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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Orlando's Words to Live By: "Is Dwight Cool With it?"

Orlando Sentinel writer Mike Bianchi points out that several of the "unpopular personnel assessments" made by fired Orlando Magic Coach Brian Hill "are turning out to be frighteningly accurate." For instance, Hill never put J.J. Redick into his playing rotation, did not make Darko Milicic a regular starter and questioned whether Jameer Nelson is truly a championship level point guard; the Redick situation in particular supposedly had a lot to do with Hill being fired but Redick is actually playing even fewer minutes this season than he did as a rookie.

Dwight Howard has emerged as a legitimate MVP level player this season but the Magic are not doing much better so far under the direction of Stan Van Gundy than they were last year; the Magic are currently 22-13, just one game better than they were last season after 35 games. Orlando started out 14-5 in 2006-07 but finished with a 40-42 record, while this season's squad started out 15-4 and has been sliding backwards ever since. It remains to be seen if Van Gundy can prevent this team from going into the full fledged free fall that ultimately cost Hill his job.

Bianchi says that Hill's departure can be explained by five simple words uttered by Howard. Hill has refused to publicly comment on his dismissal but when Howard was asked about it recently he admitted that Orlando management asked his opinion prior to making the move. What did Howard say? "I was cool with it." Howard may as well have declared, "Off with his head!" It is extremely unlikely that the Magic will fire a coach who Howard likes or hire one he does not like. That is just the way of the world in the NBA. Bianchi quotes a famous line by Chuck Daly, the former Pistons and Magic coach: "It's a player's league. The players allow you to coach them or they don't. Once they stop allowing you to coach, you're on your way out."

Here is Howard's take: "You have to like your coach. I think that's very important. It's hard to be around somebody all the time if you don't like them." I don't have a problem with that; it certainly makes sense for a team to try, within reason, to bring in a coach who establishes a good rapport with the franchise player (and, hopefully, with the rest of the roster as well). What I don't get is why some players are considered to be bad guys for greasing the rails for a coach's dismissal while other players get a free pass. Anyone who has followed the NBA closely for the past 25 years or so knows that Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan had a lot to do with the firings of Paul Westhead and Doug Collins respectively. Larry Bird certainly shed no tears about the firing of Bill Fitch. Shaquille O'Neal clearly preferred to be coached by Pat Riley instead of, ironically, Stan Van Gundy. Johnson got a ton of bad press in the wake of Westhead's dismissal, though the negative coverage receded somewhat after Riley replaced Westhead and led the Lakers to titles in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. K.C. Jones guided Bird's Celtics to a pair of titles, while Phil Jackson led Jordan's Chicago Bulls to six titles and Riley's Heat won the 2006 championship. It is possible that Howard's palace coup will escape national attention simply because it took place in Orlando, hardly a media mecca. However, if Howard does receive criticism then his best course of action will be to follow in the footsteps of Johnson, Bird, Jordan and O'Neal by winning at least one title with a new coach running the show.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:47 AM

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Blazers Outlast Bulls in Double Overtime

The surprise team so far this season, the Portland Trail Blazers, earned yet another win on Thursday, outlasting the Chicago Bulls--arguably the most disappointing team this season--115-109 in double overtime. Brandon Roy had 25 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals. A bruised tailbone slowed Roy down in the second overtime but Jarrett Jack (17 points, five assists, four rebounds) then took over, putting Portland ahead for good with a three point play with just :19 remaining in the second overtime. Travis Outlaw added 21 points for the Blazers, who had six players score in double figures. Ben Gordon, thriving in his new sixth man role, had a game-high 32 points, shooting 15-27 from the field, but his late turnover led directly to Jack's game-clinching play. Joe Smith had a season-high 31 points plus 11 rebounds and Ben Wallace contributed 12 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. Kirk Hinrich had 12 points, nine assists and seven rebounds but he shot just 5-18 from the field and his late game efforts to defend the larger Roy reaffirmed Scottie Pippen's assessment that Hinrich should not be guarding the league's top shooting guards because, quite simply, "he's not that talented...Little guards always put you in a vulnerable position. You've got to send help. It puts too much pressure on the defense."

The Bulls suffered a damaging blow in the first half when Luol Deng tweaked his left Achilles and was not able to return to the contest. That forced other players to play more extended minutes and also led to stretches during which the Bulls did not have many offensive options on the court. This was the fourth game in five nights for both teams and by the second overtime the game looked like the last round of a heavyweight bout between two out of shape boxers who spend more time clinching each other than throwing punches; neither team scored for the first 1:53 until Jack made a layup. The Bulls' Andres Nocioni answered more than a minute later with a jumper but most of the concluding points down the stretch came from the free throw line.

Prior to this loss, the Bulls had won three of their four games since firing Coach Scott Skiles but, as TNT's Doug Collins noted, time is running out for Chicago and the Bulls really needed to win this home game. New Coach Jim Boylan is essentially undergoing an extended job interview, while several Bulls players who think that they are worth large contracts need to step their games up. This team is too talented to have such a bad record. Since Boylan took over, the Bulls seem to be playing with greater energy and purpose, which simply reinforces the perception that the players essentially quit on Skiles. Supposedly Skiles was too tough of a disciplinarian but I think that his real downfall is that he was too soft with several of these players. It is obvious that Gordon should be the sixth man, not a starter, and that young players like Tyrus Thomas need to earn their minutes. Skiles kept giving his players opportunities to get out of their slumps when he should have simply made the correct moves without worrying about upsetting people. As soon as Boylan took over, he removed Gordon from the starting lineup and Gordon is now playing better than he has all season. Gordon is a one dimensional player, a gunner. As a starter, he tended to force things and his liabilities in other areas were very evident, but as a sixth man he gets to play a lot of minutes against either tired starters or against second unit players. Either way, if the team needs offense Gordon will be on the court at the end of the game.

Boylan is also emphasizing the importance of pushing the ball up the court and initiating early offense so that the Bulls can get some easy baskets before the defense gets set. Under Skiles, the Bulls were prone to going through long scoring droughts and were putting up some of the worst shooting and scoring numbers in the league. Thomas averaged more than 20 mpg during the first month of the season. His minutes declined in December but they have been slashed since Boylan took the reins; Thomas has not played more than six minutes in a game since Skiles was fired. Collins said that young players have to learn how hard you have to work on a daily basis to be a good pro basketball player and that you earn your minutes by how well you practice. Thomas shoots just .423 from the field, which is inexcusable for an athletic player who gets a lot of dunks and easy baskets; as Pippen rightly noted, Thomas should be a "fetcher," a guy who rebounds and hustles, not someone who takes many shots outside of the paint.

Collins and play by play announcer Kevin Harlan talked a little bit about the awkward position that Boylan is in, taking the place of someone who hired him to be an assistant coach, but I would have liked to hear Collins discuss how Skiles must feel. Collins just touched on this briefly, saying that Skiles did a good job building the team up but won't be around to see everything come to fruition, but Collins never mentioned how this mirrors his own experience; two decades ago, Collins--who was an intense, demanding coach much like Skiles is said to be--led the Bulls to a 47-35 record but was replaced by Phil Jackson, who had been an assistant on his staff. Obviously, these Bulls do not have a transcendent player like Michael Jordan but Collins knows exactly what it feels like to be fired after leading a team to the playoffs and then be replaced by a member of your own coaching staff. It would have been interesting to hear Collins' thoughts about this but maybe the issue is too raw and hits too close to home, even after all of these years. Collins' players supposedly grew weary of his demands but Jackson turned out to be no less demanding, instituting a Triangle Offense that was hardly popular with Jordan at first and placing great emphasis on defense. Much like Skiles is perceived to be tough but may not have actually insisted on the right things in the right ways (i.e., failing to make Gordon into the sixth man and not benching players who were not performing up to par), Collins developed a reputation for being difficult but he actually did not confront Jordan and others as much as perhaps he should have. In The Jordan Rules, Sam Smith describes how Collins rued that Jordan took too many bad shots and did not pass to his teammates. Jackson, then an assistant, said that Collins should say this to Jordan directly but Collins felt that it would not make a difference and told Jackson that he was welcome to try communicating these sentiments to Jordan; Jackson did exactly that, telling Jordan about how the Knicks in the early 1970s became champions by playing as a cohesive team. Jordan respected someone who would challenge him and make him play better much more than someone who might yell at him at times but would not really confront him in a meaningful way that would guide him down a different path. I've always thought that this little story goes a long way toward explaining how Jackson has been able to win so many championships with Jordan, Pippen, O'Neal and Bryant--and why those championships were not a sure thing just because those players were on the roster: even the greatest players need to be coached and it takes a deft hand (or, more precisely, a clever, determined mind) to find the right way to help such gifted athletes to maximize their talents within the context of the team being successful.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:24 AM

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mavericks Follow Correct Prescription, Run Warriors off of the Court

Anyone who visits this site regularly knows that I have repeatedly insisted (most recently in this post) that teams should not be afraid to run against the Golden State Warriors and that the Dallas Mavericks could have avoided their upset loss to the Warriors in last year's playoffs if the Mavericks had pushed the ball up the court instead of trying to slow the game down. These truths were once against confirmed in Dallas' 121-99 win over Golden State on Wednesday night. Dirk Nowitzki scored a game-high 29 points on 9-16 shooting, adding eight rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots. Nowitzki had a game-high plus/minus rating of +25. Five other Mavericks also scored in double figures, including Josh Howard, who had 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds as Dallas outrebounded Golden State 50-35. Stephen Jackson led Golden State with 25 points but he shot just 8-21 from the field, including 1-5 from three point range. Baron Davis, who terrorized Dallas during the playoffs, had just 10 points and six assists, shooting 2-14 from the field. The first time these teams played this season, Dallas also won a fast paced game--120-115--but some people tried to diminish the significance of that victory because Jackson did not play due to being suspended by the NBA.

During a first quarter timeout, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson told his team, "Keep pushing the ball. Run for layups." The Mavericks followed his advice and led 36-23 after the first 12 minutes. Golden State Coach Don Nelson loves to go after whoever he thinks is the opposing team's worst defender and/or whichever individual matchup he thinks is most in favor of one of his players. His starting lineup did not include a traditional center and it soon became obvious that the Warriors were focused on trying to exploiting the fact that Dallas center Erick Dampier was guarding Al Harrington, who is really a small forward. The Warriors may have won that battle on the surface--Harrington outscored Dampier 14-4 in the first quarter--but the Mavericks won the war and had the lead because they took many of their shots within eight seconds on the shot clock, thereby preventing the Warriors from setting up the zone defenses and gimmicky traps that caused Dallas so much trouble during last year's playoff series between these teams. A major mistake that Dallas made during the playoffs was changing a starting lineup that had gone 67-15 during the regular season. There is no reason that the Mavericks cannot beat the Warriors using their regular lineup. Harrington's early points proved to be fool's gold, while Dampier provided a strong inside presence throughout the game, taking advantage of scoring opportunities in the paint, setting solid screens, getting rebounds and blocking shots. Dampier finished with 13 points on 5-5 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocked shots, while Harrington did not do much after his first quarter outburst and ended up with 21 points.

Dirk Nowitzki's fast break layup put the Mavericks up 40-25. It is very important to note that when he took that shot only four seconds had gone off of the shot clock. Having your seven foot tall, MVP player shooting a layup is much better than slowing the game down and having him try to score in the post against a swarming defense. Nowitzki's three pointer at the 3:54 mark put Dallas up 58-40; he took that shot after just six seconds had gone off of the shot clock. As I've been saying for months now, Nowitzki is a face up shooter, so it makes no sense to slow the game down and have him grind it out in the post with defenders trapping him as the shot clock winds down; push the ball up the court, have Nowitzki spot up and then the guards will either score layups or if the defense collapses to stop their drives then Nowitzki can drain open jumpers/three pointers all night long. For some reason, in the closing minutes of the first half Dallas decided to "exploit" the alleged mismatch of Davis guarding Nowitzki or Howard on the post. The Mavericks got nothing out of these possessions; on one occasion, Howard bricked a turn around jumper and five seconds later Davis drove to the hoop and was fouled by Nowitzki. The Warriors will push the ball relentlessly regardless of what their opponents do; slowing the game down only leads to bad shots and turnovers (both of which are caused by defensive pressure and poor decisions made with the shot clock running down) that make it easier for the Warriors to score in the open court. Could there be a worse sequence from Dallas' standpoint than a missed shot that five seconds later leads to a foul being committed by the Mavericks' best player? Davis made both free throws to cut Dallas' lead to 60-50. Dallas missed a shot but retained possession when Golden State knocked the ball out of bounds. Howard received the inbounds pass, went one on one versus Mickael Pietrus and took a tough jumper over Pietrus and Davis, who arrived in time to double-team Howard; Golden State rebounded the miss and three seconds later Jackson scored a fast break layup, cutting Dallas' lead to 60-52 at halftime.

Harrington scored 20 points in the first half, while Howard and Devin Harris had 13 points each. Nowitzki contributed 11 points, four rebounds and four assists and Dampier added 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots. Nowitzki shot 3-5 from the field and picked apart double teams with good passes that led to scores. NBA TV's Rick Kamla said during the halftime show that Nowitzki had not played well in the first half; I'm not sure what game he was watching, but when someone shoots .600 from the field, his team is up by eight and he is on pace for 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists I'd call that a pretty good performance. Kamla also said that Dallas needed to slow the game down, apparently not noticing that Dallas was leading and the Mavericks got the lead by playing at a fast tempo. The Mavericks shot 55% from the field, a far cry from how poorly they shot during last year's playoffs when they insisted on slowing down the game. They also held the Warriors to 42% shooting; the Warriors kept the game close by shooting 7-12 (.583) from the three point line and forcing nine turnovers, many of which happened in the half court, not in transition.

The Mavericks opened the third quarter by running a screen and roll play with Nowitzki and Harris. Nowitzki caught a pass from Harris, took one dribble and drained a jumper right in Jackson's eye. There is simply no reason for Nowitzki to post up Jackson, which invites double teams and takes Nowitzki out of his comfort zone; whenever Nowitzki faces up Jackson he can simply use his height advantage to shoot over him, either right after the catch or, like in this instance, after using his dribble to get Jackson to backpedal a bit. On the Mavericks' next possession, they inexplicably did not go back to what worked, with Harris instead driving wildly to the hoop and getting his shot blocked. Ironically, Nowitzki recovered the ball at the three point line, set himself and hit another jumper. On Dallas' third possession, Nowitzki posted up Jackson, backed him down and then took an off balance shot in the lane that rolled off of the rim. Meanwhile, Golden State, employing their customary questionable shot selection, bricked shots from all angles. After a Jackson miss, the Mavericks ran out and Eddie Jones hit a jumper after just three seconds had run off of the shot clock, putting Dallas up 67-54. After that, other than one face up jumper by Nowitzki, the Mavericks went away from what had been working and instead slowed the game down and failed to get the ball to Nowitzki in positions where he could face up and go to work. Meanwhile, Jackson exploited smaller defenders in the post, Golden State hit cutters for layups and Dallas often struggled to get off good shots in the half court set. By the 1:30 mark the Warriors had cut the Mavericks' lead to 83-80; Dallas led 89-85 by the end of the quarter.

Nowitzki posted up Jackson early in the fourth quarter but instead of taking an off balance shot he launched a smooth turnaround jumper that swished through the net and put Dallas up 91-85. Soon after that, the Mavericks finally went back to the Nowitzki screen and roll play; this time it led to a three point play as Jason Terry made a layup and drew a foul. Then the Mavericks forced a Davis turnover and pushed the ball up the court, with Howard driving to the hoop, scoring on a drive and drawing a foul. His free throw put Dallas up 97-85. After a Warriors' backcourt violation, Nowitzki posted up Davis, drew a double team, passed the ball back out and the Mavericks reversed the ball to the corner for an open Howard three pointer that made the score 100-85. The Warriors never mounted a serious threat after that point, plagued by turnovers and some wild shots that missed badly. In one sequence, Nowitzki blocked two Jackson shot attempts before snaring the defensive rebound.

The Mavericks did not push the ball quite as much as they could have and at times they got away from the things that they do best but they took advantage of enough fast break opportunities and Nowitzki face up shots to get the win. If the Mavericks had played this way against Golden State during the playoffs they probably would have swept the series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:10 AM

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part VIII

The Boston Celtics won four straight games since the previous leaderboard and are now on pace to surpass the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 72-10 record. I don't expect the Celtics to win 72 games--or even 70--but the way that this team has jelled so quickly, particularly on defense, is very impressive.

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

1) Boston Celtics, 26-3
2) Detroit Pistons, 24-7
3) San Antonio Spurs, 21-8
4) Phoenix Suns, 22-9
5) Orlando Magic, 22-11

The Detroit Pistons own the longest winning streak in the league (nine games) now that Utah ended Portland's run at 13 games. If the Celtics and Pistons meet in the playoffs we will witness an interesting matchup between Boston's collection of stars who have never won anything and Detroit's group of stars who won one title but act as though it is disrespectful not to consider them the team of the decade. As usual, the Spurs are hiding in the weeds, attracting little attention and biding their time until the playoffs. The Suns have an excellent record but there are signs of discord in the desert. Despite their protestations to the contrary, Phoenix misses Kurt Thomas' low post defense and there seems to be a disconnect within the organization between one camp that believes that the team can win a championship as is and another camp that thinks that changes must be made.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 28.8 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.1 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.3 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.7 ppg
5) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.8 ppg
6) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.8 ppg
7) Carlos Boozer, UTA 24.1 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.9 ppg
9) Dwight Howard, ORL 22.9 ppg
10) Tracy McGrady, HOU 22.8 ppg

16) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 21.7 ppg
17) Paul Pierce, BOS 21.6 ppg

20) Yao Ming, HOU 21.3 ppg

26) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.7 ppg

32) Ray Allen, BOS 19.1 ppg

37) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.8 ppg

LeBron James still leads the pack but his scoring average and field goal percentage dropped dramatically in December (25.8 ppg, .457; he scored 32.1 ppg on .496 shooting in November). Kobe Bryant has yet to put together a string of 40 point games and if he does so then he will take over first place. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony are the league's most explosive scoring duo but the Nuggets are not winning any more frequently with Iverson than they did before acquiring him. If Tracy McGrady's balky knee sidelines him for an extended period of time then he will fall below the minimum required number of games and thus drop off of the list. Richard Jefferson is the only player in the top 10 who has never made the All-Star team.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.2 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 14.1 rpg
4) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.1 rpg
5) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.9 rpg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.5 rpg
7) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.8 rpg
8) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.6 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.6 rpg
10) Kevin Garnett, BOS 10.5 rpg

12) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.2 rpg

16) Andrew Bynum, LAL 9.8 rpg

18) Al Horford, ATL 9.5 rpg

24) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

26) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.6 rpg

28) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.6 rpg

36) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.8 rpg

48) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.2 rpg

This list is largely unchanged, other than the reappearance of Tim Duncan, who has now played enough games to qualify. It seems virtually certain that Kevin Garnett's four year run as the rebounding champion is over; if Dwight Howard maintains his 15.5 rpg average that would be the best rebounding performance in the NBA since Dennis Rodman averaged 16.1 rpg in 1996-97. Rodman averaged at least 15.5 rpg in five different seasons but the last NBA player other than Rodman who averaged at least 15.5 rpg is Kevin Willis (15.5 rpg, 1991-92)--and the last player who accomplished this prior to Willis is Moses Malone (17.6 rpg, 1978-79). Howard is sometimes compared to Shaquille O'Neal; he does not yet possess the dominating offensive game that O'Neal had during his prime but Howard is emerging as one of the greatest rebounders of the past 30 years.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.4 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.6 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.2 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 8.7 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.7 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.1 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg
8) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.7 apg
9) LeBron James, CLE 7.6 apg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.1 apg

The assists leaderboard tends to fluctuate less than the other ones. Mo Williams (7.1 apg) and Dwyane Wade (6.9 apg) are creeping up on the top 10, though, and Tony Parker is averaging a career-high 6.7 apg.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:57 PM

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Scottie Pippen is No Diplomat, but He Knows Basketball

Scottie Pippen would like to coach the Chicago Bulls, the team that he helped lead to six NBA titles, and he does not understand "the key to the good 'ol boy system" that he believes is preventing him from getting a coaching job: "What's my disadvantage? No NBA coaching experience? Skiles' record with the Bulls wasn't that great. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do what you've done your whole life. I've played basketball, run teams and won. They didn't put me at point guard because I could dribble good. They put me there because I could run a team. I wasn't the best dribbler, the best shooter. I wasn't a point guard. But I knew how to run a team."

Pippen told the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith, "What experience do you need? You have assistants who have been there. If I made a mistake, I wouldn't be the first coach to make a mistake. I'd love the opportunity to be part of the organization now that Skiles is gone. I've won championships with this organization and been in the competition when everything was on the line. I was a coach on the floor. Why isn't that experience?"

Pippen also offered some blunt assessments of the skills and limitations of some of the current Bulls' players:

***Tyrus Thomas "dribbles better with his left hand than his right. He must have broken his arm when he was a kid. He shouldn't be dribbling. He should be a fetcher. Like Ben Wallace, (Joakim) Noah, go get the ball."

***Ben Wallace "doesn't know the game like Dennis Rodman did. Dennis knew how and why he got rebounds. So you keep on him (Wallace) or he doesn't play."

***Ben Gordon "(is) out there shooting for a contract...If there's two, three guys running at him, he still wants to make a shot. Those shots are out of position, your teammates don't expect them, you are not in position to rebound and get back. Taking bad shots is a sign of a lack of respect for your teammates. You think I'm going to run back if I know B.J. Armstrong is jacking it up? My shot is just as good as his. That's what players think."

***Kirk Hinrich "(is) guarding Kobe, Tracy McGrady, the best players. He's not that talented. Let him run the offense. But you can't have midgets running your backcourt. Little guards always put you in a vulnerable position. You've got to send help. It puts too much pressure on the defense."

***Luol Deng "(is) solid. But he doesn't have enough speed. He plays more upright, so it's tough for him to go out and guard smaller guys. I think Deng is on the verge of being a star. But all that money talk added pressure. Now he's trying to show 28, 29 teams what he's about instead of going out and playing."

***Andres Nocioni "(is) turning into Rasheed Wallace with the kinds of things he does on floor. It makes the officials turn on the whole team. And you stop getting calls."

Obviously, diplomacy is not Scottie Pippen's strong suit. I stood right next to him during the 2007 All-Star Weekend when he told a group of reporters, "If you ask people who understand the game, the GMs and the coaches, they’d rather have a Scottie than a Michael." As I explained, "there is in fact some truth to what he said--not so much that GMs would prefer Scottie to Michael but that they would prefer the way that Scottie played. Jordan was a more naturally gifted scorer but as a rebounder, playmaker and defender Pippen did not have to take a back seat to any midsized player--even MJ--and he consistently played, as Larry Brown would say, 'the right way,' supporting his teammates and trying to get them involved. He never felt the temptation that MJ often did to try to simply shoot his team out of trouble single-handedly."

Someone who hires Scottie Pippen to be a head coach may cringe once in a while at Pippen's blunt, brutally honest way of expressing himself--but isn't that a small price to pay in exchange for the wealth of knowledge and experience that Pippen has?

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 PM

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MVP/RoY Rankings, Part III

The third edition of the blogger MVP/RoY rankings was just posted at 3 Shades of Blue. In case you missed the first two editions, here are the links:

MVP/RoY rankings, Part I

MVP/RoY rankings, Part II

Here is my complete ballot exactly as I submitted it (MVP and RoY votes are scored on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 and 5-4-3-2-1 basis respectively, so Bryant is my top MVP pick and Durant is my top RoY pick):

10-Kobe Bryant: Widely acknowledged as the "best" player in the NBA, supposedly the only reason that he has not won the MVP the past two years is his team's record. The Lakers have beaten Phoenix twice and are on pace for more than 50 wins, so if the Lakers keep this up then that excuse will no longer be valid.
9-LeBron James: He is having another great season but even LeBron insists that Kobe is the league's best player, so who are we to argue?
8-Dwight Howard: He's had 21 rebounds in back to back games and the Magic have won three straight after losing seven of their previous nine.
7-Kevin Garnett: He's actually putting up his worst numbers in a decade in most categories but as long as the Celtics keep winning he will always be in the MVP discussion.
6-Tim Duncan: Like Garnett, he is putting up lower numbers than usual but the Spurs were just 2-2 during the four games that he missed due to injury. His performance has been up and down since returning to action.
5-Chris Paul: Hornets have won five straight and six of seven; he has averaged 24.6 ppg and 10.0 apg in December.
4-Steve Nash: Is he finally wearing down? Nash has shot less than .500 from the field in six of his last seven games and the Suns only went 4-3 in those games.
3-Dirk Nowitzki: Mavericks have won six of eight as Nowitzki's numbers move toward their '07 levels.
2-Amare Stoudemire: 24.1 ppg, .629 field goal percentage in December.
1-Tracy McGrady: This year Houston may not be winning much with him but the Rockets literally can't win at all without him. If winning is the ultimate "value," then the Rockets' record with him the past four years versus the Rockets' record without him suggests that his value is very high.

Dropped from the list since last time: Yao Ming

Added to the list since last time: Amare Stoudemire

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: In December, he had two 30 point games--and three 6 point games. He leads rookies in minutes played and shots attempted, so the raw numbers alone basically assure him of winning the RoY award but that does not mean that he has lived up to all of the overblown hype surrounding him. Any other player barely averaging 20 ppg while shooting .400 from the field would not garner as much praise as Durant does.
4-Al Horford: Nearly averaging a double double while shooting better than .500 from the field.
3-Sean Williams: Playing time went back up recently. Shoots well (.551 from the field), blocks shots and gets rebounds.
2-Yi Jianlian: Like all of these rookies, he has had some ups and downs but he has been more consistent than most of the first year players.
1-Luis Scola: Getting steady minutes recently and putting up solid numbers.

Dropped from the list since last time: Glen Davis (played 12 minutes in the last four games), Juan Carlos Navarro (played horribly as Memphis lost four straight)

Added to the list since last time: Sean Williams, Luis Scola

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:41 AM

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KG and the Celtics Lock Down Kobe and the Lakers

Before the Boston Celtics played the L.A. Lakers on Sunday night, people spoke of how the old rivalry between these teams can be revived now that both franchises have improved so much. It turns out that those people spoke too soon, because the Celtics pushed aside the Lakers as easily as they have pushed aside most of their other opponents this season, winning 110-91. Paul Pierce scored a game-high 33 points, Kevin Garnett produced a very well balanced stat line (22 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three blocked shots) and Ray Allen added 19 points. Starting point guard Rajon Rondo was a late scratch with a hamstring injury but Tony Allen (16 points, four assists) took his place and Boston did not miss a beat.

Ready-made excuses were in place for the Celtics: this was Boston's fourth game in five nights--all on the road--while the rested Lakers had won four in a row and six of their previous seven games. This kind of game is often referred to in NBA circles as a "scheduling loss," a game in which the travel schedule and the opponent form a perfect storm that results in defeat. Instead, the Celtics won in commanding fashion, essentially turning the fourth quarter into garbage time.

The Celtics improved to 26-3 and have matched the pace set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that won a record 72 games (though it must be added that the Bulls rang up 41 wins before suffering their fourth loss). I still don't think that this team will break that mark but one by one the Boston Celtics are answering all possible questions and shutting up any remaining doubters. Will they play good defense? Check. Will they get enough production from the starting point guard and starting center? Check. Do they have enough depth? Check. Will the chemistry between stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen be good? Check, check, check--and it might be checkmate for the rest of the league; you still have to rate the defending champions San Antonio Spurs ahead of this team, the Detroit Pistons may yet be heard from in the playoffs (though they have departed meekly each year since winning the 2004 title) and I still have faith in the eventual revival of the Cleveland Cavaliers but this Celtics team is no joke and they are making a mockery of their opponents on a nightly basis.

Kobe Bryant, who had averaged 36 ppg on .561 field goal shooting in the previous three games, scored 22 points and shot just 6-25 from the field. Bryant said, "I had good looks. I just missed them. You are going to have nights when you can't put the ball in the ocean sitting on a boat. You just move on to the next one." Bryant was hardly the only Laker who struggled. Andrew Bynum, an improving player who has started to receive outlandish praise recently, had eight points and two rebounds before fouling out and was about as invisible as a seven foot tall person can be. The Lakers shot .354 as a team and were outrebounded 49-41. Lamar Odom shot 6-17 from the field, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds; he also committed a senseless flagrant foul against Ray Allen with 2:57 left in the game and the Celtics up 103-84. Basically, Odom crosschecked Allen into the Celtics bench. Odom will certainly be fined for this and it would not at all be surprising if he is suspended for a game. Allen received a technical foul, though it is not clear what he did wrong. Fans of Amare Stoudemire, Boris Diaw and Carmelo Anthony who think that their heroes did the right things last year and were victimized when the league suspended them for leaving the area of the bench (Stoudemire and Diaw during the Spurs-Suns series) or escalating an altercation by throwing a sucker punch (Anthony in the infamous Nuggets-Knicks clash at Madison Square Garden) should note that no Celtics threw punches, left the bench area or acted the fool in any manner. In other words, the NBA's rules to prevent the escalation of confrontations do work and it is possible to exercise self control even in heated moments. Play was very chippy throughout the game and in one early sequence it looked at first glance like Garnett simply shoved Fisher to the ground for no reason. Garnett and Lakers forward Trevor Ariza each received technical fouls and a replay revealed what actually happened: Ariza pushed Garnett, who then tumbled into Fisher, knocking him over. Again, nobody lost his cool and did anything rash. Later in the game, during a stoppage of play, Garnett made a point of going up to Fisher, gesturing to where the incident had happened and apparently explaining that Ariza had pushed him. Fisher nodded his head as if he accepted Garnett's explanation.

Fisher gave the Lakers a 2-0 lead by nailing a jumper on the opening possession--and it was all downhill for L.A. after that. Less than a minute later, the Celtics took the lead and never trailed again. Bryant struggled with his shot from the outset and never really got into a rhythm. He tried to compensate for this by driving to the hoop and drawing fouls but his 10-11 free throw shooting was not nearly enough to make up for all of the field goals that he and his teammates missed. It seemed like the Lakers had an inordinate number of missed layups but the Celtics lead the league in defensive field goal percentage and point differential for a good reason: they put relentless pressure on shooters and concede nothing. The Celtics led 32-23 by the end of the first quarter and it took a buzzer beating three pointer by Fisher to pull the Lakers to within 53-45 by halftime. The Celtics built double digit leads more than once in the third quarter but when Bryant drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Fisher for an open three pointer the Lakers only trailed 72-66 and it looked like they had weathered the storm--but that is when the floodgates really opened: Pierce scored 10 straight points in the last 3:17 of the quarter, putting the Celtics up 80-66 heading into the final 12 minutes, and Boston never looked back.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:15 AM

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

No Holds Barred Practice Sparked Blazers' Winning Streak

Many people have tried to figure out how the Portland Trail Blazers suddenly became so good. Jason Quick of The Oregonian offers a good answer:

The history books will show that the Trail Blazers' winning streak started on Dec. 3, when Travis Outlaw made a last-second shot at Memphis.

But to the Blazers players and coaches, the roots of the streak really started two days earlier, at a community center in San Antonio, where an edgy and downtrodden Blazers team practiced.

It was where Martell Webster and Joel Przybilla fought. Where Steve Blake kicked and then threw a chair. Where Brandon Roy exchanged sharp words with teammates. And where Channing Frye spoke up and made a promise.

Quick explains that Coach Nate McMillan put in two special practice rules that day: (1) no defensive switching on pick and rolls, forcing defenders to fight aggressively through picks; (2) ballhandlers were only allowed one dribble, thereby encouraging more player and ball movement on offense. McMillan knew exactly what he was doing when he made these changes: "The practice was basically set up for a fight to happen. We were talking about pressuring. We were talking about being physical. We were talking about grabbing. And...we got into a fight, a couple tempers flared and a couple of other things happened."

After the Portland players showed such intensity battling against each other, McMillan pointedly implored them to play that way against the rest of the league--and, since that day, they have.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:11 AM

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