20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Treasure Trove of Basketball Articles and Interviews

Frankly, it is stunning to me to realize how many prominent basketball figures I have been fortunate enough to interview; there is literally a treasure trove of basketball history on this site and I think that I have done a much better job of arranging and conducting these interviews than I have of presenting this material in an aesthetically pleasing manner. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy's famous line, I'm a writer, not a website designer. Initially, I grouped the article and interview links mainly by where they had been published but now I have reorganized the links section thematically, leading off with a link to Best Ever Sports Talk and then following that with these categories:

Guest Appearances on Gotham Hoops Live Radio Show: In two appearances, I have spoken with host Mike Silva about the 1992 Dream Team, my Pantheon series and this season's flurry of trades, among other topics.

Links to My 2008 HoopsHype All-Star Weekend Reports; Links to My 2007 HoopsHype All-Star Weekend Reports; Links to My 2006 HoopsHype All-Star Weekend Reports: Learn about what happens behind the scenes at All-Star Weekend and get a taste of what the various host cities are like.

Articles Originally Published at NBCSports.com: During the 2006-07 season, I did a series of articles for NBCSports.com, including providing some game recaps for them during the playoffs and Finals. Unfortunately, they literally blew up their NBA website and destroyed all of the article links. I reprinted those articles as 20 Second Timeout posts. For now, I am keeping these articles together but I may later decide to split them up by theme.

NBA/ABA History: This is what I consider to be the heart and soul of 20 Second Timeout. Sports Illustrated, Sport and other magazines used to regularly provide in depth articles about/ interviews with great athletes and coaches; sadly, instead of feeding us such nutritious content the mainstream media too often dispenses "junk food"--short, puff pieces with no substance or insight. I am trying to fill a void here that many readers sadly may not even realize exists, particularly readers who are too young to remember when sports writers actually spent more time writing than appearing on TV to scream at each other.

Kobe Bryant: When the article links are organized thematically, some people may be surprised to find out that there are only a small number of articles here about Kobe Bryant and all of them are at least two years old. Yes, I have done many 20 Second Timeout posts about Bryant but there is a ton of material at this site that has nothing to do with Bryant; perhaps the site reorganization will make it easier for readers to find and enjoy those articles as well.

Basketball 101: Strategy and Tactics: If "NBA/ABA History" is the heart and soul of 20 Second Timeout, this section holds the brains.

The Pantheon: My five part series examined the greatness of an elite group of basketball players and looked at which active players may someday join this exclusive club.

Basketball Themed Fiction: There is only one entry here right now, but hopefully you will find it to be entertaining.

Author Interviews: Pretty self-explanatory; there is a lot of good stuff here and the interviews are in depth, none of this "six questions and call it a day" nonsense that passes for an interview in a lot of places.

Articles Reprinted at Legends of Basketball: Legends of Basketball frequently reprints my articles about retired players, often adding some archival photos.

A Partial Listing of Articles Reprinted at Other Sites: Oscar Robertson and Artis Gilmore have featured my work on their personal sites; SLAM, NBA.com and Notre Dame are among those who have also linked to my work.

2005 Playoff Previews and Recaps; 2005-06 Regular Season Predictions; 2006 Playoff Previews; 2006-07 Regular Season Predictions; 2007 Playoff Previews and Recaps;
2007-08 Regular Season Predictions: Look back and find out how well--or how poorly--I predicted what would happen in recent seasons.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM

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Larry Miller: The ABA’s All-Time Single-Game Scoring Leader and an ACC Legend

In an article that originally appeared in the July 29, 2005 issue of Sports Collectors Digest, I told the story of Larry Miller, a two-time ACC Player of the Year at North Carolina who set the all-time ABA single-game scoring record; the picture to the right shows Carolina Cougars President Carl Scheer presenting the game ball to Miller after Miller's 67 point outburst. Here is the complete text of the SCD article, including quotes about Miller from Larry Brown, Woody Paige and Joe Caldwell (it should be noted that the online auction mentioned in the article is over and that Kobe Bryant now holds the record for most points scored by a pro guard in a single game, 81):

Revisiting Larry Miller's Permanent Record: Most Records are Made to be Broken, but This One Will Last for an Eternity

Ask this question of your favorite know-it-all hoops fan: who holds the ABA regular season single-game scoring record? When he is stumped after listing Hall of Famers like Rick Barry, Julius Erving and George Gervin, you can tell him that the answer is Larry Miller, a 6’4” Carolina Cougars guard who scored 67 points versus the Memphis Pros on March 18, 1972. The 67 points were not only an ABA record, but also the most points that a pro basketball guard had ever scored, a mark later broken by Pete Maravich, who totaled 68 points against Walt Frazier’s New York Knicks on February 25, 1977. David Thompson (73) and Michael Jordan (69) are the only other pro guards to score more in a single game than Miller did.


Woody Paige, who appears on ESPN’s Around the Horn and Cold Pizza, covered Larry Miller’s 67 point game as a young beat writer for the Memphis Commercial-Appeal: “Johnny Neumann was guarding Miller for a lot of the game and he came by press row. I said something to him—I don’t remember what—and he said, ‘The guy is really hot.’ That’s what I always remember and I quoted him saying that in my article. Of course, Neumann was about the worst defensive player in basketball.”


Miller’s teammate Joe Caldwell had seven assists in the contest: “That was a fun game for me because (on 2/5/71 against Kentucky) I had scored 56. So when Larry Miller got hot I made sure that the ball stayed in his hands. I was so happy that he set a new ABA record. It was one of the most exciting moments for me to be involved in a game when a guy gets hot like that. Somebody has to keep the ball in his hands.”

Paige recalls, “He did a lot of one-two pump fakes. He was a guy who would go up and go up again and eventually put a guy in the air.” Miller adds, “I was always a great driver to the basket. So if I took off like I was going to drive and then stopped I could easily get a jump shot.” Miller shot 25 of 39 from the field, missing his lone three point attempt, and used his pump fakes to draw a lot of fouls, connecting on 17 of 23 free throw attempts. He also had eight rebounds and four assists while playing 46 of a possible 48 minutes. Miller’s point totals by quarter were 21, 17, 20 and nine. Miller concludes, “It’s kind of nice to have a record that will never be broken (since the ABA no longer exists).”

The aftermath of the 67 point game is at least as dramatic as the game itself. Miller recalls, “I lived in a house by a lake (near Greensboro) at that time. The night I broke the record was a Saturday night. Two days later my house burned down. The night before that Wendell (Ladner) was at my house for dinner. It was just an amazing series of events. (At first) We thought that (the fire had been caused) because his wife was smoking. We had a sand ashtray that everyone put their cigarettes in.” The blaze was actually started by a lightning strike. “It started where the TV was plugged in and it burned out from there. It was about four o’clock in the morning. I had to run across the lake in my underwear to my nearest neighbor. I had a big gash in my left hand, my shooting hand. I lost two dogs under the bed and all the belongings in the house. I didn’t even have a uniform. We had a game in New York that night against the Nets in Long Island. We were in the running for the playoffs. The insurance man got a uniform and got it cleaned. I went to the hospital. They sewed up my left hand with 11 stitches. We found me some clothes. The team went up to New York. I caught a later plane in the afternoon and took a limo to the arena. I played that night with 11 stitches in my shooting hand…and we won the game.”

Miller adds, “I still have scars from it. It goes from about that first line on the ring finger to the tip. It was a strange story. If that had happened today it would be all over the news.”

Despite his record setting game—and a solid season in which he averaged a career high 18.4 ppg—the Cougars did not keep Miller: “I was traded from the Carolina Cougars after I was (team) MVP that season. I wasn’t under contract and they let me go because I wouldn’t agree to play for the same contract that I had the previous season. I was threatened that they would let me go if I wouldn’t sign a contract for $45,000 and I wanted $60,000, which I did (eventually) get. I mean, could you imagine that happening today? After that happened, 250 people canceled their season tickets. Even at that point if they (season tickets) were only $100, they lost $25,000.”

Miller averaged 13.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 2.4 apg in 486 games over seven ABA seasons. He averaged 7.7 rpg as a rookie, a remarkable accomplishment for a 6’4” guard. He averaged more rebounds per minute in his career than All-Star guards Jerry West, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Steve Francis. Despite his solid numbers, Miller played for five teams and nine head coaches during his ABA career. Miller feels that he never had the opportunity to stay in one system long enough to show what he was really capable of doing: “It was proven at levels before that—and even at that level—that I could score and I could play defense--and I could pass and I could dribble. I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, but I wasn’t a guy who was going to get beat on defense and nobody was going to steal the ball from me.”

ACC Memories

Detroit Pistons Coach Larry Brown remembers the impact that Miller had at the University of North Carolina: “I was a coach when he was a freshman at Carolina. I coached him one year. Coach Smith, when he signed Bobby Lewis and then Larry Miller back to back, that changed our program and got us back to where we had been. He had as much to do with the success at Carolina as anybody. He was a phenomenal college player. I thought he was a great pro. He just got banged up a little bit. I just thought that he was a great competitor and a great player. I loved the guy. He was fun to be around. He had great strength and quickness and he could handle the ball. He was a great all-around player.”

Miller fondly remembers his Tar Heel days: “The biggest deal in that part of the country was winning the ACC Tournament, because (otherwise) you didn’t get in the NCAAs. That was even bigger than the Final Four. Those ACC Tournaments were probably my greatest college moments, because we won both of them. I had really good tournaments in both of them and I was the MVP of both of them.”

Miller led UNC to the NCAA Final Four in 1967 and 1968, earning First Team All-American honors and the ACC Player of the Year Award after both seasons. In the 1967 ACC Tournament Finals he made 13 of 14 field goals, scoring 32 points in an 82-73 win over Duke. He is one of only two players to win two ACC Player of the Year Awards and two ACC Tournament MVPs. Miller made the 1968 All-Final Four Team and averaged 21.8 ppg and 9.2 rpg in his Tar Heel career.

Memories and Memorabilia

Miller is selling over 1000 pieces of memorabilia from his high school, college and ABA career, with a portion of the proceeds going to his hometown Catasauqua (Pennsylvania) Public Library. Listed items include jerseys, basketballs, various ACC trophies and awards, recruiting letters (including one from South Carolina’s Frank McGuire), and photographs documenting highlights of Miller’s career, including the 67 point game. Miller explains why he is selling these items now: “All that stuff was in my family home in Pennsylvania. My father passed away a little over ten years ago and my mother just passed away a year ago. All that stuff was there in the house in a trophy case and being stored away. It wasn’t doing any good. A lot of the stuff is letters and so forth. Some of the coaches have passed away now. People collect that stuff. It doesn’t do any good being in boxes.”

Miller looked into various options before deciding to auction the memorabilia on Ebay. Before the items go up for bidding they can be viewed at Omillaja.com. Miller says, “Using a website to promote the Ebay sale is what I’m trying to do. If it works out OK then I may do some other things along those lines. I’m basically just working on the format.” Miller does not go to sports collector shows or do appearances to sign autographs: “No, I haven’t done any of that. Matter of fact, I’m even out of the reunion business—going back to the reunions and stuff like that. I’m just kind of relaxing.” The last time he set foot on a basketball court was several years ago: “I went out to L.A. for a UNC versus UCLA alumni game. That was the last time I had a uniform on. That was in the early ‘90s. One time I played in a reunion at North Carolina about six years after I played (retired from pro ball). I didn’t think I was going to play at all. I hadn’t picked up a basketball in those years and then I played the most of anybody on the team. I was so sore I couldn’t even climb the stairs.”

Woody Paige will never sell his only collectible from his days covering the ABA because it has special meaning for him: “Charlie Finley owned the Memphis team toward the end and my Dad was very ill. He had his leg amputated and Charlie Finley was very nice to him. For my Dad’s birthday the Memphis team signed a ball to him, personalized it. I kept that. I can’t think of anything else that I have. I had press guides from the very beginning, which would probably be worth something. I had all the media guides from the beginning to the end…because I was going to write the definitive history of the league. Well, I ended up giving them away to two brothers who collect ABA memorabilia.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:49 AM

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Bulls Crash the Boards, Bash the Cavs

On Sunday, LeBron James scored 37 points as Cleveland beat Chicago 95-86 despite being without Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic, each of whom missed the game due to injury. Those players also were not able to play in Thursday's rematch and this time the Bulls defeated the Cavs 107-96. Luol Deng and Ben Gordon led the Bulls with 23 points each, while James finished with 39 points, three rebounds and one assist; if Kobe Bryant put up a stat line like that, a lot of people would say that he played a selfish, one dimensional game but that is nonsense: great players read the defense and react accordingly. James shot 13-27 from the field, while the other Cavs shot just 20-57, so there were not many assists to be had. Combined with his 50 points versus the Knicks on Wednesday, James has scored 89 points in his last two games, the most a player has scored in consecutive games since Bryant dropped 60 and 50 at Memphis and New Orleans last March.

This game was not decided by James' scoring or his passing; it was decided on the backboards, where Chicago enjoyed a 56-48 rebounding advantage, including a 21-14 edge in offensive rebounds. Joakim Noah had a game-high 20 rebounds, 10 offensive and 10 defensive. Five of Deng's eight rebounds came on the offensive glass. The formula for Cleveland's success is defense, rebounding and the brilliance of James. An oft-repeated statistic this season is that the Cavs are 0-6 without James but most people fail to mention that rebounder/defender Anderson Varejao also missed several of those games. Why is that significant? Prior to Thursday's game, the Cavs were 18-9 with Varejao and 17-17 without him; they enjoyed a +3.5 ppg differential with him but were outscored by 3.5 ppg without him. There is a widely believed myth that James basically carried the Cavs to last year's Finals all by himself--and the same people who are foolish enough to believe that are the ones who predicted that Cleveland would not make the playoffs this year. The reality is that during last year's playoff run James carried a heavy offensive load--as both a scorer and playmaker--but Cleveland's frontcourt rotation of Ilgauskas-Varejao-Drew Gooden played a vitally important role in terms of rebounding and defense.

From Cleveland's standpoint, the theory behind the recent three way trade with Chicago and Seattle that shipped out Gooden, Larry Hughes and four other players in exchange for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and Delonte West is this: the frontcourt rotation of Ilgauskas-Wallace-Varejao-Smith has more depth, West will relieve James of some ballhandling responsibilities by helping to push the ball up the court in transition and Szczerbiak will provide three point shooting. If all of those things turn out to be true, then this will be a good deal for Cleveland but it is important to understand how well Cleveland's previous frontcourt rotation played and how important Hughes was as a perimeter defender. Perhaps Cleveland's rebounding problems on Thursday were simply a function of Ilgauskas not playing and/or James not rebounding as well as he usually does--but the point of the trade was precisely to have enough depth to compensate for when the team is shorthanded up front for whatever reason. Wallace and Varejao did have 10 rebounds each but they also only combined to score six points on 3-15 field goal shooting. The nice thing about having Ilgauskas and Gooden is that they not only rebound but each of them can make a 15 foot jump shot. The "new" Cavs frontcourt may look better and deeper on paper but the question is whether or not it will look better on the court during the playoffs. I understand what General Manager Danny Ferry was thinking when he made the deal but I still am not sold that it significantly improved the team.

In addition to working out the frontcourt chemistry--and getting everybody healthy at the same time--the Cavs have to be concerned about who will be the team's lockdown perimeter defender. Maybe you saw the highlight clip of Ben Gordon freezing James at the foul line with a fake and then blowing by him to the hoop. That is going to be a recurring theme in the playoffs when the Cavs face the likes of Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton, who are bigger and more skilled than the sometimes erratic Gordon.

The Bulls held James to 3-12 field goal shooting in the second half, keeping him out of the paint and off of the free throw line, and they outscored Cleveland 60-45. Yes, it's just one game, but the Cavs showed weaknesses in the very areas that I questioned as soon as this trade was announced. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was not at all pleased with what he saw: "We've got to dig down deep and find out who we want to be. Play 110 to 115 on the road and win sometimes and look pretty winning? Or do we want to be a playoff team that's going to go far in the playoffs and have a chance to compete for an NBA championship? Get ugly and dirty sometimes by getting stops first and figure out how to score second. It's very concerning for me right now."

The Cavs are 4-3 with their new players (they also won a shorthanded game after the trade when various players had not yet been cleared to play by the league); they started out the calendar year 15-7. The "old" Cavs went 2-1 versus Boston and 0-1 versus Detroit; the "new" Cavs are 0-1 versus Boston and will face Detroit three times before the regular season ends. Keep in mind that the "old" Cavs beat Detroit in six games in last year's playoffs--rattling off four straight wins--and even as an inexperienced team they extended Detroit to seven games in the 2006 playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:55 AM

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Kobe Bryant Rallies Support for Darfur

You may have already seen the PSA that Kobe Bryant just did regarding the genocide that the Sudanese government has been committing for years in the Darfur region. If you missed it, you can check it out here:

Darfur/Kobe Bryant PSA

According to a press release that I received from Hunter Payne, the founder of the non-profit organization Aid Still Required, "Bryant joins NBA notables Steve Nash, Tracy McGrady, Luol Deng, Derek Fisher, Baron Davis, Grant Hill, Derek Fisher, Emeka Okafor, Andrew Bynum and many more in speaking out about the atrocities. Celebrities and dignitaries involved in similar advocacy include Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Sheryl Crow, Mia Farrow, Common, Ellen DeGeneres, Donovan McNabb, Jessica Biel, Don Cheadle, Desmond Tutu, Barack Obama and President Bush. A few weeks ago Steven Spielberg quit his Beijing Olympics Artistic Director position in protest of China’s policies regarding Darfur. Between 200,000 and 450,000 people have been slaughtered in Darfur over the past five years and 2.5 million have fled to refugee camps...Cleveland Cavaliers forward Ira Newble began the NBA players Darfur campaign late last season by writing a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao asking him to use his considerable influence on Sudan to stop the violence. 12 Cavaliers signed the letter, the notable exception being LeBron James, who said at the time he needed to know about the situation more before signing. Separately last summer Newble and Tracy McGrady traveled to refugee camps in Chad on the Darfur border. Both have professed their trips to be life-altering. 15 NBA players have taped public service announcements, all calling for support."

Anything that increases public awareness of the horrors of Darfur is important and could still potentially save thousands of lives; as Edmund Burke once wrote, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." That said, I must disagree with one of the premises cited in the aforementioned press release, namely that the crisis in Darfur is primarily related to drought conditions there and a lack of "sustained economic development." While those issues do indeed need to be addressed, what has been going on in Darfur for years while most of the rest of the world shut its collective eyes is nothing less than state-sponsored genocide being committed by Sudan's Arab/Muslim government against ethnic African communities within its borders. This has been documented for quite some time. For instance, an April 27, 2004 fact sheet from the U.S. State Department declared, "The international community can no longer ignore the violence and atrocities taking place in Darfur. For more than 20 years the people of Sudan have been witness to a civil war between the Government of Sudan in the north and the Sudan’s Peoples Liberation Movement/Army stationed in the south. Now as both sides are close to the signing of an agreement that would end the conflict in the country, the Sudanese government, using supported Jingaweid (Arab) militia groups, are systematically killing, looting and destroying ethnic African communities in the western Darfur region of the country."

Basically, the Sudanese government has used the region's very real economic and ecological problems as a pretext to commit ethnic cleansing against a non-Arab, non-Muslim population that it considers to be undesirable. For that reason, simply sending aid to the region is not enough, because the Sudanese government will not equitably distribute that aid, as the above report noted: "Government forces obstructed the flow of humanitarian assistance to the Darfur region. Many thousands of civilians fled into Chad and were without access to any aid because of continued fighting. The UN reported that there has been a total disengagement of Government administration and suspension of all services in non-Arab villages in Darfur. However, no such measures have taken place in Arab villages located in the Darfur region. For example, South Darfur/West Darfur border, non-Arab and ethnic Fur villages in the vicinity are without services but a largely Arab village only four kilometers away has full services complete with schools, health and administrative facilities."

It is worth noting that Sudan is ruled by an authoritarian government controlled by the National Congress Party, which used to be known more descriptively as the National Islamic Front; that group has been in charge of the country for two decades and in the 1990s they provided sanctuary for Osama bin Laden. Perhaps it is not fashionable to speak of good and evil but the horrors of Darfur are not simply the result of ecological and economic problems; these atrocities have been committed at the direction of evil Sudanese leaders and their followers who are determined to completely destroy defenseless ethnic communities in Sudan. I seriously doubt that this genocide will be stopped until that fact is understood and the international community finds the necessary backbone to deal with this issue aggressively; for instance, the political and military leaders who are responsible for this genocide should be put on trial just like the Nazi war criminals and perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge massacres were brought to justice.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:16 PM

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NBA Leaderboard, Part XVI

The Celtics just became the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season, in the process winning their season series with the Pistons 2-1. However, anyone who assumes that Boston-Detroit will be the Eastern Conference Finals matchup should pay attention to the exploits of the player who just posted only the third 50 point, 10 assist game since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger--LeBron James, who is engaged with Kobe Bryant in one of the most exciting MVP battles in years; for once it seems that most people actually understand who the top two contenders for the award should be.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 47-12--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 44-17
3) San Antonio, 42-17
4) L.A. Lakers, 43-18
5) New Orleans, 41-19

With a four game lead over the Pistons and the aforementioned 2-1 victory in the season series, the Celtics have all but locked up the number one seed in the East; if they go just 12-11 in their last 23 games then the Pistons have to go 16-5 to pass them. The Pistons are 6-4 in their last 10 games and the Celtics are 7-3 in their last 10, including an active six game winning streak. Out west, matters are much less clear. The Spurs and Lakers are in a virtual tie, with the Hornets just 1.5 games behind and the surging Rockets--owners of an NBA season-best 16 game winning streak--suddenly just 2.5 games behind. In case you're wondering, at the other end of the spectrum in the chase for the most Draft Lottery ping pong balls, Miami "leads" with an 11-47 record, including 2-8 in the last 10 games. Minnesota is right there, though, with a 12-48 record and a matching 2-8 mark in the last 10 games. Memphis "gained" one game by going 1-9 in the last 10 games but the Grizzlies are 2.5 games off of the pace with a 15-46 record. After Miami's 108-83 home loss to Toronto on Wednesday, Coach Pat Riley said that his team's effort was "so unprofessional it was ridiculous," adding, "I've got to ferret out the guys who really don't care. I've got to ferret them out of here and just put them on the bench and bring in a bunch of young guys...The season's over for them. That's how they're playing, some of them, anyhow." He also said that he feels like personally writing refund checks to each of the team's season ticket holders. The Raptors played without All-Star Chris Bosh, while the Heat actually had two All-Stars, though neither of them played like one (Dwyane Wade had 16 points, four assists and five turnovers, while Shawn Marion grabbed 14 rebounds but only scored five points on 2-7 field goal shooting).

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.6 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.3 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.8 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.9 ppg
5) Dwyane Wade, MIA 24.4 ppg
6) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 23.9 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.4 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 23.0 ppg
10) Chris Bosh, MIA 22.6 ppg

12) Yao Ming, HOU 22.0 ppg

25) Paul Pierce, BOS 20.4 ppg

33) Kevin Durant, SEA 19.5 ppg

37) Ray Allen, BOS 18.4 ppg

LeBron James pretty much has the scoring title wrapped up. He is having a marvelous season but Kobe Bryant is still a more potent threat from both three point range and the free throw line. Does anyone seriously doubt that Bryant could still average 32 ppg or more if the Lakers needed him to do so? Bryant's league-leading 35.4 ppg and 31.6 ppg efforts the past two seasons did not lead to him winning the MVP--allegedly because of his team's record--so how can James beat out Bryant this year for MVP honors when Bryant is the leading player on a team that is in the hunt for the best record in the Western Conference? Whether the MVP is judged by recent standards--best player on a team that wins 50-plus games--or the standard that I have consistently employed (the most skilled player in the league/the player who has the fewest weaknesses), Bryant should be the choice. That does not take anything away from James, who certainly is having an MVP-caliber season; in fact, he is performing at a higher level now than any of the three previous MVP winners did.

Dirk Nowitzki's scoring average has been climbing steadily and now that he has Jason Kidd feeding him the ball he may very well crack the top five on this list by the end of the season.

Kevin Durant recently asked what his critics expect from him. Here is my list:

1) Stop jacking up bad shots
2) Pay attention to aspects of defense beyond occasionally poaching in the passing lanes and getting weakside shot blocks
3) Improve your three point shot or stop taking so many of them
4) Get stronger so that you can draw more free throw attempts and grab more rebounds
5) Work on your ballhandling and passing so that you can reverse your TO/Ast ratio (which is currently 2.9/2.3, simply horrible for a shooting guard; at the very least it should be an Ast/TO ratio, not the other way around)

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
----------------------

1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.9 rpg
3) Chris Kaman, LAC 13.1 rpg
4) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.3 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.7 rpg
6) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.6 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

14) Al Horford, ATL 10.0 rpg

23) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.8 rpg

26) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

32) LeBron James, CLE 8.1 rpg

34) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.9 rpg

Dwight Howard has a good but not insurmountable lead over Marcus Camby. After a slow start, Tim Duncan may inch his way into the top five soon. The top ten has stayed the same recently, but Yao will soon drop out due to not meeting minimum requirements for rebounds or games played.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Steve Nash, PHX 11.4 apg
2) Chris Paul, NOH 10.8 apg
3) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.4 apg
4) Deron Williams, UTA 10.1 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.6 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 7.2 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.2 apg

Although Yao will inevitably be dropped from the scoring and rebounding leaderboards, the NBA has a much lower minimum standard for the assists leaderboard (70 games or 400 assists by year end, a standard that is pro-rated for in-season leaderboards; the rebounding standard is 70 games or 800 rebounds); Jamaal Tinsley remains on the list despite only playing in 39 games so far. He obviously has no shot at playing in 70 games but he only needs 74 total assists to qualify for the year end leaderboard.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 AM

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Nuggets Eclipse Suns, 126-113

Wednesday night's ESPN game provided a good opportunity to check out two of the most enigmatic teams in the West: the perennially underachieving Denver Nuggets and the new-look Phoenix Suns. Phoenix arrived in Denver for the second half of a back to back after beating the Blazers in Portland 97-92 on Tuesday, while the Nuggets have been off since they lost 103-89 at Houston on Sunday. You can dismiss the concept of a "scheduling loss" if you insist but one of the big differences between playoff basketball and regular season basketball is the amount of time off between games. In any case, Phoenix led by as many as eight points in the first quarter but the Nuggets took control with a 16-0 second quarter run and cruised to a 126-113 victory, dropping the Suns to 3-5 since they traded Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O'Neal.

Many people were skeptical of the O'Neal trade even before any games were played and now the doubters are out in full force. Before we even analyze what is happening on the court, let's do a "Woody Paige" and look at the schedule: the first loss of the Suns' Shaq era came at the hands of the Lakers, one of the hottest teams in the league; that was followed by a win against Boston--the team with the league's best record--and then a loss to Detroit, the second best team in the East at the moment. The third loss came in New Orleans in the second game of a back to back. Philadelphia delivered the fourth loss; that looks bad, because the Sixers are currently just 28-33--but the Sixers have won 10 of their last 13 (admittedly, several of those victories were against weak teams). The Nuggets, fighting for their very playoff lives in the super competitive West, provided loss number five of the Shaq era.

Before the Nuggets-Suns game, Hubie Brown assessed O'Neal's impact so far, pointing out that the Suns were the worst rebounding team in the league before acquiring Shaq but that they now have a positive rebounding differential. Brown noted that this advantage on the glass has been translated into improved fast break production. O'Neal had a season-high 18 rebounds against Denver and the Suns outrebounded the Nuggets 40-39. O'Neal also scored 12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting and looked more mobile and active than he has at any time this season. The problem for the Suns was that the Nuggets' guards and small forwards simply murdered them. J.R. Smith came off of the bench to score 20 points in 21 minutes. Allen Iverson had 31 points, 12 assists, five rebounds and 0 turnovers. Steve Nash may be a two-time MVP, but the only way he is even going to slow down Iverson is by tripping him with one of those trophies. OK, a lot of guys have problems checking Iverson and the Suns tried to "hide" Nash for most of the game by having him cover Anthony Carter--but Carter had 11 points and 11 assists, essentially canceling out Nash's production (12 points, 13 assists).

Small forward Grant Hill spent a lot of time chasing around Iverson, which left shooting guard Raja Bell to deal with Carmelo Anthony, who pushed Bell all over the court, snaring 13 rebounds--including six on the offensive glass--and scoring 30 points. At times, Anthony seemed to have a look of disbelief on his face that Bell was trying to guard him. Clearly, the Suns could have used Marion here but since the Suns no longer have him they have to take better advantage of the mismatches that are in their favor, such as O'Neal posting up much smaller defenders like Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin and Eduardo Najera. The Suns have another 21 games to get used to each other before the playoffs begin and in the postseason they will have at least a day off between games, so I still think that they can be a formidable playoff opponent. Swapping Marion for O'Neal may have cost them some regular season wins but by upgrading their size and rebounding they are better constructed for playoff basketball.

Even though the Nuggets looked great in winning this game, they may not even make the playoffs. Brown noted before the game that they are fourth in the league in scoring and have Camby--who he called the league's best defender--patrolling the paint but he stressed that the other four players must step up on defense. When Moses Malone won his first MVP largely on the strength of his offensive rebounding, he thanked his teammates for missing so many shots; Camby, who is gunning for his third straight shotblocking crown, could similarly thank his teammates for blowing so many defensive assignments. The Nuggets trail the Golden State Warriors by one game for the final playoff spot and they are just 14-17 against teams with plus-.500 records. They were obviously geared up to play a Suns team that they felt had run up the score on them earlier this season but the Nuggets are just 4-5 in their last nine games, hardly the kind of closing push that will earn a postseason berth.

The Nuggets have two All-Stars in Iverson and Anthony--and Brown said that he thought Camby should have made the team as well--but their team defense on a night in, night out basis is not good. Denver went 32-8 down the stretch in 2005 after George Karl took over as head coach and ever since then the Nuggets have fooled a lot of people into believing that they are on the verge of being legitimate contenders; they even fooled themselves, with several of their players saying before this season that they would win 60 games (they are 36-24 now, which means that 60 wins is mathematically impossible).

It is amusing to read or listen to mainstream media "experts" who have no idea what they are talking about; no one can predict everything correctly but many of these "experts" are so frequently completely wrong that they are fortunate that their salaries are not linked in any way to their statements actually making sense or being accurate. For instance, at the start of this season, Stephen A. Smith declared that the Nuggets would make it to the NBA Finals and that the Cavaliers would not even qualify for the playoffs. Here is what I wrote about the Nuggets in the 2007-08 edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball: "Each year we hear that this is the season that Denver will emerge as a legitimate title contender, but the Nuggets have consistently been a lower echelon playoff team for four straight years, winning between 43 and 49 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs each time." In my Western Conference Preview, I ranked the Nuggets seventh and wrote, "Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses."

In order to win consistently in the NBA, you must rebound and defend. Those things are not glamorous but, as Pat Riley said decades ago, "No rebounds, no rings." Rebounding and defense are why the Spurs are always a very good team and why the Cavaliers' Finals run last year was not a fluke; rebounding and defense are why the Nash-era Suns have never made it to the Finals and why the Anthony-era Nuggets' playoff runs always end in the first round. To get over the top, a team usually also needs a star player who can create offense for himself and his teammates but Denver is proving that you can have two guys like that and still not be a great team if you don't also have a collective commitment to playing defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Larry Hughes: The Real Story

Larry Hughes has caught a lot of flak for his shot selection and for being injured frequently. Now, a big deal is being made out of Hughes saying that he was not happy in Cleveland--even though the team made the Finals last season--because he did not have the freedom to play his game; the funny thing about the latter "controversy" is that Hughes is simply publicly acknowledging what critics of the Cavs have said for quite some time: the Cavs played Hughes out of position at point guard.

I have always maintained that Hughes was an important part of Cleveland's success. The record shows that the Cavs performed best when he was in the starting lineup, even when he was not 100% healthy. The Cavs are absolutely going to miss his perimeter defense during the playoffs and they will have to make up for that by utilizing advantages in other areas (perhaps three point shooting or frontcourt depth) in order to return to the NBA Finals.

Here is a link to an excellent article by Melissa Isaacson of the Chicago Tribune that reveals another side of Larry Hughes:

Well -Traveled Larry Hughes Has Grown Up

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:18 PM

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NBA Coast to Coast Crew's MVP Choice? Kobe, Kobe, Kobe

During Tuesday's telecast, three members of ESPN's NBA Coast to Coast crew offered their takes on this year's exciting MVP race. All of them unhesitatingly chose Kobe Bryant as MVP.

Tim Legler said that Bryant has no weaknesses offensively and that on a nightly basis he guards the opponent's toughest player. Legler added that it is "unfathomable" that Bryant has not yet won an MVP but he expects that oversight to be corrected this season. Legler echoed points that I have made here on many occasions. The fact that Bryant has no weaknesses is very significant. Even LeBron James, as great as he is, has weaknesses: he is a below average free throw shooter, a poor perimeter shooter and not yet a consistently good defensive player. During last year's Finals, the Spurs contained James by cutting off all driving lanes and forcing him to shoot jumpers. That resulted in James shooting a poor percentage and committing a lot of turnovers. That kind of defensive strategy would simply not work against Bryant. In my post titled Why Blogging is Booming and Newspapers Are Scrambling to Catch Up, I listed several specific areas that I mean when I say that Bryant does not have any weaknesses (this list is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive; there could be further, more specific subcategories in several of these areas):
  1. Finishes at the hoop with either hand
  2. Dribbles well with either hand
  3. Has excellent post moves and footwork
  4. Draws fouls and shoots FTs very well
  5. Has three point range
  6. Can get off a good shot attempt even against good defense
  7. Rebounds well for his position
  8. Reads double-teams well and makes the correct passes, which don't always lead to assists for two reasons: the second pass out of the trap often leads to the assist and it is not possible for anyone to get an assist if the shot is not made
  9. Excellent defender, as acknowledged by the league's head coaches in All-Defensive Team voting
  10. Tremendous inner drive and will to win
Greg Anthony boldly suggested that James may be the most talented player in the history of the NBA but quickly added, "He is not the most skilled or the most valuable," two distinctions that Anthony bestowed upon Bryant. Anthony also emphasized that Bryant has no weaknesses.

Jamal Mashburn said that Bryant "is playing with passion, purpose and intensity." He also referred to Bryant's "pursuit of perfection," which is the same phrase applied to the New England Patriots during their unprecedented 16-0 season.

Notice how these analysts--each of whom played in the NBA--emphasize the importance of the fact that Bryant has no weaknesses. Determining who is the best player is not just a matter of crunching numbers or ranking who has racked up the most SportsCenter highlights. What we see with elite athletes in many sports--from the Patriots to Tiger Woods to Bryant--is that mastery of the "little things" (the fundamentals) leads to the ability to be a dominant performer. Look at how Bryant scored his 52 points against Dallas: three pointers, hard drives into the paint, a hook shot over 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki, an offensive rebound of a missed free throw, turnaround shots off of postup moves, pullup jumpers, drives after splitting double teams. Those things require a host of different fundamental skills, ranging from ballhandling to shooting to various kinds of footwork. Scoring 52 points does not prove that you are the best player in the NBA--but the skills that Bryant displayed while scoring those 52 points, not to mention that 30 of those points came in the fourth quarter and overtime, against a good Western Conference team, provide a snapshot of why Bryant is such unique player. It also should not be forgotten that while Bryant put his full scoring repertoire on display he also rebounded, passed and defended at a very high level.

While the Coast to Coast crew unanimously chose Bryant, over on NBA TV "Tuesday Night With Ahmad" played off of the presidential election theme and had Frank Isola "debate" Rick Mahorn about the merits of Kobe Bryant versus LeBron James for MVP. Isola argued for Kobe, while Mahorn took LeBron's side. To be perfectly honest, neither guy made the best possible case for his player but the most interesting thing about the whole segment is what Isola and Mahorn admitted after it was over: the "debate" was basically a sham, because both of them think that Kobe is the MVP. Mahorn joked that he "took one for the team" because Isola cried and whined to have the opportunity to present Kobe's case.

While it is heartening that people are belatedly figuring out that Kobe Bryant is not only the best player in the NBA but also in fact the MVP, it is amusing to hear how Bryant has supposedly changed or evolved this season. Bryant is not playing differently this year than he has for the past several years. The difference is that he has better teammates, players who catch his passes and then finish plays. It is so laughable to suggest that Bryant has suddenly learned how to share the ball. Do people really not remember that he was the leading playmaker on three championship teams? The funniest thing about the "Kobe Bryant has transformed" stories is that they are evergreen: the media plows this same ground every year whenever there is a portion of the season when Bryant's teammates play well. For example, last year Jackie MacMullan wrote a piece titled "The Transformation of Kobe Bryant." Her article is actually pretty good but the "transformation" theme is forced. Obviously, people evolve over time but Bryant did not suddenly "transform" into a team player. Bryant even mentioned to MacMullan how he had to sublimate his ability to score during the championship seasons in order to get other players involved, a statement that refutes the whole "transformation" theme; Bryant's smooth on court chemistry now with Pau Gasol is an outgrowth of playmaking skills that Bryant mastered years ago--and Bryant did not "transform" back into something else against Dallas when he scored those 52 points: he just read the defense and responded accordingly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Kobe Drops 52 as Lakers Beat Mavs in Overtime Thriller

LeBron James looked very much like the best player in the NBA as he put up 37 points, six rebounds and six assists in Cleveland's 95-86 win over Chicago--and then Kobe Bryant took the court in L.A. and showed once again why he should finally capture his first MVP, scoring 52 points--including 30 in the fourth quarter and overtime--as his L.A. Lakers defeated the Dallas Mavericks 108-104 in overtime. Bryant also had 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocked shots and one steal. He shot 15-27 from the field and 20-27 from the free throw line; Bryant inexplicably connected on just three of his first 10 free throws, all in the first half, before draining his final 17 in a row. Bryant's effort is the highest scoring game in the NBA this season, eclipsing 51 point games by James and Allen Iverson. Bryant ranks third on the all-time list with 22 50-point games; the Lakers are 16-6 in those contests. He also ranks third on the all-time list with 91 40-point games, during which the Lakers have gone 63-28, including 4-2 this season. Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan rank 1-2 in both 40-point games and 50-point games; Chamberlain had 271 and 118 respectively, while Jordan had 173 and 31. The last time someone scored more than 52 points on March 2 is 1962, when Chamberlain had his famous 100 point game.

Pau Gasol added 17 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocked shots but he shot just 5-14 from the field and did not make a shot in the last three quarters and overtime after scoring 12 points on 5-7 shooting in the first quarter. Dirk Nowitzki got off to a slow start but made several big shots down the stretch and finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and two steals, though he shot just 10-26 from the field. Jason Kidd also shot poorly (6-17 from the field) but he played an excellent floor game (15 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, four steals, just one turnover). Erick Dampier made all seven of his shots en route to a strong double double (16 points, 17 rebounds).

The Mavericks took a 7-0 lead after Kidd made a three pointer and picked up assists by feeding Josh Howard for a jumper and Dampier for a dunk. The Lakers missed their first three shots but got on the board after Luke Walton made two free throws. Bryant did not score until his dunk made the score 9-9 at the 6:42 mark of the first quarter. Throughout the telecast, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy made some interesting observations. One thing that they both noted is the immediate effect that Kidd has on a team; players run harder because Kidd looks to pass, sees openings that other players don't and is able to deliver the ball on time and on target. Dampier in particular seems to have already developed good chemistry with Kidd, who you could call the anti-Arenas; I think that one of the reasons that the Wizards have played well without Gilbert Arenas (at least until Caron Butler's injury) is that players play harder at both ends of the court when they think that it is more likely that they will touch the ball. Arenas' propensity for jacking up shots from all angles and his indifference to playing sound defense lead to poor court balance and hardly inspire the kind of extra effort that you already see from Dallas' players just a few games after Kidd joined the team.

The Lakers recovered nicely from their slow start to lead 29-23 by the end of the first quarter. Although Gasol did most of the scoring damage, Dallas Coach Avery Johnson explained to ABC's Michele Tafoya exactly where the Mavs' defense broke down: "He's been unstoppable because we haven't been able to guard penetration. Kobe's penetrating, (Derek) Fisher's penetrating and he's gotten a lot of easy buckets because of it." The significance of this quote is that the whole "making players better" business works both ways. Yes, Gasol makes the Lakers better because he is a skilled big man who can catch, finish, pass, rebound and block shots--but Bryant (and even Fisher) also help make Gasol better (or, more precisely, make the game easier for him) by breaking down the defense via dribble penetration.

Mark Jackson offered this opinion about why the Lakers have been playing so well recently: "What really separates them as a team is Kobe Bryant on the defensive end. He's guarding the other team's best perimeter player and locking him down." Jackson added that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, saying "This is his year" to finally win the MVP. Jackson ranks Chris Paul second in the MVP race. Van Gundy said that the MVP should go to someone who makes others better, so his choice is the Memphis organization for essentially giving Gasol to the Lakers. On a more serious note, he added that his MVP is Paul, followed by Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. Strangely, Van Gundy also said that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has been for several years; he never explained why someone who has been the best player for several years and is the leading player on the team with the best record in the tough Western Conference should not be the MVP.

Despite his poor first half free throw shooting, Bryant scored 14 points and the Lakers led 50-47 at halftime. The Mavericks began the third quarter just like they started the game, with a 7-0 run. Bryant answered with two drives and an assist to Walton for a layup to put L.A. back on top, 56-54, but by the end of the quarter Dallas was up 68-65.

Bryant played the first 41 minutes of the game without a break but Coach Phil Jackson rested him for about a minute and a half in the fourth quarter. The Lakers trailed by four when Bryant sat and were still down four when he returned. Within the next minute, they tied the score at 79 after Bryant made four free throws and Gasol sank a pair. Nowitzki's jumper put Dallas up 81-79 with 5:50 remaining and the rest of the game turned into an entertaining duel between last year's MVP and the player who should win this year's MVP, with Bryant netting 22 points and Nowitzki putting up 19 points in the next 10:50 (the balance of the fourth quarter plus the overtime). Bryant made a three pointer and a pullup jumper to give the Lakers an 84-81 lead but Nowitzki tied the score by making a hook shot and then splitting a pair of free throws after the Lakers came up dry a couple possessions in a row.

Bryant scored nine points in the last 2:25 of regulation, while Nowitzki had seven points, including the three pointer that forced overtime. Bryant gave the Lakers a 91-88 lead with a three point play at the 1:19 mark, fouling out Dampier in the process. During those final moments the Lakers repeatedly gave Bryant the ball at the top of the key, spaced the floor and let him go to work. The Mavericks first used Jerry Stackhouse to guard him, then put Kidd on him and also tried various double teams; nothing worked, as Coach Johnson ruefully noted after the game: "We gave him a single look, then we double-teamed him, then we gave him a triple-team and he split the triple-team and scored. We tried to zone him, we tried to funnel him in the trap for a zone and he went the other way. He didn't cooperate on any of our defenses. Obviously he milked the free throw line on us and he just had it all going. He's a great player. He has these (games). Lots of these."

Jason Terry's jumper pulled the Mavs to within 91-90 and they had a chance to win after Bryant drove to the hoop, drew a triple team and passed to Gasol, who lost the ball (Bryant was charged with a turnover on the play). A wild sequence ensued on the next possession: Bryant knocked the ball away from Nowitzki but the Mavs recovered and swung the ball to Stackhouse, whose corner three pointer was blocked by Gasol. Lamar Odom got the rebound and Stackhouse promptly fouled him. Odom finished with 10 rebounds but he scored just six points on 2-8 field goal shooting and 2-6 free throw shooting; fortunately, with Bryant capable of scoring 40 at any time and Gasol usually putting up solid numbers, the Lakers are no longer dependent on Odom's erratic shooting touch.

As the players lined up before Odom's two free throw attempts, Van Gundy made a very prescient observation: "I don't like Brandon Bass matching up against Kobe, who is a great offensive free throw rebounder." That is something that I wrote about in my post titled The Best the Game Offers: Kobe Versus LeBron, when I noted that in the two Lakers-Cavs games this year Bryant beat James to free throw rebounds several times, forcing James to actually face guard him at one point. This is an excellent example of why I don't rate players solely based on statistics; numbers tell part of the story but you have to watch players with an informed eye and really understand their skill sets in order to accurately rank them. James averages more rebounds than Bryant because James plays forward and has different offensive and defensive responsibilities but that does not mean that he is a better rebounder than Bryant, as shown by the fact that the smaller Bryant repeatedly got free throw rebounds versus James despite James having inside position. Maybe most fans don't pay attention to "little things" like footwork and free throw rebounds but this is another example of how complete Bryant is as a player.

Sure enough, just as Van Gundy suspected, after Odom missed both free throws, Bryant slipped around Bass and grabbed the offensive rebound. Kidd fouled Bryant, who made both free throws to put L.A. up 93-90. With Dallas set to inbound the ball with six seconds left, Van Gundy talked about the Lakers' defensive strategy in such situations. Van Gundy believes that the defending team should foul, forcing the trailing team to make a free throw, miss a free throw on purpose, grab the rebound and then score but he added that based on his experiences coaching against Phil Jackson he knows that Jackson does not believe in fouling. Once again, Van Gundy was right on the mark: the Lakers did not foul and Nowitzki tied the score by making a three pointer. Odom's defense on this play was horrible. Nowitzki inbounded the ball to Kidd, who was inside the three point arc when he caught the ball. Obviously, the plan was for Kidd to pass the ball, most likely right back to Nowitzki. Odom foolishly went under a screen, leaving Nowitzki open.

During a timeout in the overtime, the subject of the anniversary of Chamberlain's 100 point game came up. Second place in the record book belongs to Bryant's 81 point game a couple years ago but Van Gundy said, "81 against today's superior defense and coaching is a bigger achievement than 100 by Wilt." I'm not sure if I agree with that reasoning but one significant difference between Chamberlain's big game and Bryant's is that Chamberlain's team was winning by a big margin for most of the game; the opponents kept fouling his teammates so Chamberlain would not get the ball and then Chamberlain's team retaliated by fouling to get the ball back. The end of the game was a bit of a sideshow, though 100 points is obviously a great accomplishment. Bryant's 81 points came in the context of a game in which the Lakers were losing by double digits and rallied to win because of his outburst; there were no shenanigans by either team in terms of intentional fouls.

Bryant scored eight of the Lakers' 15 points in overtime and at one point Van Gundy joked about Dallas' futile efforts to guard him, quipping, "They should go into a box and one--put the box on Kobe and the one on everyone else." Nowitzki also had eight points in the extra session and after Bryant's two free throws put the Lakers up 107-104 with nine seconds left it was "deja vu all over again," with the Mavs again inbounding the ball and needing a three pointer to tie. True to form, the Lakers did not foul and this time Nowitzki missed the shot. Odom split a pair of free throws to ice the win.

On ESPN's NBA Shootaround, Jalen Rose said that the Lakers are a very skilled team but he still does not consider them the favorites to win the championship, mentioning their lack of playoff experience together as a group and citing the absence of a "big body enforcer" to deal with Dampier, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal. Rose noted that Dampier put a few hard fouls on Bryant and he asked rhetorically why no Laker big men confronted Dampier. Rose concluded that the Spurs still should be considered the favorite to win the championship. I agree with Rose. The Lakers no doubt pose a viable threat to the Spurs but it is far from certain that they can beat San Antonio four times in a playoff series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

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Trading Places: LeBron Scores 37 as the "New" Cavs Beat the "New" Bulls

The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls recently took part in one of the largest trades in NBA history but Cleveland's 95-86 home victory over Chicago on Sunday once again showed that the biggest difference between the squads is one player who was not dealt: LeBron James had 37 points, six rebounds and six assists, including six points and one assist in the final 3:10. Former Cav Larry Hughes led the Bulls in scoring (23 points) and assists (four) while also grabbing five rebounds. Former Cav Drew Gooden also had a good game (11 points, 10 rebounds). Newly acquired Cav Wally Szczerbiak, who arrived in Cleveland from Seattle along with Delonte West as part of the Cleveland-Chicago trade, was the only Cav other than James to reach double figures in points (17). Due to a scheduling quirk, the two division rivals had yet to meet this season and will face each other four times in a 41 day stretch (including Sunday's game), with the next game happening on Thursday in Chicago.

It is difficult to gauge the impact of the trade at this point because the Cavaliers have yet to be at full strength since the deal took place. Starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas missed Sunday's game due to a back injury and Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic also sat out due to injuries. West had nine points, five rebounds and four assists, ex-Bull Ben Wallace had seven points, eight rebounds and two blocked shots and ex-Bull Joe Smith had eight points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals. Smith scored in double figures in each of his first two games with Cleveland but he has only scored 19 points in the next three games.

Cleveland got off to a quick start and led 24-17 after the first quarter, with James (13 points) doing most of the damage. As Cleveland Coach Mike Brown noted in an interview during a timeout, the Cavaliers tend to get complacent when they have leads, which results in sloppy play. Sure enough, the Bulls cut the lead to 42-39 by halftime and were up 68-65 after three quarters. At times, Hughes looked like the best player on the court, playing good defense, shooting the ball well and even serving up a lob pass to Tyrus Thomas for a dunk near the end of the third quarter. Chicago led 76-68 with 9:56 left in the fourth quarter after Hughes drained a jumper but there was no way that James was going to let Hughes return to his old stomping grounds and be the hero. Hughes did not score again, missing his last five field goal attempts of the game (he shot 8-20 overall).

James made the big plays down the stretch in the fourth quarter, starting with a finger roll at the 3:10 mark that put the Cavs up 85-83. Then he drove to the hoop and had a sensational dunk during which he jumped so high that he appeared to be looking down at the rim. When he flies to the hoop like that with his right arm fully extended over his head he looks like Dr. J dunking over Bill Walton in the 1977 NBA Finals. James followed up the dunk by faking Andres Nocioni out of his shoes and draining a pullup jumper to make the score 89-83. As James said after the game, the dunk and the jumper broke Chicago's heart. The Bulls simply crumbled, turning the ball over, committing offensive fouls and using poor shot selection. All year long they have played like a team that is very weak mentally, folding at the first sign of adversity. A big problem for the Bulls is that they do not have a bona fide star--or even simply a solid decision maker--to run the show in crucial situations.

During this game, Hubie Brown once again demonstrated that he is the best NBA television analyst (I'd put Jeff Van Gundy and Doug Collins in a tie for second). Brown explains clearly, concisely and without condescension the strategic concepts that are used by NBA coaches. I cringe whenever I read or hear someone suggest that college basketball is a "coaches' game" and that the NBA consists of nothing but one on one play. As Brown said to me when I interviewed him in 2006, "I don’t want everybody out there thinking that these guys just met at 6:00 and are playing at 7:30. Why do people say that football and baseball are so strategic and that they’re more strategic than basketball? That’s a naive person talking. They have no idea what goes into the continuities presented by the great teams in basketball."

During this game there was an interesting exchange between Brown and play by play announcer Mike Tirico about play calls in the NBA; Brown explained how play calls are handled differently by different teams and pointed out that when players switch teams they basically have to learn a new language on the fly. Brown said that some NBA teams call plays by shouting out numbers. The first number--say, 50--is the set (the way that the players are aligned on the court at the start of the play) and the next number is the action that they are supposed to run. So, out of a "50" set there could be five plays (which could be numbered 51-55). Brown said that certain teams use hand signals to call plays, while other teams call out a "dummy" number while at the same time calling the actual play with a hand signal to thwart teams that try to steal their calls. Brown added that when he coached each of his plays had three or four options because the good defensive teams will stop the first and second options. One point worth mentioning here that Brown did not bring up is that, as Cavs assistant coach Hank Egan told me, "the (shot) clock is the monster"; in other words, if a defensive team gets the offensive team out of rhythm (with a full court press, by deflecting a pass, etc.) then the offense really has to work against the clock just to get a decent shot attempt.

Brown's take on the Cleveland-Chicago-Seattle deal is that the Cavaliers have improved their frontcourt depth by pairing Wallace and Smith with Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao. Brown said that now the Cavaliers can withstand an injury to one of those players. He also pointed out one downside: Wallace and Varejao are only able to score by either getting feeds from James for layups or by getting offensive rebounds. Brown added that West's ballhandling and passing skills should help the Cavaliers in the open court, while Szczerbiak's shooting ability spaces the court. I agree with everything that Brown said but the Ilgauskas-Gooden-Varejao frontcourt (with cameos by Donyell Marshall) worked out pretty well in last year's playoffs and I think that Cleveland will have trouble defending against top shooting guards without Hughes. The funny thing about this trade is that Hughes and Wallace were each considered overpaid underachievers by their previous teams but they could each fit in better with their new teams due to different expectations and different systems.

I can see the possibilities that intrigued Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry enough to pull the trigger on this deal but I still say that it is a risky move to get rid of six players (including two starters) from a team that made it to the NBA Finals. Before the playoffs begin, the Cavaliers must get healthy and then figure out how to play in a way that maximizes the strengths of their key players and minimizes their weaknesses.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:31 AM

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Sunday, March 02, 2008

My Least Favorite NBA Announcer

I am turning this post into an interactive quiz. I will list some things that my least favorite NBA announcer recently said and see how many readers can figure out who I am talking about; you can make your guesses in the comments section. My theory is that most people who closely follow the NBA will be able to pretty quickly figure out who is the subject of this post. Here are some of his "greatest hits":

1) Sometimes announcers have to "fill" (kill time) at the end of a show. The best announcers do this so well that you hardly even notice that they are doing it. This guy recently started killing time in the middle of a show--and actually said out loud that he was killing time, though it was not at all obvious why it should be necessary to do so at that point. For some inexplicable reason he informed viewers that virtually every member of his family was born in March, including his kindergarten girlfriend. When you run out of constructive things to say less than 15 minutes into a 30 minute show you might be in the wrong business. To be fair, some of the responsibility for this must also be shouldered by the producer and the director. Did they not have any meetings that day to discuss which basketball topics would be covered during the broadcast?

2) "In the history of the NBA, no 50 win team has never not made the playoffs." (I felt a vague sense of dizziness after hearing that one; to his credit, the announcer did immediately acknowledge that he might have thrown a few too many double negatives in there. Isn't that why scripts and teleprompters were invented?)

3) "Stan Van Gundy is one of those coaches, you impress me, you do what I want you to do in practice, you'll be playing." (Are there any coaches who do not play the players who do well in practice and instead elect to go with the players who practice poorly?)

4) Shortly after the above waste of airtime, the announcer tried to paraphrase something that Orlando guard Keyon Dooling told him about Coach Van Gundy: "We're trying to be professional because we know he'll call our perspective numbers." ("respective" is the correct word)

5) This announcer often makes mistakes regarding the nuts and bolts of his job: he consistently misidentifies players during highlights and he often appears to be incapable of accurately reading the boxscore data that his network displays on the TV screen for viewers to see. Sometimes he'll say that a game was played in a certain city but as soon as the highlight runs it is very obvious that the game was not played there. OK, maybe that could happen to anyone once or twice but it happens to him a lot. The pathetic thing is that this mistake is unnecessary in so many ways. If you are that confused about where games are being played, then don't try to give extra information; just read the scripted highlight package and be done with it. Yet, for some reason, this guy feels compelled to constantly try to show how much he thinks that he knows. At times, he turned "Making the Call With Ronnie Nunn"--a good series that the NBA should not have canceled--into an unintentional comedy show with his rambling introductions before highlights; he invariably was wrong about numerous details concerning the play in question. As the saying goes, it is better for people to think that you are a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. He had the simplest job in the world--all he had to do is say, "Ronnie, this next play deals with the always tough block/charge call." Instead, we got something like, "This play features Motown's finest, Chauncey Billups going against the Milwaukee Bucks." Then the clip rolls and we find out that it was Lindsey Hunter going against the Celtics or something.

6) For a brief period, his favorite question was, "Is team x the kind of team that will be concerned whether they are up 10 or down 10 at halftime?" When he asked that question to the studio analysts they looked as perplexed as I am when I type those words. What the hell is he talking about? Instead of pondering before the game what one team might do if they are up 10 or down 10 by halftime why not ask the analysts about a key matchup or strategy that viewers should monitor during the game? Again, I fault the director and producer here as well, because by this point in time they should realize that their guy needs some help in terms of scripting good questions to ask the studio analysts. Leaving him to his own devices is like abandoning a blind person to cross a busy street without a guide dog or any form of assistance.

7) His favorite phrase is "in a big, big way." For example, he will say something like "Tim Duncan scored 31 points and that is getting it done in a big, big way." Maybe this actually goes back to example one and he is simply killing time because he has nothing informative to say. This is not the biggest broadcasting sin in the world, of course, but it does become annoying after a while, particularly in concert with the numerous gaffes that this guy makes.

I understand that being a TV or radio announcer is not easy; a director or producer is constantly talking in your ear, sometimes there are technical problems and if you are on the air live then you simply have to move forward no matter what. I also understand that even a great announcer will make mistakes now and then--but the above examples represent how this guy typically performs. He washed out at one big network but he has been given a lot of responsibilities by his current employer. My hope is that now that TNT has gained control over NBA TV that there will be a thinning out of the ranks and that we will see more of Ernie Johnson and less of the subject of this post.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 AM

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