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Saturday, February 23, 2008

LeBron and Boobie Turn New Orleans into Cleveland South

New Orleans has a distinctive cultural flavor in terms of music, food and much more but last weekend the "Big Easy" turned into Cleveland South: LeBron James won the All-Star Game MVP and Daniel "Boobie" Gibson won the Rookie-Sophomore Game MVP. Gibson also finished second in the Three Point Shootout. The Cleveland Cavaliers have probably never had a better All-Star Weekend, as I explain in my newest article for CavsNews.com (6/1/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

New Orleans seemed like Cleveland South by the end of All-Star Weekend. LeBron James nearly posted the second triple double in All-Star Game history, finishing with 27 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots en route to capturing the All-Star MVP as the East beat the West 134-128. Prior to that, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson won the Rookie-Sophomore Game MVP after scoring a game-high 33 points, matching James’ 2004 output and tying for the second most points in the 13 year history of the event (Amare Stoudemire scored 36 points in 2004 as his Sophomores trounced James’ Rookies, 142-118). Gibson shattered the Rookie-Sophomore single-game records for three pointers made (11) and attempted (20). Gibson also performed very well in the Three Point Shootout, finishing second behind defending champion Jason Kapono, who scored a record 25 points in the final round to take the crown.

Overall, this is probably the greatest All-Star Weekend in Cavaliers history. The only other one that even compares to it is 1993. That year, the Cavs had three All-Stars (Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance) for just the second time in franchise history and Price won the first of his back to back Three Point Shootout titles. Price scored 19 points in the 1993 All-Star Game on 6-11 shooting, trailing only Michael Jordan’s 30 points for the East squad, and Price had four assists, which tied for the second most on the East team; Price set an All-Star Game record that still stands by draining six three pointers. Daugherty finished with eight points and seven rebounds, while Nance had seven points and three rebounds. That trio also appeared together as reserves in the 1989 All-Star Game, but made less of an impact: Nance had 10 points (5-9 shooting) and six rebounds, Price scored nine points on 3-9 shooting and Daugherty grabbed three rebounds but went scoreless, missing all three of his field goal attempts. Price finished third in the NBA in three point percentage in 1989 but did not participate in that year’s Three Point Shootout.

James already owned the highest scoring average in All-Star Game history prior to coming to New Orleans and his current mark of 24.3 ppg is way ahead of Oscar Robertson’s 20.5 ppg, which has long been the standard for All-Star competitors. Bob Pettit (20.4 ppg), Michael Jordan (20.2 ppg) and Julius Erving (20.1 ppg) round out the top five in this category. Kobe Bryant had ranked sixth with a 20.0 ppg average but his scoreless cameo in New Orleans dropped him out of the top ten.

James has been an All-Star four times in his five year career and he will soon break Daugherty’s franchise record for All-Star appearances (five). James is the only Cavalier to start in an All-Star Game and he has been a starter each time he has made the team. He has only led the fan voting one time, so he is a long way from matching Jordan’s record (nine), but James has a good chance of setting career records in multiple All-Star categories. Most significantly, Pettit’s record of four All-Star MVPs seems to be in serious jeopardy because James has won two of the last three All-Star MVPs and he will likely be a perennial contender for this honor for at least the next decade.

He needs to score 166 points to break Michael Jordan’s career All-Star scoring record. If James keeps scoring at his current pace, he will accomplish this after seven more All-Star appearances. James has scored 29, 28 and 27 points in his last three All-Star Games, shooting at least .545 from the field on each occasion, so it is not out of the question for him to break Wilt Chamberlain’s single game scoring record of 42 points, a mark that has stood since 1962. Jordan (40 points in 1988) is the only other All-Star to join the 40 point club.

Magic Johnson’s career assists record (127) is probably out of reach but James has a decent shot of becoming just the second player with more than 100 career All-Star assists. James has 10 steals in four games, so he could eventually threaten Jordan’s record of 37. Jordan owns the only All-Star Game triple double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists in 1997) and James is obviously more than capable of duplicating that feat; he should have plenty of opportunities to do so, both in terms of how many All-Star Games he is likely to participate in and how many minutes he will probably receive in those games (he has played at least 30 minutes in each of his four All-Star appearances).

In 2005, at the age of 20 years, one month, James became the second youngest All-Star ever (Bryant was 19 years, five months old in 1998) and if James lasts long enough to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for being the oldest All-Star (41) then he will have a shot at breaking Abdul-Jabbar’s record for most All-Star selections (19). James actually “only” needs to play until he is 38 (and make the All-Star team each season) to tie that mark. Jordan, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry West are tied for second place with 14 All-Star selections each, a number that is certainly a reasonable target for James if he stays healthy.

You may recall that last year James lobbied for Gibson to receive more playing time and that when Gibson performed well James joked that he will be a great general manager someday. During All-Star media availability, James said of Gibson, “I’m excited for him and I try to be a mentor to him and just help put him in a position where he can succeed.” Don’t be shocked if Gibson one day makes an appearance in an All-Star Game. He is not the biggest or most athletic guard in the NBA but he is a better athlete than a lot of people probably think. More importantly, he understands how to play the game and he is willing to take and make pressure shots in big games; in those respects, he is much like B.J. Armstrong and Sam Cassell, two guards who cut their teeth playing reserve roles for championship teams before becoming All-Stars later in their careers. Gibson put on an amazing shooting display in the Rookie-Sophomore Game. Yes, that is just an exhibition contest but every time Gibson has had a chance to shine—most notably the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals versus Detroit—he has stepped up.

During that same media availability session, I asked Gibson about his colorful teammate Damon Jones, the self-proclaimed “best shooter in the world.” Gibson replied, “I wouldn’t say that he is the best shooter in the world because he is not the best shooter on our team.” Gibson would not go so far as to say that he is the best shooter on the team, replying with a smile “Who knows?” when I asked him that question. However, Gibson is not afraid to take on James in a shooting contest: “Any time that LeBron steps behind the three point line with me, it’s trouble. That is one thing that I can say: I have the upper hand on LeBron James shooting threes. There are not many things that you can say that you can do better than he does on a basketball court but as long as it is not an in-game situation I can get him. In a game, he makes any shot that he takes; it’s a little different at that point.”

James does not dispute this and when someone asked if he gives Gibson advice about shooting James laughed and said, “No, he’s giving me pointers. He shoots the ball better than I do.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 PM


Friday, February 22, 2008

Kevin Durant: A Progress Report

Months ago, Tim Capstraw, Bill Simmons, Rick Kamla and many other commentators--I refuse to call them experts--breathlessly sang Kevin Durant's praises. Simmons went so far as to assert that Portland made a mistake drafting Greg Oden instead of Durant--and Simmons said that before either player had participated in a single NBA game! Just like it would not be right for Capstraw, Simmons, Kamla or anyone else to label a player a bust before he has had a chance to play it is not right to prematurely deem someone to be a superstar in the making, either.

I watched Durant play in the Summer League and evaluated his game objectively without resorting to baseless hype. I wrote several posts here describing exactly what I saw, including Durant Hardly Dominant as Summer League Concludes and Kevin Durant--Shooting Guard? I don't mean to pat myself on the back--well, maybe I do just a little bit--but if you read those posts you will discover that Durant's production as a rookie has been exactly what I predicted. Right now he is a one dimensional player and the only category that he performs well in is free throw percentage. Unfortunately, Durant cannot take advantage of that because he is not good at drawing fouls, which is something else that I correctly predicted despite the fact that he did draw fouls during Summer League play. I vividly remember one Summer League play when Durant got two free throws simply because his defender was too clumsy to get out of Durant's way as Durant awkwardly twisted in an attempt to avoid contact; I could tell that Durant would have trouble drawing fouls against legit NBA defenders. During TNT's telecast of Portland's 92-88 win over Seattle on Thursday, Doug Collins suggested that because of Durant's slight frame he is not able to either finish drives strongly or draw fouls. Collins predicted that Durant will get better at this when he gains some weight. That may be true but some guys are never able to gain weight. Also, great players are able to drive to the hoop and draw contact even when they are young and skinny. In any case, my point is that if you watched Durant with an informed and objective eye during the summer then you would not at all be surprised by how he is playing now.

Durant's best month was November, when he scored 20.6 ppg on .414 field goal shooting. He averaged 18.8 ppg on .408 shooting in December and 19.4 ppg on .400 shooting in January. So far in February he is scoring 17.7 ppg on .380 shooting. It's not like Durant is making up for his poor shooting by excelling in other areas, either. He was an exceptional rebounder in college but he has been pedestrian at best (4.1 rpg) so far as an NBA rebounder and it is important to remember that most players have their best rebounding numbers early in their careers. Durant got a lot of rebounds in college because he was taller and more athletic than his opponents; he does not enjoy such advantages in the NBA and I will go so far as to say that he will never be an exceptional NBA rebounder, whether or not the rest of his game blossoms the way so many people seem to think that it will. Durant does not have a nose for the ball and he rarely gets tough rebounds in traffic and neither of those things figure to change regardless of how much weight he may gain.

Durant's ability as a ballhandler has been widely praised but, as I said during the Summer League, he has a high dribble that is easy to steal. I don't generally place a lot of emphasis on turnover statistics because the great players have the ball the most often and therefore usually commit the most turnovers. However, after watching Durant dribble during the Summer League, I predicted that he would commit a lot of turnovers this season. He is averaging 2.8 tpg in 33.1 mpg, a high total for a shooting guard who only passes for 2.2 apg and whose game at this point largely revolves around catch and shoot plays. A lot of people are mesmerized by Durant's ability to cross people over once in a while but I would describe him as an average ballhandler at best. His passing was poor during the Summer League and I would say that this aspect of his game has improved over the past few months; he actually is capable of making some good passes from time to time, though the numbers show that he does not do this very frequently. Durant's length enables him to get about one steal and one blocked shot per game but he is a poor defender overall.

Durant is a likable, soft spoken kid and he does seem to be trying to get better. It would be a nice story if he does become a great player at some point--but he is not even close to being a great NBA player right now and that should have been apparent to anyone who watched him play during the Summer League. It is a great disservice to Durant--and disrespectful to the truly great players--to compare him to the best players in the game before he has earned such recognition based on his performances. If Durant wants to become a great player then this summer he must get stronger, improve his shot--and his shot selection--and increase his understanding of how to play good NBA defense.


posted by David Friedman @ 5:29 AM


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Kobe Drops 41 in Shaq's Phoenix Debut

Shaquille O'Neal made his Phoenix debut on Wednesday night but his former teammate Kobe Bryant stole the show, scoring 41 points as the Lakers beat the Suns, 130-124. Bryant shot 16-25 from the field in the 90th 40 point game of his career, scoring 13 of his points in the fourth quarter as the Lakers held off several strong rallies by the Suns. The Lakers improved to 62-28 in Bryant's 40 point games, including 3-2 this season; more significantly, the Lakers now have the same record as the Suns (37-17) and own the tiebreaker between the teams by virtue of winning the season series 3-1. Bryant received significant support from Pau Gasol, who scored 29 points on 13-19 shooting, and Lamar Odom, who finished with 22 points and a team-high 11 rebounds. Amare Stoudemire led Phoenix with 37 points and 15 rebounds, Steve Nash added 26 points and eight assists and O'Neal produced 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in just under 29 minutes of action. O'Neal also committed five fouls.

The Lakers led most of the way and pushed the margin to as high as 13 points but the Suns kept fighting back and used a 9-0 run early in the fourth quarter to briefly move ahead, 106-105. The Lakers responded with a 10-2 run, with Bryant scoring five points and assisting on a Gasol dunk that became a three point play. Bryant was clearly the best player on the court; as ESPN's Bill Walton put it at halftime, "Kobe is near perfect in every aspect of the game." Yes, Walton is often guilty of spewing blatant hyperbole, but at least on this occasion he was right on target. Perhaps the scariest thing for the rest of the league is that Bryant is no longer in the unenviable position of going into a gun fight with butter knives. Recent Lakers' teams would have folded in the fourth quarter of a tight game such as this one, not due to any deficiency in Bryant's game but simply because no other Lakers would step up; it is a whole different story in L.A. now, with guys like Kwame Brown and Smush Parker being replaced by Gasol and Derek Fisher. Gasol has stepped in and been highly productive a bit more quickly than I expected, so when the Lakers get Andrew Bynum back they figure to be very, very dangerous. My initial impression after the Gasol trade was that it is not fair to expect a Lakers team that has been rebuilt on the fly to beat teams from San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix that have core groups of players who have been together for years. However, the funny thing is that all of those teams have since made deals involving members of their primary rotations, which means that the cohesiveness factor may not be such a disadvantage for the Lakers vis a vis those other teams.

On offense, the Lakers can now operate out of multiple sets, including the Triangle, a high screen/roll involving Bryant and Gasol, an isolation set with Bryant or postups of various players if there are mismatches. Bryant and Gasol have already developed nice chemistry in screen/roll situations and that only figures to improve the longer that they play together. Gasol can shoot the 15 foot jumper or drive to the hoop, he has good hands and his height/length are great assets; gone are the days when Bryant's only choices were to force a shot for himself or make a great pass only to see it bounce off of Brown's hands or head. TNT's Kenny Smith often talks about the importance of placing every player in the rotation in his proper position and assigning him the correct role. The idea that Odom could ever even come close to being Scottie Pippen to Bryant's Michael Jordan is simply absurd; likewise, Gasol did not always thrive in the role as the leading player for the Memphis Grizzlies. Obviously, Bryant is the number one option for the Lakers, so Gasol can comfortably shift into the secondary role and Odom can now provide a spark as the third option.

It is important to remember that this was not only O'Neal's first game as a Sun but also his first live action in over a month. The numbers that he put up in terms of minutes, points, rebounds and field goal percentage (6-9) are all right where they need to be, though foul trouble will be a serious issue if the Suns ever need for him to play more than 30 minutes. O'Neal's impact on the glass can be measured not only by his own numbers but also by the fact that the Suns outrebounded the Lakers 46-33. Prior to acquiring O'Neal, the Suns were the worst rebounding team in the league and they had a very poor record against the top eight teams in the West; his presence figures to help the Suns in both of those areas. The Suns are a much more dangerous team now; before, they were cotton candy--sweet and fun but also soft and lacking substance--but O'Neal adds much needed ruggedness and championship experience. The defending champion San Antonio Spurs obviously understand this; the only possible reason for them to trade for Kurt Thomas is to add a big body to contend with O'Neal during the playoffs.

The Suns utilized O'Neal on offense in three different ways. The first is the most obvious: they posted him up on the block and threw him the ball, which either led to a double-team that created an open shot for one of his teammates or a one on one opportunity for O'Neal to take a high percentage shot. Even though O'Neal is a poor free throw shooter, his ability to draw fouls puts the Suns in the bonus quickly and results in more free throw attempts for players who will actually make them. The second way that the Suns deployed O'Neal was in the high post. From that location, he set screens, participated in dribble hand offs and made some deft passes to cutters. The Lakers hurt themselves a couple times by double teaming him, something which makes no sense when O'Neal is 15 or more feet away from the basket and would never even think of shooting. The third way that the Suns took advantage of O'Neal's presence was by crashing the offensive boards; it takes two or sometimes even three people to box out O'Neal, so Stoudemire often had a free run to the hoop. Sure, there were some awkward moments at times as O'Neal and his teammates got used to each other but based on this performance there is no reason to think that O'Neal will hinder the team's offense.

The Lakers scored at least 30 points in each quarter and shot 52-92 (.565) from the field, so the Suns' defensive shortcomings have still not been solved. O'Neal and Stoudemire are both good weak side shotblockers but neither one is particularly adept at either guarding his own man one on one or defending against the screen/roll play. Any team that has even a semi-competent big man should repeatedly make O'Neal guard screen/roll plays. In the playoffs, the game slows down and it is vital to have big bodies who can protect the paint; just consider how the Spurs literally put up a moat and built a wall around the paint to contain LeBron James during the NBA Finals. Whether or not O'Neal and Stoudemire are willing and able to provide that kind of defensive presence will go a long way toward determining how far the Suns advance this season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:03 AM


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nuclear Arms Race in West Escalates with Kidd Deal

The contenders in the West are engaged in a furious nuclear arms race, stockpiling weapons in anticipation of full fledged warfare during this year's playoffs. We may never have seen a conference have this many teams bunched together so closely in the standings while playing at such a high level; this situation has placed most of the teams in the NBA in an "either/or" situation: either you are legitimately battling for the title--which means that you need all the ammunition you can get--or you have no chance to win a title--which means that you are perfectly willing to part with All-Star level players in exchange for young players and expiring contracts. The prototypical example of such a trade is the Pau Gasol deal. The Lakers acquired the former All-Star without giving up even one core player from their rotation, while the Grizzlies got younger and improved their flexibility under salary cap rules.

Not long after the Lakers got Gasol, the Phoenix Suns acquired Shaquille O'Neal and the normally conservative San Antonio Spurs signed Damon Stoudamire. On Tuesday, the Dallas Mavericks finally consummated the long awaited, much anticipated Jason Kidd deal, acquiring the All-Star guard from New Jersey (along with Antoine Wright and Malik Allen) in exchange for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn and Trenton Hassel.

How will all of these deals affect the Western Conference? The Lakers took the least risk because they essentially gave up nothing and because their nucleus is young enough to play at a high level for several more seasons. The risk factor for the Suns is much higher: (1) O'Neal is an older, oft injured player who may not be healthy or productive enough to make an impact; (2) it is not clear or certain that O'Neal will successfully fit in with the Suns' fast breaking style; (3) combined with other recent personnel moves, the Suns have firmly put themselves on the "championship or bust" express: if this team does not win a title soon--this year or next year at the latest--a plunge to the bottom of the standings a la the Miami Heat is quite possible; (4) the Suns gave up a perennial All-Star to get O'Neal and it will not play well in Phoenix if three years from now Shawn Marion is still an All-Star level player while the Suns have yet to win a title. As I indicated in previous posts, I like the deal for Phoenix because the Suns were simply not going to win a championship the way that they were previously constituted--but that neither means that they are a championship lock nor does it change the fact that this deal is risky and could backfire.

Last year, the Spurs went through a sluggish stretch but Coach Gregg Popovich told his players that no deals were going to be made: it was up to the players in that locker room to right the ship and they responded by winning the title. The Spurs pretty much have taken the same tack this year but picking up Stoudamire is a low risk, high reward move: the best case scenario is that he provides scoring punch and some playmaking while coming off of the bench to give Tony Parker some rest; the worst case scenario is that he does not fit in for any number of reasons and the Spurs send him on his way.

The Mavericks' move is similar to the Suns' in a lot of ways. Unlike the Lakers and Spurs, Dallas gave up some youth and some players who were key members of the team's normal rotation. The Mavericks have joined the Suns on the "championship or bust" express, which means that at least one these teams is going to be extremely disappointed after the playoffs conclude. Dallas made it to the Finals in 2006 and won 67 games last season, so it would not have been unreasonable to give the nucleus that accomplished those things at least one more chance. On the other hand, the availability of Jason Kidd forced the Mavericks' hand: if they stood pat and faced postseason disappointment again then it would most likely not be possible to sign Kidd.

Harris has more pure speed now than Kidd does but it is hard to understand why anyone would think that this trade does not improve Dallas. Kidd has decisive edges over Harris in playmaking, rebounding, defense and playoff experience. The Mavericks are absolutely a better team now than they were before making this deal. Whether or not they are good enough to win a title before their championship window closes is another matter entirely.

This year's playoffs could include some very interesting subplots. Former Sun Kidd could face his old team; he could also battle the Spurs, who supposedly tried to obtain him for Tony Parker a few years ago. L.A.-Phoenix had already developed into a rivalry before O'Neal landed in the Valley of the Sun but if the two teams meet again in the playoffs it will be the first time that former teammates O'Neal and Kobe Bryant face each other in a playoff series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:15 AM


Carnival of the NBA #54 Hosted by SportProjections.com

Carnival of the NBA #54 is being hosted by SportProjections.com. My contribution is a post titled Dawn of the Shaq Era in the Valley of the Sun.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 AM


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

James' Jam Punctuates East's Win

New Orleans had a real Cleveland flavor during All-Star Weekend. Daniel Gibson stole the show in the Rookie-Sophomore Game before finishing second in the Three Point Shootout. Then, LeBron James led the East to a 134-128 victory in the All-Star Game, winning his second All-Star MVP in three years. Here is my fourth report about All-Star Weekend (10/7/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

The Sunday Legends Brunch is a can't miss event every All-Star Weekend. It is a tremendous gathering of all-time basketball greats and many of today's stars. The ninth annual edition included the presentation of six awards, with several of the honorees having ties to Louisiana's rich basketball tradition: Eugene "Goo" Kennedy (Legends Humanitarian Award), Branford Marsalis (Legends Humanitarian Award), Teresa Weatherspoon (Legends Career Achievement Award), Pete Maravich (Legends Commemorative Award), the New Orleans Jazz (Legends Commemorative Team Award) and Willis Reed (Legend of the Year). TNT's Ernie Johnson emceed the event, with a little help from his TNT studio partner Kenny Smith. Chris Tucker once again left the crowd in stitches with his impromptu standup routine at the conclusion of the brunch.

Julius Erving presented Weatherspoon with her award. In addition to providing a complete recap of Weatherspoon's career, he said, "Everyone here knows, my 'five' was, is and always will be (Oscar) Robertson, (Jerry) West, (Elgin) Baylor, (Wilt) Chamberlain and (Bill) Russell and that my sixth man is Connie Hawkins coming off the bench and playing guard, forward and center. I am very grateful and very, very happy and honored that Teresa has included me in her 'five,' as she has told me many times."

Gail Goodrich, who briefly played for the then-New Orleans Jazz at the end of his career, introduced 11 Jazz players and former Jazz Coach Elgin Baylor so that they could collectively receive the Legends Commemorative Team Award. Jackie Maravich accepted on behalf of her husband, the late Pete Maravich. She and their two sons Jaeson and Josh also accepted the Legends Commemorative Award after an introduction by current New Orleans All-Star Chris Paul. A highlight video of Maravich's career drew audible gasps of wonderment even from the great players in the audience and Paul shook his head in disbelief when the house lights came back on after the video ended.

Near the end of the brunch, Karl Malone stepped to the podium to make some remarks. He candidly admitted that he was a last minute selection as a speaker and that he was nervous talking in front of a group of people who included so many of the players who he idolized growing up. Malone, who was somewhat notorious for his wayward elbows during his career, stressed how much he admired and respected all of the players in the room even if--and he chuckled when he said this--it may not have seemed like it when he played. He offered heartfelt words on a variety of topics, including a passionate plea regarding retired players who have fallen on hard times. Malone declared that with the league making so much money and today's players earning fortunes because of the foundation laid by previous generations, "It's up to us to help them out." He pledged to take a more active role going forward to make sure that this happens. Malone also expressed how thankful he is for the work done by our troops to protect our freedoms, a sentiment that he later reiterated when he spoke briefly to the crowd during the All-Star Game.

With so many activities going on during All-Star Weekend it is important not to forget what is supposed to be the crown jewel of the event, the All-Star Game itself. A lot of pregame talk and speculation centered around the playing status of Kobe Bryant, who is putting off finger surgery to try to help the Lakers win a championship--and to hopefully lead Team USA to a gold medal in next year's Olympic Games. The Lakers preferred for Bryant to skip the All-Star Game entirely in order to give the injury a better chance to heal but league rules stipulate that a player who plays in the last regular season game prior to All-Star Weekend must either play in the All-Star Game or else receive a one game suspension. The league office would not bend on this but on the other hand it is obviously not in anyone's interest to see the sport's best player get hurt in an exhibition game, so common sense ultimately prevailed. During his pregame media availability, West Coach Byron Scott said that he spoke with NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson and Bryant and that the solution they reached was that Bryant would start the game but only play three to four minutes. As it turned out, Bryant got one rebound in exactly 2:52 of court time before leaving the game for good. He spent most of the contest sitting on the bench with his finger wrapped in ice.

The East never trailed in the first quarter and led by as many as 11 points and the West team seemed sluggish. The East converted a lot of dunks and Chris Bosh--starting in place of the injured Kevin Garnett--was the early scoring leader with eight points as the visitors led 34-28 after the first 12 minutes. The East pushed that lead to 74-65 in a high scoring second quarter. LeBron James had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds in the second quarter alone and with 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds at halftime he seemed to be well on his way to posting just the second triple double in All-Star history. Dwight Howard also had 12 first half points, making all five of his field goal attempts.

The East went up by as much as 16 points in the third quarter but somehow the game never really felt out of reach; the West quickly countered with a 14-3 run that cut the margin to 98-93. The Boston connection of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen scored two field goals apiece to make the score 106-93 going into the fourth quarter. At that moment, James had a game-high 19 points and needed just two rebounds and two assists to get a triple double, so the MVP seemed like it was his to lose. New Orleans' own Chris Paul tried to steal that honor late in the game, producing nine points and five assists in the fourth quarter, helping the West go up by as many as three points. Allen stemmed the tide with a lights-out shooting display, racking up 14 fourth quarter points while shooting 3-4 from three point range as he made his own late run at capturing MVP honors, finishing with a game-high 28 points. "I was supposed to be in the Bahamas this weekend," Allen said with a smile after the game, alluding to the fact that he made the team as an injury replacement.

In the end, though, the MVP had to go to James, who topped off his excellent all-around performance by scoring eight fourth quarter points, including a monster dunk that gave the East the lead for good at the :55.5 mark; he drove around Tim Duncan and then seemingly put the hammer down on the entire West team. "We had two people on him and it still wasn’t enough," marveled Paul. James finished with 27 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.

James offered a very matter of fact description of what he was thinking while he converted the play of the night: "The game was tied. I didn't want to settle for a jump shot." He acknowledged that the West's 153-132 win in last year's game definitely fueled the fire for the East this time around. Bryant spearheaded that rout by the West, winning the MVP after scoring 31 points and making six steals in a little over 28 minutes of action. As Scott said after the game, "There's one player we really, really missed today and that’s Kobe."

During the late stages of the game, the West went with a big lineup that featured Duncan, Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki. East Coach Doc Rivers realized that he could not match that group's size, so he countered with quickness, using a small lineup with LeBron James at power forward. The East survived on defense by swarming Duncan whenever he caught the ball in the post against James and then scrambling after Duncan passed out of the trap. On offense, the East used their speed and quickness to great effect, which is why Allen repeatedly got open. "It's a game of chicken, basically," Rivers said of his strategic adjustment, meaning that whichever team blinked first would lose.

Dwyane Wade had a solid game (14 points, four rebounds, three assists) but he made a couple big plays in the last minute. First, he scored a layup that put the East up 129-125 and then he stuffed a Nowitzki three point attempt that could have pulled the West to within one point. Other double figure scorers for the East included Howard (16 points on 7-7 field goal shooting), Bosh (14 points) and Pierce (10 points). Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Roy led the West with 18 points each, while Paul had 16 points, a game-high 14 assists and four steals. Stoudemire threw down a driving dunk right in Howard's face early in the fourth quarter, leading to an exclamation by ESPN's Chris Broussard that Stoudemire had found the kryptonite to counter Howard, who used his Superman persona to good effect while winning the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday.

From the NBA's extensive community service efforts to help rebuild New Orleans to Jam Session to All-Star Saturday Night to the Legends Brunch to a thrilling, competitive All-Star Game, All-Star Weekend 2008 in New Orleans will long be remembered for showcasing all that is good about the NBA on and off the court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Superman Takes Over New Orleans

Here is the link to my third All-Star Weekend report for HoopsHype.com (10/7/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below).

By the time you read this, you probably have already seen the events of All-Star Saturday night--or at least the highlights. I can absolutely say that there was a tangible buzz in the New Orleans Arena both in anticipation of Dwight Howard's dunks and right after he completed them. I don't have a problem with the fans voting to select the winner, but the several minutes that elapsed after the final dunks and before the announcement of the results were alternately anti-climactic and awkward. Each of the NBA legends who judged the first round of the contest offered his opinion over the house microphone. The crowd grew restless as Julius Erving made a slight case for Gerald Green, pointing out that most fans probably do not understand how difficult it is to jump off of an arena floor and dunk without wearing shoes. There was even some scattered booing, either because people thought that Erving talked too long or because they wanted him to choose Howard. Erving did in fact give Howard the nod, as did each of the other judges in something akin to a non-binding Congressional resolution. Erving was simply being himself: he had the class to acknowledge Green's great effort and enough experience as a dunker to better understand what Green had done than just about anyone else in the building.

No one really put up a huge score in the three-point shootout until the final round, when defending champion Jason Kapono channeled Larry Bird and Craig Hodges to score 25 points to rout Rookie-Sophomore Game MVP Daniel Gibson, who matched his first round total with 17.

Although the Skills Challenge is supposed to test a wide variety of skills, it often comes down to simply who can make the top of the key jumper on the first attempt. Dwyane Wade, the two-time defending Skills Challenge champion, struggled massively on this night, paralleling the dismal season that his Miami Heat are having. Wade dribbled the ball off of his foot, fired errant passes and even missed a layup. Deron Williams defeated Chris Paul in a showdown of rising young point guard stars. The Spurs kicked off All-Star Saturday with a victory in the Shooting Stars competition, an entertaining event that somehow does not seem to have fully captured the public’s imagination.

Earlier in the day, both All-Star squads held brief practices at the NBA Jam Session in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. These practices are an opportunity for the teams to break a light sweat, work on some simple plays and get some shots up. The head coaches are miked up so that the crowd and the television audience can clearly hear what they are saying. East Coach Doc Rivers wants his bigs to run the court "wide" in transition from defense to offense, with the trailing big stopping to set a screen around the top of the key. "Keep our space," he instructed. "They have size, we have speed and skill." All-Star practices always include some split squad shooting contests. The East All-Stars who have eight or more years of playing experience in the league faced off against the youngsters to see which team could make more shots from various locations, including both elbows, both corners and the top of the key. The youngsters won, although there was a friendly dispute over the rules, specifically whether or not a shooter had to rebound his miss and then pass to the next shooter.

All-Star practices traditionally end with a half court shot contest. This time there was an added twist: Guinness World Records representative Stuart Claxton, who monitored the wheelchair free throw shooting record that I described in my first report, was on hand to certify a new world record for most half court shots made in 60 seconds. After all of the team members warmed up for a couple minutes by shooting one at a time from half court, they selected six players to go for the record: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Chauncey Billups, Ray Allen and Jason Kidd. James got things rolling by making three half court shots. Wade, Johnson and Billups went next, but could only make one apiece. Kidd batted cleanup and employed a novel strategy: a one hand, underhand toss that kind of resembled a slow pitch softball pitch. This actually worked relatively well and he tied James by making three shots, although not all of his makes were underhand because midway through he switched to the conventional form before reverting back to the underhand technique. Rivers announced to the crowd that the players could either share the record or have a tiebreaker round. The fans clearly wanted to see a tiebreaker but after the players briefly discussed this they decided to share the record, which actually fits in well with the unselfish way that James and Kidd play.

There has been a decided Guinness Book of World Records theme throughout All-Star Weekend. Apparently, someone in the NBA offices decided that it would generate excitement and have some promotional value to be able to say that various world records were set. Most of the various record attempts have been entertaining to watch but one quibble is that most of these records are in new categories, so any kind of performance by definition sets a record--and that is not something that has been clearly explained to the audience; I even heard some fans scream out from time to time asking what the old records were.

During the break between the East and West practices, players from both squads were made available to the media for interviews on the court. As usual, some players were rapidly surrounded by media swarms, while other players spoke to one or two interviewers. Bryant once again attracted the most attention, both from the fans who screamed his name and the media members who followed in close formation as he took a seat courtside and prepared for another round of questioning. I took a position directly to Bryant's left, but soon got nudged aside a bit by ESPN's Mark Jones, who had a cameraman in tow. Jones said, "Excuse me," but also kept trying to move me out of the way. Finally, realizing that was not going to work, he whispered, "Let's try this," and he moved to my right and took a seat directly to Bryant's left, which opened up a space for me between Jones and his cameraman. I made sure to put my recorder close enough to Bryant to be effective, but low enough that it did not interfere with the cameraman's shot, one of the skills you learn after doing a few of these sessions.

I asked Bryant if there has been any change or update regarding his situation with the NBA, which has a rule stipulating that if a player participates in the last game prior to the All-Star Game and then does not play in the All-Star Game he is suspended for the first regular season game after the All-Star Game. Bryant answered, "It's not really a situation. If I have to play, I'll play."

Right after Bryant injured his finger, his shooting percentage went down briefly but since then it has bounced back. I asked Bryant what he is doing to compensate for the injury. "We adjusted how we tape the finger," he explained. "Then, it took me a couple games to get used to feeling like I don't have a finger, if that makes any sense. It just feels like the finger is not there; it's like a spaghetti noodle. It took me a while to get used to that, because when you pick up a basketball and you don't feel that last finger it feels like the ball is going to slip out of your hand every time. So I was constantly checking before I shot. Once I got used to understanding that the ball is not going to fall out of my hand and it's fine then I was able to shoot well."

I asked Bryant if he has to hold the ball differently than normal. "No, I'm just getting used to the sensation. I have to be careful when I catch the ball, though. I can't go and palm the ball; I have to ease into it a little more." I asked Bryant to clarify exactly how the initial injury occurred: "I went for a steal against New Jersey and my finger got caught, I believe, against Jason Kidd's arm. I was going this way (points forward) and my finger popped out that way (points back toward his hand)." Right now the plan is to use ice, rest and treatment to try to keep the swelling down so that Bryant can finish out the season and participate in the Olympics before having surgery to fix the torn ligament. "If it dislocates again, I'm probably in trouble," he candidly admitted. Still, he is able to look at the bright side. "I'm lucky that it was this knuckle here," Bryant said, pointing to the base of the finger, "and not this knuckle here (pointing to the knuckle in the middle of the finger), because then you get the Larry Bird thing where you can't point anywhere and have people understand where you are pointing. Hopefully, I won't have that problem."

Although Bryant thinks that it is in his best interest not to play in the All-Star Game this time around, he definitely is disappointed about missing an opportunity to battle against the league's best players. "I enjoy playing and the reason I enjoy playing is because of the competition. I enjoy competing, matching up and playing hard."

After the media availability period ended, the West All-Stars practiced. Bryant did not wear a jersey or participate and he spent most of the time with his finger wrapped in ice. He cheered on his teammates and stood on the court cracking jokes during the various shooting games. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and hometown favorite Chris Paul each tried to match the half court shot record set by James and Kidd; only five players attempted this due to time constraints because the start of the practice had been delayed and the D-League All-Star Game was scheduled to begin right after the All-Star practice ended. With fans sporadically chanting for Bryant to participate left handed, Nash and Stoudemire made one shot each and Iverson put up the only goose egg laid by either team. Duncan made one shot, leaving it up to Paul to uphold the West's honor. Paul displayed good form, tying the mark with plenty of time to spare and then earning a spot in the record book by making his fourth half court shot.

Prior to the All-Star Saturday Night events, Commissioner David Stern held his annual All-Star Weekend press conference. He did not say anything that was Earth-shattering, unless you held on to the faint hope that Seattle will be able to prevent the Supersonics from relocating. The thing that strikes me, as I mentioned in a conversation with Stan McNeal of the Sporting News literally minutes before Stern spoke, is how the Tim Donaghy situation has so quickly vanished from the public eye. I had thought that this would be a lingering sore spot for the NBA throughout this season but it seems to be a complete non-issue with both the media and the fans. One question about Donaghy did come up during the press conference; someone asked Commissioner Stern if he has followed up on his intention to debrief Donaghy about the full scope and nature of his activities. Stern replied that the law enforcement authorities have requested that the NBA not be in contact with Donaghy until after he is sentenced.


I had quite a busy day and not everything that happened made it into that article. Here are some other news and notes from my experiences on Saturday:

LeBron James has repeatedly said that Kobe Bryant is the league's best player--a stance that James reiterated at Friday's media availability--but Bryant had an interesting take on who he thinks deserves the award this year, Chris Paul: "His maturity is kind of a throwback to the old school style of play. He distributes the ball and makes his teammates better. He's a good defensive player. He's doing two or three different jobs for his ball club. I enjoy his competitive spirit. He plays hard and he wants to win by any means necessary. Nowadays, a lot of players sugarcoat that or try to disguise or hide how competitive they are but he's not one of them; he goes for it."

After the All-Star practice on Saturday, I went back to the French Quarter to try to track down Jude Acers, the chess master who famously holds court at the Gazebo on Decatur Street. I just missed him on Thursday but this time I was very pleased to see him sitting at his chess table wearing his customary distinctive red beret. When I got closer it became apparent that he was giving a chess lesson to a young student, so I sat down quietly and watched for a few minutes. During a break in the lesson, I inquired about playing a quick game against Acers after he finished the lesson. He normally takes on all comers for $5 a game, so I thought that he would appreciate the business but suddenly he got all skittish and started packing up his stuff, gruffly telling me that he would not play a game. I've never heard of him acting like that, so I tried to calm him down by congratulating him on his fine performance in the recent World Senior Championship and telling him that I had traveled quite a distance to cover the NBA All-Star Game and would really enjoy having the opportunity to play a quick game against him. I asked when his lesson would be over or if it would be better to come back at a different time but he refused to even say when he would be available. That is hardly a good way to either promote the game of chess or his business and I found the whole encounter not only disappointing but also simply bizarre. He told me that I would have to leave, apparently failing to understand that (1) I have every right to stand wherever I want to on a public sidewalk and (2) I had no intention of staying there to engage in more fruitless dialogue with him. Although it would have been cool to play a game against an American chess icon, in light of his rude behavior I certainly will not seek him out again, nor could I recommend in good conscience that any other visitor do so.

After that waste of time, I headed back to the Marriott and then took a shuttle bus to the New Orleans Arena. I got there in time to take advantage of the wonderful media hospitality at the Superdome. It seems surreal to eat dinner at roughly where the 50 yard line normally is in the building where, among many other things, William "Refrigerator" Perry scored a touchdown in the Chicago Bears' 46-10 Super Bowl victory in 1986. I enjoyed a wide ranging basketball conversation with several journalists from Turkey and ESPN's John Hollinger and Chris Ramsay.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:38 PM