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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Stats The Way It Is: A Closer Look at the Lakers, Rockets and Warriors

Roughly a third through the NBA season, here are three statistical nuggets--and what they mean:

1) The L.A. Lakers are 19-10. Do you remember what their record was last season after 29 games? Yes, 19-10--and then they won four of their next five games to improve to 23-11 before finishing the season with a 42-40 record. Why does this season have a different "feel" to it? The one constant with both teams is Kobe Bryant (27.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.1 spg), who continues to be the best player in the NBA, as he has been for the past two seasons; while his statistical production is obviously important, his leadership and the defensive attention that he attracts--creating easy opportunities for his teammates--should not be overlooked.

The 2006-07 Lakers started the season with 17 home games and 12 road games, though they did have a 6-6 record in those road games, a winning percentage that usually leads to a 50-plus win season overall (elite NBA teams expect to win half their road games and 3/4 of their home games); there is a little truth to the idea that the schedule caught up with the Lakers eventually, although a bigger factor was that the roster--particularly the frontcourt--was devastated by injuries.

The big difference that everyone can see with this year's team is that young center Andrew Bynum has turned into a legitimate double-double threat. A difference that is perhaps not as noticed by the casual fan but is also very important is the switch at starting point guard from the unreliable Smush Parker to the steady Derek Fisher, who played on three championship teams with Bryant. The Lakers' bench has played very well so far and was strengthened by the acquisition of Trevor Ariza, who adds length, athletic ability and defense. Will the bench maintain this level of play throughout the season? When--not if--injuries hit, can one or more of the bench players temporarily move into the starting lineup without the team suffering a drop in production? The answers to those two questions will play a major role in ultimately determining how much success the Lakers have this season.

2) The Houston Rockets are 13-12 this season with Tracy McGrady in the lineup and 1-3 with Tracy McGrady out of the lineup; this is McGrady's fourth season in Houston and his career numbers are even more telling: the Rockets are 139-82 with McGrady and 12-42 without him. Projected over an 82 game season, the Rockets would theoretically be 51.6-30.4 with McGrady and 18.2-63.8 without him. In plain English, with McGrady the Rockets are an elite team and without him they are one of the worst teams in the league. McGrady is rarely mentioned as a top five MVP candidate but if winning is the ultimate "value" one could make a case that McGrady is the most "valuable" player because his presence or absence has such a direct, immediate impact on whether or not his team wins. The flip side of this, the reason that McGrady is not often thought of as an MVP, is that McGrady has never taken a team past the first round of the playoffs. However, if you look at each one of the teams that McGrady has carried to the playoffs--and "carried" is not too strong of a word for it, as the above numbers show--none of them were better or deeper than their opponents. Even last year's Rockets team, which lost a game seven at home to Utah, was not a better squad from top to bottom than the Jazz; McGrady--with help from Yao Ming--took a team with no point guard and a suspect bench much farther than it otherwise would have gone. This year's Rockets are roughly a .500 team with McGrady and their lone win without him came on Friday versus the woeful Grizzlies. Houston is the only team in the league that has just two double figure scorers (McGrady and Yao); unless some more help is brought in, the Rockets will continue to do surprisingly well when McGrady plays and be predictably awful when McGrady does not play.

3) The Golden State Warriors are 9-0 this season when they hold their opponents below 100 points--the only team with a perfect record in such games--but just 8-13 when their opponents score at least 100 points. I have often pointed out that teams should not be afraid to run against the Golden State Warriors; another way to put this is that it is virtually impossible to beat the Warriors by playing a slow tempo game. During last year's playoffs, I explained why this is the case: "Golden State is going to run all game long regardless of what the other team does but if the opponent slows the game down then the Warriors can set up all the funky zones and traps that Coach Don Nelson has devised. The Warriors are active and aggressive on defense when they get a chance to set up and when they force missed shots or turnovers then they are off to the races--but if you push the ball at them and try to score before they can organize their defense then you can score a lot of easy baskets and also set up good offensive rebounding opportunities if the initial shot is missed."

The Warriors are second in the league in scoring (108.5 ppg) but just 15th in field goal percentage (.448) and 22nd in defensive field goal percentage (.460). However, as the Dallas Mavericks found out in the first round of last year's playoffs, it is not so easy to score against the Warriors in the half court and the Warriors are very good at converting steals and defensive rebounds into quick scores. If you run against the Warriors, then you are betting that your team will make better decisions and shoot higher percentage shots than the Warriors do--and the numbers show that this is indeed a good bet; if you try to slow the game down against the Warriors, all you are doing is slowing your own team down: miss, make or turnover, the Warriors will be running back at you all game long.

It is true that in general it is tough to win in the NBA today if you score less than 100 or if you allow more than 100. A few years ago the NBA instituted some rules changes to speed the game up. The Warriors' 8-13 mark when allowing at least 100 points is actually the ninth best such winning percentage in the league. The point is that even the Warriors, who specialize in playing an uptempo game, win significantly less than half the time when their opponents also push the pace. The Warriors are 16-8 when scoring at least 100 points; that sounds good but is in fact only the 18th best such winning percentage in the league.

The bottom line is obvious: the Warriors have a below average winning percentage in uptempo games and the best winning percentage in the NBA when their opponents play at a slow tempo.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:14 PM

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Friday, December 28, 2007

The One They Owed Them: Cavaliers Repay Mavericks for Opening Night Defeat

The Cleveland Cavaliers took another step toward regaining the form that carried them to the 2007 NBA Finals, earning an 88-81 road win versus the Dallas Mavericks. The Cavaliers had not won in Dallas since 2000 and were booed on opening night by their home court fans during an embarrassing 92-74 loss to the Mavericks; as Chris Berman (channeling Howard Cosell, as he often does) would say, "I remember because I was there." The formula for the Cleveland win, as usual for this team, consisted of rebounding (56-45 advantage), defense (Dallas shot .365 from the field and scored fewer than 20 points in two quarters) and the all-around brilliance of LeBron James (game-high 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists). This was not a pretty game by any means and the Cavaliers shot just as poorly (.364) as the Mavericks did but good teams are able to win "ugly" games. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Larry Hughes added 17 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Hughes is an erratic shooter and is often the target of boos and derision by Cleveland fans but there is no disputing the fact that this team is most successful when he is healthy. Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard led Dallas with 19 points each; Nowitzki also had a game-high 20 rebounds.

TNT analyst Mike Fratello made an excellent point during the broadcast, reiterating something that he mentioned last week during Cleveland's 94-90 win over the Lakers: continuity is vital to any team's success and three of the top eight players in Cleveland's rotation from last season (Anderson Varejao, Sasha Pavlovic and Eric Snow) missed all of this year's training camp either due to injury (Snow) or holdouts. The Cavaliers hit their stride last season when they had a starting lineup of James, Ilgauskas, Hughes, Pavlovic and Drew Gooden, with Varejao, Snow, Daniel Gibson and Donyell Marshall providing support off of the bench. That rotation (minus the injured Marshall) is now set again, so--as I wrote after Cleveland's recent victory over the Lakers--"it would not be surprising at all if the Cavaliers go on a winning streak or at least put together a run of .700 or .800 basketball to boost their record."

The only dark cloud hovering over the Cavaliers at the moment is the bizarre sideshow centering around little used guard Damon Jones, the self-proclaimed best shooter in the NBA who has scored just 24 points so far in December. Prior to Cleveland's Christmas Day victory over the Heat, Jones declared that he wants to be traded to Miami, adding, "Oh, man, that would be the icing on the cake for me. Especially with the group of guys that they have now, still, some of the key guys that were there when I spent the best year of my career. It would be special. Man, I'm very comfortable with the system. I don't know if I could really say what I want to say, but I would definitely enjoy being back in that system and trying to get back that success we had some years ago." TNT commentator Reggie Miller interpreted that last sentence as a not so thinly veiled shot at Cleveland Coach Mike Brown. Jones escalated this situation by refusing to enter the Heat game in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter and he has reportedly been fined by the Cavaliers for his insubordination. Here's a better idea for the Cavaliers: cut him. This will likely not happen, due to salary cap ramifications and the possibility of the union filing a grievance, but one of the things that is wrong with the NBA today is players not understanding how good they have it. You would think that Jones, who worked long and hard in various minor leagues just to get a chance to play in the NBA, would have the right perspective about this. He really needs an intervention, for someone who he respects to calmly explain to him that he is not in fact the best shooter in the NBA; Jones is a one dimensional role player who should keep his mouth shut and ride the LeBron James gravy train to more playoff success and more financial success than he will obtain anywhere else. Think for a moment how twisted it is for Jones to want to leave Cleveland and go to Miami; the Cavaliers went to the Finals last year and are rounding into form now, while the Heat are a moribund franchise with one star who is banged up and another star who is over the hill. As Charles Barkley quipped, Pat Riley is not thinking to himself that Damon Jones is the answer to Miami's problems. If Jones can't get his head back together and the Cavaliers can't find a team willing to deal for him then they really should bite the bullet and cut him; it simply is not worth it to have that kind of distraction emanating from the team's 12th man. Years ago, Riley coined the perfect phrase to describe Jones' affliction and how it can bring a team down if it is not nipped in the bud: "the disease of me."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sports Illustrated Questions Gilbert Arenas' Value

I recently asked, "Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?" After all, his Washington Wizards started out 3-5 with him, then went 9-5 in their first 14 games without him; they've gone 2-3 since I made that post, so at 11-8 they have stayed above .500 without him for nearly a fourth of the season and that pace projects over 82 games to a 47-35 record, which would be better than Washington has ever done with a healthy Arenas (the recent downturn can at least partially be attributed to an injury to Antonio Daniels, Arenas' replacement). The Wizards were 39-34 last season before Arenas and Caron Butler were felled by season-ending injuries, so it's not like they were tearing up the NBA even with Agent Zero on the case. Arenas' legion of defenders popped up all over the internet to take up his cause, citing Arenas' gaudy individual statistics and suggesting that the Wizards' good fortune without Arenas is either (a) due to the overall improvement of the roster, (b) temporary or (c) a result of a soft schedule. Reason (a) suggests that the team should have done better in the early going even with a somewhat hobbled Arenas, while time will show us whether reasons (b) and (c) have any validity; of course, the latter two reasons somewhat contradict the first reason, which makes it sound like people are grasping at straws to avoid acknowledging that perhaps there are things about the way Arenas plays that are not conducive to building a team that is a consistent winner.

Chris Mannix offers his take on Arenas and the Wizards in the December 24 issue of Sports Illustrated (and, based on my experience, he should expect to receive a lot of, ahem, feedback):

How have the Wizards flourished without their leading scorer and primary ball handler? While Arenas' teammates publicly marvel at his skills, privately they acknowledge that they are much more focused without the eccentric Arenas--a constant locker room clown who lives for the spotlight--in the lineup. "Gilbert has a tendency to break off a play if he sees an opening or wants to shoot," says a scout. "Without him they are running that Princeton offense and they are getting wide-open looks."

Fans don't pay attention to whether or not Arenas breaks off plays and don't consider what kind of an impact that has on the team; they just see him score a lot of points and they embrace his quirky personality. On the other hand, scouts look at the game analytically. Some people who responded to my previous post about Arenas asked how could Arenas' absence be affecting the improved play of the team's big men, particularly on the glass. That may seem like a reasonable question but anyone who understands basketball realizes that inside players tend to play harder when they feel more involved in the offense and at least get to touch the ball once in a while at that end of the court; also, when a player takes shots that are outside the confines of the offense this leads to bad court balance, which can negatively affect a team's ability to rebound and defend.

Mannix mentions how well that Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood are playing. I don't dispute that the Wizards would not be winning games without their production; my point is that great players usually help everyone around them perform better, so it is a bit odd that so many Wizards players are thriving in Arenas' absence. Mannix raises the possibility that if the Wizards continue to do well without Arenas that perhaps General Manager Ernie Grunfeld will consider not re-signing Arenas and Jamison after this season and use the resulting $14 million in salary cap room to try to sign Elton Brand, Shawn Marion or Josh Smith. "The Wizards are obviously a more talented team with Arenas," Mannix concludes, "but thus far they've shown that they don't need him to win."

You know that something is wrong if Arenas' supporters--most of whom are obviously Wizards' fans--have to hope that their team does poorly the rest of the season without Arenas just to "prove" Arenas' critics to be wrong. My main point in my previous post about Arenas was simply that he is overrated and not truly an MVP level player. As for Mannix' contention, I don't know whether or not the Wizards would be better off long term without Arenas but isn't that a question that is at least worth asking? Did I miss the memo that declared Arenas to be an untouchable franchise player on the level of a Tim Duncan?

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 AM

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Chicago Bulls Prepare Their Third Five-Year Plan

The Chicago Bulls have not come close to winning a championship since owner Jerry Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause gave the boot to Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and company in 1998 but they have cornered the market on the NBA version of the five-year plan. Krause, who infamously declared that "organizations win championships," quickly proved that disorganized organizations can't win much of anything.

If Chicago Cubs fans believe in the "Curse of the Billy Goat" then perhaps Bulls fans should consider the possibility that their team is plagued by the curse of "Dorf and Krause" (they might have been better off if Tim Conway's Dorf had been in charge). I've heard of teams telling a coach that he must win or he'll be fired but until "Dorf and Krause" I'd never heard of a team telling a coach that even if he wins he'll still be asked to leave--which is exactly what Krause told Coach Phil Jackson in no uncertain terms when he signed him to a one year deal prior to the 1997-98 season. Some revisionist historians try to rewrite what happened but why do you think that the coaching staff and players publicly called that season "The Last Dance"? Krause could not wait to prove how brilliant he was by chasing off everyone who was actually responsible for the team winning so that he could build a team from the ground up; it turned out that collapsing a team to the ground is pretty easy but building it back up is no simple matter. Krause's first five-year plan began by replacing Jackson with Tim Floyd, Krause's fishing buddy (you can't make this stuff up) who had absolutely no NBA coaching experience. The Bulls plunged from being a 62-20 team that had just won three straight titles to a 13-37 unwatchable eyesore that played some of the worst basketball of the lockout shortened 1999 season (and that is truly saying something). Krause thought that all the money he saved by not retaining Jackson, Jordan and Pippen could be spent on a young superstar free agent of his choosing who would be the cornerstone of a new dynasty--the only problem was that after players saw how shabbily Krause treated the key figures from the first dynasty no one wanted to play for him. Krause then tried to fix the team through the draft. He made a good move by choosing Elton Brand but he later canceled that out by trading Brand to the L.A. Clippers for the right to select Tyson Chandler. Krause thought that Chandler and Eddy Curry--another Krause draft choice--could team up to be a dominant twin tower duo. Throughout all of this, Krause gave no consideration to team chemistry and seemed to be the only person who did not understand that Floyd was completely out of his depth as an NBA coach. The Bulls went 17-65 in year two (1999-2000) of the first five-year plan and then went 15-67 in year three (2000-01). I suppose that, technically, one could construct a worse NBA team--but it would not be easy. Krause shipped off Brand for Curry prior to year four and Floyd resigned/got fired after starting out that season with a 4-21 record. Bill Cartwright took over as coach and the team finished 2001-02 with a 21-61 record and improved to 30-52 in 2002-03.

Krause abruptly resigned in 2003 and John Paxson replaced him, beginning the second five-year plan. Paxson soon fired ex-teammate Cartwright and hired Scott Skiles. Paxson's plan involved building a team consisting of players who had been winners in college, high character individuals who would work hard in practices and play hard during games. Paxson also hoped that he could develop enough depth on the roster that he could possibly trade several good players to obtain one legitimate superstar. Paxson eventually cleansed the roster of Krause's mistakes and remolded the team. The Bulls annually got off to slow starts, in part due to a scheduling quirk that always places the team on the road early in the season, but they made the playoffs in 2005, 2006 and 2007. The 2007 squad became the first Chicago Bulls team to win a playoff series since the 1998 "Last Dance" team, sweeping the defending champion Miami Heat before losing to the Detroit Pistons. Expectations were high for the 2007-08 campaign but everything started to go sideways due in no small part to Paxson's awkward handling of the contract situations of several of his players and Paxson's inability to trade several good players to net a superstar such as Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. Paxson's "high character" guys then essentially pouted and quit, leading to the Christmas Eve firing of Skiles. Thus the second five-year plan concluded in failure, though it at least brought the Bulls a measure of temporary respectability, unlike the "Pink" Floyd years when the team was the laughingstock of the league.

No one knows what the third five-year plan will hold in store for the Bulls but nearly a decade after Krause gleefully embraced the prospect of running off Jackson, Jordan and Pippen so that he could build a new dynasty the Bulls seem unlikely to win a championship any time soon. "Organizations win championships," indeed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:22 PM

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Will Youth Be Served in the Pacific Northwest?

The Portland Trail Blazers wrapped up the ABC/ESPN Christmas Day tripleheader by beating the Seattle Supersonics 89-79 and extending their league-best winning streak to 11 games. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Blazers, particularly after number one overall pick Greg Oden was sidelined by microfracture surgery, but Portland actually has one of the top eight records in the West now, ahead of more highly regarded Utah and Houston teams. Is Portland really a legitimate contender? After watching Portland lose to San Antonio 106-97 on opening night, I wrote, "...it certainly looks like they have a promising young nucleus and if Greg Oden returns to health next year this team could become really good. The one caveat, though, is that every team is going to bring its best game against San Antonio; it remains to be seen if the Trail Blazers will play at this level on a consistent basis."

The Blazers stumbled to a 5-12 start but, in the wake of this winning streak, I must say that this team is indeed better than I had expected. Portland is not a contender in terms of winning a championship this year but this team has a realistic shot to win enough games to secure a playoff berth; I still think that Utah will definitely bounce back and that Houston will probably do so but Portland is not winning games by accident. Brandon Roy had a poor shooting night versus Seattle (7-23) but he still finished with a team-high 17 points, plus seven assists and six rebounds. The two-time Player of the Week honoree has emerged as an All-Star level player. LaMarcus Aldridge had a bad game against Seattle (two points on 1-10 shooting, five rebounds) but he is averaging 17.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting .515 from the field. He won't make the All-Star team this year in a Western Conference that is stacked with top notch forwards but he sure looks like a future All-Star. Reread this paragraph and you will realize that Portland beat Seattle despite getting subpar performances from its two best players. Granted, even Roy admitted that it was a sloppy game--and Seattle is hardly a powerhouse--but for a young team to be able to beat anybody when its stars are not at their best is unusual. Jarrett Jack chipped in 17 points--his highest scoring game in more than a month--and four assists, while Joel Przybilla had six points and a game-high 16 rebounds. A veteran, playoff tested team will probably sweep the Blazers if they make it to the postseason but this is definitely a team on the rise and if Oden can get healthy and be productive the Blazers could be very dangerous sooner than most people expected.

For Seattle's number two overall pick Kevin Durant, this game was more of the same: Durant took a lot of shots and missed most of them (shooting 8-20 from the field) to get his 23 points. He also had six rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, a better than average floor game for him this season. His ballhandling has improved a little, though he still dribbles the ball too high and he got away with a blatant carrying violation before nailing a jumper. Durant actually pursued a couple rebounds that did not fall straight into his lap and his passing is definitely better. Durant will block the shots of smaller players who don't know how to properly protect the ball but it would not be accurate to say that he is a true shotblocker or even much of a defender at all; Roy shook him and drove right past him for a two handed dunk on one possession early in the game and Durant spun around so many times I thought he might pass out. Durant is an excellent free throw shooter (6-6 versus Portland, .857 for the season), so why does he struggle to shoot .400 from the field? There are several obvious answers to this question: (1) His shot selection is poor; (2) he does not have good balance on many of his shots; (3) his lack of strength makes it easy for defenders to bump and jostle him when he ventures into the paint. Even though Durant is the top scorer on his team, he does not really face the kind of defenses that elite scorers like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have to contend with because Durant can be guarded one on one at this stage of his career; that is all the more reason that he should shoot a better percentage and if he improved his field goal percentage to the .450-.460 range then he would regularly draw double-teams that would help his less talented teammates get open shots.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM

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New and Improved Lakers Beat Suns for the Second Time This Season

Kobe Bryant had 38 points, seven assists and five rebounds as the L.A. Lakers beat the Phoenix Suns 122-115, the Lakers' second victory this season over the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs the past two seasons. Bryant shot 12-20 from the field and 13-14 from the free throw line. Unlike the previous game between the teams, a blowout win in Phoenix, this victory is not a complete surprise because the Lakers have emerged as one of the most improved teams this season. Andrew Bynum scored a career-high 28 points on 11-13 shooting and he also had 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. Derek Fisher contributed 19 points and six assists and Lamar Odom had 15 points and 14 rebounds, helping the Lakers to enjoy a 47-38 rebounding advantage. Trevor Ariza, starting in place of the injured Luke Walton, had 14 points and seven rebounds; acquiring Ariza for Maurice Evans and Brian Cook looks like a shrewd move. Steve Nash had 24 points and 14 assists, while Amare Stoudemire added 19 points and six rebounds.

Phoenix took early leads of 9-4 and 20-14 before Bryant scored eight points in less than four minutes to help the Lakers pull within 26-25 by the end of the first quarter. In previous seasons, the Lakers wanted to slow the game down against the Suns and try to pound the ball inside but the Lakers are better both offensively and defensively than they used to be so they are not afraid to get into an uptempo game with the Suns. There were several occasions when Bynum and/or Odom failed to sprint back on defense, enabling Nash to find Stoudemire or Shawn Marion for alley-oop passes, but the Lakers were also able to do some damage of their own in the transition game.

The Lakers have benefited from good bench play for the most part this season and that is very significant, because this enables Bryant to get some rest during games and then be able to take over in the fourth quarter. In the second quarter, the Lakers' bench briefly built a 37-30 lead but they were not able to sustain that margin and by the time Bryant returned to action the Lakers were only up 39-37. The Lakers outscored the Suns 37-36 overall in the quarter to tie the score at 62 by halftime. As Fisher told Michele Tafoya at halftime, the Lakers were not bothered by the fast pace but they needed to tighten up certain aspects of their defense. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned this several times during the quarter, noting that the Lakers kept going under screens, enabling Nash to bury uncontested jumpers. Bynum led both teams with 16 points by halftime, while Fisher had 15 points and four assists and Bryant had 12 points and three assists. Nash led the Suns with 13 points and six assists. After ABC showed a graphic running down Bryant's career accomplishments so far--including becoming the youngest player to score 20,000 points--Van Gundy made this comment about Bryant: "How has that guy never been the regular season MVP? He's the best player in the league and has been for a while."

Bryant had nine points and two assists in the first seven minutes of the third quarter as the Lakers took a 79-76 lead. Coach Phil Jackson sat him down at the 3:52 mark, clearly hoping to not only give him nearly four minutes of rest but to also take advantage of the TV timeouts that happen at the end of each quarter. That is how he used to get extra rest for Michael Jordan--but those Chicago Bulls' teams had Scottie Pippen, who could hold down the fort with four reserves until Jordan returned to action. The Lakers don't have that luxury and within 1:40 the three point lead turned into an 85-83 deficit. This is a good demonstration of why I am not completely sold on the idea that the Lakers have instantly become a contender. Although the team has clearly improved and the bench is better than it was last year, the Lakers have a disturbing tendency to quickly squander leads. This has already cost them several games; it also causes Jackson to have to play Bryant more minutes than he would like to play him, which could lead to fatigue and/or injury. Instead of getting perhaps 10 minutes of "real-time" rest (including the TV timeouts), Bryant had to come back in with 2:12 left to settle things down--which he promptly did, scoring five points and helping the Lakers to once again build a three point lead, 92-89. It is clear that without Bryant they would not have had the lead in the first place and if Jackson had not quickly brought Bryant back then the Lakers would probably have been down six or more points going into the fourth quarter (which is what usually has happened in Suns-Lakers games in recent seasons when Bryant takes even the briefest rest).

Bryant played the entire fourth quarter, scoring 12 points and passing off for two assists as the Lakers outscored the Suns 30-26 to preserve the victory (Nash had three points and five assists in the fourth quarter). Tafoya offered a pair of interesting sideline reports; on the one hand, Coach Jackson said that the team was relying too much on Bryant to score but, on the other hand, Coach D'Antoni told his team to double-team Bryant and force anybody else to shoot because Bryant was doing so much damage. After Odom and Jordan Farmar each got their shots blocked on consecutive possessions and the Suns cut a 96-89 lead to 96-93, ABC's Mark Jackson pointedly suggested that the Lakers go back relying on Bryant to do the scoring. Bryant scored six straight points for the Lakers from the 5:15 mark until the 3:48 mark to give them their first double digit lead, 112-102. Bryant shot an excellent percentage, did not force anything and was more than willing to pass to his teammates because his teammates have shown that they are willing and able to make shots. With 1:48 left and the Lakers up 114-107, Bryant drove to the hoop, drew several defenders and made a sweet one handed pass to Bynum for a layup.

That sequence basically wrapped things up and as the Lakers put the finishing touches on the win, Mark Jackson made a rather bold statement, declaring that the Lakers' roster is better than the Suns' roster "in a landslide." He never explained why he believes that to be true but that statement does not stand up to close examination. The Suns had seven double figure scorers in this game compared to five for the Lakers and the Suns' roster includes a two-time MVP (Nash), two other All-Stars (Stoudemire, Shawn Marion), a former All-Star who is playing like an All-Star this season (Grant Hill), an All-Defensive Team player (Raja Bell) and one of the top sixth men in the league (Leandro Barbosa), so a good early season start and a couple head to head regular season wins are not enough to convince me that the Lakers' roster is better than the Suns' roster. It is also worth mentioning that the Suns' bench outscored the Lakers' bench 28-8; the difference for the Lakers, as always, was Kobe Bryant--without him, the Lakers would not have been a playoff team the past couple years and without him the Lakers would have lost this game. His presence makes up for a lot of shortcomings at both ends of the court and enables everyone around him to perform better. Also, the Suns have still won 13 of the last 17 regular season games between these teams, so a larger sampling of games is needed to determine if the tide has really turned in this rivalry.

That said, there is no denying that the Lakers have improved and D'Antoni identified exactly where that improvement has taken place: "Bynum and Derek Fisher. They've got two better players than they had last time. So that's a big difference." Bynum's improvement this season is most impressive but it is important to consider two things: (1) 28 points is his career-high but if he is going to be an All-Star player then 20-plus points has to be his nightly output; (2) most of his scoring opportunities are created either by Bryant drawing double-teams or one of the guards (usually Bryant, Fisher or Farmar) throwing him lob passes. Bynum has not yet shown that he can be depended on to score consistently with his back to the basket. The addition of Fisher is huge not only because of the positive contributions he makes as a leader, a shooter, a passer and a defender but also because he took Smush Parker's place on the roster. Throughout last season, I kept mentioning that Parker was probably the worst starting point guard in the NBA and that his lapses were costing the team wins--and just look at what has happened this year: Fisher is playing a key role for the Lakers, while Parker cannot even get on the court for Miami, one of the worst teams in the league. When historians look back objectively at the 2006-07 season, they will have a hard time understanding how Bryant did not win the MVP after leading a team to the playoffs that had Smush Parker as a starting point guard and was devastated by injuries to frontcourt players Lamar Odom, Luke Walton and Kwame Brown.

The Lakers are a team on the rise but there is still a long season to go. Let's see how the young players respond to their first taste of NBA success. Will they continue to work hard and be productive? The real test will be how Bynum, Farmar, Ariza, Sasha Vujacic and the rest of the supporting cast does down the stretch and then in the playoffs; we already know what to expect from Bryant, Odom and Fisher (as long as they stay reasonably healthy).

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:57 AM

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Cavs Show Signs of Life, Cool off Heat

The Cleveland Cavaliers got off to a great start, hit a second quarter lull and then played very well in the second half to beat the Miami Heat, 96-82, in the first game of a Christmas Day ABC/ESPN tripleheader. As usual, LeBron James led the way, scoring a game-high 25 points, dishing a game-high 12 assists and also grabbing six rebounds. He received plenty of help, though: Drew Gooden had 18 points and nine rebounds, Daniel Gibson came off the bench to score 16 points while making four of his six three point shots and Anderson Varejao scored 15 points, snared seven rebounds and made all five of his shots. Varejao had a game-high +21 plus/minus rating (James was second at +18) as he once again had an even greater impact than his boxscore statistics suggest. Zydrunas Ilgauskas had a solid game (13 points, eight rebounds). Miami relied too heavily on Dwyane Wade, who still seems to be hampered by his various injuries and may not be good enough to carry the team now that Shaquille O'Neal is no longer a dominant presence. Wade shot just 7-18 from the field, finishing with 22 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five turnovers; as ABC's Hubie Brown correctly noted, Wade padded his scoring total with a couple late baskets that had no effect on the outcome of the game. O'Neal had 13 points and nine rebounds but only his early removal from the game by Coach Pat Riley prevented him from fouling out for the sixth straight game, which would tie a 55 year old record; O'Neal sat out the last 6:57 after picking up his fifth foul.

The Cavaliers now have their complete roster intact (except for the injured Donyell Marshall) and for the first time this season they used the starting lineup that played so well down the stretch of the 2006-07 season and had a great playoff run that culminated in a trip to the NBA Finals. TNT's Kenny Smith often speaks of how important it is for everyone on a team to be playing the correct position and performing the right role--and, because of injuries and holdouts, neither of those things have been true for Cleveland in the first third of the season. Cleveland's best starting unit features center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, forwards LeBron James and Drew Gooden and guards Larry Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic; that group has a good mix of shooting, rebounding, ballhandling and defense. Daniel Gibson, the first guard off of the bench, spaces the floor with his outside shooting, while Anderson Varejao, the first big man off of the bench, provides rebounding, defense and energy. When Donyell Marshall is healthy, he can come off of the bench bringing length and three point shooting. Contrary to anyone who says that Cleveland's run to the Finals was a fluke, that is a pretty good eight man rotation. Specialists Eric Snow (defense), Damon Jones (three point shooting), Devin Brown (scorer) and Shannon Brown (scorer) can be thrown into the mix on a given night as well, depending on matchups, foul trouble or injuries.

With their rotation finally set up in optimum fashion, the Cavaliers began the game with a 9-2 run, with all of the points scored either in the paint or at the free throw line. Cleveland led 25-17 at the end of the first quarter. Riley switched to a zone defense to try to keep the Cavaliers out of the paint and the Heat enjoyed some success with this strategy, eventually taking a 47-43 lead by halftime. Riley, like many NBA coaches, generally disdains zone defenses but the zone is a good change of pace defense to use against Cleveland because it takes advantage of two of the team's weaknesses: the lack of a true point guard and a dearth of outside shooting in the starting lineup. Last season, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown would sometimes attack the zone by using a small lineup of Varejao, Marshall, James, Gibson and Jones but the disadvantage of using that group is that it sidelines the team's two best rebounders, Ilgauskas and Gooden. In any case, with Marshall unavailable and Jones not receiving much playing time this season, Brown stuck with a more conventional rotation.

The Heat struck quickly in the third quarter, scoring on a Ricky Davis fast break layup and an O'Neal postup to push the lead to 51-43, prompting a quick Cleveland timeout. James missed a jumper on the next possession and a Udonis Haslem layup put the Heat up 53-43. Just when it looked like the Heat had completely taken control of the game, the Cavaliers tightened up their defense, forced some turnovers and went on a 9-2 run in the next 2:21. Miami answered with a couple baskets to go up 59-52 but then the Cavaliers scored 15 straight points, feasting on a host of Heat turnovers (11 total in the third quarter).

Cleveland led 67-61 going into the fourth quarter but Gibson soon provided some breathing room by nailing back to back three pointers to make the score 79-69. He is like a modern day B.J. Armstrong--baby faced, more athletic than he first appears and a stone cold shooter in a point guard's body. As Gibson showed during last year's playoffs, he is perfectly suited for the role of coming off of the bench to provide a scoring spark and he is more than capable of providing good court spacing for James during the fourth quarters of tight games. Varejao led the Cavaliers with 10 points in the fourth quarter, while James scored nine.

If injuries or other factors do not prevent the Cavaliers from using this starting lineup and player rotation for the rest of the season then they will be a very tough out in the playoffs--much tougher than most of the national media appears to think. On the other hand, Miami's problems run much deeper than just getting a couple players healthy or shuffling the lineup. Riley essentially mortgaged the team's future to make a short term run at winning at least one championship, agreeing to pay maximum dollars to O'Neal well into the center's declining years--and the strategy worked (thanks in no small part to Dallas falling apart after taking a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals) because Miami won a title. Now--and possibly for quite some time to come--Riley and the Heat must pay off that mortgage and the house that he is left with is not pretty: he has one banged up star in Wade--a player who may never be completely healthy due to his rugged style--and the rest of the roster is a mess, a mixture of has beens, never weres, malcontents and question marks. Maybe now people can better understand why Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who does not have the financial resources that the Heat ownership does, declined to retain O'Neal's services after the 2004 season. What if Buss had ponied up the maximum to O'Neal and ended up with a hefty bill and no championships? O'Neal's questionable work habits made him too big of a risk. I have always said that the O'Neal trade was a short term deal for the Heat but a long term one for the Lakers and now we are seeing both aspects of that scenario play out. The Heat got their title--at a heavy financial price and at the cost of possibly becoming a non-playoff team--while the Lakers remained a playoff team, rebuilt their roster around Kobe Bryant and are now considered one of the surprise teams this season, pairing the young, developing Andrew Bynum with a Bryant who still has several more prime seasons left.

Hubie Brown tried to defend O'Neal's meager statistics this season by pointing out O'Neal's age (35), comparing his production to other centers in the league and noting that O'Neal's per minute output is solid but that his overall numbers are down because he is playing fewer minutes. The latter two factors do not justify O'Neal's lack of production for several reasons: (1) O'Neal is receiving a max contract, so the Heat are not getting their money's worth at this point; (2) there are few true back to the basket centers left but the ones who exist are much better than O'Neal is now (Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, even Chris Kaman); (3) O'Neal's minutes are down because he is so slow and awkward that he cannot avoid foul trouble and when your best big man only plays a little more than half of the game then you are forced to put lesser players on the court for substantial minutes, which means that O'Neal's foul trouble clearly hurts the team. As for the age issue, O'Neal's production this year (28.3 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, .590 field goal percentage) does not compare favorably with the numbers put up by several of the greatest centers of all-time who were still playing at 35 years old. Bill Russell turned 35 in the middle of his final season, during which he averaged 19.3 rpg and was the player-coach on a championship team. When Wilt Chamberlain was 35, he averaged 42.3 mpg, played in all 82 games, scored 14.8 ppg, led the league in rebounding (19.2 rpg), led the league in field goal percentage (.649), made the All-NBA Second Team, made the All-Defensive First Team and won the Finals MVP for a team that won a championship after setting records for most wins in season (69-13, since broken by the 72-10 Chicago Bulls in 1995-96) and most consecutive wins (33, a mark that will likely never fall). When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 35, he averaged 32.3 mpg, played in 79 games, scored 21.8 ppg (first on the Lakers, 16th in the NBA), averaged 7.5 rpg, ranked fourth in the league in field goal percentage (.588), ranked ninth in the league in blocked shots (2.2 bpg), made the All-NBA Second Team and helped his team reach the NBA Finals after posting the second best record in the league (58-24). The next year, Abdul-Jabbar made the All-NBA First Team and the year after that he not only made the All-NBA Second Team but he won the Finals MVP. Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 18.9 ppg and 9.6 rpg and made the All-NBA Third Team when he was 35. It is simply not true to suggest that O'Neal's rate of decline or current production match up well with his great predecessors; they kept themselves in better shape throughout their careers than he has and therefore were able to be more productive for a longer period of time. O'Neal's lack of conditioning possibly cost him an opportunity to win more championships during his prime and it has led to a premature degradation of his skills. O'Neal is an all-time great who squandered the chance to accomplish even more than he already has.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:07 AM

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

NBA Leaderboard, Part VII

The Boston Celtics lost a game, retained the best record but still must weather an upcoming West Coast road trip to stay ahead of perennial contenders Detroit, San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. LeBron James continues to put up good numbers but his Cavs are not playing the kind of defense that they did last year. Quick quiz: who is averaging more ppg and rpg this year, Kevin Garnett or Al Jefferson? Don't scroll down until you take a guess.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 22-3
2) Detroit Pistons, 20-7
3) San Antonio Spurs, 19-7
4) Phoenix Suns, 19-8
5) Dallas Mavericks, 19-9

The Boston Celtics have been on top all season but the Detroit Pistons won the first head to head encounter between the teams and now have the league's second best record. Of course, the Pistons have a recent history of doing very well in the regular season only to fail to meet expectations in the playoffs, so their early success is neither surprising nor is it necessarily a portent of things to come in the postseason. Last week, I mentioned that the Orlando Magic have been playing well on the road and poorly at home, suggesting that one of those two things will prove to be a fluke. We may be starting to get an answer about that, as the Magic are fading fast, just like they did last season after a good start; they have gone just 3-7 in their past 10 games and Coach Stan Van Gundy has publicly called them soft and said that if he were a Magic fan he'd boo even louder than the actual fans have been booing. The Dallas Mavericks have "quietly" won five in a row to grab the fifth spot on the leaderboard ("quietly" means that the national media has not yet realized this and is still talking about how this team needs to be blown up because things are allegedly not working).

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 29.5 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 26.8 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.4 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.4 ppg
5) Richard Jefferson, NJN 25.3 ppg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 24.7 ppg
7) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.3 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.9 ppg
9) Dwight Howard, ORL 23.4 ppg
10) Tracy McGrady, HOU 22.8 ppg

13) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 21.9 ppg

17) Yao Ming, HOU 21.4 ppg

21) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.7 ppg

24) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.9 ppg

26) Ray Allen, BOS 19.4 ppg

31) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.9 ppg

LeBron James still has a comfortable lead, though Allen Iverson's average is steadily increasing and he is now threatening to make this a three horse race. Dwyane Wade has now played enough games to be listed among the leaders. Dirk Nowitzki has scored at least 30 points in three straight games. Kevin Durant's field goal percentage finally inched above .400 but the only players who rank in the top 50 in scoring and have a lower field goal percentage are Ben Gordon and Jamal Crawford. As Utah Coach Jerry Sloan would say, those guys are "shooting" guards but their teams would prefer for them to be "making" guards.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.0 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.3 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 14.0 rpg
4) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.0 rpg
5) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.9 rpg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.7 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.8 rpg
8) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.7 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.6 rpg
10) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.5 rpg
11) Kevin Garnett, BOS 10.4 rpg

13) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.0 rpg

17) Al Horford, ATL 9.6 rpg

22) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.8 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.5 rpg

28) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.3 rpg

33) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.7 rpg

44) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.3 rpg

Tim Duncan (9.7 rpg) dropped off the list after missing some games due to injury (and therefore falling below the minimum required number of games/rebounds) but he has put up monster scoring and rebounding numbers in his last three games (36-17, 16-4, 34-18) so he will no doubt be on the next leaderboard--possibly even in the top 10. Al Jefferson, Kevin Garnett's young replacement in Minnesota, is outscoring and outrebounding Garnett while blocking almost as many shots.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.4 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.3 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.0 apg
4) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.8 apg
5) Deron Williams, UTA 8.7 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.0 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
8) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.6 apg
9) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.3 apg

As usual, this leaderboard is the most stable one. Chris Paul has joined Steve Nash and Jason Kidd as the only players who are averaging 10 apg but other than that there have not been many changes recently. There is a .5 apg drop from 10th place to 11th, so the list will probably look like this for a while.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 AM

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Will Laker Improvement Help Kobe Bryant to Win his First MVP?

On the surface, the MVP is an individual award but, as ESPN's Chris Broussard points out (subscription required), team considerations factor in heavily because voters frown on selecting a player from a team that did not win at least 50 games; if that were not the case, Kobe Bryant would most likely have won the MVP the past two seasons. The 17-10 Lakers are on pace for about 52 wins, which would be enough for Bryant, widely acknowledged as the league's "best" player, to finally earn recognition as its "most valuable." The ironic thing is that Bryant's numbers are actually worse this season than they were in 2006 or 2005 but this may be the season that the voters finally honor Bryant's excellence as opposed to looking for excuses not to do so.

Many casual NBA viewers don't really appreciate how good Bryant is; they reflexively dislike him because they don't root for the Lakers or because they just don't watch the game analytically. However, executives, coaches, scouts and players literally speak in awed tones about Bryant. Broussard reports that a scout recently told him, "The crazy thing is that he's so far and away the league's best player. It's not even close. It's like he's playing a different game than everyone else." This scout told Broussard that Bryant is one of the top eight players in NBA history and challenged Broussard to name eight players who are better than Bryant. The only players who this scout would definitely place ahead of Bryant are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; Broussard adds that this scout placed Bill Russell and Larry Bird below Bryant and that Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan were not mentioned in the discussion. I don't have Bryant in my pantheon of the ten greatest players of all-time--yet; right now, Bryant would be in my top 15 all-time but with each year of MVP-level play he is moving up and it is certainly possible that Bryant will be in the top 10 before his career is over. However, this scout is not some lone voice in the wilderness when he proclaims how great a player Bryant is. Mark Jackson adamantly maintains that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has a chance to be the greatest player of all-time and Dan Majerle, who played against both Jordan and Bryant, recently told me that "Kobe's just like Jordan"--and not just in style, but in ability. That is why it does not surprise me to read what this scout told Broussard, because when I talk to insiders around the league I hear similar things about Bryant. Any doubts about Bryant's status as the league's best player should have been erased last summer when his work habits, skill level and defensive intensity raised Team USA's play to a level that it has not reached in many years. LeBron James, who may eventually become the best player in the NBA, consistently says that Bryant is the league's best player; he reiterated that statement yet again when he was interviewed by Mike Tirico during the halftime of the Monday Night Football game, adding that he has always looked up to Bryant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Lakers Improve to 3-1 on Road Trip, Kobe Bryant Scores 20,000th Point

Kobe Bryant had 39 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists and two steals as the L.A. Lakers built a 25 point lead and held on to post a 95-90 victory over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Early in the third quarter, Bryant scored the 20,000th point of his career, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to reach that milestone, beating Wilt Chamberlain by 12 days. Of course, Bryant got a head start by jumping straight from high school to the NBA, so Chamberlain still easily holds the record for reaching 20,000 points in the fewest number of games (499; it took Bryant 811 games). The Lakers finished their road trip with a 3-1 record, with the only loss coming Thursday night in Cleveland. After that game, Bryant vowed to go back to the gym and work on his jumper in order to compensate for the restricted mobility that he currently has because of his left groin pull. Sure enough, Bryant's jumper was in full effect against the Knicks, not only from three point range (5-12) but also his mid-range shot as well. Bryant led both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals (Derek Fisher also had two steals) in his finest all-around game of the season. Jamal Crawford had just one point on 0-7 field goal shooting in the first half but he finished with 31 points on 11-25 shooting. He and Bryant each played a little more than 41 minutes; Bryant had a +19 plus/minus score, while Crawford's plus/minus score was -6. The only other Laker to reach double figures in scoring was Andrew Bynum (13 points, eight rebounds) and Bryant's teammates combined to shoot just .404 from the field (Bryant shot 14-28). The Lakers also got outrebounded 52-38 and gave up 17 offensive rebounds. Those kind of numbers usually lead to a loss--particularly on the road--but Bryant's brilliance saved the day in a fashion very reminiscent of how the Lakers played in the second half of last season; that is definitely not a formula that Coach Phil Jackson wants to rely upon very often and he surely hopes that the other starters and the bench players will resume playing the way that they did at the beginning of the season.

The Lakers took leads of 11-4 and 22-10 in the first quarter and were ahead 31-21 by the end of the period. Bryant had 12 points in the opening stanza, while Lamar Odom scored all nine of his points before disappearing for most of the remainder of the game (not unlike how he played versus Cleveland). The game was telecast on NBA TV using the feed from the MSG Network and commentator Walt Frazier offered this explanation for the Knicks' sluggish start in a game that tipped off just past noon Eastern time: "These guys are nocturnal creatures, folks. In these matinees, we always see dreadful play in the first half before we see some real NBA action." Frazier may have a point but, as play by play man Mike Breen observed, the adjustment should be even more difficult for a West Coast based team for whom noon Eastern time is equivalent to nine in the morning.

The Lakers pulled away in the second quarter, outscoring the Knicks 24-16, as Bryant had five points and five assists. Frazier noted that a big reason that the Lakers are doing better this year is their improved defense and he contrasted that with the poor defense that the Knicks play: "This is how the Knicks get behind by double digits. They have offensive futility and then their defense can't contain the other club." The Knicks also had serious ballhandling problems in the first half, committing 13 turnovers. A big reason for the team's woes in all of these areas--"offensive futility," turnovers and poor defense--is that the Knicks do not have any reliable, legitimate point guards on the roster. Their most talented guards are not true point guards, forcing Coach Isiah Thomas to constantly shuffle his lineup in the vain hope of getting adequate production from that position. Look at the NBA standings and you will notice that virtually every playoff caliber team has a good--or great--point guard. One of the unsung keys to the Lakers' improvement this season is the subtraction of Smush Parker and the addition of Derek Fisher at that position. The point guard orchestrates the offense for most teams (LeBron James' Cavaliers and Bryant's Lakers being two exceptions to this rule) and is the first line of defense, so poor point guard play leads to breakdowns all over the court, which could be the official motto of the Knicks ("Here are your New York Knicks, who bring you breakdowns all over the court on a nightly basis"). Stephon Marbury did not play versus the Lakers while he grieves for the passing of his father; I certainly don't want to kick a man while he's down but I have said for quite some time that the Knicks need to cut Marbury loose or buy out his contract and just start over at point guard: he simply has not gotten the job done when he plays and he is not a good leader.

At halftime, MSG's Al Trautwig interviewed Knicks assistant coach Mark Aguirre, who told him that Bryant is the league's best player but that it was unacceptable for Bryant to beat the Knicks with both his scoring and his passing; the goal in the second half would be to make Bryant more one dimensional. Frazier agreed with Aguirre that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, adding in his inimitable style, "When I talk to players, Kobe is the most feared and revered player in the league. When teams talk about him, when players talk about him, they know his ability to put up prodigious numbers and he is well respected because of that."

Bryant reached the 20,000 point mark by draining a pullup three pointer early in the third quarter. Not long after that, Frazier added, "One thing I noticed about Kobe when he came into the league is that he had so much confidence that he could be great--and he has achieved that." By the 6:28 mark of the third quarter, the Lakers led 70-45 and the New York fans were raining down boos on their hapless Knicks. Teams usually make runs, as Frazier predicted, but when Bryant sat down for his normal rest with 2:36 remaining in the quarter the Lakers still enjoyed a comfortable 73-55 advantage. The Knicks trimmed four points off of that margin to trail 75-61 by the end of the quarter.

By the 10:36 mark of the fourth quarter, the lead was down to 75-68 and Jackson was forced to put Bryant back in the game because the Lakers had been outscored by 11 points in the four minutes that Bryant was on the bench. Frazier commented on a couple occasions that he thought that Jackson made a mistake by keeping Bryant out for too long, noting that during his playing days he (Frazier) hated when his Coach Red Holzman kept the starters out for too long and then had to put them back in to essentially win the game again. Of course, Jackson is a Holzman disciple and Bryant's minutes have to be monitored somewhat not only because of his injury but also to keep something left in the tank for a long season; if the bench cannot maintain a lead for even four minutes then the team will not go far no matter how brilliantly Bryant plays.

What specifically went wrong when Bryant was not in the game? On offense, the execution of the Triangle Offense was very poor, most notably because of bad spacing; a key feature of the Triangle is that players are supposed to be 15-20 feet apart to prevent one defender from guarding two offensive players at any time. One of the players on the court during this time was Trevor Ariza, who the Lakers just acquired via trade and who is obviously still learning the offense (a process that can take more than a year). The Lakers compounded their offensive problems by playing poor defense that repeatedly led either to open shots or to fouls being committed by players who were out of position; Crawford scored six points during this stretch and Robinson shot 4-4 from the free throw line. Thomas had benched defensively challenged big men Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph in favor of using a small lineup consisting of a mixture of starters and bench players who hustle and play with energy (Crawford, Robinson, Malik Rose, Jared Jeffries and Quentin Richardson). Frazier observed, "The irony about the Knicks is that when you have a team like this, a mixture of players in the game like this, they seem to perform better than the starters, whether they are ahead or trying to catch up like they are now. They have good cohesion, the defense is good."

Right after Bryant came back in the game, the Lakers went on a quick 5-0 run and Frazier said, "What I think happened is just the presence of Kobe on the court inspired these guys. You saw how futile they were in scoring until Kobe came back on the court." For the next several minutes, the Lakers maintained a double digit lead. A Crawford jumper briefly cut the margin to eight but Bryant made two free throws to give the Lakers an 89-79 advantage with just 3:52 left. Then, Odom committed a flagrant foul on Crawford, who made both free throws and then hit a floater in the lane on the ensuing extra New York possession. Just like that, the lead was down to 89-83. Lakers rookie guard Javaris Crittenton missed a jumper and then Bryant fouled Crawford on a three point attempt. Crawford made all three free throws but Bryant countered with a jumper that made the score 91-86. Throughout the fourth quarter, the Knicks repeatedly exploited bad pick and roll defense by Lakers' big men Bynum and Chris Mihm; every time David Lee set a screen and rolled to the hoop, Crawford either got a wide open shot or passed the ball to Lee, who had eight of his 12 points in the final 6:49--and all of them either came on passes from Crawford or opportunities created as a result of the initial screen and roll. Crawford scored his 14th (and final) point of the quarter by making a running bank shot after Bynum took a horrible angle to defend a screen and roll play, allowing Crawford to split the trap and drive unencumbered to the hoop.

With the Lakers leading 91-88, Odom fouled out after barreling into the lane and committing an offensive foul. As I've noted in a few recent posts, including a recap of a Lakers' win versus the Nuggets, Odom has a perplexing tendency to dribble into traffic and commit offensive fouls; a player with his talent and experience should have better court awareness than he displays in those situations. Lee made two free throws to cut the lead to 91-90 but Bryant answered with a jumper with 57.6 seconds remaining to make the score 93-90; Bryant scored 13 straight points for the Lakers from the 8:37 mark of the fourth quarter until he hit that shot. The teams traded missed shots and turnovers in the next few possessions until the Knicks got a rebound and called timeout with four seconds remaining to set up a final play. Lee handled the inbounding duties. Bryant denied one option, a pass to Crawford in the corner, so with the five second count looming Lee tried to pass to Robinson above the top of the key. Farmar read Lee's eyes, stole the ball and raced downcourt for the dunk. Frazier concluded, "The moral of the story is why do the Knicks have to come out so lethargic and get down by 25 before going on a rampage?"

After the game, Trautwig asked Bynum what it says about the Lakers that they were able to hold on and win. Bynum offered a very wise reply: "Actually, it says something bad about our team because we don't have the ability to keep our foot on somebody's throat. So we are going to have to develop that characteristic if we want to be a great team."

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:27 AM

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Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kobe Bryant's Message to Chicago High Schoolers

A day before his Lakers beat the Bulls 103-91, Kobe Bryant spoke to a group of Chicago high school athletes at the Nike Team Huddle, which was held at Tim Grover's Attack Athletics facility. Writers Scoop Jackson and Kevin Carroll also addressed the audience. Chicago Sun Times' writer Steve Tucker covered the event, which was organized at the request of Bryant, who speaks to high school athletes in various cities during road trips whenever the NBA schedule permits it.

Here are some quotes from Bryant's remarks:

***
"I was a hard-headed kid. People used to tell me not to put all my eggs in one basket and that I wasn't going to be in the NBA."

***
"If you show meticulousness in the classroom, it can carry over to a basketball game. If you act like you have [attention deficit disorder], that can carry over, too."

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"I'm a fan of basketball. I made a decision that come hell or high water, it's what I want."

Bryant also took questions from the audience. He told one questioner that his relationship with former teammate Shaquille O'Neal has "never been cooler" than it is now and told another questioner that "people think I'm not a funny guy. I'm a part-time stand-up comedian."

Sonny Vaccaro, who used to run the ABCD camp for high school players, told Tucker, "When Kobe came back from Italy after his sophomore year, no one knew who he was. We came to [camp] that summer and when he didn't get the top underclassman award, he thanked me and said he was sorry he disappointed me. Then he said, 'Mr. Vaccaro, I'm going to be MVP next year.' Of all the high school kids I've ever seen, Kobe was the most driven. And he still is."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:20 AM

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