20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Injury Hobbles Kobe Bryant as Warriors Beat the Lakers

The L.A. Lakers have some promising players and the bench has played well this season--but anyone who thinks that Kobe Bryant's contributions are not vitally important to the team's success should have watched the closing moments of Golden State's come from behind 108-106 victory over the Lakers on Friday night. Bryant suffered a groin pull (though some early reports called it a slight tear in his left quadriceps) in the fourth quarter as the Lakers clung to a small lead against a team that they had beaten in 14 of their previous 15 games, including a 123-113 decision last Sunday. Bryant led both teams with 28 points and eight assists in that game while also playing a big role in holding Baron Davis to three points in the second half.

On Friday, Davis struggled for most of the game before scoring eight points in the final 3:19 and delivering a key assist during that time. He finished with 22 points (6-15 field goal shooting), six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Al Harrington also scored 22 points, Stephen Jackson added 20 and Monta Ellis contributed 19 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Bryant had 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals and one blocked shot but he shot just 6-23 from the field, including 0-4 after he sustained his injury. Lamar Odom had 18 points, 15 rebounds and five assists but did not distinguish himself down the stretch, while Andrew Bynum authored yet another double double (17 points on 8-10 shooting, 16 rebounds).

Bryant struggled with his shot during Friday's game even before he got hurt but ESPN's ubiquitous microphones did a good job of capturing the impact of Bryant's verbal leadership on the Lakers' defense; as Coach Phil Jackson noted, this is an exceptional role for a shooting guard to assume because usually a team's defense is led by a dominant big man who is stationed deep in the paint (because all of the action happens in front of such a player, who can call out picks and alert his teammates to everything that is happening).

With Bryant's mobility drastically curtailed in the closing moments, the Lakers truly faced a no-win situation: leave him on the court and hope that he could gut it out and lead the team to victory or relegate him to the bench and count on Odom to take command; as it turned out, neither plan worked. For several possessions, Bryant kept waving to the bench to not take him out of the game but at one point during a stoppage of play he went up to Odom and, according to ESPN's broadcasting crew of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, told him that he would have to step up because of Bryant's injury. On offense, Bryant set screens, directed traffic and missed a few standstill jumpers but it was clear that he could not make any explosive moves; he did manage to sucker Stephen Jackson into fouling him on a jump shot but he only split that pair of free throws, giving the Lakers a 103-98 lead with 2:38 left. Bryant did his best to stay with Davis next time down the court but he got picked off by Jackson; Luke Walton switched but Davis faked him out and buried a three pointer to pull the Warriors to within two points.

Derek Fisher used a Bryant screen to get open on the next possession but Fisher missed a running bank shot. Davis caught the outlet pass at three quarter court and simply blew by the limping Bryant, eventually feeding Jackson for a reverse layup. Phil Jackson decided to remove Bryant from the game with the score tied and 1:27 left, giving everyone a good glimpse of what the Lakers would look like without Bryant. Fisher split a pair of free throws that resulted from a loose ball foul that was committed right before Bryant sat down. The Lakers played decent defense on the next possession but Andris Biedrins tipped in Ellis' missed jumper to put Golden State up, 105-104. Some people say that Bryant is holding Odom back and that the ball should be in his hands more often; well, those people got their wish, a decision that Mark Jackson immediately criticized: "I say bring in your best player and allow him to create a mismatch or get someone else an open shot." Instead, Odom received a dribble handoff outside the three point line with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. He spent the next ten seconds dribbling aimlessly before stumbling into the lane and wildly flinging the ball off of the backboard. Trevor Ariza was wide open on the baseline; granted, Ariza is not a great jump shooter but what Odom threw up had zero chance of going in. After that disastrous possession, Davis hit a three pointer to effectively seal the win for Golden State.

I'm not saying that the Lakers would have automatically won if Bryant had been healthy; Davis made some clutch shots and maybe he would have made them right in Bryant's face--but if Bryant had not been hobbled then Davis would have had a tougher time and the Lakers would not have had two offensive possessions end in an Odom shot that defies description or explanation and a difficult runner by Fisher. Bryant would have either taken those shots himself or created a wide open shot for a teammate by breaking down the defense with dribble penetration. Without Bryant's ability to create off of the dribble on offense and guard the other team's top perimeter player on defense, the Lakers--for all of their improvements--are not a great team or even a good one. Scoring runs by bench players against bench players in the middle of games are great and they provide opportunities to rest Bryant and keep him fresh to close out games but those bench players--or even the other starters--are not going to be taking over late in the fourth quarter of close games. Bynum had a strong game but without Bryant to either attract the defense or feed him the ball he is not a crunch time scoring option at this stage of his career.

In addition to the Kobe Bryant-Manu Ginobili storyline in Thursday night's Lakers-Spurs game, another interesting subplot in that game was the pace, which is always an important factor when Golden State is involved--but not necessarily the way that a lot of people think that it is; I recently pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, teams should not be afraid to run against the Warriors. That led to an interesting discussion in the comments section of that post about the significance of pace as a strategic factor in the NBA. Prior to the Lakers-Spurs game, TNT's Doug Collins listed four keys that he thought would determine the outcome and one of them was tempo (which is another way of saying pace); Collins explained that the Lakers were 11-3 when scoring at least 100 points (studio analyst Charles Barkley added that the Spurs could only win if they kept the score in the high 70s or low 80s, because without Duncan and Parker they did not have enough firepower to score enough in a fast paced game). Sure enough, the Spurs led after a low scoring first quarter (19-18) but fell behind in the second quarter when the Lakers sped the game up to take a 51-43 halftime lead en route to a 102-97 victory.

How did pace figure into Friday's game? Obviously, the Bryant injury skews things, because the Lakers scored just 21 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 28, 26 and 31 in the previous three. However, prior to when Bryant got hurt, we saw plenty of evidence that reaffirms what I have been saying about this. For instance, consider two first quarter plays: first, Odom faced up Stephen Jackson on the wing, held the ball (allowing the defense to get set) and then drove; Baron Davis stripped the ball and five seconds later Ellis converted a fast break layup. On the Lakers' next possession, Bryant attacked the paint with a drive in transition before the defense could get set. Even though he missed his initial shot he was able to get the rebound because the Warriors' defense was all scrambled. Bryant got fouled and made both free throws. When the Warriors set up their half court defense they take advantage of their quick hands and their tenacity to cause problems even though they are undersized and sometimes have mental lapses; in contrast, their transition from offense to defense is much slower than vice versa, so there are plenty of opportunities to score on them in fast break or even semi-fast break situations before they are able to set up their traps and rotations. When teams try to slow the game down against Golden State what happens is that they spend 20 seconds fighting to get off a shot against quick defenders who have active hands--and then the Warriors get the rebound and race down court to score a layup (or an uncontested three pointer) in just a few seconds; that was last year's Golden State-Dallas series in a nutshell, with Dallas trying to fight trench warfare and Golden State answering with a lightning fast attack.

If you think that coaches are not concerned about pace/tempo or if you think that Phil Jackson does not believe that the Lakers can run on Golden State, consider what he said to Ric Bucher after the first quarter, when the Lakers led 28-19: "We've gotten the play at the pace we want. One shot and done (defensively) and we're pacing the game the way that we want to pace it." In other words, he was happy that the Lakers were on pace to score 112 points. You might think that any coach would be happy with that but keep in mind that when the Lakers almost upset the Suns in the 2006 playoffs, Jackson used the "Inside Man" strategy of slowing the game down and going inside because he knew that the Lakers could not beat the Suns in a fast paced game. Most teams have to slow the game down against the Suns because the Suns are so efficient in an uptempo game; the Warriors' shot selection and accuracy are not as good as the Suns', so it is possible to successfully run against them.

The next part of the interview had nothing to do with pace or anything else in this post but it is too funny to not reprint here. Bucher asked what would be the key to limiting the Lakers' turnovers and Jackson smiled wryly as he offered this priceless answer: "Don't bring the ball in traffic. Kobe's having a hard time handling it right now. It's a highly pumped ball. It's a taut ball, so it's a little bit quicker than usual." Bryant had two assists and three turnovers in the first quarter and when Bucher later asked him what adjustment he made to stop turning the ball over (Bryant had two turnovers in the last three quarters), Bryant did not use the "taut ball" defense but simply said, "Hold on to the damn ball."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:33 AM

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Game Within the Game: Kobe Bryant Outduels Manu Ginobili as Lakers Topple Spurs

Kobe Bryant had 30 points, seven rebounds, three assists and four steals as the L.A. Lakers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 102-97. Bruce Bowen led the Spurs with 22 points, one short of his season-high--achieved in the Spurs' 107-92 win against the Lakers on November 13--and just two fewer than his career-high. The shorthanded Spurs were missing both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, which created an interesting subplot for this game: how would Manu Ginobili do against Bryant without having the benefit of Duncan's presence in the paint? According to some statistical systems, Ginobili was a more efficient player than Bryant last season. Of course, those numbers don't take into account that Ginobili's productivity is compressed into fewer minutes than Bryant's and sometimes takes place against the other team's reserves because Ginobili is usually a sixth man, not a starter; we don't know what kind of numbers Ginobili would have put up last season if he had played 40 mpg, let alone if he had done so as a starter and without Duncan's support during a lot of those minutes--but, at least for one night, we received some answers to those questions.

In the November 13 meeting between the Spurs and the Lakers, Duncan played and, even though his shooting statistics were not great, he had a +14 plus/minus rating during his 30:30 of action. More importantly, because the Spurs' rotation was intact Ginobili was able to come off of the bench and play just 26:41, during which time he scored 17 points on 6-12 shooting while also contributing four rebounds, five assists, two steals and no blocked shots with just one turnover. Meanwhile, Bryant logged more than 38 minutes during that game, scoring 18 points on 9-19 shooting while contributing nine rebounds, five assists, three blocked shots and two steals while committing three turnovers.

Things were more than a little different on Thursday. Without Duncan and Parker to provide support, Ginobili started and played nearly 35 minutes, scoring 14 points on 5-17 shooting, adding six rebounds, three assists, no steals or blocks and seven turnovers. Note that both Ginobili's total production and his efficiency went down, not up, with additional minutes. Bryant again played more than 38 minutes and in addition to the statistics cited in the first paragraph he shot 10-24 from the field and only had one turnover. More importantly, with both stars on the court during crunch time in the fourth quarter, the Lakers outscored the Spurs 16-11 from the 6:30 mark until 1:09 remained (Ginobili went to the bench at that time and the Spurs added a couple meaningless jumpers in the waning seconds). Bryant had seven points and one assist during that game deciding stretch, while Ginobili shot 0-3 from the field and had the ball stolen from him once by Bryant, after which Bryant drove down court and made a slick feed to Ronny Turiaf for a dunk that put the Lakers up 97-86.

Of course, a complete evaluation of Bryant or Ginobili cannot be made on the basis of the two games they've played against each other this season. Ginobili is without question an All-Star level player and he is putting up the best numbers of his career so far this season. However, as good as Ginobili is, he is not at the same level as Bryant. Ginobili has never averaged 30 mpg for a whole season and he has only started 211 of his 382 career regular season games. It is much different to play a little more than half of a game--including a good portion of that time against the other team's reserves--and be productive as the second or third best player on a team than to play 40 mpg as a team's only All-Star who must not only lead his squad in scoring and assists but also frequently guard the top perimeter threat on the other team, particularly in the fourth quarter. Ginobili is a marvelous player, a joy to watch, and he fulfills his role on the Spurs to perfection--but he would not last long or be very productive if he were asked to carry a fraction of the load that Bryant has for several seasons now.

It is worth noting that Ginobili averaged 37 ppg and 6.0 apg while shooting .467 from the field as the Spurs won the first two games that Duncan missed but, including the Lakers game, Ginobili scored 13.5 ppg on .290 shooting while averaging just 2.0 apg and committing 12 turnovers as the Spurs lost the next two games. On the other hand, Bryant has shown throughout his career that he can be very productive at both ends of the court despite playing heavy minutes. Keep in mind that last season Bryant posted the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in the past 43 years and that he averaged nearly 6 rpg and more than 5 rpg in those games while playing good enough defense to earn selection to the All-Defensive First Team. Ginobili's contributions in limited minutes on a championship team last season are certainly commendable but it is unfounded to assume that he would maintain that level of efficiency while playing significantly greater minutes; it is also incorrect to ignore that Ginobili neither guards nor is guarded by the opponent's best perimeter player as frequently as Bryant assumes both of those roles for his team. Bowen usually handles the toughest defensive assignment for the Spurs and Ginobili usually plays at least his initial minutes against the opponent's bench players, though he is of course also usually on the court during key fourth quarter minutes--albeit he is well rested by that time, a luxury that Bryant rarely has.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM

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Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?

Gilbert Arenas is an All-Star, he has a popular blog and he is a fun-loving player who is a fan favorite. He is also the most overrated All-Star in the NBA. Note carefully how that sentence was phrased; I'm not saying that he is a bad player or even that he does not have All-Star level talent--but last season this guy was pumped up by the adoring media (including NBA.com, USA Today and the Washington Post, among others) as a top MVP candidate. The Wizards had the best record in the East for about a minute and a half while Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto worked through various issues but most people seem to forget that the Wizards had already fallen to 39-34 before Arenas and Caron Butler suffered season-ending injuries. As strange as it may sound, the best thing that happened to maintain Arenas' reputation is that he got hurt and did not play in last year's playoffs, because for some reason a lot of people assume that the Wizards would have beaten the Cavaliers if Arenas had played--even though the Cavs eliminated the Wizards in the first round the previous year and even though the Cavs had clearly improved since then, as they demonstrated by beating Detroit four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Arenas got hurt again this season but Butler did not--and what has happened since Arenas was sidelined would be damaging to Arenas' reputation as an MVP-level player if members of the media simply reported what their own eyes should clearly be able to see. The Wizards started out 3-5 this year before Arenas injured his knee and they have gone 9-5 since he has been out, including a 104-91 victory over Miami on Thursday night. Butler, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals in that game, is averaging 22.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 2.6 apg while posting career-highs in field goal percentage (.512), three point field goal percentage (.451) and free throw percentage (.874). Antawn Jamison, who had 16 points and 16 rebounds against Miami, is averaging 21.1 ppg and 10.7 rpg, better than he has done in either category since becoming a Wizard. Great players are supposed to not only produce numbers for themselves but also make it easier for their teammates to get open shots--and that applies even more so to a supposedly elite point guard like Arenas who has the ball in his hands all the time. If Cleveland's recent struggles in LeBron James' absence prove his value--and they do to a certain extent, even though other Larry Hughes and Anderson Varejao were also out of the lineup at the same time--then doesn't the Wizards' success without Arenas at least suggest that maybe he is not quite as valuable as so many people think?

Here are two mitigating factors that Arenas-lovers might bring up: (1) Arenas was not completely healthy early in the season, so the 3-5 record does not reflect how the team would have done with him at full strength; (2) the Wizards may not be able to sustain their current level of play. I don't buy the first point because, as I noted, the Wizards were 39-34 last season before Arenas and Butler suffered their season-ending injuries and they were 42-40 the year before that with all three guys being healthy. The fact is that the Wizards have been mediocre for quite some time despite flanking Arenas with two legitimate All-Star level players. As for whether or not the Wizards can sustain their current pace, obviously no one can answer that for sure--but, watching them play, it does not look like a fluke that they are playing well.

During the Washington-Miami game, TNT's Reggie Miller said this about Arenas' replacement, Antonio Daniels: "I think he balances them out...When you had the three-headed monster you never knew where the shots were going to come from. Daniels gives them that balance. He understands that he is going to get the other guys involved and take his opportunities when they come to him." Later, play by play man Kevin Harlan observed that the Wizards seem to be more patient on offense without Arenas. "Very true," answered Miller.

It is obvious that the Wizards are not just treading water without Arenas but that they are playing much better without him--but that does not fit into the conventional wisdom narrative, so alternative explanations have to be sought: "When Gilbert Arenas is there, they are definitely a better team," Charles Barkley said during TNT's postgame show. Then he made a correct observation that completely contradicted his first statement: "They have much better movement of the ball (without Arenas). You saw Caron Butler say that. They have some good players on that team." Let's get this straight: the team has better ball movement without Arenas and is winning much more without him--but the Wizards are "definitely" better with him? That makes no sense.

Kenny Smith offered this defense of Arenas' value: "I don't think that we should be misguided to think that they're a better team without him. He is a guy who is a finisher, so in big games against great teams he is the one guy who can get his shot and make a play when no one else can. If you play a San Antonio, you might steal a game because he is a guy who in the fourth quarter can make two or three baskets. He brings that electricity, he brings that finishing element, to a team that is pretty good." It is true that Arenas has hit some big shots during his career but the overall numbers show that he shoots a lousy percentage and his team--which we now know has a lot of talented players--has had a mediocre record with him for quite some time. How do we know that Butler could not be a "finisher" in "big games"? Anyway, the Wizards are always around .500 with Arenas, so how many "big games" do they figure to play in during his career?

Barkley countered Smith by saying, "What he has to learn is--I always told myself that I was going to get every shot in the fourth quarter because I'm going to be a finisher--that's why he has to get Caron, Antawn, (DeShawn) Stevenson involved in the first couple quarters. Those guys can play...Great players, their job is to get other guys shots...I agree that they are not better without him but he's got to be a finisher but when your point guard takes a lot of shots the other guys are like--"and Barkley slumped his shoulders to pantomime their frustration. Smith responded that Arenas is really a shooting guard and Barkley agreed but noted correctly that Washington has been using him as a point guard.

The most accurate statement that has been made about the Wizards is a quote from Butler that appeared in Thursday's USA Today: "You look across the board, everybody playing has gotten better since Gilbert went down." I'm sure that Butler did not mean to take a shot at Arenas but rather to praise how much his teammates have stepped up but think about the literal meaning of what he said: everybody is playing better without Arenas--how could that possibly happen if Arenas is in fact the MVP not just of his team but the entire league? Would everybody on the Suns play better if Steve Nash were out for a month? What about the Spurs and Tim Duncan?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:27 AM

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Steve Nash the Best Athlete in the NBA?

Athleticism is often defined very narrowly. In the context of basketball, athleticism is usually understood to refer primarily to explosiveness laterally (quickness) and vertically (jumping ability); in football, athleticism usually is defined by one's performance in the 40 yard dash and in the bench press. However, this kind of thinking leads to a lot of stereotyping and superficial analysis, usually along racial lines--i.e., Larry Bird being praised for his cerebral skills while Michael Jordan is commended for his athletic ability. The reality is that Bird was a phenomenal athlete, possessing superb hand-eye coordination, quickness for a step (a concept that will be explained below) and better jumping ability than most people seem to think; compare his blocked shot totals to those of legendary leaper Dominique Wilkins (Bird has the edge, with 755 blocks in 897 games compared to Wilkins' 642 blocks in 1074 games)--and while Bird did not have the broad jumping ability of a Julius Erving, he was more than capable of playing above the rim to get rebounds and even throw down some dunks (albeit ones that fans would term "generic"), particularly early in his career.

Last week, while covering Phoenix' 121-117 win over Indiana, I discussed the subject of how to best define athletic ability in a basketball context with Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni, former player/current broadcaster Dan Majerle, Suns President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Steve Kerr and Steve Nash (Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien's thoughts about this can be found by clicking on the above link). Here are those interviews, interwoven with some additional thoughts and observations of my own:

Friedman: "Sometimes people talk about the difference between athletic ability and skills but when they talk about athletic ability they pretty much confine that to running fast and jumping high and then they make a distinction between that and the ability to pass or shoot. What is your take on that? Do you define shooting ability and passing ability as just ‘skills’ or isn’t there an athletic component there as well?"

D’Antoni: "There is a little bit of a blurred line but those things are also an acquired skill. You can learn to shoot. You can’t learn to be fast; your body only permits so much--you can’t grow to be 6-9. There are some athletic traits that are just natural ability. Eye-hand coordination probably is an athletic ability. Being able to shoot real well or having the muscle memory to do certain things—there is a little bit of a fine line in there. I think that most people think that athletic ability is just running and jumping and how quick you are and the other stuff are possibly learned skills."

Friedman: "But don’t you think that the people who are the best shooters and the people who are the best players have certain traits that may be harder to define than just running or jumping but are also forms of athletic ability as well? Obviously, I’m thinking of Steve Nash, because a lot of people may say that he is not athletic."

D’Antoni: "Well, that’s where they are wrong because he is really athletic. He can pick up a hockey stick and be great; he is great at soccer. He is great at racquetball and tennis. He has athletic ability but you are right (about the perception of him). He’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest guy but he might be the most athletically skilled guy."

Friedman: "That is exactly the point that I am getting at. When someone says that Nash is not as athletic as this guy or that guy, I say that he might not jump as high but athletic ability is more than that. I’m actually not sure that he is not above average in quickness; I think he’s above average in quickness."

D’Antoni: "He’s pretty good. He’s good. He can’t outrun, from end line to end line, many guys on the team but for one step--his athletic ability comes from the anticipation of when to make that step. If I’m racing you and you get to say go then you are going to beat me if we are only racing one or two steps, even if I might be fast enough to catch you in 100 yards. Steve is like that. He can anticipate and he knows how to go."

Friedman: "In basketball you don’t very often have to beat someone in a full court race. Most of what happens in basketball that is significant happens in a confined space and if you get that one step over a person he doesn’t have 90 feet to recover."

D’Antoni: "You are right but I think that if both players started at the same time there are a lot of guys who would outquick him. He always starts before they do, because he knows when to go and how to go and he can anticipate what’s happening better. A little bit of his muscle twitch or his ability to be able to (anticipate), you know what I’m saying? There is a difference there."

Anyone who watched Phoenix' 103-98 victory over Utah on Wednesday saw a perfect example of this on a play in the first half: Nash used a pick to get half a step on Deron Williams, then Nash received an inbounds pass and slipped in a layup under the outstretched arms of Carlos Boozer. Williams is undoubtedly faster than Nash and Boozer is bigger, stronger and a better jumper than Nash but in a confined space--and with a "head start" based on the ability to anticipate or read a play--Nash beat both of them. That is an athletic play, even if Nash did not throw down a dunk that got replayed ten times on SportsCenter. Back to the interview:

Friedman: "So you think that he might be slower than many guys but—"

D’Antoni: "Like Larry Bird. Larry Bird, nobody ever stopped him even though he’s not the fastest guy in the world. He knew when to go, the angles to go and all of that stuff. That is a little bit of a learned ability but you have to be athletically gifted because at this level everybody is a great athlete. Now you’re talking being physically gifted for running and jumping, there are some guys who are just physically gifted for that and somebody like Steve who is very athletic can learn skills that make him even better than maybe he should have been."

Friedman: "Another thing that I think of as an athletic ability that a lot of people don’t mention is something that could be called ‘hands,’ which covers a lot of areas--the ability to catch, the ability to pass. Some guys can run and jump really well but their hands are so terrible they can’t do anything. Elaborate on that subject a little."

D’Antoni: "I’m not a scientist or a doctor or whatever but some guys have soft hands and some guys don’t. Some have great eye-hand coordination and some guys don’t. Those are athletic tendencies or abilities."

Friedman: "Obviously, you have been around the game a long time as a player and as a coach. Have you ever seen someone who when you first met him had what you might call 'bad' hands and then at some point that person developed 'good' hands?"

D’Antoni: "No, not really. You might see some improvement over the years but never to the point where you’d label him as someone who has ‘good’ hands. You either have 'good' hands or not."

Friedman: "So that is something that is an athletic ability."

D’Antoni: "Yes, it is."

Friedman: "Anyone can tell if someone is fast or has a great vertical leap; that is something that is obvious and you don’t have to be specially trained to see that. 'Hands' is a more subtle thing."

D’Antoni: "I think that just knowing how to play the game is an ability or talent that you are born with. It is like playing cards. Everybody knows the basic rules of a card game but then you have really good players who have an ability to assimilate things; I don’t think that you teach that finite thing of being a great card player."

Friedman: "Do you think that ability to play games is a sport-specific thing? From your observations, if someone has the knack to be able to play basketball does that translate into other sports?"

D’Antoni: "Usually it translates; if you are talking about eye-hand coordination (in basketball) then you will also be good at racquet sports or anything like that. You will have traits that carry from one sport to another and maybe other traits that don’t, although they don’t come to mind real quickly. Eye-hand coordination covers a lot of games."

Next I spoke with Majerle.

Friedman: "A lot of times people make a distinction between 'athletic ability' and 'skills' but I think that they make a mistake by defining 'athletic ability' too narrowly: they usually just mean running fast or jumping high. As a former player and as someone who gets to see Steve Nash play on a regular basis, what do you think of those distinctions? I think that Steve Nash is an excellent athlete even though he is not a high jumper or a fast runner."

Dan Majerle: "You’re crazy if you don’t think that Steve Nash is a heck of an athlete. I always think of athletes as guys who not only can jump and run and do those things but also guys who can play a bunch of different sports, guys who can play baseball, who can play golf, who can play football, who can play soccer like Steve does. If you are good at all of those types of different things then I think that you are a good athlete and Steve is one of those guys; whatever sport he tries, he’s good at it. He may not be the strongest or the fastest or jump the highest, but you put him in any competitive situation or any kind of other sport and he will more than hold his own. He’s just got such great body control and his central core, his strength and those kinds of things are amazing."

Strength is not the first thing one thinks of with Nash, primarily because bigger guards like Chauncey Billups or Deron Williams can use their size to back him down--but Nash is wiry strong and this strength reveals itself in subtle ways. A good illustration of this is a play that took place with a little less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter of Wednesday's Phoenix-Utah game. Nash dribbled down court at full speed and Matt Harpring picked him up at the top of the key. Without breaking stride, Nash drove hard to the left, got all the way to the rim, stopped, jumped off of his right foot while fading backwards, and then made a short bank shot over Harpring's outstretched arms. There are several important things to understand about why this was such an athletic move: (1) Harpring is 6-7, while Nash is 6-3; (2) Nash is right handed and most right handed players are more adept at jumping off of their left leg; (3) Nash stopped and jumped so quickly--and with just the right amount of fade--that Harpring could not recover. If Nash had dunked over Harpring, then the play would be shown five times and everyone would talk about how athletic Nash is--but what Nash did is an extremely difficult athletic play and he does those kinds of things on a regular basis; that is why he can shoot such a high percentage despite playing in a league in which so many players are allegedly more "athletic" than he is. If you don't think that this move took athletic ability, then the next time you are on a basketball court, try it yourself--it's not nearly as easy to do as it may sound or look. Back to the interview:

Friedman: "Would you agree that a lot of people define athletic ability too narrowly, only using a couple of the most obvious traits, like running and jumping?"

Majerle: "Yeah, definitely; if you look at a guy and call him an athlete just because he runs fast and jumps high--I don’t believe that at all. I think that is very, very narrow; he may not be able to throw a football or do anything like that, so just being able to run and jump does not make him an athlete."

Friedman: "Would you say that being able to shoot really well is an athletic ability or a skill set or some combination of the two?"

Majerle: "I think that it’s both. You have to be an athlete but it also takes a lot of practice. I think that anybody can become a good shooter. I really do--with practice and good fundamentals, anybody can become a good shooter."

Friedman: "But that raises an obvious question, because there are some guys who have been in the NBA for years and they are still poor shooters. Why do you think that is the case? Not to single out anyone in particular but we can all think of certain guys who are not good free throw shooters. Do you think that is because they haven’t worked on it?"

Majerle: "No, I think they work on it but they just don’t get it sometimes; it doesn’t click for certain guys for whatever reason. Guys like Shaq, maybe his hands are too big or whatever, for some reason it just doesn’t click for him. He makes up for it in other ways; obviously, he’s a great player and he can score, he just can’t shoot the ball real well."

Friedman: "Then you have a guy like Dr. J, whose hands are as big as anybody’s and he shot almost 80% from the free throw line."

Majerle: "Yeah, or you have a guy like Yao Ming (a 7-5 center who shoots better than .800 from the free throw line). Like I said, sometimes guys get it and sometimes they don’t."

Steve Kerr won five championships in a 15 year NBA career and he holds the all-time record for career regular season three point field goal percentage (.454). Now his job is to try to evaluate talent and put together the right mix of players to help the Suns win the franchise's first NBA title:

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about athletic ability they limit it to two very specific things: being able to jump really high and being able to run really fast. I think that leads to the misconception that someone like Steve Nash or, previously, Larry Bird, is not that athletic. As a former player and someone who is now in management, how do you look at this question of defining what constitutes athletic ability?"

Steve Kerr: "Being a slow white guy who couldn’t jump, I prefer to look at other attributes that constitute athleticism (Kerr chuckles before turning serious). I think that when you look at Nash in particular, balance is such a huge part of his game. Hand-eye coordination and balance may be things that the average person does not associate with athleticism but you can see that there are guys who can really run and jump who can’t make a shot from three feet away; are they more athletic than a guy who is slower and can’t jump but can make shots and do all kinds of things on the floor with his vision and his balance? I don’t know. It’s a word that is open for interpretation, I think."

Friedman: "Would you agree that it is probably too narrowly defined?"

Kerr: "Yeah."

Friedman: "It is defined by very obvious, dramatic things that anybody can see—'Oh, that’s athletic'—but to actually be functional as an athlete and to be able to perform as an athlete you have to have these other skill sets that are harder to measure or harder to appreciate."

Kerr: "I would agree with that. Having played in the league for 15 years, I came across an awful lot of guys who could jump out of the gym or run like the wind and yet they didn’t make the team because it didn’t translate. The so-called athleticism has to translate into whatever sport the player is playing. It translates through other mediums, like we talked about, through balance and through knowledge and through an understanding of how to play. People can be athletic without being good basketball players."

Friedman: "But can you be a good basketball player without being a good athlete? That’s almost the core of the question that I am asking, because I don’t buy the idea that Nash is not a good athlete."

Kerr: "No, if you’re in the NBA, you’re a good athlete. Everybody in the NBA is a great athlete."

Friedman: "Even the supposedly non-athletic guys."

Kerr: "Yeah. Trust me, I was always known as one of the least athletic players in the NBA."

Friedman: "Which I’ve always felt is a bit of a misnomer--and not just with you, but in general. There is a range of athletic abilities represented in the NBA but everybody who is there is a good athlete."

Kerr: "Yeah and there are different forms of it. Hand-eye coordination is a huge part of it."

Friedman: "I want to ask you about a specific aspect of that, which is the word in general: 'hands.' People will say that 'player x'—for instance, Tim Duncan—has 'great hands.' Then there are other players, I won’t mention any names, who have 'bad hands.' I asked Coach D’Antoni about that. I’ll ask you the same thing that I asked him: have you ever seen anyone, either as a player or a talent evaluator, who did not have good hands and then at some point in the future he developed good hands?"

Kerr: "No. I think that it’s a lot like jumping."

Friedman: "It’s an athletic ability."

Kerr: "Yeah. If a guy can’t jump now then he probably won’t be able to jump later--unless he gets those platform shoes they advertise in the basketball magazines."

Friedman (laughing): "I’m not sure those work, either."

Kerr (laughing): "I’m not either. The one thing that guys can improve is shooting--with enough repetition. Terry Porter became a great three point shooter by the end of his career. Magic Johnson became a solid three point shooter."

Friedman: "But even with that, wouldn’t you say that to become a truly great shooter a person must have some kind of athletic ability to be able to practice and develop that trait? I don’t think that you can just take anybody and make them a great shooter. You are talking about someone who is a great athlete and then he is practicing but he has a base of athletic ability to work with."

Kerr: "I guess I’m saying that some people are capable of getting better but they are already pretty good to start with. I think that Shaq can shoot 1000 free throws a day and I just don’t think that it is wired in his body to athletically put the ball through the hoop from range. It is the hardest part of the game for him."

Friedman: "It is so perplexing to see that he can’t do that one thing as well as almost anyone who played high school basketball and can make 70 percent of his free throws."

Kerr: "It was the same thing with Wilt."

Friedman: "Right. It’s not just Shaq."

Kerr: "Tim Duncan has a hard time with it."

Friedman: "Duncan is almost more mystifying because he has good hands and he can make that bank shot. With him, you really think that it’s--I mean, I don’t know."

Kerr: "Mental."

Friedman: "Strange."

Kerr: "I don’t know. A friend of mine has what he calls the 'ball and stick' theory. He says that if you want to figure out if a guy is a good athlete, give him a ball and a stick--which to me is just another name for hand-eye coordination. If you put a golf club in his hands, can he hit the ball around decently? If you give him a baseball bat, can he go to the batting cage and hit the ball consistently? There are some people who can run and jump but 'ball and stick'—they are not great."

Friedman: "By that theory, just to kind of put a bow on everything, Nash is a very good athlete. Coach D’Antoni talked about that Nash can play just about any sport."

Kerr: "Any sport. He’d probably be a scratch golfer. He could probably bowl 300. He just sees it and he does it."

Friedman: "From that standpoint, even though it might surprise the average fan, he might be one of the better athletes in the league--on the 'ball and stick' theory."

Kerr: "If you go by 'ball and stick' theory, he might be the best athlete in the league. Those are generally the guys who can shoot and dribble and pass with either hand. He’s definitely in the upper echelon of the 'ball and stick' theory guys."

Naturally, I sought out Nash's take on all of this:

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about athletic ability they seem to pretty much limit that to jumping and running. I think that there is a lot more to athletic ability than just those two things and I am interested in your perspective on that."

Nash: "Yeah, I mean in this league I am not going to win many races or jumping contests or weightlifting contests but I’m sure my athleticism is expressed in different ways."

Friedman: "Talking to Steve Kerr and Coach D’Antoni, they mentioned things like your balance, your vision, your hands--that those things are really athletic skills and athletic abilities as well."

Nash: "Court vision, rhythm, balance, timing, agility, creativity I think are all parts of athleticism, not just explosiveness."

Friedman: "Steve Kerr mentioned something to me that he called the 'ball and stick' test for athletic ability: if you give someone a ball and a stick--a baseball bat or a golf club--what can he do with it? He said that from that standpoint you might be the best athlete in the league or at least one of the better athletes. What do you think of that?"

Nash: "I think that you have to incorporate everything. You can’t just say that athleticism is explosiveness. It’s explosiveness, it’s coordination, it’s balance, it’s all of those things--like I said, even timing and creativity. Obviously, I think that there is a lot more to it...but it doesn’t really matter."

He smiled as he uttered the last sentence, almost like he did not want to say too much. I have always thought that it is advantageous for Nash that he does not "look" like a great athlete; that leads to people underestimating what he is capable of doing (and possibly heightens the credit that he receives for his accomplishments because people are wrongly surprised). Nash seems to combine a certain self-deprecation with a quiet confidence; while he readily acknowledges his relative lack of speed or jumping ability he also plainly realizes that his other athletic gifts--such as hand-eye coordination, balance, court vision--more than compensate for his shortcomings.

It would make much more sense for writers, broadcasters and analysts to define exactly what they mean when they use the term "athletic." Instead of saying that someone is "athletic," be specific: say that he jumps high or runs fast or has good hands. Otherwise, the word "athletic" too often is just a meaningless cliche or a codeword with a racial undertone; after all, how many white players are called "athletic" and how many black players are called "cerebral"? Steve Nash is certainly a cerebral player but he is also athletic and that should be brought to the forefront more often; sadly, that requires a level of depth in analysis that does not fit in with 30 second highlight clips, game stories filed under deadline or the way that the print and broadcast media in general are structured--but that does not mean that we should just completely give up trying to understand basketball in that manner.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:59 AM

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Welcome Back: James, Varejao Return, Hughes Scores 36 as Cavs Beat the Pacers

Everyone who penciled the Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic or Detroit Pistons into the NBA Finals better have some erasers or liquid paper handy. As LeBron James warned everyone last week, "Teams better get their wins against us now. They're trying to kill us and talk trash about us now because we have guys who are out but when we get our guys back it's going to be a different story." James is more than capable of delivering on those words--he's no Anthony Smith.

LeBron James returned on Tuesday night--and he brought along a couple friends as his Cleveland Cavaliers snapped a six game losing streak by beating the Indiana Pacers, 118-105. James wore a glove to protect his injured left index finger and did not start for the first time in his professional career but he had a very significant impact, as his game-high +27 plus/minus rating suggests. He finished with 17 points, five assists and three rebounds and the only time that the finger or glove seemed to be an issue is when he was unable to control an alley-oop pass with his left hand. Larry Hughes scored a game-high and season-high 36 points in just 26 minutes, shooting 13-17 from the field in just his second game back after missing more than three weeks with a leg injury; Hughes' plus/minus number was +24. Anderson Varejao contributed six points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes in his season debut and his plus/minus number of +17 hints at the fact that his value is not completely captured by box score numbers alone; he provides energy, defense and toughness. Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 23 points, adding six rebounds and five assists.

Regular Cleveland starters Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden were joined by point guard Eric Snow, shooting guard Shannon Brown and small forward Sasha Pavlovic, who usually plays shooting guard. That unit helped the Cavs take a 15-11 lead at the 5:59 mark. Then the cavalry arrived: James, Hughes and Varejao entered the game at the same time. My first thought was that it was clever to have James and Varejao come into action together so that the Cleveland fans would not boo Varejao for his extended holdout. After the game, James said, "I thought it would raise the intensity of the fans, having me, Larry and Andy come in at the same time--and it worked. I thought by coming in with Andy it might stop some of the boos Andy might get, just protecting my teammates." Those three players helped Cleveland to close the first quarter with a 22-5 run; for the first time this season, the Cavaliers looked like the team that made it to the NBA Finals last season.

The only blemish for the Cavs in the early going was that several of their perimeter players committed offensive fouls while driving to the hoop. Cavs TV analyst Austin Carr talked about the importance of having the ability to shoot a pull up jumper or a teardrop/floater in such situations; being able to utilize those kinds of shots prevents a player from needlessly picking up charging calls. Carr also predicted that James' scoring average will decline now that the Cavaliers are close to full strength (Daniel Gibson missed this game due to a dental procedure and Donyell Marshall is still out of action) but that his assists and the team's wins will both go up. Carr also offered a very good explanation for Hughes' performance: Hughes natural position is shooting guard, which is where he played against Indiana. Last year, the Cavs shifted him to point guard out of necessity and then kept him there because the team performed well overall even though Hughes was playing out of position. He was, as Carr put it, "a victim of his own success." Hughes often is the target of fans' wrath due to his large contract and frequent injuries but the reality is that the Cavaliers have consistently been much better with him in the lineup than they have been when he is out of action. This game provided a glimpse of what he is capable of doing when he is healthy and Cleveland fans have to hope that he somehow can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him for several seasons.

The Pacers opened the second quarter with a quick 10-0 run as the Cavaliers missed three shots and committed another offensive foul but Indiana was not able to get closer than eight points. James and Hughes combined to score 10 points for Cleveland in less than two minutes as the Cavaliers pushed the lead back to 16 points, 51-35. Cleveland led 65-49 at halftime.

Indiana made another good run to start the third quarter, shaving the margin to 70-61 but keep in mind that James, Hughes and Varejao began the second half on the bench. They entered the game together at the 7:09 mark and less than four minutes after that Cleveland was up 88-64. The Cavaliers led 97-74 at the end of the quarter and were never seriously threatened in the final period. The Pacers may be off of the national radar at the moment but the Pacers won three of four on their recent West Coast road trip and on Friday night they beat the Magic, 115-109; this is an impressive win for Cleveland.

The Cavaliers lost five straight games without James (six overall if you count the game in which he got hurt and played less than a half). Does that prove that James has a terrible supporting cast? Not necessarily--it depends how you define your terms. People often debate the quality of the supporting casts that surround various NBA stars but to answer that question accurately one really has to evaluate two different things: (1) what a given player is capable of doing on his own, particularly in terms of creating his own shot; (2) whether a given player is able to capitalize on the open opportunities that are inevitably available to someone who plays alongside a star who commands double teams. Cleveland does not have a lot of players who fit into the first category but the Cavs have several players who belong in the second category.

During Cleveland's recent struggles sans James, Varejao was out and Hughes missed all but one of the games, so the Cavaliers were not only missing their very best player but also two others from their top six; the cumulative effect of the absence of that much talent would cripple any team. Another thing that is important to understand is that players like Damon Jones and Daniel Gibson may not be able to create much for themselves but they are perfect complementary players for James because they can hit open shots when James is double-teamed. The Cavaliers don't have many players who can create opportunities for themselves--as Charles Barkley keeps saying, they could use a top flight point guard--but that does not mean that they have a bad team; they have a lot of players who can be productive playing alongside James, plus the Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao frontcourt is very formidable defensively and on the glass.

It is tempting to say that James carried a bad team to the NBA Finals. Certainly, the Cavaliers roster is not perfect and James had a tremendous playoff run but it is not correct to dismiss the talents and contributions of his teammates, players who may not be able to create much on their own but have the correct skill sets to take advantage of the openings that James' presence creates. If James were truly on a bad team then Cleveland would struggle even with him in the lineup and the Cavaliers certainly would not have made it to the Finals last year.

Pundits regularly dismiss Cleveland's chances this season, criticize General Manager Danny Ferry for not upgrading the roster and even question if the team will make the playoffs. The underestimation of the overall strength of this Cavaliers team will turn out to be one of the biggest stories of this season--assuming that the team remains reasonably healthy the rest of the way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 AM

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part V

Even without the injured Tim Duncan, the Spurs have kept winning--five in a row overall and nine of their last 10--and they are now just a half game behind Boston for the best record in the league. Another injured star, LeBron James, retained his lead in the scoring race, while emerging MVP candidate Dwight Howard slipped past Marcus Camby and into the top spot in the rebounding battle. Steve Nash pulled further ahead of his competitors in the assists race by stringing together some season-high efforts in that category.

Best Five Records
-------------------

1) Boston Celtics, 17-2
2) San Antonio Spurs, 17-3
3) Phoenix Suns, 16-5
4) Orlando Magic, 16-6
5) Detroit Pistons, 14-6

An interesting battle is raging between the Celtics and the Spurs, each of whom have won nine of their last 10 games. Utah lost three in a row to drop out of the top five, replaced by the Pistons, who have won eight of their last 10 games and now have the third best ppg differential in the league, trailing only the Celtics and Spurs. The Magic have been surprisingly mediocre at home so far (5-4) and have lost two games in a row. They faded last year after a good start, so this situation bears watching, although I do not expect them to completely collapse this season. There is an interesting symmetry that is worth mentioning: Kevin Garnett's new team has the best record in the NBA and his old team, Minnesota, has the worst record (3-15).

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
------------------

1) LeBron James, CLE 30.7 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.2 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 25.3 ppg
4) Tracy McGrady, HOU 25.2 ppg
5) Richard Jeffferson, NJN 25.1 ppg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 25.1 ppg
7) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 24.7 ppg
8) Kevin Martin, SAC 24.5 ppg
9) Michael Redd, MIL 24.0 ppg
10) Dwight Howard, ORL 23.5 ppg

14) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

16) Deron Williams, UTA 21.2 ppg
17) Manu Ginobili, SAS 21.2 ppg
18) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 21.1 ppg

23) Kevin Durant, SEA 20.3 ppg
24) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.2 ppg

26) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.5 ppg
27) Ray Allen, BOS 19.4 ppg

The injured James retains the top position, though he will eventually be dropped if he misses enough games to fall below the minimum requirement; he likely will return to action before that becomes an issue. The Lakers are healthy (other than Kwame Brown) and have found a good rhythm with Bryant scoring 27-28 ppg, so it does not look like he will need to string together 40 point games--for now. Iverson rocketed all the way up to third after a series of strong performances but since he plays alongside another top scorer it is unlikely that he will win another scoring title. Deron Williams jumped up to 16th place; he has averaged 31.6 ppg in his last five games, including a career-high 41 on Saturday versus Dallas. Manu Ginobili has averaged 27.0 ppg in his last five games, including a pair of 37 point performances as the Spurs beat Dallas and Utah without Tim Duncan. Kevin Durant has averaged 23.0 ppg in his last five games, including two 35 point games, both of which Seattle won. He is making progress but those two games were sandwiched around a six point game in which he shot 2-12 from the field. Durant shot a combined 21-40 from the field in his 35 point games but he shot just .395 overall in his last five games. He also averaged 5.4 rpg and 2.6 bpg but just 1.2 apg in those games. The bottom line with him still has not changed since the summer league: he has some good games and he has some bad games but his overall shooting percentage is subpar and, while he shows flashes of other abilities (such as the recent shot blocking splurge), his game is one dimensional for the most part.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.0 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.8 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.7 rpg
4) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.4 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.3 rpg
6) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.1 rpg
7) Shawn Marion, PHX 11.0 rpg
8) Kevin Garnett, BOS 10.9 rpg
9) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, CLE 10.8 rpg
10) Al Horford, ATL 10.8 rpg

13) Yao Ming, HOU 10.1 rpg

16) Andrew Bynum, LAL 9.7 rpg

18) Ben Wallace, CHI 9.1 rpg

21) Tim Duncan, SAS 8.9 rpg

23) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.7 rpg

27) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg

31) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.8 rpg

48) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.1 rpg

Howard moved into the top position in what figures to be a season-long battle with Marcus Camby. Ben Wallace has overcome his slow start to join the top 20 and at his recent pace he has a good chance to once again be in the top 10 before the end of the season. Rookie Al Horford already is in the top ten. He is not a big-time scorer but he also shoots a much better percentage from the field than Kevin Durant and could average a double-double if he were provided with just a couple more touches per game.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.3 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.4 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 9.8 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 8.9 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.7 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 8.5 apg
7) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 apg
8) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.8 apg
9) Jose Calderon, TOR 7.6 apg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.5 apg

In last week's Leaderboard, I wrote, "Maybe Jason Kidd will actually push Steve Nash for the assists title after all, though I suspect that Nash will get some separation by putting up some 18 or 20 assist games, particularly when some weaker Eastern Conference teams venture west and arrive in Phoenix to play their fourth game in five days." Nash did not hit the 20 mark last week, but he set a new season-high in assists for three straight games (17, 18, 19--all against Eastern Conference teams, though Phoenix was the road team in each case), the first of which I covered in Indiana. James qualifies for this leaderboard and the scoring leaderboard but not the rebounding one, where he would still be in the top 50.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Teams Should not be Afraid to Run Against the Warriors

Many people think that the way to beat the Golden State Warriors is to slow the game down but, as I repeatedly mentioned during last year's playoffs, this is not the case. Check out these numbers from the Warriors' first 20 games this season (including Sunday night's 123-113 loss to the Lakers): the nine teams that beat Golden State averaged 117.8 ppg versus the Warriors, while the 11 teams that lost to the Warriors averaged 100.3 ppg. Although it may seem counterintuitive (because Golden State wants to play at a fast tempo), teams have more success against the Warriors by playing at a fast pace than they do slowing the game down. Playing fast does not have to mean jacking up three pointers or abandoning the inside game: the Lakers shot .531 from the field and selectively utilized the three point shot (8-18, .444), while Golden State fired away from all angles with much less accuracy, shooting .468 from the field, including 8-33 (.242) from three point range.

On the other hand, if you try to run with the Phoenix Suns you will most likely lose, except for the Spurs, whose three stars can play effectively at any pace, as they showed on several occasions in the 2005 and 2007 playoff matchups between these teams. Golden State (110.4 ppg) and Phoenix (110.2 ppg) rank 1-2 in scoring so far this season but there are several differences between the Suns and the Warriors that show why it is wise to run with the Warriors and foolish to run with the Suns. Phoenix ranks second in the NBA in field goal percentage (.495); although the Suns only rank 20th in defensive field goal percentage, they shoot .034 better than their opponents do, which is a big reason that they rank sixth in the NBA in point differential (5.8 ppg--note: the original version of this post listed an incorrect number and ranking for the Suns). Golden State ranks 15th in field goal percentage (.452) and 24th in defensive field goal percentage (.465). The key thing to note is that the Warriors shoot .013 worse than their opponents and only rank 12th in point differential (2.3 ppg--note: the original version of this post listed an incorrect number and ranking for the Warriors). What all of these numbers show is that the Warriors are not as good as the Suns offensively or defensively, even though their team scoring averages are virtually identical.

In Sunday's game, the Lakers scored at least 31 points in three of the four quarters (they had 29 points in the second quarter). Kobe Bryant only scored eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting in the first half and the Lakers still had a 60-59 halftime lead. Think about that: the Lakers were beating the Warriors in a fast paced game even with Bryant not scoring at his usual rate (he did contribute to the Lakers' offense with his passing, making several great feeds to cutters and open perimeter shooters). In the second half, Bryant scored 20 points on 6-10 shooting and was largely responsible for holding Baron Davis to just three points. Bryant finished with game-highs in points (28) and assists (eight) and also had six rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot. His plus/minus number was a game-high +22; Lamar Odom, who contributed 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while playing essentially at the same times that Bryant did, also had a +22 plus/minus number. Davis shot 7-17 from the field and ended up with 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals and one blocked shot. At the 4:41 mark of the fourth quarter, Davis became so frustrated by his matchup with Bryant that he wrapped his arms around Bryant when Bryant tried to cut to the hoop, earning a personal foul and a technical foul; Bryant made two of the resulting three free throws to put the Lakers up, 116-99.

Although the Lakers played at a fast pace, they were still able to utilize the inside scoring of Andrew Bynum, who shot 9-14 from the field and had 20 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots. Lakers Coach Phil Jackson recently criticized Bynum's conditioning and he seems to be playing Bynum in six or eight minute bursts, with plenty of rest in between (Bynum played 28:18 minutes against Golden State). NBA TV broadcast the Lakers' feed of this game; during the second quarter, play by play man Joel Meyers did a brief interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been working with Bynum for quite some time. Abdul-Jabbar likes the progress that his young protege has made but laments that Bynum does not use the sky hook during games. Yes, Abdul-Jabbar has been teaching Bynum the shot that helped him become the NBA's all-time leading scorer; he told Meyers that Bynum has a very good hook shot but lacks the confidence to use it in live action. Meyers asked Abdul-Jabbar to describe the biggest change in the NBA since his playing days and Abdul-Jabbar said that the collective basketball IQ in the league has declined because so many players have entered the league with little or no college experience.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:35 AM

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