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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lakers Dominate Spurs, Move Closer to Clinching Top Seed in the West

Playing without the injured Manu Ginobili, the Spurs stayed competitive for the first half before the Lakers pulled away to claim a 106-85 win against the defending champions. If the Lakers win their last game of the season against the Kings and the Rockets lose one of their final three games then L.A. will earn the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets conclude their season with tough road games in Denver and Utah before they have a home contest against the Clippers. Kobe Bryant led the way for the Lakers against the Spurs, finishing with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals, shooting 6-14 from the field. Bryant received a lot of help from Lamar Odom (17 points, 14 rebounds, four assists), Pau Gasol (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Derek Fisher (14 points, four assists). Tony Parker had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists but was a complete non-factor in the second half (two points, two rebounds, no assists). Tim Duncan added 16 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field and did not block a shot.

The Spurs took a 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the game and the Lakers struggled defensively throughout the first half as Parker repeatedly got into the paint. The Lakers were not rattled by their slow start and Coach Phil Jackson stayed true to his normal strategy of not calling quick timeouts even if his team does not look sharp. He expects his players to figure things out on their own based on how they have previously been coached and, sure enough, the Lakers soon rallied to tie the score. Neither team led by more than six points for the rest of the first half and the score was tied at 53 at halftime. In his halftime interview with ABC's Michele Tafoya, Bryant--who had called this a "statement game" prior to tipoff--provided a good summary (and second half preview), saying that the Lakers had missed too many easy shots in the paint and committed too many turnovers. Defensively, Bryant said that the Lakers needed to not give up so many open looks to the Spurs on jump shots from the corners.

Bryant had a team-high 13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in the first half but in the third quarter he shined first as a playmaker--accumulating three assists--before scoring seven points in the final 2:31 of the quarter. His buzzer beating three pointer capped off that run and gave the Lakers their largest lead yet, 79-67. Bryant received his customary rest to start the fourth quarter and the bench players did such an excellent job of extending the lead that he did not return to action. With his team trailing 89-71 at the 6:40 mark, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich essentially waved a white flag, benching Duncan, Parker and Michael Finley.

The final seeding at the top of the West may not be decided until the last game of the season is played but if people are going to seriously base their MVP votes mostly or entirely on that factor then why isn't Tracy McGrady's name in play in this conversation? If the Rockets win out and get the number one seed after having the second longest winning streak in NBA history earlier in the season despite losing Yao Ming then shouldn't McGrady be the MVP if the tiebreaker is how each candidate's team finishes? Of course, the reason that McGrady is not being seriously considered as the MVP is that he was not the best player in the league for the entire season and the MVP is (or should be) a season-long award. TNT's Kenny Smith made an interesting point on Thursday when he said that Boston's Kevin Garnett was the MVP of the first half of the season and that Chris Paul was the MVP of the second half of the season--but Kobe Bryant was the second best player in each half and thus deserves to win the MVP based on his season-long consistency.

I keep hearing advocates for Paul saying that he has taken a team out of nowhere to 50-plus wins and that the Hornets would be no good without him. Well, how good do you suppose the Lakers would be without Bryant? The Hornets were a mystery team prior to this season because their nucleus of Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic only played seven games together last season--and Paul did not take that injury-riddled team to the playoffs, while Bryant absolutely carried his injury-depleted team to the 2007 playoffs by posting the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in four decades; that accomplishment included a 50 point outburst in a 111-105 win over Paul's Hornets during which Paul, West and Chandler played while the Lakers started Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, with Shammond Williams--who is not even in the league now--getting the most minutes off of the bench. In 2006, Bryant carried another sad sack outfit to the playoffs by averaging 35.4 ppg, the ninth best scoring average of all-time and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. It is simply amazing that not only did Bryant not win the MVP in either of those years but he did not finish second on either occasion and was even left completely off of some voters' ballots.

This season, West, Chandler and Stojakovic all have been healthy and productive. Meanwhile, the Lakers have endured injuries to several key players and still have yet to put Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the floor together at the same time. Bryant has been productive individually while at the same time leading his team to the top of the Western Conference. Despite having all of his key players together for the entire season, Paul and his Hornets have been faltering right at the moment when they could have put a stranglehold on the top seed, losing three of their last four games, including one to Bryant's Lakers on Friday night, a game in which Bryant clearly outplayed Paul. Paul shot 16-48 from the field in those four games. How can anyone possibly say that those are MVP caliber numbers? If Bryant had shot that poorly in recent games then you can be sure that everyone would be saying that he should not win the MVP. The fact that this is still considered to be a debatable issue is actually quite remarkable. Bryant's critics said that these late season games would decide the MVP and yet now it seems like people are acting like these games did not happen; you know that if the Hornets had won on Friday that everyone on ESPN would be declaring the MVP race to be a landslide decision in Paul's favor. I don't think that the MVP race should be decided just by these games but it is ridiculous to first elevate the importance of these games and then to disregard them when the "right" player and the "right" team did not shine.

Prior to the start of the season, Bryant demanded that management provide him enough help to get the job done--and he has more than held up his part of the bargain as Bynum and others improved and the Lakers pulled off the heist of the season by acquiring Gasol. It has gotten pretty old to hear normally intelligent people acknowledge that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and yet continue to search for excuses to not vote for him as the MVP; this year, the search is over and the excuses ring more hollow than ever.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:32 PM

15 comments

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15 Comments:

At Sunday, April 13, 2008 10:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Nash won his first MVP, the usual candidates (Duncan, Garnett, Shaq) were their usual productive selves.
Voters got tired of them I guess. With Phoenix rising as a new Western power at that time, Nash suddenly got mentioned in MVP talks.
When he went down with an injury, the Suns played really poorly and that seemed to solidify his bid.
Note that after the Spurs pounded the Suns in the playoffs, D'Antoni said that Duncan was the best player in the league, throwing his little MVP under the bus.

The following year was Kobe's most impressive season, and the season in which he should have been MVP.
However, the Suns lost Amare for the season, while Nash improved his numbers, and the Suns kept on winning.
With a far more impressive season than the previous one, voters felt they had to pick Nash again. Two wrongs don't make it right.
While he is an MVP calibre player on offense, it's not an MVOP award.

The Mavs beat the Spurs in the previous playoffs, only to be screwed in the finals.
I was a Wade fan and as much as I wanted the Heat to win (because the Mavs beat the Spurs), that freethrow fest was just wrong.
It wasn't anything Wade did himself, but I just couldn't bring myself to cheer for him again after that.
I believe that Dirk deserved his MVP award. His defense and toughness are underrated, and he is unguardable on offense.
If they handled the Warriors better, they would have won it all. His MVP award (a REGULAR SEASON award I might add) wouldn't be in question.

This season, Chris Paul is having an even better season than Nash ever had, plus reviving basketball in New Orleans.
Kobe has a less impressive season than his 81-point season; when he didn't get the MVP award.
Voters will always find reasons, pick an arbitrary category over another. How else would Ginobili be "the Spurs MVP this season"?
I wouldn't be surprised if Paul won. I think Paul winning the MVP over Kobe this season is far less of a travesty than Nash's second MVP trophy.
There are also some who say that Kobe should win this season because "he was robbed before." They're still not recognizing this season as an MVP-season.
Note that most teams would rather face the Hornets than the Lakers in the playoffs. If voters can find reasons to vote Nash, they'll find reasons to vote Paul.

As for the game recap, I think the Spurs are tanking to avoid Dallas/Phoenix. Another loss puts them at the 5th seed while still having home court over the Jazz.
They might just come out of the West.

Z

 
At Sunday, April 13, 2008 11:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

I agree with your comments about Nash and have said similar things in previous posts. I think that Shaq should have won the '05 MVP and that Kobe has been the MVP since then ('06-'08).

I did not have as big a problem with Dirk winning the MVP but I still would have picked Kobe. People act like Nash is solely responsible for the Suns' success but the Mavs replaced him with Jason Terry and made it to the Finals one year and won 67 games the next. How many games are the Lakers going to win if you replace him with Jason Terry or whoever would be considered an equivalent player at the shooting guard position?

I also agree with you that Paul is having a better season than Nash did in either of his MVP campaigns, although I think at this point I would still trust Nash more in the clutch.

Based on some informal polling by Mark Heisler of the L.A. Times it seems like Kobe had a slight lead even before the win against the Spurs. I actually think that Kobe will win it this year, particularly if the Lakers get the number one seed--but I expect the voting to be a lot closer than it should be. Using any rational standard, the voting should not really be that close but if this was handled rationally Kobe would have already won a couple MVPs.

I don't think that the Spurs are tanking deliberately. I would say that they are not overly concerned about which seed they get as long as Manu will be healthy for the playoffs. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Spurs won the West. Regardless of records/seeds, I think that the Spurs and the Suns are the two best teams in the West in terms of being able to win in the playoffs. The Lakers are too inexperienced and their defense is inconsistent. However, the talent level on the team has been upgraded to the point that they can be competitive now and as long as the other guys keep doing their jobs there is always the chance that Kobe will go off for 50 in a game or average 35 in a series, so the Lakers are a dangerous team now. I think that it will be harder to pick the outcomes of the various series this year than any time in recent memory.

 
At Monday, April 14, 2008 12:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

This is Eric P. (from the "Y" etc.). I attempt to stay as unbiased as possible with the Kobe Bryant for MVP discussion (since I'm a longtime Lakers and Kobe fan). However, I am in agreement with you regarding the double standard regarding his MVP candidancy.

Kobe deserves the regular season MVP award based on his individual performance and his team's performance. Obviously, Phil Jackson, Mitch Kupchak, and the new/improved players (Fisher, Bynum, Gasol, and the bench) also have greatly contributed to the Lakers' success. Kobe is still the single biggest factor for their success.

Kobe's defense is great. Aside from averaging 28+ points per game while shooting around 46% from the field as a perimeter player, he also averages over 6 rebounds per game, over 5 assists a game and close to 2 steals a game as well. He has refined his scoring philosophy to accommodate this year's version of the Lakers. As a team, the Lakers team scoring average is the highest it has been in 18 seasons.

I am tired of the frequency that I hear that Chris Paul makes others around him better while scarcely anyone gives Kobe the same accolades. Chris Paul has had a very, very good season and is only going to get better. The Hornets have been a wonderful story. Let's keep it in perspective. David West is healthy and had a All Star season. Peja has bounced back and provided timely outside shooting and veteran savy. Tyson Chandler is a monster rebounder and very solid post defender while improving his offensive game. Chris Paul has certainly played a role in this success. But these players (aside from West who has had a number of injuries in the past and is now healthy) were productive prior to this year.

On the other hand, Bynum has improved but played less than 1/2 a season. I love Fisher's tenacity, leadership and clutch attitude but he is not in the upper echelon of point guards. Odom is a great talent but disappears way to much in pressure situations. Gasol is talented and is very good offensively but he is at times overmatched on defense. Kobe has been the constant throughout the season (while playing with a dangling finger on his shooting hand for almost 1/3 of the season) and he makes his team markedly BETTER. He is the MVP period. What does he have to do to win an MVP? This should be at least his third MVP award.

Sorry Z but you are wrong!

Eric

 
At Monday, April 14, 2008 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman:

Your article about the Spurs game is one of the best match commentary i have ever read.Thanks for that.Although there was no response for Parker's layup session in the first half,the Spurs seemed to very desperate in the 2nd half.Having watched almost 50 games this season,I think the Lakers never performed a better 24 minutes this year against play-off teams,especially by means of defensive effort and Gasol showed that he is not as soft as he seems to be by standing tall against Duncan and almost stopping him.

The biggest concern for the Lakers during off-season will be the defensive effort of Fisher and Farmar and how they can slow the fast guards such as Paul,Williams or Parker.If they maintain a good defensive play, they(we) are contenders without Bynum and Ariza.But in my opinion Celtics are still the favorites to win it all.

As for the MVP, it is clear that Kobe must be the obvious choice although C.Paul played an excellent season. The only thing i disagree with you is that even though Kobe performed a one-man-show in 2006, he should not have been the MVP because Lakers did not win sufficient number of games that season.This became a legitimate rule in deciding the MVP's,i guess.

Regards,

Engin

 
At Monday, April 14, 2008 5:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Eric:

It's good to hear from you.

Obviously, I agree with your take. Assuming that the Lakers beat Sacramento and clinch the top seed I think that Kobe will win the MVP; it shouldn't come down to that game considering how well he was played all season but so much emphasis has been placed on the Lakers finishing ahead of the Hornets that I don't think even the MVP voters will contradict themselves and select Paul anyway if the Lakers finish ahead of the Hornets. That said, I suspect that the voting will be a lot closer than it would have been if the Hornets had finished ahead of the Lakers.

 
At Monday, April 14, 2008 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Engin:

Paul, Williams and Parker are obviously tough covers for anyone but I think that Fisher's defense has declined a bit as the season went on, possibly because of the foot injury that he is playing through.

My position regarding the MVP has not changed: I think that the best all-around player should win, with the only exception being if there is a very dominant post player; Shaq has never been the best all-around player but I think that he should have been the 2005 MVP (Kobe missed too many games to qualify that season, in my opinion, and he did not have quite the impact that he has had the past three seasons). Team records should only be used as a tiebreaker if the race is otherwise too close to call. Why can't a player for a 40-45 win team be considered the most valuable, particularly if that team would clearly have only won about 20-25 games without him? I think that in recent years the voters have used won-loss records as an excuse to arbitrarily "disqualify" certain candidates (primarily Kobe). I would have a problem voting for an MVP from a 25-30 win team but it is highly unlikely that a player of that caliber would be on such a team (unless he or other key players missed a lot of games due to injuries). In '06 and '07 the Lakers were a playoff team primarily because of Kobe. I think that it's obvious that if Kobe had been surrounded by the talent that Nash had that he would have done even better than Nash did and that if Nash had been surrounded by the "talent" that Kobe had in those seasons that Nash could not have carried those teams to the playoffs. Why do I say that?

1) Kobe has been a key player on three championship teams.

2) All the Lakers did was add one one-time All-Star and Kobe took them to the top of the West (it is true that there has been some internal improvement on the roster as well).

3) Nash has played on several teams that had multiple All-Stars yet has never made even one Finals appearance; if he can't take those teams to the Finals then I don't believe he's taking a team to the best record in the West while only having Bynum for 35 games and Gasol for fewer than 25.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 12:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Eric:

What exactly did I say that you disagree with? Did I say that "Kobe should not win the MVP?"

Here's what I said:
I wouldn't be surprised if Paul won. I think Paul winning the MVP over Kobe this season is far less of a travesty than Nash's second MVP trophy.

I was talking about how the previous seasons unfolded with regards to the MVP award. The voters of the MVP award each have their own criteria for judging, and based on what happened before, Paul winning it wouldn't come as a surprise to me.

Z

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 1:42:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I thought Shaq was the best all-around player in the league for several years.

Is it just me, or do Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson have a very distorted view of the Lakers? Every time they call a Laker game, they rave about how versatile and talented Lamar Odom is and how good the Laker role players (like Vujacic) are. They apparently don't watch enough of the Lakers to know how useless Odom is in the clutch, how inconsistent he is, and the liability he is on defense. They totally overlook the numerous defensive shortcomings that everyone on the squad with the exception of Kobe (and the injured Bynum and Ariza) have. It seems like even beyond Jackson and Van Gundy that people have taken the initial surprise improvement of the Lakers' role players and gone way too far. It's like when all the ESPN analysts decide at the same time that someone is underrated and then proceed to go on and on about that until they overrate that player.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 6:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I don't think that Shaq was ever the best all-around player in the same sense that Kobe is now; Kobe has no weaknesses, while Shaq--even at his best--was a poor free throw shooter and, at times, an indifferent defensive player. Shaq also has never had great shooting range. Nevertheless, I still say that Shaq deserved more MVPs than he won because his strengths--dominant inside presence, high field goal percentage, good passer from the post--more than offset his weaknesses during his prime.

Although overall I like JVG as a commentator, I agree with you that he overrates Kobe's supporting cast. I don't think that Mark Jackson is nearly as guilty of doing that and Jackson--unlike JVG--picked Kobe as this year's MVP. Odom tantalizes people with his potential--and he has played well recently--but he has been in the league long enough that people should realize that he has already maxed out; he simply is not going to be an All-Star, let alone an All-NBA caliber player. He is best suited for the role he has now: third option on a good team, with Kobe and Gasol doing the heavy lifting on offense while he gets defensive rebounds and feeds off of the double-teams that they draw.

JVG had a little feud going with Phil Jackson back in the day, so I wonder if he overrates the Lakers either to diminish what Jackson has done and/or to set up criticism for the Lakers if they don't make it to the Finals. JVG's analysis is usually pretty solid, in my opinion, so his strange comments about the Lakers do stand out.

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 6:24:00 AM, Anonymous DHSmd said...

Well, now that you mention it, how do Hollinger and Ford manage to cling to any sense of credibility, particularly in the wake of their published ballots on this MVP race.

Several self-annointed "experts listed Kobe in Second place - which I don't respect much, but can understand to some degree.

Chris Ford's Third is simply ridiculous.

And Hollinger's Fourth is beyond silly. It's downright unmitigated hate.

Unless you can offer some other explanation...

 
At Tuesday, April 15, 2008 5:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DHSmd:

I have no explanation for Hollinger, Ford or anyone else who does not think that Kobe is this year's MVP.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 2:54:00 AM, Blogger joketrump said...

a quick comment on Chris Paul/his teammates. David West is not an All-Star on any other team in the league. Peja does not shoot his career high from 3 without Paul. Tyson Chandler does not match his career high in FG% without Paul and its questionable if his career really takes off without Paul. I'm not saying that these players aren't good or wouldn't be good on other teams but I don't think they achieve the same individual/team success without Paul. I realize the weakness of this methodology but I believe that the Lakers would be better off with Paul (maybe not given their triangle scheme but that aside). Before you claim that people twist stats in favor of Paul, consider this, Chris Paul has a better PER and a better NBA Efficiency Ranking (both of which skew toward players who shoot more). Chris Paul has more Win Shares, Win Shares above average, and more Offensive Win Shares than Kobe. It's close but Paul also has a better Roland Rating. Stats aren't everything but shouldn't they count for something? And aren't these stats way better than simple points per game? So your argument is that Kobe played better in one game, he scores more, and his teammates are worse? Kobe is better at defense, I agree but Paul still led the league in steals so that at least has to offset that a bit. Kobe for MVP? The numbers nor my live viewing of both of them this season bear this out. If Kobe wins it I won't be enraged because he has had a phenomenal year and he is a tremendous player. It was great to watch him mesh with his teammates. That said, all things considered, Paul is my MVP.

Sidenote - your point about them not making the playoffs last year isn't a good one because the Hornets missed the postseason by 3 games and Paul missed 18 with injury during which time (i believe, could be off counting-wise) they were 6-12. If he is healthy they definitely make the postseason.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 7:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joketrump:

Why wouldn't West be an All-Star without CP3? West is a big guy who can shoot, rebound and defend. I agree that CP3 helps Chandler's field goal percentage but keep in mind that in crediting CP3 with improving Chandler you are comparing CP3 to the likes of Kirk Hinrich; there are a lot of pgs who could throw lobs to Chandler.

There is no way that the Lakers would be better with CP3 than Kobe. Keep in mind what I wrote about the Lakers' three seasons. Kobe had Bynum for less than half of the season and Gasol for a fourth of the season, with neither of them on the court at the same time. If Kobe had had both of them for the whole season--or if he had had West and Chandler all year the way that CP3 did--then the Lakers would have run away with the West title.

My argument for Kobe is definitely not based on one game and I only bring up the subject of teammates to refute the nonsense that Kobe has had a better supporting cast this year than CP3; my argument for Kobe is the one that I have used for three seasons: he is the best, most complete player in the NBA based on his overall skill set. He can score from any area, he rebounds his position, he is a great passer, he has great footwork, he is a top notch defender, etc. No other player in the NBA is as complete as Kobe. CP3 has had a great season and I steadily moved him up my MVP rankings after the start of the year--but I would not take him over Kobe or LeBron.

My point about last year's playoffs is that Kobe carried an injury depleted squad in the second half of the season, including a victory over a full strength Hornets team while he was playing with the likes of Smush and Shammond Williams. CP3 was not able to likewise carry his team down the stretch. Also, you are kind of proving my point here: the difference this season is not entirely how much CP3 and the others improved but also the simple fact that the CP3-West-Peja-Chandler quartet was healthy all season instead of being banged up. I agree that they would have done better last season than they did if they had been healthier, which is part of why I don't think that their performance this season proves that CP3 is better than Kobe. Kobe carried bad teams to the playoffs and he has carried a good team to the very top of the conference.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 11:30:00 AM, Blogger joketrump said...

Do you really believe that David West makes the All-Star team on another team? I don't and especially not in the West where Baron and other worthy candidates were snubbed due to the abundance of talent. A lot of PGs can throw alley-oops but Chandler and Paul lead the league in this category. Is this Chandler, or Paul?

Agree to disagree (hate that term though) on the Lakers-with-Paul argument but I do think they would be better. Perhaps I rate point guards too highly but I think they are the most important position on the floor. I see Bynum developing much earlier and Sasha Vujacic emerging as a key role player last season if Paul is around.

Kobe is the most complete player in the NBA and I know you are more intelligent than to base your appraisal on one game. That said, statistically Kobe's teammates have always been underrated... and I don't think that's a coincidence.

I don't think you get my point (and I'm certainly not "proving" yours). The Hornets won something like 8 of 10 to close the year when Paul was healthy. If Paul is healthy, they make the playoffs and the argument you make for Kobe is negated by Paul carrying an injury riddled team. Incidentally, I don't think Paul was 100% at the end of the year but Kobe played through his finger this year (which I think supports his MVP argument).

You didn't address any of the statistical arguments so I'm guessing Kobe must have the intangibles... but I think Paul wins these too. He's a better leader and he makes his teammates better simply by his presence on the court.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 6:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joketrump:

I think that West could put up similar numbers for a lot of teams. Whether or not he would make the All-Star team would of course depend on his team's record and other factors.

Obviously, the CP3-Chandler alley-oop connection works because of both parties. Do you really think that there are not at least 10 pgs who could throw similar passes? Chandler was a younger player dealing with a poor pg situation when he was in Chicago.

I think that you do overrate the importance of pgs and you are not alone in this regard, as I indicated in my recent PBN article about pgs and MVPs. Paul has had an excellent season but there are many pgs who had similar or better campaigns and did not come close to winning MVPs. Of course, every season is different but there is no doubt that pg play is being more highly valued by MVP voters now than it used to be.

Kobe's teammates are for the most part overrated; a lot of their success stems directly from playing alongside, from matchups that are created by his presence and even by the fact that some of them can play on the second unit against reserves because he is in the starting lineup.

Obviously, all either of us can do is speculate about last season and what it tells us about each player's value. You stated your case and I stated mine.

I have already stated my position on PER, EFF and other such stats: they are a tool, nothing more and nothing less. I think that even their inventors would agree that you cannot take them literally and say that the players should be ranked exactly how they come out numerically. Kobe and Paul are top level player and they rank near the top in those statistical measures. Berri used his numbers to "prove" that Rodman was more productive on a per minute basis than Jordan, so I take a lot of this stuff with a heavy grain of salt.

 

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