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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:

LeBron and Boobie Turn New Orleans into Cleveland South

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:52 PM

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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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:29 AM

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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

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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

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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

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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:

James' Jam Punctuates East's Win

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Superman Takes Over New Orleans

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

Superman Takes Over New Orleans

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 his 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

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