miss at least three months but most reports seem to be glossing over a key word here: "microfracture." Arenas' microfracture procedure was performed on a "nonweight bearing" bone, according to his surgeon, Dr. Marc Connell, but it is obviously not a good thing any time a player who relies on quickness has to have a bone broken in his knee--and that is literally what microfracture means; the resulting scar tissue will, in theory, replace the damaged cartilage.

This injury was not the cause of Arenas' dreadfully slow start this season; yes, he had surgery on the same knee on April 3 but according to Arenas himself the current problem began during last Friday's game versus Minnesota; he says that he reinjured the knee sometime during that contest. Arenas played poorly in the first six games of the season and the Wizards lost the first five of them. The seventh game, a 103-90 victory over the slumping Indiana Pacers, was Arenas' best game this season: 30 points on 9-18 shooting, 11 assists, six rebounds. He put up similar numbers in the next contest, the game in which he reinjured his knee: 27 points on 9-19 shooting, eight assists, four rebounds (and a season-high seven turnovers). Arenas sat out the next two games, both of which the Wizards won, before undergoing the MRI.

In Arenas' eight games so far the Wizards are 2-6 and he averaged 22.4 ppg and 5.9 apg while shooting 55-141 from the field (.390), including 11-52 from three point range (.212). Arenas leads the NBA in turnovers per game (4.9), though it is worth noting that Steve Nash (4.5), Jason Kidd (4.1) and Kobe Bryant (3.9) rank 3-4-5 in that category right now; any turnover is bad, obviously, but the best players handle the ball the most and will inevitably accumulate some turnovers, so the most important thing to consider when looking at those numbers is how many positive things a player does to counteract his mistakes. Clearly, Nash, Kidd and Bryant do more than enough to outweigh their miscues (even though Kidd's Nets are struggling so far this season); it is less clear that Arenas does enough to balance out his sloppy ballhandling.

What will happen to the Wizards now that Arenas will have to miss a substantial portion of the season? Since 2003-04, the Wizards are 143-154 (.481) with Arenas in the lineup and 15-36 (.366) without him. Prorated over an 82 game season, the Wizards are the equivalent of 39.5-42.5 with him and 30-52 without him. Basically, either way they are a below average team. Just for fun, let's look at how Kobe Bryant's Lakers have done with him and without him during that same period: 167-132 with (.559), 17-23 (.425) without, which works out to 45.8-36.2 and 34.9-47.1 respectively. The Lakers have been a below average team without Bryant but a very good team with him. Based on these numbers, Bryant has been worth 10.9 extra wins for the Lakers, while Arenas has been worth 9.5 extra wins for the Wizards. In other words, Bryant has apparently been more valuable to a somewhat stronger team, the significance of that being that the better a team is the harder it is to improve it. An 82-0 team cannot win more games no matter how much you upgrade its roster; by the same token, it is more difficult to improve a 60 win team than a 50 win team and so on--or think of it this way: any decent player who you add to a 30 win team will improve its record somewhat but it is harder to find a player who can help a team go from 35 wins to 46. That may seem like just a trivial matter of semantics but look at last year's playoff seedings: a 46 win team would have been fifth in the East or sixth in the West but a 30 or 39 win team would have missed the playoffs in either conference; those wins between 30-something and 46 are hard to come by and are the difference between making the playoffs and booking a trip to Secaucus for the Draft Lottery.

This comparison between Bryant and Arenas is just something interesting to ponder, not a definitive statement about anything: the sample sizes are too small to make any sweeping conclusions and there are many other things that affected these teams' records besides the presence/absence of Bryant or Arenas, including strength of schedule and injuries to other players, to name just two obvious factors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 AM


Loy's Place Hosts Carnival of the NBA #52: Thanksgiving Edition

A bit delayed but just in time for Thanksgiving, Carnival of the NBA #52 is being hosted by Loy's Place (which is not responsible for the delay but stepped up in a pinch to handle the hosting duties this time around). My contribution is a post that discussed Kevin Durant's shooting woes and lack of an all around game to date--two trends that show no sign of changing soon; in his last two games--two blowout losses--Durant has shot 5-20 from the field while producing three rebounds, three assists and eight turnovers in 59 minutes of action. As I've said many times, the only thing that he does well at the moment is shoot free throws (17-18 in those two games, which is impressive not only for his accuracy but for the number of attempts; at least he is drawing some fouls now, though it is hard to understand why anyone would foul a player who is shooting .374 from the field and .841 from the free throw line).


posted by David Friedman @ 2:00 AM


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Basketball Clinic: Kobe Mentors Bynum, Lakers School Pacers

Leadership is not about being a "rah, rah" guy or about giving good soundbites so that you sound like a nice guy; leadership is about helping an individual or a group of people achieve a common goal. Kobe Bryant is the leader of the L.A. Lakers and he provided abundant examples of his leadership before, during and after the team's 134-114 victory over Indiana at Conseco Fieldhouse on Tuesday night. The Lakers had lost four straight games in Indiana, including what Phil Jackson called a "sad" performance last season, but they ended that streak in convincing fashion, scoring more points than any NBA team has in a single game this season. Bryant had a game-high 32 points while shooting 8-16 from the field (including 5-9 from three point range) and 11-11 from the free throw line. He was easily on track for a 40 or 50 point game--he already had 26 points by halftime--but he only played 31 minutes because the Lakers enjoyed a commanding lead and will need an energized Bryant for the rest of their road trip. Bryant also had six rebounds and four assists. Andrew Bynum had an excellent game, scoring 17 points on 6-6 shooting, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking four shots, including two in a row versus Jermaine O'Neal, a former All-Star who is Indiana's best inside player. Jordan Farmar contributed 18 points (7-10 shooting) and four assists in just 22 minutes. Derek Fisher shot 5-5 from the field and finished with 11 points and three assists; what a world of difference it makes to have a steady veteran as the starting point guard as opposed to undergoing the "Smush Parker experience." Shawne Williams led the Pacers with a career-high 24 points, Danny Granger scored 17 points and Jamaal Tinsley added 10 points and 10 assists.

All told, eight Lakers scored in double figures, including all five starters. What makes that even more remarkable is that the Lakers were shorthanded: Brian Cook and Maurice Evans were not available because they had just been traded to Orlando for Trevor Ariza, who will be joining the Lakers for their next game in Milwaukee. Center Kwame Brown is out indefinitely with a knee injury and Ronny Turiaf is just coming back from an injury. The Pacers kept the game close in the first half by crashing the boards; the Lakers' halftime lead of 71-63 could easily have been more than 20 points if not for this astounding statistic: Indiana retrieved 12 offensive rebounds and outscored the Lakers 22-0 in second chance points. The Lakers held the Pacers to .431 shooting in the first half and .385 shooting in the second half so once they got control of their defensive boards--giving up only six offensive rebounds in the second half--they were able to easily pull away.

Bryant's in-game leadership came in the form of being the best player on the floor, someone whose abilities both offensively and defensively create havoc for the opposition. Watching a team play in person, you are not a slave to the camera angles provided by television or the storylines told by the announcers; you can observe the whole court and really see how a team operates. When Bryant has the ball on offense, the other team's defense is usually "tilted" dramatically in his direction, allowing his teammates to play four on three; it is not an exaggeration to say that many, if not most, of the open shots that they get while he is on the court stem from his presence, whether or not he actually delivered a pass that is recorded as an assist. On defense, Bryant is very aggressive, actively using his hands and maintaining a good defensive stance. At both ends of the court, he is often directing traffic, instructing his teammates where to go and what to do.

Bryant's teammates respect what he says because Bryant puts in the time to understand the nuances of the game--and that leads us straight to the leadership that Bryant demonstrated before the game. It was no accident that Bynum blocked O'Neal's shot twice in rapid succession; Bynum explained after the game, "Working with Kobe before the game, he told me how to play Jermaine; he likes to go to his right shoulder a lot and then he spins back. I was just trying to be ready to bother his shot and I got a couple of them." Some people might assume that a shooting guard can't help a post player's development but clearly this is not true, at least in Bryant's case. This kind of leadership may not earn any p.r. points--unless the media chooses to report it--but it builds team chemistry and helps to win games.

When Bryant emerged from the training room for his postgame standup, I mentioned what Bynum had said and asked Bryant to describe his mentoring relationship with the young center. Bryant replied, "It's just trying to help us win a ball game. He's very bright, so the information that I pass on to him he can quickly process, register and then go out and execute it. He did a great job of it tonight. I just try to continue to guide him. He has a lot of promise and I am trying to help him along as much as I can." Later, Bryant said of Bynum, "He's very competitive. He's quiet but he has a lot of fire inside. When he has matchups like this (against former All-Star O'Neal) or matchups with Yao Ming, he really steps forward and takes the challenge personally and I like to see that. I take a lot of pride in my defense. I've spent many nights studying players, so when he has a big matchup against Jermaine--a person who I've known since I was 16--I have to help him out as much as I can and pass along the little nuances about defense and how he should view playing certain players so he is not just playing with his physical ability but he's using his head as well."

As the other reporters drifted away to file their stories, I asked Bryant this follow-up: "At one point, you were in Andrew's position on the team--you were the young guy out of high school on a veteran team and now this is almost a role reversal. What did you learn from your experience of being the young player on a veteran team that helps you know what to say, when to say it and how to say it to Andrew? It's not just giving the right information; how you present it to him affects how open he will be, as a young person, to receiving it." Bryant answered, "I understand how to communicate to him a little bit more because I was in that position and a lot of times I felt like people really talked down to me, you know what I mean? 'This kid this' and 'this kid that,' that sort of thing, and it just rubbed me the wrong way. So, from my experience of going through that I understand now that I don't want to put him in that position. I want him to feel like he can come in and contribute, that he is valued on this ball club and that all I am trying to do is help him out to be the best that he can be."

I then asked Bryant, "Do you give him advice about how to relate to other players, from your own experience as a young player that maybe you did things, not intentionally, that rubbed veterans the wrong way in some sense?"

Bryant replied, "It's funny, because when I came into the league the age range was completely different. If I came into the league nowadays out of high school I never would have had that problem (because there would be plenty of other young players to interact with). People don't understand that's how young kids behave. This team is different (than the Lakers team that Kobe first joined). We have a lot of young guys here and also I'm here to help him out a lot. We bring him into the group; if we go out to dinner or whatever we do, we include him in it and that is part of it."

Next, I asked, "Do you feel like you weren't included as much when you were a young player? Was that partially because the age difference was much greater?"

Bryant answered, "It's all about age difference. Those guys were 28, 29, 30 years old, married--and I was 17, 18 years old, couldn't go anywhere. A lot of times I felt like I was a burden to a lot of guys and they didn't want to deal with that burden. I don't want Andrew to feel that way."

Notes From Courtside:

During Phil Jackson's pregame standup, I asked him, "In a way, the kind of team that you have now is almost the opposite of the team that you had when you first came to L.A. Back then, you had a veteran center and a young guard coming straight out of high school; now you have a veteran guard and a young center who you are trying to mold into a top player. What did you learn from the earlier experience of coaching the veteran Shaq and the young Kobe that you apply coaching an almost reverse situation now?"

Jackson replied, "Andrew was such an inexperienced player when he came here that everything is just a learning experience for him. Last year was an opportunity for him to play a lot because of the unfortunate situation of our two centers being injured--he was forced into the action, but that gave him a lot of experience and it gave him a lot of opportunities to find out what it is all about. He has worked hard in the offseason to help himself out, to get stronger and to be a better conditioned player. Our players who are around him are very encouraging and very supportive of him. I think that both Kobe and Derek Fisher talk to him a lot about his game and try to help him out a lot. Players look for him because he is a big advantage for us inside."

After the game, Jackson was pleased with Bynum's performance: "I think that he stepped up and played the kind of defense that we would like to see him play. He was aggressive in there."

Earlier in his pregame standup, Jackson offered his initial take on the deal that sent Brian Cook and Maurice Evans to Orlando for Trevor Ariza: "(Ariza) is a 6-8, active, athletic basketball player whose specialty is probably defense...I think that he is still awfully young...We gave up two players who are veterans--experienced players who fit into our system relatively well. We wanted something a little bit different; we know that there is some room being squeezed out with Radmanovic and Turiaf playing a lot at the backup four spot. Cook is a terrific player at the four. With Mo, Mo did a really good job for us last year and we hate to see him go."


Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien offered this simple explanation for what happened in the game: "We got pounded by a very, very good basketball team that seemed quicker at every position. We didn't have the energy necessary to give them any kind of a game. It was not our best defensive effort. When you have a player like Kobe Bryant and a veteran like Derek Fisher, they can space the floor. We needed to find ways to shrink the court defensively and we didn't do it against the (Triangle) offense tonight. We just has a bad basketball game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:35 AM


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Paul Westphal: Celtic Sub Shined Brightly as a Sun

Paul Westphal spent three seasons as a reserve for the Boston Celtics before they traded him to Phoenix for All-Star Charlie Scott in 1975. Westphal quickly emerged as one of the NBA's top guards, making the All-Star team for five straight seasons and earning a spot on the All-NBA team four times. That deal helped both teams make it to the 1976 NBA Finals, where the Celtics triumphed in six games to capture their second title of the post-Bill Russell era. Westphal's quick thinking almost helped the Suns to win the pivotal game five; the Suns seemed to be in a hopeless situation near the end of the second overtime, down one point with one second left and no timeouts but Westphal suggested to Coach John MacLeod that they call a timeout anyway. Under the rules at that time, the Celtics would be awarded one technical free throw but the Suns could then advance the ball to midcourt, giving them a better chance to hit a shot--which is exactly what happened. That story has been recounted many times, including in my profile of MacLeod, but I always wondered how Westphal had the poise and awareness to think of that tactic during such a pressure-packed situation. I asked him that exact question and you can learn the answer--and the complete story of his great career--by reading my article about him (10/4/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below, along with some bonus material that did not appear in the original article):

Paul Westphal averaged 16.3 ppg in 1970-71 for a USC team that finished 24-2. "I remember the first game that we played against UCLA that year," Westphal says. "We were 16-0 and they had just lost at Notre Dame and Austin Carr (who scored 48 points for the Fighting Irish in an 89-82 victory). That was their only loss of the season. It was No. 1 versus No. 2 not only in L.A. but in the country, on national TV. Unfortunately for us, they won that game and then beat us again later in the year. We felt that we had--we couldn't say that we had the best team in the country because we lost to them twice-- clearly the second best team but we were all dressed up with nowhere to go. We knew the rules going in and if we wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament we should have won one more game." USC was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament because each conference could only send one team (after a great Maryland team was similarly excluded in 1974 this rule was finally changed).

The Boston Celtics selected Westphal with the 10th overall pick in the 1972 draft. He joined a powerful team that would go on to win 68 games that season and may very well have won the championship if not for a shoulder injury suffered by John Havlicek during the playoffs. Jo Jo White and Don Chaney received most of the backcourt minutes, which did not leave much time for Westphal, who averaged 4.1 ppg in 8.0 mpg. In 1973-74, the Celtics enjoyed less regular season success--winning 56 games--but won their first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. Westphal scored 7.2 ppg in 14.2 mpg. He was one of just seven Celtics who played in all 18 of the team's playoff games but he logged the fewest minutes by far of those players.

Westphal increased his regular season averages to 9.8 ppg in 19.3 mpg in 1974-75 as the Celtics won 60 games before losing to the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. Perhaps he would have eventually become an All-Star in Boston but fate intervened when the Celtics sent Westphal (and a couple draft picks) to the Suns in exchange for All-Star Charlie Scott, a proven veteran who won the 1972 ABA scoring title before jumping to the NBA.

Scott averaged 17.6 ppg for the Celtics, who won 54 games in 1975-76 and made it to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years--but Phoenix also profited from the deal because Westphal averaged a team-high 20.5 ppg as The Little Team That Could (to borrow the title of Joe Gilmartin's book about the 1976 Suns) went 42-40 but made an improbable run to the Finals, defeating the 1975 champion Golden State Warriors along the way--a story that I previously told in The Man Behind the Suns' Rise. "It was really special to go back into the Boston Garden and play against my old teammates," Westphal says. "It was something that I will never forget...I probably was not as intimidated as I would have been going into the Boston Garden in the playoffs for the first time (as an opponent); having been there on the other side I knew a little bit more what to expect."

The veteran Celtics eventually prevailed in six games. The lasting memory from that series is the epic Game Five, a 128-126 triple overtime victory for Boston. Westphal famously helped Phoenix extend the game by taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. In the second overtime, Phoenix trailed 111-110 with just one second left and no timeouts. Westphal suggested to coach John MacLeod that the Suns call a timeout anyway; the Celtics would be awarded one technical foul free throw but Phoenix could advance the ball to midcourt instead of inbounding from the far baseline. White sank the free throw but Gar Heard made a jumper at the buzzer to send the game into a third extra session. "Really, I just stole that from John McKay and USC football," Westphal explains. "They used to call timeouts when they didn't have any because it was only a five yard penalty and they could stop the clock when they were trying to come back at the end of games. To me, it was just something that translated to another sport. It was what people did when the situation was desperate."

Anyone who watched Game Five will never forget Westphal's unique 360 degree layup, a move that he executed successfully more than once in crucial situations. The 6-4 Westphal had an uncanny ability to improvise ways to get off a shot in a crowd. "I just played around with all kinds of trick shots in my backyard." Westphal says. "It wasn't something that I ever planned on using but if that was the only way to get the shot off and the clock was running down then I would pull something out from deep in my past. It wasn't really something that was planned. I think that experimentation is probably good. You never plan on going in and doing something like a 360 but the more body control you can have, if it comes out at the right time it might bail you out sometime. Dirk Nowitzki does that all the time; he practices wrong-footed shots and off balance shots. Pete Maravich used the same principle with all his ballhandling drills--all kinds of things that you would never do in a game but they do give you more confidence and can pull you out of a jam once in a while."

Westphal emerged not only as an All-Star but also as a First Team All-NBA player in 1976-77, averaging 21.3 ppg (17th in the NBA) and 5.7 apg (ninth in the NBA). He made the All-Star team each of the next four seasons and earned three more All-NBA selections (Second Team in 1977-78, First Team in 1978-79 and 1979-80). The one-time seventh man of the Celtics was now one of the very best players in the entire league. He and 1978 Rookie of the Year Walter Davis formed one of the top duos in the NBA in the late 1970s. "Walter Davis was one of the greatest shooters of all-time," Westphal says. "His shot was perfect. Whenever Walter hit the rim or missed, usually Coach MacLeod would take him out because he figured he must be tired."

In 1978, Westphal ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring (25.2 ppg) and tenth in assists (5.5 apg), while Davis finished ninth in scoring (24.2 ppg). They were the second highest scoring tandem in the league, finishing just behind Pete Maravich (27.0 ppg) and his New Orleans Jazz teammate Truck Robinson (22.7 ppg)--but what Westphal and Davis accomplished is more impressive when you consider three things: they played in 80 and 81 games respectively (Maravich missed 32 games due to injury, which provided more scoring opportunities for Robinson), they shot .516 and .526 from the field respectively (Maravich and Robinson each shot .444 from the field) and they only averaged about 31 mpg each while Maravich and Robinson each averaged more than 40 mpg. On a per minute basis, Westphal outscored George Gervin, who won the first of his four scoring titles.

Westphal does not lament the lost opportunity to possibly duel Gervin for the scoring crown. "I could do the math and realize that it was pretty unusual to score that many points in so few minutes," Westphal says. "My whole career I was never motivated by trying to see how many points I could score. The whole thing was to try to do whatever you could to help your team win. A record that is achieved for the sake of setting a record doesn't mean that much anyway. So to just rack up points or play in the last minutes when the game is decided doesn’t have that much meaning, really. I certainly wouldn't have minded playing more and I think that Walter felt the same way but the coach decided that he was going to parcel out the minutes that way, to have the bench play a third of the game and the starters play two thirds of the game."

The Suns were a perennial contender during those years but they never made it back to the NBA Finals. "One reason would be Bill Walton and another reason would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson," Westphal says. "The other teams got better. I think that the present is always where it's at in the NBA. We had a good young team and we were knocking on the door those other years but sometimes it's an injury, sometimes another team gets loaded up, sometimes you just don't perform as well. Whatever it is, you can never take success for granted." In 1979 and 1980 the Suns lost in the playoffs to the eventual NBA champions.

After the 1979-80 season, the Suns traded Westphal to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, the 1979 Finals MVP and one of the top defensive guards in the NBA. Westphal got off to a good start in Seattle, earning his fifth (and final) All-Star selection before a broken foot ended his season. In 1982, he signed with the New York Knicks as a veteran free agent. Westphal won the Comeback Player of the Year award after the 1982-83 season, but he never completely regained his old form. Westphal spent the final season of his career, 1983-84, as a reserve for the Suns. While his glory days as a Phoenix player were long gone, he would again become the toast of the town just a few years later. "I always wanted to coach," Westphal says. "I went to college and figured that after I graduated I'd be a high school coach someplace. Since I was able to keep playing, I just postponed that but I always wanted to coach."

John MacLeod set a good example for Westphal to follow. "I think that John Macleod was an excellent NBA coach," Westphal says. "He had longevity in Phoenix especially and he coached a few other stops as well, mainly because of his professionalism. He loved the game and he loved to see the game played right. I think that more than anything John's consistency and his professionalism are things that anybody should try to emulate."

Westphal spent three seasons as an assistant coach at the collegiate level and four seasons as a Suns' assistant before being hired as the team’s head coach prior to the 1992-93 season. That was the year that the Suns acquired Charles Barkley in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia. Barkley stormed to the 1993 MVP while leading the Suns to the best record in the league, 62-20. The Suns made it to the Finals for the first time since Westphal and company lost to the Celtics in 1976 but they fell in six games to the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls. Westphal guided the Suns to the conference semifinals in 1994 and 1995 but was replaced in 1996 after the Suns dropped to fifth place in the Pacific Division.

Westphal later became the coach of another of his former teams, Seattle. He led the Sonics to a 25-25 record in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and to a playoff appearance in 2000 before being replaced early in the 2000-01 season. After that, he spent four seasons as the head coach at Pepperdine, compiling a 69-52 record. Prior to this season, Westphal joined Avery Johnson's Dallas Mavericks coaching staff.


Here are a couple bonus quotes from the Suns' All-NBA guard:

***"My favorite player was Elgin Baylor. A lot of people thought that it was Jerry West because I grew up in L.A. watching those guys. I loved Jerry West, too, and I look more like Jerry West but I tried to play like Elgin Baylor. I wish they had better film that they could show from back then. He had amazing body control. He really learned the art of what Chick Hearn called 'hanging in the air.' He could go up and contort his body and change the arc of his shot, change the release point, and really make some spectacular plays."

***"I think that John Havlicek probably was the best two way player that I recall from my era. I played against Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain at the end of their careers and I played against Michael Jordan (in a scrimmage between NBA stars and the 1984 Olympic team) at the beginning of his career--and I played against Oscar Robertson--but the guy who was in his prime who I thought was the best all around player was John Havlicek. I thought that Norm Van Lier was the toughest guy who ever guarded me. There were a lot of players who were tough for me to guard but I think that because of his quickness I had the least chance to have any success at all against Nate Archibald."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 PM


Monday, November 19, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part II

The Boston Celtics finally lost a game but still have the NBA's best record, Kobe Bryant is not leading the NBA in scoring and Kevin Garnett dropped to third in the rebounding race.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 8-1
2-3) New Orleans Hornets, Orlando Magic, 9-2
4-5) Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, 8-2

The Celtics are not going to go 82-0 after all--nor will they challenge the 70 win mark, though I guess that it will take a few more losses to convince some people of that. They are very good but they are not 70 wins good--not even close. Still, it is impressive how quickly they have jelled defensively and how much production they have received from their bench. We expect to see the Spurs and Suns in the top five all year but it is a mild surprise to see Orlando up here and a fairly big surprise (at least to me) that the Hornets are 9-2. Orlando got off to a fast start last year but could not sustain it; the addition of Rashard Lewis and the continued improvement of franchise player Dwight Howard are two reasons to believe that Orlando can stay near the top of the standings. Injuries have been the major downfall for New Orleans the past couple years and star point guard Chris Paul is already dinged up, so it will be interesting to see how long of a run the Hornets enjoy on the leaderboard.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 29.2 ppg
2) Kevin Martin, SAC 28.2 ppg
3) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.4 ppg
4) Tracy McGrady, HOU 26.8 ppg
5) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 25.3 ppg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 24.9 ppg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 24.8 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.2 ppg
10) Joe Johnson, ATL 22.9 ppg

14-15) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg
14-15) Paul Pierce, BOS 22.0 ppg

17) Kevin Garnett, BOS 21.6 ppg

22) Ray Allen, BOS 20.4 ppg

25) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 19.8 ppg

28) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.7 ppg

LeBron James is known as a pass first player but he shoots a lot, too--not that there is anything wrong with that. I suspect that Kobe Bryant will still claim this year's scoring title but there are likely multiple scoring titles in James' future, particularly when he becomes a more proficient free throw and three point shooter. Kevin Martin is without question the best scorer who casual fans may have never heard of--or even seen, since Sacramento does not get a lot of national television exposure anymore. Richard Jefferson is off to the best start of his career. The three Boston stars have almost perfectly divided the scoring load. Until Kevin Durant develops better shot selection and starts shooting a higher percentage it will be very difficult for him to average more than 20 ppg.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.0 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.5 rpg
3) Kevin Garnett, BOS 13.6 rpg
4) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.3 rpg
5) Emeka Okafor, CHA 12.4 rpg
6) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 12.1 rpg
7) Shawn Marion, PHX 11.7 rpg
8-9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.5 rpg
8-9) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.5 rpg
10) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.1 rpg

15) Yao Ming, HOU 9.8 rpg

18) Andrew Bynum, LAL 9.6 rpg
19) Tim Duncan, SAS 9.5 rpg

21) Jason Kidd, NJN 9.3 rpg

25) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

33) LeBron James, CLE 7.8 rpg

39) Kobe Bryant, LAL 7.4 rpg

46) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 6.8 rpg

Dwight Howard and Marcus Camby moved past Kevin Garnett but it will be interesting to see how long they stay ahead of him. Young Andrew Bynum is actually outrebounding Tim Duncan so far this season. That probably won't last but it is a sign that the Lakers are developing a legit supporting cast around Kobe Bryant, who has been venturing into the paint enough as a shooting guard to rank ahead of many forwards and centers, including his former teammate Shaq Diesel, who truly seems to be running on fumes now.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Chris Paul, NOH 10.8 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.5 apg
3) Steve Nash, PHX 10.4 apg
4) Baron Davis, GSW 9.4 apg
5) Deron Williams, UTA 8.6 apg
6-7) T.J. Ford, TOR 8.0 apg
6-7) LeBron James, CLE 8.0 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.6 apg
9) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 7.4 apg
10-12) Earl Watson, SEA 7.0 apg
10-12) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.0 apg
10-12) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg

In just one week, Steve Nash increased his average by more than 1 apg, so it won't be long before he tops this list.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:10 AM


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Box Score Stuffers: LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Dwight Howard

Three players have recently stuffed box scores with some remarkable numbers:

LeBron James missed a triple double by one assist for the seventh time in his career but his performance on Friday in Cleveland's 99-94 win over Utah was not too shabby: 40 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, three blocked shots--including a key swat of a Carlos Boozer attempt late in the game when Cleveland was clinging to a two point lead.

James put up this amazing stat line on Tuesday in Cleveland's 117-116 overtime loss to Orlando: 39 points, 14 assists, 13 rebounds. If you're thinking that a triple double that "big" must be rare you are quite correct: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last player to have a triple double of greater magnitude was Wilt Chamberlain, who had 53 points, 32 rebounds and 14 assists, which is simply abnormal--I mean, seriously, who else in NBA history could do something like that? That's just ridiculous but one of the great things about James and Kobe Bryant is that when they have a big triple double or a string of high scoring games we have yet another reason to recall how great Chamberlain was, because in either category he is usually the last (or only) player who had a better or bigger performance. Elias also notes that a 39-13-14 triple double (or better) has only been accomplished seven times in NBA history, with Oscar Robertson owning the other five such efforts.

Jason Kidd posted his 89th career triple-double as his Nets lost to Orlando 95-70. He ranks third all-time in career triple doubles and will likely not catch Magic Johnson (138) or Oscar Robertson (181) but check out his line on Friday: 11 points, 10 assists--and 19 rebounds, a career-high; that's simply amazing for a 6-4 guard who is not an explosive leaper. Orlando center Dwight Howard also had 19 rebounds in that game, enabling him to become the youngest player in NBA history to reach the 3000 rebound plateau, breaking a mark set by Shaquille O'Neal. Howard is 21 years, 343 days old, while O'Neal was 23 years and change when he snared his 3000th board.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:07 AM