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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gibson Shoots Down Rookies

Cleveland's Daniel Gibson shot 11-20 from three point range and scored 33 points as the Sophomores defeated the Rookies, 136-109. Read all about that, the Hall of Fame press conference, Brandon Roy's reaction to getting his first All-Star ring and more in the second report that I filed from New Orleans for HoopsHype.com:

Gibson Shoots Down Rookies

In case you missed it, here is the link to my first report:

Learning About the French Quarter

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:07 AM

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Learning About the French Quarter

All-Star Weekend is well underway. Here is the link to my first report for HoopsHype.com:

Learning About the French Quarter

My coverage of Friday's events, including the Hall of Fame press conference and Rookie-Sophomore game, will be appearing at HoopsHype.com on Saturday.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:25 PM

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The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part V--The Modern Era's Finest

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

The ten Pantheon members who were profiled in the first four parts of this series are all retired. It is easier to assess complete resumes that have stood the test of time than to evaluate players whose careers are still in progress. However, there are at least four active players who have performed at a Pantheon-like level: Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan are the two dominant NBA figures of the post-Michael Jordan era, winners of four championships each. O’Neal averaged at least 21.5 ppg and 10.7 rpg in each of his first 13 seasons, including a run of 10 straight years when he did not score less than 26.2 ppg. O’Neal averaged 23.4 ppg, a career-high 13.9 rpg and a career-high 3.9 bpg en route to winning the 1992-93 Rookie of the Year award. Players generally put up their best rebounding and shot blocking numbers early in their careers but it is a bit unusual that O’Neal never matched his rookie performances in both categories; that dovetails with the perception that for most of his career O’Neal has been more interested in scoring than in playing defense and rebounding. Another perception about O’Neal is that he tends to coast—relatively speaking—in the regular season and is a much more focused player in the playoffs; he averaged 15.4 rpg in both the 2000 and 2001 postseasons and, not coincidentally, his Lakers won the championship both of those years.

O’Neal had an immediate impact on the Orlando Magic’s record: they improved from 21-61 to 41-41 in his first season and then won 50, 57 and 60 games in the next three seasons. The Magic had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 1994-95 and made it all the way to the NBA Finals, where they were swept by the Houston Rockets. Considering how dominant O’Neal is capable of being, it is odd that his teams have been swept out of the playoffs six times: in addition to the 1995 Finals, O’Neal’s 50-32 Magic lost 3-0 to the 47-35 Indiana Pacers in his first playoff appearance in 1993-94, his 1995-96 Magic lost 4-0 to the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, his 1997-98 Lakers lost 4-0 to the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals, his 1999 Lakers lost 4-0 to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round and his 2007 Heat lost 4-0 to the Chicago Bulls in the first round (O’Neal’s teams also lost 4-1 in the 1997 and 2004 playoffs).

After four seasons with Orlando, O’Neal signed with the L.A. Lakers as a free agent. He earned the first of his eight All-NBA First Team selections in 1997-98 (he finished second in MVP voting in 1994-95 to David Robinson, who made the All-NBA First Team at center that season). The Lakers did not lack for talent—in 1998 they became the first team to send four players to the All-Star Game (O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Jones, Nick Van Exel) since the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers—but O’Neal’s playoff resume was pretty thin before Phil Jackson became the head coach of the Lakers in 1999-00. Jackson made O’Neal the hub of the Triangle Offense and demanded that O’Neal get in shape so that he could be active as a rebounder and defender. O’Neal responded and he and Bryant led the Lakers to a 67-15 regular season record. The Portland Trail Blazers pushed the Lakers to the brink of elimination in game seven of the Western Conference Finals but the Lakers survived that test and then defeated the Pacers 4-2 to claim the franchise’s first championship since 1988. That was probably O’Neal’s peak value season: he won his second scoring title by averaging a career-high 29.7 ppg, he set a career-high with a 3.8 apg average and his rebounding (13.6 rpg) and shot blocking (3.0 bpg) were close to career-high levels. In the playoffs he averaged 30.7 ppg, 15.4 rpg, 3.1 apg and 2.4 bpg, earning the first of his three Finals MVPs.

O’Neal and Bryant famously were not close off of the court but on the court they were an unstoppable inside-outside duo and they led the Lakers to the next two NBA titles. Their dynasty began to unravel in 2002 because of a most unexpected and unlikely reason--an injured toe; O’Neal could have had surgery early in the offseason to repair his troublesome toe but he declared, “I got hurt on company time, so I’ll heal on company time.” While O’Neal recuperated on “company time,” the Lakers got off to a slow start. Bryant averaged 40.3 ppg in February 2003 and scored at least 40 points in nine straight games—the longest such streak by a player not named Wilt Chamberlain—while trying to keep the Lakers above water but they never quite rounded back into championship form and eventually lost to Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. The Spurs went on to win the championship and have captured two more titles since then. The Lakers made it back to the Finals in 2004 but lost to the Pistons, after which owner Jerry Buss declined to give O’Neal a maximum contract extension for maximum dollars and shipped him to Miami for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant.

The Heat felt that they had a wide enough window of opportunity to win multiple championships with O’Neal and Dwyane Wade leading the way but they ended up with just one, a 2006 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks. Miami got swept out of the playoffs in the first round in 2007 and became the worst team in the NBA in the first half of the 2008 season, prompting the Heat to send O’Neal to Phoenix in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. It will be interesting to see if O’Neal can cap off his career by playing a meaningful role in helping the Suns to win the first championship in franchise history.

O’Neal tagged Duncan with the nickname “The Big Fundamental” and that designation certainly is very appropriate: Duncan’s footwork is impeccable and his entire game is very fundamentally sound. Like O’Neal, Duncan won the Rookie of the Year award by helping his team make a huge jump in wins; the 1997-98 Spurs went 56-26, a record improvement of 36 games over the previous season. To be fair, it must be noted that perennial All-Star and former MVP David Robinson missed all but six games in 1996-97 but returned to action in 1997-98. Duncan and Robinson won a title in just their second season together, sweeping the O’Neal-Bryant Lakers out of the playoffs along the way. Robinson showed a lot of class and grace by seamlessly ceding the primary role on offense to Duncan, a marked contrast to the way that O’Neal seemingly resented every shot that Bryant took and every headline that his younger co-star received. Duncan missed the 2000 playoffs with an injury and the Spurs lost in the first round. O’Neal and Bryant got their rematch against Duncan and Robinson in 2001 and completely thrashed them, winning the final two games 111-72 and 111-82 in San Antonio. The Lakers beat the Spurs 4-1 in the 2002 playoffs; by that time, O’Neal-Bryant had a 3-1 championship edge over Duncan-Robinson and clearly owned the bragging rights in the post-Jordan era. As indicated above, that all began to change after O’Neal’s delayed surgery. Duncan and Robinson won the 2003 championship in Robinson’s final season and then Duncan reaffirmed his greatness by leading the Spurs to titles in 2005 and 2007.

Duncan has never been quite as physically overpowering as O’Neal but he has been much more durable and consistent and he has had a much greater impact at the defensive end of the court. Duncan made the All-NBA First Team in each of his first eight seasons and he has earned nine total First Team selections but he has also made the All-Defensive First Team seven times (in addition to three Second Team nods), something that O’Neal has not done even once (he made the Second Team three times). Duncan won back to back regular season MVPs in 2002 and 2003 and has matched O’Neal by winning three Finals MVPs. His peak value season was 2001-02, when he averaged a career-high 25.5 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 3.7 apg and 2.5 bpg. Duncan is several years younger than O’Neal and is still operating at or near an MVP level, so it is quite possible that he will finish his career with more championships than O’Neal.

Sometimes it seems like people forget that Kobe Bryant is already a three-time NBA champion, which means he has as many rings as Larry Bird, one more than Wilt Chamberlain and two more than Oscar Robertson or Jerry West. It’s not like Bryant just went along for the ride when the Lakers won those championships; he was an All-NBA player, an All-Defensive Team member and an MVP candidate for those teams, the leading playmaker who also was counted on to score in the clutch, a role that O’Neal could not regularly handle due to his poor free throw shooting. Bryant has been widely recognized for years as the best player in the NBA in terms of his overall skill set—quite simply, he has no weaknesses, while even the great O’Neal and Duncan struggle in a few areas (free throw shooting for both, conditioning and defense for O’Neal).

Bryant has repeatedly gone on scoring binges that surpass anything done by players not named Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor or Michael Jordan. His 81 point game against Toronto a couple years ago electrified the basketball world and is second only to Chamberlain’s legendary 100 point outburst. Bryant is the only player other than Chamberlain to average 40-plus ppg for an entire calendar month more than once and he trails only Chamberlain and Jordan on the career list for most 40 point games. His abilities as a scorer are so obvious and overwhelming that it is very easy to overlook how complete his total game is. During the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant willingly accepted a lesser scoring role in order to concentrate on completely shutting down the best perimeter player on the opposing team and his competitiveness played a key role in Team USA’s gold medal triumph. Bryant’s peak value season is probably 2005-06, when he had his 81 point game en route to winning the first of his two scoring titles with a career-high 35.4 ppg average. He also averaged 5.3 rpg and 4.5 apg and earned selection to both the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team. The Lakers now have built a solid team around him for the first time since trading O’Neal away, so this year’s Western Conference playoffs could feature some intriguing matchups between O’Neal’s Suns, Duncan’s Spurs and Bryant’s Lakers.

Some may argue that LeBron James has not been around long enough or accomplished enough to warrant being included with O’Neal, Duncan and Bryant—let alone the 10 Pantheon members—but I think that if James’ career ended right now he’d be looked at as a Gale Sayers-type, a player who put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers in a brief period of time. While Bryant channels the scoring exploits of Chamberlain, Baylor and Jordan, James reprises the combined scoring/passing ability showcased by Oscar Robertson. He already has two top five finishes in MVP voting and may very well capture his first MVP this season. James has averaged 27.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 6.5 apg so far in his career and his playoff numbers are even better: 27.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 7.1 apg. His 48 point performance at Detroit in game five of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals will forever be one of the signature playoff performances in league history. James’ only weaknesses now are defense and perimeter shooting. He has made great strides on defense—even demanding to guard the opposing team’s top player down the stretch at times—and he has demonstrated a willingness to work hard on his outside shot. Bryant and James are the two best players in the NBA right now and it would be a real treat for basketball fans if we get to see them battle against each other in the NBA Finals.

Observant readers may recall that in Part I of this series I mentioned a fifth player, Dwyane Wade, as a possible future Pantheon member. Part I came out in the wake of the 2006 NBA Finals, when Wade put on a performance for the ages while leading the Miami Heat to the franchise’s first championship. Since that time, Wade has battled injuries and his Heat suffered a first round sweep at the hands of the Chicago Bulls, which seemed like quite an embarrassment for a defending champion to endure—until this season’s debacle, when Miami stunningly became the worst team in the NBA. Wade has yet to make the All-NBA First Team even once, nor has he ever finished in the top five in MVP voting; in fact, he has never received even one first place vote in MVP balloting. Those are subjective measurements but the reality is that Wade has not established himself as an elite player in today’s game, let alone an all-time great. It is not yet clear if Wade will create a legacy that stands on its own or if he will mainly be remembered as the driving force behind O’Neal’s fourth title but someone who was not able to sustain that high level of play.

Links:

1) Part I of this series can be found here, Part II is here, Part III is here and Part IV 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 @ 11:21 PM

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

All-Star Weekend is Almost Here!

Soon I will be arriving in New Orleans to cover NBA All-Star Weekend for HoopsHype.com. You can find my daily reports from the 2006 and 2007 All-Star Weekends on the right hand side of the main page of 20 Second Timeout. Here is the link to my story about the ABA Reunion that was held during the 2005 All-Star Weekend:

We Are Family

Check back here throughout the weekend for the links to my HoopsHype reports from New Orleans.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:34 AM

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XIV

After decades of watching the NBA as a fan and years of covering the NBA as a writer, I still don't quite understand the inner workings of the minds of the MVP voters. Kobe Bryant is widely acknowledged as the league's best player but he was "disqualified" from winning the MVP the past few years because of his team's record. Last I checked, his skills are still intact and his team is on pace for 55 wins. Why isn't he widely considered to be the MVP front runner this season? LeBron James' case was supposedly made by his team's poor performance during the six games that he missed, even though other key rotation players also missed those games and even though the team just got blown out with him playing and some of those players--most notably Anderson Varejao--out of action. Kevin Garnett's case consists of Boston's turnaround this season--but that turnaround is continuing even in his absence due to outstanding play by Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and the bench, plus the team's commitment to defense this season. I'm still saying the same thing that I've said for more than two years--Kobe Bryant is the NBA's best player and therefore he should win the MVP. James is not far behind Bryant and Garnett is having a very good season but now that the Lakers' record has caught up with Bryant's excellence there is no reason to deny Bryant this honor.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 40-9
2) Phoenix Suns, 36-15
3) Detroit Pistons, 38-13
4) New Orleans, 35-15
5) Dallas Mavericks, 34-17

The Detroit Pistons are riding the league's best current winning streak--nine games--and have closed to within three games of the Boston Celtics, who have won four in a row despite the absence of the injured Kevin Garnett. The Orlando Magic have lost two in a row and are 10 games behind Boston, so the race for the best record in the East is between Boston and Detroit. Out west, there is a real dogfight between Phoenix, New Orleans, Dallas, Utah, the L.A. Lakers and San Antonio, six teams that are separated by only 3.5 games in the standings. It is funny to hear commentators talk at various times about what is supposedly wrong with Dallas, Utah and San Antonio, because any of those teams could end up finishing with the best record in the conference.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.1 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.0 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.8 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 26.2 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.1 ppg
6) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.4 ppg
7) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 23.1 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 22.6 ppg
9) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.4 ppg
10) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 22.2 ppg
11) Yao Ming, HOU 22.1 ppg

24) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.4 ppg

34) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.4 ppg
35) Kevin Garnett, BOS 19.2 ppg

40) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg

Kobe Bryant had been gaining some ground on LeBron James but after Bryant dislocated his right pinkie finger he had a couple low scoring games that shaved about half a point off of his average. Bryant is still firmly in second place, but Carmelo Anthony's career-high 49 point game helped him to close in on his Denver teammate Allen Iverson, who has been holding down third place for a while. Overall, there was not much movement in the top ten.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.5 rpg
2) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.8 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.6 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.4 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 12.1 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.4 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.9 rpg
8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.8 rpg
9) Yao Ming, HOU 10.7 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.4 rpg

13) Al Horford, ATL 10.0 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CHI 8.8 rpg

27) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg

32) Jason Kidd, NJN 8.1 rpg

Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy briefly benched Dwight Howard because Van Gundy felt that Howard has become too focused on his scoring at the expense of his rebounding and defense. Some statistical proof of that can be found in the fact that Marcus Camby inched past Howard to take the lead in the race for the rebounding crown. Howard has had early leads in previous rebounding races only to fade down the stretch and he is running out of time if he wants to become the youngest rebounding champion in NBA history.

As proof that raw statistics don't mean everything, consider that Al Jefferson (21.4 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.39 bpg) is outscoring and outrebounding Kevin Garnett (19.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.41 bpg) and is blocking virtually the same number of shots. Jefferson certainly looks like a future All-Star but would anyone really take Jefferson over Garnett right now? I do like the fact that Jefferson can score on the block without using fadeaway moves but his numbers are helped a bit by the lack of talent around him, while Garnett's numbers are lowered because he is sharing the load with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.7 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 10.9 apg
3) Jason Kidd, NJN 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.7 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.8 apg
6) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.3 apg
9) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.1 apg

Allen Iverson jumped back into the top ten, bumping out Raymond Felton, but other than that there were not many changes on this leaderboard.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VI

The sixth edition of the blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been posted at Hardwood Paroxysm

Here are links to the previous five editions:

MVP/RoY rankings, Part I

MVP/RoY rankings, Part II

MVP/RoY rankings, Part III

MVP/RoY rankings, Part IV

MVP/RoY rankings, Part V.

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: Kobe "Nine Fingered" Bryant is still getting it done at both ends of the court despite a dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand. With Gasol on the scene, Kobe seems to be enjoying himself more than he has in years. Everyone knows that Kobe is the best player in the league, so with the Lakers on course to win at least 50 games the MVP voters have no more excuses to ignore him.
9-LeBron James: He has future MVP written all over him. However, that stat about Cleveland's record without him this season is more than a little deceptive: Anderson Varejao missed most of those games, too; the Cavs sorely missed the Brazilian's rebounding, defense and energy in those games, and they miss those things now, as we saw when Houston outrebounded the Cavs by 20 last week, beating Cleveland despite a great game by LeBron.
8-Dwight Howard: He is within striking distance of 22 ppg, 15 rpg and .600 FG shooting, impressive numbers for a player who is still developing a post up game.
7-Kevin Garnett: The MVP award is his to lose in terms of the mainstream media voters but I still would not take him over the physically dominant Howard, let alone the wondrously gifted Kobe and LeBron.
6-Tim Duncan: He just keeps chugging along and most people will not notice him until the playoff field thins out and the Spurs are still standing.
5-Chris Paul: Deron Williams lit him up recently but Paul outplayed Steve Nash in an exciting game soon after that and Paul has been the best point guard in the league so far this season.
4-Dirk Nowitzki: Until he leads the Mavs to a title he will have his doubters, even though he has taken a team to the Finals, unlike former MVPs KG and Nash.
3-Steve Nash: It will be interesting to watch the on and off court chemistry he develops with Shaq.
2-Amare Stoudemire: He is already very good but Shaq has declared that he wants to turn Amare into the best power forward in the league.
1-Allen Iverson: He is still a great scorer and his passing is underrated: Iverson put up at least 10 assists in four of Denver's first five games in February.

ROY

5-Kevin Durant: No one is really thrilled to pick him and yet most of us can't bring ourselves to elevate Horford's near double double averages over Durant's raw scoring numbers.
4-Al Horford: He dropped 15 and 20 on the Lakers--a few more games like that would put him ahead of Durant, who needs two weeks to get 20 rebounds and over 20 shots to get 15 points.
3-Sean Williams: His offensive game consists mainly of dunking but he brings energy, rebounding and shot blocking off of the bench.
2-Luis Scola: His numbers have been going up steadily during the season.
1-Jamario Moon: Like Williams, a great leaper who is putting up good rebounding and shot blocking numbers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:35 AM

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Discussing the Pantheon, Recent NBA Trades on Gotham Hoops Live

Mike Silva of Gotham Hoops Live recently interviewed me to talk about my five part Pantheon series and the recent trades involving Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal. You can listen to the show by clicking on the following link:

Gotham Hoops Live, 2/11/08

In my previous appearance on GHL, I compared the 1992 Dream Team to the current Team USA squad and talked about labor relations pioneers in the NBA, including Chet Walker and the "NBA 14." You can listen to that broadcast by clicking on this link:

Gotham Hoops Live, 12/23/07

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:17 AM

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Lakers Continue to Pillage the Eastern Conference

The L.A. Lakers' supposed death march through the Eastern Conference is actually reviving their season; they improved to 5-2 on their nine game road trip with a 104-94 win in Miami. Kobe Bryant had an extremely efficient 33 points on 10-15 field goal shooting, adding five assists and some excellent defense versus Dwyane Wade, who finished with 19 points and nine assists but shot 7-17 from the field and committed nine turnovers. Lamar Odom added 15 points, 18 rebounds and six assists, once again tantalizing fans and making them wonder why he does not play that way consistently. Pau Gasol had 12 points and seven rebounds. Shawn Marion contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocked shots in his Miami debut.

The Lakers are 3-1 since Gasol joined the team. During the ABC telecast, Hubie Brown, who coached Gasol in Memphis, described his former player as "an outstanding athlete who is extremely cerebral and who has great hands. He is an excellent passer. He's a wonderful team player to play with because he will give the ball up but at the end of the game he gives them a guy who can score the ball." All of the attributes that Brown mentioned have been on display during Gasol's brief run with the Lakers. His ability to score down the stretch of games is particularly significant because that means that opposing teams can no longer simply load up their defenses to stop Bryant. Miami cut a 17 point fourth quarter lead to 96-90 but Bryant and Gasol stemmed the tide with back to back field goals; Bryant's turnaround jumper from the right block made the score 98-90 and a couple possessions later Gasol's hook shot from the left block put the Lakers ahead 100-94.

Bryant showed no ill effects from the dislocated right pinkie finger that is still being taped to his ring finger. He made a number of spectacular plays throughout the game, including a driving fast break dunk early in the contest and a sweeping left handed hook shot that put the Lakers up 96-79 with 5:52 to go in the game. Bryant is probably the only right handed shooting guard who not only can shoot a left handed hook but is confident enough to do it in a game. Brown repeatedly emphasized that the Lakers rank among the league leaders in scoring and assists. Bryant is the team's primary playmaker in addition to being its best scorer, so he clearly sets the tone of unselfishness that permeates throughout the roster. Brown and Jeff Van Gundy are two analysts who routinely point out that Bryant consistently makes the right pass out of double team situations in order to create open shots for his teammates, whether Bryant gets credited for assists on such plays or merely gets the "hockey assist" by making a pass that starts a chain reaction of ball movement that breaks down the opposing team's defense.

Wade has had some high scoring games against the Lakers before--usually as a result of atrocious pick and roll defense by Lakers' big men--but that was not the case this time. It is not often that Wade tries to break down Bryant in a one on one situation--and this game offered a couple examples why. On the final Miami possession of the third quarter, Wade operated in a 1-4 set against Bryant, who completely stymied him at every turn, ultimately forcing a traveling violation. As Brown put it, "Give Kobe a lot of credit. He stayed with all of the changing of hands, the crossover--he played it beautifully." In the NBA, great offensive players almost always have the advantage in one on one situations, which is why so many teams use the 1-4 set--one player dribbling at the top of the key, two players on each wing waiting to receive a pass for an open shot if their man double teams the dribbler--to get an open shot at the end of quarters. Near the end of the game, Bryant cleanly picked Wade's pocket and stole the ball from him while Wade was dribbling. The way that Bryant accepts the challenge of guarding the other team's best perimeter player sets a great example for the rest of the Lakers.

Although Miami lost, the Heat seem to be energized by the addition of Marion, which says as much about the departed Shaquille O'Neal as it does about Marion. O'Neal played a vital role in helping Miami to win the 2006 championship but he really did not do much for the team after that and the Heat are fortunate to acquire Marion for him. Whether or not O'Neal turns out to be the missing piece for the Phoenix Suns, it is clear that his time in Miami had more than run its course.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:08 AM

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Celtics Beat Spurs 98-90, Improve to 5-2 Without Garnett

The addition of Kevin Garnett is obviously the biggest single offseason move that the Boston Celtics made but their league-leading record is not solely based on his production. An abdominal strain has caused him to miss seven games but after Sunday's 98-90 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs the Celtics improved to 5-2 without Garnett. Paul Pierce opened the game by quickly scoring 14 points on 5-5 shooting and he finished with a game-high 35 points while shooting 11-18 from the field. The Spurs tried various defenders on him, including Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili, but no one was able to contain him. Ray Allen (19 points) and Eddie House (10 points) were the only other double figure scorers for the Celtics, although rookie Glen "Big Baby" Davis had a strong game off of the bench with nine points, eight rebounds, three steals and good defense against Tim Duncan. Despite Davis' efforts, Duncan still finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots. Ginobili had 22 points, four rebounds and four assists. It is worth noting that the Spurs were without the services of injured point guard Tony Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP. The newly signed Damon Stoudamire (eight points on 3-11 shooting) hardly replaced Parker's normal production.

The "secret" to Boston's success this season is actually not a secret at all: the Celtics are at or near the top of the NBA in virtually every measurement of team defense. Last year, the Celtics were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, so it is only natural that a lot of this improvement has been credited to Garnett, a perennial member of the All-Defensive Team--but the interesting thing is that the Celtics are still playing good defense even without him on the court. Many members of the media have apparently already decided that Garnett should win this year's MVP, so rather than trying to figure out the technical reasons for Boston's excellent defense we are told that Garnett's mere presence is inspiring the team; that's pretty funny considering that, unlike most injured players, he does not even sit on the bench during the games. I guess he is using psychic inspiration. I don't doubt that Garnett's energy and his passion for playing defense have had a positive impact on the team during practices but inspiration alone does not hold the Spurs to .443 shooting or outrebound them 46-37. No, what has happened in Boston is that young players who were not interested in playing defense have been shipped out and replaced by a group of players who are committed to playing defense on a nightly basis. Even Pierce and Allen, hardly great defenders for most of their careers, have bought into competing hard at that end of the court. During the telecast, Jeff Van Gundy made the interesting point that it is harder to make a bad offensive player into a good one than it is to transform someone into a good defender. He did not explain why this is the case but I think that a big part of the reason is that being a good offensive player requires a certain set of skills--ballhandling, passing, shooting--that some players never develop but that being a good defensive player is largely a question of how hard a player competes on a nightly basis. This season, even the Boston players who are not great individual defenders are competing very hard on defense. This has been true since opening day; I saw the Celtics in person for the first time this season when they beat Indiana on November 13 and one of the things that struck me the most about that game is the team's level of defensive intensity. We don't even talk about such things regarding the Spurs, because playing good defense and playing hard every game are essential parts of their identity as a team; it remains to be seen if Boston can perform this way under playoff pressure.

Every once in a while, a study pops up that purports to identify the best clutch players in the NBA based on their field goal percentages in the final moments of close games. I have never put much credence in those stats because the sample size is invariably small and no effort is made to put the numbers in context. The ending of this game provided more justification for my skepticism. In the final :48 of regulation, Ginobili missed three three point shots. Does that mean that he is a poor performer in the clutch? No, the poor performers are all on the bench at that time. There is a reason that Ginobili ended up taking those shots--he is the player on his team who is most likely to make them. Such shots tend to be tightly contested and are often fired in desperation because there is not enough time left to pass the ball and continue to run a play. Rick Barry once told me that the only stat that he considers to be pure is free throw percentage. That may sound self serving because he was a great free throw shooter but his reasoning makes some sense: Barry said that virtually every other stat can be misleading, noting that field goal percentage does not indicate a player's shooting range, rebounding can be padded by tipping one's own misses and that assists, steals and blocked shots are subjectively determined by scorekeepers. It would be interesting to know the free throw percentages for top players in the fourth quarter or even in the last two minutes, particularly if the sample size is large enough to be significant--but field goal percentage in such situations does not really tell us all that much. Stoudamire missed a three pointer at the buzzer that could have made the final score 98-93. If he makes that shot is he more "clutch" than Ginobili? There is an understandable fascination with buzzer beaters and last second shots but in many cases games are won because of shots that are made a bit earlier in the fourth quarter--and if a great player makes enough of those then his team will not need for him to make big shots in the last two minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Carmelo Anthony is on Fire and Kobe Bryant is the Best Nine Fingered Player in the World

In this "better late than never" edition of "The Score, The Key Stat, The Bottom Line," we will discuss some of the action from Thursday and Friday, including Carmelo Anthony's career game, Kobe Bryant playing with one hand (or at least one finger) tied behind his back, playing uptempo ball against Golden State and Jason Kidd's triple doubles.

The Score: Denver 111, Washington 100

The Key Stat: Carmelo Anthony scored a career-high 49 points on blistering 19-25 field goal shooting. In the first 15 minutes of the game, Anthony shot 11-12 from the field and outscored Washington 26-22.

The Bottom Line: Anthony is something to behold as a scorer. He is a master of several different fakes, his ballhandling skills are good, he is strong and he is a deadly shooter inside of 20 feet. Of course, in this game it helped that he was going against Washington's kiddie corps instead of injured All-Star Caron Butler; the Wizards have done just fine this season without Gilbert Arenas but they are 1-5 in games that Butler has missed.

During the ESPN telecast, Hubie Brown asked a significant question about Denver's high scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson: "How many points are they giving up at the other end of the court against the plus-.500 teams?" That said, Brown noted that Iverson's body of work is incredible, particularly in terms of his career scoring total, his high number of free throw attempts per game and the staggering amount of minutes he has played (and continues to play). I've said it before and I'll say it again: Iverson is the most amazing athlete I have ever seen perform in person. He is not the greatest basketball player I have ever seen--although he is obviously a great player--but for someone who is barely 6-0, 170 to do what he does is simply remarkable. Anthony stole the show with his scoring and shooting but Iverson made his presence felt, too: 18 points on 7-9 shooting, 11 assists, four rebounds.

The Score: L.A. Lakers 117, Orlando 113

The Key Stat: Great players have the ability to play hurt and to adjust their games to compensate for their injuries. Kobe Bryant's dislocated pinkie finger on his shooting hand affected his shooting touch initially but he has worked his way through this problem without missing any games and against Orlando he led the Lakers with 36 points and 10 rebounds, adding six assists.

The Bottom Line: Bryant threw down some vintage dunks in this game but his impact went well beyond both the stat sheet and the highlight reel. Bill Walton said that Bryant's performance versus Orlando was "a defensive lockdown of epic proportions...Kobe Bryant was Bill Russell and Hakeem Olajuwon combined down the stretch on the defensive end." OK, that is a bit of Waltonesque hyperbole but Bryant did come up big at both ends of the court in a road game against one of the better Eastern Conference teams. This epic road trip was supposed to be the death of the Lakers sans Andrew Bynum but Bryant has made sure that won't be the case. Of course, in recent games he has received help from newly acquired former All-Star Pau Gasol, who had 30 points and nine rebounds in this game, shooting 12-15 from the field. Teams have to choose now whether to double team Kobe or double team Gasol but both players are great passers in addition to being accomplished scorers, so whoever is open will get--and make--the shot.

The Score: Chicago 114, Golden State 108

The Key Stat: Chicago shot .561 from the field and 5-9 (.555) from three point range, while Golden State shot .432 from the field and 7-28 (.250) from three point range.

The Bottom Line: Golden State Coach Don Nelson wants his team to play at a fast pace but I have mentioned on several occasions that teams should not be afraid to run right back at the Warriors. Golden State is not a great defensive team--particularly in transition--but they have a lot of quick athletes who can be pesky in the halfcourt, getting deflections and steals. It is much easier to score on Golden State in transition than to engage in "trench warfare" in the halfcourt. When the Warriors get the ball they will almost always go quickly and shoot the first open shot, whether or not it is a good one. Teams that run right back at them can trade made layups for missed three pointers (just look at the field goal percentages cited above). The Bulls raced out to a 32-18 first quarter lead and TNT's Mike Fratello noted, "Part of it is they are doing so well at the offensive end there are no easy baskets for Golden State." If the Dallas Mavericks would have done that consistently they would would have beaten the Warriors in last year's playoffs.

Chris Webber was a non-factor while playing less than 13 minutes in the first game of his second stint with the Warriors (four points, two assists, one rebound). Like Phoenix adding Shaq, the Warriors signed Webber because they realized that they have to have at least one legit big guy roaming the paint. The Warriors are truly becoming "Suns lite," with Baron Davis and Webber serving as the ersatz Steve Nash and Shaquille O'Neal.

The Score: New Jersey 104, Charlotte 90

The Key Stat: Jason Kidd notched the 99th triple double of his career (19 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds). He leads the NBA with 12 triple doubles this season.

The Bottom Line: Kidd has caught some flak because he has made it clear that he wants to be traded but no one can say that he is giving less than 100% effort when he is on the court. The soon to be 35 year old is averaging 11.3 ppg, 10.3 apg and 8.1 rpg. His field goal shooting is not great but it never has been--and his percentages from three point range (.355) and the free throw line (.811) are both better than his career norms. The reality is that if the financial end can be worked out in terms of matching contracts then it does make sense for the Nets to part ways with Kidd. New Jersey is not a contending team and could use some fresh blood to rebuild, while Kidd still has more than enough game left to really help a good team.

Quote of the Week:

During TNT's broadcast of Thursday's Chicago-Golden State game, the subject of Chris Webber's return to the Warriors for a second go around with Coach Don Nelson led Reggie Miller to ask Mike Fratello about any players he coached on two separate occasions. Apparently, this brought back some very bad memories for the Czar of the Telestrator, who declared, "I only had Bonzi (Wells) one time--and that was enough." Miller said that he hoped Wells was not watching the telecast but Fratello did not back down, saying that he hoped and thought that Wells was indeed watching the game.

Quote of the Week, Part II:

Bill Walton offered these words of wisdom right after Anthony told Ric Bucher at halftime of the Nuggets-Wizards game that no one can guard him one on one: "Nice bit of humility in the halftime interview by Carmelo Anthony. Denver--capable but inconsistent, dangerous but not elite--for a team that leads the NBA in excuses, they're not going anywhere until Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson begin playing just a nominal bit of contain defense." Walton gets carried away sometimes but those seven words--"capable but inconsistent, dangerous but not elite"--are a perfect description of the Nuggets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:22 AM

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