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Friday, January 18, 2008

Revisiting the Ben Wallace Signing

It seems like "everybody knows" that Chicago made a mistake signing Ben Wallace, who is rapidly becoming the poster child/scapegoat for the underachieving Bulls. However, as Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune points out, "It's much easier to pick the winners when the race is over." Smith adds, "I'd like to see some intellectual honesty here, though that's something of an oxymoron when it comes to sports fans and the media" and then he reminds readers of the following facts concerning the Wallace signing:

1) Wallace was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year when the Bulls acquired him.

2) He had won that award four times in the previous five seasons and had just helped the Pistons make it to game seven of the NBA Finals.

3) Wallace was brought in to replace Tyson Chandler, who at the time was the object of much fan derision and whose tendency to get into foul trouble limited his effectiveness.

4) At that time, Coach Scott Skiles was a "folk hero" for actually demanding "accountability" from Chandler, who was unable to provide it at that time.

5) Chandler's improved production with the Hornets is due in no small part to playing with a great point guard (Chris Paul), something that is still noticeably absent from the Bulls' roster--meaning that the Chandler you see in New Orleans is not likely the one you'd have seen if he had remained a Bull.

6) If Chicago had not signed Wallace the other choices were Nazr Mohammed and Joel Przybilla.

7) At the time of the Wallace deal, few if any dissenting voices were heard (that is where the whole picking the winners after the race is over deal applies--what "everybody knows" now is not what "everybody" was saying back then).

It is also worth noting that with Wallace at center the Bulls swept the defending champion Heat and extended the favored Pistons to six games. Raise your hand if you thought that the Bulls would be this bad this season--and if your hand is in the air now, please stop lying. Although Smith primarily looks at the deal from a Chicago perspective, it is also worth considering what has happened to Detroit. The Pistons won the 2004 title and made it to the 2005 Finals with Wallace at center; since letting him go, the Pistons have yet to return to the championship round and have experimented with Mohammed, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace at center. It is reasonable to wonder if the Pistons left a championship or two on the table by letting Wallace go--and if you think that they did not miss him in the playoffs, then here is your assignment: pop in a tape of LeBron James dunking non-stop on Detroit as Cleveland beat the Pistons in four straight playoff games and then pop in a tape of James not being able to get to the hoop against the Spurs' backline defense anchored by Tim Duncan.

Smith concludes, "The plan with Wallace, really, was to get two good years out of him, have him tutor a young big man a third season and then move him to a team looking to get under the salary cap. It looks like the Bulls got one good season instead." It's easy for fans to play general manager after the fact and pretend that they know how to run a team but it is much more difficult to actually make these decisions in real time and under the restraints of the salary cap, which players are available and other factors that fans don't think about.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 PM


Look Out Detroit and Boston: Here Comes Cleveland

Many commentators wrote off the Cleveland Cavaliers before the season began but I have consistently maintained that Cleveland will be a tough out come playoff time. We are starting to see signs of that already: the Cavs beat the Spurs 90-88 on Thursday night in the first game between the teams since San Antonio swept Cleveland in the 2007 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers have won three straight games and nine of their last 11 to move within two games of Orlando for the third best record in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James had 27 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and a couple blocked shots against Tony Parker to nullify layups by the speedy guard who won last year's Finals MVP. James shot just 9-24 from the field, including 2-8 in the fourth quarter, but he made several key plays in the last couple minutes to preserve the win. Zydrunas Ilgauskas provided a strong second offensive option (17 points on 7-11 shooting), while Anderson Varejao contributed 12 points, a game-high14 rebounds and a game-high +12 plus/minus rating. Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 31 points, Tony Parker had 23 points and Tim Duncan added 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. However, no other Spur scored more than four points.

This game was not always well played but it was hotly contested, with the outcome not decided until Ginobili's last jumper rolled off of the rim as time expired. Cleveland used the three-fold recipe for victory that will make this team so deadly once again in the playoffs: (1) Defense (holding the Spurs to 88 points on .434 field goal shooting), (2) rebounding (45-40 advantage) and (3) the brilliance of LeBron James, who not only leads the league in scoring but also ranks first in fourth quarter scoring; James had six points and three assists in the final period versus the Spurs.

San Antonio's starters outperformed Cleveland's first five and built a 26-19 lead by the end of the first quarter. Things began to turn around for the Cavs when Varejao and other reserves outplayed the Spurs' bench players during the second quarter. By halftime, Cleveland led 50-43. Don't forget that Varejao and starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic held out during the early part of the season. Pavlovic has struggled to return to the form he showed near the end of last season but Varejao almost immediately had a big impact; Cleveland lost two of the first three games after he came back but won 11 of the next 15 games. Although he had a double double versus the Spurs, Varejao makes his presence felt even during games in which he does not make much of a mark in the boxscore--he adds instant energy, he plays active defense, he takes charges and he is a good pick and roll player. During his time off he even added a jump shot to his repertoire and improved his free throw shooting.

The Cavaliers extended their lead to 12 points in the second half but the Spurs fought all the way back to go ahead 78-77 on Parker's fast break layup with 6:42 left in the fourth quarter. Neither team led by more than three the rest of the way, resulting in an action packed final 2:35. James made two free throws to put Cleveland up, 85-84. Soon after that he made a big defensive play, drawing a charge in the open court against Ginobili. The Cavs had no answer for Parker's quick drives to the hoop during last year's Finals but James seemed to make it his personal mission to rectify that; he came out of nowhere earlier in the game to block two of Parker's layups and with 1:34 remaining in the fourth quarter he just missed getting a third rejection. Instead, James was called for goaltending and the Spurs had an 86-85 advantage. Cleveland answered on the next possession with some great ball movement, James to Larry Hughes to Daniel Gibson for the open corner three pointer to make the score 88-86, Cavs. Duncan's layup tied the game again but James provided the game winning basket on a drive with :33 left. After Parker missed two free throws, James could have iced the game but he missed a three pointer. San Antonio had a timeout left but elected to push the ball up the court to try to score before the Cavs could set their defense. Ginobili got off a good shot but it did not go in.

This game tells us a lot more about the Cavs than it does about the Spurs. San Antonio goes through the regular season without getting too high or too low and, barring injury to a key player, will always be a serious factor in the Western Conference playoffs; even on a night when the Spurs did not play exceptionally well they still had a chance to win at the buzzer. On the other hand, the Cavs must be given credit for having something to do with the fact that the Spurs performed a bit below their normal standard. Now that the Cavs have essentially the same rotation that they used to make it to last year's Finals people are going to see what I have been saying all along: this team was no fluke last year. Defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James is a pretty formidable recipe. Don't say you weren't warned, Boston and Detroit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part III

The basic premise of the Pantheon series is that instead of crowning one player as the greatest of all-time we should look at and appreciate the body of work produced by 10 players who could legitimately claim that title. Those players, who were the top finishers in the AP's 1999 vote to select the greatest player ever, are Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. The Pantheon series examines the careers of each of these players, focusing on peak value and durability; the final part will assess the accomplishments of several active players who may soon be Pantheon-worthy, if they are not already.

Sticking with my idea of not ranking players within the Pantheon, the series proceeds roughly in chronological order (with some shifting done for certain thematic purposes and also to make sure that each article is roughly the same length): Part I looks at Russell and Baylor, while Part II talks about Chamberlain and Robertson.

Part III discusses West, Erving and Abdul-Jabbar. West and Erving each won only one NBA title (Erving also claimed a pair of ABA championships) but they rang up some of the greatest Finals performances ever and their individual numbers at that level of competition were consistently excellent. West is the only player from the losing team to win an NBA Finals MVP, while Erving's exploits in the 1976 ABA Finals represent some of the finest all-around basketball that has ever been played. Abdul-Jabbar is the standard bearer for basketball durability; his numbers and accomplishments after the age of 35 alone measure up favorably with the complete careers of some Hall of Famers. What many people have forgotten--or never realized--is how dominant he was as a scorer, rebounder and shot blocker during the first decade of his career.

Younger fans know Jerry West primarily as “the logo” (his silhouette is displayed in the ubiquitous NBA logo) and as the Lakers executive who drafted Kobe Bryant and signed Shaquille O’Neal. However, they may not be aware of just how great West was as a player. There are many reasons that he became “the logo,” that he earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch” and that for many years he and Oscar Robertson were considered to be, without question, the two greatest guards in pro basketball history.

West was a prolific scorer, a skilled passer and a great defensive player. He scored 25,192 points in 932 regular season games (27.0 ppg). He ranks 18th all-time in NBA/ABA career regular season points and he is fifth all-time in career scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.12 ppg), Wilt Chamberlain (30.07 ppg), Allen Iverson (27.8 ppg) and Elgin Baylor (27.4 ppg). When West retired in 1974 he ranked third on the career scoring list behind only Chamberlain and Robertson. His playoff scoring resume is even more impressive: West ranks sixth all-time in NBA/ABA career playoff points (4457), trailing only Jordan (5987), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5762), Shaquille O’Neal (5045), Karl Malone (4761) and Julius Erving (4580). West’s career playoff scoring average ranks third all-time behind Jordan (33.5 ppg) and Iverson (30.0 ppg). West still holds the record for highest scoring average in a playoff series (46.3 ppg versus Baltimore in 1965) and most consecutive playoff games with at least 40 points (six).

Bill Russell (11) and Jordan (six) each won many more championships than West (one) and may be the greatest defensive and offensive players respectively in NBA Finals history, but West’s Finals performances were quite extraordinary. West ranks first in career Finals points (1679), third in career Finals scoring average (30.5 ppg, trailing only Rick Barry—36.3 ppg—and Jordan—33.6 ppg) and fourth in career Finals assists (306). He scored at least 20 points in 25 straight Finals games, a record that stood for more than two decades before Jordan (35) surpassed it. West scored at least 20 points in all seven games of a Finals series three times; no one else has done that more than once. West and Jordan are the only players who scored at least 45 points in three different Finals games; West has the most 40 point games in NBA Finals history (10; Jordan had six). West also had 18 assists in a Finals game, just three short of the record in that department. West remains the only player who ever won the Finals MVP despite playing for the losing team; he had 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the Lakers’ 1969 game seven loss to the Celtics.

West amassed 6238 regular season assists (6.7 apg), ranking 24th all-time in total assists and 31st in assists per game. West ranked fourth in total assists when he retired. Assists averages have gone up in recent seasons even though overall scoring is much lower than it was when West played, a strong indication of how liberal the definition of an assist has become; West’s assists average was very high for his era.

West’s defensive prowess is difficult to quantify because steals and blocked shots were not officially recorded until his final season (1973-74), during which injuries limited him to just 31 games. However, considering that he was a banged up 35 year old by that time, West’s 2.6 spg and .7 bpg give a strong indication of what kind of defender he was. He made the All-Defensive Team every year after its creation in 1969 except for his abbreviated final season.

Injuries caused West to miss a lot of games during his career but he had enough durability to make the All-NBA First Team 10 times. He never won a regular season MVP, but he did finish second on four different occasions (1966, 1970, 1971, 1972). West’s peak value season was probably 1965-66 when he averaged a career-high 31.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg and 6.1 apg during the regular season while setting a record for free throws made (840) that still stands; in the playoffs he averaged 34.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.6 apg while shooting .518 from the field, an amazing percentage for a 6-2 guard who took the volume of shots that he did. Late in his career, West won a scoring title (31.2 ppg in 1969-70) and an assists title (9.7 apg in 1971-72), a feat matched only by Nate Archibald, who amazingly captured both crowns in the same season (34.0 ppg, 11.4 apg in 1972-73).

One of the greatest peak value seasons in pro basketball history has never received the attention it deserves because it took place in a now-defunct league. In 1975-76, the New York Nets’ Julius Erving ranked first in the ABA in scoring, fifth in rebounding, seventh in assists, third in steals and seventh in blocked shots. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Incredibly, Erving actually increased his production in the postseason, culminating in these numbers in the 1976 ABA Finals versus the Denver Nuggets: 37.7 ppg (including 45 points and the game winning shot on the road in game one), 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. The Doctor led both teams in all of these categories during the series—and he was putting up these unbelievable numbers against high quality opposition. Guided by Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, the Nuggets finished 60-24 that season, featuring two Hall of Famers (Dan Issel and David Thompson) and one of the best defensive forwards of all time (Bobby Jones). After trying in vain to stop the Doctor, Bobby Jones offered this appraisal of Erving’s heroics: “He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught—that one man can’t do it alone.”

One could make a case that no one has ever played basketball better than Dr. J did in that season, particularly his playoff performances against deep, talented San Antonio and Denver teams; in fact, Newsweek’s Pete Axthelm, in a May 1976 article titled “Sky King,” suggested that Erving was indeed the greatest player the game had seen at that time. ABA Commissioner (and Hall of Fame forward) Dave DeBusschere offered this oft-repeated summary of Erving’s impact: “Plenty of guys have been ‘The Franchise.’ For us, Dr. J is ‘The League.’”

Erving did not quite reach that level of statistical dominance combined with championship winning performance before or after that campaign, but he made the All-Star team in each of his 16 seasons and won three other regular season MVPs. Erving’s career combines high peak value with impressive durability; he ranked among the best players in the game for most of his career, as indicated by his 12 combined All-NBA and All-ABA selections (including nine First Team nods, five in the NBA and four in the ABA). Erving was an outstanding clutch performer who generally played his best in the biggest games; he averaged 24.2 ppg in his regular season career but increased that number to 28.1 ppg in 33 NBA/ABA Finals games, winning three championships in six appearances. Erving’s career scoring average of 25.5 ppg in the NBA Finals is the eighth best all-time and he scored at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 Finals games, including his first 19, a streak that still ranks among the longest ever. In his two trips to the ABA Finals, Erving averaged 33.4 ppg, scored at least 20 points in 10 of 11 games, topped 30 points eight times and had three 40 point games. His output in Finals games mirrors West’s in many ways—and he won more championships than West did—but because Erving’s two most spectacular Finals’ performances happened in the ABA (and his third best happened in 1977 in a losing cause) many people don’t realize just how well Erving performed in those situations.

Erving’s 1981 NBA MVP ended the nearly two decade long stranglehold that centers had over that honor and paved the way for other non-centers to win the award. Erving was the first NBA/ABA, NFL, MLB or NHL player to be a member of 16 straight playoff teams, a record since broken by Karl Malone (19) and John Stockton (19).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps the ultimate example of basketball durability: he holds the career regular season records for minutes played (57,446) and points (38,387), he won a record six regular season MVPs and he earned the 1985 Finals MVP as a 38 year old. Early in his career he battled Wilt Chamberlain in the playoffs and by the end of his career he faced Hakeem Olajuwon, who was born 27 years after Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 21.5 ppg in each of his first 17 seasons; the first time he failed to reach that mark he was 40 years old. He played in his final All-Star Game when he was just shy of 42 years old, he was a 14.6 ppg scorer on a championship team at 41 years old, he made the All-NBA First Team at 39 years old (ranking 10th in the league in scoring at 23.4 ppg) and he made the All-Defensive Second Team at 37 years old. Like Jerry Rice, he put up good “career” numbers after the season in which he turned 35, including eight All-Star selections, four championships won, four All-NBA Team selections, one All-Defensive Team selection and one Finals MVP.

Abdul-Jabbar’s career ended in 1989, which means that today’s high schoolers had not even been born by the time he played his last game. Although his late career achievements are impressive, his prime years took place over three decades ago, which means that even some people who are approaching 40 years old may have only vague memories of when Abdul-Jabbar was dominant, particularly considering the sparse television coverage that the NBA received at that time. During Abdul-Jabbar’s first 11 seasons he won six MVPs, two scoring titles, one rebounding title and led the league in blocked shots four times in the seven years that those numbers were officially tracked. After his first six seasons he had the highest career scoring average in NBA history (30.4 ppg; to be fair, Chamberlain had a much higher scoring average than that in his first six seasons before “settling” for a 30.1 ppg career average). Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 14.0 rpg in each of his first seven seasons--a level that Shaquille O’Neal never once reached--and he averaged at least 10.3 rpg each year until he was 35. People who only saw the second decade of Abdul-Jabbar’s career might be under the mistaken impression that he was not a dominant rebounder or defensive player but those numbers clearly put that fiction to rest. He was also a gifted passer, a good ballhandler and a decent free throw shooter.

Abdul-Jabbar was a versatile player who could score in a number of ways but he also had perhaps the most deadly signature shot in the history of the sport: the skyhook, which he could deliver with deadly precision from either baseline and which was unblockable and unguardable once Abdul-Jabbar got post position. Even in his early 40s, Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook still confounded defenders.

Considering his peak value and his extended dominance, one could definitely make the case that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest basketball player ever (and we have not even talked about his amazing collegiate career). Erving has repeatedly said that Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest player he ever played against; Erving would almost certainly own a couple more NBA championship rings if not for Abdul-Jabbar’s commanding presence in the paint for the Lakers in the 1980 and 1982 Finals.

Part IV will discuss Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.


1) Part I of this series can be found here and Part II is here.

2) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

3) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:


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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM


Julius Erving: The Greatest--and Classiest--Net of All-Time

Recently, Richard Jefferson said that Jason Kidd is the best Net of all time "including the ABA." Kidd is obviously a fabulous player--but Julius Erving was, is and always will be the greatest Net of all time. David Waldstein of The Star-Ledger offered a nice rebuttal to Jefferson's comment, writing that he can "forgive Jefferson for his loyalty to his teammate" and noting that Jefferson was not even born when Erving led the Nets to a pair of ABA titles. Those disclaimers out of the way, Waldstein declares, "for those who saw Erving in all his soaring, majestic, big-haired glory with the Nets, the debate ends with the resolution of one of his signature stratospheric dunks." Erving won three regular season MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis) and two playoff MVPs in his three seasons with the Nets. As Waldstein puts it, Erving was "the Michael Jordan of a league that was stacked with excellent players, especially at forward." In 1975-76, Erving authored one of the greatest seasons of all-time, ranking among the regular season leaders in virtually every statistical category and then taking his game to an even higher level in the playoffs as the Nets toppled the San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets to win the final ABA championship before the NBA and ABA merged in the summer of 1976. I have mentioned Erving's exploits that season in previous articles and I discuss them again in Part III of my Pantheon series.

I wrote Part III prior to seeing Waldstein's article, so it was interesting to read some quotes that he obtained from Kevin Loughery, who was Erving's coach with the Nets: "The NBA never saw the real Dr. J. We asked him to do so much. When he went to Philadelphia, they had all these great players and Doc didn't have to do as much there, not that he couldn't. He did whatever the team needed him to do. And when he was with the Nets, he did everything." Regarding Erving's performance in 1975-76, Loughery said, "Doc had to be unbelievable that whole year and he was. In my opinion, no one has ever had a better year in basketball." Loughery's conclusion may seem radical--or biased--to some, but I have long thought the same thing: when you consider Erving's all-around brilliance in the regular season and then the way that he completely dominated two excellent teams in the playoffs it is hard to argue that any player has accomplished more in one season in terms of combining individual excellence with championship success.

Jefferson's comment provides an opportunity to relive and retell Erving's greatness and that is always a good thing. The other interesting aspect of this story is Erving's response to it. Waldstein contacted Erving, who offered a classy, diplomatic reply in his own unique style: "I'm very high on Jason. I think Jefferson's point is valid. In terms of consistency and longevity, he might be the most important player the franchise has ever had. Jason is the most valuable Net of all time. I'm probably the most outstanding." Erving could have been offended by what Jefferson said and lashed out at Jefferson's lack of historical perspective; Erving could have listed his litany of accomplishments as a Net. He chose a different path: In an era in which so many people who have not and never will accomplish anything run their mouths at the slightest provocation, Erving eloquently found a way to let Jefferson off the hook, praise Kidd and at the same time not sell short his own accomplishments.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:13 AM


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paul Westhead: Never Slowing Down

Paul Westhead, sometimes called the "guru of go" because of his love for fast break basketball, is the only person who has coached a championship team in the NBA (1980 Lakers) and the WNBA (2007 Mercury). I spoke with Westhead, who is currently an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics, prior to Seattle's 95-79 loss at Cleveland, after which I posted some of his thoughts about the WNBA and the development of Seattle rookie Kevin Durant.

Westhead coached for nine years at LaSalle before becoming an assistant coach with the L.A. Lakers. After Coach Jack McKinney suffered a serious head injury, Westhead took over and guided the team to the 1980 title. Later, Westhead turned Loyola Marymount into a national power and made a brief return to the NBA in Denver before turning his fast break attack loose in the WNBA as his Phoenix Mercury set scoring records and won the 2007 championship. You can read all about Coach Westhead's career in my HoopsHype.com article about him (10/12/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

No professional basketball coach is a bigger believer in fast break basketball than Paul Westhead. "I know what all the pundits say: everyone says that you can run for a while but when you get to the playoffs that you have to slow down and that strong, beat 'em up defensive teams always win," Westhead says. "I never believed that and I still don't. My only advice is if you are a speed team that gets into the playoffs, play faster--that's what you do, so crank it up another notch, rather than leveling it off and playing the way that everyone else thinks that you are supposed to play."

Westhead is known for his out of the box thinking but that was not his mindset at the start of his coaching career. "I came in as a 30 year old Division I head coach at LaSalle. I played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joe's," Westhead recalls. "We were all taught to be fundamentally sound and I probably was more of a defensive minded guy than an offensive minded one. In the early 1970s, two things happened. One, I went to Puerto Rico and coached. I would pick up a team and I observed that they were going up and down the court and making on the fly 22 foot jump shots. I said to myself that it takes my guys six passes and five good screens to shoot that open 22 foot shot--and then my guys miss! These guys are running down the court, catching the ball and shooting an open 22 foot shot without any problem."

Westhead adds, "That said to me that if they can play fast and score, why do we have to do all this hard work on offensive schemes? Within a year, I met up with Sonny Allen, who had won a Division II championship at Old Dominion University, and he showed me his fast break system. I put that together with what I had seen in Puerto Rico. When I was leaving, he said, 'Coach, you have to be a little bit crazy to do this' and I said, 'I don't have any problem with that.'"

Westhead led the LaSalle Explorers to a 142-105 record in nine seasons, including two trips to the NCAA tournament and one NIT berth. He became an assistant to LA Lakers Coach Jack McKinney in 1979 but was named the head coach just 14 games into the 1979-80 season after McKinney suffered a serious head injury as a result of a bicycle accident.

The Lakers went 60-22--including 50-18 with Westhead at the helm--and then they won the 1980 NBA Finals four games to two over Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers. Game six of that series will always be remembered for the heroics of Magic Johnson, who jumped center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played guard, forward and center and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a 123-107 victory.

Johnson suffered a knee injury that caused him to miss 45 games in the 1980-81 season. The Lakers still finished second in the Pacific Division but they lost two games to one to Houston in a first round mini-series, suffering both defeats at home. The Lakers started out 7-4 in 1981-82 but owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead and replaced him with assistant coach Pat Riley, who guided the team to a championship that season and three more titles over the next six years.

"Yeah, that was difficult," Westhead says of his sudden dismissal. "I don't think that was so much about pace or style of play. Even though I was an experienced basketball coach--I had been in college for a dozen years, nine as a head coach--and I knew the game, I knew how to coach basketball, I didn't understand the professional game. I didn't understand the intricacies of not just how professional athletes like to be treated but how you have to project to them and the only way that you find that out is by experience."

"I don't think it was necessarily my fault or their fault but that I just didn't understand it that well. It involved players being paid, players and their agents, owners and general managers and how they want to deal with players because of trade possibilities--that is a whole new world to a college coach who recruits and brings in new players and then the others graduate. I learned a lot from looking back at that experience so that when I went back into the NBA I was more prepared to deal with those issues."

Johnson publicly expressed displeasure with the team and had asked to be traded just prior to Westhead's firing, so it is commonly assumed that Johnson orchestrated Westhead's ouster. "I think that was an easy one for one (connection to make) when that happened," Westhead says. "I don't think that Magic was responsible for that. I think that there were a bunch of other things that were spinning around." Westhead speaks without rancor about his brief time as Lakers coach: "I will say about my Lakers experience that up until a few months ago it was my one and only championship, so I am happy for the Lakers experience."

Westhead's next stint as a NBA coach was even briefer, as he guided the Chicago Bulls to a 28-54 record in 1982-83. After that, he returned to the college game, coaching at Loyola-Marymount from 1985-90. He quickly turned the team into a powerhouse by employing a non-stop fast break offense combined with a relentless full court pressing defense. From 1988-1990, Westhead's LMU teams went 27-3, 20-10 and 23-5 respectively, earning NCAA tournament berths each year.

LMU's Hank Gathers led the NCAA in scoring and rebounding (32.7 ppg, 13.7 rpg) in 1989 and Bo Kimble led the NCAA in scoring in 1990 (35.3 ppg). Tragically, Gathers collapsed and died during a game near the end of the 1990 season. LMU dedicated the rest of that season to his memory, and Kimble shot the first free throw of each NCAA tournament game left handed to honor Gathers. LMU defeated defending champion Michigan and made it to the Elite Eight before falling to UNLV, who went on to win the 1990 national title.

The LMU years provided some of Westhead's fondest basketball memories, foremost among them being what he calls "the overall thrill of watching a team that knew that they could play as fast as the wind and defend full court for 40-plus minutes--they would show up in the toughest situations and have smiles on their faces because they could look at the other team and say, 'I don't know if we're going to win tonight, but you're going to be tired.' They knew that the pace was dictated by them--by our team. Any time that you can coach a team that you know--not that you're hoping but you know--that the game is going to be played your way, win or lose, that is fun."

Westhead says that those LMU teams completely bought into his system more than any other team he has ever coached: "No question. They bought in and then what happens once you get it is the next season with the new players that you bring in is that they buy in or they're pushed aside: 'This is the way we play. When you come here, you play this way.' I never had to say a word. You need players to buy in, whether you are talking about guards, forwards or centers. For me, I need midrange players who can run and who can shoot--a player who can play the forward position, who can play inside or outside. You need players who are committed to run. I have always had players--when I have had good fast break teams--who on other teams would be outside perimeter players but when playing for me they thrived going inside. Because of the speed of the game, they can get inside before defenses lock down. If you go slowly then you need a terrific 6-10 post player because he is going to be double teamed and triple teamed. If you go fast, you can have a 6-3 player playing inside because he will beat the thrust of the defense."

Speaking of defense, critics snipe that Westhead's system ignores that part of the game, citing what happened after Westhead's success at LMU paved the way for him to return to the NBA as a head coach, this time in Denver. His 1990-91 Nuggets averaged 119.9 ppg, the most points an NBA team scored since Doug Moe's run and gun 1984-85 Denver team put up 120.0 ppg--but while Moe's Nuggets gave up 117.6 ppg, Westhead's squad surrendered 130.8 ppg, shattering the all-time record, and they won just 20 games.

"The team that I had, the guys played about as hard and well as they could," Westhead says. "It was one of those transition teams where all of the established great players had just left or retired--Alex English, Fat Lever, they all left prior to my arrival. We had a young nucleus on the team that really probably wasn't experienced enough to win at any pace. If we would have played at a slow pace, the differential probably would have been that we scored 70 and gave up 80."

The results of Westhead's second season in Denver support that analysis. The Nuggets drafted defensive stopper Dikembe Mutombo, who made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the league in blocked shots. Westhead pulled back the reins and Denver scored just 99.7 ppg but the Nuggets only improved to 24 wins and Westhead was fired. "Ultimately, to win--fast or slow--you need to have a talent level on your roster that is a cut above at least half of the teams," Westhead concludes. "You have to give yourself a chance. Ultimately, there is no disputing talent."

In the past decade and a half, Westhead has literally traveled around the coaching world, working as a head coach in Japan, in the new ABA and also for four years at George Mason University. He also was an assistant coach for Golden State and Orlando. Westhead took his fast break style to the WNBA in 2006 when the Phoenix Mercury hired him. Perhaps for the first time since his LMU days, Westhead had a team that really bought in to what he was teaching. The 2006 Mercury smashed the WNBA single-season scoring record by averaging 87.1 ppg. In 2007, they broke the record again by scoring 89.0 ppg. True to his philosophy, rather than slowing the game down in the postseason the Mercury sped things up, scoring 95.8 ppg in the playoffs en route to the franchise's first championship.

Westhead very much enjoyed coaching in the WNBA and would have continued doing it if not for the fact that his friend P.J. Carlesimo became Seattle's head coach and offered him a job as an assistant coach, which Westhead accepted. Carlesimo has called Westhead the best assistant coach in the NBA and he believes that Westhead deserves another shot at being an NBA head coach.


Here are some "DVD Extras" from Coach Westhead that do not appear in either the earlier post or the HoopsHype.com article:

Who better to ask about Golden State's upset victory over Dallas in last year's playoffs than a staunch believer that a fast breaking team can win an NBA title? I posed this question to Coach Westhead: "When I watched the Dallas-Golden State series, I felt that Dallas made a mistake by initially changing their starting lineup and trying to prove that they could win a slow down game. I thought that it backfired. The two games that they won, if you look at the scores, they won the faster paced games and Golden State actually won the games when Dallas tried to slow it down. Golden State was playing close to the way that you talk about, trying to run all the time. Dallas, I thought, had a lot of grind it out, 23.5 second possessions in which they didn't accomplish anything--they'd miss a shot or turn it over--and then Golden State would get the rebound, push it up the floor and Baron Davis or Stephen Jackson could get in the paint and score before the defense set up. Did you pay attention to that series and do you agree with what I am saying?"

Coach Westhead sidestepped the issue of whether Dallas made strategic errors but offered this reply: "I saw that series more as a fan. I say 'fan' because I enjoyed watching that series. I thought that it was good for basketball. I didn't really sit down and evaluate the chess game in terms of who outwitted whom or who outplayed whom. I just thought that it was a great series for the game of basketball because I like that kind of pace. Other than that, I would compliment both teams. I thought that they played a great series."


In almost any form of endeavor--from sports to business to war--it is a big advantage to dictate to one's opponent the way that a battle will be fought: in boxing, it is said that "styles make fights," meaning that when two fighters have contrasting styles it is interesting--and decisive to the outcome--to see which fighter imposes his style on the match; a similar confrontation happens in chess when an attacking, middlegame virtuoso faces a player who prefers to trade pieces and steer toward an endgame struggle. Controlling the pace of the game is a very important tool in basketball, as Coach Westhead explains:

Friedman: "Do you think that as a coach that pace is one of the most important tools that you have to dictate to the other team and kind of control how the game is going to go?"

Westhead: "I think that pace is essential--let me back up a second: I think that being able to play the way that you want is the most important thing that a coach needs to bring to a game and to have his team bring. So, for me, pace is what I want, so therefore being able to create and control the pace is essential for my team."

Friedman: "What are some other factors that coaches might seek to control?"

Westhead: "Well, other coaches would say the opposite, that they want a lack of pace."

Friedman: "Oh, when you say 'pace' you always mean 'speed.'"

Westhead: "Yes, I mean the speed game. Other coaches would say that they want their teams to be under control, they want to take perfect shots, they want to get good balance, they want to make sure that after they take a shot that everyone gets back on defense. So they have a whole other set of criteria which would create a slower pace."

Friedman: "If a team like Phoenix or Golden State breaks through and wins a championship do you think that we will then see a copycat situation in which other teams try to play that way or do you think that the fast style is considered so out of the box that even if a team wins by playing that way that people will consider that to be an aberration?"

Westhead: "Well, let's talk about that after a team wins by playing that way. I would say that until somebody wins by playing that way it will be considered a boutique way of playing. There is a reason that this will have trouble catching on even if a team wins by playing this way. Playing at a breakneck, fast paced speed is harder to do than playing at a controlled pace. That's your sell; there's the rub. If you're a player and you're in a habit of playing at, call it 50 miles per hour, and all of a sudden someone says that the way we play is 95 miles per hour, that's not easy to swallow."

Friedman: "Even if you can get up to 95 miles per hour, you have to stay there."

Westhead: "That's what I mean--95 and then staying there."

Friedman: "Is that easier to do in college because there is more time off between games and a shorter schedule?"

Westhead: "No. I've never believed that. I disagree with that."

Friedman: "So many people talk about how tough the NBA schedule is, with four games in five nights sometimes, so why do you disagree with that?"

Westhead: "My comment about that is that if you can get your team to play at 95 miles per hour and your team is playing three or four nights a week then your team is in the habit of this. What about the teams you are playing against that are in game 37 and they can't wait for a nice, controlled slow game like they have been accustomed to and instead, all of a sudden, boom, here comes a team running their socks off?"

Friedman: "So it all comes down to your mentality and using this to your advantage?"

Westhead: "Mental training."

In order to run his system successfully, Westhead needs players who are fully committed to its principles. "It's not a pick and choose running game; it's a non-stop running game," Westhead says. "Sometimes players pick that up in a couple of days. Someone asked me how long it takes to learn the fast break and I said, 'A day, a week, a lifetime.' It depends how receptive you are and how willing you are to expose yourself to a new way of playing. Basketball, in the modern era, is--as far as pace--a pick and choose game. Occasionally you will see some fast breaks but you will just as easily see teams walk it down and set up a play, change the offense, use the clock. I'm not saying that is bad basketball; I'm just simply saying that is the state of the game. So, to ask players to play at a non-stop, full speed game without those slow down intervals is really challenging to them because it is not in their minds and it is certainly not in their arms, legs and bodies. Talking doesn't get it out of them. It's like, this is how we're going to play and when things don't go well we're going to play faster."

Westhead rejects the idea that he ignores the importance of defense. "Basketball--unlike any other sport--involves both ends of the game: you have to be defensive minded and offensive minded," he says. "But in order to be good, you have to be really good at something. The ultimate criteria for what you are doing is the differential. If you are giving up 100 points a game, someone can say that automatically shows that you don't play any defense--but you have to look at the other part: if you are scoring 105 points a game then you have a positive differential of five points; it doesn't matter what your defense is: on average, you are winning by five points. That being said, I think that with some of my better teams--like my WNBA team in Phoenix--I think that our players played very hard, we played a lot of zone defense, we played hard zones. Some of my Loyola Marymount teams full court pressed, which is harder defense than any kind of halfcourt defense you can set up. So, I think that it's a mixed bag. When I didn't have good teams, we probably played poor defense and poor offense."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part X

The Boston Celtics still have the league's best record but they just lost two games in a row to the Washington Wizards, which automatically disqualifies the Celtics from ever again being compared to the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that went 72-10. In a related note, yes, right about now it is fair to not only state that Gilbert Arenas is overrated but to also seriously raise the possibility that the Wizards are in fact better off without him and the accompanying baggage of his off court antics and on court narcissism. When I first pointed out that the Wizards were doing just fine without Agent Zero, Washington fans breathlessly responded that Washington had not beaten anybody who was any good, as if they could not wait for their team to go on a long losing streak to reaffirm the value of their favorite player. Well, now the Wizards have just won back to back games against the team with the best record in the league and their winning percentage without Arenas so far is better than the team has ever done with him. So, Washington fans can pray for a long losing streak to "prove" that I am wrong about Arenas but the facts speak for themselves.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 30-6
2) Detroit Pistons, 28-10
3-4) L.A. Lakers, Phoenix Suns, 26-11
5) San Antonio Spurs, 25-11

What a difference three years makes: in that time, Shaquille O'Neal has gone from being the most dominant big man in the NBA to being a broken down center on the worst team in the Eastern Conference--and the Lakers have rebuilt around Kobe Bryant to the point that they now have one of the best records in the league. Andrew Bynum's injury is obviously a setback (see the scoring leaderboard for more about that subject) but there is no denying that a championship window in L.A. seems to be opening (not necessarily this season but soon) and that the championship window in Miami has long since slammed shut. The Lakers own the league's longest current winning streak (seven games) and are the only team that has won nine of its last 10 games.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 29.1 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.0 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.9 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.4 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.5 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.4 ppg
7) Michael Redd, MIL 23.2 ppg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 23.1 ppg
9) Dwight Howard, ORL 22.5 ppg
10) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 22.3 ppg
11) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.2 ppg
12) Yao Ming, HOU 22.1 ppg

20) Paul Pierce, BOS 21.0 ppg

26) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.8 ppg

28) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.2 ppg
29) Brandon Roy, POR 19.1 ppg

44) Ray Allen, BOS 17.6 ppg

You may not have heard about it, but Kobe Bryant clinched the scoring title this week. Seemingly everyone is predicting doom and gloom for the Lakers now that Andrew Bynum has been sidelined for up to eight weeks by a knee injury. Maybe the Lakers are doomed and maybe they are not. The one thing that we do know is that last year when the Lakers were devastated by injuries Kobe Bryant responded by averaging more points after the All-Star break than anyone had in more than 40 years. So, what we will see in the next two months is a similar scoring outburst from Bryant. If the rest of the Lakers can manage to contribute something productive during this stretch then there is no reason for the team to completely collapse; the margin for error will be smaller without Bynum's presence in the paint but the Lakers should still be able to win some games. By the way, in the Lakers' first game after Bynum's injury, Bryant poured in a season-high 48 points, including six of his team's eight points in overtime (with the last two points coming on the game-winning jumper), as L.A. beat Seattle, 123-121, on Monday night. Bryant is averaging 29.6 ppg so far in January and has scored 37, 37 and 48 points in his last three games. LeBron James is consistently scoring around 29 ppg but if Bryant averages 35 ppg over the next few weeks then he could catch James by the All-Star break.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 15.2 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.9 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.7 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.0 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.8 rpg
6) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.9 rpg
7) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.8 rpg
8) Tim Duncan, SAS 10.7 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.5 rpg
10) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.3 rpg
11) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.2 rpg

14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.9 rpg

16) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CHI 9.1 rpg

28) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.9 rpg

31) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.5 rpg

Dwight Howard maintains a firm grip on the top spot and remains on pace to have one of the best non-Dennis Rodman rebounding seasons of the past three decades. Tim Duncan moved into the top ten, while Andrew Bynum just missed the cut. Of course, due to inactivity Bynum will eventually drop off of the list.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.9 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.7 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.1 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.5 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.3 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.2 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.3 apg
10) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.0 apg

The first nine players are in the exact same order that they were in last week. Iverson slipped past Milwaukee's Mo Williams, who now ranks 13th with 6.8 apg.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:44 AM


Monday, January 14, 2008

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part IV

The fourth edition of the blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been posted at Sixers 4 Guidos.

Here are links to the previous three editions:

MVP/RoY rankings, Part I

MVP/RoY rankings, Part II

MVP/RoY rankings, Part III

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: He has completely confounded the critics who asserted that his attitude would bring down the Lakers this season. The Lakers are on pace to win more than 50 games and it is time for the player who is acknowledged to be the league's best player to finally win an MVP.
9-LeBron James: He continues to put up excellent numbers but if Nash and Dirk got MVPs over Kobe because of their team's records then how can LeBron be honored over Kobe this season?
8-Dwight Howard: He is the most physically imposing post player in the NBA right now.
7-Kevin Garnett: He is not putting up the best numbers of his career--far from it--but his impact on Boston's success is obvious.
6-Tim Duncan: Two-time MVP has become the forgotten man in MVP talk in recent seasons.
5-Chris Paul: Rapidly earning recognition as perhaps the league's best point guard.
4-Dirk Nowitzki: The MVP who everybody loves to criticize, his numbers have been going up and the Mavs are rolling.
3-Steve Nash: Still highly productive but the bloom seems to be off of the rose in Phoenix--the Suns have a poor record against the best teams in the West and just recently lost to Paul's Hornets.
2-Amare Stoudemire: He is having an outstanding year and making everyone forget about his previous knee injuries.
1-Allen Iverson: Seemingly a forgotten man now, Iverson is putting up big numbers for Denver, including a career-high field goal percentage.

Dropped from the list since last time: Tracy McGrady

Added to the list since last time: Allen Iverson


5-Kevin Durant: His field goal percentage has inched upwards but is still in the .400 range. His talent is obvious but his floor game is not yet as good as advertised. I still don't understand why he has been crowned already as a star in the making. He may very well become a star but it is premature to say so until his body fills out and his game expands beyond just shooting a lot.
4-Al Horford: Continues to put up good rebounding numbers and shoot a good field goal percentage.
3-Sean Williams: Rebounder/shot blocker who shoots a good field goal percentage.
2-Yi Jianlian: He hit a bit of a slump recently but his overall production to date still merits putting him on the list.
1-Luis Scola: Getting steady minutes recently and putting up solid numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:58 PM


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Jason Kidd's 3D Vision

Jason Kidd does not have a blog like Gilbert Arenas or a cool nickname like Chris Paul's "CP3." Kidd is not the flavor of the month among NBA point guards and his name too often gets lost in the shuffle behind guys who have never been to the Finals or who only play effectively at one end of the court or who are good at putting up stats without actually making their teams any better. Kidd led the New Jersey Nets to back to back Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003 at a time when the team had a good but certainly not overpowering group of players. The Nets are just a .500 team so far this season but Kidd can hardly be blamed for their mediocrity; he is averaging 11.6 ppg, 10.7 apg (second in the NBA) and a career-high 8.8 rpg, which is better than many of the league's big men and is simply remarkable for a soon to be 35 year old 6-4 guard who previously had microfracture surgery.

The only weakness in Kidd's game is his low field goal percentage but he has turned himself into a decent three point shooter and his free throw percentage is usually around .800. On Friday, Kidd moved past Isiah Thomas into fifth place on the career assists list with 9065; he won't catch top ranked John Stockton, who has basically lapped the field with 15806 assists, but at his current pace he is a little less than two seasons away from passing Mark Jackson (10,334) and moving into second place.

Of course, the signature statistic for Kidd is the triple double. He is third on the career list in that department with 97. Kidd got his most recent triple double last Tuesday, contributing 13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in the Nets' 115-99 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. The notable thing about that triple double is that it was Kidd's third triple double in a row. The only other players since 1989 to have at least three triple doubles in a row are Michael Jordan and Grant Hill. Jordan's streak--which lasted seven games--happened near the end of the 1988-89 season, when Chicago Coach Doug Collins shifted him to point guard; Jordan led the league in scoring and ranked tenth in assists that season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the record for consecutive triple doubles--nine--belongs to Wilt Chamberlain. One of the many remarkable things about Chamberlain is that just about any time you talk about doing something great in basketball history Chamberlain probably holds (or at least held at one time) the record; he is perhaps best known for his 100 point game but he also holds the single game record of 55 rebounds and he had the only 20-20-20 game in NBA history (22 points, 25 rebounds, 21 assists). It is unlikely that any of those marks will ever be surpassed.

Some people deride the triple double as an arbitrary, meaningless statistic, saying that a 30-10-9 game is more valuable than, say, a 10-10-10 game. There is some literal truth to that but I am not aware of any player who put up a string of 30-10-9 games without also having a bunch of triple doubles along the way, so the idea that by singling out triple doubles we are somehow ignoring other players who are more worthy of recognition just does not ring true. Also, check out the career top five list for triple doubles:

1) Oscar Robertson, 181
2) Magic Johnson, 138
3) Jason Kidd, 97
4) Wilt Chamberlain, 78
5) Larry Bird, 59

Many people still consider Robertson to be the greatest all-around player ever--and some of those who don't would choose Johnson. Bird is often mentioned as the greatest forward ever and Chamberlain is the most statistically dominant player in the history of the sport. Those four players would be on just about everyone's list of the top ten players of all-time. The quality of the company that Kidd is keeping here speaks volumes about the relevance of the triple double. It is also worth noting that Kidd is the shortest and lightest of these five players and that he is the only one who never played alongside a Hall of Fame caliber player, which makes it all the more amazing that he could single-handedly put such a statistical imprint on so many games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:17 AM