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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Taking Care of Business: Cavs Tame Timberwolves, 92-84

It was not particularly pretty and--except for a few sensational dunks by LeBron James--it was not particularly exciting but Cleveland played solid defense to earn a 92-84 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. James finished with 30 points, 13 assists and eight rebounds; he sprained his ankle in a 92-87 loss at Boston on Wednesday but seemed to have plenty of spring in his step versus Minnesota. After the game, James said that his ankle is fine, but he soaked both of his feet in a bucket of ice water while he spoke with the media. James banged his right thumb on the rim during one of his dunks, reaggravating an injury from earlier in the season; he joked that he will have to try to not dunk the ball so hard the next time. Al Jefferson led Minnesota with 22 points and 10 rebounds but he had just four points and three rebounds in the second half as the Cavaliers aggressively trapped him and forced other players to shoulder the offensive load. Cleveland battled Minnesota to a 40-40 tie in rebounds, overcoming a 26-20 first half disadvantage in that category. The Cavaliers enjoyed significant edges in points in the paint (50-38) and fast break points (15-5).

This was my first opportunity to see the "new" Cavs in person but I can't really make any sweeping judgments for several reasons. First and foremost, Minnesota is a bad team; the Cavs did not trade away half of their roster, including two starters, to beat the Timberwolves. Second, Wally Szczerbiak was not with the team because his wife is expecting a child. Third, key rotation players Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic did not play due to injuries. Of the three newcomers who did play, Ben Wallace (eight points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots) and Delonte West (12 points, five assists) had solid games, while Joe Smith struggled (two points, three rebounds). Before the game, Smith talked about how the terminology in Cleveland is completely different from what he was used to in Chicago, where he was arguably the Bulls' most consistent player this season. Presumably, when he becomes acclimated to Cleveland's system he will once again be productive. The best sign so far for Cleveland is that Wallace has been very active on the glass and as a shotblocker. In this game, the Cavs also tried to refute the myth that Wallace is just as effective stopping his own team's offense; a couple key fourth quarter sequences involved plays that culminated in Wallace setting screens and then diving to the hoop to receive passes from James that he converted into a layup and a dunk. Just because Wallace cannot make a shot outside of the paint does not mean that he is a bad offensive player. In fact, he is a good screener, a decent passer and a fine offensive rebounder. While James runs pick and pop plays with Smith or starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, he can also run traditional pick and roll plays with Wallace or backup center/forward Anderson Varejao; teams dare not blitz James on such plays because he will hit Wallace or Varejao with pinpoint passes that they will turn into easy scoring opportunities. The two Wallace plays versus Minnesota were nice because they involved a lot of player movement and screening, almost like the sleight of hand a magician uses to distract his audience. Cleveland does not have to run 20 of these a game, either; just a handful will be enough to keep the defense off balance (and keep Wallace content with his touches, which has been an issue at times when he was with Detroit and Chicago).

All of this looks good and sounds good but Minnesota fell to 12-45 after this loss, so for all we know a pick and roll play with LeBron James and comedian George Wallace might also be effective against them. Until we see Cleveland's complete current roster in action against good teams it is impossible to really know if the big trade helped, hurt or is simply a wash. That is why my initial reaction to this trade was lukewarm; I believe that the previous nucleus, when healthy, was good enough to make a return trip to the Finals. Cavs General Manager Danny Ferry has publicly stated that he thought that the team was not good enough, so it will be interesting to see how his intended upgrade pans out. It may very well work but I would have been hesitant to put my team through such upheaval shortly before the playoffs begin without bringing in a bonafide All-Star (perhaps Wallace will be able to once again play at that level).

In his postgame standup, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said, "The last couple games we've had some breakdowns defensively. Against Milwaukee in transition defense we broke down quite a bit...I thought that against Boston our pick and roll defense was not good at all. They really exposed us...I thought that tonight we were better in both of those areas and also as a team defensively. Al Jefferson had 18 at the half, so we decided to turn up our aggressiveness on him and double him quicker. We did that as a team and then guys covered for one another in our rotations and on the back side. We limited them on the glass in the second half." Brown also liked his team's activity level defensively in the paint, with either Wallace challenging shots and Ilgauskas (10 points, six rebounds, four blocked shots) providing support or vice versa.

I acknowledged that it is early but I asked Coach Brown what one area he is most pleased with regarding his "new" team and what is the one area where he would most like to see some improvement. He replied, "We have to just keep playing with one another because it is not necessarily just one area. Obviously, you end up talking about both sides of the ball. Offensively, for us, when we face certain teams if a team does something that we have not worked on then we are going to struggle a little bit. One of the things that Boston did against us is get up into us and deny us (passing angles) and they really pressured us. We hadn't worked on any (specific) counters, so we just kind of played basketball. Memphis tried to press us and I hadn't said one word about our press break (strategy), so we just had to kind of improvise. On the flip side, defensively, we haven't talked about transition defense and those rules, so we got exposed. Our pick and roll (defense) is a continuing conversation; we got exposed against Boston. So there are a lot of areas, not just one specific area, that we have to try to continue to work hard to clean up and we have to use these games as some of our practices. We have to kind of coach and teach and figure things out on the fly."

Just to be clear, Brown is not saying that the Cavs have no plans about these things; on the contrary, those plans were put into place in training camp. The issue now is that half of his roster has been swapped out, so principles and philosophies that he taught to players not just in training camp but over the past two years have to be taught to the new players as the season winds down. That challenge prompted my next question: How concerned is he about being able to get the new players up to speed before the playoffs so that a postseason opponent is not able to catch the Cavaliers by surprise with a press or some other tactic? Brown answered, "I think that all of the bases will be covered come playoff time. We just have to make sure that we try to do them at a high level. With this team, with the intelligence of the guys that we have and that we feel that they have for the game of basketball, I think that that will be there."

I also asked James what he is most pleased with about his "new" team and what area he would like to see improved before playoff time. He responded, "We are only going to improve with time, with games and with practices. Early, we are looking pretty good. Defensively we are very active, especially on our interior. Those guys are clamping down on the interior and we are just trying to make teams beat us with outside shots. It's been pretty good, so I am looking forward to what we have in store later on in this season and going into the postseason."

Notes From Courtside:

Just prior to the start of the game, Ferry presented a plaque to James in honor of James becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 10,000 career points. James reached that milestone after 368 games, which makes him the ninth fastest player to accomplish this. He is the second fastest player to accumulate 10,000 points, 2500 rebounds and 2000 assists, trailing only Oscar Robertson, who did that in 334 games. Looking ahead, James reached the 10,000 point plateau in fewer games than six of the top 10 scorers in NBA history, though three of the top four scorers of all-time beat James' pace (#1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored his first 10,000 points in 319 games, #3 Michael Jordan needed 303 games and #4 Wilt Chamberlain raced to 10,000 points in just 236 games). Julius Erving played the first five years of his career in the ABA and ranks fifth on the career scoring list if his ABA points are included; I do not know exactly when Erving scored his 10,000th career point, but based on his annual scoring averages in those early seasons he likely did so in approximately the 350th game of his career, narrowly edging James.


James' game is about a lot more than just scoring, of course. He won the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for games played from February 19-24, the third time this season and 13th time in his career that he has received this honor. James set a career-high by having double doubles in four straight games and he became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain (March 16-20, 1968) to average at least 28.8 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 10.5 apg in a four game span. James had at least 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists in each of the first three games of that week; only Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson have ever reached those each of those levels in three consecutive games. James had triple doubles on February 19 versus Houston and on February 20 at Indiana. That is the second time this season that James has had triple doubles on consecutive days, the first time anyone has done that since Magic Johnson (1988). James now has 16 career triple doubles; he is the third youngest player to record 15 triple doubles, trailing only Robertson and Johnson.


How quickly do things change in the NBA? When I covered Cleveland's 95-79 win over Seattle on January 8, I noted how thrilled Cavs reserve Shannon Brown was about being pictured on the cover of the game day program. Of course, he was traded away as part of the big deal that netted Wallace, Smith, Szczerbiak and West, who were each pictured on the cover of the program for the Minnesota game under the tagline, "Welcome to the Family."


This was Cleveland's 22nd sellout in 28 home games but it might have had the fewest media members in attendance of any NBA game that I have covered; I think that a lot of the local Cleveland media are covering the Browns' moves as the free agent market opens and the dreadful Timberwolves obviously do not have a lot of writers and broadcasters documenting their first post-Kevin Garnett season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 AM


Friday, February 29, 2008

Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat's Hard Knock Life

"When my situation ain't improvin', I'm tryin' to murder everything movin'."--Jay-Z, "Hard Knock Life"

The Lakers beat the Heat 106-88 on Thursday but the game was such a mismatch that it almost is not even worth analyzing; the Lakers jumped out to an 18-4 lead in the first 6:16 and basically toyed with the Heat the rest of the way. You hear a lot of talk about executives and coaches who are doing bad jobs and players who are overrated but what is the deal with Miami? There is no way that this team should be this bad with a Hall of Fame caliber coach in Pat Riley plus Dwyane Wade playing alongside first Shaquille O'Neal and now Shawn Marion. Udonis Haslem and Jason Williams were starters on the 2006 championship team. Ricky Davis is a space cadet but he is also a bona fide scorer. There is some decent talent on the bench. Something very strange is going on with this team and if people are going to give various executives grief for certain moves then Riley has to be at or near the top of the list for losing Jason Kapono and James Posey--who continue to be productive players for playoff-bound teams--for nothing and then signing Smush Parker, who is on some kind of bizarre paid leave of absence.

Wade is putting up some decent individual numbers this season but anyone who understands basketball has to cringe when watching him play. He is careless with his dribble, his shot selection is erratic and his defense is just a rumor: all he does now is lunge half-heartedly at the ballhandler attempting to get steals but instead getting himself woefully out of position. He scored 0 points on 0-5 shooting with three turnovers as the Lakers built a 53-41 halftime lead. TNT analyst Reggie Miller made a great point, suggesting that if you swapped Kobe Bryant for Wade that Miami would have made the playoffs instead of having the worst record in the entire league. "Kobe Bryant is that brilliant," Miller concluded. Miami lost 26 of 28 games at one point and it is simply inconceivable that a Bryant-led team would do that. What is happening in Miami should make people have a greater appreciation for what Bryant did last season, when he posted the highest post-All-Star break scoring average in four decades while carrying the Lakers into the playoffs. Bryant was saddled with D-League-level point guard Smush Parker and a roster that was devastated by injuries, yet he kept racking up 40, 50 and even 60 point games, doing whatever it took for the Lakers to win. When Bryant dropped 60 on Memphis in a 121-119 win on March 22, 2007, Parker played 33 minutes as the starting point guard, Kwame Brown played 39 minutes as the starting center and the top player off of the bench was Shammond Williams, who is not even in the NBA this year. There is no question that this year's Heat has more talent than the depleted Lakers' squad that played alongside Bryant that night and for most of the second half of the season.

This is where the above Jay-Z lyric comes into play; if Bryant's situation "ain't improving," then he will drop 60 on your head and do whatever it takes to "murder everything movin'" on the other team--and then he will demand that everyone else on his team, from his general manager to his young center, step up their game as well. You could also see this last summer with Team USA. When Bryant signed on he brought a whole new level of intensity to the team; as Steve Kerr told me, before each game Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" When I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target," Kerr responded, "Yeah--and he was serious." Wade simply cannot elevate his game or his team in the same fashion that Bryant can.

I realize that Wade is not 100% but there is a difference between being injured and being hurt: if you are injured then you can't play but if you can play then you are not injured. Bryant is playing with a jacked-up pinkie that needs surgery, so it's not like he's 100%, either. When the Lakers jumped all over the Heat at the start, Bryant shot 3-3 from the field and had five assists in that 18-4 run. He deflected or stole the ball from Wade so many times it looked like a big brother abusing his little brother in the backyard.

Bryant finished with 21 points, eight assists, one rebound, four steals and two blocked shots, one of them a left handed rejection of a Shawn Marion slam dunk attempt. Bryant shot 7-14 from the field, which is right in line with his .508 field goal shooting in the month of February. The numbers are coldly efficient but they are almost beside the point because the Lakers won so easily--if they had needed 40 points then he would have scored that many and if they had needed more rebounds he would have done that, too. Wade nearly matched Bryant's point total (18) but he shot just 6-17 from the field.

Bryant's tremendous passing skills are on full display now because he has Pau Gasol, a big guy who can actually catch and finish. It is very obvious how much Bryant enjoys feeding him the ball; if anything, Bryant is almost overpassing now. Gasol's impact on the Lakers has been immediate and obvious but it is important to remember that as the main guy in Memphis he made exactly one All-Star team and never won a playoff game. All the people who say that Bryant does not make his teammates better should really pay attention to how much Gasol is benefiting from playing alongside Bryant--and you can bet that it boosts Gasol's confidence to see Bryant passing up shots to feed him the ball. It really is beautiful to watch the on court interplay between Bryant and Gasol, two unselfish, multi-skilled players who have very high basketball IQs. On one play, Gasol set a screen for Bryant and then rolled to the front of the rim. Bryant caught the ball in the post, accepted the double-team and then fed Gasol a slick no-look bounce pass for an easy layup. As Grant Napear would say, "If you don't like that, you don't like NBA basketball."

Bryant's best pass of the night is not even recorded in the box score: after a steal, he fired a Pistol Pete-style no look, over the head, one handed half court laser to Luke Walton, who then got the assist with a behind the back pass to Lamar Odom, who motored to the hoop for a dunk.

Charles Barkley summed matters up nicely at halftime: "They can take the MVP trophy out to L.A. right now."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:59 AM


No "Kidd"-ing: Spurs Edge Mavs

It is easy to forget that just two years ago the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs contested an epic playoff series that was not decided until overtime in game seven. For those of you who have forgotten--or who think that Dirk Nowitzki always comes up short in the big games--Dallas beat San Antonio 119-111 in that seventh game and Nowitzki led the way with 37 points and 15 rebounds, shooting 11-20 from the field and 15-16 from the free throw line. We may get to see this matchup again in this year's playoffs and if Thursday's game was a preview of coming attractions then this showdown will once again be a treat to watch.

The Spurs beat the Mavs 97-94 at San Antonio in a back and forth game that provided a handy reminder of just how valuable Tim Duncan really is. His numbers were excellent (31 points, 15 rebounds, 12-20 field goal shooting) but, as Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich explained after the game, Duncan's impact at both ends of the court goes even deeper than what the statistics portray: "Offense, the ball goes through him. On defense, he's our defender, our rebounder. Everybody rotates off him. He's just really special. We don't get anything done without him."

Manu Ginobili has been playing really well for the past month or so and whenever that happens it is inevitable that certain people will pipe up to suggest that Ginobili is nearly as valuable as Kobe Bryant. There are a number of problems with that theory, not the least of which is that the season lasts for 82 games, not one month; those who wonder why Ginobili was "snubbed" in this year's All-Star voting may want to look at what his numbers were when those votes were cast and when the coaches selected the reserves. In any case, as Popovich said, Duncan is the hub of the Spurs; Tony Parker does not win the 2007 Finals MVP without Duncan attracting a lot of defensive attention (and shutting down the Cavs' offense in the paint, sparking numerous fast break opportunities for Parker and the other Spurs). Ginobili had 17 points, five assists and five rebounds against Dallas, shooting 6-20 from the field; he does not have to be great every night for the Spurs to win because he plays alongside Tim Duncan--and it is easier for him to be great precisely because of Duncan's presence. Real MVP candidates--like Bryant and LeBron James--play at a very high level consistently, not just for brief stretches of the season.

Nowitzki led Dallas with 28 points but he shot just 5-15 from the field, scoring most of his points from the free throw line (17-21). He also had six rebounds. New Mav Jason Kidd had seven points, 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals but Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a very curious decision, sitting Kidd out for the last :34 of the fourth quarter. The Mavs had the ball and only trailed 96-94 at that point. After the game, Johnson said that he wanted to spread the court with shooters but the Mavs did not get off a good shot the rest of the way. Kidd responded diplomatically, saying, "They've been together down the stretch. I understand what play they're looking for, so I'm over here cheering for my guys to knock down a 2 or a 3," but TNT's Charles Barkley cut to the heart of the matter: "There's no sense in making the Jason Kidd trade if you aren't going to play him in crunch time." He also termed Johnson's move "stupid." Barkley is absolutely right; the Mavs brought Kidd in to be a difference maker in crucial situations because he makes such good decisions and passes the ball so well. If he does not know the Mavs' plays, now is a better time to learn them then during the playoffs and, as TNT's Kenny Smith mentioned, there is no point guard in the NBA better at creating something out of a broken play than Kidd.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:05 AM


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Let’s Make a Deal: Breaking Down this Season’s Biggest Trades

This is a very unusual NBA season: a 50 win team may not qualify for the Western Conference playoffs, while as many as three sub-.500 teams may participate in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Most of the top Western Conference teams made at least one significant acquisition/trade in an attempt to bolster their chances of not being the one team left standing when the music stops and eight teams receive their seats on the 2008 playoff express.

During All-Star Weekend, I asked two-time NBA champion David Robinson why he thinks so many teams have made trades this year. He replied, "I think that part of it is that many teams have been together long enough to know that they need to make changes. Dallas knows that they have had their chances the last couple years and that they need to do something a little bit different. Phoenix, the same way—they’ve had some chances to win a championship the last couple years and they needed to make a change. There are a lot of teams that have been hovering and know that they need to step it up. I don’t remember a time when so many teams have made such significant changes. It’s exciting. I think that this will be one of the best playoffs in a while."

It is way too early to truly evaluate these deals—but that has not stopped everyone else from trying, so here is an attempt to scientifically break down the most important in-season moves involving Western Conference teams (you can find my take on Cleveland’s blockbuster trade here).

1) Lakers acquire Pau Gasol and a second round draft pick in 2010 from Grizzlies in exchange for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first round picks in 2008 and 2010. Lakers’ record since trade: 10-1 (all won-loss records listed in this article are accurate as of 2/26/08).

This is by far the best in-season deal that any team has made this season, for two reasons: impact and potential downside; Gasol has already had a huge impact and there is no potential downside to this trade from the Lakers’ perspective because they did not give up any assets that could have been of value to them during Kobe Bryant’s prime years. Gasol gives the Lakers a proven scorer, a good rebounder and a player who, though not an outstanding one on one defender, blocks shots and uses his length effectively as a help defender. Gasol’s presence lessens the burden on the shoulders of Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum (when he returns from injury); Odom has shown throughout his career that he does not want the responsibility of being the second best player on the team and Bynum is still a bit young and raw to step into that role. Thanks to Gasol, those players will not be asked to do more than they are capable of doing. Gasol in turn benefits from this situation because he no longer has to be the first option, a role that did not entirely suit him for so many years in Memphis.

The only reason that I am not instantly jumping on the "Lakers will win the championship this year" bandwagon is that it usually takes a certain amount of time for a championship team to develop chemistry and continuity. The Lakers are doing this on the fly now with Bryant-Gasol-Odom and then will almost have to start over when/if Bynum returns near the end of the season. However, in the wake of the Gasol trade just about every other Western contender has made a big move, so all of these teams will be dealing with the chemistry/continuity issues that result from adding new players.

Bryant has averaged 6.2 apg in Gasol’s 11 games as a Laker, nearly 1 apg more than he was averaging before the trade. Not to belabor what should be fairly obvious, but it is hard to get assists passing to the likes of Kwame Brown; it is also difficult to get assists when your team is playing four on five on offense because one player cannot catch the ball. This may sound crazy to some people, but there is not a pass that Steve Nash makes that Bryant is not capable of delivering: Bryant has the full repertoire of bounce passes, post feeds, behind the back passes, left handed passes and everything else. If Bryant wanted or need to, he could rack up double-digit assists totals just like Michael Jordan did in 1988-89 when Bulls Coach Doug Collins put him at point guard for the last few weeks of the season. The reality is that Bryant is his team’s best scoring option, so in most cases it makes less sense for him to pass than to shoot (Jordan did not win any titles as a point guard). While Nash accumulates more assists than Bryant due in part to the differences in their roles on their respective teams, Bryant has been the leading playmaker on three championship teams, proving that he can be a very effective passer at the highest level of the game, something that Nash has yet to accomplish.

2) Suns acquire Shaquille O’Neal from Heat in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. Suns’ record since trade: 5-4 overall, 2-2 in games that O’Neal played in.

Considering that O’Neal finished second in MVP voting as recently as 2004-05 and that he played an important role on a championship team in 2005-06 it is fascinating that so many people think that adding him to the Suns’ nucleus of Nash-Stoudemire-Hill is a bad move. I have been as critical as anyone of O’Neal’s indifferent attitude toward his conditioning and his reluctance at times to play good screen/roll defense but I have also consistently said that the Suns would never win a title with the previous nucleus of Nash-Stoudemire-Marion. Clearly, Suns General Manager Steve Kerr understood this, too, and that is why he made this trade. It is very revealing that Marion has not expressed the slightest regret about leaving a contending team to play for the worst squad in the NBA; the most important thing to Marion is how much individual recognition he receives and he felt like the third wheel in Phoenix. O’Neal may have been going after it at half speed as the Heat plummeted in the standings but he knows that the Suns can win a title so he will be putting forth his best effort the rest of this season.

The Suns desperately needed rebounding and paint presence at both ends of the court. Marion gets more boards than O’Neal but he also plays a lot more minutes; O’Neal is still an effective rebounder (45 rebounds in just 112 minutes in his first four games as a Sun, well above his career rate) and he provides a physicality that the Suns have lacked in the Nash era. If O’Neal stays healthy then the Suns will be an even tougher out than usual in the playoffs, regardless of how they finish the regular season; their regular season success in recent years has been a mirage based on using their fast break style to pile up wins against the league’s weaker teams but now they can be effective in the half court, which is essential in the playoffs.

Indiana Pacers’ Coach Jim O’Brien recently told me, "I think that Shaq will fit in well and I don’t believe that anybody should overreact to the fact that they are 1-2 after three games. When you have such a big change in personnel it takes a little bit of time for the team and the coaching staff to get used to how to best utilize a new rotation."

3) Mavericks acquire Jason Kidd, Malik Allen and Antoine Wright from Nets in exchange for Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, Keith Van Horn, two first round picks (2008 and 2010) and $3 million in cash. Mavericks’ record since the trade: 3-1.

LeBron James said that he would lead the Cavs to a championship if they acquired Kidd but the Mavs beat them to the punch. The early returns show Kidd putting up his usual numbers—flirting with triple doubles while shooting around .400 from the field--as Dallas beat three non-playoff teams and lost to the New Orleans Hornets. Kidd adds toughness, playmaking and veteran savvy. In certain matchups the Mavs may very well miss Harris’ pure speed, but Kidd is an all-time great point guard who is still very productive and he should help the Mavs to avoid the postseason collapses that happened to them the past two years.

4) Spurs acquire Kurt Thomas from Sonics in exchange for Brent Barry, Francisco Elson and a first round pick in 2009. Spurs’ record since the trade: 3-0 overall, 1-0 in the only game that Thomas played in.

Frankly, the Spurs don’t need Thomas in the regular season and they could put him in the same deep freeze that they use to preserve Robert Horry until playoff time. Last season, the Spurs had a bad stretch midway through the season but Coach Gregg Popovich reassured his players that the team would not make any deals and that it was up to them to work things out. This season, with literally every Western contender adding someone, the Spurs could not very well afford to stand pat. The interesting thing about this move is that Thomas is someone who might not play at all in the first round if the Spurs play Golden State but he could have a very significant role against teams that have a dominant inside player. I think that if you could give Popovich truth serum then he would admit that the main reason that the Spurs acquired Thomas was to match up with Shaq in the playoffs—and if Thomas can give them 10-15 productive minutes versus the Big Cactus then this trade will have worked out perfectly.

Speaking before the Spurs signed Thomas, Robinson explained the importance of having a quality big man: "It comes down to defense. You’ve got to make stops. If you cannot make stops, then you cannot win the game. Every game that is important is going to come down to the last five minutes and it is going to come down to a number of possessions and who can take advantage of those. A big guy helps you make those stops. You are not going to give up away easy buckets and you are going to get the rebounds so you don’t give up second shots. A lot of those open court teams have not been real solid in their half court defense and that is what has hurt them."

Robinson is not overly concerned about how his former team has played this season: "I think that when you are not the champion you tend to rise and fall a lot more with your little win streaks and losses. The Spurs have had some really bad stretches so far this year but you can see that it has not affected their confidence at all. They realize that it’s a long run and they will be there when it is important and you have to build up to that place. You can see that their confidence level never dips and I think that is what being a champion allows you to do."

5) Spurs sign Damon Stoudamire, who had been waived by the Grizzlies. Spurs’ record since the trade: 9-1.

Stoudamire has shot poorly and averaged less than 20 mpg but he provides important insurance in case Tony Parker gets hurt in the playoffs. If Parker stays healthy then Stoudamire may not see much playing time during the postseason; Stoudemire’s value as an outside shooter is counterbalanced by his liabilities as a defender, though Tim Duncan obviously can do a lot to hide such weaknesses.

6) As part of a three team deal including the Grizzlies, Hornets acquire Bonzi Wells and Mike James (plus cash considerations) from Rockets in exchange for Bobby Jackson and Rockets acquire Jackson, Adam Haluska and the rights to Sergei Lishouck. Hornets’ record since the trade: 0-2; Rockets’ record since the trade: 2-0.

The Hornets had the best record in the West just prior to making this deal but they felt that adding Wells and James solidified their bench. The Rockets were happy to get rid of Wells and James because neither player really fit into Coach Rick Adelman’s plans. Of course, from Houston’s standpoint any positive effects from this deal will likely be wiped out by Yao Ming’s season-ending injury. Recent history shows that the Rockets are even more dependent on Tracy McGrady than they are on Yao, so if T-Mac stays healthy then the Rockets should still make it to the playoffs. Wells gives New Orleans a post up threat for their second unit and he is a great rebounder for his size, while James is a solid backup point guard.

7) Jazz acquire Kyle Korver from 76ers in exchange for Gordan Giricek and a protected first round pick. Jazz’ record since the trade: 20-5.

This is the impact move that has flown largely under the radar in the wake of the big name, blockbuster trades but the Jazz have been a vastly improved team since acquiring Korver, whose long range marksmanship opens up the court for Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. Two of the team’s five losses with Korver have come in the past three games, though, so the bloom may be off of the rose, particularly considering how strong the West is this year.

8) Warriors sign veteran free agent Chris Webber. Warriors’ record since the deal: 7-4 overall, 4-3 in games that Webber played in.

Golden State did not give up anything to get Webber but so far the Warriors have not gotten very much out of him, either; in seven games he has yet to once reach double figures in scoring or rebounding.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:43 PM


NBA Leaderboard, Part XV

The trade deadline has passed, so other than some veterans who may be bought out or waived (most notably Sam Cassell), the massive arms race between the contending teams is over for now. The next six weeks will be a race to the finish line as teams jockey for position while trying to develop the chemistry and continuity that is necessary to make a championship run. Although the general consensus is that the Lakers are the big winners by virtue of acquiring Pau Gasol in exchange for basically nothing, there are still some questions surrounding the team, namely whether or not Kobe Bryant's finger will remain healthy enough for him to be effective and how Andrew Bynum's return will affect the rotation. For now, I still say that the Spurs are the favorites and that the true value of the Shaquille O'Neal trade will not be evident until the playoffs begin.

If the All-NBA First Team this season does not consist of Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul at guard, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett at forward and Dwight Howard at center then something is seriously wrong.

Best Five Records

1) Boston Celtics, 44-12
2) Detroit Pistons, 42-16
3) L.A. Lakers, 40-17
4) San Antonio, 38-17
5) Dallas Mavericks, 34-17

Look what happens when you give Kobe Bryant a decent big man for the first half of the season and a former All-Star to replace him after he gets hurt: the Lakers actually have a shot at finishing with the best record in the NBA. Where are all the "experts" who predicted that Bryant would sabotage this season by not playing hard or even hold out because the Lakers did not trade him in the offseason? We've seen Bryant carry a team to the playoffs despite having Smush Parker at point guard and Kwame Brown at center and now we are seeing the Lakers run roughshod over teams simply by adding one former All-Star. Let's not get things twisted, either; Pau Gasol is a very nice player, but he has made the All-Star team just once (2006), has never been selected to even the All-NBA Third Team and has yet to win a playoff game--yet as soon as he was paired with Bryant, a complementary piece in Lamar Odom, a solid point guard in Derek Fisher and a good bench the Lakers instantly moved up in the standings.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)

1) LeBron James, CLE 30.2 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 27.8 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.6 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 26.1 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.5 ppg
6) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 23.8 ppg
7) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.4 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.3 ppg
9) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.2 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.8 ppg

12) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

21) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.6 ppg

35) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.3 ppg

38) Ray Allen, BOS 18.6 ppg

Yao Ming will of course eventually drop off this list because he is going to miss the rest of the season and he has not scored enough points or played in enough games to meet the minimum requirements to be ranked among the final leaders. USA Today's Jon Saraceno reported on Wednesday that Yao's injury--a stress fracture of the tarsal navicular bone--is the same one that ultimately ended the career of All-Star guard (and current TNT commentator) Doug Collins. Part of the problem for Collins was that he played in the pre-MRI era, so his injury was harder to diagnose and treat; hopefully, modern medical technology will help Yao to completely recover.

Kevin Garnett is not on the list because he missed several games recently but he presumably will play in enough games the rest of the way to be reinstated.

Since the arrival of Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant's scoring has gone down slightly--though he did have a 41 point game recently--but his field goal percentage and assists have both increased. LeBron James will win the scoring title unless he gets hurt; Bryant does not have to go on a record-setting post-All-Star break scoring splurge this season. On Wednesday, James became the youngest player in NBA history to score at least 10,000 career points and he did it in style, reaching the milestone with a left handed fast break dunk. The mark had previously been held by Bryant. Of course, Bryant and James both got a head start because they began their NBA careers right out of high school and James is "only" the ninth fastest player to reach 10,000 points in terms of games played.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.4 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 14.1 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.3 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.9 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.5 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 11.1 rpg
8) Yao Ming, Hou 10.8 rpg
9) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.8 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.3 rpg

15) Al Horford, ATL 9.9 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.9 rpg

26) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

31) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 rpg

33) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 8.0 rpg

Yao will soon disappear from this list as well. Dwight Howard is back on top of the rebounding charts and has a good chance of becoming the youngest rebounding leader in NBA history. LeBron James recently had three straight games with at least 13 rebounds and he is averaging 9.0 rpg in February.

Top Ten Playmakers

1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.5 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 10.7 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.5 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 9.7 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.7 apg
6) Jamaal Tinsley, IND 8.4 apg
7) Baron Davis, GSW 8.0 apg
8) LeBron James, CLE 7.5 apg
9) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.3 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.2 apg

The top ten names remain the same since last time, though the order shifted slightly. Although Steve Nash appears to be on his way toward claiming his fourth straight assists title, Chris Paul has emerged as the best point guard in the league; Paul has dominated Nash in head to head matchups and is a better two-way player. Paul's only Kryptonite seems to be Deron Williams, who is able to overpower him when they play against each other.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:02 AM


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jack Sikma: Dependable and Durable

Some great players never make it to the NBA Finals but Jack Sikma played a key role on two Finalists (including one champion) during his first two NBA seasons. You can find out about the seven-time All-Star's career by reading my HoopsHype.com article about him (10/3/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below, plus some bonus "DVD extras" that were not included when the original article was first published):

Jack Sikma averaged 21.2 ppg and 13.1 rpg in four seasons at Illinois Wesleyan, which was then an NAIA school and is currently classified as a Division III NCAA program. Sikma led the Titans to a 71-20 record and three College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) titles in his final three seasons (1975-77).

The Seattle Supersonics selected Sikma with the eighth overall pick in the 1977 draft. Seattle had posted a 40-42 record the previous season, finishing near the bottom of the league in rebounding. Sikma provided an immediate boost in that area, ranking second on the team with an 8.3 rpg average, helping Seattle improve to fourth in the NBA in total rebounds. He also averaged 10.7 ppg, earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team. The Sonics got off to a 5-17 start under first year coach Bob Hopkins but went 42-18 down the stretch after Lenny Wilkens replaced Hopkins at the helm.

"Jack never shied away. He stepped up. That is why we drafted him," recalls Wilkens. "We felt that he was a guy who could contribute and who would be consistent and when I took over as the coach of the Sonics I started him. He had been coming off of the bench. He made free throws at crucial times and was always in the game. When you have success early in your career it makes you that much more confident."

Seattle advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. There they faced the Washington Bullets, a veteran-laden team that had been swept in two previous Finals trips (1971 and 1975). Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes anchored a deep, talented frontline that also featured Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard. Sikma averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg in the Finals, including 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 105-99 game seven loss at home as the Bullets won their first and only championship.

Seattle posted the best record in the Western Conference in 1978-79 (52-30). Sikma averaged 15.6 ppg and 12.4 rpg (fifth in the league), earning his first All-Star selection. The Sonics returned to the Finals only to find a familiar foe standing in their way: the Washington Bullets, the only team in the league that won more games than Seattle (54). The Bullets seemed to be in good shape after a 99-97 victory in game one, but Seattle won the next four games as Wilkens claimed the only title of his dual Hall of Fame career as a player and a coach. Sikma averaged 16.2 ppg in the Finals and led both teams with 14.8 rpg and 3.2 bpg.

"It's interesting, because we played them two years in a row and my matchups were different each year," Sikma says. "The first year, I had to play Elvin because Marvin Webster was playing Wes. Of course, you are talking about a guy who is so aggressive with his scoring, attacking the basket and he had the turnaround jumper. He was very physical. That was a series when having Paul Silas behind me was a great help, because it was really challenging physically and I was in foul trouble a lot because I was guarding a player who had the ball in his hands a lot. What is good about those situations is that you have a clear and focused goal: find a way to win no matter what. I was able to do that and get that done--or at least play with some level of success and learn a lot. The second year playing against Wes was a whole different thing with his size and power. Then, defensively, I knew that I was going to be in a physical battle. I had to use my strengths, try to go away from the basket and that kind of thing."

Wilkens believes that Sikma learned a lot from his first NBA Finals experience and that he applied that knowledge during the 1979 Finals. "The second year, he was a lot better; he was much more confident about what he could do," Wilkens says. "Our whole team was more confident. After we played them, we felt that we could beat them. We believed that and we believed that we were going to get back the next year."

As Sikma noted, Paul Silas, a two-time All-Star who was a key member of Boston's championship teams in 1974 and 1976, played a much more important role on Seattle’s 1979 championship team than is suggested by his pedestrian regular season statistics (5.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg). "Paul was aggressive and he could play," Wilkens says. "Any time that I thought that another veteran team was trying to take advantage of Jack, I'd insert Paul. He was a wise veteran; he knew what to do and how to do it. That helped give Jack a reprieve, a chance to catch his breath before he had to go back in the game. In practice, Paul would go against Jack. I would match them up because I wanted Jack to learn from one of the best. Paul was huge in that respect."

"Paul had a great effect helping me to become successful, both on the court and off of it--his approach to the game, how tough you have to be, how relentless you have to be, how focused you have to be," Sikma remembers. "Not just Paul, but the other veterans on the team kind of saw what could maybe happen (with my game) and were always encouraging me--but also challenging me. We always practiced really hard. We were a bunch of young guys trying to get it together. During those practice sessions I got a lot of input from Paul Silas, both verbally and physically"--Sikma chuckles as he says this--about how to play the game. John Johnson, Fred Brown, Dennis Awtrey--all the guys who had been in the league for awhile--were really helpful and encouraging and challenged us every day."

Seattle won 56 games in 1979-80, setting a franchise record that stood until the 1993-94 team won 63 games. However, a new power had arisen in the Western Conference, as rookie Magic Johnson teamed up with MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes to turn the Lakers into bona fide contenders. The Lakers beat Seattle 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals and won the 1980 championship. The Lakers won five titles in the 1980s and made it to the Finals eight times. Meanwhile, slowly but surely the Sonics declined, bottoming out at 31-51 in 1985-86. The team obviously had to rebuild and Sikma wanted to finish out his career playing for a contender, so the Sonics traded him to Milwaukee. Sikma spent the last five years of his career with the Bucks, who made the playoffs each of those seasons but never got past the second round.

Sikma ranked in the top ten in the league in rebounding six straight years (1979-84) and he made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1981-82. He played in all 82 games in eight different seasons. How was he able to be that durable and productive? "I was fortunate. I wasn’t the most athletic big guy," Sikma says. "I felt that I had a level of quickness, especially earlier in my career, that helped me a lot. I played the game positionally. My feet were on the ground a lot. I tried to react and anticipate better than the next guy; I think that helped a lot. There were not a lot of times that I was at risk while playing the game."

In other words, a player who is fundamentally sound and has good anticipation can avoid collisions or at least lessen the impact from them. "That's part of it," Sikma agrees. "The other part of it is (the difference between) collisions while you are in mid-air when you don't have a lot of control versus collisions when you (are on the ground and) have a stable base where you can react and move and that kind of thing--that keeps you out of harm's way more often than not."

Sikma shot better than .800 from the free throw line in 13 of his 14 seasons. In the last three years of his career, he emerged as a legitimate three point shooter. "Part of it had to do with how we played as a team in Milwaukee," Sikma says of his late career rebirth as a long range bomber. "We had some other low post scorers, so we were looking for ways to spread the court. I was able to guard 'fives' and match up with them and this was a way to pull them away from the basket. When I got to Milwaukee under Don Nelson for one year and then Del Harris, we always had a lot of three point shooting games (in practice) and that type of thing and I kind of showed that I could make a few of those. Del started to implement it little by little in the games and there were a few times when we would go to it early in the game just to get the opposing big guy away from the hoop and we had a level of success to keep it going."

After his retirement, Sikma returned to Seattle as an assistant coach for several seasons. Currently, he is an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets, providing guidance to Yao Ming and the team's other big men. Sikma has very specific ideas about how to help post players to develop their games. "Number one is I just spend some time getting to know them and developing a relationship where there is a level of trust," Sikma says. "I watch what they do and try to soak up where we are at. The next thing is that I have certain ideas that I like to discuss, such as how they can be effective by mixing in some face up moves or by attacking the middle more or whatever--just from what you perceive, you basically talk with them to get a level of commitment from them that they think that this type of thing is going to work and then they commit to it. My inside pivot move with my college coach is something that took a long, long time to develop and it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't committed to do it day in and day out"

Of course, the "inside pivot move" is now widely known as the "Sikma move" because Sikma honed it into a useful weapon at the highest levels of the game. "You have to commit to something and that commitment isn't me committing to make you do it," Sikma concludes. "It is you receiving the information and we have to talk about it and then you believe that it can help and are willing to make that commitment. I went against Kareem and some of the great centers in the league and balance is very important--especially, specifically now with Yao--finding ways where you can improve your positioning on the court and maintain your balance. The big challenge for bigs is we have an advantage when we are extended, when we are tall--but that takes away our balanced position. There is a lot of up and down movement that big people have to learn to get comfortable with, when to be down and when to extend and be up. Just start there. There are no big rules: establish a relationship, analyze what may work and what can be improved on and then get a commitment from the player that he wants to do it and then move forward with it."


Here are some additional "DVD extras" about Sikma:

Sikma told me what it was like to face Maurice Lucas, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld in the playoffs so early in his career:

"It was a little overwhelming in the sense of all that came at me as a rookie. Our team was young and had a lot of good pieces and came together really quickly in that 1977-78 season, so I found myself in a position in which I had playoff matchups against some of the better power forwards in the league. To have that kind of responsibility really puts you to the test. So it was a very challenging time but one that was really an important key for me because the amount of experience that I got by going through that during my first two years really helped springboard me as a basketball player. Experience in pressure situations in which you are key to the success of your team and having to focus and bring it every night as you are just entering the league is a lot to have put on you but I am really grateful for the timing of it. Again, I think that it really helped to shape me as a player in this league."


Sikma was one of the best shooting big men ever and his accomplishments in that regard are yet another example that disproves the myth that tall players who have big hands cannot become good free throw shooters. I asked Sikma how he became such an excellent shooter:

"I think that you can improve, especially free throw shooting, no matter what the situation is. I spent a lot of time on that. I felt that if I was going to be a face up jump shooter--even in the low post with my inside pivot--that I had to get to the free throw line. You can't just depend on the jump shot. I wasn't a real power game guy, so I worked hard on getting guys up in the air with shot fakes and then being able to draw the foul. That helped me to be effective in the post. Working on those things, I improved from being an 80% free throw shooter to basically a 90% shooter by the end of my career. If you get to the line a lot, that can make a difference. The other thing is that I was a late bloomer growing up, so I learned the game facing the basket. I learned the game as a wing player. Then again, I wasn't a classic power player in the post. I was a face up shooter in the post so that was just a skill that I had to have to be able to make it in the league in the first place. The range basically comes from repetition. From a fundamental standpoint, I had good shooting form and touch."


Sikma spent his prime years in Seattle but he also enjoyed five productive seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. In his first year in Milwaukee, the Bucks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, ending Julius Erving's 16 year Hall of Fame career:

"What I remember about it is that it was a five game series in my first year in Milwaukee. We had a lot of expectations and we did OK but maybe we didn't finish as high as many thought that we would, so it was really important to advance in the playoffs. That was a big series. I remember that Sunday (May 3, 1987, when the decisive fifth game was played), I knew that Dr. J had announced his retirement (earlier in the season) and made his tour around the league and that kind of thing, so I knew that he would be ready to go and Charles (Barkley) was there. It was a big game and we were fortunate to come out and play really well from the beginning, very aggressive, and won the ball game. I'm sure that it ended not the way that Dr. J had wished specific to that day but who could look back on his career with any kind of regret at all? He was just a fantastic player and the face of the league at that point in time."


Don Nelson coached the Bucks during Sikma's first season and Nellie's unique approach left a lasting impression on Sikma:

"He is really a matchup-oriented coach. Nellie really understands what works for players and he knows his guys so well that even though you wouldn't think so he knows that in certain situations they have advantages over their matchup and he finds a way to go with that and take advantage of that. He is innovative because he is not afraid to throw ideas out there. Nellie likes to talk about a lot of different basketball situations and 'what ifs?' Many times--probably the majority of the time--the thoughts get discarded but still he's willing to think about different ways to skin a cat, per se. With that, I think you find that Nellie is probably a guy who within a game makes as many small adjustments as anybody--whether it is attacking different matchups or playing somebody differently defensively or mixing in a zone or whatever--because he has a lot of different ideas that he likes to try and that is how he sees the game. That is very helpful. There are many times during discussions when we are talking about stuff and looking for ideas about how to handle this and something pops into my mind and we'll discuss it and afterward I will say that the roots of this came from Nellie. So I appreciate that experience. I was fortunate to play for a lot of good coaches in this league. You know, Lenny (Wilkens) and Nellie are the two leaders (in career regular season wins) and I got a chance to play for Lenny for a number of years and Nellie for one. Del Harris had a great tenure in the league. Bernie Bickerstaff was a young coach as a head coach but look how long he has coached in the league. I garnered a lot from good people and how they used me (as a player) and all that kind of stuff and I use all that information and all that experience today when it comes to the coaching side of it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Not Pretty, but Effective: Raptors Grind Out Win at Indiana

Toronto trailed 30-19 after a sluggish first quarter but rallied to post a 102-98 win at Indiana. Chris Bosh had 24 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, while Carlos Delfino added 23 points, largely the result of his 6-7 shooting from three point range. Anthony Parker only scored eight points but he contributed a career-high 11 rebounds, while T.J. Ford produced 16 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a reserve role. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Marquis Daniels also had 20 points. Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy scored 17 points apiece; Murphy also tied his career-high with seven assists.

When you don't quite have the personnel to match up with the other team, one thing that you can try is to go with a different kind of lineup to catch your opponent by surprise--and that is exactly what Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien did by using a small lineup of Travis Diener, Kareem Rush, Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy to start the game. Bosh admitted that this move caught the Raptors off guard: "We made a game plan based on their usual starting five with Jeff Foster in the lineup. We had to change that up very fast. We just knew that they were going to try to run us out of the building because we were coming in on the second game of a back to back." This reminded me of the Chris Palmer-coached Cleveland Browns of a few years ago. Palmer would come up with a good script for the opening drive and the Browns would sometimes take an early lead--but over the course of an entire game all of their talent deficiencies got exposed in a way that no amount of coaching could possibly disguise or alleviate. O'Brien did the best he could to come up with a strategy to give the Pacers a chance to win and his players did the best that they could to execute the strategy; the bottom line is that they just are not good enough (though they obviously are not nearly as bad as Palmer's Browns were).

Toronto tried to take advantage of Indiana's small starting lineup by force feeding the ball to Bosh in the post but he shot just 2-9 from the field in the first quarter while committing two turnovers. Both Bosh and Toronto Coach Sam Mitchell complained several times that the smaller Pacers were holding on to Bosh prior to him catching the ball and then fouling him when he shot and from my vantage point courtside that did seem to be the case (check out the Notes from Courtside for more details about this). The Raptors committed seven turnovers in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Toronto settled down and the Pacers went ice cold, shooting just 6-22 (.273) from the field. The Raptors opened the quarter with a 10-0 run and led 54-46 at halftime. The Pacers fought back strongly in the third quarter, led by Daniels (eight points on 3-4 shooting), Granger (seven points) and Murphy (seven points). Indiana briefly regained the lead and the score was tied at 77 going into the final 12 minutes. Daniels shot 5-5 from the field and scored 12 points in the final stanza, often posting up the smaller Ford, but that was not quite enough to counter the efforts of Delfino (seven points), Ford (six points, three assists) and Parker (six points). Indiana led for less than a minute during the fourth quarter as the Raptors maintained a small but durable advantage. After Kareem Rush missed a three pointer that could have tied the score at 101 with 10.9 seconds left, Parker split a pair of free throws to seal the win.

After the game, Mitchell said, "It wasn't pretty. We had some guys who were tired and rightfully so...We just gutted this one out." He noted that his bench players were very productive, scoring 36 points in the first half alone. "We came out slowly and that is to be expected sometimes in back to backs. Our bench came in and gave us unbelievable minutes and got us back in the game."

"We really competed our hearts out in the second half," O'Brien said. "We played a good basketball team, never gave up and it was a disappointing basketball game." That may sound like coach-speak but I had exactly the same thoughts watching the game: the Pacers really competed very hard but they were just outgunned by a superior team; they simply could not quite match up with Toronto even though the Raptors were obviously not quite in peak form because of the back to back situation. The Pacers simply have to add more talent to the roster, whether that comes in the form of the healthy return of Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley or it comes during the offseason via trades and/or the draft.

Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, Coach O'Brien talked about the pressure that Toronto puts on opposing defenses: "They're the number one three point shooting team in the league...Calderon and T.J. Ford use pick and rolls on 80-90% of their possessions to free them up to get inside or to roll somebody else inside or to isolate Bosh 10 feet away from the basket. Against all teams, whether teams are defending us or we are defending against the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors, we just cannot allow deep penetration. The more deep penetration that they have, the more that draws your people inside and puts you into a scramble mode on the perimeter. A real key for us is right at the point of the pick and roll: we have to get that ballhandler under control with our big guy and then our guard has to really bust it to make sure that he gets back in front of the guy so that he can prevent his man from penetrating so that everybody can match up and hopefully be set to play against the three point shooters."

He also explained how important it is for an offensive team to be able to attack the paint and, conversely, for a defensive team to be able to prevent such attacks: "I think that every NBA game that is played is all about controlling the middle. You have big men who post up, you want to post them up deep (in the paint) to draw a double team. When you have (a healthy) Jermaine O'Neal, you try to draw a double team and then go inside out. Our whole objective (defensively) is to stop penetration and stop deep post ups. When we do that well, we give ourselves a good chance of winning. Doing that well and talking about it and getting it done are things that we deal with daily. The whole practice today was about that: controlling the paint and being in the position where your rotations are crisp to get out to the three point shooters."

If some of those concepts sound familiar, it may be because O'Brien mentioned them to me when I interviewed him for my Chess and Basketball article: "In both basketball and chess the middle must be controlled. In our sport, it’s the three second paint—defensively we want to control that by keeping the ball out of the middle and offensively we want to control it by making sure that we get the ball into the middle. I have never won a chess game—or have not won very many times--when I didn’t control the middle of the board."


After the game, I talked one on one with Bosh about his difficult first quarter:

Q: "In the first quarter, did you feel like the Pacers were getting away with holding you and kind of roughing you up?"

A: "I'm used to that. It's all in a day's work."

Q: "It didn't seem like anything more than usual?"

A: "I've been there before. I know that initially it is going to be physical, so I just try to gauge and see where it is going and after that I can adjust my game to it."

Q: "How did you adjust to it? Obviously, later in the game you were very effective."

A: "Just by being stronger with the basketball. That's pretty much it. There were a couple times I had some slips in the second half but as long as I am strong with the basketball, make decisions and take my time then I think that I am effective."

Q: "So, if you feel like certain things are not going to be called fouls then you just bull your way through and just work through it?"

A: "Oh yeah. Exactly. You see what happens initially in a game so you know what's a foul and what's not a foul. You adjust to it."

Q: "Can you use that also on defense? Do you figure that if they are not calling it when it is being done to me then I can get away with it at the other end of the court?"

A: "It depends. If you have fouls to give then you can play a little bit freely but I got one early so I had to back off a little bit."


The official attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse was just 10,468, several thousand people short of capacity and a far cry from the way that the Fieldhouse used to always be packed. This is the legacy of the "Malice at the Palace" brawl several years ago as well as the off-court problems that many Pacers have had in recent years. The sad thing is that the fan support is so meager even though the two Pacers who got in the most trouble--Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson--have since moved on to other teams and the current squad plays hard and plays an entertaining, wide open style of basketball featuring the running game and a lot of three point shots. Sure, the Pacers do not have a great record but this is O'Brien's first season as their head coach and he has had to patch together lineups on most nights because he has often been without the services of his best inside player (Jermaine O'Neal) and most experienced point guard (Jamaal Tinsley). Still, Larry Bird and the rest of the front office face a real uphill battle to win back the support of the community.


Chris Bosh has four 40 point games this year, which ties Vince Carter's franchise record for most 40 point games in a single season. Bosh's five career 40 point games rank second in Raptors history to Carter's 13.


Only seven NBA teams have shot better than .400 from three point range for an entire season but the Raptors seem likely to become the eighth. In fact, they are on pace to post the second best single season three point shooting percentage since the NBA began using the trey in 1979-80 and they have a shot (no pun intended) of breaking the mark set by the 1995-96 Charlotte Hornets (.428).

Jason Kapono plays a big part in their long range bombing. The two-time defending Three Point Shootout champion also ranks first in NBA history in career three point field goal percentage with a .467 mark, leading Steve Kerr (.454), Hubert Davis (.441), Drazen Petrovic (.437) and Tim Legler (.431). Kapono scored nine point against Indiana but did not attempt any three pointers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM


MVP/RoY Rankings, Part VII

The seventh edition of the blogger MVP/RoY rankings has just been posted at Celtics Blog

Here are links to the previous six 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.

MVP/RoY rankings, Part VI.

This time around, the bloggers voted LeBron as the MVP, with Paul second, KG third and Kobe fourth. I think that for most of the year KG has been the media favorite but I'm not sure if that is the case now considering that Boston went 7-2 without KG and that Kobe and LeBron have been playing at an unreal level. I have Kobe first and LeBron second and I think that anyone who looks at this objectively understands that it should be a two horse race at this point. Paul has had a very good season but I'm not sure if I will ever believe that a 6-footer is the very best player in the whole league; the fact that Deron Williams eats his lunch on a regular basis is also worrisome: I don't know of any player who performs similarly well against Kobe or LeBron. Howard is a dominant inside player but he has a tendency to drift on defense and still has a limited offensive repertoire. KG is very versatile but has yet to prove that he is a closer like Kobe is and like LeBron has been at times.

The reason that I bring up all of these things is that three of the 20 blogger voters left Kobe entirely off of their MVP ballots this time; in other words, they don't rank him among the top 10 players in the NBA. The host rhetorically asked if they should be invited back for round eight. My answer to that is, "No"--and I'm not joking. If you honestly don't think that Kobe is one of the top 10 players in the league then you either don't watch enough NBA basketball to be qualified to vote or you don't understand what you are seeing well enough to be qualified to vote; the other possibility is that these three voters realize that Kobe deserves to be in the top 10 but they are such homers for whoever "their" guy is that they intentionally left him off. If someone votes LeBron number one but has Kobe in the top 3-5, I can accept that at some level, even though I completely disagree--but if you don't have Kobe in the top 10 then you don't know what you are talking about and your vote just dilutes the value of this whole project.

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: The best player in the game may be better than ever now that defenses also have to account for Pau Gasol.
9-LeBron James: This year's MVP race between Bryant and James brings to mind the late 80s and early 90s when scorer-who-could-pass-and-defend Michael Jordan battled passer-who-could-score Magic Johnson.
8-Dwight Howard: Much more than just a "Super" dunker, Howard has an excellent chance to average 22 ppg and 15 rpg while shooting better than .600 from the field. I'd take Duncan over him in a playoff series, but Howard is having the better regular season.
7-Chris Paul: During All-Star Weekend, Bryant and other All-Stars raved about how well Paul is playing. He has it all--court vision, quickness and the ability to score.
6-Kevin Garnett: I've been saying for a while that the MVP is his to lose in terms of the mainstream media voters but he may be in the process of losing it: the Celtics went 7-2 without him and how can voters ignore Bryant in a year when his team appears poised to win more than 50 games?
5-Tim Duncan: His regular season numbers in recent seasons don't blow you away but he is the foundation for all of San Antonio's success.
4-Dirk Nowitzki: Started off the season slowly (by his standards) but has been steadily picking up steam.
3-Amare Stoudemire: He averaged 29.3 ppg and 11.4 rpg in the first eight games of February.
2-Steve Nash: Has a chance at another .500-.400-.900 shooting season.
1-Yao Ming: He is the focal point of Houston's recent winning streak.


5-Kevin Durant: I've been pointing out his flaws since the Summer League but it is still difficult to take another rookie over him.
4-Al Horford: He is having a solid season but just when I am about ready to put him ahead of Durant he has a stat line of eight points and five rebounds. He simply is not being asked to carry as heavy a load as Durant is.
3-Luis Scola: He has been very productive as the Rockets start to make a move in the stacked Western Conference.
2-Jamario Moon: He has been solid all year and his scoring and shooting have improved recently
1-Sean Williams: Numbers have tailed off recently but he is still averaging 1.9 bpg and shooting .545 from the field for the season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cleveland Rolls the Dice

Generally, teams that make it to the NBA Finals do not make wholesale changes in the middle of the following season. Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry is certainly taking a risk by trading two starters and six players overall from a roster that came within four wins of capturing an NBA title last June.

Before this season started, some so-called experts predicted that the Cavaliers might not even make the playoffs and said that Cleveland's run to the 2007 NBA Finals was a fluke. I maintained that the formula of good defense and rebounding combined with the brilliance of LeBron James would once again put the Cavaliers in contention for the Eastern Conference crown. Of course, I had no way of knowing that Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic would both miss the start of the season due to contract holdouts or that James, Varejao, Pavlovic and other key rotation players would miss many games due to injuries. Still, despite those challenges the Cavs remain squarely in the hunt for home court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Will Ferry's bold move prove to be the final step in the process of building a championship team or will the Cavaliers actually be a worse team once the dust settles? I discuss that question in my newest article for CavsNews.com (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):

At literally the last minute before the trade deadline, Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry decided to get rid of half of his active roster, shipping out Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Ira Newble, Shannon Brown and Cedric Simmons in a three way trade with Chicago and Seattle that brought Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to Cleveland. Normally, a team that wins a conference championship does not make such a huge trade midway through the next season; teams need a certain amount of time to develop enough continuity to perform well in the playoffs. However, the majority of the contending teams have made significant offseason and/or in season moves, so most of them will be developing their team chemistry and continuity on the fly.

The Cavaliers are coming off of the best postseason performance in franchise history and are right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race this season despite battling injuries and having to overcome lengthy holdouts by Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic. One might think that there would be a positive vibe around the Cavaliers but that has not been the case for most of the season. LeBron James openly lobbied for the team to acquire Jason Kidd, vowing that this move would be all it would take to bring a championship to Cleveland. Cavalier fans roundly booed Larry Hughes every time he shot the ball and urged the team to trade him, disregarding the fact that the team’s record has consistently been much better with him in the lineup than it is when he is sidelined.

Ferry offered a very simple and direct explanation for his actions: “I didn't think we were good enough to win the championship. I thought we had a very good team. But I do believe if we have a chance to make ourselves better we should try. Was it a risk in doing so? Yes, it was a risk. But we're going to have to make some decisions that have some risk in them if we want to continue to build and grow."

There is an old saying to the effect that if a coach listens to what the fans in the stands are shouting he will soon be sitting next to them. The same reasoning can be applied to general managers. Another saying is "Be careful what you wish for--you might get it." Fans have been pleading with Ferry to get rid of Hughes and now they have gotten their wish. What puzzles me most about this trade is that, in the best case scenario, I think that it only makes Cleveland a little better—and it is certainly possible that it will make Cleveland worse.

Let’s look at the best case scenario first: Wallace rebounds and defends like he did two years ago (or even during last year’s playoffs), Smith reliably drains midrange jumpers, Szczerbiak spreads the floor on offense by consistently making three pointers and West solidifies the point guard position. If all of those things happen then the Cavs will be a little better than they were previously—but not much better. Don’t forget that Gooden and Hughes started for a team that won 50 games last year, defeated the vaunted Detroit Pistons four straight times in the Eastern Conference Finals and, when at full strength, was on pace to win at least 50 games this year. The newly minted Cavs are certainly a 50 win caliber team but are they a 60 win caliber team? If not, then at best they are only marginally better than they were before Ferry pulled the trigger on this deal.

The worst case scenario mainly involves questions about team chemistry, effort and perimeter defense. Regardless of what one may think of each of the individual players who the Cavs dealt away, collectively they played well enough to help the team make it all the way to the NBA Finals. There are serious questions about how much effort Wallace has put forth since he received his big contract and there are also some concerns about his impact on team chemistry. While the Pistons have clearly missed Wallace’s shotblocking and intensity since letting him go to Chicago, Wallace was not willing or able to bring a high level of energy to the Bulls on a nightly basis. Hughes was able to defend three positions, while Szczerbiak will be a defensive liability regardless of whether he matches up with small forwards or shooting guards (there is of course no way that he can defend any point guards). The Zydrunas Ilgauskas-Drew Gooden-Anderson Varejao frontcourt rotation—with cameo appearances by Donyell Marshall—had a nice blend of size, shooting skills, rebounding and the ability to play screen/roll with James. Wallace and Smith are talented individuals but it is not clear that their skill sets will blend smoothly with how the Cavaliers play. For instance, Wallace and Varejao probably cannot play together because then the frontcourt will not have enough scoring punch.

Cleveland’s recipe for success under Coach Mike Brown is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James. The numbers show that Cleveland’s defense has slipped a bit this year, particularly in field goal percentage allowed and point differential, but one could argue that the absence of Varejao for a major portion of the season had a lot to do with that. If Wallace does not give a good effort on a nightly basis then the Cavs could very well be worse defensively now than they were before the trade; with the previous group, there was at least the hope—based on last year’s performance—that once the team got healthy they would again play good defense.

James tried his best to sound enthusiastic about Ferry’s bold move and even actually said, “I’m excited,” but when he elaborated he hardly sounded excited: “This isn't the type of deal I expected. You guys heard what I wanted but I am grateful for the situation. We got some good caliber guys that are coming in. It was very surprising, you come into the locker room today and it is very different. We've added some depth to our front line, which we needed, and we added some more shooting, which we needed. We don't have much time, but what is good about the guys that came in is that they have playoff experience."

Contrast that with what James said in the wake of his All-Star MVP performance on Sunday: “We (the Cavaliers) know we're still not going to get the respect we should get. That's never been a problem for us. We don't care. We just go out and play. We're always going to be (perceived as) the third or fourth or fifth best team in the Eastern Conference. You know, we still go out there and win ballgames and we know when the postseason happens, you know, you've got to come get it from us, because we're very good.” As much as James hoped to be able to play alongside Kidd, he also knew that he could at least get to the Finals with the previous group.

Less than a month ago, I asked "Is the Status Quo Really So Bad for the Cavs?" Here is how I answered that question:

The bottom line is that if this Cleveland Cavaliers team stays healthy there is no reason that they cannot return to the NBA Finals. It would not be wise to tinker with the roster unless it is clear that the move markedly improves the team’s chances to make it to the Finals and/or beat the Western Conference representative. Adding players for the sake of having name brand talent does not automatically produce success—just ask the New York Knicks or the turn of the century Portland Trailblazers.

Cleveland has acquired "name brand talent"--two former All-Stars (Wallace and Szczerbiak) and a former number one overall draft pick (Smith)--but only in the playoffs will we find out if the roster has truly been upgraded.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:01 PM