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Saturday, February 02, 2008

It is a Very Good Time to be a Lakers Fan

Lakers' fans have not had it this good since Shaq was in his prime and in shape--2002, in other words. The Lakers have the best player in the league on their roster, he is still in his prime and if he is not as good as Michael Jordan was he certainly is every bit as driven to succeed; they also have a promising young center who, although currently injured, should be able to return at some point fully healthy and continue to improve. The coup de grace is that the Lakers have just now added a third piece to the puzzle to complement Kobe Bryant's all around brilliance and Andrew Bynum's dynamic inside game: Pau Gasol, a multi-talented former All-Star whose game should blossom while playing under the tutelage of Coach Phil Jackson. Even better, the Lakers did not have to give up Bynum, Lamar Odom or any other key components of the current team's nucleus; they traded Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie (who is retired but whose contract is still owned by the Lakers), the draft rights to Marc Gasol (Pau's brother) and first round draft picks in 2008 and 2010. The Lakers have already issued a statement that explains the details of the deal and it is well worth reading. Of course, fans are less interested in financial matters/salary cap rules and more concerned with something much more basic: how will the addition of Gasol affect the Lakers? Obviously, if you are a Memphis fan, then you are wondering if the Grizzlies got enough value for dealing away the team's best player.

Let's take the Memphis perspective first, because there is less than can be said about it right now. Obviously, the Grizzlies have hit the reset button and are rebuilding from the ground up. To do that in the NBA, you need draft picks, salary cap room and young players. This deal provides all of those things to the Grizzlies. That does not mean that it will work, though; there are too many uncertainties: to name just a few, (1) has Brown peaked or can he still improve, (2) how good will Crittenton become, (3) how good will Marc Gasol be when he comes to the NBA, (4) who will Memphis choose with the newly acquired draft picks? All that can be said at the moment is that this is the right kind of move for Memphis to make, because there was no future for the team the way it was composed prior to this deal. In an odd way, there is a slight similarity between what Memphis is doing now and what the Lakers did with Shaq several years ago; the Grizzlies are getting rid of their best player and taking a short term step backwards with the hope of being better off long term, while the Lakers are shedding some youth in order to make a championship run now. Two obvious differences are that Gasol is not nearly as good now as Shaq was in 2004 and the talent that the Lakers acquired as a result of the Shaq trade (which, after several deals, has crystallized, essentially, as Bynum, Odom and Gasol) should give the Lakers a multiple year window in which to try to win titles, while the Heat narrowly escaped with one championship before the bottom fell out.

The Lakers have struck gold from their perspective because, as I mentioned above, they added an All-Star level player without having to give up assets that have much current value. That means that the team that they put on the floor now is instantly upgraded. No one can say for sure how much the team has been upgraded but I will go out on a limb and say that the difference will prove to be very significant. No one really seems willing to acknowledge just how bad the Lakers were by the end of last season; their roster was depleted by injuries (even the players who returned were out of shape and therefore not close to being 100% effective), Bynum had shown little sign of becoming a significant contributor, their starting point guard belonged in the NBDL and had a horrible attitude--and Bryant carried that team to the playoffs with the biggest post-All Star Break scoring barrage in four decades, culminating in a five game stretch during which he scored 65, 50, 60, 50 and 43 points for an average of 53.6 ppg! He averaged 6.8 rpg in those games, all of which the Lakers won, and shot 91-173 (.526) from the field. What does all of that mean? Simple--Bryant proved that he is unguardable even when he takes the court with players who the opposition can safely disregard. No one player can literally win a game by himself but Bryant is the one player in the league who comes closest to being able to do that because of his ability to impact a game as a scorer, passer, rebounder and defender (LeBron James is the only other player who even comes close to Bryant in this regard; any thoughts of putting Dwyane Wade in this group vanished when he presided over a 15 game losing streak). How much more deadly will Bryant be now that the opposing team has to deal with Gasol (and eventually Bynum as well)? Another important factor to consider is that part of why Michael Jordan was a great closer is that Phil Jackson could strategically rest him while Scottie Pippen and four reserves held down the fort (Jackson even did this in a big Finals comeback victory over Portland). The Lakers can run their offense through Gasol in the post while Bryant gets a little rest at the end of the third quarter.

Gasol can score both on the block and as a faceup player and he is a long player who blocks shots. He has a somewhat deserved reputation for being a little soft but Jackson coached a similar player in Toni Kukoc and got the most out of him--and despite whatever softness Gasol may have he is bigger and stronger than Kukoc and has averaged 8.6 rpg during his career, so he is not afraid to go into the paint. David Robinson was called soft by some (I think that the charge was bogus but that is a story for another day) but he won two rings as the second star to Tim Duncan. Gasol's passing skills will fit in perfectly in the Triangle Offense. In Memphis he was forced to be the top guy but, perhaps like Odom, he may be more temperamentally suited to being the second guy (and Odom may be best suited to be the third or perhaps even the fourth guy, someone who is not expected to put up big numbers every single night).

Keep in mind that if the Lakers had not traded Shaq then they would have lost Kobe because owner Jerry Buss would not have gone into luxury tax territory by paying max dollars for max years to both players. That means that this year's Lakers would likely have had Shaq and little else and would probably be worse that the Heat are now, if that is possible. Yes, Shaq got his one more ring without Kobe but the Lakers have set up the possibility of winning championships with a Kobe-Bynum-Gasol nucleus.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM

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Landry's Big Fourth Quarter Lifts Rockets Over Pacers

Seldom used rookie Carl Landry scored a career-high 22 points--including 13 in the fourth quarter--as the Houston Rockets beat the Indiana Pacers 106-103 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Tracy McGrady shot just 6-19 from the field but finished with 19 points, nine assists, five rebounds and three steals. Yao Ming also had a poor shooting night (4-12 from the field, though he did make 9 of 12 free throw attempts) but still posted a double double (17 points, 12 rebounds). The Pacers are without the services of injured four-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal and are thus forced to rely on their young players to pick up the slack. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 22 points and Shawne Williams scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting. They received a lot of inside help from veteran center Jeff Foster, who tied his season-highs in both points (13) and rebounds (17). There is not much finesse to Foster's game but he is a tireless worker who does not shy away from contact; the extra possessions that he provides with his rebounding and all out hustle would be even more valuable on a contending team--such contributions sometimes get lost in the shuffle on a team that is not good enough to take full advantage of them.

Indiana jumped out to a 21-13 lead--which turned out to be the Pacers' biggest advantage of the game--but by the end of the first quarter Houston was ahead, 25-23. The Rockets maintained a small lead for most of the game until an 11-4 Pacers run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter put the Pacers up 88-83 with exactly eight minutes remaining. Landry scored five points in the next 33 seconds to tie the game, converting two dunks off of feeds from Aaron Brooks and making a free throw for a three point play after the first slam. The Pacers stubbornly built the margin back up to five points three more times in the next three minutes but the Rockets just as stubbornly fought back on each occasion, with Landry doing most of the damage. Indiana's Troy Murphy hit two free throws to knot the score at 101 with 2:25 remaining but Landry hit a jumper and a free throw and Shane Battier added two free throws down the stretch while the Pacers could only produce one Mike Dunleavy layup, missing seven field goal attempts during that crucial time. As Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien lamented after the game, "I thought we had a very productive fourth quarter offensively. We were very crisp. We just did not knock down shots."

Landry, a Purdue product who had a lot of friends and family in attendance, was the main topic of conversation in both locker rooms after the game. Houston Coach Rick Adelman said, "Carl was terrific...I thought that he played really active and really good in the second quarter. He made some big plays down the stretch (in the fourth quarter). He really played well in practice all along and the more time went on the more we really wanted to get him into games and see how he would respond to game conditions. Every time I've played him in a game I think that he's been effective, except once. He's very lively and he's very athletic and you saw tonight that he can make that 15-17 foot jumper."

Landry did not seem awed by his opportunity or the way that he took advantage of it: "I tried to do what I do every night--and that is go out and give a lot of energy. I didn't get tired until I got hit in the head with about 40 seconds left in the game."

McGrady added, "He showed everything out there tonight: dunks, 12 footers, floaters in the lane, rebounding and hustle and going from one end to the other and blocking shots."

Yao stated with conviction, "We just did not want to lose this game. It's that simple. We don't want to lose another game. I know that we played well in the last five games (the Rockets went 5-1 prior to arriving in Indiana). I think that the playoffs are right there and we have a chance. When we play these teams (Indiana has a losing record), it's not disrespect, but we really have to win." Regarding Landry, Yao said, "He'll be a good player. He knocked down shots, played inside, defended well. Maybe he made some mistakes but I did, too, in my first game."

Yao seemed skeptical of the idea that playing close to his old college campus helped Landry. Told that this was like a home game for Landry, Yao replied, "He's from Milwaukee." A reporter explained that Landry went to school near Indianapolis and Yao replied with a smile, "Whatever makes him feel better." The way that Yao delivered that line drew laughs from the assembled media. I heard him say it live and I've replayed the tape several times and I'm still not sure if Yao really meant to be funny when he said that or we just read something into it. Yao certainly did not say this in a mean spirited way and he hastened to add with total seriousness, "I mean, we need him to play well tomorrow, too. I'm happy for him." We all know that Yao's game has grown by leaps and bounds but it is also great to see how well he has learned the English language and how relaxed and comfortable he is bantering with reporters. Could you imagine moving to China and in addition to learning a new way to do your job having to learn how to speak Chinese? Yao really deserves a lot of credit on many levels.

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, Coach O'Brien explained how he is trying to develop his roster: "We want to be able to go with both lineups (i.e., a small one and a big one) on any given night. We want to have the flexibility to continue to develop two lineups to make teams adjust to us and also to be able to use the depth that we have at the wing spots."

He also talked about how he planned to deal with Yao Ming: "We always try to front guys like that. When he gets the basketball on the wing and he dribbles the basketball we're going to come after him in a trapping situation and try to get the basketball out of his hands. When he is on defense, we're going to try to use him in pick and rolls as many times as possible and also flash the guy who he is guarding to the high post and play through him in our passing game. We want to make him chase and run as much as possible and be involved in as many defensive plays as possible."

The Pacers actually did a decent job versus Yao, holding him below his norms in terms of scoring and field goal percentage. In effect, Foster's production canceled out Yao's and that has to be considered a victory for Indiana. The problem, of course, is that in the process of containing Yao the Pacers enabled other players--most notably Landry--to get open.

Noting that the Rockets are a good team whose record at the moment leaves them out of the top eight in the tough Western Conference, O'Brien quipped, "I'm sure that they wish that they were Houston, Pennsylvania and could be in the East, because they are formidable."

***

Prior to the game, I spoke with Jack Sikma, the seven-time All-Star center who is currently an assistant coach with the Rockets. We talked about his experiences playing in two NBA Finals and winning one championship in his first two NBA seasons. He also told me about his methods for teaching the big men that he coaches (which of course includes both Yao and Landry).

Look for more information about Sikma in my upcoming article about his career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Thursday Potpourri: Revenge of the "Snubbed," Suns Still Can't Beat Spurs, Kobe Needs Help

This is the time of year when players who feel that they have been "snubbed" out of All-Star berths fill out their own "write in" ballots with high scoring performances. TNT's Kenny Smith said that the first player he remembers doing this is Cleveland's Ron Harper in the late 1980s but there is at least one earlier example: right after Mark Aguirre found out that he had not made the 1985 All-Star team, he dropped a career-high 49 points on Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers. Perhaps the classic case happened on January 27, 1990, when Karl Malone reacted to the news that A.C. Green had been voted as an All-Star starter ahead of him by scoring 61 points and grabbing 18 rebounds in just 33 minutes in a 144-96 win over Milwaukee. Malone vowed to not go to the All-Star Game as a reserve, then backed off from that position but ironically ended up missing the game due to injury.

The reality is that virtually every year there are more All-Star caliber players than there are available spots on the team, so it is not really accurate to speak of "snubs," even though just about everyone does. In case you missed the announcement on TNT, the East reserves are Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Chris Bosh, Caron Butler, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Antawn Jamison. Interestingly, those are the exact seven players who Magic Johnson said last week that he would have selected; when I wrote about who I would pick, I abided by the rules, which stipulate that a center must be chosen, so I would have selected Zydrunas Ilgauskas instead of Joe Johnson; I guess Bosh is being considered as the team's back up center. I am surprised that Johnson made the team not only because this violates the rules but because of the mediocre record of his team. If the coaches were not going to choose a true center then Hedo Turkoglu should have gotten the nod. While I agree in principle with the idea of rewarding the Celtics for their league-best record, Ray Allen is not just scoring fewer points this year because he is sacrificing shot attempts to play on a contender; his shooting percentage has plummeted and he just is not having a good enough year to make the All-Star team. The West reserves are Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire, Dirk Nowitzki, Carlos Boozer, Brandon Roy and David West. Again, I agree with the coaches on six of the seven choices. I would have taken Baron Davis over West but I also wrote in the aforementioned post, "(Josh) Howard and West are two of the players who I think merit serious consideration and it would not bother me one bit if either of them got the nod."

Allen and Howard are both former All-Stars and they surely consider themselves to be "snubbed" this time around. Allen's Celtics faced Howard's Mavericks in the first game of TNT's doubleheader and you just knew that both players would try to put on a show. Allen scored 15 first quarter points and Howard had 13 as Boston jumped out to a 27-20 lead. The biggest story of the game is that Kevin Garnett again sat out to rest his strained abdominal muscle. The early returns so far are that the Celtics are not exactly helpless even without Garnett, which makes one wonder if he really is the MVP or if Boston's success is more a product of a great ensemble effort from three stars and many role players who have all committed themselves to playing great defense. After their initial explosions, both Allen and Howard were largely quiet for the remainder of the game: in the next three quarters, Allen scored just 11 points and Howard only had four. The score was tied at 90 with :58 left after Dirk Nowitzki (31 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocked shots) sank a pair of free throws. Paul Pierce (26 points) missed a jumper on Boston's next possession but point guard Rajon Rondo made the play of the game by stealing the rebound from Nowitzki and converting a tough layup for a two point Boston lead; four James Posey free throws closed out the scoring in a 96-90 Boston win.

Allen's production will not make anyone forget Aguirre or Malone but this is the most points that he has scored in more than two weeks and just the second time he scored more than 20 points in January. Come to think of it, those numbers reinforce why Allen should not make the team. Howard is certainly worthy of being on the team and his statistics this year are better across the board than the numbers he put up last year as a first-time All-Star but the West is just stacked with talent this season.

The second game of the TNT doubleheader, San Antonio at Phoenix, also featured a pair of former All-Stars who did not make the team this year: Manu Ginobili and Shawn Marion. Spurs point guard Tony Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP, did not play due to bone spurs in his foot and three point specialist Brent Barry also sat out due to injury. Suns' fans constantly offer a million excuses about why their team has failed to beat San Antonio in a playoff series during the Steve Nash era but if any game set up in the Suns' favor it was this one: the Spurs have been floundering recently, the Suns are at full strength and have been playing well at home and the absence of Parker meant that Nash could essentially rest on defense. When the Spurs have Parker, they are comfortable playing at a fast or slow tempo but without him they want to grind things out. This was a golden opportunity for Nash, Marion and company to run the Spurs ragged. Instead, the Suns scored a season-low 81 points and lost by three even though the Spurs shot just .387 from the field. San Antonio controlled the boards (45-38) and made all the key plays down the stretch. Jacque Vaughn came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points for the Spurs in Parker's place, which does not say much for the Suns' defense. Marion finished with team-highs in points (21) and rebounds (10), while Ginobili led the Spurs in scoring (19 points) but Tim Duncan controlled the game with 16 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots. Steve Nash had 17 points and eight assists but he shot just 6-18 from the field, including 2-9 from three point range.

Duncan and Nash are each two-time NBA MVPs. Phoenix led 77-75 and had the ball with 2:22 left; here is what the two stars did down the stretch: Duncan assisted on a Michael Finley three pointer and then put the Spurs ahead for a good with a bank shot with :30 remaining, while Nash had two assists but did not score and committed back to back turnovers sandwiched around Duncan's clutch shot. The Spurs may not be a lot better than the Suns but they have been consistently at least a little better than the Suns for quite some time and that does not figure to change by playoff time.

The Lakers' season-defining road trip got off to a frustrating start in Detroit, as L.A. fought back from a 17 point deficit only to lose on a last second Tayshaun Prince three pointer. Kobe Bryant had 39 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while shooting 12-25 from the field but he also committed an NBA season-high 11 turnovers. I watched the two TNT games, so I only saw highlights of this one but I wonder how many Bryant turnovers happened on passes to Kwame Brown (3 points, 1-5 field goal shooting). In any case, Bryant's 26 second half points--including 10 straight in the third quarter to carry the Lakers from a 58-54 deficit to a 64-61 lead--put the Lakers in position to win; they led 89-87 with 17 seconds left and just needed one stop and one defensive rebound. The Lakers got the stop--Rasheed Wallace missed a three pointer--but Tayshaun Prince beat Lamar Odom to the rebound. Prince passed the ball to Chauncey Billups at the top of the key and then he drifted to the left baseline. Remember that the Lakers were up by two, so the only thing that could beat them in regulation was a three pointer. Sure enough, Odom foolishly overreacted to Billups' dribble penetration, leaving Prince all alone in the corner to drain the game-winning shot. There were still four seconds left but after the Lakers called timeout the Pistons wisely smothered Bryant and dared anyone else to make a shot. "Anyone else" in this case turned out to be Odom, who fired an off balance floater when he had enough time to take one more dribble and square up for a closer, higher percentage shot. There are different stats floating around about who is the most dangerous "clutch" player in the NBA but coaches know the real deal: on Sunday, Cleveland double-teamed Bryant and the other Lakers were so scared they did not even attempt a shot. Teams are simply going to smother Bryant and take their chances with anyone else shooting until someone else steps up to the challenge.

This is reminiscent of the scenario at the end of game six of the 2006 playoffs versus Phoenix, when the Lakers gave up a late offensive rebound and three pointer at the end of regulation and then lost in overtime, squandering a 50 point game by Bryant. It is interesting that the perceived ineptitude of LeBron James' supporting cast supposedly boosts his MVP candidacy but that Bryant's MVP candidacy is judged strictly based on wins and losses (the explanation that is widely given for his third place finish last season). It makes more sense to evaluate Bryant, James and Garnett on the basis of what they actually do and how they impact games directly as opposed to making their MVP bids dependent on the performances of other players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:16 AM

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Difference Between an MVP and an All-Star

Brandon Roy is an All-Star (or at least he should be as of Thursday night when the All-Star reserves are announced); LeBron James is an MVP-level player. Cleveland's 84-83 victory in Portland on Wednesday night provided a great illustration of the difference between being one of the top 24 players in the league and being one of the top five players in the league. Roy tied with LaMarcus Aldridge for the team-high in points (16), he had a game-high eight assists and he grabbed seven rebounds. Although his team lost, Roy had a plus/minus rating of +6 in nearly 39 minutes of action. Those numbers look pretty good--until you see that James scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning layup over Roy (and several other Blazers) with .3 seconds left. James shoots less than .300 from three point range but he shot 3-5 from behind the arc during the fourth quarter. He capped off his performance by stealing Portland's desperation inbounds lob to ensure the victory.

James leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring and this was the 17th time this season that he scored at least 10 points in the fourth quarter. Not coincidentally, this was Cleveland's league-best 18th fourth quarter comeback (Portland led 81-70 with 4:26 left in the game). James sprained his right ankle just before halftime but still scored 24 second half points, finishing with 37 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots. The Cavs played without two key injured players: starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic and reserve forward/center Anderson Varejao (prior to this game, the Cavs were 14-7 with Varejao and 9-12 without him). No Cav other than James scored in double figures and Cleveland shot just .392 from the field--but the Cavs employed the three pronged formula that I have repeatedly said gives this team a great chance to repeat as Eastern Conference champions: defense (Portland shot just .353 from the field), rebounding (Cleveland won the battle of the boards 49-43) and the brilliance of LeBron James.

Roy assisted on Portland's final two baskets of the game but he scored just two points in the fourth quarter and, even more importantly, his team did not score in the final 2:03. It is not necessarily up to an MVP-level player to score most or all of the points--although it is obviously great if he can do that--but it is up to him to make sure that if the defense contains him then one of his teammates gets an easy, open shot. None of this is meant to denigrate Roy; he played a good game and he even stepped up and took the challenge of guarding James down the stretch (James also guarded Roy during the critical late possessions)--but despite Roy's valiant efforts, James took over the game. On Cleveland's final possession, James faced Roy at the top of the three point arc, drove right past him into the heart of the defense and made a left handed layup with several Blazers draped all over him. Roy missed both of his shots in the final two minutes, a three pointer and a drive. James also missed a drive during that time--he shot 6-13 in the fourth quarter--but when money time came he delivered.

Obviously, one cannot make a comprehensive player evaluation based on a one game snapshot--but this game provides a classic example of the difference between an MVP-level player and an All-Star. Further evidence to reinforce this point can be found by looking at the numbers that James and Roy have put up this season; it is easy to see that what happened on Wednesday was a fairly normal night for both players. James scored and rebounded a bit more than usual and had fewer assists, while Roy's scoring was slightly down but he compensated for that with an excellent floor game. Here are their season averages:

James: 30.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 7.2 apg

Roy: 19.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.6 apg

One of the things that made Michael Jordan great is that he relentlessly attacked his weaknesses. As his college teammate Kenny Smith told me, "...the things that used to be his deficiencies became his strengths as his career went on, which is incredible. In college, he wasn't a great ballhandler, he wasn't a great outside shooter; he was good. Then those things became his strengths in the NBA--his ballhandling ability and his outside jump shot and his turnaround jumpers and his shot on the baseline and pull-up jumpers. That is just a testament to how hard he worked." LeBron James is transforming his game in a very similar fashion. I covered some of the earliest games in his rookie season and I've covered many of his games since then, including almost all of his home playoff games. When James first came into the league he had no idea how to play good NBA defense and the form on his outside shot was terrible--he almost always drifted to the side, backwards or both. He has so much talent that sometimes he makes those shots anyway but then-Cavs Coach Paul Silas instructed James to try to take off and land from the same spot when he shot a jumper. Current assistant coach Chris Jent continues to work with James on this and other shooting fundamentals and when James shoots jumpers in warmups he has great form. During games there is sometimes slippage but it is obvious that James is working to correct this and that is what makes it possible for him to get hot from three point range from time to time. Once he incorporates those fundamentals into his shooting routine all the time his three point percentage (and free throw percentage) will go up.

James has also made strides defensively. There were signs of this in last year's playoffs, when he guarded Chauncey Billups on key possessions. On Sunday, James guarded Kobe Bryant down the stretch. James wants the challenge of guarding the best player on the opposing team--which is significant in its own right--and he is performing better and better at that end of the court. This is very important because it sets a good tone for the entire team and fits in perfectly with the way that Coach Mike Brown wants the Cavs to play. When the best player on a team accepts the challenge defensively, everyone else falls in line.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:27 AM

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Spud Helps Nate Steal the Show (2006 All-Star Weekend)

HoopsHype.com Article

Spud helps Nate steal the show
by David Friedman / February 19, 2006

Saturday began with the Eastern and Western Conference All-Stars practicing at the George R. Brown Convention Center. As Rasheed Wallace told me, All-Star practices are “for the fans. They get to see us do some dunks and hit some half-court shots.”

The Eastern Conference took the floor first. Coach Flip Saunders had the players do the three-man weave, after which he split the team into two groups for a series of shooting contests to see which team could be the first to make 10 shots from various spots: the elbow area next to the free throw line, the baseline just inside the three-point line and then three-pointers from the wing. Next he walked the players through some basic screen/roll sets. Paul Pierce teamed with the four Piston representatives at one basket. I asked Rasheed Wallace if Pierce will be the “fifth Beatle” during the game or if he just randomly ended up teaming with Detroit’s finest and he replied, “It was pretty random, but it worked out.”

The East practice concluded with the traditional half-court shot contest. LeBron James, Jermaine O’Neal and Richard Hamilton each made one half-court shot. Then the West All-Stars took the floor and the media availability period commenced.

Like yesterday, Kobe Bryant was swamped, but I managed to obtain “pole position” and ask a few questions of the NBA’s leading scorer. The first thing that I wanted to know is if he thinks that he can break Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game record of 42 points. Bryant said, “In these games I just come out and read the flow of the game. The object is always to win, so whatever that means for me to do is what I’m going to do.”

Bryant added that he was made aware of Chamberlain’s record recently: “Yeah, someone asked me about that a couple days ago in L.A. I think that he has a story that he wants to write on Monday, so he’s trying to lead me to get 43.”

Since Bryant was criticized for his early departure from his 62 point game against Dallas and then also criticized for staying in the Toronto game to get 81 points, I asked him if he felt like he was in a no-win situation: “No, that’s the essence of the spot. You can’t please everybody. The people who like you are going to like you and the people who criticize are going to criticize. So it’s important to just go out and be yourself and do what you think is best.”

I suggested that since he received flak either way that perhaps the next time he has a big scoring game he might consider staying in and getting as many points as possible, but Bryant disagreed: “No, I do what I think is right. When I checked out of the game I didn’t do it because I thought people would like it. I felt like it was the right thing to do. The game was in hand and we had another game coming up. There was no point in risking injury or tiring my legs out. I do it because I feel it’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t care less what anybody else says.”

Chris Bosh told me that the best thing about being a first time All-Star is “getting to play with everybody, getting to see everybody and joking around. I’ve been dreaming about this a long time and it came true.”

When the media availability period concluded, coach Avery Johnson and the West All-Stars began their practice session. Johnson explained that he was not going to put in anything too complicated but that he just wanted to make sure that there was “some organization” to what the team does on Sunday.

He walked the team through some basic, standard NBA sets. If you see Steve Nash or Tony Parker flapping a hand over their head while dribbling downcourt then the West is going to run “floppy up” or “floppy down” (depending on whether they point their hand up or down). Floppy up means that when the baseline screens are set the two players that are using the screens will emerge from opposite sides, while in floppy down the players will both come out on the same side, one after the other.

The West also had several shooting contests and the mood was more lively than it was during the East’s practice. First team to make 11 shots won and the contests pitted the starters versus the reserves. Locations included the elbow area, a bank shot contest from the mid post (Johnson called this the “Tim Duncan” drill and, appropriately enough, Duncan and the starters won that one) and a baseline shot inside the three-point line. Then Johnson involved the crowd, assigning one side’s fans the responsibility of counting out loud for the starters’ makes while the other side kept track of the reserves’ progress. The reserves won two out of three contests in this format. Johnson also walked the team through some basic pick-and-roll defenses and two out-of-bounds plays – one to set up for an open two-point attempt and one to spring open a player for a three-point shot. Johnson announced that he plans to play a lineup of five seven-footers for a couple minutes, possibly when Saunders puts in all four Pistons so that Chauncey Billups has to guard one of them.

Bryant was the only West All-Star to make a half-court shot before the practice ended.

During the time between the end of the All-Star practices and the beginning of the All-Star Saturday night contests, I was able to walk through the Jam Session and see some other exhibits. Artist Kelly Sullivan has a “finger smear” painting display consisting of huge basketball themed drawings that were commissioned by Radio Shack, a Jam Session sponsor. Fans can dab paint on a finger and take part in finishing the artwork. She explained to me that “finger smear” is less intimidating to some people than trying to paint with a brush. Ian Naismith stopped by her exhibit earlier and participated in the project, signing his name by his “finger smear.”

I’ll go light on describing the All-Star Saturday night action since TNT and SportsCenter are providing saturation coverage. The Spurs won the Shooting Stars contest in a record 25.1 seconds. Their secret weapon? Steve Kerr was wearing his 13-year-old son’s LeBron James shoes because he forgot to pack his own sneakers.

Dwyane Wade outdueled James to win the Skills Challenge and Dirk Nowitzki won the Three Point Shootout, defeating Gilbert Arenas and Ray Allen in the final round.

Slam Dunk Contest judges Elvin Hayes, Kenny Smith, Rudy Tomjanovich, Moses Malone and Clyde Drexler worked overtime because Nate Robinson and Andre Iguodala battled to a tie and had to decide the title with the contest’s first ever “dunk-off.” Iguodala scored two perfect 50s in his first four dunks, but Robinson won 47-46 in the “dunk-off” and is the 2006 Slam Dunk champion. Iguodala’s best dunk came when teammate Allen Iverson tossed the ball off the back of the backboard and Iguodala swooped in, caught the ball and soared underneath the backboard for a reverse dunk; Robinson electrified the crowd and forced the “dunk-off” by leaping over Spud Webb for a powerful slam.

Next I headed to the Houston Marriott-Medical Center, site of the second annual ABA “Ole School” Reunion. I wrote about the first ABA Reunion last year for HoopsHype and when I arrived I saw several familiar faces, including organizer Fatty Taylor, “Goo” Kennedy, Warren Jabali and Al Smith. I also had an opportunity to speak with several ABA players who I did not get a chance to meet before, including Gus Gerard, George Tinsley and Ollie Taylor. Gerard played on the 1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis team that pulled off one of the great upsets in pro basketball history by defeating Dr. J and the defending champion New York Nets in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

Tinsley is a successful entrepreneur who runs a chain of food and beverage franchises in Florida. He told me that he is the “unofficial secretary” between the National Basketball Retired Players Association and many retired players who are not active in the group. He conveys to them information from the NBRPA and relays their feedback to the group. Tinsley also has worked as a coach, both in his native Kentucky and in Florida; two of his former players are Darrell Griffith and Tracy McGrady.

Before Taylor said anything about his own career, he had a very important message to convey: “The ABA existed before Spencer Haywood, but the storyline really begins with him because he was the first one to challenge the undergraduate rule, paving the way for all these guys who are high school players or undergraduates to come into the NBA and make the kind of money that they are making. Spencer went through a lot of stuff that people don’t realize – escorted off of the court, being locked out of the arenas and stuff like that (while his case was making its way through the courts and various injunctions restricted him from playing). Spencer was only 19-20 years old and going through a real trauma in his life and questioning whether or not he should continue to battle. He’s not a guy who’s going to toot his own horn but, when you see the story of ‘Glory Road,’ that’s one story but there is another story and it is a very important story because eventually the ABA became the cornerstone for the NBA. The dominant players after the merger were ABA players – George Gervin, Dr. J, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone. There is a real, untold story there and I don’t think that many people realize that.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:27 PM

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NBA Coast to Coast Crew Hands Out First Half Awards

The NBA Coast to Coast crew discussed a wide range of topics on Tuesday's two and a half hour marathon edition. Chris Broussard, Greg Anthony and Tim Legler offered their takes on the Wizards' success without Gilbert Arenas and whether or not the team is better off without Agent Zero. Predictably, all three said that the Wizards are not better off without Arenas--and yet even some of their own answers offered evidence that contradicted that assessment. Broussard asserted that the Wizards miss Arenas' talent but that they don't miss his antics, which he correctly described as a distraction to the rest of the team. Broussard said that Arenas can play well despite his quirkiness but that it throws other players off of their games. The problem with Broussard's reasoning is that you have to accept the whole package with Arenas--along with the obvious talent you also get a lot of extracurricular nonsense. Actually, I'm not even sure that the antics are the biggest problem with Arenas; it is just as significant that he is not coachable and that he is an indifferent defender at best. Without Arenas the Wizards are minus one talented player but seemingly everyone else on the roster is playing better; that is not a bad trade. Great players are supposed to make things easier for their teammates, not more difficult.

Greg Anthony declared that the Wizards are not even doing that well this season, noting that they are just the sixth seed in the East (after Tuesday's games they are actually tied for fourth). This season has provided plenty of evidence about how quickly the standings can change, so I still don't understand why the fact that the Wizards were the top seed in the East for about a minute and a half last season instantly turned Arenas into some kind of legend. The Wizards were 39-33 before losing first Caron Butler and then Gilbert Arenas to season ending injuries last year. They were a slightly above average team, just as they have been for most of Arenas' tenure in the nation's capital. Looking at this year's results, Butler's injury may have been more damaging to the team last season than Arenas' injury. In any case, the Wizards went 3-5 this season with Arenas and have gone 21-14 since he shut things down. Arenas may very well be the most talented player on the Wizards' roster but the team certainly has been no worse off without him so far--and their success this season is rooted in good, solid fundamental basketball, not hoping and praying for Arenas' bad shots to bail out the team. Last year, Washington's good record at this time was based in part on Arenas having some scoring performances that he is very unlikely to ever duplicate; this year's Wizards are winning by sharing the ball and playing good defense, a much better recipe for long term success.

Tim Legler said that the Wizards need Arenas because his special talents give Washington a chance to beat elite teams on a given night. That is interesting--I guess Legler missed that Washington has beaten Boston twice this season and just recently routed Dallas. Legler added that this year's Wizards are much better defensively because Antonio Daniels is a better, more physical defender than Arenas and that Daniels puts more pressure on opposing point guards than Arenas did. Daniels is obviously not a big time scorer but that is not a bad thing; he shoots a good percentage, gets the ball into the hands of his team's scorers and plays good defense. In other words, Daniels plays like a point guard. With Arenas, it was all about the show--the Agent Zero show. Daniels is about winning games and nothing else. It will simply be fascinating to watch the dynamics on this team once Arenas returns to the mix.

On Thursday, the NBA will announce who the All-Star reserves are. Legler and Anthony weighed in with their opinions. In the West, they each chose Brandon Roy, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire. Legler's other selection was David West, while Anthony went with Josh Howard. As I mentioned a few days ago, I would select Nash, Paul, Roy, Nowitzki, Boozer and Stoudemire without hesitation. That seventh spot is tricky because there are several deserving candidates. I would pick Baron Davis but Howard and West are two of the players who I think merit serious consideration and it would not bother me one bit if either of them got the nod. Nash, Paul and Roy seem to be on everyone's list, so it will be quite a shock if the coaches don't vote for them. I would be surprised if Nowitzki and Stoudemire are left off of the team but I'm not sure if Boozer is a lock even though Anthony, Legler, Kenny Smith and I would pick him.

In the East, Anthony and Legler only agreed about four players: Richard Hamilton, Chris Bosh, Caron Butler and Paul Pierce. Legler also had Chauncey Billups, Antawn Jamison and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on his list, while Anthony chose Ray Allen, Hedo Turkoglu and Rasheed Wallace. Bosh, Billups, Butler and Pierce are obvious choices. I would go with Ilgauskas at center; Wallace is not even a true center, he just plays there because the Pistons got rid of Ben Wallace and their other plans (Nazr Mohammed, Chris Webber) fell through. Wallace does not play hard every night and neither shoots nor rebounds as well as Ilgauskas. Hamilton and Jamison complete my ballot. Allen is having one of the worst seasons of his career and I need to see more than just the first half of this season to really buy that Turkoglu is an All-Star. Anthony and Legler also mentioned three players who are putting up All-Star numbers but who probably won't make the squad due to their teams' records: Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson and Michael Redd.

Marc Stein's much ballyhooed power rankings really did not do that much for me. Anthony mentioned how much work Stein puts in to this but it seems to me that Stein basically looked at which teams have the best records and then ranked them in order of who has played the best in the past 10 games or so. There is nothing wrong with that but it hardly strikes me as Earth-shattering analysis, either. In contrast to this paint by numbers approach, I've been saying since before the season began that the Cavaliers will be a tough out in the playoffs and I explained exactly why (LeBron James' brilliance, superior team defense and rebounding). I stuck to my guns even when the Cavs went through some rough patches and now all of a sudden I've seen some commentators take notice of Cleveland for the first time. Analysis means figuring out why things are happening and then using that information to predict what will happen in the future. Is it that hard to figure out that New Orleans, currently riding a league-best nine game winning streak, is the best team in the NBA right now, particularly with Boston treading water a bit recently? The only thing worth discussing about New Orleans is whether or not the Hornets can actually beat teams like the Spurs, Mavs, Suns and Jazz in a seven game series. We know that New Orleans has beaten some good teams during the regular season but the postseason is a whole different story. I'll say right now that the Hornets will not beat the Spurs in a seven game series if Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are healthy. I also have serious doubts that the Hornets would beat any of those other teams in a playoff series. The Hornets' key players do not have much playoff experience and they will find out that beating a team once or twice during a long, arduous regular season is not quite the same as beating a team four times in seven games when there is more rest between games and the opposing coaching staff is focused entirely on your weaknesses without having to prepare for any other games.

Anthony, Legler and Jalen Rose handed out some first half awards. For best first half performance, Anthony chose Portland, Legler picked New Orleans and Rose took Boston. It seems to me that they answered three different questions. Portland is the most surprising team, not the best one. New Orleans is the best team in the West (for right now, anyway) but Boston clearly had the best first half performance of any team.

For best coaching performance, the panelists again offered three different answers: Boston's Doc Rivers (Anthony), Washington's Eddie Jordan (Legler) and New Orleans' Byron Scott (Rose). The Coach of the Year award usually goes to the coach who does the most with the least (otherwise, Phil Jackson would have won a boatload of them instead of just one); I don't necessarily agree with that reasoning, but that definitely has been the pattern. Jordan, Rivers and Scott have all done terrific jobs but I would vote for Portland's Nate McMillan.

The panelists also disagreed about the first half's best breakthrough performance, choosing Andrew Bynum (Anthony), Brandon Roy (Legler) and Caron Butler (Rose). Those players have all performed well but Roy won the Rookie of the Year last season and Butler was an All-Star. We had every reason to expect them to play well this season. Bynum went from being a guy who was fighting for playing time with career journeymen like Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Ronny Turiaf to perhaps being the second best player on the Lakers. He is the landslide winner in this category.

Anthony, Legler, Rose and the rest of the basketball fans in America could all agree on one thing: the Miami Heat have authored the worst performance. Anthony minced no words on this subject, calling the Heat "the most embarrassing team in professional sports in America." That about sums it up. The only thing that I can add is that we need about a five year moratorium on anyone trying to even suggest that Dwyane Wade is as good as Kobe Bryant. I understand that Wade is battling some injuries but so is Bryant and every other top player in the league; Wade is healthy enough to play over 38 mpg and score 25 ppg, so his physical condition is not the primary problem in Miami. Last year, some people questioned the significance of Kobe Bryant's string of 40 and 50 point games that carried the Lakers into the playoffs, saying that he put up numbers against bad teams and that the Lakers still did not finish with a great record. Wade and Miami are showing just how hard it is to carry a team singlehandedly the way that Bryant did. I can't picture a Kobe Bryant team losing 15 games in a row. In the 2005-06 season, Bryant outscored Dallas--the eventual Western Conference champions--62-61 in the first three quarters of a blowout Lakers victory. We all know that Kobe dropped 81 on Toronto a couple years ago, carrying the Lakers from a double digit deficit to a double digit win. Wade has had three 40 point games this year, all losses. It is not easy to put up big scoring nights with a shaky supporting cast and it is even more difficult to lead your team to wins. Wade did well when he had Shaquille O'Neal drawing double coverage in the 2006 NBA Finals but this season is providing an excellent opportunity for people to understand the difference between Bryant and the other top shooting guards in the NBA; there is a gap between Bryant and the rest of the pack and it is not particularly close (small forward LeBron James is the second best player in the league right now and he has closed the gap on Bryant this season).

Cue up the old eight tracks of Peaches and Herb: Chris Webber and Don Nelson are reunited but will it feel so good? The pundits offered differing initial takes. Legler, a former teammate of Webber's, likes the move, calling it low risk and potentially high reward. Anthony, who mentioned about 100 times that he means no disrespect to Webber--which of course always means that the next spoken words will be disrespectful--thinks that Webber will be a bad fit in Golden State because he is not as good of an offensive rebounder as Andris Biedrins is. Anthony said that playing Webber 20 mpg will disrupt the team's chemistry. Over on NBA TV, Rick Mahorn noted that injuries slowed Webber down last season and that he will have to adapt to the Warriors' fast paced game but he thinks that Webber will do well. Fred Carter praised Webber's basketball IQ and rebounding ability, adding that he can pass the ball and "make plays." When Ahmad Rashad suggested that Webber "fits to a T" in Golden State, Carter and Mahorn both agreed, adding that he will not take away shots from the other players but will in fact help them get easier shots because of his passing ability.

The last time Webber was a 20-10 player was 2002-03, though he narrowly missed in 2005-06. His numbers have been steadily declining since 2001, when he averaged 27.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg, earning his only All-NBA First Team selection. Even if he is in shape and healthy, the best that can reasonably expected from Webber at this point is about 11 ppg and 7 rpg. His passing could indeed be an asset but he will hardly add anything to Golden State's already subpar defense. The natural tendency for commentators is to either call a deal a slam dunk or an air ball but my initial impression is that the Webber signing won't make that big of a difference one way or the other. The Warriors are in a dog fight for the last playoff spot in the West. Prior to the season, I predicted that Golden State would finish sixth and lose in the first round. New Orleans and Portland are two teams that I did not expect to see in the playoff mix and if they stay in the hunt then a couple teams from last year will not make it--and Golden State could easily fall into that category, though I suspect that Portland may have already peaked and that the Warriors can do well enough to return to the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XII

The Boston Celtics are just 5-5 in their last 10 games and it is very possible that they won't even have the best record in the East, let alone post the best record in the NBA or challenge the all-time single season wins mark. LeBron James may not lose his grip on this year's scoring title as easily as Carmelo Anthony did with last year's scoring title. Dwight Howard is close to putting up scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage numbers that have not been seen together in the same season since Wilt Chamberlain patrolled the paint.

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

1) Boston Celtics, 34-8
2) New Orleans Hornets, 32-12
3) Phoenix Suns, 32-13
4-5) Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, 31-13

All hail the New Orleans Hornets! They now own the best record in the Western Conference and are closing in rapidly on the Boston Celtics for the best record in the entire NBA thanks to a nine game winning streak, by far the best active winning streak. The Dallas Mavericks made it to the Finals in 2006, had the best record in the league in 2007 and are just four games behind the Celtics this season but they are flying completely underneath the radar. They will be a dangerous team in this year's playoffs; don't count on them making an early exit this time around. There certainly is enough time for the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to straighten themselves out and their record is not terrible (28-15) but something seems to be missing this year in terms of intensity. They had a similar dead spot around this time last season and recovered nicely but the situation does bear watching, particularly since there are so many good teams in the West this season.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 29.9 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.9 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.9 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 25.3 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.1 ppg
7) Michael Redd, MIL 23.0 ppg
8) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 22.7 ppg
9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 22.5 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.5 ppg
11) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.3 ppg

13) Yao Ming, HOU 22.1 ppg

24) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.4 ppg

32) Brandon Roy, POR 19.4 ppg
33) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.3 ppg

35) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.2 ppg

43) Ray Allen, BOS 18.0 ppg

There has not been a lot of recent movement at the top of this leaderboard, so let's look at one celebrated player who has not come close to meeting the outlandish expectations that were placed on him. Bill Simmons, Rick Kamla and seemingly every basketball pundit around breathlessly said prior to this season that Kevin Durant was going to be a phenomenon right off the bat. I watched Durant play in the summer league and the preseason and simply reported what I saw, minus any hype: a one dimensional gunner who does not finish well in traffic, has bad shot selection, shoots poorly from the perimeter and does not excel in any statistical category other than free throw percentage. Last summer I concluded, "Barring some dramatic improvement between now and the start of the season I am skeptical that he is going to score 20-plus ppg as easily as so many people seem to believe--he may very well score 20-plus ppg out of necessity because Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are gone but he will likely have to do it on a high volume of shots with a low degree of accuracy...Durant is long and athletic and can get his shot off over most defenders but if he continues to shoot poorly and cannot post up, rebound or pass then I don't think that teams will be greatly concerned about him shooting a lot of faceup jumpers." Halfway through Durant's rookie season, permit me to go Dennis Green here and say that Durant is who I thought he was. Durant is the only player in the top 50 in scoring who is shooting less than .400 from the field. He is shooting .281 from three point range, which is the worst percentage among top 50 scorers who attempt at least three three pointers a game. Durant was initially advertised as a great rebounder based on his performance in one year of college but he was shifted to guard due to his slight frame and he is averaging 4.1 rpg, which is not bad for a shooting guard but it is hardly outstanding, either. Durant is averaging 2.1 apg and 2.9 turnovers per game. I'm not a big believer in assist/turnover ratio but that is not good any way you cut it. None of this means that Durant can't develop into a very good player--maybe even a true phenomenon--some day. What it does mean is that just because someone is a big name commentator that does not mean that he actually knows how to correctly evaluate basketball players.

Why focus so much attention on Durant? Simple--his rookie season is a great example of how hype and superficial "analysis" have become the stock in trade of too many people who cover the NBA.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.9 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.2 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.9 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.4 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.1 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.1 rpg
7) Yao Ming, HOU 10.7 rpg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.7 rpg
9) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.4 rpg
10) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.3 rpg

14) Al Horford, ATL 10.0 rpg
15) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.9 rpg

28) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.6 rpg
29) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg

32) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.3 rpg

Dwight Howard dipped just slightly below 15 rpg. If he can get above that figure and stay there, he has a chance to become the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to average 20 ppg, 15 rpg and shoot .600 from the field in the same season. The amazing thing about Howard is that he is so productive despite being a pretty raw player in terms of skill development. He does not have much of a back to the basket game beyond brute force and his approach to rebounding is pretty much "go get it" without much regard for positioning. In other words, he is an MVP candidate who still has the potential to become a much more polished player. There is a word for that: scary.

Top Ten Playmakers
----------------------

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.9 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 10.7 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.5 apg
5) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.6 apg
6) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.3 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.1 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg

For the first time in a while, there is a change near the top: Chris Paul took over second place from Jason Kidd. One gets the impression that this could be Nash's last season in the top spot, which may well become Paul's residence for the next few years.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:13 AM

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Monday, January 28, 2008

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part V

The fifth edition of the blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been posted at Pickaxe and Roll.

Here are links to the previous four editions:

MVP/RoY rankings, Part I

MVP/RoY rankings, Part II

MVP/RoY rankings, Part III

MVP/RoY rankings, Part IV

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: With Bynum out, Kobe has shown that he will do whatever it takes to keep the Lakers afloat--scoring 48 points against Seattle and passing for 11 dimes against Denver. The Lakers have a killer road schedule coming up but if Kobe can help them go 5-4 or 4-5 during that stretch then they will not lose too much ground in the standings before Bynum returns.
9-LeBron James: A deadly scorer and passer but even he says that Kobe is the best player in the league.
8-Dwight Howard: He is physically overpowering yet cannot take over a game as consistently as Kobe and LeBron can.
7-Kevin Garnett: His individual stats are down but the numbers that best reflect his impact are the won-loss records of the team he left and the team he joined.
6-Tim Duncan: Somehow, in recent years he is not mentioned much in MVP talk. The main reason his regular season numbers are not as gaudy as they used to be is that his minutes are down a bit.
5-Chris Paul: He hasn't scored 20 points in a game since January 9 but he continues to rack up the assists and the Hornets keep winning.
4-Dirk Nowitzki: Last year's MVP is still trying to make people forget Dallas' first round exit but he and the Mavs are playing very well.
3-Steve Nash: He still is the player who makes the Suns' high octane offense go.
2-Amare Stoudemire: His scoring, blocked shots and field goal percentage are all up from last year as he continues to show that he has fully recovered from the microfracture procedure.
1-Allen Iverson: He is a big reason why Denver started out January with an 8-4 record.

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: Seattle is 0 for January so far and Durant's game has remained the same: he alternates 4-13 shooting nights with 12-23 shooting nights and it all averages out to a field goal percentage that hovers consistently around .400. He provides minimal contributions in the other statistical categories.
4-Al Horford: He is averaging more than 9 ppg and 9 rpg while shooting a good percentage from the field.
3-Sean Williams: Athletic big man who blocks shots, rebounds and shoots a good percentage.
2-Yi Jianlian: Like all of these rookies, he has been up and down but he looks like a promising player overall.
1-Luis Scola: Solid scorer and rebounder off of the bench.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:17 AM

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The Best the Game Offers: Kobe Versus LeBron

One of my favorite basketball articles of all-time is "The Best the Game Offers," a 1982 Tom Callahan piece for Time about Julius Erving and Larry Bird. Erving was then a 32 year old, 11 year veteran coming off of an MVP season in 1981, while Bird was a third year player who had finished second in that year's MVP voting. Callahan lyrically explained why they were the two best players in the league and how similar they were in the ways that really count even though they were quite different from each other in some superficially obvious ways.

It may sound at first like a bit of a reach to say that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are reprising the Erving and Bird roles from back in the day but a closer look reveals some intriguing similarities:

1) Erving is six years older than Bird; Bryant is six years older than James.

2) James is considered a pass first player despite being a big-time scorer, while Bryant is known primarily as a scorer despite being a very good passer; Bird and Erving respectively were perceived in a similar fashion.

3) Bird was bigger and more physical than Erving; James is bigger and more physical than Bryant.

One difference is that Bryant and James play in different conferences and thus only face each other twice per season. Cleveland rallied from a fourth quarter deficit to post a 94-90 home win versus L.A. in December and on Sunday the Cavaliers once again came from behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Lakers, this time by a 98-95 count. Both players were magnificent: James had 41 points, nine rebounds and four assists, while Bryant posted 33 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. James scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including Cleveland's final six points in the last 1:16 and you can bet that the headline for most stories will be that James outdueled Bryant or words to that effect. In one sense, that is true: James' team won the game. However, the deeper reality is a bit more complex. Plus/minus stats can be noisy and are not definitive but they do give a broad idea of how well or how poorly a team performs while a given player is on the court; of course, the ideal scenario is to adjust the raw numbers to account for who else was on the court at the same time and how they performed. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Bryant had a positive plus/minus number in both losses (+8 in December, +8 again on Sunday) and that James had a negative plus/minus number in both games (-7 in December, -3 on Sunday). I don't believe for one second that James makes the Cavaliers worse but one thing that these numbers suggest is that Cleveland's bench performed better in these games. Indeed, on Sunday all four Cavs reserves who played had positive plus/minus numbers, while three of the four Lakers reserves who played had negative plus/minus numbers.

Bryant and James each made some mistakes on Sunday. Both players went 0-2 from the free throw line late in the game. James had a game-high five turnovers and shot just 1-5 from three point range, while Bryant lost his composure and cost his team a point by getting whistled for a technical foul in the third quarter. During one sequence when Bryant was being guarded by James, Bryant repeatedly tried to shake James with dribble moves before missing a fadeaway jumper that seemed a bit forced. When Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson sat Bryant down for a 1:22 stretch in the fourth quarter, ABC announcers Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy speculated that Jackson may have been sending Bryant a message. I don't know if that was the case, but the message that ended up being sent was probably not what Jackson intended, because the Lakers led 86-85 when Bryant sat down and they trailed 90-86 when Jackson put him back in the game. The Lakers outscored the Cavs 9-8 the rest of the way but could not overcome the quick, negative swing that happened when Bryant was out of the game. Van Gundy noted that despite Bryant shooting 6-6 from the field in the first half the Lakers actually trailed 49-40 at halftime but that in the second half the Lakers stormed in front with Bryant shooting more often and less accurately (Bryant shot 10-21 from the field for the game, while James shot 16-32). Van Gundy's explanation for this is that when Bryant is aggressive he draws fouls (Bryant attempted a game-high 18 free throws), which enables the Lakers to shoot the bonus sooner; Van Gundy likes the energizing effect that Bryant has on his team when he shoots a lot, even if he misses some shots. Studio host Stuart Scott kept mentioning how well the Lakers have done this season when Bryant scores fewer than 20 points (8-1) but that stat at best only tells part of the story: some of those games were routs in which Bryant set the tone early by scoring a lot before he took a seat for the night. Also, the Lakers are 12-3 when Bryant scores 30-39 points. What all of those numbers put together tell me is that Bryant does exactly what he says he does, namely read the defense and make the appropriate play, shoot or pass. On nights that they need his scoring, he drops 30 or more and they usually win; on nights that some of his teammates shoulder the scoring load he scores fewer than 20 points and they usually win.

There were many interesting aspects of Sunday's game:

1) Bryant got five of his assists in the first half. After he delivered a slick bounce pass off the dribble, Van Gundy said that Bryant is "as good a passer off the dribble as there is in the NBA." One of the reasons that I have maintained for a couple years now that Bryant is the league's best player is that he has no real weaknesses and is able to execute all of the fundamentals of the game at a very high level. People don't want to hear or believe it, but Bryant can make any pass that Steve Nash can. Bryant does not average double digit assists because in the Triangle Offense anyone can make the pass that initiates a play (and thus earns an assist) and because he is not surrounded by the caliber of finishers and perimeter shooters that Nash has. Bryant and Andrew Bynum were just beginning to form the kind of connection that Nash has with his bigs when Bynum got injured. Bryant often gets the so-called "hockey assist" by making the pass out of the double-team that leads to the pass that earns the assist. When I evaluate a player's passing ability, I look not only at assists but also if he can make various types of passes and how good he is at reading situations to know which kind of pass to use.

2) Lamar Odom scored eight points on 4-4 shooting in the first quarter--and managed just six points on 1-5 shooting the rest of the way; Odom also only showed up in the first quarter in the December loss to Cleveland. I wonder when people will finally understand that this is who Odom is. He is not a great player; he is big and multi-talented but he simply does not have the focus and drive to be dominant for long stretches. Anyone who compares Odom to Scottie Pippen or even suggests that Odom can be Bryant's Pippen should be immediately drug tested.

3) After three quarters, Bryant had shot more accurately and less frequently than the "pass first" James and Bryant had more assists than James did. The Lakers led 71-69 at that point and were still clinging to a one point lead when Jackson benched Bryant. As the saying goes, if he wanted to send a message then he should have used Western Union.

4) Late in the December game, Bryant beat James to get a big offensive rebound after Bynum missed two free throws. On Sunday, Bryant and James were matched up several times during free throw situations. Early in the fourth quarter, Bryant again beat James to get an offensive rebound in that situation and he turned that extra possession into two free throws. James is younger, bigger and more explosive, yet Bryant repeatedly gets the jump on him because of his tenacity and superior footwork. Another time, Drew Gooden and James tried to "pinch" Bryant but Bryant spun around Gooden so quickly that Gooden did one of those "Where did he go?" double takes. Bryant ended up right in front of him in perfect rebounding position but the free throw was made, so Bryant simply caught the ball and handed it to the Cavs to inbound. Finally, James had to resort to face guarding Bryant in free throw situations as if Bryant were Dennis Rodman; they grappled so forcefully that both players tumbled to the ground a la Rodman versus Karl Malone. Bryant and James were each assessed a foul on that play. Uninformed people simply look at rpg averages and conclude that James is a better rebounder than Bryant. I don't buy it. Both players are outstanding rebounders for their positions; James (7.6 rpg) is a small forward and thus has more rebounding responsibilities than Bryant (6.2 rpg), a shooting guard who must protect the backcourt defensively. With Bynum out of the lineup, Bryant has taken up a heavier rebounding load, grabbing at least 10 boards each of the past three games after doing so only twice in all of the previous games this season. Years ago, the Bulls went through a stretch when Rodman was suspended and Scottie Pippen was injured and Michael Jordan averaged over 10 rpg. Bryant has that same kind of capability and he has shown repeatedly that he can beat James to a rebound even if James has inside position.

5) Since they play different positions, Bryant and James only guard each other sporadically, though in recent games they have guarded each other down the stretch. Bryant scored his final points of the game on a jumper over James that tied the score at 92 with 2:10 remaining. James made a driving layup, a jumper and two free throws after that to propel Cleveland to victory. It was interesting to see the different defensive schemes used by Cleveland and L.A. The Cavs aggressively trapped Bryant to force him to give up the ball, daring anyone else to make a wide open shot. In the last two minutes, Derek Fisher missed an open three pointer and Odom went up with a very soft layup attempt, failing to use the backboard, missing the shot badly and not drawing a foul. Once when Bryant beat James off the dribble and used a spin move he committed a charge against the perfectly positioned Larry Hughes; Bryant received no such help on defense, as the Lakers pretty much left him on an island to play James straight up without leaving other players open. A big reason that the Cavs made it to the Finals last season is defense and after a slow start to this campaign the Cavs are again performing well at that end of the court: on the final possession of the game, the Lakers inbounded the ball in the frontcourt trailing by three with nine seconds left. They never even got a shot off as the Cavs deftly switched on every pick or dribble hand off.

This was a good road win for Cleveland, sparked by a great individual effort by James combined with solid team defense and rebounding (45-42 advantage for Cleveland despite Bryant's game-high 12 boards); the only down note for the Cavs is that valuable reserve Anderson Varejao sprained his ankle, had to be helped off the court and did not return to action.

We can only hope to someday see the best the game offers in a Finals showdown for the ages.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:05 AM

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Hedo Does it: Turkoglu Nails Game Winning Three Pointer Versus Celtics

Hedo Turkoglu's three pointer as time expired gave Orlando a 96-93 win over Boston, enabling the Magic to join the Washington Wizards as the only teams to beat the Celtics twice this season. Turkoglu finished with a game-high 27 points. Dwight Howard controlled the paint, producing 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. His task was made much easier due to the absence of Kevin Garnett, who missed the game due to a strained abdominal muscle. Paul Pierce had 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists but the key player for Boston--and the one who nearly led the Celtics to victory--was Rajon Rondo, who scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished off five assists and racked up six steals. His plus/minus score of +11 led the Celtics. When Rondo sprained his ankle early in the third quarter, Boston led 48-43. By the time he had his ankle taped and returned to action a little over three minutes later, Orlando led 54-49. As usual, ABC commentator Hubie Brown nailed it as soon as Rondo got hurt, declaring, "This is a major loss because he can control the tempo of the game for you in the half court set to relieve the pressure off of Paul Pierce, who is your other distributor." Sure enough, with Rondo out of action the Celtics' offense ground to a halt. The Celtics obviously missed Garnett's offensive, defensive and rebounding contributions but if Rondo had not gotten injured it looks like they might have won anyway. Boston did manage to briefly retake the lead in the fourth quarter with Rondo making several key plays offensively and defensively but after that 11-1 Orlando run with him out it was an uphill struggle for the Celtics. The simple, easy to write headline for this game is that the Celtics lost because Garnett missed a game for the first time this season but the reality is a bit more complicated than that: Rondo has become an important player for the Celtics.

Garnett wanted to play, but Coach Doc Rivers and the Celtics' medical staff decided that it was too risky. Garnett was so upset that he did not even join his teammates on the bench, electing to stay in the locker room. When Rivers was asked about that, he laughingly replied, "He's pouting" before quickly adding, "That's fine. That's good. As I've said before, I'd rather have a guy you'd have to talk out of playing then a guy you have to talk into playing." I understand and respect that Garnett hates to miss games--but once that decision is made it is up to him to be a leader and set an example for the rest of the team. As an experienced, knowledgeable veteran, he could offer advice and encouragement to his teammates while sitting on the bench--and let's be honest: if Kobe Bryant refused to join his teammates on the bench it would be a covered as a major, negative story. Garnett's actions in this case may be not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things but it is simply fascinating to see how differently a story is portrayed depending on whether or not the media has subjectively decided that someone is a good guy or a bad guy.

Although Pierce and Rondo got the job done in Garnett's absence and James Posey (16 points, six rebounds) made a nice contribution off the bench, Ray Allen--the third member of the "Big Three"--scored 17 points on 7-18 shooting and had just one rebound and one assist. Two of his baskets were dunks, so he shot 5-16 on everything else. Allen is having the worst shooting season of his career and anyone who thinks that he belongs in the All-Star Game this season is just getting caught up in the hype over Boston's record. He has had some good moments this season but overall his play has markedly declined.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:42 AM

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