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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shaq Vows to Soldier on When Surrendering is Probably the Better Option

Shaquille O'Neal recently declared, "I am the son of an army drill sergeant, and when we enlist, we go full term. So I've got two years left on my term and after that, I'll be looking to do other things." Keep in mind that he will be paid $20 million a year to finish his "term" when he is obviously only worth a fraction of that amount at this point and when his retirement could free up salary cap space that the Miami Heat could use to sign younger players who might actually be able to help the team to win some games. Somehow, it hardly seems like the height of loyalty or altruism for O'Neal to soldier on under these circumstances.

O'Neal's approach is much different than how Larry Bird handled the end of his career. If Bird had waited a little longer to announce his retirement during the summer of 1992 he could have pocketed millions more in guaranteed roster bonus money--but Bird did not want to receive money that he felt he had not earned.

O'Neal used to be a great player and no one can deny that he earned the money that he received in previous seasons. However, for him to suggest that he is continuing to play now because of his loyalty and commitment to the team is disingenuous beyond belief. Prolonging his career does not benefit the Heat and, most likely, does O'Neal's body no favors, either. I would not presume to tell anybody when he should retire but if O'Neal does decide to keep playing it would be nice if he did not act like he is some kind of military hero for doing so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM


Friday, January 25, 2008

All-Star Starters Announced, All-Star Reserves Debated

The NBA All-Star starters were officially announced during TNT's one hour pregame show on Thursday. In case you missed it, leading vote getter Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade and Jason Kidd will start for the East, while Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson will start for the West. It is difficult to see how anyone could have a serious objection about the East choices. In the West, I'd give the nod to Dirk Nowitzki over Anthony and I'd take Chris Paul over Iverson. Some people get all worked up about who the fans pick but starting in the All-Star Game is largely a ceremonial honor; if you look in the NBA Register, no indication is given about whether a player started an All-Star Game or was selected as a reserve. The only problem that could arise with fan voting is if a player who does not even deserve to make the team gets selected but I honestly cannot ever remember that happening. Over the years, we've seen Dan Issel get a starting nod over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and A.C. Green get more votes than Karl Malone, but Issel and Green were worthy All-Stars and Abdul-Jabbar and Malone still made the team as reserves. Basketball fans deserve the right to choose who will start in what is, after all, an exhibition game, and they have not abused this opportunity, unlike fans in some other sports in years past who stuffed the ballot box for hometown favorites who did not belong in the All-Star Game.

Selecting the seven All-Star reserves--a task assigned to the coaches, who cannot vote for anyone from their own teams--in each conference is never easy because there are never enough spots for all of the deserving candidates. Another problem is that two forwards, two guards, one center and two wild cards are supposed to be chosen but in some years one position is more stacked than another. TNT commentators Magic Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley offered their choices during the telecast (the coaches' selections will be revealed next Thursday during another one hour TNT pregame show). We'll look at the Eastern Conference first. As usual, Barkley did not exactly adhere to the guidelines, picking "nobody" as his center; his other choices were Caron Butler, Chris Bosh, Chauncey Billups, Hedo Turkoglu, Ray Allen and Antawn Jamison. Magic and Kenny also disregarded the requirement to choose a center, though they did at least designate seven players. Smith was under the weather and did not appear on the set, while Johnson said that Bosh was his center. They each agreed with Barkley about Butler, Bosh and Billups and they both picked Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Joe Johnson and Antawn Jamision completed Magic's choices, while Kenny went for Ray Allen and Shaq. Butler, Bosh, Billups and Pierce are no-brainers in my opinion. Admittedly, there is not a lot to choose from at center after Howard but I would take Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a player who rebounds, can score inside or outside and who maximizes his height and length to compensate for his lack of explosiveness. Richard Hamilton and Antawn Jamison complete my ballot. Ray Allen is putting up his worst scoring and shooting numbers in years; the decline in scoring is part of being on a balanced, winning team but the decline in shooting percentage is worrisome. Michael Redd and Joe Johnson are putting up numbers for sub-.500 teams; they are quality players but their numbers aren't great enough to warrant taking them over players who are getting it done for winning teams.

In the West, Magic, Kenny and Barkley agree on Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Brandon Roy. Barkley then chose Tyson Chandler, David West, Marcus Camby and Stephen Jackson. Magic and Kenny agreed on Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire, but Magic selected Chris Kaman and Baron Davis/Stephen Jackson (he couldn't choose between them) while Kenny liked Andrew Bynum and Carlos Boozer. In my opinion, Nash, Paul, Roy, Nowitzki, Boozer and Stoudemire are easy choices. What to do with that final wild card spot is vexing: there are many worthy candidates. After much deliberation, I am going with Baron Davis. In no particular order, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Marcus Camby, Chris Kaman, David West and Josh Howard are having All-Star caliber years as well--and you could add Tracy McGrady to that list if he had not missed so many games due to injury.

It will be interesting to see what the coaches decide; they certainly do not have an easy task in front of them.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:18 AM


Is the Status Quo Really So Bad for the Cavs?

Before this season began, I was a lone voice in the wilderness saying that the Cavaliers would be a contender. Some commentators went so far as to declare that Cleveland would not even make the playoffs. I have consistently maintained that three pillars form the basis for Cleveland's success: the brilliance of LeBron James, solid team defense and excellent team rebounding. Here is a more detailed version of my take on the Cavs in an article that I wrote for CavsNews.com (6/1/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

Even though LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance last season, it has become popular among fans and so-called experts alike to disparage both the team and that accomplishment. Supposedly, James is surrounded by a bunch of stiffs and the Cavaliers only made it to the Finals because they faced favorable playoff matchups. We will look at the composition of the roster momentarily but let’s first dispel the notion that the Cavs were “lucky” to win the East. Yes, the depleted Washington Wizards were wounded prey but the Detroit Pistons hardly faced a juggernaut when they swept the young Orlando Magic in the other bracket. It is easy to take the New Jersey Nets for granted in retrospect but they have a dangerous trio in Kidd-Carter-Jefferson and they pulled off the second biggest upset of last year’s playoffs by knocking off Toronto. I don’t understand how analysts can continually praise Detroit’s greatness and then just brush off the fact that the Cavaliers spotted the Pistons a 2-0 lead before sweeping the last four games. The Cavaliers trounced the number one seed in the East, so it makes no sense to act like they just sneaked into the Finals.

The Cavaliers’ 0-5 record this season without James in the lineup is often cited as proof of how poor his supporting cast is. A closer look at those games shows that this is not an entirely fair verdict. Four of the losses came on the road—including one in Boston--and the losing streak included a stretch in which the Cavs played four games in six nights. Anderson Varejao did not play in any of the five losses and Larry Hughes only played in the last one, a 96-93 defeat at Charlotte. Not many teams are going to win road games without two starters and their best reserve big man. James is obviously a great player but his absence was not the sole cause for the losing streak.

Let’s take an objective look at the Cavaliers’ strengths and weaknesses. The number one strength is obvious: James is one of the best players in the NBA, someone who leads the league in scoring yet is also a very gifted playmaker. James is a good rebounder and his defense continues to improve. The second strength of this team is not as well understood or appreciated by many fans: the Cavaliers have a tremendous frontcourt rotation—one of the very best in the league. Small forward James is part of that but the Cavs also have a versatile three man rotation of bigs: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Varejao. Strength up front translates into defense and rebounding, which—combined with James’ brilliance—were the cornerstones for the Cavs’ playoff run in 2007 and will continue to be the foundation for whatever success Cleveland has in the future.

Most people who have seen the Cavaliers play realize that it would be a good thing if the team acquired a solid playmaking point guard and a wing player who is a good scorer. The team’s fans wonder why General Manager Danny Ferry does not simply make some moves to take care of those two concerns. Cavaliers’ fans dislike Larry Hughes’ shot selection and want Ferry to trade him, preferably in exchange for a true point guard—but running an NBA team is nothing like playing fantasy basketball. It is not easy to make trades in the real world, particularly if one of the players involved in the deal has a large contract. In order for a trade to take place, it has to conform to NBA rules and both teams have to feel like they are gaining something, whether that is in the form of more talent, salary cap relief or draft picks that can be used to build for the future.

There has been much speculation about the Cavaliers acquiring Mike Bibby from Sacramento. Contract-wise, Hughes could be swapped for Bibby but how exactly does that deal help the Kings? The Cavs have put Hughes at point guard out of necessity but if he lands somewhere else it is almost certain that his new team would put him back at his natural shooting guard position—and the Kings already have Kevin Martin at shooting guard. The only other players the Cavaliers have who make more than $10 million per year are James and Ilgauskas. We know that James is not going to be dealt. Trading big for small rarely works, getting rid of Ilgauskas would weaken the Cavs’ great frontcourt rotation and it is unlikely that the Kings want Ilgauskas anyway, based on the composition of their roster. Also, Bibby missed the early part of this season due to injury and his field goal percentage has declined each year since 2002-03. Cleveland fans who are dreaming about pairing James with Bibby have been watching too many ESPN Classic airings of old Lakers-Kings games from the early part of this decade, back when Bibby was a deadly jump shooter on pick and roll plays. As things stand now, there is no realistic deal to be made between Cleveland and Sacramento and it is far from certain that Bibby would actually be a big help even if the Cavs could obtain him. It is also worth mentioning that Bibby would not be an asset on defense—and defense is the main reason that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown made Hughes the starting point guard. After Brown settled on a starting backcourt of Hughes and Sasha Pavlovic, the Cavs closed the 2006-07 season on a 17-7 run. Hughes scored in double figures in the first eight playoff games and the Cavs won seven of them. Hughes is much maligned because his individual statistics do not match what fans expected him to produce based on the size of his contract but the fact is that the team has consistently played better with him in the lineup than with him sidelined. His defense and versatility are assets and the Cavs would not necessarily be better off by replacing him with a player who “looks” better statistically—assuming that such a deal could even be made given the considerations that I listed above.

The Cavaliers got off to a slow start this season because Varejao and Pavlovic held out and injuries affected key players in the rotation, including Hughes, who was not healthy to start the season and eventually had to shut things down for three weeks. Since he returned to action on December 8, the Cavaliers are 14-7. A big part of that resurgence—literally and figuratively—is Varejao; the Cavaliers are 14-6 since he made his season debut, are currently riding a five game winning streak and have won nine of their 10 games in January. Let’s spin this ahead to the playoffs. The top two teams in the East right now are Boston and Detroit. The Cavs handed the Celtics their second loss of the season on November 27 even without Varejao and Hughes; less than a week later, playing without James, Varejao and Hughes, the Cavs lost by just 10. Cleveland matches up very well with Boston. James will consistently win the matchup with Paul Pierce. Ray Allen is having the worst shooting season of his career and is scoring fewer points than he has in any season since his rookie year. Kevin Garnett puts up good all around numbers but he is not the kind of player who will take a playoff game by the throat and dominate it, let alone do so for an entire series. Boston’s team defense has been better than expected this season but it will be interesting to see how well the Celtics perform at that end of the court in the playoffs; the game slows down in the postseason, meaning that they will need to be able to score in the halfcourt (putting pressure on young point guard Rajon Rondo to make good decisions) and if they are not able to do so consistently that will make it even more vital for them to get stops. It is easier to play good defense when you are scoring well and playing from ahead than it is when shots are not falling and the other team is getting rebounds or steals and pushing the ball back at you. The Cavaliers proved last season that they can advance to the NBA Finals. This Celtics team, both individually and collectively, has yet to enjoy such playoff success. As for Detroit, the Cavs almost knocked off the Pistons in 2006 even as a neophyte playoff team and then they got the job done last year without even needing a seventh game.

The bottom line is that if this Cleveland Cavaliers team stays healthy there is no reason that they cannot return to the NBA Finals. It would not be wise to tinker with the roster unless it is clear that the move markedly improves the team’s chances to make it to the Finals and/or beat the Western Conference representative. Adding players for the sake of having name brand talent does not automatically produce success—just ask the New York Knicks or the turn of the century Portland Trailblazers.

David Friedman is a freelance writer specializing in professional basketball. His work has been published in several magazines, including Hoop, Lindy's Pro Basketball, Basketball Times and Basketball Digest. He has also contributed to NBCSports.com, HoopsHype.com and ProBasketballNews.com and his articles are frequently reprinted at Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). Friedman wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog: 20 Second Timeout

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 AM


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tale of Two Halves: Lakers Shine, Then Fade Versus the Defending Champs

In the first half on Wednesday versus the San Antonio Spurs, the L.A. Lakers looked like a potential championship team; in the second half, the Lakers looked like a non-playoff team. Add those two halves together and you get a 103-91 Spurs win, the first time that San Antonio has beaten a team with a winning record in over a month. Tim Duncan led the way with 28 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots and a game-high +18 plus/minus rating. Ime Udoka provided 18 points and good defense off of the bench, while Sixth Man Award candidate Manu Ginobili had one of the more bizarre stat lines that you will ever see: 12 points on 3-16 shooting, six rebounds, four assists, eight steals and a +7 plus/minus rating. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich shifted Ginobili to the starting lineup to open the third quarter and Ginobili's high energy play definitely sparked the team even though he struggled to make a shot from the field. Tony Parker added 16 points, four assists and zero turnovers in a quietly efficient performance. Kobe Bryant had an up and down game, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and nine turnovers. Lamar Odom did good work on the glass (12 rebounds) but provided little on offense (11 points, two assists). The Lakers' second leading scorer was Ronny Turiaf, who scored 14 points in less than 24 minutes off of the bench, doing most of his damage in the first half.

The media story du jour about Bryant for quite some time has been that he is a selfish gunner but that is a tough sell in a season during which his shot attempts are down and the Lakers are contending for the best record in the Western Conference. Now the new story du jour is that there are multiple Bryants--one who shoots too much and one who trusts his teammates enough to pass them the ball. There might have been something to that idea when Bryant was fresh out of high school and trying to show everyone how much he really belonged in the NBA but Bryant is a veteran who was the leading playmaker on three championship teams. He understands better than just about anybody when to shoot and when to pass; I have asked him about this issue numerous times and his answer is always the same: he reads what the defense is doing and reacts accordingly, shooting when he is open and passing the ball when a teammate has a better shot. If you watched this game, Bryant conveyed exactly that message to Ric Bucher during a halftime interview. The funny thing is that last season, before the Lakers were beset with injuries and forced to rely on Bryant scoring 40-plus points, he supposedly had "transformed" himself from gunner to team player; I guess this will be a "new" story every season because most members of the media don't know or refuse to report what Bryant's role was during the Lakers' championship seasons. During Phil Jackson's pregame standup in Cleveland last season, someone asked him about Bryant's alleged transformation into a willing passer and Jackson correctly noted, "He has shown the ability to do that and the willingness to do that. You know, he did that (in his fourth year) on the (2000) championship team when he had (Robert) Horry and (Derek) Fisher and guys who were really shooting the ball well and Shaq could finish." In other words, Bryant has been an accomplished passer for quite some time but the onus is on his teammates to get open and then make shots.

In the first half, the Spurs aggressively double-teamed Bryant and he consistently made excellent passes that led to scores or free throw attempts. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting and had six rebounds and four assists and the Lakers led 54-45. In one early sequence, Bryant displayed the full range of his offensive skills: he scored in the post when Bruce Bowen tried to guard him one on one with no double-team; when double-teamed he delivered a great bounce pass to Kwame Brown that resulted in a foul and two made free throws; stationed on the left wing, he fed Brown in the post and received an assist after Brown made a jump hook over Duncan; he drove to the hoop from the right wing, drew multiple defenders and slipped a wraparound pass to Brown for an easy dunk. Add that up and you have one well executed post move against one of the league's top defenders and three different kinds of passes made from different angles that all led directly to scores. Brown is a below average offensive player but playing alongside Bryant he actually looked like a legit low post threat--at least for a few minutes (he did not score for the rest of the game). The injured Andrew Bynum is obviously a more talented offensive player than Brown but he also benefits greatly from Bryant's presence and from his passing ability. Bynum has developed some low post moves but he still gets a lot of his points as a result of Bryant attracting double-teams that free Bynum up to catch lob passes, either from Bryant or someone else. That is why I maintain that, although the Lakers clearly miss Bynum's presence on both ends of the court, they can get by for now with Brown and Turiaf manning the middle. The problem for the Lakers last season was when every center on the roster was either injured or incapable of catching and converting simple passes. Brown will never have great hands but at least he can now catch most of the passes that are thrown right to him. The Lakers face a daunting task on their upcoming nine game road trip but I don't foresee this team dropping precipitously in the standings the way that many people seem to expect; the trip starts with a tough back to back in Detroit and Toronto but there are also games in Miami, Charlotte and Minnesota. If the Lakers beat those three teams and even go just 2-4 in the other games then they will be just fine and if they don't sustain any more injuries they are certainly capable of doing that.

It would be silly to think that just because the Lakers had a nine point halftime lead that they would cruise to victory, particularly on the road. A championship team like San Antonio is going to make a run and the Lakers needed to be ready to respond to it with a run of their own. Instead, they began the third quarter by missing shots, turning the ball over and committing fouls. The Lakers did not score until Fisher's layup at the 5:29 mark made the score 59-56 Spurs--in other words, they went more than half a quarter without scoring a single point. Bryant took the Lakers' first three shots of the quarter, prompting ESPN analyst Jon Barry to assert that Bryant was forcing the action and playing differently than he had in the first half. That is a bogus statement. Bryant's first shot attempt was a pullup jumper against single coverage; Michael Finley dropped his hands, giving Bryant an opening. That is a normal shot for Bryant. His next shot was a turnaround jumper in the paint. I would call it a "quasi force"--Bryant drove into the lane and had no one to pass to, so before he got called for three seconds or the shot clock expired he manufactured the best shot that he could. It was tougher than his first shot but a shot that Bryant can make. After missing two jumpers, the next time Bryant got the ball he made a hard drive all the way to the hoop, where he was met by Duncan. Bryant twisted backward and attempted a layup, but Bruce Bowen made a great block. There is no denying that it is not a good thing to miss three shots but it is wrong to confuse lack of execution with improper decision making. Just because Barry played in the NBA does not mean that he correctly diagnosed what happened on those plays. I watched the same game that he did but saw things differently--and it is worth noting that two outstanding basketball minds weighed in on the loss and neither one blamed Bryant. Jackson said, "No one seemed to want to step up, and they kept dropping it off in Kobe's hands to try and let him do one-on-one stuff. I'm not going to fault Kobe at all. You have the turnovers, they are credited to him, but it was other things that went on there."

Here is what Triangle Offense architect Tex Winter told the L.A. Times : "The ball has to move, the players have to move. And when they don't, they start standing and watching Kobe. Kobe might get 50, but we still ain't going to win, or we'll have a tough time of it. It's a team concept. It's based on ball and player movement with a purpose. It's predicated on that, and if we don't have that, then we're not a very good team. Lamar (Odom) and Luke (Walton) really might be the key to this. They're going to have to hit the open shots. They're going to have to hit a good percentage of their shots, which they're not doing right now. They'll get better and more open shots if we play a team concept and move the basketball and go through with our cuts." Uninformed people try to make this a simple cut and dried matter of whether or not Bryant shoots too much but this is a multifaceted situation: it is Bryant's responsibility to read the defense and make good decisions, but the other four players must make good cuts, be ready to catch the ball and then make open shots. As Jackson said after the recent Seattle game when Bryant attempted 44 shots (and scored 48 points in a Lakers' win), if the other players are unwilling or unable to get open and make shots then Bryant will sense that void and attempt to fill it.

Despite the sluggish start to the third quarter, the Lakers regained the lead when Fisher's three pointer at the 3:33 mark made the score 64-61. What killed the Lakers is how the quarter ended. After Fisher's trey, the Spurs went on a 9-0 run that was broken by a Bryant drive that made the score 70-66 Spurs. Brent Barry then hit a three pointer with six seconds left, stole Odom's careless inbounds pass and made another three pointer to put the Spurs up 10. The Lakers almost played the Spurs to a draw in the final period but could not overcome that ghastly sequence that gave San Antonio a nice working margin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

NBA Coast to Coast Ranks the Top 10 Single Season Teams of All-Time

Tuesday's NBA schedule was pretty light, so ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast program discussed the results of an ESPN poll that ranked the top 10 single season NBA teams of all-time. Here are the results of the voting, some selected comments by various ESPN analysts and my thoughts:

10) 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13 regular season record; 11-4 playoff record)

The 76ers posted the highest scoring average ever for an NBA champion and the third highest in league history (125.2 ppg). They ended the Celtics' record run of eight straight championships and in 1980 they were selected as the greatest team in NBA history. Wilt Chamberlain insisted that this was the most talented team he ever played on and, considering that he was flanked by two other Top 50 players (Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham) plus Chet Walker (who should be in the Hall of Fame) and Luke Jackson (a powerful inside player whose career was cut short by injury) it is hard to disagree.

9) 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (66-16; 12-2)

The Bucks won 14 more regular season games than the second best team in the league, which is an all-time NBA record. You have to feel sorry for the Bullets' Wes Unseld, the 6-7 center who had the unenviable task of trying to guard the 7-2, angular Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Finals; when they stood next to each other they looked like the number 10--with the "1" being capitalized and the "0" being lower case. Like the 1967 76ers team, this squad is probably downgraded in some people's minds because the core group never won another title--something that is not relevant when talking about which team had the best single season.

8) 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers (65-17; 12-1)

This squad set the NBA record for fewest losses in one postseason, a mark since tied by the 15-1 Lakers in 2001. The ESPN crew did not tell us much about the first two teams on the list other than the childhood memories of Tim Legler and Rick Carlisle--couldn't ESPN have at least gotten a quote from Dr. Jack Ramsay, an employee of the "Worldwide Leader" who was the GM of the 76ers in the late 1960s?--but J.A. Adande weighed in with some great points about the 1983 76ers. He correctly stated that the fan voters vastly underrated this team, which should have received serious consideration for the top spot. He reminded viewers that in addition to Top 50 players Moses Malone and Julius Erving the Sixers had a great point guard in Maurice Cheeks and a shooting guard who was almost unstoppable at that time in Andrew Toney (they also had Sixth Man Award winner Bobby Jones). For that one year it was as talented, focused and determined of a team as you will ever see. Carlisle added that Cheeks should be in the Hall of Fame and that Toney was on track for a Hall of Fame career before foot injuries felled him. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP-caliber players but Erving won the 1981 MVP and finished third and fifth in the voting the next two years, while Malone finished fourth in 1981 before winning the MVP in 1982 and 1983. They both made the All-NBA First Team in 1982-83.

It is true that the 1983 team did not repeat; in fact, they lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1984 and that core group never again advanced further than the Eastern Conference Finals (1985, with some help from rookie Charles Barkley) but John Saunders erred when he said that the proof of how far the team dropped off is that the Sixers had a high enough draft pick to select Barkley in 1984. Of course, that draft pick was actually acquired from the Clippers; the Sixers won 52 games in 1984, 58 games in 1985, 54 games in 1986 and 45 games in 1987, Erving's final season: even though they never made it back to the Finals, the 76ers were still a very good team for several years after they won the title. One thing that I have never understood about ESPN and other huge budget networks that have full-time research staffs is how come their announcers make so many errors concerning basic facts of NBA history, including some things that, quite frankly, I know off the top of my head without even looking them up.

7) 1988-89 Detroit Pistons (63-19; 15-2)

They are only one of two teams to have the best record in the NBA and then sweep the team with the second best record in the Finals (the 1983 Sixers were the first). The Pistons were great and they proved their mettle by defeating teams led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson (who got hurt during the Finals) en route to winning the title but I would not place them ahead of the three previous teams on the list.

6) 1964-65 Boston Celtics (62-18; 8-4)

The 1965 Celtics won more regular season games than any of the other 10 teams that Bill Russell led to NBA championships. The team had five future Hall of Famers, plus a future Hall of Fame coach (Red Auerbach). They led the league in points allowed and scoring differential. However, it could reasonably be said that the 1967 Celtics team that got blasted by the 76ers was at least as good as this squad, so it seems odd for the 1965 Celtics to finish ahead of the 1967 76ers. I suspect that voters were influenced by Boston's body of work during that era but that should have nothing to do with determining which team had the best single season.

5) 1991-92 Chicago Bulls (67-15; 15-7)

The Bulls won 10 more games than the second best team in the league and led the NBA in point differential and field goal percentage. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen combined to average more than 50 ppg--and were every bit as dangerous on the defensive end of the court. Legler said that this was the season in which Pippen emerged as an all-time great: 21.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, career-high 7.0 apg. He shot over .500 from the field and could easily have scored a lot more points if the team had needed him to do so. To put this in perspective for young fans, Pippen was putting up LeBron James-like offensive numbers while playing Bruce Bowen-like defense.

4) 1971-72 L.A. Lakers (69-13; 12-3)

The Lakers set the all-time wins record (since broken by the 1996 Bulls) and still hold the mark for the longest winning streak (33 games, shattering the old mark of 20 set by the 1971 Bucks; the closest a team has come to matching this in recent years is 19 games, accomplished by the 2000 Shaq-Kobe Lakers). Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were elder statesmen by this time--though obviously still quite effective, as Chamberlain won the Finals MVP and West led the league in assists--and Chamberlain later noted that this team got succeeded by using veteran wiles as opposed to tremendous athletic talent; he insisted that his 1967 76ers were a more talented squad.

Carlisle pointed out that this team had three Hall of Famers--Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich--but he went into Saunders' territory when he said that a fourth Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, retired "weeks before the season started." Actually, Baylor retired after playing nine games that season--and the Lakers immediately began their 33 game winning streak, as the insertion of Jim McMillian into the starting lineup enabled the team to play at a faster pace.

3) 1986-87 L.A. Lakers (65-17; 15-3)

One of five Lakers' championship teams in the Showtime Era, this is the last NBA champion that had at least four players average 17 ppg.

Saunders once again flaunted his ignorance of NBA history when, after mentioning Magic Johnson's famous game winning hook shot in game four of the 1987 Finals, he asked rhetorically if we remember Magic having to start at center. Actually, no, we don't remember that happening in 1987--because it actually happened in game six of the 1980 Finals. Also, this is a bit picky perhaps, but Magic called the shot his "junior, junior skyhook," not a "baby skyhook" as Saunders incorrectly labeled it.

2) 1985-86 Boston Celtics (67-15; 15-3)

The Celtics set an all-time mark with a 40-1 home record during the regular season. Carlisle was a bench player on this team and he said that they had a board that they used in the locker room to keep track of the results of the practice scrimmages between the first and second units. The Celtics had a Hall of Fame starting frontcourt with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, while 1978 MVP Bill Walton won the Sixth Man Award. The only quibble might be that Philadelphia was down while Detroit and Chicago had yet to rise in the East and in the West the defending champion Lakers were upset by Houston. Still, any way you cut it, this team was great. Bird, who won three straight MVPs from 1984-86, was probably at the height of his powers; he had a triple double in the decisive game six of the Finals versus Houston (29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists).

1) 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10; 15-3)

The Bulls set a single-season record for wins that is unlikely to be broken. The thing that struck me about this team is that they only suffered one blowout loss during the entire season--the 1983 76ers had a laser-like focus for most of the regular season and all of the playoffs and might have won 70 games if not for some minor injuries to Malone and Erving but this 1996 Bulls team played harder night in and night out than any team I have ever seen. Legler called the Bulls "the greatest defensive team in NBA history" and said that when Jordan, Pippen and Ron Harper went into a full court press opposing point guards wanted no part of trying to advance the ball. I don't know what would happen if you put all of the great teams in a time machine and had them play a tournament but no team ever had a better season than this one and that has to mean something.

Purely based on single-season greatness (which means disregarding what the core group did in previous and subsequent seasons), I'd probably put the 1983 Sixers and the 1996 Bulls in a tie at the top--the former was the best postseason team ever and the latter was the best regular season team ever.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:36 AM


Guest Appearance at With Malice

With Malice asked a few bloggers to contribute guest posts about who will win this year's NBA MVP. Of course, "who will win" is often different from "who should win," so I chose to address both questions. You can read my take here. If you've been following the bi-weekly Blogger MVP/RoY Rankings then you probably have some idea what my thinking is on this issue but at With Malice I elaborated a little more about my reasoning and restricted my analysis to the top five candidates, instead of looking at 10 candidates like we do in the Blogger Rankings.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:45 AM


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Interesting Nuggets From a Full Slate of MLK Day Games

There were 13 NBA games on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, including a triple-header on TNT. Here are some observations and comments about several of the games in a notebook style format:

* The top five scorers in the NBA each played in one of the TNT games. Here is how they did:

LeBron James: 28 points (11-26 FG, 5-5 FT), three rebounds, five assists
Kobe Bryant: 17 points (5-7 FG, 6-8 FT), five rebounds, 11 assists
Allen Iverson: 24 points (8-23 FG, 8-11 FT), three rebounds, seven assists
Carmelo Anthony: 13 points (5-11 FG, 3-4 FT), four rebounds, one assist (left game in second quarter due to sprained ankle)
Dwyane Wade: 42 points (17-29 FG, 7-8 FT), six rebounds, seven assists

Memphis 104, Chicago 90

* Memphis rookie point guard Mike Conley had 10 points and a career-high 10 assists. Conley is a fun player to watch and has a bright future because he really sees the court well and delivers the ball to open players on time and on target. Those are distinct skills and a player who has all three of them has a chance to be special.

* Memphis has a collection of talented players who seemingly should be producing more than they do: Darko Milicic, Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick. These three players are coach/GM killers, the kind of guys you bring in to a team because they look like they can really play but whose day in, day out production is not consistently high.

Cleveland 97, Miami 90

* I don't care if Coach Pat Riley insists that Shaquille O'Neal's body fat and weight are as good as they have been since the Diesel motored into Miami; as the saying goes, the eye in the sky doesn't lie: O'Neal looks out of shape and he moves like he is out of shape. He can barely get off of the ground and lateral mobility is just a fond memory for him. O'Neal is playing defense like an old man in a rec league, standing flat footed in one spot and hacking whoever comes into his area.

* Anderson Varejao's numbers (six points on 3-8 shooting, 10 rebounds) do not really capture the full nature of his impact on the game. On some possessions he guards multiple players, trapping the point guard and then hustling back to his own man. His activity level at both ends of the court is very high, resulting in extra possessions on offense and deflections on defense. He even led a two on one fast break with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, delivering a slick left handed bounce pass that Ilgauskas converted into a layup.

* Dwyane Wade scored 42 points, including 32 of the Heat's 38 second half points; O'Neal (10 points) was the only other Miami player who reached double figures. Last year, some people who don't understand basketball suggested that some of Kobe Bryant's 40 and 50 point games were not that impressive because they came against sub-.500 teams. Of course, Bryant led the Lakers to victories in enough of those games to carry the team to a playoff berth. Less than two years removed from a championship, Wade and O'Neal are "leading" the worst team in the Eastern Conference and Wade is finding out that it is not so easy to score 40 night after night and lead a team to victory, even against sub-.500 teams. The Heat have now lost 14 straight games.

L.A. Lakers 116, Denver 99

* First the "experts" told us before this season that Kobe Bryant would quit on the team because the Lakers neither traded him nor upgraded the roster. Then they told us that Andrew Bynum is the key to the team's success. Most recently they told us that the Lakers would not be able to win without Bynum. Pardon me for mixing sports metaphors, but this is a case of three strikes and you're out. How about trying my Lakers' theories on for size? As I've written for the past two years, Kobe Bryant is the best player in the league. He draws so much defensive attention that his teammates get wide open shots that they would not otherwise be able to create for themselves (this applies to Bynum, too, though he very recently began to showcase some low post moves other than catching lob passes). Bryant is a skillful passer but his assists numbers do not always reflect this for two reasons: (1) his teammates often miss the wide open shots that he creates for them; (2) in many cases Bryant delivers the first pass out of the double-team, which forces the defense to scramble and leads to the pass that garners the assist. In 10-15 years, objective observers will look back at this era and be very puzzled that Bryant did not win the MVP in 2006 and 2007. Maybe the voters will get it right this year.

* In the first quarter, Kobe Bryant did not attempt a field goal or score a single point but he had two rebounds and two assists as the Lakers took a 39-29 lead. Derek Fisher scored 16 points, many of them on shots that were wide open because Denver double-teamed Bryant.

* Bryant committed his fourth foul at the 9:01 mark in the third quarter and sat out with the Lakers leading 71-59. A little more than two minutes later, the score was 75-69 and Coach Phil Jackson had to put Bryant back in the game to stabilize the team. Denver continued to make a good run--momentum can be hard to stop sometimes--and even briefly took the lead but by the end of the quarter the Lakers were up 91-82 and never trailed again. Bryant had assists on five straight possessions, repeatedly drawing the defense and then feeding open teammates. Saying that Bryant is "finally" sharing the ball this year is as incorrect as saying that Bill Belichick did not know how to coach in Cleveland but then learned how to do so in New England (look up who is the last Browns coach to win a playoff game and who was coaching the team that he beat); the only difference between this season and last season is that when Bryant passes the ball to open teammates they are finally making the shots. Replacing Smush Parker with Derek Fisher has a lot to do with that. There is a reason that Coach Jackson basically told Bryant to stop passing and shoot more often down the stretch last year: that was the only way that the Lakers had a chance to win. Bryant is a very gifted passer and he put the full range of his skills in that area on display versus Denver, delivering bounce passes, no look passes, behind the back passes to cutters and pinpoint feeds to perimeter shooters who could then catch and shoot in rhythm.

* For some strange reason, the "experts" continually underrate Cleveland--a team built on rebounding and defense that is led by the second best player in the league--and overrate Detroit and Denver, two teams that are stocked with individual talent but have yet to reach their full potential in postseason play (the Detroit teams that reached back to back Finals had Larry Brown and Ben Wallace; I am referring to the current group that loses in the playoffs to lower seeded teams).

Washington 102, Dallas 84

* Face it--this is just not a good time for the Gilbert Arenas fan club, whose members work overtime combing the stat sheets for numerical proof that the Wizards are not in fact better without Agent Zero. Here are two clues for you would be Sherlock Holmeses: (1) Take your eyes off of the Excel spread sheets and actually watch the games--the Wizards are playing harder and they are playing more together and they are actually playing defense now; (2) if Arenas were truly an MVP level player then this would not even be close: the team would be much worse without him. The fact that it is a close enough call to even be worthy of debate shows that Arenas is not as valuable as so many people were saying last season. The reality is that the Wizards have never been much more than a .500 team even with him on the court but they are significantly better than .500 so far this season without him.

* When I asked "Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?" bloggers rushed to Agent Zero's defense like I'd committed some kind of basketball heresy. One of the funniest parts to me is how the Washington fans insisted that the Wizards' early success was due to a weak schedule, which essentially meant that they would now root for their team to do badly in order to "prove" my contentions about Arenas to be wrong. Let's see: the Wizards just beat league-leading Boston twice and now they've swept the season series with Dallas, a team that had won eight of nine games prior to Monday's contest. This is the first time Washington swept Dallas since 1996-97 and Dallas' biggest loss of the season. It is also the sixth time the Wizards have held a team to fewer than 85 points this season, something that they did not do even once last year (they are 6-0 in those games). Here are some interesting post-game quotes:

"They've gotten a lot better defensively. They're trying to do the right things.'' (Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki)

"Usually, the key to our success is always our offense over the past couple of years. But now it's been the defense. And to win big games and get quality wins, you've got to play well at the defensive end.'' (Washington forward Caron Butler)

"We know with Gil out that we've got to maximize our forwards' scoring opportunities. We're trying to put them in different situations - 3s, they pick-and-roll, they slash, they post up, they come off of screens. If I have to call 100 plays, 95 of them are for our forwards.'' (Washington Coach Eddie Jordan)

In case you can't read between the lines, here is what those quotes really say: with Gilbert Arenas running the show (and being the center of attention), the Wizards were a bad defensive team that was stagnant on offense and relied on his scoring to bail them out; when he hit a hot streak, everything was great but over the long haul you can't have sustained success playing that way. With Arenas out of the lineup, the team is playing better defense and the offense is being run through the forwards instead of through a shoot first gunner masquerading as a point guard.

I also love how some people read one post and then accused me of forming my opinion of the Arenas-less Wizards on the basis of one nationally televised game. Of course, if they had actually read more than one post here then they would know that I've covered numerous Wizards games in person the past several seasons and they would also know that at the very time that Agent Zero MVP hype was reaching its peak in the mainstream media I asked "Is Gilbert a Gunner?" and concluded that this is in fact an apt description of how he plays. Interestingly, in that very post I talked about a game versus the Kings in which Arenas scored 30 points but shot 9-23 from the field and stated that the real star of the game was Antawn Jamison, who shot 9-17 from the field and had 33 points and 13 rebounds. Arenas bragged to Sports Illustrated about how much better guys like Caron Butler, Larry Hughes and Jamison have done playing alongside him--but Butler and Jamison have been doing just fine this year without Arenas' help and Hughes made it to the Finals playing alongside LeBron James. I suppose the concept of sacrificing one's stats to win more games does not make sense to Arenas so he probably thinks that Hughes is worse off now than he was when he was a Wizard.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 AM


Monday, January 21, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XI

The Celtics have come back to Earth; if it was not obvious before that they were not going to win 70 games then that is certainly clear now. They are only 4.5 games ahead of Detroit and Phoenix with more than half the season remaining to be played so it is even possible that they won't finish with the league's best record.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 32-6
2-3) Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns, 29-12
4-5) Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets, 27-12

The L.A. Lakers briefly had the best record in the Western Conference but after losing to Phoenix they just missed the cut for this list with a 26-12 record. With Andrew Bynum out of the lineup due to injury and a tough schedule coming up, most people expect the Lakers to slide in the standings. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Hornets have won four in a row and eight of their last 10 to put themselves in position to challenge for the best record in the Western Conference. A couple intriguing teams that are not on the leaderboard are Cleveland and Washington. The Cavaliers have won three in a row and eight of their last 10 and will be a much more dangerous playoff team than most of the "experts" think. Gilbert Arenas and his legion of fans keep insisting that the Wizards are not better off without him but a 21-17 record--including seven wins in their last 10 games--suggests that at the very least the team is not worse off without him. Assuming that he is able to come back this season, it will be fascinating to see how the team performs with him in the lineup.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 29.7 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.7 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 27.1 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.8 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.4 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.8 ppg
7) Michael Redd, MIL 22.9 ppg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 22.8 ppg
9) Baron Davis, GSW 22.4 ppg
10) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 22.4 ppg

12) Yao Ming, HOU 22.1 ppg
13) Dwight Howard, ORL 22.1 ppg
14) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.1 ppg

21) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.7 ppg

31) Brandon Roy, POR 19.4 ppg

35) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.3 ppg
36) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.1 ppg

43) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg

That thud you just heard was Kevin Durant hitting the rookie wall. His already poor shooting percentages have been sinking steadily in January and the Sonics have yet to win a game in 2008. Durant is shooting .387 from the field and .233 from behind the arc in the new year, dropping his seasonal numbers to .399 and .295 respectively. I've seen him play in person and don't doubt the possibility that he could become a good player at some point in the future but I still don't understand the breathless praise that has been showered on him since the moment he was drafted. He is the only player in the top 50 in the NBA in scoring who is shooting less than .400 from the field and it's not like he is putting up off the charts numbers in other categories (4.2 rpg, 2.1 apg) to compensate for this. Another young player who may be hitting a wall of sorts is Dwight Howard: he has shot less than .500 from the field in six of nine games in January and his scoring average has declined each month (24.3 ppg in November, 21.7 ppg in December, 19.2 ppg so far in January).

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 13.8 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.2 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.0 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.0 rpg
7) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.8 rpg
8) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.7 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.6 rpg
10) Shawn Marion, PHX 10.4 rpg
11) Andrew Bynum, LAL 10.2 rpg

15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.7 rpg
16) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg

29) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.6 rpg
30) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.6 rpg

32) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.4 rpg

Howard's rebounding numbers have not fallen as much as his shooting and scoring statistics have and he remains on course to have the best non-Rodman performance this category has seen in quite some time. When healthy, Marcus Camby is a rebounding and shot blocking machine; if he had ever developed a consistent offensive game he could have been a superstar.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 12.1 apg
2) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.7 apg
3) Chris Paul, NOH 10.5 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.1 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.6 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
9) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.2 apg
10) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.1 apg

Once again, the top nine players are in the exact same order that they were on the previous leaderboard. Raymond Felton barely knocked Allen Iverson out of the top 10, meaning that for now LeBron James and Baron Davis are the only players who are in the top 10 in both scoring and assists.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 AM