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

Saturday, April 05, 2008

SlamBall Creator Mason Gordon: "We Are Bringing on Some Pretty Fantastic Coaching Minds Who We Think Are Going to Take This Thing to the Next Level.”

One reason that SlamBall Commissioner Pat Croce has enthusiastically embraced the sport is that SlamBall creator Mason Gordon is relentlessly trying to take the game to the next level in a variety of ways, from seeking out the most talented athletes to bringing in coaches from several different sports in order to increase the sophistication of SlamBall's strategies. I recently spoke with Gordon about how he created SlamBall and his vision for the sport's future:

Friedman: “How did you come up with the idea for the sport in the first place?”

Gordon: “I grew up doing three things and just about only three things and those three things were playing football, playing basketball and playing video games. So, as I got a little bit older I saw an opportunity to kind of put those three things together in a blender, hit the button and see what happens. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I went into a little warehouse in East L.A., built the first court from spare parts and it just kind of took off from there.”

Friedman: “What skills are the most important for someone to be good at SlamBall?”

Gordon: “It’s actually a very different skill set than what you find at the highest levels of basketball and football. The premium is really on ball specific skills but most importantly on body control, the ability to be able to hold body positions in the air, maneuver your body in the air and it’s a big adjustment for a lot of these guys who are used to being 35 to 40 inches off of the ground but now they are 140 inches off of the ground. Being able to maintain a semblance of body control and purpose at those elevated heights is really a unique skill and we’re going through the process now of trying to find elite athletes for the new season.”

Friedman: “When you bring in athletes from different sports—whether they are basketball players, football players or whatever their primary sport originally had been—how do they train to try to develop the body control that you need to be good at SlamBall? Are there certain exercises that they do or a certain workout program that you give them or do they just develop that body control through the process of playing SlamBall?”

Gordon: “It’s funny. We have tried out about 5000 athletes for SlamBall and almost universally there has been an adjustment period for even the most accomplished athletes that we have taken in. We use what is called progression based learning techniques to upgrade their skills. We usually take a gymnastics-style approach, teaching them very simple skills and then asking them to build on those skills and start linking those things together into more and more complex abilities. In very few cases—in fact, only three to date—we’ve had players walk into tryouts and we didn’t have to teach them a thing. They could just do it. We had a joke about one of the players that he must be an alien from a planet where they already had SlamBall. The guy just walked in and he could do everything right away; it was kind of like a native skill. That was very encouraging to us at an early stage that there were some people who were just gifted with this capacity.”

Friedman: “What background did that athlete have that enabled him to adjust to SlamBall so quickly?”

Gordon: “We don’t really know. He had played a little bit of college basketball and he was a standout multi-sport athlete in high school. He had a bit of a skateboarding background but it really wasn’t that. He just walked in and for whatever reason he had what we call the x factor; he had balance. He could really control his body and he didn’t get flustered from being 17 feet off the deck. He was very comfortable landing and crashing out into safety positions, which is something that we usually have to teach people. In basketball, when athletes take off for the rim or some kind of foray to the hoop they are immediately thinking, ‘Get back to my feet, get back to my feet.’ In SlamBall, we have to train away from that and get guys thinking that they are committing (to the air) and then they are committing to crashing out of that on to their back, their chest or their side because that is a much safer way to play SlamBall.”

Friedman: “I checked out the website and I looked at the rules. For someone who does not have a lot of familiarity with SlamBall, it looks kind of complicated to understand all of these rules and to see what is going on. For my readers or for people who don’t have any background in this and who don’t know about the sport, how would you describe in a simple way the basics of how the game is played, without all the intricacies of every particular rule and every kind of foul? Give a general sense of how the course of a game goes and what a team is trying to do on offense and what a team is trying to do on defense.”

Gordon: “The offensive team is trying to score as many points as possible by putting the ball through the basket in a variety of ways that are scored differently. The defense is trying to stop them by using the fullest extent of the contact that is allowed during the game in order to knock the ball loose and force the action the other way in an attempt to score. You have something that is very similar to the movements in basketball but it is actually even more like the movements in hockey because you are managing momentum up and down the court. Momentum is really what gives you an advantage at the rim over the defensive players. I think that people will see a lot of elements from sports that they do understand, like the hockey goalie—in SlamBall we have a position called the stopper, a guy who looks to stay back at the rim whenever possible in order to guard against easy slam dunks. That can lead to a really spectacular collision at the rim or a spectacular block or a spectacular finish. The entire game is funneled toward these fantastic midair confrontations and we’re looking to see a great proliferation of different skills this year as we bring in specialists like shooting specialists from major college (basketball) programs and enforcer-type specialists from football programs. So you will be able to watch the sport and really see who are the shooters, enforcers and high flyers. We think that there is going to be a really tremendous mix that is very engaging from the perspective of a sports fan.”

Friedman: “In basketball height is a very important asset. You can excel at basketball without being tall but then you are always working against that or working around your lack of height. With the trampolines being used in SlamBall is height particularly important or does it not make much of a difference how tall someone is?”

Gordon: “Height helps in certain situations but the great thing about the springs—as we like to call them—is that they do some really amazing things. First and foremost, they convert energy, so what you get out of the springs is what you put into them—very simple physics. We find these explosive athletes who manage to attack the springs with speed or verticality. A guy who can broad jump into the trampolines with these great strides and hit the angles just perfectly is going to get a tremendous result; you can also do that with speed, so we have had some smaller, quicker players be very, very dominant at the rim against bigger, stronger players by virtue of their athleticism and quickness.”

Friedman: “From what you are describing, power, speed and athleticism are essential traits for SlamBall players but in terms of having a winning team how much is based just on assembling the best, most explosive athletes and how much is based on a strategic component? If you follow what I write at 20 Second Timeout then you know that I really emphasize the strategic aspect of basketball. There are some deep, underlying strategies in the NBA; it is not just a bunch of talented athletes running up and down the court. How much of a strategic aspect is there to SlamBall?”

Gordon: “I would invite every one of your readers to take a really hard look at SlamBall as we debut on television again this year. There is a tremendous strategic development going on. Not to give you a long answer but to give you an example (of the differences between basketball and SlamBall): you cannot play defense in SlamBall the way that you do in basketball. It is completely futile to get down into a defensive position and slide your feet because of the speed of the game. You have to actually play defense in SlamBall very much like a defensive back does in football. You have to be in a crouched, explosive position, you have to open up to the ball, you have to follow pursuit angles and you have to make contact when necessary to jar the ball loose and get your teammates going the other way. In terms of team defense, you have to force the ballhandlers to the outside of the court and deny the middle part of the court because that is where the offensive players have the greatest advantage and the largest variety of ways to score. Offensive players need to have that Barry Sanders-Allen Iverson skittish kind of way of sliding through the defense--and full contact defense at that--in order to break through where the defense is trying to funnel you and thus gain an advantage. So, there is quite a bit going on strategically and it is evolving very, very rapidly. We are bringing on some pretty fantastic coaching minds who we think are going to take this thing to the next level.”

Friedman: “It sounds like what you are saying is that to develop someone into a good SlamBall player and then to assemble those players into a good SlamBall team is a two step process. First you have to get the athletes acclimated to the different kind of physical movements in the sport and then after they are acclimated to that aspect then you have to train them about how to apply those skills in the proper way from a strategic standpoint, such as keeping the other team away from the middle of the court and so forth. Would that be an accurate paraphrase or description?”

Gordon: “I think so. Some of the emerging strategies to look for this year include a midair pick and roll that we have developed that is pretty spectacular and some plays that are referred to as up and under plays or up and over plays that are two and three man plays that require a series of alley oops that are very intricately timed. There are secondary options and shot options based off of that, so it is really quite an impressive marriage involving the blending of basketball skills with football skills where you find ways to integrate core strategies from each sport. Then the other piece of it that I think is the most interesting is the psychological element of these athletes, the idea that they are bringing courage, fearlessness, coachability and professionalism to the table. We are finding a great number of very, very high caliber players who I think will represent this game very effectively on to the next level.”

Friedman: “Since this is a relatively new sport would I be correct to assume that most of the coaches you are developing are people who have played the sport and literally learned the strategies on the fly? There have not been decades and decades to develop coaching theory like basketball has; the theory is kind of developing out of practice. Would that be correct?”

Gordon: “We have players in our pipeline who are looking to become coaches and we certainly are trying to accommodate those transitions but we are also reaching out into multidisciplinary backgrounds, specifically basketball and football types but also rugby coaches—people who can come into the sport and hopefully bring some outside the box thinking and really help lay the groundwork for what we think are going to be very complex strategies.”

Friedman: “How can people watch the games on TV or go see the games in person?”

Gordon: “We are actually in the final stages of putting together our broadcast deal. Hopefully by the time you go to press with this we will be able to give you an answer about that.”

Friedman: “Is there anything that you would like to say about SlamBall that has not been covered in the questions that I asked?”

Gordon: “The sport seems to have touched a real nerve with a generation that grew up with video games and the idea of jumping higher and hitting harder. I think that it is the perfect kind of sport to bridge from the end of the NBA season to the beginning of the NFL season. I think that it is something that people can really get excited about during the summer and find a team whose style of play that they like; I think that they will see very disparate styles of play from the various teams and I think that they will find stars who they really can identify with.”

For more information about SlamBall, check out the official website.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:29 PM

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Friday, April 04, 2008

NBA Leaderboard, Part XX

The Celtics will not reach the 70 win plateau but if they run the table they will match Dallas' win total from last season (67). LeBron James and Dwight Howard are cruising to the scoring and rebounding crowns respectively but the assists crown looks like it will go down to the wire.

Best Five Records
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1) Boston Celtics, 60-15--clinched playoff berth
2) Detroit Pistons, 53-21--clinched playoff berth
3) New Orleans Hornets, 52-22
4) San Antonio Spurs, 52-23
5) L.A. Lakers, 51-24

With seven games to go, three teams--New Orleans, San Antonio and the L.A. Lakers--are within a game and a half of each other in the battle for first place in the Western Conference, with Phoenix and Houston just one game behind the Lakers and Utah a half game further back. While the West teams are battling it out, East leaders Boston and Detroit are tinkering with their lineups and trying to fend off boredom. "Rust versus rest" is an often debated topic in many sports and this year's playoffs could provide some interesting evidence to support one theory or the other: will the well rested Eastern leaders roll through the playoffs or will the fact that they clinched their playoff positions so early cause them to be rusty? It will also be interesting to see if the eventual Western champion proves to be a battle-tested juggernaut that wins the Finals or a war-weary team that falls prey to the Eastern champion.

Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables)
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1) LeBron James, CLE 30.4 ppg
2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.7 ppg
3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.5 ppg
4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.5 ppg
5) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 25.1 ppg
6) Kevin Martin, SAC 23.5 ppg
7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.5 ppg
8) Michael Redd, MIL 23.2 ppg
9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 22.8 ppg
10) Corey Maggette, LAC 22.5 ppg

13) Tracy McGrady, HOU 22.0 ppg

14) Chris Paul, NOH 21.4 ppg

28) Kevin Durant, SEA 20.0 ppg

30) Paul Pierce, BOS 19.9 ppg

38) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.9 ppg

41) Ray Allen, BOS 18.0 ppg

Kobe Bryant outscored LeBron James 31.5 ppg to 31.1 ppg in March but that will prove to be too little too late for Bryant to claim his third straight scoring title; barring a total collapse by James, Bryant would have to average more than 50 ppg in the season's final games to catch him.

Kevin Martin has now met the minimum requirements and thus he joined the leaderboard in sixth place.

If Denver does not make the playoffs then six of the league's top ten scorers will not participate in the postseason.

Kevin Durant averaged 21.8 ppg on .526 field goal shooting in March.

Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables)
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1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.5 rpg
2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.3 rpg
3) Tyson Chandler, NOH 12.0 rpg
4) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.5 rpg
5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.2 rpg
6) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.7 rpg
7) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.6 rpg
8) Lamar Odom, LAL 10.6 rpg
9) Sam Dalembert, PHI 10.3 rpg
10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.2 rpg
11) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg

16) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 9.3 rpg

22) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.7 rpg

24) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.6 rpg

28) LeBron James, CLE 8.0 rpg

30) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.6 rpg

Marcus Camby would have to average well over 20 rpg the rest of the way to catch Dwight Howard, who is about to become the youngest rebounding champion in NBA history.

Tim Duncan spent the first part of the season out of the top ten but he has quietly moved all the way up to fourth place. Sam Dalembert of the surging Sixers averaged 11.1 rpg in March, good enough to boost him into ninth place.

Al Horford has spent most of the season just below the 10 rpg mark and just outside of the top ten.

Top Ten Playmakers
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1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.4 apg
2) Steve Nash, PHX 11.2 apg
3) Deron Williams, UTA 10.5 apg
4) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.2 apg
5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.3 apg
6) Baron Davis, GSW 7.8 apg
7) LeBron James, CLE 7.6 apg
8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.2 apg
9) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.2 apg
10) Chauncey Billups, DET 7.1 apg

Chris Paul had been gaining ground on Steve Nash for quite some time and this week Paul took over the top spot. Paul averaged 13.3 apg in March compared to 9.9 apg for Nash but Nash had 18 assists in his first game in April and the race is still too close to call.

Note: All statistics are from ESPN.com

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:32 AM

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An Example of What is Wrong with the Blogosphere

Last year, I wrote a post titled "Why Blogging is Booming and Newspapers are Struggling to Catch Up." There is a lot about blogging technology and the people who are using it that is fantastic. One downside, however, is the reality that anybody can post anything at any time; people who are immature and, quite frankly, not very intelligent or professional, can say whatever they want. This can lead to petty back and forth feuds that resemble nothing so much as elementary school children who are bickering. I try to stay above the fray but unfortunately I have been drawn into some exchanges that I later regretted; moving forward I intend to avoid pointless exchanges with people who do not take their work seriously.

Before I participated in the Pat Croce conference call I did my homework not only about the sport but also about Croce. I tape recorded the entire call, transcribed the questions and answers and constructed a very thorough post that provides a ton of information about SlamBall and Pat Croce. Not everyone took such a professional, serious approach to this conference call. One person who--to borrow an old lyric--is so wack that I won't even call out his name phoned in after most of the other people covering the event were already on the line and did not bother to record the interview. Not surprisingly, his account of what took place is riddled with inaccuracies. In his post he also criticized me for asking Croce questions about the time that Croce spent with the 76ers. I posted a comment at this guy's website pointing out that he had attributed questions that I had asked to another participant and attributed questions that another participant had asked to me; I also reminded him that I saved the questions about the 76ers to the end of the conference call when the moderator opened the floor to all of us and there was general silence. If Croce had felt that the questions were inappropriate then I am sure that he would not have given lengthy, enthusiastic answers to them. Instead of apologizing and fixing his mistakes, this guy deleted my comment. So I sent him a personal email asking why he deleted my comment without fixing his mistakes. I also said that each of us asked the questions that we thought were most relevant and/or of interest to our readers so I did not understand why he singled out my questions for ridicule. I told him that I don't really care what he thinks of my questions but that he should at least get straight who said what.

Instead of acting in a professional manner and addressing his mistakes, he replied with a couple insulting emails and then made a post at his site calling me a "toolbox" and quoting from my email to him--out of context of the rest of my email and without asking my permission or even telling me at all. He mockingly said that the Croce conference call was not an interview about Darfur for Newsweek, as if that justifies his sloppy work and total lack of professionalism. Then he bragged about how his post about the Croce conference call has been linked to by more websites than my post has. That is actually a very interesting point; it is also worth mentioning that on Ballhype both his inaccurate account of the conference call and his post mocking me have been "hyped up" more than my detailed post about the conference call. What does that mean? He obviously believes that this proves that his work is great and my work is trash. The reality is that Ballhype is a social networking site. Friends "hype up" each other's posts. As I write this, the number one NBA post at Ballhype consists of the photos from DeShawn Stephenson's birthday party; that post has already received more Ballhype "love" than anything that I have ever posted at 20 Second Timeout. Does a post with those photos have more intrinsic value and merit than articles about Hall of Fame players or articles that provide in depth analysis of NBA games? Popularity and quality are not the same thing. The formula for creating a big, popular website is not hard to figure out: post pictures of scantily clad women, employ "edgy" humor and suck up to the bloggers who run the biggest sites in the hope that they will acknowledge your existence by linking to you. As Howard Cosell said in a different context, I never played the game; my approach is to do thorough research and write carefully crafted articles for intelligent readers--and I have no intention of ever changing.

I wrote the article about the conference call that I would have wanted to read if I had not been able to participate, an article that provides insight into who Croce is, how he became interested in SlamBall and what exactly his duties are as SlamBall Commissioner. I am not part of the "cool group" that hypes up each other's posts. I don't have much interaction with other bloggers, certainly not nearly as much interaction as I have with NBA players, coaches, scouts and other people who are directly affiliated with the sport. That is why it is so ironic that some of the people who are in the "cool group" have sniped at me that I am a self-promoter as if they have accused me of a deadly sin; these guys promote each other far more than I promote myself and they do so for reasons that have nothing to do with the intrinsic intellectual quality of the posts. It is hypocritical of them to criticize my efforts to promote my work when they work together to promote each other. Furthermore, what difference should it make to anyone how much or in what way I promote my work?

I promote my work because I am producing high quality articles and interviews about the game of basketball and I believe that there is an audience that is more interested in understanding the sport than in looking at Stevenson's birthday photos. Maybe I am wrong about that or maybe the audience that is interested in my kind of writing is much smaller than the audience that is interested in the Stevenson photos.

I don't care if the people in the "cool group" mock me and I really am not interested in joining the clique (as if they would want me in there anyway). All I politely asked in my comment at this guy's site is that he demonstrate enough professionalism to not misquote me. It is a sad commentary on the state of the blogosphere not only that he refuses to honor this request but that the blogosphere rewards his conduct instead of condemning it.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:15 AM

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

The "Delight" of Covering Gilbert Arenas

Today on "Pardon the Interruption," Tony Kornheiser said that Gilbert Arenas acknowledges no authority other than his own and that he is difficult to coach, concluding: "He's a drama queen--and he's a delight to cover." Arenas returned to action last night as only he could (or would); he kept his coach in the dark about his plans and simply strolled out of the locker room and to the bench when he felt like playing. This is considered "Gilbert being Gilbert" instead of being called what it really is: selfish, self-centered acting out by a player whose actual on-court contributions do not even come close to matching the glowing public reputation that he has been able to construct with the help of his accomplices in the media. Dirk Nowitzki is often blasted for supposedly being "soft"; did anyone who has said that retract those comments when Nowitzki came back from his ankle/knee injuries much earlier than expected and helped his team win a crucial game? Nowitzki's actions came in coordination with the team and with the team's best interests foremost in his mind; Arenas orchestrated his comeback so that all of the attention would be focused on him and he could care less about working with the coaching staff in a manner to maximize his team's chances for success.

It is fascinating to look at the process by which players fall in or out of favor with the media. For instance, Skip Bayless terms Terrell Owens "Team Obliterator" but--at least until very recently--Chad Johnson was considered, at worst, a lovable, harmless goof; Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon used to sing his praises regularly, though--to his credit--Wilbon backtracked heavily on that score during today's edition of PTI. Owens has played a key role in taking three different franchises to the playoffs and he played in a Super Bowl on a broken ankle; Johnson's selfishness and disruptive antics have been repeatedly criticized, publicly and privately, by Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis, yet until recently that criticism did not gain much traction in the media. Why has Johnson consistently been portrayed as a "good guy" and Owens has consistently been portrayed as a "bad guy"? It can't be about off the field legal problems, because neither player has any. It is no more or less complicated than the simple fact that members of the media personally like one guy and they don't like the other--or, as Kornheiser put it about Arenas, one guy is considered "a delight to cover" and the other guy is not.

Why is Arenas "a delight to cover"? What exactly does Kornheiser mean by that? Before Kornheiser was a TV celebrity he was a full-time writer and a very good one. He used to do lengthy articles/profiles for Inside Sports and many other publications. He certainly is capable of doing in depth research and producing a good story even about subjects who are not flamboyant attention seekers. It should not matter to a great writer if his subject provides a lot of juicy quotes and acts out in fantastic fashion or if he is a more reserved personality like Tim Duncan; the writer's job is to seek the truth and communicate that truth to his readers. That is the big difference between writing about something and showing something on TV. Arenas is a "TV superstar" who can provide great soundbites and entertaining (at least to some people) video clips; Duncan is a legit basketball superstar by virtue of the quality of his play but TV is probably not the best medium to use to examine his greatness. What Duncan does may not look exciting to some people but why is it not a "delight" to cover someone who works hard, perfects his craft and is dedicated to performing well at the highest level? Duncan never tries to attract attention at the expense of his teammates. He and Shaquille O'Neal are the two dominant players of the post-Michael Jordan era but Duncan never acts like he is bigger than the game. The reason that Duncan is not considered a "delight to cover" is that--particularly for those who work in the TV medium--it is more work to cover him. All you have to do to cover Arenas is turn on a camera or tape recorder and he does the rest; covering Duncan requires understanding the game of basketball and it requires taking the time and effort to examine what makes him great and why his teams are successful. It would be much more honest to say that Arenas is "easy" to cover; a true NBA fan would derive much more "delight" from receiving in depth coverage about Duncan.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:15 PM

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The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Walking Wounded Edition

On Wednesday, injured stars Gilbert Arenas, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki returned to action. The Wizards went 3-5 with Arenas at the start of the season and he had been out of action since then because of a balky knee. When the Wizards went 9-5 in their first 14 games this season sans Arenas, I asked, "Is Gilbert Arenas the Most Overrated All-Star in the NBA?" The premise behind that question is that Arenas was touted in some quarters as an MVP candidate midway through the 2006-07 season yet his team, to put it charitably, did not seem worse without him in those 14 games; in fact, their record improved the second that he exited the lineup, but I gave Arenas some benefit of the doubt regarding the eight games he played because he clearly was not 100% healthy. Still, a 9-5 record represented a better winning percentage than the Wizards enjoyed in previous seasons even with a completely healthy Arenas, so it is certainly reasonable to question his value. Arenas' fans did not much appreciate that post, responding by praising his value, praising the improvement of his teammates this season (something that was not apparent until Arenas stopped playing) and suggesting that a larger sample size of games would reveal Arenas' true value. In one of my responses to my critics I pledged to reevaluate Arenas and the Wizards after a larger sample of games had been played this season. I have not written extensively about this subject since that time, but now that the season is almost over--and Arenas has just returned--it is worth examining the cold hard facts. This is what the numbers tell us about the Wizards over the past two seasons:

Record with Butler and without Arenas: 27-18 (.600)
Record with Arenas and with Butler: 40-32 (.556)
Overall Record: 79-78 (.503)
Record without Butler and without Arenas: 10-20 (.333)
Record with Arenas and without Butler: 2-8 (.200)

(all of these statistics are based on information found at Basketball-Reference.com)

Obviously, a complete analysis would require a game by game breakdown of the home/road schedule, strength of opposition, key players who were missing from the opposing team and so forth. Still, the overall pattern reinforces my initial premise: Arenas is overrated, at least in terms of his impact on winning. The Wizards have been at their best, by far, with Butler and without Arenas and they have been at their worst with Arenas and without Butler. The impression that I started to form last season and that has only been strengthened by subsequent events is that Butler, not Arenas, is the most valuable player on the team. It is also worth mentioning that the Wizards were 39-34 last season before both All-Stars were felled by season-ending injuries and they are 38-37 so far this season despite being without Arenas for virtually the entire campaign. Essentially, the Wizards are a .500 team with or without Arenas, so why should he be considered an MVP or max contract level player? Arenas puts up gaudy individual numbers but they have little apparent impact on the team's won/loss record.

The Score: Milwaukee 110, Washington 109

The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas scored 17 points on 5-9 shooting while playing just under 20 minutes. He also had four turnovers and just two assists and he posted the worst plus/minus number (-8) of any player in the game.

The Bottom Line: On the last play of the game, Arenas inexplicably double-teamed a well covered Andrew Bogut, leaving his man--Ramon Sessions--wide open to nail the game winning jumper. When you score nearly a point a minute and have a negative plus/minus number that tends to suggest some defensive liabilities. During ESPN's Boston-Indiana telecast, Mark Jones mentioned that Arenas has vowed to be a pass-first player now. Hubie Brown replied, "It will be great if he disciplines himself to do that...He's got to fit in to their style of play right now." As he gets his strength and his stamina back Arenas will no doubt once again be able to score 25-plus points in 40 minutes but as long as he turns the ball over, thinks shot first instead of pass first and does not play good defense he will not have a major, positive effect on the team's won-loss record.

The Score: Dallas 111, Golden State 86

The Key Stat: Dallas outscored Golden State 44-16 in fast break points. Dirk Nowitzki had 18 points, five rebounds and no turnovers in 27 minutes of action in his first game back after sustaining ankle and knee injuries.

The Bottom Line: Another old theme that I have mentioned more than once here is that teams should not be afraid to run against the Warriors, something that Dallas demonstrated in an early season win against their playoff bete noire. Or, as Jon Barry put it during ESPN's telecast of Dallas' rout of Golden State yesterday, "Teams that run are always susceptible to be run on." The Warriors shot .384 from the field and .250 from three point range and the Mavericks wisely rebounded those misses and pushed the ball quickly up the court, not waiting to engage in trench warfare in the half court. Yes, it helps to have Jason Kidd (five points, 11 rebounds, 17 assists) handling the ball and making the decisions but the Mavs won two fast paced games against the Warriors earlier this season without Jason Kidd (the Warriors' only win versus the Mavs came last Sunday when Nowitzki was unable to play due to injury). Perhaps not every team has the right personnel or sufficient depth to run against the Warriors but it is the correct strategy for the Mavs and any other team that is able to do so. Teams that slow down their offensive attack against the Warriors often struggle because the Warriors will run on makes or misses; they play fast no matter what, so it makes sense for their opponents to get as many easy scores as possible.

The Score: L.A. Lakers 104, Portland 91

The Key Stat: Kobe Bryant led both teams in scoring (36 points) and rebounds (13) and he tied with Gasol for the team lead in assists (seven). Bryant shot 10-16 from the field and 12-13 from the free throw line and he had three steals and just one turnover. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory. Those stats are great but the number that stands out is his plus/minus rating: +25, 17 better than any other player in the game.

The Bottom Line: Gasol had 10 points, six rebounds and seven assists in his return to action. He not only provided a much needed boost but by starting and playing 32 minutes he relegated Ronny Turiaf to the bench role that much better suits him. Nevertheless, the driving force on this team is Bryant. He is the reason that the Lakers are contending for the top seed in the West despite all of the games that Gasol and Andrew Bynum have missed. Jonathan Abrams of the L.A. Times just wrote an interesting article in which he noted, "Among his peers, Bryant is overwhelmingly the most intimidating. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll of current NBA players asking who scares you the most, Bryant earned 35% of the vote, while the next four--Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard--combined for only 24%."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:29 AM

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SlamBall Commissioner Pat Croce: "Who is Going to Tell me What's Impossible?"

Few people personify the ethos of living life to the fullest more than Pat Croce, who went from being the first physical conditioning coach in NHL history (1981, Philadelphia Flyers) to being the owner/operator of a chain of 40 fitness centers. In the mid-1980s he served as a trainer for the Philadelphia 76ers and then a decade later he acquired an ownership stake in the team and served for five years as team president, during which time the Sixers climbed all the way from the depths of the draft lottery to the heights of the 2001 NBA Finals. Croce is an avid motorcyclist, a best-selling author and he has also earned a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.

His current passion is SlamBall, a sport created by Mason Gordon. Croce is the SlamBall Commissioner and he brings to this endeavor the same passion and energy that he has applied to everything else that he has done. On his website, Croce provides advice to help people be more successful. One of his tips is about the "elevator pitch," which he describes as "a concise, carefully planned, and well-practiced overview that you should be able to deliver in the time span of an elevator ride (which is usually less than a minute). The elevator pitch is the brief 'tease' typically used by entrepreneurs when pitching an idea to a venture capitalist for potential funding. Or by TV show producers trying to get their show idea picked up by network executives. Or by a publisher to buy your writing. Or by salespeople hoping to tickle customer interest."

On Wednesday, I participated in a conference call with Croce and listened to him share his vision for what SlamBall can become. Here is his "elevator pitch" for the sport, in which he dismisses the idea that SlamBall will have the same fate as the XFL:

"I don’t think that there is a comparison whatsoever! XFL was just bastardized football. Ours is not crazy basketball. Ours is a combination of basketball, acrobatics, extreme action sports where you will see things that skateboarders and bikers do with their equipment that these guys (SlamBall players) will be able to do with their bodies once they get used to the trampolines and the in the air momentum. The XFL was no good. Everyone watched the first half of that and you were bored. They were talking more about the cheerleaders than the game. Those who saw SlamBall on Spike TV in 2002 and 2003—you couldn’t take your eyes away from it; you were riveted. It was wild. Everyone looked like Michael Jordan above the rim and it was full contact! Whack, bam, slam you’re dead! It was wonderful. You had them whacking off of the boards like in hockey, you had the basketball prowess. I don’t see any comparison. I think that what UFC is doing to traditional sports SlamBall can do to traditional sports. We’re not saying we’re basketball. We’re not saying we’re hockey. We’re not saying were football players. We’re no different than skateboarding or snowboarding; ours is just a different sport for a different generation. The longevity of a sport is to be entertained and to see something different where you say, ‘Wow, look at that guy.’ XFL had nothing. It did nothing to make you say, ‘Wow.’ I think that the ratings of the XFL for the first half of the first game were wonderful and then they went down precipitously ever since then. I think that SlamBall is totally different. Once the players get used to the acrobatics and the aerial display of their own bodies we don’t know what they will be able to do in the air.”

I had an opportunity to ask Croce several questions; naturally, I could not resist inquiring about his experiences in the NBA and how they relate to what he is trying to do now with SlamBall.

Friedman: “You have had a very interesting career and life path, from being a trainer with the 76ers to owning the team to being a black belt and a motorcyclist. I am interested to know the background of how you first found out about SlamBall and how you got involved in the league.”

Croce: “David, that’s a good question. It was the summer of 2001 and I had just left the 76ers. I finished my five year term from worst to first with the team. We busted the Lakers out here in (game one) of the Finals of 2001. A friend of mine, Mike Tollin—the movie producer and director—came to me with an idea that he and Mason Gordon were pursuing, this game called SlamBall. He told me to come out to L.A. and see what they were doing. They knew that I had stepped away from the 76ers and said that they would love to have me be involved. Mike Tollin, to me, is one of the smartest guys on the planet. He’s got common sense and book sense. So I came out, and he was doing the show ‘Arliss’ at the time and I forget which movie he was producing at the time. I saw these guys—the whole court was probably about three or four feet off the ground and it had glass all around it—and it looked like Michael Jordan everywhere. I didn’t know what was going on. I see them hitting each other and the training was going on and they were hitting and rolling and doing all these kinds of drills. I thought, ‘This is outrageous.’ I liked it and I got captivated. I left and said to Mike that I was interested but that I’m not the perfect demographic; I wanted to bring my 21 year old son Michael and see what he says about it—and I won’t prejudice him about it at all. I think that in January or February 2002 I brought Michael out to see it as they were training and getting ready for the first season and he was in awe; he loved it. He was captivated by the athletes, by their conditioning and not only their aerobic capacity but I should say there should be another term for it—‘aerobatic’ or whatever you would call it when you do something in the air when you are up there that high. After that I got involved as a spokesperson and helped give it some validity and authenticity by talking about it to Jim Rome and Dan Patrick. We invited Jay Leno and Jay Mohr and the ‘Best Damn Sports Show’--I forget which big football player it was but he said, ‘This is BS’ and he got out there and got his ass kicked. It was so funny and so cool to see this macho guy who could not do squat against these guys who were nimble and used to the tramps. I was hooked and I’m still hooked. I wouldn’t be involved otherwise. If you know anything about me—if you go to my website PatCroce.com and obviously David you’ve done some research on me—I only pursue things that I am passionate about because I don’t have to work. I want to be able to enjoy this journey and I really like this sport. I think that this is going to go somewhere and I love Mason and Michael because they are not complacent. They will not settle for whatever we had. We want to take it to what we don’t even know exists yet.”

Friedman: “What specifically are your duties? You are listed as the commissioner of the sport. We have a clear idea of exactly what David Stern and Roger Goodell do; we see them publicly and understand what their duties are. What exactly are your duties and your day to day involvement with SlamBall?”

Croce: “Hey, that’s a great question. I’m doing one of them right now. I want to preach the gospel. Just think of me as David Stern on steroids—or on caffeine, but I don’t drink coffee. I set the law. For instance, if those athletes are not in shape, they are not coming to camp. Mason is the CEO and he runs the SlamBall league but what I can do as commissioner is help to ensure that any policies, procedures and amendments--anything that we put in the commandments of the league, whether it is about players who fight getting expelled or anything else--all the players know that I walk the talk. If it’s in writing, then I will adhere to it. If players don’t do what they are supposed to do they will be fined or suspended. I will make sure that I lay the law down. I did it with Allen Iverson and I will do it with them.”

Friedman: “You were a trainer with the 76ers. I know that the championship team (in 1982-83) was really in the forefront in terms of hiring John Kilbourne as a dance coordinator and looking at flexibility and conditioning and using and applying that in sports. Since it is the 25th anniversary of that championship team, what memory stands out most for you from your experience as a trainer with the 76ers and how did you apply those experiences to your future endeavors as an owner and now as a commissioner?”

Croce: “I wasn’t there in 1983. I didn’t come on until Charles (Barkley) came.”

Friedman: “Right, you were there starting a little bit after that.”

Croce: “I did know Kilbourne, who was the first to bring that kind of flexibility (training) to the NBA. I was the first conditioning coach in the NHL in 1981 with the Flyers. He came on (with the Sixers) and then he brought me on the next year because of Andrew Toney’s injury and to get the ‘Round Mound of Rebound’ down from a svelte 300 to 250. I’ve always been a master proponent of fitness, of conditioning off the court, off the ice, because I believe that since the bodies are their tools these athletes have to be in fine tuned shape flexibility-wise, strength-wise, aerobic-wise, anaerobic-wise, core-wise. So we were doing plyometrics and that kind of stuff back in the 80s. When I was with the Sixers (as owner/president from 1996-2001), probably my biggest frustration was that Allen Iverson, the little SOB, would not work out off the court. He just wouldn’t do it. God gave him such great gifts that he thought that his talents would last forever. You know what, he’s defying gravity right now. It was such a bummer to be the conditioning guru who could not get this guy to do it. He thought it didn’t matter; he would do it but he would not do it with the intensity that a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would do it. I would say, 'Bubba' (Iverson’s nickname), come on, you’ve got to train.’ Here, as the commissioner of SlamBall, I can dictate that every athlete will be doing off court training. Every athlete will come to camp in shape. When I first started with the Flyers in 1981, they’d come to camp with hockey sticks under one arm and a case of beer under the other and I had to get them in shape. They’d be throwing up. Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach and the others—camp was for getting in shape back then. Then, the Russians really taught America that you have to do all this dry land training to be a great hockey player. I think that has permeated everywhere, except maybe baseball.”

Friedman: “Yeah, it does not seem to have caught on with pitchers completely--like David Wells.”

Croce laughs.

Friedman: “You mentioned that you got into SlamBall right after you left the Sixers.”

Croce: “When I left the Sixers I still kept a percentage of the team for another year but I got into SlamBall in the fall of 2001 when I started talking with Mike Tollin and Mason Gordon.”

Friedman: “You had such a passion for the Sixers and for basketball--like you do for SlamBall as well--is there any way that you might decide to be an owner or a managing general partner with an NBA team?”

Croce: “David, you know what? I’m still passionate about the NBA. I still talk with David Stern and Adam Silver and I’m still an NBA fan. I’ve learned in life—I’m smart enough now—to know to never say never. So I would never say never because you don’t know. You don’t know. If an opportunity presents itself, you don’t know. Philadelphia is my home and so it was very special. The problem is I couldn’t leave there without making the Sixers a winner or otherwise they would have burned my home down.”

Friedman: “That’s pressure.”

Croce: “Way pressure. Look at everyone who has left Philadelphia. It’s scary because if you don’t do well there, they’re not a patient bunch. They’re passionate and that passion can fuel their dreams so strongly that you’ve got to win--and I loved it.”

Friedman: “Have you had any involvement with their commemoration of the championship team?”

Croce: “Oh sure! Even when I was there, I had the team back—Julius (Erving) and Moses Malone and Bobby Jones and even (trainer) Al Domenico and (former GM) Pat Williams and (Coach) Billy Cunningham. I even retired Charles Barkley’s jersey. I can’t remember everything that I did during those five years because it melds together with the time that I was a conditioning coach and physical therapist about 10 years before I became the President and minority owner. I was involved in every one of their tributes. Are you kidding me? We don’t have that many champions in Philadelphia; the ’83 Sixers are the last championship team we’ve had.”

Friedman: “Are you still in contact with Andrew Toney? I know that he does not stay in touch as much with the group.”

Croce: “You’re right. I was in touch with him when I was running the team but I haven’t been in touch since then. You’re right. He is very aloof, very introverted. Maurice Cheeks offered him an assistant coaching job.”

Friedman: “I remember that.”

Croce: “I thought that he was going to take that. You know the guy, the hardest one to reach who I could never get? He wasn’t from the ’83 championship team. He was from the Billy Cunningham team..."

Friedman: “The championship team that Cunningham played on?”

Croce: “Yeah. When was that?”

Friedman: “That was 1966-67. Was it Hal Greer?”

Croce: “Hal Greer! I called Hal Greer and I wanted him to come back because I got everyone else back in the house—but I couldn’t get him. I wanted Hal back in the house but he just had such a negative response, I guess, in reaction to the former ownership that he would never come back.”

Friedman: “Yeah, that’s another story with the Sixers but I think that a lot of people have that attitude with that particular group.”

Croce laughs.

Friedman: “The reason I asked some of those questions is that I grew up as a Sixers fan, particularly of that team in the 1980s with Dr. J and Toney. I think that Toney is one of the underrated players of all-time. It is really a great tragedy what happened with him with the foot injuries and that his career did not have a natural progression or a natural conclusion.”

Croce: “Oh, you are so right—that he didn’t leave on a high note so that everyone could just see him leave the building like Julius did.”

Friedman: “I guess because there was not MRI technology, people did not really understand exactly what his injury was and there was all that controversy about the situation.”

Croce: “He believed—or he overheard—the owner say that he was faking. That is really what set him off. I was there; I was his physical therapist taking care of him.”

Friedman: “That was a plantar fascia situation, right?”

Croce: “No, it was more than that. It also involved his ankle. He had a problem with the sub-talar joint.”

Here are some of Croce's other thoughts regarding SlamBall (the topic is listed in italics and Croce's answers are included within quotation marks):

Why has SlamBall been on hiatus for several seasons?

Croce: "The hiatus occurred because we had it on Spike TV those first two years, though it wasn’t called Spike the first year; I think it was called TNN and then they switched to Spike. We didn’t want to be a made for TV sport. We want to be a traditional sport, a franchise sport similar to Arena Football on a second tier compared to the big four sports. So we went on a European tour, an Asian tour and we were looking all this time for a broadcast partner who is a big player, a global player like IMG. We needed someone who had the power, the bandwidth to create an international splash with sponsorships, with venues, with practice facilities so that we could take this to the next level. We weren’t going to settle. We did not want to be a cartoon sport for TV. That was not what we wanted. We are looking at all kinds of ways to take the sport to the next level. One of them is that we have engaged a consultant named Vance Walberg, who is notorious for his dribble drive offense that (Coach John) Calipari is using to take Memphis to the Final Four. We read about him in Sports Illustrated and he has come in and consulted with us to see how we can make the plays not only more high energy, more intricate but so that--like the pick and roll in basketball--we can come up with our own plays in SlamBall. Mason Gordon, the CEO and creator of SlamBall is fanatical. He is nuts about this. We don’t want what you saw a few years ago. We want to take this to the next level, whether it’s the players, the plays, the technology of the court. We have a philosophy of continuous improvement."

How will fans be able to watch SlamBall?

Croce: "We have some great opportunities (for deals with TV networks) and we hope to announce that soon. We want it on a network. Obviously, there will be some great internet strategy associated with that. With IMG as our partner, Chris Albrecht--who is one of the key players in IMG who you might have heard of because he was the Chairman/CEO of HBO, who brought them ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Entourage’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’--is our partner in this and he and Michael (Tollin) and Mason (Gordon) have spoken with (NBC's) Dick Ebersol and CBS and FOX and Versus. We are looking at a variety of tiers so that you can see it. We have to make it viewable. We could have the best sport in the world, but if people don’t see it what good is it? We want to make sure that we are internet savvy so that we have a multiplatform network so that you can see it in a variety of ways. In June we will film all of this year’s tournament. This Monday we have tryouts in L.A., followed by tryouts Tuesday in New York and Thursday in Florida. The following weekend is when camp starts--two weeks of intense camp, during which 120 athletes from the draft will be weeded down to 64. Then for the next six weeks they will go through extensive training with their coaches and trainers. The month of June is when we will film all of the games, either here in L.A. or in Las Vegas. We have also been offered (a venue) in New York, so I don’t know where it is going to be filmed this year but the goal next year is to have a franchise league in eight to 10 cities so that there is a Philly team, a New York team, an L.A. team so it’s the real deal and we have teams at venues where you can see them live. When we did this for Spike TV we filmed for several weeks at Universal Walk right here in L.A. It was live for people to see and the stands were packed but I can’t answer that right now in terms of where we are filming in June but we’ll let you know right away. The best way is to see it live. Shaq came and Snoop Dogg came--to watch it live is unbelievable."

Where do you see SlamBall being in five years?

Croce: "The same place you would have seen snowboarding or skateboarding or beach volleyball. I want to see it in the Olympics in 2012. People always say, ‘You’re nuts. That’s impossible’ but remember that I was a trainer who became an owner of an NBA franchise, so who is going to tell me what’s impossible?"

For more information about SlamBall, check out the official website.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 AM

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Late 8-0 Run Lifts Nuggets Over Suns

An 8-0 run in the last 1:25 enabled the Denver Nuggets to beat the Phoenix Suns 126-120, earning a split in their back to back meetings and moving them past Golden State into the eighth spot in the Western Conference. Allen Iverson scored a game-high 31 points on 9-18 shooting from the field and 11-11 free throw shooting. He also had three assists and two steals. Carmelo Anthony had 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists but he also committed eight turnovers. J.R. Smith again provided scoring punch off of the bench (17 points in 28 minutes). Leandro Barbosa, who has moved into the starting lineup recently due to Grant Hill's groin injury, led Phoenix with 27 points. Amare Stoudemire contributed 25 points and 10 rebounds, though he also had six turnovers. Steve Nash got his teammates involved in the first three quarters before erupting for 14 fourth quarter points; he finished with 17 points, 18 assists, four rebounds and three steals. Shaquille O'Neal had another double double (14 points, 13 rebounds).

Most of this game looked like a rerun of the Suns' 132-117 victory over the Nuggets on Monday. Denver again took a big first quarter lead, scored 70 points in the first half and had to endure a Phoenix comeback in the second half. One key difference this time is that Raja Bell, who had 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes in Monday's game, was ejected after only playing 21 minutes. He is the Suns' best perimeter defender, so his absence hurt the team, particularly since they were already a bit shorthanded without Hill. Bell received his two technical fouls in quick succession after fouling Anthony on back to back plays and engaging in some jawing with the Nuggets' star, who did more listening than talking and seemed amused by whatever Bell was saying--much the same reaction that Kobe Bryant had a few years ago when Bell pulled his tough guy act in the playoffs (not that Bell is not a tough minded person but it is unlikely that he would physically challenge the much bigger Bryant or Anthony outside the regulated confines of an NBA game). Bell may have received his second technical foul for smiling in bemusement after he was whistled for the second of his two fouls on Anthony and, if so, he joins Rasheed Wallace as perhaps the only players to be ejected for looking at/smiling at an official without actually saying anything or making a gesture/kicking the basketball. One interesting aspect of this whole situation, as Nuggets' broadcaster (and former NBA player) Scott Hastings pointed out, is that when Stoudemire came over to try to calm Bell down and pull him away from Anthony (before the second technical had been assessed) O'Neal reached over and blocked Stoudemire from getting any closer. Hastings speculated that O'Neal had determined that if Bell and Anthony both got tossed it would be in the Suns' interest, so he did not want to break up whatever was happening. At least Anthony learned enough from his conduct last year in Madison Square Garden to not let his emotions get the best of him and do something that could have proven very costly to his team.

The Nuggets are at their best offensively in the transition game or when they can set back screens to open up a player to catch a lob pass for an easy dunk. Otherwise, their halfcourt offense is not particularly imaginative: it consists mainly of either Iverson operating one on one from the wing or Anthony operating one on one from the wing or the post area. Sometimes there is some ball movement--Anthony Carter did have 10 assists--but for long stretches the Nuggets ride or die with one of their two stars going one on one. At a certain level perhaps that makes some sense; after all, you do want the ball to be in the hands of your best players. Still, this kind of "system" is not going to be effective against good defensive teams because it is too predictable and does not involve enough player or ball movement. Yes, the Nuggets can rack up points against lesser teams--or against teams like Phoenix that are willing to run with them--but, like the "old" Suns, they will not have much success in the playoffs (assuming that they even qualify for postseason play).

Even though the Suns lost, they did some things on offense that they were not able to do before acquiring O'Neal--things that will work well for them in the playoffs. Just like in Monday's game, when O'Neal was in the game they made a concentrated effort to get him the ball down low. Their first two baskets of the third quarter came on a Nash alley oop to O'Neal and an O'Neal feed to Stoudemire for a dunk. With Denver leading 95-93 late in the third quarter, the Suns brought the ball down court and instead of running a quick hitting play they fed the ball to O'Neal in the post. He held the ball for six seconds (he was stationed just outside of the three second lane) as some Suns spotted up for potential jump shots while other Suns cut through the lane. Finally, the Nuggets messed up a defensive rotation and O'Neal delivered a slick pass to Brian Skinner for an easy dunk.

In the fourth quarter, the Suns repeatedly used an alignment with a shooter on each baseline, O'Neal at one elbow, Stoudemire at the other elbow and Nash at the top of the key with a live dribble. Nash could use a screen by either O'Neal or Stoudemire. Talk about a nightmare for a defense! This offensive set forces the defense to choose between protecting the paint--thus leaving Nash open for a jumper--or trapping Nash and trying to rotate before he passes to O'Neal or Stoudemire for a dunk. Expect to see a steady diet of this during the playoffs.

The Suns took their first lead of the game when Nash's two free throws with 3:11 left in the fourth quarter made the score 113-112 Phoenix. Anthony answered with two free throws and then Nash responded with a three pointer. Camby buried a jumper to make the score 116-116 and the lead continued to changed hands as Stoudemire and Iverson each made a pair of free throws. Nash made a tough running shot with 1:25 remaining to put Phoenix up 120-118 and the Nuggets faced the very real possibility of being swept in this back to back and falling further out of the playoff picture. Anthony tied the game once again by making two free throws and then the Suns finally blinked: Stoudemire missed a jumper and on the next Denver possession Iverson found Camby at the top of the key with just a few seconds left on the shot clock. Camby's jumper over O'Neal's outstretched arm gave the Nuggets the lead for good and they wrapped up the victory by making four out of six free throws in the final :27.

This was an essential victory for the Nuggets, who still have a lot of work to do to stay in the playoff hunt. Winning the second game of a back to back set on the road after you beat the same team at home the previous night is tough but the Suns gave it a real go despite being shorthanded at the end without Hill and Bell. It cannot be emphasized enough that there are no back to back games in the playoffs. That extra day of rest means a lot to veteran players like O'Neal, Nash, Hill and Bell.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:21 AM

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Wages of Wins Weighs in on the MVP Race

I have always believed that statistics are a very powerful tool that can be used to help us understand basketball (and many other things as well)--but statistics are a tool, not a perfect, all-knowing force, and a tool is only useful if it is the right one for a given job and if it is wielded skillfully by a knowledgeable person; a construction worker using a jackhammer would not do a good job detailing a car. In the past few years a dichotomy has developed between a group of people who believe that numbers tell us all we need to know about sports (a trend that started in baseball with Bill James and "sabermetrics" and has since spread to other sports) and a group of people who primarily trust what they learn from firsthand observation of players. I believe that statistics are most helpful when they are utilized by an informed observer who has actually seen the players/teams in question play. Players are not robots and they are not accumulating statistics in isolation; a play that results in a slam dunk may have involved multiples screens, passes and defensive switches but the boxscore only records a made shot and possibly an assist. There is a big difference in quality between a player who beat his defender off of the dribble, soared over a rotating defender and dunked and a player who was wide open because his team's superstar was double-teamed, enabling him to catch an easy pass and dunk all by himself. Yes, a season's worth of statistics evens out some of these discrepancies but the bottom line is that proper player evaluation cannot be done entirely with a spreadsheet. As Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey told me, statistics are important but the "eyeball is number one."

David Berri and his Wages of Wins partners produce some interesting work but I fundamentally object to one of their basic premises, namely that basketball and other sports can be understood at a deep level without even watching the game. In fact, they believe that watchers are inherently biased, unable to differentiate between flashy, memorable plays and solid, unspectacular plays that are just as effective; they fail to consider that statistics and the methods to evaluate them are the products of human minds and thus also contain biases and imperfections. A knowledgeable basketball observer certainly can utilize statistics effectively but the kind of detachment from the world of sports that Berri and his group propose does not lead to greater objectivity; rather, it leads to bizarre conclusions such as performance-enhancing drugs don't enhance performance or--regarding the 1996 Chicago Bulls--"Per 48 minutes played, Rodman's productivity even eclipsed Jordan." The truth about PEDs--and why there is erroneous information about their effectiveness--can be found here. I trust that most serious NBA fans realize that although Rodman was a great player only a statistical system that vastly overrates rebounding would suggest that he was more productive than Jordan. Rodman was a very valuable member of five championship teams for two different franchises but you could not build a team solely around his talents.

Berri and company recently weighed in on the MVP debate. Since they are much more interested in crunching certain numbers than considering the totality of what happens on the court, they are oblivious to the fact that the MVP race is likely going to come down not to Kobe Bryant and LeBron James--as they suggest--but rather Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. James is probably going to be "disqualified" by virtue of his team not winning 50 games, much like Bryant was "disqualified" the past two years (I disagree with this kind of "disqualification" but that is another story). Starting with the faulty Bryant/James premise, WoW eventually concludes that Bryant should not get this year's MVP for three reasons:

- Yes, Kobe is a great player. He just isn’t the most productive player in the NBA.

-The Lakers improvement this year is not about Kobe.

- Kobe, who has not been voted MVP in the past, is actually not much different from what he was in the past. He just has better teammates.

You can click on the above link to read the arguments that they use to support those three points. My response to those three points is simple:

1) Measuring the "productivity" of a basketball player is not an exact science. For one thing, statistics do not capture everything that happens on the court. Second, per-minute numbers make assumptions about how productive a player would be if he played more minutes but those assumptions cannot be proven. Third, "productivity" is interactive: a player who draws double-teams can make weaker players seem more productive, while four weaker players surrounding a great player can make the great player seem less productive. Bryant is a more skillful player than LeBron James and Bryant has fewer weaknesses. James is not a good free throw shooter or three point shooter and his defense, although improving, is not as good as Bryant's. The Spurs capitalized on James' inability to shoot outside by constructing a wall and keeping him out of the paint in the NBA Finals. Granted, not too many teams have the mindset and personnel to carry out such a plan but that showed that James, as great as he is--and I rank him as the second best player in the league--still has weaknesses.

As for the second and third points, here is a comment that I posted at WoW:

Someone else already pointed out the fallacy in comparing Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years, namely that this year’s MVP should be the most valuable player of this season; Kobe’s performance in other seasons is not relevant and does not disqualify him from winning the award this season if he is the most qualified candidate.

Here are three relevant issues that the author failed to consider:

1) When looking at the Lakers’ record with various player combinations (with Bynum, with Gasol, etc.) did you factor in the home/road balance of those various schedules and the quality of the opponents that the Lakers faced? As I pointed out in my article about the Lakers’ "three seasons" (Breaking Down L.A.'s Three Seasons), their schedule without Bynum and Gasol has been heavily slanted toward road games and/or games against good teams. Their 11-9 record with Kobe and without either Bynum or Gasol is very impressive considering that fact, even with the two recent losses to poor teams (Fisher has come up lame now as well).

2) The author claims that Kobe should not be the MVP because most of the team’s improvement has come from the other players but he fails to consider how much of that “improvement” is the result of playing with Kobe. For instance, the Lakers have spot up shooters who get wide open shots because Kobe must be double-teamed; Kobe’s presence gets them open opportunities whether or not Kobe is credited with an assist on those shots. Kobe is the victim of a form of “double jeopardy”: when those players failed to make those shots the past two seasons he was “disqualified” for MVP consideration because his team did not win enough games; this year they are making those shots and he is being “disqualified” because he supposedly has such a strong supporting cast. Nash’s supporting cast of Amare, Marion and others was not held against him, so why should the improvement of Kobe’s supporting cast be held against him?

3) Paul’s top two big men have been healthy and played together for the entire season. Kobe has played with Bynum, then without either big man, then with Gasol without Bynum and now has endured another stretch without either big man. Yet, despite all of this turmoil, Kobe’s team is right in the thick of the race with the Hornets. Last year, the Hornets and Lakers both had injury problems and the Lakers had two starters (Kwame and Smush) who would not have even played for any other playoff team, let alone being starters; Kobe guided his team to the playoffs, Paul did not. Yes, last season does not directly relate to this season but if we are going to compare Kobe this year to Kobe in previous years the above analysis is much more to the point and highlights the fact that Kobe consistently has done more with less talent around him than Paul has. Put Kobe with West and Chandler for a whole year and give Paul the proportions of Bynum, Gasol and Turiaf/Mbenga that Kobe has had this season and do you really believe that Paul would do as much with that group as Kobe has?

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:53 PM

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Suns Spot Nuggets 22 Point Lead Before Winning by 15

The Phoenix Suns pulled off the third biggest comeback in franchise history, rallying from a 22 point deficit to defeat the Denver Nuggets, 132-117. Amare Stoudemire posted game-high totals in scoring (41 points) and rebounds (14), shooting 12-22 from the field and 17-19 from the free throw line. Steve Nash added 36 points and eight assists, shooting 11-18 from the field, including 8-12 from three point range. Nash scored 21 points in the second half. Shaquille O'Neal contributed 20 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 8-13 from the field. Any notion that he would slow down the Suns' running game has been completely refuted; his defensive rebounds and outlet passes are fueling the break and he even scored the Suns' first points of the night by racing down court, rebounding Leandro Barbosa's missed fast break layup and scoring a layup of his own. J.R. Smith led the Nuggets with 23 points in 23 minutes, Allen Iverson had 21 points and seven assists and Carmelo Anthony had 18 points, 11 rebounds and four assists but shot just 7-18 from the field.

The Suns got off to a quick start, taking a 16-12 lead as O'Neal scored eight points on 4-5 field goal shooting but by the end of the first quarter the Nuggets led 39-25. Obviously, the Suns' defense was not great but the real problem was that they were missing open shots; Phoenix shot just 32 percent from the field in the first half and trailed 70-51 at halftime. The score was still 76-60 Denver at the 9:14 mark of the third quarter when Nash caught an inadvertent elbow to the face from Anthony Carter. Suns' broadcaster Gary Bender inexplicably exclaimed, "I hope that's not the same nose he injured versus the Spurs." Gary, unless Nash has two noses that would indeed be the very same nose that Nash banged against Tony Parker's forehead while trying to get a steal during last year's playoffs. By the way, isn't it funny how nobody cared one bit about the knot on Parker's forehead that happened as a result of that play? Right after the collision, Parker seemed to have gotten the worst of it and he was woozy for a few minutes--but then Nash started dripping blood all over the court and Parker's head injury was completely ignored. Anyway, after Nash caught the elbow from Carter he paused for a minute and then hit the deck like he'd been shot. When the officials did not call a foul, the perplexed Nash suddenly regained his health, popped back up, caught the inbounds pass and play continued. There is no doubt that he milked the situation to try to draw a foul, just like he later fooled the officials by grabbing Marcus Camby's jersey late in the game and pulling him to the ground, drawing a foul on Camby--but there is also no doubt that Nash and the Suns ramped up their intensity the rest of the way. Within the next two minutes, Raja Bell hit a three pointer, Nash made a three pointer and Stoudemire sank a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 77-68. By the end of the quarter, Denver was only up 92-86 and, to borrow Fred Carter's new favorite phrase, the Nuggets were plummeting and unable to open their parachutes.

The teams traded jumpers in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter but the Suns pulled to within 101-99 because some of their jumpers came from three point range. Then Barbosa missed two straight three pointers and Denver pushed the lead back to six, 105-99. Bender and his broadcasting partner Eddie Johnson began talking about how much energy teams expend when trying to come back and how hard it is to sustain that. Then the Suns did something that they never could have done with their old, pre-Shaquille O'Neal team: they started pounding the ball inside. Stoudemire drew a foul and split a pair of free throws. O'Neal posted up and fed a cutting Stoudemire for a dunk. O'Neal dunked off of a feed from Boris Diaw, was fouled and made the free throw to cut the lead to 108-107. Nash hit a three pointer to give the Suns their first lead of the second half, 110-108, and the next time down court Stoudemire fed O'Neal for a dunk. After another Stoudemire dunk and an O'Neal layup, Phoenix led 116-109 with 4:49 remaining and you could tell that the game was already over; there was no way that Denver could get enough defensive stops to catch the Suns. The "old" Suns relied entirely on making shots off of the pick and roll play or drive and kicks but these Suns can not only do those things--as they showed in the third quarter--but they can also play what ESPN's Tim Legler likes to call "bully ball," as they demonstrated in the fourth quarter.

Is there anyone out there who still asserts that Denver's defense is not as bad as advertised? If so, please stop. The Nuggets shot .527 from the field and still got blown out; this is not football, so you can't blame special teams play or the weather. In the second half of this game the Nuggets gave up so many open shots they looked like the Washington Generals playing the Harlem Globetrotters. Also, purely from a matchup standpoint the Nuggets have a serious problem defending the paint because Camby is an undersized, weakside shotblocker who cannot guard large centers one on one. On three separate occasions, various Denver defenders--Camby, Anthony and Eduardo Najera to be specific--had to simply grab O'Neal and hold on for dear life. On the Najera foul O'Neal accidentally elbowed Yakhouba Diawara in the face, forcing Diawara to leave the game. O'Neal was assessed a technical foul, though it was unclear if the tech was for the elbow or for something that O'Neal said after the play. Either way, Suns' Coach Mike D'Antoni told O'Neal not to worry about it and he offered some choice words to the officials. O'Neal's physical presence in the paint has completely transformed the Suns. They used to be a pretty, fun to watch finesse team that got bullied--literally and figuratively--by the league's stronger teams. Now, O'Neal provides high percentage shots in the paint, dominates the boards--Phoenix outrebounded Denver 50-33--draws fouls that get the Suns in the bonus (which is great when you have outstanding free throw shooters like Nash and Stoudemire) and he throws some elbows and forearms that will put some doubts in the minds of opposing players who are thinking about venturing into the paint. The Suns are a very, very dangerous team now because O'Neal provides the only elements that they were lacking. O'Neal can no longer dominate for extended periods of time but now that he is willing to accept a role as something other than his team's leading scorer--an adjustment he adamantly refused to make while he was was with the Lakers--he can still contribute to a championship level team.

An interesting dynamic is taking place with O'Neal and Stoudemire. O'Neal vowed to turn Stoudemire into the best power forward in the NBA and that may very well happen--at least at the offensive end of the court. O'Neal still commands double-team attention in the post and that is leaving Stoudemire free to cut to the hoop; Stoudemire averaged 29.3 ppg while shooting .587 from the field in March as the Suns posted an 11-5 record. Stoudemire has already been an All-NBA First Team player, so it's not like O'Neal is trying to turn a nobody into a superstar. There is an interesting baseball parallel to the relationship between the 36 year old O'Neal and the 25 year old Stoudemire. In 1979, the Philadelphia Phillies signed 38 year old Pete Rose, a former MVP and Rookie of the Year who played a major role on two World Series teams with the Cincinnati Reds. The Phillies' 29 year old third baseman Mike Schmidt had been an All-Star and led the team to three straight National League Championship series but he had never won an MVP or a World Series. Rose completely changed the internal dynamics of that team and in 1980 they won the World Series; Schmidt captured the regular season MVP that year and he won it again in 1981. Rose, who turned the derisive nickname "Charlie Hustle" into a badge of honor, showed Schmidt just how hard you have to play every night to be an MVP and he also pumped up Schmidt's confidence, telling him that he was the best player in baseball. Shaquille "I'll heal on company time" O'Neal will never be known as the basketball version of "Charlie Hustle" but he may very well play a Rose-like role in unleashing Stoudemire. This analogy is not perfect--no analogy is--but it does provide some food for thought and it certainly makes more sense than the bleatings from so-called experts who blasted the O'Neal trade and declared that Steve Kerr had ruined the Suns and the beautiful running game that they play.

This was the first game of a home and home series for these teams, so the Nuggets will be able to seek revenge in Denver on Tuesday night. These games are very important to both teams: the Suns are vying for the number one seed in the Western Conference, while the Nuggets are fighting just to get the eighth and final playoff seed. In Tuesday's game you can expect the Nuggets to score a lot of points but Phoenix has a good shot to win again, albeit in closer fashion. Granted, the back to back situation does not favor an older player like O'Neal--and of course there are no back to backs in the playoffs, which is another reason that he and the Suns will be a tough out in the postseason--but now that the Suns have an inside game to go with their outside game they can do to the Nuggets what the better teams used to do to them. The Nuggets are basically an inferior version of the "old" Suns; they score a lot of points, they pound the bad teams to death and they can't beat the good teams consistently.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM

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Monday, March 31, 2008

They're Baaack: "Old, Boring" Spurs Win Seventh Straight Game

For most of this season, talk about the Western Conference has focused on Chris Paul and the surprising New Orleans Hornets, Houston's 22 game winning streak, the reemergence of the Lakers as a contender and the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal in Phoenix--but look who owns the league's best current winning streak (seven games) and has moved into a virtual tie with the Hornets for first place in the Western Conference: none other than the "old, boring" defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who blew out the Rockets 109-88 on Sunday. The Spurs' defense is in playoff mode after a brief midseason siesta; they held the Rockets to .402 field goal shooting, including a 5-22 effort from Tracy McGrady, who finished with just 13 points.

You know that the playoffs are nearing when the Spurs' veteran role players start coming out of hibernation: Michael Finley, who is shooting a career low .405 from the field this season but has been on a tear recently, scored 22 points on 9-13 shooting and Kurt Thomas contributed 10 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Presumably, Robert Horry will be making an appearance soon. This is why it is a mistake to evaluate the talent on a team's roster based purely on stats. Finley, Thomas and Horry have put up numbers this year that are nothing to write home about but I'd trust any of them in a seventh game of a playoff series much more than I would trust players who have similar roles (in terms of regular season minutes played) on other contending teams. The Spurs under Coach Gregg Popovich are absolute masters at managing a season segment by segment so that they are in peak form come playoff time; they don't get too high after wins or too low after losses. Popovich carefully monitors the minutes of his star players and he has a perfect sense of when his team needs a pat on the rear and when his team needs a kick in the rear.

The Spurs will be contenders as long as Tim Duncan is healthy and productive. He is the team's anchor on both offense on defense. He had a quiet game versus Houston (13 points, six rebounds in 29 minutes) but his ability to consistently score in the low post opens up opportunities not only for the team's role players but also for fellow stars Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The full extent of his defensive impact is not understood by average fans. Obviously, Duncan is one of the league's best rebounders and shot blockers but his mobility and length enable him to effectively cover a lot of ground. During last year's NBA Finals, Bruce Bowen conceded the outside jumper to LeBron James but whenever James tried to drive Bowen angled him directly toward Duncan, who served as a giant moat in front of the hoop, denying access. If the NBA kept a stat for "intimidated shots" then Duncan probably would rank first; many times each game opposing players drive to the hoop but are forced to pass the ball back out due to Duncan's presence. That means that the perimeter defenders can aggressively contest shots without worrying about being beaten.

So far, the Spurs have not reached the point where their advanced collective age is a handicap; their veteran wiles more than compensate for the mileage on their bodies. The charge that they are boring is an odd one to say the least. Isn't it exciting to annually contend for championships? Look at the flip side: how exciting is it to be a fan of the Knicks, the Heat, the Sonics or the Grizzlies? Duncan may have a calm demeanor but he scores, rebounds, blocks shots and passes. Ginobili and Parker are two of the quickest and most exciting guards in the NBA. Anyone who has been sleeping on the Spurs will receive a rude awakening once the playoffs begin.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:43 AM

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