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Friday, January 11, 2008

The Enigmatic Rasheed Wallace

Rasheed Wallace had 23 points, 15 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots to lead the Detroit Pistons to an impressive 90-80 road win over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Amazingly, this is the first time that Wallace has put up at least 23 points and 15 rebounds in a game since February 10, 2005. Wallace is a marvelously skilled player and it was his arrival in Detroit that put the Pistons over the top and enabled them to win the 2004 championship. Yet he is averaging just 13.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg this season, numbers that are roughly in line with his career marks (15.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Those are decent stats for a small forward, not a multifaceted power forward/center. Wallace, who clearly has the rare ability to be a 20-10 guy consistently, has never averaged 20 ppg or nine rpg in a season.

At halftime of the Pistons-Spurs game--and again on the postgame show--TNT's Charles Barkley said that if you put Michael Jordan's mind in Wallace's body that he'd be the best player in the NBA, adding, "I've never seen a player who is seven feet tall who can post you up and shoot threes...but for him to only have 23 and 15 once every two or three years is a travesty." Kenny Smith echoed those sentiments: "Over 82 games, something doesn't trigger in him to say that he could dominate." Smith noted that Wallace can be dominant in short stretches, something that he will do during the postseason, and Smith believes that this is part of the reason that the Pistons consistently have made deep playoff runs since Detroit acquired Wallace.

Wallace is truly perplexing, someone who is prone to bizarre fits of rage that earn him numerous technical fouls, and yet someone who is also praised by his teammates and coaches as a player who is a wonderful teammate who has a high basketball IQ. It's almost like the game is so easy for him that he has never had to play hard consistently to do well. Wallace has an array of unblockable shots that he can deliver in the paint but he tends to drift outside, where he is also a deadly shooter--but that takes him out of rebounding position and prevents him from drawing fouls as often as true star players do.

It is so frustrating to watch Wallace play, because even though he has won a championship and earned some individual honors along the way it is obvious that he could do so much more. Smith asserts that Wallace's postseason performances are why the Pistons advance but it could just as accurately be said that some of his performances are why the Pistons have not won another title. Barkley noted that the only time that Wallace really seemed to try to dominate was right after he came to Detroit; not coincidentally, that is the only year that he and the Pistons won the title. Wallace's bonehead play left Robert Horry open in the next year's Finals and probably cost the Pistons another ring and Wallace has sprinkled in a few meltdowns/disappearing acts in recent postseasons.

Tim Duncan had 24 points and 15 rebounds in Thursday's game. The difference between Duncan and Wallace is that two-time MVP, four-time champion Duncan puts up those numbers on a regular basis, not once every three years. When some guys have a night like Wallace's, it is obviously a fluke, but there is nothing that Wallace did against the Spurs that he could not do on a fairly regular basis. The unsolved mystery is why he is not wired that way, whereas a Duncan, a Jordan or a Kobe Bryant tries to--as Barkley put it--"kill" people on a nightly basis, much like Bill Belichick's New England Patriots do.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Choosing Kobe Over Shaq Looks Smarter Every Day

In 2004, Lakers owner Jerry Buss decided to not sign Shaquille O'Neal for maximum years at maximum dollars and instead build the team around Kobe Bryant. The Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a draft pick (which became Jordan Farmar) and signed Bryant to a max extension. The "instant analysis" at that time was that no team should ever get rid of a dominant big man--but this ignored two important facts that were central considerations to Buss: (1) He does not have the financial resources to exceed the salary cap and thus pay the dollar for dollar luxury tax; (2) O'Neal's age and questionable work habits made it highly likely that his days of dominance were almost over and certainly would not last the entire life of a long term contract. Keeping O'Neal at full price would have meant losing Kobe Bryant--not because Bryant was unwilling to play with O'Neal but because Buss would not have been able to pay the max salary to both players. Anyone who wants to know the true story behind the "breakup of the Lakers" must read two posts: Let the Truth be Told and Will This be Remembered as the Tim Duncan Era or the Shaquille O'Neal Era?

My take on Buss' decision has been consistent from the outset: the O'Neal trade must be looked at as a short term deal for Miami--with a two to three year maximum window for success--but a long term deal for the Lakers, who might not reap the full benefit for at least three years. In other words, this was not a zero sum proposition in which one team would "win" and the other team would "lose"; it was entirely possible that both teams could "win" or both teams could "lose." This is what I wrote during the 2006 playoffs (right before O'Neal and the Heat won the NBA title):

Purely based on production there is no question that O’Neal is overpaid. He is receiving the NBA’s top salary but is clearly not the NBA’s best player. However, Miami’s ultimate goal in acquiring him is to win the championship, so the latter part of his career must be looked at in that context. Riley signed O’Neal and then came down from the Heat’s executive offices to coach Wade, O’Neal and the veteran-laden roster that he assembled around his two stars.

Riley’s reasoning can be summarized by borrowing from a popular advertising campaign: Cost for a future Hall of Fame center? $20 million. Winning an NBA championship? Priceless.

Here is one example of my take on the deal from the Lakers' perspective, in a post written just after Phil Jackson returned from his one year hiatus to coach the Lakers:

Now that Jackson will again be coaching Kobe and the Lakers, it is much less plausible to suggest that Kobe "exiled" Jackson in the first place. Even when Jackson was coaching the Bulls he often spoke of the need to take a hiatus to rejuvenate himself; it is increasingly clear that he decided on his own to leave. On the other hand, he would not come back to the Lakers unless he believes that a Kobe Bryant-led team has a good chance to be successful. Jackson had his choice of coaching jobs around the NBA and by electing to take the Lakers' job it is obvious that he does not feel as negatively about Bryant as a player, teammate and leader as many in the media and general public do...

No one would argue that the current Lakers are a championship contending squad. What will the critics say about Jackson--and Kobe--if the Lakers win a title in the next 2-3 years?

It is now "2-3 years later," making this an appropriate time to evaluate how Buss' decision turned out. The Heat have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and O'Neal's career is literally and figuratively on its last legs. Keep in mind that O'Neal's contract extends out for two more years and $40 million. Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury was more serious than initially reported and it is not clear when--or if--he will be the player that he was when he won the 2006 Finals MVP. The Heat are a bad team that shows every sign of being bad for the foreseeable future. Miami's ownership has the financial wherewithal to pay O'Neal and the Heat did win a title with him, so from the short term aspect the trade was a success. However, there is a long term price to pay and the Heat are only just beginning to deal with that burden. Any thought that O'Neal and Wade would combine to win multiple titles turned out to be a pipe dream and, in retrospect, they are quite fortunate to have captured even one championship; don't forget that the Heat were down 2-0 to Dallas in the 2006 Finals and trailing deep into game three before Wade took over. O'Neal won three straight championships with Bryant and that total could easily have been greater if not for O'Neal's fateful decision to heal a 2002 toe injury "on company time," a choice that wrecked the 2002-03 season and effectively was the beginning of the end of the Lakers' run.

Meanwhile, the Lakers are currently a game and a half behind the Suns for first place in the Pacific Division. The Lakers have won both head to head meetings with the Suns and are increasingly being recognized as a legitimate Western Conference contender this season. ESPN ran an interesting graphic that indicates how much more depth the Lakers have now compared to recent seasons. In 2004-05, the Lakers went just 5-15 when Bryant scored fewer than 20 points. They went 1-3 in such games the next season and 5-7 in 2006-07--but so far in 2007-08 they are 8-1, a development that thrills Bryant, who had this to say after the Lakers' 109-80 win over the Hornets on Wednesday: "
I'm not the guy who has to go out and score 35-something points. They come to me to get buckets when we need a little boost here and there and that's as it should be." Bryant had 19 points, seven rebounds and a game-high seven assists in that contest. For the past two seasons, Bryant was widely recognized by knowledgeable observers as the best player in the league but he did not win the MVP because his team did not win at least 50 games. The Lakers are currently on pace for 55 wins. Bryant's scoring average is down from his league-leading pace of the past two seasons but he still ranks third in the NBA in that category while topping the Lakers in assists and steals. Bryant made the All-Defensive First Team last year and said that his goal this season is to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. That honor has recently gone primarily to shotblocking big men but if Bryant continues to play this way and the Lakers go on to win 50-55 games there will be absolutely no excuse to not vote for him for MVP. It would be the height of irony--and stupidity--if the voters look more at Bryant's declining scoring average than the key role that he is playing in the Lakers' success.

It remains to be seen if the Lakers are in fact legitimate contenders and whether or not Bryant will lead them to another championship at some point. Still, we already know enough to issue a much more authoritative verdict on the O'Neal trade than the snap judgments that many people made several years ago. The trade was a short term success for the Heat, but the franchise will have to deal with long term negative ramifications from tying up so much money in O'Neal; the trade has been a long term success for the Lakers, who made the playoffs the past two seasons while rebuilding and now appear to have developed into a strong team.

The bottom line is this: based on all of the considerations involved, the Lakers were smart to not re-sign O'Neal for max years at max dollars--and the Heat's calculated risk in doing so was rewarded with a championship. Barring other trades/signings, if the Heat had not signed O'Neal, their current nucleus would be Wade-Butler-Odom; if the Lakers had signed O'Neal and let Bryant walk due to financial considerations, they likely would have no All-Stars and would be as bad or worse than the Heat are now--and without ever having won a title, because O'Neal by himself without another All-Star would not have led the Lakers past the first round in the West, let alone helped them to win a championship, something that he was barely able to do playing in the East with Dwayne Wade at his peak.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:48 AM


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Cleveland Romps: Cavs Smash Sonics, 95-79

LeBron James had 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals as Cleveland cruised to a 95-79 home victory versus Seattle. The Cavaliers have a season-high tying four game winning streak, have won six out of seven games for the first time this season and improved to 4-0 in 2008. The Cavaliers maintained control throughout most of the game and Cleveland led 81-62 by the 8:36 mark of the fourth quarter, enabling James to sit out the remainder of the game so that he will be well rested for the second half of the back to back, which takes place in Atlanta. James received strong support from Daniel Gibson (17 points, 5-8 three point shooting) and Anderson Varejao (14 points, nine rebounds, a game-high plus/minus rating of +16). Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden struggled offensively--each shot 1-6 from the field--but gathered nine and six rebounds respectively. Larry Hughes had nine points, four rebounds, two assists, three steals and the same plus/minus rating as James (+13) but that did not stop the home fans from booing lustily almost every time that he missed a shot (Hughes shot 4-11 from the field). Hughes' field goal percentage (a career-low .336 so far this season) has become a hot button topic in Cleveland but the reality regarding him is quite simple: (1) he has never been a great shooter (.410 career field goal percentage) and (2) the Cavaliers perform better when he is healthy and in the starting lineup, even when he does not shoot well. Hughes has been healthy during the current winning streak that has propelled Cleveland back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. Hughes has missed 14 games this season and the Cavs went 7-7 in those contests (they also lost the two games before he went on the injured list when he tried to play but was clearly not 100%). The Cavaliers were 6-8 last year when Hughes did not play--and 43-25 in the remaining games. Hughes may not be as good as Cavaliers' fans had hoped for when the team signed him but there is no doubt that he works hard at both ends of the court and that the team is much stronger when he is in the lineup. Fans pay their money for tickets and have the right to boo or cheer at their discretion--but it is hard to understand what positive result fans expect to happen from their relentless booing of their team's starting point guard. Kevin Durant led Seattle with a game-high 24 points and he shot 10-20 from the field, well above his normal shooting percentage. Three of his missed shots were blocked--no one else in the game had more than one shot blocked--and his floor game is still somewhat limited (six rebounds--which is good--but only one assist, no steals, one blocked shot and four turnovers). Wally Szczerbiak (15 points) was the only other Sonic who scored in double figures.

Both teams started out the game poorly, littering the court with missed shots and turnovers. Neither team scored until Jeff Green's layup gave Seattle a 2-0 lead at the 10:43 mark of the first quarter. An Earl Watson jumper soon put the Sonics up 4-0 but that proved to be Seattle's largest advantage of the game--and a short lived one at that. Varejao's dunk with 3:26 remaining gave the Cavs their first double digit lead (20-9) and the rout was pretty much on after that, although Seattle did make a couple token runs. James' fast break dunk at the 4:03 mark in the second quarter gave the Cavs their biggest first half lead, 39-23. Seattle cut that margin to 45-33 by halftime; the 33 points represent a season-low for a Cleveland opponent. James (14 points, 7-10 field goal shooting) and Durant (12 points, 6-13 field goal shooting) were the only double figure scorers.

Cleveland pulled away right after the third quarter began and soon led by 20 points, 55-35. As usually happens in the NBA in such games, the losing team made a run. Durant twice drove to the hoop and converted layups, two of the better moves that I have seen him make this season. He was fouled on the second score and made the free throw to cut the lead to 55-40. Then Szczerbiak drilled two three pointers and split a pair of free throws in a 1:13 stretch to make the score 58-49, Cleveland. After a Cleveland miss, Watson drove to the hoop with a chance to cut the lead to seven but what ensued instead was a disaster for Seattle. Watson missed the shot, James scored a fast break layup and then Gibson buried a three pointer after stealing the inbounds pass. Seattle turned the ball over again on the next possession and Gibson's layup made the score 65-49, Cleveland; as Seattle Coach P.J. Carlesimo put it after the game, "You can't have a worse segment." The Sonics never got closer than 14 points the rest of the game.

Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was understandably pleased with his team's performance: "I thought we did a nice job defensively throughout most of the game, and we obviously had a nice lift from our bench. I thought there were times when we really moved the ball well from one side of the floor to the other. We limited our turnovers tonight and stayed focused for most of the game."

James is glad that the team's defensive focus has returned: "That's four in a row, six out of our last seven because we've decided to start playing defense again--and we're undefeated in 2008. We just need to keep it going." James likes being on the court with a shooter like Gibson because that forces opposing defenses into a lose-lose situation: "Either let me go one on one or you help and hopefully you can close out on the best shooter in the league. I wouldn't leave him open; he's shooting lights out."

In his postgame standup, Carlesimo said, "What has plagued us a lot this year is turnovers for breakaway layups. Some of the turnovers were just horrible. Some of them were created by good, aggressive play by Cleveland but a number of them were just guys not catching the ball or guys dribbling the ball of their foot or guys making very ill advised passes...We didn't do a good job against either 'Boobie' (Gibson) or Anderson. Anderson was aggressive and really did a good job and hurt us and we didn't locate 'Boobie.' The way he's shooting the ball, to lose track of him is not good. Those are two things defensively that we did not do very well."

However, Carlesimo also mentioned an underlying problem in addition to the turnovers and missed defensive assignments: "It's easy to say turnovers more than anything else (led to the loss) but we didn't match the aggression--for some people. I thought that some people competed and I thought that other people didn't play aggressively enough. When we took the ball to the basket we needed one more dribble to really attack it or on plays when two guys had a chance to get a rebound we have to come up with a few more of those. They played better than we did, they had more individuals play better and they certainly took better care of the basketball."

Carlesimo would like to see his players be more willing to meet the challenge of playing against All-Star players and not just accept that the All-Stars are automatically superior. "Not saying that we competed over the edge for 48 minutes but compared to Washington (where the Sonics lost, 108-86, on Sunday), particularly the fourth quarter, it was much better. I just mean that in some individual matchups we are a little accepting. I mean, if you want to enter a game and say, 'Hey this is LeBron James or this is Caron Butler and that's a tough matchup, I can't compete with him,' that's one thing; if you go after him and are more aggressive but get beat that's something else. I think that we have been a little too compliant lately. That, to me, is different. The fourth quarter against Washington was a disgrace. I didn't think tonight was that bad but I did think that we are too compliant in some of our matchups."

Durant sprained his left ankle and did not return to action after leaving the game at the 7:22 mark of the fourth quarter but after the game he indicated that he does not expect to miss any games as a result of the injury. Standing next to him in the locker room, one really gets a sense of just how young he is; his boyish face still has some acne and with his jersey off his lack of upper body musculature is even more glaringly apparent than it is during games. Durant will surely add weight simply by growing up and completing his physical maturation and he can accelerate that process to some degree by lifting weights but he has narrow shoulders and I question how much bulk his frame can really hold. A generation ago, Ralph Sampson tried everything imaginable to put on weight but the 7-4 center could barely get up to 240 pounds and by the end of a long, draining season he was usually 15 pounds lighter than that. The 6-9 Durant will face a similar uphill battle.

Durant has a very pleasant demeanor, earnest and soft spoken. It is obvious that opposing defenses load up on him because Seattle lacks a consistent, credible second offensive option but Durant is too smart and mature to be baited into saying anything that could sound derogatory about his teammates. When a reporter asked Durant about the team's lack of scoring threats, Durant replied, "I wouldn't say that we don't have another scorer. Guys are producing. I mean, in this league we just can't hit shots. I can't hit shots. I think that we are getting great looks and guys can score on this team. I think that we're pretty balanced, to be honest with you. We have four guys (averaging) in double figures. I wouldn't say that there is not a second scoring option or anything like that."

Next, someone asked Durant why Seattle seems to be able to hang around in games to a point before almost inevitably fading. Durant answered, "If I knew what was going on--I wish I could tell you and that we could capitalize on some things. Tonight, we turned the ball over--that was one thing. I don't really know. It's frustrating. Losing 25 games (out of the first 34), that is not something I envisioned doing coming into the league. It's frustrating."

Notes From Courtside:

Prior to the game, I spoke with Sonics assistant coach Paul Westhead, the only person who has coached both an NBA championship team (Lakers, 1980) and a WNBA championship team (Mercury, 2007). We talked at length about his coaching career, which includes stops not only in the NBA and WNBA but also the NCAA as well; those quotes will appear in an article that I am writing about Coach Westhead but I also had the opportunity to discuss some other subjects with him.

It is sometimes said--even by as august a person as John Wooden--that the women's game is more fundamentally sound than the men's game. Rick Barry once told me that the only statistic that is "true and legitimate" is free throw percentage: assists are subject to a scorekeeper's whim, players can pad their rebounding totals by tapping at the ball and field goal percentage does not indicate a player's shooting range. Since putting the ball in the basket is the ultimate fundamental, in August 2005 I looked at the year by year free throw percentages for the NBA and WNBA. I found out that, contrary to popular belief, the men had a small but consistent advantage. Coach Westhead is certainly uniquely qualified to talk about the state of fundamentals in both leagues, so--without mentioning those numbers--I asked him whether or not he believes that the women play a more fundamentally sound game. He replied, "I don't think that there is anything sweeping that I can say about the men's game versus the women's game. I would say that they are very similar more than different. They are the best players in the world; the players in both leagues are very skilled and very talented. You just simply have to get the right group of women (to win a championship), like I had, and you can look out and say that the San Antonio Spurs have the right group of men that are fundamentally sound and play great basketball and win championships. I don't think that there is anything categorical but I would say, as a compliment to the women, that they are much better than people who have not seen them think. They are talented and skilled and they play the team game. They know how to play basketball."

After talking a little bit more about the differences between the women's and men's games, Westhead said, "I will say that the one thing that bears noting is that they sure shoot free throws a lot better than the men." I immediately replied that this is what everyone seems to think but that my study from two years ago showed that this is not the case. Westhead was surprised by this but he told me that in his brief time in the WNBA that many people told him that the level of play had improved dramatically from year one to now; he mentioned that his team led the league in free throw percentage last year (.817) and wondered if the overall numbers from last year would tell a different story than my 2005 research did. Sure enough, when I looked it up, the WNBA's free throw percentage in 2007 (.775) was higher than the NBA's free throw percentage in 2006-07 (.752); the WNBA also posted a marginally better free throw percentage in 2006 (.747) than the NBA did in 2005-06 (.745). In the years that I examined originally, the NBA had the edge in every season except for the lockout abbreviated 1999 campaign. The WNBA's overall free throw percentage was .713 in 1997, the league's inaugural year, while the NBA's free throw percentage in 1996-97 was .738. I think that these numbers show two things: (1) It was a misnomer for people to say years ago that the WNBA had better free throw shooters or was more fundamentally sound; (2) as Coach Westhead suggested, the level of play in the WNBA has increased significantly in the past decade or so.

I also asked Coach Westhead about Kevin Durant's development so far, particularly regarding his field goal percentage. I'll simply reprint the entire portion of the transcript that covers that subject:

Friedman: “Kevin Durant is known as a very good shooter and he has a good free throw percentage. We know that the shooting touch is there and everyone saw that in college. His field goal percentage this year is hovering pretty consistently around 40%. What is the reason for that?”

Westhead: “I think that the easy reason for that is that teams in their scouting reports are saying that the Sonics need Kevin Durant to score to win. So, you’re our best defender—stick him. They not only put their best defender on him but any time that he gets close to another offensive player, on a pick and roll or something—trap him, double him, stunt him. He’s getting high quality defensive coverage as a 19 year old who just arrived in the league. That’s not the easiest thing to endure. In a season or two or three, the best defenders probably won’t pull his shooting percentage down. He’ll have arrived and be able to shoot through that. But I think that it is marvelous in 30-plus games that this 19 year old is performing how he is. I think he’s off to a terrific start. I’m amazed that even though he is young looking and 19 that he has a mature game, that he does not get overwhelmed by this league.”

Friedman: “As a coaching staff, how do you feel about his shot selection?”

Westhead: “You’re asking the wrong guy—and the reason I say that is, my players, from good teams or bad teams, will say to you that I never saw a bad shot by a player on my team. They can’t take a bad shot.”

Friedman: “Because you believe in taking quick shots to put pressure on the defense?”

Westhead: “I believe that I want to give them the freedom to create what they think are good shots and once you start stipulating that I want you to shoot from here but not there and I want you to shoot this but not that then you start putting things in their minds that they have to make hard decisions about at a moment when they should be focusing on the basket.”

Friedman: “That’s a great relief for a player at any level.”

Westhead: “Exactly. If you let a player take 15 or 20 shots, he might take what the world might say are a couple bad shots but he doesn’t want to take bad shots. He’s not going to go from three bad shots to eight bad shots because you don’t say anything to him. He’ll eliminate those bad shots--or at least cut down on them--on his own.”

Friedman: “So you think that the good players will figure that out without someone hammering on them and yanking them from the game and yelling at them and all of that?”

Westhead: “Absolutely. Therefore, in Kevin’s case, I think that it is a particular compliment to P.J. (Carlesimo) that he monitors him very well and gives him a lot of rope but if things break down or he has a problem he will sit him down and let him rest a little bit to get refocused and then get him going again."


When Cleveland reserve guard Shannon Brown came on to the court a couple hours before the game to shoot around, he glanced into the stands and saw that the cover of the game day program had a very familiar face on it: his own. He seemed genuinely surprised--and happy--and said to me, "Who's that on the cover?" I handed him a copy so that he could take a closer look. Later on I saw him in one of the back corridors and asked him if he had kept the program and he said that he had. James and Durant have been on so many covers that they probably are numb to that experience by now but it is cool to see a second year player so thrilled by a relatively simple trapping of the NBA life.


The Cavaliers' overhead scoreboard has numerous bells and whistles and can literally shoot out flames but something inside of it went haywire before the game, so it had to be lowered to ground level to be checked out. Whenever the scoreboard ascends or descends the movement is accompanied by a sound that is akin to the warning beep issued by a truck that is backing up--but several times louder. Whatever the problem was, it never got completely fixed, because the part that should have showed the Cavaliers' score on one of the scoreboard's four sides was completely dark throughout the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:34 AM


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Yay Sports! Hosts Carnival of the NBA #53

The Carnival of the NBA went on a fairly extended hiatus but has now returned thanks to Yay Sports! My contribution this time around is my post discussing the recent Dallas-Golden State game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 AM


Monday, January 07, 2008

Pippen Denies Specifically Criticizing Hinrich, Thomas

I mentioned in a recent post that the Chicago Tribune's Sam Smith quoted Scottie Pippen offering several blunt criticisms of various Chicago Bulls players. Smith now says that Pippen angrily denies that his comments referred to specific players. Pippen claims that his remarks were simply general statements about the drawbacks of utilizing small guards and about the limitations of players who are not students of the game; he insists that Smith erred by applying Pippen's quotes to Kirk Hinrich and Tyrus Thomas. Pippen called up Smith and told him, "I've always liked Hinrich a lot and would have him finishing games. I think Thomas could play someday like I did and just needs to develop." The original quotes attributed to Pippen were quite harsh but they really did not create much of a stir--mainly because, as TNT's Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith noted on Thursday, they were true.

Although Smith begins his most recent article by writing, "Scottie Pippen says I owe him an apology," Smith neither apologizes nor does he categorically state that the quotes are accurate. Instead, he recalls the furor that accompanied the release of his book The Jordan Rules and how all of that faded as the Bulls racked up victories and championships; the book's behind the scenes look at the team contained frank--but fair--portraits of the team's players and coaches and discussed Michael Jordan's competitiveness and how hard the coaching staff had to work to get him to pass the ball to lesser teammates. No one has denied the truth of these stories but not everyone liked that these things were brought to light for the general public to see.

It is possible that Pippen really did mean to speak in general terms and that Smith erred in applying the quotes to specific players. This is a little hard to believe because Smith has covered the NBA for years and has interviewed Pippen on numerous occasions. Would Smith really not be able to tell the difference between a quote about small guards in general and a quote about a specific small guard? One interviewing technique that I find helpful in such situations is to repeat back to the subject what he just said and confirm that this is what he meant. I get the impression that some writers--not necessarily Smith--don't do this because they don't want to give a subject the chance to modify a potentially inflammatory quote. One time, I was interviewing Paul Silas, then the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, for an article that I was writing about Bob Dandridge, who Silas played against twice in the NBA Finals. Silas told me that Dandridge was "a talker." I interpreted that to mean "trash talker," which is completely at odds with what I know about Dandridge. Rather than just running with that quote, I expressed surprise and said to Silas that I thought that Dandridge was not a boastful player. Silas immediately clarified that by "talker" he meant someone who communicated with his teammates on the court, calling out screens and relaying other information. If I had not asked the follow up question then I could have ended up writing something--quite unintentionally--that would have misrepresented both what Silas thinks and how Dandridge acted. Fortunately, I made sure to get the complete story. Moments like that happen more often than you might think during interviews; it is very easy for an interviewer who is either unskilled--or deliberately manipulative--to create a wrong impression about what someone says. The best way to avoid problems is to do enough research to be very familiar with your subject (I knew that Dandridge was not considered a boastful player), ask good questions and, above all, listen carefully to the answers; some people are so focused on the next question on their list that they don't really hear the answer to their current question and thus don't realize that a follow up question is necessary to clarify something.

Although I am often skeptical of the reporting and analysis done by many writers, I trust Smith. I suspect that after seeing the quotes in print, Pippen felt badly about how harshly he had spoken and regretted saying what he did. Although Pippen shoots from the hip when he makes public comments, sometimes after further reflection he tones down his initial statement.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:01 PM


NBA Leaderboard, Part IX

The Boston Celtics keep right on rolling along. Their nine game winning streak is the league's longest active winning streak and their 92-85 win over Detroit means that they have now avenged each of their three defeats. LeBron James is still on course for his first scoring title, while Dwight Howard appears to be headed for his first rebounding crown.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 29-3
2) Detroit Pistons, 26-8
3) San Antonio Spurs, 23-9
4-5) Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets, 23-11

Most of the Eastern Conference is mired in mediocrity (or worse) but, ironically, the league's two best records also reside there. By the way, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs--the team seldom talked about until June--have overcome injuries to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to maintain a pace for 59 wins and the best record in the Western Conference.

The L.A. Lakers (21-11) just missed the cut for the top five, quite a turnaround for a team that supposedly was on the verge of trading Kobe Bryant and blowing up the whole roster. The Phoenix Suns (23-10) are also in the mix but there are questions about the team's focus and interior defense.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 28.9 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 26.7 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.6 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.4 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.9 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.5 ppg
7) Carlos Boozer, UTA 23.5 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.4 ppg
9) Dwight Howard, ORL 22.4 ppg
10) Baron Davis, GSW 22.1 ppg

12) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.0 ppg

16) Yao Ming, HOU 21.6 ppg

18) Paul Pierce, BOS 21.5 ppg

24) Kevin Durant, SEA 20.0 ppg

33) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.1 ppg
34) Brandon Roy, POR 19.0 ppg

39) Ray Allen, BOS 18.0 ppg

Former scoring champions Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson are in a dead heat for second place. The Cavaliers are obviously very dependent on LeBron James' scoring, so his average is unlikely to decline very much; in other words, Bryant or Iverson will have to increase their output to catch him. Tracy McGrady dropped from the list because he no longer meets the minimum requirements in terms of point scored/games played.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.2 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.3 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 14.0 rpg
4) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.3 rpg
5) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 11.3 rpg
7-8) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.6 rpg
7-8) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.6 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.6 rpg
10) Zach Randolph, NYK 10.4 rpg
11) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.3 rpg
12) Kevin Garnett, BOS 10.1 rpg

15) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.0 rpg

20) Al Horford, ATL 9.3 rpg

23) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.9 rpg

25) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.8 rpg

27) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

36) Shaquille O'Neal, MIA 7.8 rpg

49) Kobe Bryant, LAL 6.2 rpg

The top nine spots remain exactly the same as last week, but Zach Randolph bumped Kevin Garnett out of the top ten. Anyone who thinks that a player's value can be determined just by looking at his statistics should keep in mind that Al Jefferson is averaging more points and more rebounds than Kevin Garnett but that Garnett is the key player on the team with the league's best record while Jefferson--the main player Minnesota acquired in the Garnett deal--is putting up numbers on a team that may threaten the all-time single season record for losses. I do not mean to say that Garnett is wholly responsible for Boston's success or that Jefferson is to blame for Minnesota's struggles; my point is simply that, because of the 24 second shot clock--which guarantees that each team will have certain number of possessions--no matter how bad a team is someone will be putting up points, rebounds and assists.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.3 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.7 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.3 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.0 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.7 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.2 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.6 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.5 apg
10) Mo Williams, MIL 7.0 apg

The first seven players are in the exact same order that they were in last week. James and Billups swapped spots and we have some blood at number 10 as Mo Williams supplanted Allen Iverson.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 AM


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Celtics Stall Pistons, 92-85

On Saturday, the Boston Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons 92-85, ending Detroit's 11 game winning streak; the Celtics are now 29-3 and they own the NBA's longest active winning streak, nine games. Both teams were playing the second game of a back to back and their third game in four nights and that no doubt at least partially accounts for this contest's sloppiness: Boston shot 31-74 from the field (.419), while Detroit shot 31-79 (.392). While most of the name players from both squads shot blanks, rookie Glen Davis--who scored just 10 points in 28 minutes in the previous five games--led Boston with a game-high 20 points. Kevin Garnett had just 15 points, five rebounds and two assists, shooting 4-11 from the field; it must be noted, though, that Garnett easily had the best plus/minus score in the game (+23). Paul Pierce contributed 19 points, nine rebounds and seven assists but he also had a poor shooting night (5-16). Ray Allen had a quiet game (nine points, 3-8 shooting). Point guard Rajon Rondo was awful, finishing with three points on 1-7 shooting and no assists; at least he did not have any turnovers. Richard Hamilton (18 points, eight assists) and Chauncey Billups (16 points, six assists) led the way for Detroit but they also shot poorly (6-16 and 4-12 respectively). Billups missed three out of four free throws in the final four minutes and unloaded an airball three pointer with plenty of time on the shot clock and Detroit only trailing 88-85 with :32 left in the game.

It is very important to understand that if these teams meet in the playoffs that it will not be under these conditions; teams have days off between postseason games and each team's coaching staff focuses all of its preparation on the current opponent, with no worries about having to travel and play a different team that poses special challenges stylistically or in terms of matchups. That is why it is sometimes misleading when fans point to regular season head to head records when trying to figure out what will happen in a playoff series. Every game matters but not every game is played under the same conditions that playoff games are played, so simply looking at boxscores or spreadsheets is never enough to really understand what is happening on the court.

A couple weeks ago, Detroit earned a come from behind road win against Boston that highlighted some of the question marks about the Celtics, namely the point guard situation, the Celtics' ability to execute down the stretch in close games and Kevin Garnett's tendency to disappear in late game situations. One game can neither completely validate nor complete refute such concerns but there is no doubt that this is a big win for the Celtics and that this team is exceeding even the wildest expectations that Boston fans could have had prior to the season.

With most of the Eastern Conference mired in mediocrity--even the fast starting Orlando Magic are just 5-5 in their last 10 games--there is obviously a very real opportunity for either the Pistons to make it to the Finals for the first time since 2005 or for the Celtics to return to at least some of the franchise's former glory. Although I have pointed out the flaws of both of these teams in previous posts, looking at the East right now the only team that seems like it has the necessary parts to beat either the Celtics or the Pistons in a seven game series would be the Cleveland Cavaliers--not that Cleveland would win such a series if it were played now but by May the Cavaliers should be able to get back to playing the way that they did last year defensively and on the glass. The Magic are too inconsistent, the Raptors are too soft, the Nets don't have enough strength in the paint and the Wizards are a first round casualty at best.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM