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Friday, February 08, 2008

The Real Deal About Shaq and the Suns

In order to objectively evaluate the deal in which the Phoenix Suns sent Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal, it is first essential to understand one thing: the Suns were not going to win an NBA title the way that their roster was constructed prior to this trade. Over the past few years, a lot of myths have developed around this team; one of the most popular ones is that were it not for the one game suspensions of Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw during last year's playoffs the Suns would have rolled to the championship. To use legal terminology, that assumes several facts that are not in evidence, namely that the Suns would not only have won game five versus the Spurs if those players had played but that the Suns would have won the series and then beaten Utah in the Western Conference Finals and then defeated Cleveland in the NBA Finals. San Antonio has been known to win big playoff games in adverse situations, so even if the Suns had won game five with Stoudemire and Diaw--which I am not at all convinced would have happened--the Spurs still would have had an opportunity to win the series by taking care of business at home and then winning game seven on the road. Utah and Cleveland both have the kind of big, bruising frontcourts that cause the Suns problems in the playoffs. Suns' supporters also have reasons (excuses) to explain each of the team's previous failures to win a championship during the Steve Nash era but the bottom line is that this team has been weak in the paint both in terms of rebounding and defense and those deficiencies have prevented them from even winning the West, let alone winning a championship. The Suns' gaudy record this season, like their gaudy records in previous seasons, is a mirage in terms of forecasting postseason success; the Suns are 5-10 versus the other West teams that have winning records and those are the teams that they have to beat to win a title. It does not matter one bit if the Suns' running style helps them win more regular season games against bad teams than the other contenders do; a team that is soft in the paint is not going to win an NBA title.

Any Suns fan who is opposed to the Marion/Banks-O'Neal trade needs to read and reread the above paragraph until he understands it and accepts it as fact. Suns President Steve Kerr obviously already figured this out, telling TNT's studio crew on Thursday, "I saw a lot of weaknesses in our game, especially on the low block...I just felt very vulnerable as a team...We have a very good record but I wasn't sure that we were good enough as we were constituted to go ahead and really succeed in the playoffs." By "succeed," Kerr means to win a championship and he is certainly correct: the Suns were not going to win a title without adding some size to their roster. That does not mean that acquiring O'Neal guarantees a championship for the Suns; O'Neal will have to prove that he can stay healthy and be productive enough to make the difference in the playoffs versus the best teams in the West. Maybe he can do that and maybe he can't--but the Suns are more likely to win a championship now than they were prior to doing this deal and that is all that their fans can reasonably expect from the front office; the rest is up to the players and the coaching staff.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:48 AM

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Rockets Pound Banged-Up Cavs

The Houston Rockets pounded the short-handed Cleveland Cavaliers on the glass and cruised to a 92-77 home win. Yao Ming had 22 points, a game-high 12 rebounds and four assists. Tracy McGrady spent most of the day in the hospital due to a severe upper respiratory infection but gutted out 32 tough minutes, producing eight points, seven rebounds and four assists. Bonzi Wells provided a nice boost off of the bench with 13 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Rafer Alston (17), Shane Battier (15) and Luis Scola (10) each scored in double figures, a mark that only two Cavs reached: LeBron James (32 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocked shots) and Larry Hughes (13 points, four rebounds). Injuries sidelined Cavs' big men Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao and starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic. Cleveland's weakness in the paint was painfully evident throughout the game, as Houston enjoyed a 55-35 rebounding advantage, including a 17-7 edge in offensive rebounds. Cleveland's recipe for victory is LeBron James' brilliance, solid defense and excellent rebounding. James did his part and the defense was adequate, at least in terms of defensive field goal percentage (.435), but a defensive possession is not successfully complete until the rebound is controlled and that is the area that cost Cleveland the game. Donyell Marshall started at power forward and had just five rebounds in 24 minutes, while Dwayne Jones came off of the bench to contribute zero rebounds in 16 minutes.

Many people base their support for LeBron James as MVP on Cleveland's 0-6 record in games that he missed this season. I rate James a close second behind Kobe Bryant in this season's MVP race, but it must be noted that the 0-6 mark is not even close to being the strongest argument on James' behalf. Varejao also missed those six games and Hughes missed four of them. Obviously, those players aren't nearly as valuable as James is but the cumulative effect of their absences doomed the Cavs in those games. If those losses boost the case for James as MVP then to be fair and consistent one would have to say that this loss in Houston works against James. I mean, James' supporters cannot have it both ways: James cannot get all of the credit for the wins that he plays in and all of the "credit" for the losses that he missed but none of the "blame" for the losses that happen when he plays. The reality is that this kind of rigid thinking is nonsense. James is clearly the best player on the team and he is a worthy MVP candidate but no single player--not Kobe, not LeBron, not anybody--can win or lose games by himself. If anyone in recent years has come close to winning games by himself, it was Bryant down the stretch of last season when he strung together enough 40 and 50 point games to carry the Lakers into the playoffs.

Cleveland's frontcourt rotation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Anderson Varejao makes a significant contribution to the team's success; placing Larry Hughes at point guard and Sasha Pavlovic at shooting guard gives the team size and enables Daniel Gibson to be an effective scoring option off of the bench. James did not magically carry the team to the Finals by himself last season, nor is he solely responsible for the team's victories this season. James is a great player who performed tremendously well last season and who is playing even better this season. The case for selecting him as MVP should be based on his great offensive production as a scorer and playmaker, his deadliness as a fourth quarter closer, his above average rebounding from the small forward position and his improved defense. Cleveland surely could have used him in the six games that he missed but he was no more the sole factor in those losses than he was at fault for this defeat in Houston.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dayton Daily News Flunks NBA 101

Dayton, Ohio does not have an NBA team, so I guess it makes sense that the Dayton Daily News does not have an NBA writer. What does not make sense is that the DDN repeatedly publishes articles about the NBA that are inaccurate and biased. Prior to the 2007 draft, the DDN ran an article that blasted local product and Ohio State player Daequan Cook, saying that scouts "question everything about him, including his ability to understand the game." That's funny, because the scout I talked to prior to the draft told me that Cook would be a first round pick, which turned out to be correct. The DDN later ran a piece that suggested that Cook would be sent to the NBDL. Cook is averaging 7.6 ppg in 20.1 mpg for the Heat and he has even started a couple games. The DDN also indicated that "stat-stuffer" is a negative term, apparently not realizing that it refers to a player who stuffs a boxscore with good statistics.

The Wednesday February 7 edition of the DDN carried two NBA stories on page 2 of the sports section. Again, that seems like a lot of coverage for a city that does not even have an NBA team but that's OK; obviously, I believe that the NBA is worthy of a lot of in depth coverage--and maybe someday the DDN will actually hire a writer who knows something about the NBA to provide such coverage. Instead, readers are stuck with an article about the upcoming three point shooting contest at All-Star Weekend that refers to a "fictitious" playground player named "Lamar Lundane" who was featured in a commercial in the 1980s (the DDN writer did not even know that it was a Reebok commercial, a tidbit that any true fan remembers). I suppose that "Lundane" is a fictitious player but Lamar "Money" Mundane, the actual subject of the commercial, grew up in Chicago and played at Marshall High School and Malcolm X Junior College. Former NBA All-Star and Chicago native Mark Aguirre once told Lacy Banks of the Chicago Sun-Times, "If you wanted numbers, 'Money' was your man. They didn't have three-point baskets in those days, but that's what Lamar specialized in. He'd pull up from 25 or 30 feet and rain down jumpers."

Sometimes, I try to figure out how articles that are riddled with misinformation get published in the first place. If the author did not know the real story about Mundane, why didn't he spend five minutes and google the correct information? You may think that the answer to that is that he did not even know his real name, so if he did google it he would not have found out anything. Wrong! If you google "Lamar Lundane," google asks "Did you mean: Lamar Mundane?" I used to think that it was easy to be stupid and/or lazy but with the advent of search engines it actually takes a certain degree of effort to get the basic facts wrong.

The other DDN article about the NBA had this headline: "Teamwork rarely on display in selfish NBA." It's not a good sign when the headline simply regurgitates a tired stereotype. The author of this piece, Hal McCoy, is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is truly one of the best baseball writers around. However, he drew his conclusion about the NBA on the basis of watching one game between Denver and Portland; McCoy admits in his first sentence, "Ordinarily, I wouldn't watch an NBA game unless somebody offered me a free $20 cigar, that is, unless LeBron James is playing." At least he is upfront about his bias; the bias in other sections of many newspapers is generally shrouded beneath a veneer of objectivity. McCoy's beef is that Kenyon Martin--who played at the University of Cincinnati and apparently loosely qualifies as the reason for local interest in this particular game--does not get the ball enough because Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson shoot a lot. Of course, if McCoy watched the NBA regularly, then he would know that Anthony and Iverson are two of the top scorers in the league, while Martin is an injury prone role player who is not expected to--nor capable of--carrying the offensive load. Iverson ranks in the top ten in assists this season but McCoy apparently believes that citing a few sequences from this game proves that there is a lack of teamwork in the NBA. There is nothing like drawing sweeping conclusions on the basis of minuscule data. Would McCoy think that it would be appropriate or fair for someone who knows nothing about baseball to watch part of one game and declare that the sport is boring because the players spend most of the time just standing around? There is an issue of respect here. If you are going to write about a sport that you don't normally watch, have enough respect for the players, the fans and writers who are informed about the sport to do your homework. Don't watch one game, decide that it fits your preconceived--and false--notions and then trash an entire league. I have been critical of Anthony and the Nuggets at various times but my critiques result from watching many games as an informed observer and analyzing what took place. I would never dream of doing a hatchet job on baseball--or anything else--the way that McCoy did to the NBA.

The bottom line is simple: write what you know. If you write what you know, then you will produce work that is passionate, informative and entertaining--and if you are assigned a subject that you know nothing about, do yourself and your readers a favor and actually make at least a small effort to do some research.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:31 PM

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Dawn of the Shaq Era in the Valley of the Sun

Wednesday was quite a day in Phoenix. The Suns lost a double overtime thriller to the New Orleans Hornets but that game--perhaps the game of the year so far in the NBA--was just an afterthought to the news that the Suns traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat for Shaquille O'Neal. If you understand basketball then you realize that the two stories are actually connected, so let's look how some of the things that occurred in the game shed light on why the trade happened and what we can expect to see from the revamped Suns.

First, though, it is worth pondering what this deal means for Miami. No one seems to be saying much about that, probably because the Heat are the worst team in the league--or at least they were before they acquired Marion. A Dwyane Wade-Shawn Marion duo should result in an immediate improvement in the Heat's fortunes; this pairing certainly provides Wade an opportunity to prove that he is as good as his press clippings and enables Marion to show that he is indeed an underrated player. After seeing what Wade and Marion can do together, the Heat will have the option of either keeping Marion for the long term or letting him go and using that extra salary cap room to acquire a top free agent. The Heat have completely flipped the script; they brought in O'Neal as a short term fix to win immediately, they got one title out of the deal and now they have gotten rid of him and his bloated salary to bring in a young All-Star level player as a possible running mate for Wade. Now the Heat have gone from a short term window--that closed with a bang during last year's playoff loss to Chicago--to a long term one.

Before breaking down the Phoenix-New Orleans contest, I have to bring up a couple things that Suns commentator Eddie Johnson said during the game; one made no sense but the other was a solid observation. Johnson attempted to refute the idea that O'Neal will slow down the Suns' fast break by declaring, "I never saw Kareem running a lane." Johnson played against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for several seasons, so he knows better than that. Abdul-Jabbar was in fact a highly mobile center for most of his career and he often ran the floor and received passes that he converted into fast break dunks; he won the 1985 Finals MVP at the age of 38. It is true that in Jabbar's last couple seasons he slowed down a lot but he was already past 40 by that time, several years older than O'Neal is now. Johnson redeemed himself a bit later in the telecast when Chris Paul stole a Steve Nash pass and went coast to coast for a layup near the end of the first half. Johnson said, "If you have TiVo, you need to rewind that and see how quick he picked that pass off. Not many guys can pick a bounce pass off like that laterally." That comment fits in with what Lakers Coach Phil Jackson told me about Paul's "nose for the ball."

New Orleans improved to 3-0 versus Phoenix this season with this 132-130 victory. Paul won the point guard matchup over Nash; Paul finished with 42 points, nine assists, five rebounds, eight steals and one turnover, while Nash had 32 points, 12 assists, four rebounds, one steal and 10 turnovers. The near symmetry between Paul's steals and Nash's turnovers is not a coincidence, because Paul picked Nash's pocket on several occasions, including a key play with :54 remaining in the second overtime and the Hornets clinging to a 128-127 lead. Neither player guarded the other head to head exclusively but Nash had trouble defending both Paul and Jannero Pargo, who scored 22 points. Nash certainly tries hard on defense and he is a good team defender--meaning that he knows the rotations and is in the correct position most of the time--but his suspect individual defense puts his frontcourt players in jeopardy of getting into foul trouble, something that has increasingly become a problem for O'Neal as he gets older and slower. Amare Stoudemire (26 points, 20 rebounds) is younger and much more mobile than O'Neal but he had five fouls in this game and he also had five fouls in each of the previous two games. Stoudemire is averaging just under four fouls per game this season.

The Suns are getting outrebounded by 5.9 rpg this season and they were without the services of both the traded Marion and the just arrived O'Neal but they caught a break versus New Orleans because Tyson Chandler was not able to play. Chandler's absence and Stoudemire's season-high rebounding total actually enabled the Suns to outrebound the Hornets 47-45 but the Hornets parlayed their 15 offensive rebounds plus Paul's steals into 18 extra field goal attempts. Phoenix shot .552 from the field and still lost because New Orleans had the ball so many more times.

This game was actually a quintessential game for the pre-Shaq Suns: they shot the ball well, scored a lot of points and lost to a good team that made more plays down the stretch. It was just like watching Phoenix in the playoffs the past few years and that should not surprise anyone--the Suns are 5-10 this year against Western Conference teams that have winning records. Since the Suns have the best record in the West, you can do the math and figure out that they are very good at pulverizing weak teams on a consistent basis; that is how they roll up such great regular season records year after year. Most NBA teams are not equipped to deal with the Suns' talent and with the fast pace that they play at--but the league's top teams beat Phoenix more often than not in the regular season and then they eliminate the Suns in the playoffs. Every year, the Suns have a different excuse for why they did not win a championship, ignoring the reality that every team that wins a title overcame various forms of adversity. Suns' President Steve Kerr conceded that the Suns as constituted before the O'Neal trade might be able to win a title if everything broke just right and they got favorable playoff matchups but he believes that adding O'Neal turns them into a more dangerous playoff team.

For several seasons, Phoenix Coach Mike D'Antoni has tried to convince the world that the Suns could win an NBA championship without a dominant post player and without having the best player in the game (Steve Nash may have convinced the writers that he was the best player in the NBA but that was never the case and he was never the best player on the court when the Suns got eliminated twice by Tim Duncan's Spurs and once by Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks). Historically, championship teams have been anchored by a great post player; the Jordan-Pippen Bulls were a notable exception and there have been a few other teams that won a title as an ensemble cast that neither had a dominant post player nor the best player in the league--but the Bulls and those other teams (2004 Pistons, 1989-90 Pistons) were tremendous defensive teams, something that has never been true of the Suns. Without Kurt Thomas this season, the Suns have struggled against any team that has powerful inside players and it was unlikely that the Suns could avoid a fatal matchup with one of those teams in the playoffs.

Adding O'Neal to the mix instantly makes the Suns a bigger, more physical team. He will improve the team's defensive rebounding and provide a solid option in the halfcourt offense when the Suns' running game gets slowed down. The other advantage of adding him to the roster is something that TNT's Kenny Smith talks about sometimes: it enables all of the players to return to their natural positions, most notably returning Stoudemire to his preferred spot at power forward. Of course, there are several notable downsides to this trade. The Suns exchanged their most active and versatile defender for a player who has always been disinclined to defend the pick and roll play and may actually no longer be able to do so physically. O'Neal's presence in the paint is worth something but his individual defense is not nearly as good as Marion's and if O'Neal continues to get in foul trouble then he will spend long stretches anchored to the bench instead of patrolling the paint. Though the positive spin is that the Suns are now able to put all of their players in their natural positions, one could also argue that the Suns are replicating the failed recipe used by the turn of the century Portland Trail Blazers: stockpiling "name brand" talent (O'Neal, Grant Hill) without regard for how well the players will actually be able to work together. O'Neal and Hill do not bring the off court baggage that some of those Blazers did but it is reasonable to wonder if what they do best truly meshes with the way that D'Antoni likes his teams to play and the style in which Nash has thrived for three seasons. Hill has had a solid season so far but injuries caused him to miss most of January and it is far from certain that his body can withstand a full season of run and gun basketball.

Fans like to think of O'Neal as a congenial, happy-go-lucky guy and most members of the media--pleased that O'Neal provides them a lot of good quotes--eagerly perpetuate this image. The reality is that there is no way to know if someone is a good guy or a bad guy just by interviewing him. I've interviewed O'Neal a few times in All-Star and post game settings and would not presume to know if he is a good guy or a bad guy. What we do know is that each time he has left a team at least part of the problem was that he feuded with his coach about getting more touches, playing better defense, getting in better shape or some combination of those three factors. As Michael Wallace of the Miami Herald notes, this time is no different: "O'Neal also had clashed with (Miami Coach Pat) Riley behind the scenes. O'Neal had to be restrained by reserve center Alonzo Mourning during a heated exchange with Riley during a December practice." This is the same O'Neal who cussed out Triangle Offense innovator Tex Winter during his time with the Lakers and who famously said that if the big dog is not fed (the ball) then he won't guard the house (play defense in the paint).

In contrast to O'Neal's attitude toward conditioning--which can charitably described as indifferent, at best--the top players in the league are workout fanatics. Don't just take my word for it. Check out what Portland strength and conditioning coach Bobby Medina says in reply to the question "Who would you consider, outside of the Blazers roster, to be the best conditioned players in the league?"

I know hands down Kobe Bryant. I've had the opportunity to work with him. He's a relentless worker. I've never seen a guy like him that will work as hard and as long as him. I would put LeBron in that category too. He's a tireless worker. Tim Duncan, historically, stays in great shape. He starts his workouts in early August. Most of the Spurs stay in town and they work out with him. He kind of controls the workouts in the summer time. Those are three guys that would be on the top of my list.

In other words, the three top conditioned players in the NBA are a guy who has led his team to four titles--including two of the last three--and the two guys who are the two best players in the league right now. Yes, O'Neal has also won four titles but he won the first three of them playing alongside the best conditioned player in the NBA; anyone who trumpets the fact that O'Neal won his fourth title without Bryant must also acknowledge that this year O'Neal has been a key player on the worst team in the league, a role that Bryant has never even come close to playing. If O'Neal deserves credit for the 2006 championship--and he certainly does--then he also deserves blame for the Heat's stunning and unprecedented fall. Also, if he steps right in for the Suns and starts playing like a rejuvenated player because he is on a contender again then what does that say about his effort for the Heat this season?

Wouldn't it be something if the final chapter in the Shaq-Kobe rivalry plays out in a head to head playoff matchup?

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:21 AM

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Gasol Pau-ers Lakers to Victory Over New Jersey

Pau Gasol scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and passed for four assists in his Lakers debut, a 105-90 road victory over the New Jersey Nets. Gasol fell just three points short of tying the franchise record for most points scored by a player in his first game with the team, a mark held by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He shot 10-15 from the field and tied Kobe Bryant with a game-high +20 plus/minus rating. Derek Fisher tied his season-high with 28 points, benefiting from all the defensive attention that Gasol and Bryant attracted. Mark Jackson, who called the game for the YES Network alongside Marv Albert, repeatedly stressed how big an upgrade Fisher is over last year's point guard, Smush Parker. Last season, when I declared that Parker was perhaps the worst starting point guard in the NBA and that he was bringing the whole team down, some people who don't understand basketball said that I was just making excuses for Bryant; now, with Parker a non-factor for the worst team in the NBA (the Miami Heat) and Fisher a solid contributor to an improved Lakers team, it is easy to see how correct I was about Parker's effect on the Lakers.

Lamar Odom, a talented player who is perfectly happy to be a third option (or even a fourth option when Andrew Bynum returns to health), attempted just four shots but drew a lot of fouls and finished with 14 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. He also delivered an inadvertent shot to Richard Jefferson's head that instantly caused his eye to swell up and required stitches and a huge bandage; Jefferson returned to the game but only had 12 points, well below his average. Vince Carter led the Nets with 27 points but he shot just 10-26 from the field, although his dunk over D.J. Mbenga was not just a facial but full fledged plastic surgery. Jason Kidd had 11 points, a game-high 10 assists and five rebounds.

Anyone who thinks that Bryant is a selfish player who is primarily interested in scoring should have watched this game in order to deprogram the faulty thinking about Bryant that has prevailed for far too long. Bryant scored a season-low six points--and he looked like he was absolutely the happiest man on the planet. Prior to the game, he told Ahmad Rashad that with the Gasol acquisition the Lakers were no longer going into a gun fight with "butter knives." Bryant is ecstatic, almost giddy, to play with Gasol and he was literally dancing around like a little kid during stoppages of play. Bryant had some opportunities to pad his scoring total at the end of the game but he eschewed all of them. At one point, while he dribbled at the top of the key he motioned Gasol over to run a screen and roll play. Despite his cold shooting night, the Nets naturally double-teamed Bryant, who fed Gasol for a jumper that put the Lakers up 97-86 with 1:31 left in the game. Bryant sat out the last 1:05 and the New Jersey crowd serenaded him with MVP chants; when you score six points and the road crowd is calling you the MVP then you know that you are really good.

Bryant shot 3-13 from the field but he led the Lakers with eight assists and two blocked shots, tied for the team lead with two steals and also had five rebounds. Midway through the first quarter he ran down Kidd and blocked his dunk attempt--with his left hand. Bryant suffered a dislocated pinkie finger on his right (shooting) hand at the 5:47 mark of the second quarter but only missed a little more than two minutes of playing time as Lakers' trainer Gary Vitti popped it back into place and taped the pinkie to the ring finger. Bryant spent most of the game accepting the double-team and then dishing to open teammates and several of his missed shots happened when the ball arrived back in his hands with the shot clock winding down. He vowed to not miss any games due to the finger injury, saying that old school players like Michael Jordan and Ron Harper would rag on him if he did; could that be a backhanded slap at LeBron James, who missed several games earlier this season with a similar injury?

No matter how poorly or infrequently Bryant shot, he drew a defensive crowd wherever he went on the court. We have seen a healthy Bryant put up 50 point games anyway against that kind of defensive coverage but he does not have to do that now; the same passes from Bryant that used to bounce off Kwame Brown's hands are now converted by Gasol into baskets, free throw attempts or passes to cutters for layups. Gasol capped off one postup situation with a Larry Bird-like no look flip over his head to a wide open Fisher, who seemed surprised to receive the ball but made the layup anyway.

After the game, Bryant was asked how good it feels to be able to win a game despite only scoring six points and he replied, grinning from ear to ear, "You have no idea. This just makes the game so much easier. We had some weapons before. Now we just added a huge one to the team." Later in the interview, he exclaimed, "There is a God."

It is important to remember that Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career. He is an All-Star level player, not a franchise player--but pairing him with a franchise player like Bryant (and a good big man like Bynum) will bring out the best in both players because, as Bryant noted, defenses cannot double one of them without either leaving the other one wide open or providing spot up shots to Fisher.

Bryant was roundly criticized during the summer when he said that the Lakers needed to either upgrade the talent level on the roster or trade him away. People questioned his motives and said that he was a bad teammate. The reality is simply that he wants to win so badly that it literally pained him to take the court with "butter knives" and try to defeat teams armed with bazookas. The Lakers were not a good team last year and it took a superhuman performance by Bryant after the All-Star break just to earn a playoff berth. It is remarkable how much has changed since the Suns eliminated them from the playoffs:

1) Smush Parker was shown the exit.
2) Derek Fisher signed on as the starting point guard.
3) Andrew Bynum worked on his game and became a legit double-double player after previously being so out of condition that the Lakers could not even leave him on the court for extended minutes.
4) Several of the young bench players developed into solid contributors on a consistent basis (particularly Farmar, Vujacic and Turiaf).
5) The Lakers acquired a bona fide All-Star in Gasol without giving up anything of current value.

One victory against a mediocre Nets team is not enough to convince me that the Lakers are the favorites to win the Western Conference--but considering how dangerous the Lakers could be at times even when they consisted of little more than Bryant and four bystanders, it is obvious that this upgraded squad has the potential to do a lot of damage once the key players have an opportunity to jell as a unit. Maybe that will happen this season, maybe it will take an offseason and a full training camp to enable this team to reach its full potential but the days of Bryant trying to go big game hunting with butter knives are over--and that is not a pleasant thought for the other teams in the Western Conference.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XIII

Based on the All-Star voting, the fans and coaches consider the Celtics to be comprised of a Big Two, not a Big Three. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce certainly deserve their All-Star berths but Ray Allen was hardly "snubbed" considering that he is putting up his worst scoring and shooting numbers in quite some time. Early returns indicate that the MVP award is Garnett's to lose, as I predicted when Boston got off to a fast start. The media personnel who vote for the MVP are as predictable as they are wrongheaded. Yes, Garnett is a very good player who has helped to turn Boston around but that whole roster was revamped and he is playing alongside one All-Star in Pierce and a player who has All-Star talent in Allen. Garnett is not more valuable to the Celtics than Kobe Bryant or LeBron James are to their teams nor is he as skilled as Bryant and James nor does he have the postseason and/or clutch resumes that they have--but, despite all of those things, he will probably win his second MVP unless he and the Celtics completely fall apart down the stretch.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 36-8
2) Detroit Pistons, 34-13
3) Phoenix Suns, 34-14
4-5) Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets, 32-15

The East is without question the weaker conference, even if the two best records in the league reside there. The L.A. Lakers still have the sixth best record in the league despite playing without Andrew Bynum for the past 10 games. The Lakers went 5-5 in that stretch but Boston, Detroit and Dallas only went 6-4 so it's not like the other top teams are running away with anything (other than Phoenix and Utah, which went 8-2 and 9-1 respectively in their last 10 games). The defending champion San Antonio Spurs are just a half game behind the Lakers and anyone who thinks that the Spurs will be an easy out in the playoffs is seriously mistaken.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.1 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.5 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.9 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.6 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.2 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 24.0 ppg
7) Michael Redd, MIL 23.0 ppg
8) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.7 ppg
9) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 22.6 ppg
10) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.3 ppg
11) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

25) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.3 ppg

29) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.6 ppg

35) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.2 ppg

40) Ray Allen, BOS 18.2 ppg

Last season around this time, Kobe Bryant ranked fourth in scoring and trailed the leader by more than 2 ppg--and he went on to win his second straight scoring title by posting the highest post All-Star Game ppg average in four decades. Bryant and LeBron James figure to have a dramatic battle down the stretch over this year's scoring title. Pau Gasol's arrival in L.A. might result in Bryant's scoring average going down as Gasol gets more touches than Kwame Brown did but it could also lead to Bryant scoring even more if Bryant gets more one on one coverage early in games because teams cannot ignore Gasol the way that they disregarded Brown.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.8 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.3 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.9 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.4 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.2 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.2 rpg
7) Yao Ming, HOU 11.0 rpg
8) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.8 rpg
9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.6 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.4 rpg

14) Kevin Garnett, BOS 9.9 rpg
15) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg

26) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.7 rpg

28) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

33) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.1 rpg

Dwight Howard has faded down the stretch in recent rebounding races but he has a chance to become the youngest rebounding leader ever; he is also flirting with becoming a 20 ppg, 15 rpg, .600 fg% player, something few players have achieved in the past three decades. Tim Duncan has "quietly" moved into the top six in rebounding.

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

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.8 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 10.9 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.6 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.7 apg
6) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.5 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.1 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.1 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.0 apg

There is a long tradition of players who think that they have been unfairly left off of the All-Star team putting up big numbers around this time of year. For instance, Deron Williams just lit up Chris Paul, producing 29 points and 11 assists while limiting Paul to six points and six assists as Williams' Jazz obliterated Paul's Hornets, 110-88. I still think that Paul is the better overall player at this stage but Williams has consistently outperformed Paul head to head both individually (17.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, .573 field goal shooting compared to 13.8, 8.1 and .379 for Paul) and collectively (Utah has won seven of eight versus New Orleans).

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:06 AM

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Monday, February 04, 2008

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part IV

Although many people would probably define the 1980s NBA by the Bird-Magic rivalry, it is worth noting that for the first part of the decade Bird's biggest rival was actually another Pantheon member, Julius Erving. Bird and Erving played the same position and their teams annually battled for Eastern Conference supremacy while they competed for MVP honors. Bird and Magic only faced each other twice a year until the Celtics and Lakers met in the 1984 NBA Finals. The next season, Jordan entered the league and as Erving's career drew to a close a new triangle of elite players formed, culminating in 1987 when Magic won the MVP, Jordan finished second and Bird finished third; the next year, Jordan won his first MVP, Bird finished second and Magic finished third.

Chamberlain-Russell, Ali-Frazier and Yankees-Red Sox are great rivalries but few names in sports are more inextricably linked than Bird-Magic. They first battled each other in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64. Magic scored 24 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists. Bird led Indiana State with 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds but he shot just 7-21 from the field and only passed for two assists.

Even though Bird and Magic joined the NBA together the next season, Bird is actually almost three years older than Magic; Bird did not play as a freshman at Indiana, sat out one year after transferring to Indiana State and then played three collegiate seasons, while Magic turned pro after his sophomore year. It is surely the NBA’s good fortune that fate conspired to bring them together in such a heralded NCAA Championship Game right before their rookie seasons. Bird won the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year award after playing a major role in helping the Boston Celtics improve from 29-53 to 61-21. Bird averaged 21.3 ppg (16th in the NBA), 10.4 rpg (10th in the NBA) and ranked third in the league in three point field goal percentage (.406) in the first year that the NBA used the home run ball that had been popularized years earlier by the ABA. The L.A. Lakers were already good before Magic arrived (47-35 in 1978-79) but he turned them into bona fide title contenders who went 60-22, the best record in the West. Magic averaged 18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg (sixth in the NBA) and 2.4 spg (fifth in the NBA).

It looked like the 1980 NBA Finals might become a rematch of the previous year’s NCAA Championship Game. Magic and the Lakers did their part, breezing through the Western Conference playoffs, but in the East Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers had other ideas, routing the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals. Erving made one of the most spectacular shots in NBA history during the Finals, his famous reverse layup in game four that has been replayed countless times and never ceases to amaze, but the Lakers prevailed in six games. Lakers’ center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the regular season MVP and averaged 33.4 ppg and 13.6 rpg in the first five games of the Finals, but he sprained his ankle late in game five and was unable to play in game six. That set the stage for the most famous performance of Magic’s career: he jumped center, played every position and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers routed the 76ers 123-107 in Philadelphia. It has been suggested that the initial Finals MVP vote by the media went to Abdul-Jabbar but with the Lakers’ center convalescing thousands of miles away that CBS strongly urged that the honor instead go to Magic so that the network could present the award on air. Magic averaged 21.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 8.7 rpg during the series, ranking second on the team in scoring and rebounding to Abdul-Jabbar while leading the Lakers in assists.

In his first several seasons, Bird was a slightly different player than the one who fans probably most clearly recall from the mid-1980s. Other than his rookie year, he rarely utilized the three point shot from 1981-84 (attempting less than one three pointer per game in each of those four seasons) and he did not shoot it accurately, connecting at less than a .300 rate each of those years. He was a very good scorer but not the elite level (25-plus ppg) one that he became in 1985-88. Bird averaged fewer than six apg in each of his first four seasons and at least six apg in each of the subsequent five seasons. His free throw shooting steadily improved from .836 as a rookie to .888 by 1984, when he led the league in that department for the first of four times. Bird never shot worse than .882 after that season. Perhaps the most consistent part of his game during his first six seasons was rebounding: Bird averaged at least 10.1 rpg in each of those seasons and he averaged at least 11.0 rpg in each of his first five playoff appearances. Bird’s supposed lack of athleticism was extremely overstated; his anticipation and hand eye coordination were unparalleled and, though he lacked broad jumping ability, his vertical leap was more than adequate, as indicated not only by his rebounding prowess but also by the fact that he blocked 755 shots in 897 regular season games, more than renowned high flyers Clyde Drexler (719 blocks in 1086 games) and Dominique Wilkins (642 blocked shots in 1074 games).

Magic’s game also evolved. His free throw percentage steadily improved, peaking at a league-best .911 in 1988-89. He was never considered a great defender but he did lead the NBA in steals in his second and third seasons. From his second to fourth seasons he averaged at least 8.6 rpg and 8.6 apg each year, coming closer to averaging a triple double than anyone had since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62; in 1981-82, Magic averaged 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg. Magic shot at least .522 from the field in each of his first eight seasons. Later in his career, he attempted three pointers with much greater frequency, becoming an adequate if not exceptional shooter from that range; those long distance attempts pulled down his overall field goal percentage. Magic did not average double digit assists in his first three seasons and then averaged at least 10.5 apg for nine straight years, winning four assists titles in a five season span before John Stockton became the perennial leader in that department. Other than an injury-shortened second season, Magic did not average 20 ppg until 1986-87 but then he did it three times in four years while scoring 19.6 ppg in the other season; that was just a matter of gradually picking up the slack as Abdul-Jabbar’s role decreased.

Although in retrospect people focus on the Bird-Magic rivalry when thinking about the NBA during the 1980s, Bird’s biggest rivalry for his first four NBA seasons was with Erving, who played the same position and whose team annually battled the Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy. The 76ers or the Celtics represented the East in the NBA Finals every year from 1980-1987 and Bird and Erving squared off in the Eastern Conference Finals four times (1980-82, 1985), winning two times each. Bird and Erving also annually battled for the MVP award, with Erving placing second, first, third, fifth and sixth from 1980-84, while Bird finished fourth, second, second, second and first.

After Magic won his first championship at Erving’s expense, Bird and the Celtics responded in 1981 by beating Erving and the 76ers in a thrilling seven game Eastern Conference finals in 1981. However, Magic missed more than half of that season due to a knee injury and the Houston Rockets upset the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics beat the Rockets in six games in the NBA Finals. Bird played well in the decisive game (26 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, 13 rebounds, five assists) but he shot just 39-93 from the field (.419) in the series and only averaged 15.3 ppg, second on the team to Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell (17.7 ppg) and barely ahead of Robert Parish (15.0 ppg), each of whom shot much better than Bird did. As I mentioned, Bird’s strong suit at that time was rebounding and during the series he nearly matched Houston center Moses Malone, that season’s rebounding leader; Malone averaged 16.3 rpg in the Finals, while Bird averaged 15.3 rpg.

The 1982 season was essentially a replay of 1980 in terms of the Erving-Bird-Magic triangle: Erving’s Sixers beat Bird’s Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals only to lose to Magic’s Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals. Magic had 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in the clinching game, earning his second Finals MVP. In 1982-83, the Sixers acquired Moses Malone and stormed to a 65-17 regular season record. The Milwaukee Bucks upset the Celtics in the playoffs but nothing would have stopped the Sixers that year: they went 12-1 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in the Finals.

The Bird-Magic NBA rivalry did not really kick into gear—at least from the standpoint of head to head matchups--until their fifth season. Prior to the 1984 NBA Finals, Bird and Magic faced each other just twice a year in the regular season. In 1984, the New Jersey Nets stunned the defending champion Sixers in the first round, helping to pave the way for the much anticipated Bird-Magic Finals showdown. Both players excelled, with Bird averaging 27.4 ppg, 14.0 rpg and 3.6 apg and Magic averaging 18.1 ppg, 13.6 apg and 7.7 rpg. Game four in Los Angeles turned out to be pivotal: the Lakers missed several golden opportunities to take a 3-1 series lead and Boston’s eventual 129-125 victory regained home court advantage for the Celtics, who won the series in seven games. Bird received his first Finals MVP to go along with his first regular season MVP.

Bird and Magic made up for lost time by facing each other again in the 1985 and 1987 Finals (Boston won the 1986 championship against the Rockets after Houston upset the Lakers in the playoffs for the second time in the decade). The Lakers won both of those matchups, with Abdul-Jabbar becoming the oldest Finals MVP (38 in 1985) and Magic winning his then-record third Finals MVP in 1987. The Lakers became the first NBA team in two decades to repeat as champions by winning the 1988 title over the Detroit Pistons, who beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Bird never made it back to the NBA Finals, while Magic returned once more in 1991, his final full season, when the Lakers lost to the Chicago Bulls.

Bird’s peak value season was probably 1984-85, when he won the second of his three straight MVPs, averaging 28.7 ppg (second in the NBA), 10.5 rpg (eighth in the NBA) and 6.6 apg while shooting .522 from the field and .427 from three point range (second in the NBA). Magic’s peak value season was probably 1986-87, when he won the first of his three MVPs in a four season span, averaging a career-high 23.9 ppg (10th in the NBA), 12.2 apg (first in the NBA) and 6.3 rpg. I say “probably” in both cases because there are many other excellent seasons to choose from for both players. Bird and Magic both displayed excellent durability as elite players; each made the All-NBA First Team nine times. In the currency that matters the most to such competitors, Magic came out ahead, winning five NBA championships and three Finals MVPs compared to Bird’s three championships and two Finals MVPs.

When Michael Jordan entered the NBA in 1984-85, Bird and Magic were at the absolute height of their powers; in fact, that was the only season in which they finished 1-2 in the MVP voting. Jordan finished sixth in the balloting, a very impressive showing for a rookie on a mediocre (38-44) Chicago Bulls team—but Jordan was no ordinary rookie: he averaged 28.2 ppg (third in the NBA) while leading the Bulls in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and assists (5.9 apg) from the shooting guard position. He also ranked fourth in the NBA in steals (2.4 spg).

Jordan missed most of his second season due to a broken foot but he came back in time to play in a first round playoff series against Bird and the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. This is when Jordan began to establish that he was not just a very good player but that he was destined to be an all-time great. Jordan scored 49 points in a 123-104 game one loss but that was just a prelude to his game two masterpiece, when he set the all-time single-game playoff record by scoring 63 points in a 135-131 double overtime loss. The Bulls were completely overmatched but Jordan almost led them to victory anyway. This performance prompted Bird to utter his famous tribute saying that it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Jordan only scored 19 points in game three as the Celtics won 122-104 to sweep the series but Jordan was already on his way to becoming a transcendent figure not just in the NBA but globally.

Jordan’s encore to his playoff heroics was a season-long assault on the NBA record book. In 1986-87, while the high flying Erving embarked on his “Farewell Tour,” Jordan posted the highest non-Wilt Chamberlain single season scoring average in NBA history, 37.1 ppg. He shot .482 from the field, .857 from the free throw line and also averaged 5.2 rpg and 4.6 apg while getting 236 steals and 125 blocked shots, the first of his two 200-100 seasons; he is the only player to ever have two 200-100 campaigns (the ABA started officially tracking those numbers in 1972-73 and the NBA followed suit a year later). Jordan finished second to Magic in the MVP voting and he never again ranked lower than third in MVP voting after a full season of play until he came out of retirement to play for the Washington Wizards. In 1988, Jordan captured his first MVP as he, Bird and Magic finished 1-2-3 in the voting; that year, Jordan won the scoring title and the Defensive Player of the Year award, something that had never been done before and has not been accomplished since.

Although Jordan is now almost reflexively referred to as the greatest player of all-time, in the mid to late 1980s many people seriously entertained the notion that he shot too much to ever lead a team to a championship. Of course, the real problem in Chicago was that his supporting cast was much weaker than the ones on the championship teams from L.A. and Boston—or, as Jordan indelicately put it whenever it was suggested that he did not make his teammates better the way that Bird and Magic did, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep).” The arrival and quick maturation of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant meant that the “chicken (bleep)” days were over in Chicago. The Bulls lost some epic battles with the Detroit Pistons before sweeping them aside in the 1991 playoffs en route to a 4-1 Finals victory over Magic’s Lakers. Jordan beat out Magic for regular season MVP honors and after he defeated him to win his first championship it was clear that the torch had been passed. The Jordan-Pippen duo, ably coached by Phil Jackson, went on to put together two “three-peats” wrapped around Jordan’s first retirement.

Jordan won six championships, one more than Magic and twice as many as Bird. He won five MVPs and could easily have won a couple more that went to Charles Barkley and Karl Malone when it seemed like the voters had tired of simply giving Jordan the award every year. Jordan won 10 scoring titles, shattering Wilt Chamberlain’s record (seven), and he made the Alll-NBA First team 10 times. Jordan’s durability as an elite player is self evident and picking a peak value season for him is simply a matter of taste: you could go with his 37.1 ppg campaign or perhaps you prefer his MVP/DPoY double or maybe you favor one of the four seasons in which he won the regular season and Finals MVPs, including 1995-96, when the Bulls set a single-season record by going 72-10. Bird and Magic had set a new standard for basketball greatness but then Jordan came along and surpassed them not only in individual accomplishments but also as a winner. Whether or not Jordan was really a greater player than Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson or the other Pantheon members is a fascinating question to discuss but one thing is clear: any conversation about the greatest basketball player ever has to include his name.

Part V will discuss which active players are most likely to earn their way into the Pantheon.

Links:

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

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

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

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

http://www.nba.com/history/players/50greatest.html

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:46 PM

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Etch A Sketch of Carmelo Anthony Featured at Halftime of Nuggets Game

I introduced 20 Second Timeout readers to George Vlosich during the 2007 NBA Finals. Many of you may have already seen his work featured on various national television programs or in the profile that I wrote about him for the November 12, 2004 issue of Sports Collectors Digest. As I explained in my previous post, "Vlosich is a very talented artist who works in multiple media but he is most well known for his remarkable ability to create highly detailed images using an Etch a Sketch."

Vlosich's latest piece is an Etch a Sketch of Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets debuted a video of the making of this Etch at halftime of a recent game. You can check out the video here.

You can find out more about Vlosich here.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 PM

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Kobe Carries the Load Again While Lakers Wait for Gasol

Kobe Bryant scored 30 points on 10-15 field goal shooting as the L.A. Lakers never trailed en route to a 103-91 victory at Washington. Bryant set the tone early with 19 first quarter points, outscoring the Wizards singlehandedly and propelling the Lakers to a 30-15 lead. He showcased his full repertoire, from driving dunks to spin moves to three pointers. If the situation had demanded it, Bryant could easily have scored 50 or more points. Antawn Jamison led the Wizards with 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, while ex-Laker Caron Butler had 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

If you listened to various prophets of doom, the Lakers were supposed to be sinking out of the playoff race right about now due to the absence of the injured Andrew Bynum. Instead, the Lakers have gone 5-5 without their promising young center, largely because Bryant has stepped his MVP-level game up another notch; in the last six games he is averaging 35.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg while shooting .558 from the field. Newly acquired Pau Gasol joined the Lakers in Washington and participated in warmups but did not play. He has been nursing a back injury and still needs to get familiar with some of the Lakers' offensive and defensive concepts. Gasol is expected to make his Laker debut on Tuesday in New Jersey.

This game was shown on NBA TV using the feed from the Wizards' broadcast crew, who made an interesting point late in the contest that bears repeating: Butler credits Bryant for being a mentor figure during Butler's time in L.A., saying that Bryant taught him how to be professional and how hard you have to work in practice to maximize your potential; the process that led to Butler becoming an All-Star in fact began when Butler was Bryant's teammate. This bit of knowledge corrects the misperception that Bryant somehow held back Butler's game. The Lakers acquired Butler from Miami along with Lamar Odom in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal but after just one season they dealt Butler to Washington for Kwame Brown because they thought that they needed a center. Brown was part of the package that just netted Gasol, so the long term ramifications of the O'Neal trade are still being worked out. As things stand now, the Lakers shed O'Neal and his huge salary to rebuild their frontline with Bynum, Odom and Gasol.

Thanks to Bryant, the Lakers remained a playoff team while GM Mitch Kupchak tinkered with the roster and they now are in a good position to eventually contend for a championship. There is no guarantee that this plan will work, just like there is no guarantee that Memphis' rebuilding plan will succeed, but this is what I meant all along when I kept insisting that the O'Neal trade should be looked at as a short term deal for Miami but a long term one for L.A. The Heat got one championship out of O'Neal but now face the prospect of having to completely overhaul the team, with the specter of Dwyane Wade possibly leaving hanging over their heads; the Lakers never hit rock bottom and are without question better off than they would have been if they had elected to keep O'Neal and thus let Bryant go in order to avoid exceeding the salary cap and having to pay the luxury tax. It is interesting that owner Jerry Buss adamantly refused to go into luxury tax territory to retain O'Neal's services but the Gasol trade does push the Lakers over the threshold; this lends credence to my theory that if O'Neal had paid more attention to his conditioning starting in 2002 (when he decided to let his toe injury heal "on company time") then the Lakers may have kept winning titles and Buss may have been more apt to spend enough money to retain O'Neal's services. Instead, Buss chose to save money a few years ago in order to invest it in Kobe Bryant and a younger frontline that should help Bryant turn the Lakers into contenders for the next few years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 AM

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Kobe Bryant Passes Elgin Baylor on Career 40 Point Games List

In the wake of the understandable excitement over the Lakers' acquisition of Pau Gasol, it was largely overlooked that Kobe Bryant had a quite remarkable performance on Friday night in a 121-101 victory at Toronto: Bryant scored 46 points on 19-28 field goal shooting, adding seven rebounds and five assists. Due to injuries, the Lakers only dressed nine players, two of whom--Coby Karl and D.J. Mbenga--are in their first year with the team and have seen little action; being that shorthanded is not normally a recipe for a road win against a team that won the Atlantic Division last season. The Lakers were also playing the second game of a back to back sequence after a frustrating loss in Detroit on Thursday. Bryant almost carried the Lakers to a win in that game with 39 points, 10 rebounds and five assists but he also had 11 turnovers; against Toronto he only had one turnover in 44 minutes.

This was the 89th 40 point game of Bryant's career, moving him past Elgin Baylor into third place on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (271) and Michael Jordan (173). The Lakers are 2-2 this season in Bryant's 40 point games but during his career such scoring outbursts have resulted in a 61-28 record, including a 13-5 mark last year when the Lakers were hardly a powerhouse.

Some pundits predicted doom and gloom for the Lakers after Andrew Bynum suffered a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for two months. I disagreed, writing, "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." The Lakers are 4-5 without Bynum so far, with three of the five losses coming against teams whose records currently rank in the top five in the league (Phoenix, Detroit, Dallas); they also lost to San Antonio and Cleveland, the two teams that participated in the 2007 NBA Finals. The Lakers have started that nine game road trip with a 1-1 record that includes a quality win and a hard fought, close loss. Presumably the addition of Gasol will help the Lakers a lot in the remaining seven road games and down the stretch of the season but even without him there is no evidence that the team was going to be terrible without Bynum. Obviously, any team that loses a quality big man will suffer and that goes double when that team faces the toughest part of its schedule--but nine games after the Lakers' season supposedly ended, they are still in second place in the Pacific Division and just three games off the pace for best record in the Western Conference.

I've been saying for more than two years that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, so I obviously think that he has an excellent opportunity to lead the Lakers to a championship at some point if core players Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom remain healthy. Nevertheless, some of the assessments that have been made regarding the Lakers strike me as bizarre. For instance, the usually astute Jeff Van Gundy told the L.A. Times that in the wake of Bynum's injury the Lakers could have fallen completely out of the playoff picture but that after the addition of Gasol he thinks that the Lakers are "the most talented team in the NBA." There is no question that the Lakers did very well to acquire Gasol without giving up any assets that currently had value to them but somehow Gasol has instantly been transformed into Moses Malone, a guy who can automatically deliver a title. If Van Gundy truly believes that the Lakers' roster minus Bynum was going to fall from its brief perch atop the West all the way out of the playoff picture then how can he say that just adding Gasol makes the Lakers the best team in the entire league? Van Gundy has asserted more than once that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has questioned why Bryant has not already won an MVP, so we can logically deduce that Van Gundy is intimating that outside of Bryant and Bynum the Lakers do not have a lot of talent; otherwise, they would not drop out of the top eight in the West just because Bynum is out. Adding Gasol, a one-time All-Star who has never made the All-NBA team or won even one playoff game, is not enough to turn a lottery team around; we've already seen that in Memphis. So why should Van Gundy believe that Gasol could lift the Lakers from being lottery bound without Bynum to being the NBA's best team? That is illogical.

The reality is that the Lakers were not going to fall out of the top eight in the West without Bynum; Bryant would not let that happen, just like he did not let it happen last year when the Lakers dealt with a wave of injuries. However, the arrival of Gasol has not turned them into mortal locks to win this year's championship or even the favorites to do so. Teams need a chance to jell; Gasol will need time to learn the Triangle Offense and to understand what Coach Phil Jackson expects from him on defense. How well Boston has played so far this season--particularly on defense--after adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen is, quite frankly, surprising, but at least the Celtics had a full training camp and have enjoyed reasonable health. Bryant, Bynum and Gasol will probably only play together for about a month before the playoffs. On paper this is a strong team that may well win a championship next year but no serious analyst can call them favorites this season before even seeing this group on the court together once.

All that can be said for sure is that the Lakers have upgraded the team's overall talent level significantly since last season. Bryant has an All-Star teammate for the first time since the Shaquille O'Neal trade, Bynum has blossomed, Derek Fisher is a huge upgrade over Smush Parker, Trevor Ariza is a good energy guy and the young bench players (Farmar, Turiaf, Vujacic) have played well. When this Lakers team is at full strength, opposing defenses will not simply be able to load up on Bryant, nor will teams be able to count on making huge runs during the brief times that Bryant rests. The Lakers are not yet the best team in the NBA but by playoff time they could be a very formidable unit.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:25 AM

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