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Friday, April 18, 2008
Making a Point About MVPs
New Orleans point guard Chris Paul has emerged as a serious MVP candidate this season. Since the NBA began honoring a regular season MVP in 1955-56, four point guards have received the award a total of seven times: Bob Cousy (1957), Oscar Robertson (1964), Magic Johnson (1987, 1989, 1990) and Steve Nash (2005, 2006). Allen Iverson (2001) is the shortest MVP ever (generously listed at 6-0) but he led the league in scoring and ranked third on his team in apg so he hardly could be considered a point guard that year; if Paul wins the MVP he will not only join a very exclusive club of point guards but he will also tie Iverson as the shortest MVP in league history.
Point guards are generally responsible for initiating their team’s offensive attack and they also represent the first line of defense. It is very difficult for a team to be successful if it has a point guard who makes poor decisions with the ball on offense and/or is not able to contain the opposing team’s point guard on defense.
Despite the obvious importance of the point guard position, point guards have not received much support in MVP voting throughout most of NBA history—and two of the point guards who won MVPs, Robertson and Johnson, were not prototypical point guards but rather players who were as big as the forwards of their eras but who had the ballhandling skills and court vision necessary to play in the backcourt. Cousy and Nash are really the only "pure" point guards who won MVPs.
When Nash won his pair of MVPs some people acted as if he had revolutionized the point guard position. It is closer to the truth to say that the way that MVP voters perceive the value of certain statistics has changed; other point guards had previously put up numbers that match or surpass Nash’s statistics but they did not win MVPs. For instance, in 1988-89 John Stockton averaged 17.1 ppg, a league-leading 13.6 apg and a league-leading 3.2 spg. He made the All-Defensive Team, something that Magic Johnson, Steve Nash and Allen Iverson have never done (the All-Defensive Team did not exist when Cousy and Robertson won their MVPs). Yet, Stockton only finished seventh in the 1989 MVP voting. I am not suggesting that Stockton was somehow "robbed" of the MVP but merely pointing out that Nash’s averages during his MVP seasons (15.5 ppg/11.1 apg in 2005; 18.8 ppg/10.5 apg in 2006) are neither unprecedented nor were they automatically considered to be MVP quality in previous eras. In fact, Karl Malone received much more credit—at least in terms of MVP votes and All-NBA selections—than Stockton did for their symbiotic on court relationship, while the opposite is true for Nash and Amare Stoudemire.
This season some people are speaking of Paul in similar fashion to the way that Nash was praised the past few years, noting that Paul can set a record if he averages at least 20 ppg, 10 apg and three spg; this disregards the reality that Paul is almost certain to fall short of the spg target and that steals have only been an official NBA statistic since 1973-74. It also ignores the fact that several point guards have put up similar scoring, assists and steals numbers to those that Paul is currently posting. For instance, in 1983-84 Isiah Thomas averaged 21.3 ppg, 11.1 apg and 2.5 spg, numbers that are virtually identical to Paul's. Thomas finished fifth in MVP voting that season. The next season, Thomas scored 21.2 ppg, averaged a single-season record (since broken by Stockton) 13.9 apg, added 2.3 spg—and dropped to ninth in the MVP voting. In 1985-86 Thomas averaged 20.9 ppg, 10.8 apg and 2.2 spg and again finished ninth in MVP voting.
In all, seven point guards have had a combined total of 19 different 20 ppg/10 apg seasons: Oscar Robertson (5), Isiah Thomas (4), Magic Johnson (3), Kevin Johnson (3), Tim Hardaway (2), Nate Archibald (1) and Michael Adams (1). Those seasons account for four of the seven MVPs won by point guards. On three occasions two point guards reached those levels in the same season; each time, Magic Johnson won that season’s MVP while the other point guard finished well out of contention for the award (Isiah Thomas finished eighth in 1987, Kevin Johnson finished eighth in 1989 and Kevin Johnson received no votes in 1990). Each MVP race is different, of course, but it is clear that being a 20/10 player has not previously been an automatic ticket to winning the award.
If you want to talk about revolutionizing the point guard position or putting up unprecedented numbers then the conversation must begin not with Nash or Paul but rather with Oscar Robertson, who averaged a triple double overall during the first five seasons of his career. In his second season, 1961-62, he became the first and only player to average a triple double for a whole season: 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg. At that time, league leaders were determined by totals, not averages, and Robertson ranked first in assists, third in scoring and eighth in rebounding—and he finished third in MVP voting, though the competition was admittedly pretty stiff: Bill Russell (18.9 ppg, 23.6 rpg, 4.5 apg) won the award and Wilt Chamberlain (50.4 ppg, 25.7 rpg, 2.4 apg) came in second. What made Robertson’s game revolutionary was not just his amazing statistics but the fact that he was as big as a forward while possessing all the skills (and then some) of the smaller point guards who came before him.
After Robertson, the next point guard who truly put up unprecedented numbers was Nate "Tiny" Archibald. In 1972-73, he became the first and only NBA player to lead the league in scoring (34.0 ppg) and assists (11.4 apg) in the same season. Contrary to those who believe that playing for a winning team has always been an essential prerequisite for receiving MVP votes, Archibald finished third in that year’s MVP race and he actually received the second most first place votes.
Magic Johnson came closer to averaging a triple double for an entire season than anyone other than Oscar Robertson, averaging 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. His Lakers had the best record in the West by five games and went on to win the championship, with Johnson claiming his second Finals MVP in three seasons with a 13-13-13 line in the decisive game six versus the 76ers. Obviously, the MVP voters had no way of knowing that the Lakers would go on to win the title but they did know that Johnson had already proven that he could lead a team to a championship. Moreover, using the criteria that resulted in Nash winning two MVPs and Paul being seriously considered for this year’s honor—team success, making teammates better, high assist totals--Johnson would seem to have been a slam dunk to win the 1982 MVP; instead he finished eighth in the MVP race and did not receive a single first place vote.
Johnson had more 18 ppg/10 apg seasons (seven) than anyone, with Robertson (five) ranking second and Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson tying for third (four each). Robertson would certainly say that scorekeepers hand out assists more liberally now than they did during his era but for this discussion the relevant point is that Johnson not only had three 20/10 seasons but he spent a substantial portion of his career very close to that mark. Johnson won the MVP in three out of those seven seasons.
Stockton was never the scorer that Magic Johnson was but in many ways he was the prototype for Nash, a guard who reliably scored in the mid-teens while shooting a high percentage from the field and leading the league in assists. If you cut the threshold from 18/10 to 15/10 then the all-time leaders are Magic Johnson (nine seasons) and Stockton (six seasons). Nash has done it four times (including this season) and Paul is about to accomplish the feat for the first time. Lowering the requirement to 14/10 lifts Stockton to number one all-time (10 seasons, one better than Magic); if you keep the scoring requirement at 15 ppg but raise the apg level to 12 then Magic and Stockton are tied for first all-time (six seasons each), while Stockton is the all-time leader in 14/12 seasons (eight). For three straight seasons (1989-91) Stockton averaged at least 17.1 ppg and 13.6 apg; the only other player who reached those levels even once in a season is Isiah Thomas in 1984-85. Stockton finished seventh, ninth and 12th in MVP voting during those seasons, while the primary recipient of his passes—Karl Malone—finished third, fourth and fifth. Stockton shot at least .507 from the field in each of those three seasons, though his three point marksmanship varied widely at that point in his career, ranging from .242 to .416 during that period; he later became a very good three point shooter, connecting at a .384 rate overall from that range during his career.
My intention is neither to question the results of MVP races from decades ago nor to disparage what Nash has accomplished recently or what Paul is doing this season; however, anyone who thinks that either Nash or Paul is "revolutionizing" point guard play needs to stop listening to the talking head "experts" and take a good look at the numbers put up by Robertson, Johnson, Archibald, Thomas and Stockton. What has changed recently is not the nature of elite level point guard play but rather what qualities MVP voters deem to be most worthy of recognition.
Before we look forward to this year's playoffs, let's briefly review my preseason predictions. I take responsibility for everything I write but I am granting myself two mulligans: no one could have foreseen how woeful the Bulls and Heat would become. Even though I definitely identified Miami as a declining team--and wrote, "I honestly would not be shocked if Miami misses the playoffs altogether"--I had far too much respect for Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to believe that this team would become the laughingstock of the league. Before the season began it would have sounded crazy to suggest that not only would the Heat be this bad but that O'Neal would be traded to Phoenix; some things are just impossible to foresee. Some analysts were not quite as high on the Bulls as I was but I can't recall anyone saying that they would be so bad and so dysfunctional that Coach Scott Skiles would be fired before the All-Star break. Overall, in my 2007-08 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of the eight teams that made it to the playoffs. My third miss besides Chicago and Miami was New Jersey.
I ask for--and grant--no mulligans in the West, even though the conference was almost completely transformed by a slew of midseason deals; those transactions altered the finishing order but did not necessarily bring anyone new into the playoffs or knock out a team that would have otherwise made it. In my 2007-08 Western Conference Preview I correctly picked seven of the eight playoff teams; I thought that Golden State would make the cut and that New Orleans would fall just short. As I mentioned recently, the Paul-West-Chandler-Stojakovic nucleus only played together for seven games in 2006-07, so there was not a lot of evidence to go on in terms of how good that group could potentially be.
Last year, I correctly picked the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series and I correctly predicted before the playoffs began that the Spurs would beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals. In 2005-06, I went 10-5 but did not correctly identify either Finalist before the playoffs began. In 2004-05, I went 9-6 and correctly picked both Finalists before the playoffs began but incorrectly chose the Pistons to beat the Spurs. So, in three years of posting online series by series predictions I have a 31-14 record and have correctly picked both Finals participants before the playoffs began two times. I don't know how that ranks compared to other predictors but I think that I have done pretty well.
Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict will win it all.
Eastern Conference First Round
#1 Boston (66-16) vs. #8 Atlanta (37-45)
Season series: Boston, 3-0
Atlanta can win if...Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Dominique Wilkins emerge from a time machine.
Boston will win because...the Celtics are more talented, more disciplined and they play better defense.
Other things to consider: The main question about this series is whether or not Atlanta will be swept. An interesting early measure of Boston's mindset will be whether or not the Celtics win four straight and earn themselves some extra rest between rounds.
#2 Detroit (59-23) vs. #7 Philadelphia (40-42)
Season series: Tied, 2-2 Philadelphia can win if...the Sixers are able to use their athleticism to speed up the tempo of the game and then force turnovers that can be converted into easy points in the transition game.
Detroit will win because...the Pistons will not let the Sixers do those things four times in seven games.
Other things to consider: The last time the Pistons did not advance past the first round of the playoffs is 2000-01, when they did not qualify for postseason play.
#3 Orlando (52-30) vs. #6 Toronto (41-41)
Season series: Orlando, 2-1
Toronto can win if...the Raptors show toughness on the glass and at the defensive end of the court.
Orlando will win because...Dwight Howard will wear out Toronto's bigs in the paint.
Other things to consider: Hedo Turkoglu has emerged this season as one of the best fourth quarter players in the NBA--not that he is too shabby in the first three quarters.
#4 Cleveland (45-37) vs. #5 Washington (43-39)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
Washington can win if...the Wizards play team ball on offense and work hard defensively to keep LeBron James near his season averages; in other words, there cannot be too many "Gilbert being Gilbert" moments at either end of the court.
Cleveland will win because...LeBron James is the best player on either team and he will have the ball in his hands at the end of every close game. Also, when push comes to shove the Cavs will prove to be better defensively and on the glass.
Denver can win if...Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony both get hot in the same game and/or the Lakers suffer an injury to Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol.
L.A. will win because...the Nuggets are an atrocious defensive team that has little chance of either containing Bryant or effectively countering the Lakers' Triangle Offense.
Other things to consider: Other than Bryant and Derek Fisher, there is not a lot of playoff experience on the Lakers' roster, so it will be interesting to see how the younger players respond to playing on the road in the postseason.
#2 New Orleans (56-26) vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
Season series: Tied, 2-2
New Orleans can win if...Chris Paul, David West and company perform at the same level that they did during most of the regular season.
Dallas will win because...the Mavericks are loaded with playoff veterans who keenly understand the difference between the regular season and the playoffs.
Other things to consider: I would not be shocked if New Orleans wins but a bad sign for the Hornets is that in the final game of the regular season both teams really went after it and Dallas prevailed. It will be interesting to see who emerges as the dominant player in this series--will it be Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd or someone else?
#3 San Antonio (56-26) vs. #6 Phoenix (55-27)
Season series: Phoenix, 3-1
San Antonio can win if...the Spurs get Shaquille O'Neal and/or Amare Stoudemire in foul trouble, thus weakening the Suns inside. Tim Duncan must have a huge series in the paint and not settle for jumpers.
Phoenix will win because...the Spurs can no longer play "bully ball" against them. The Suns now are able to not only run and gun but also slow the game down and get some points out of the low post. Look for the games to be close at halftime and for the Suns to wear the Spurs down after the break by slowing the game down and posting up O'Neal.
Other things to consider: You have to love the West--these teams are seeded as though this is a mismatch in San Antonio's favor but they are only separated by one game in the standings. The Suns acquired O'Neal primarily to increase their ability to control the paint at both ends of the court and to be able to match up better with Tim Duncan and other premier low post players. The Suns went 2-0 versus the Spurs since making the O'Neal trade. These teams have the best, most well rounded playoff rosters in the West and they should be meeting in the Conference Finals; this will be the most intriguing first round playoff series because of the rivalry between the teams, the personalities involved and the historical legacies at stake among former MVPs Duncan, O'Neal and Steve Nash (not to mention a possible future MVP in Amare Stoudemire).
#4 Utah (54-28) vs. #5 Houston (55-27)
Season series: Utah, 2-1
Houston can win if...the Rockets are able to play the suffocating defense they played during their 22 game winning streak, thereby keeping the score close enough for Tracy McGrady to take over in the fourth quarter.
Utah will win because...the Jazz match up well with the Rockets and are definitely capable of winning in Houston during the playoffs, as they proved last season.
Other things to consider: Houston won more games and thus gets homecourt advantage but the Jazz are classified as the fourth seed because they won their division. The addition of sharpshooter Kyle Korver has really opened up the court for Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer.
During the playoffs you will probably hear things like "A series does not start until the home team loses" and "A series does not begin until one team faces elimination." The reality is that the game one winner in an NBA best of seven series has gone on to win the series 78.5% of the time. With that in mind, the most important game of this year's playoffs may be game one in the San Antonio-Phoenix series because it could play a major role in deciding which of those teams eventually makes it to the Western Conference Finals and which one suffers a devastating first round elimination.
If these series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Boston-Cleveland, Detroit-Orlando, L.A.-Utah and Phoenix-Dallas. Game one in the Boston-Cleveland series will be an opportunity for LeBron James to add to his already impressive legacy by having a big game and helping his team to swipe away homecourt advantage. I liked the Cavs' overall cohesion much better prior to their big midseason trade but if everyone stays healthy they do have a puncher's chance to beat Boston. However, although I can visualize a perfect scenario in which that happens, I think that Boston will prevail over Cleveland in six tough games. I expect Detroit to likewise defeat Orlando in six games. The Celtics have refuted all concerns about the point guard position, their bench and their ability to commit wholeheartedly to playing great defense on a consistent basis. In October I would never have imagined making this pick, but I think that Boston will beat Detroit and advance to the NBA Finals.
In the West, I expect the Lakers to beat the Jazz in a hard fought six or seven game series. The ironic thing about Dallas is that the Mavs acquired Jason Kidd to help deal with guys like Baron Davis and Tony Parker but they may not face either of those guys after all--and one of the players they sent away in that trade, DeSagana Diop, could have helped guard Shaquille O'Neal. I wonder a little bit if elder statesmen O'Neal, Steve Nash and Grant Hill might break down physically in the playoffs but if that does not happen then they will beat the Mavs. The Lakers do not match up particularly well with the Suns. In fact, the Suns have an advantage at every starting position other than shooting guard and they also have the best bench player on either team (Leandro Barbosa). Although these factors point to a Phoenix triumph, there is an X-factor in L.A.'s favor: Kobe Bryant is so close to his fourth championship now he can taste it and he is capable of shifting the balance of a series by going off for 50 points in a game or 25 points in a quarter. During NBA TV's Western Conference playoff preview show they ran a clip of Kobe Bryant walking in the bowels of an arena recently, apparently right after a win. Bryant declared to no one in particular, "It's a new ballgame now. I've got guns now. I ain't going into a shootout with butter knives no more. I got guns now. Now we're going to see what's up." Bryant put off having surgery on his mangled right pinkie finger because he really believes that the Lakers can win the championship. This may sound strange but even though I don't think that they are the favorites--because the Suns have more overall talent--I do think that the Lakers will beat the Suns if Bryant is the dominant force in the series, which means averaging more than 30 ppg and/or taking control in key late game stretches.
Yes, this means that I am buying into the TV networks' dream, a Boston-L.A. Finals (though I think that a Kobe-LeBron Finals showdown would be at least as compelling). The Celtics have more stars than the Lakers do and they are a better defensive team but if the Lakers make it that far then they will be playing good enough defense to keep the games close--and in close games I'm taking Kobe over KG any time. This could truly be a history making year for the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan could win a fifth championship ring. Kevin Garnett could wipe away all the memories of his numerous first round exits by winning his first NBA title, in the process returning the NBA's most storied franchise to the pinnacle. However, it looks more and more like this is Kobe's year. He and the Lakers have faced plenty of adversity from start to finish and yet they finished in first place in the West, in the process landing in the side of the bracket that ensures that they won't have to face both the Spurs and the Suns. The one knock on Bryant is that he has not won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers are not as good overall as many people seem to think but, like Bryant said, he is no longer going into battle with "butter knives." I have long felt that Bryant could win a championship with less help than a lot of other stars would need to do so and this year's playoffs will be an interesting test for that theory. I predict that the Lakers will beat the Celtics in six games in the NBA Finals.
The Celtics did not win 70 games but they did lead the standings wire to wire, finishing with a sterling 66-16 record. The West is deeper at the top than the East is but the top two teams--at least by record--reside in the East. The NBA's younger generation really made its presence felt across the various leaderboards. LeBron James ended Kobe Bryant's two year reign as the scoring champion, in the process becoming one of the youngest players to ever lead the league in this category. Dwight Howard became the youngest rebounding champion ever after making a couple unsuccessful runs at that mark in 2006 and 2007. Chris Paul wrested the assists title from Steve Nash, who had held that crown for three consecutive seasons.
Best Five Records -------------------
1) Boston Celtics, 66-16 2) Detroit Pistons, 59-23 3) L.A. Lakers, 57-25 4-5) New Orleans Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, 56-26
All eight Western Conference playoff teams won between 50 and 57 games, with two teams tied at 56 and two teams tied at 55. Can any outcome in the Western Conference playoffs truly be considered an upset? Granted, it will be surprising if the all-offense, no-defense Denver Nuggets knock off the top seeded L.A. Lakers but other than that no result would be truly shocking. In the East, there is a lot more separation--at least on paper. Boston finished seven games ahead of Detroit, who finished seven games ahead of Orlando, who finished seven games ahead of Cleveland. The Golden State Warriors missed the playoffs despite having a better record than five of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Special mention must be made of the Miami Heat, who went 15-67, the worst record in the league by five games; they lapped the field by almost as big a margin as the Celtics did. There is simply no precedent for a team to be this bad two years after winning a championship while still having its coach, its best two players and other key rotation members. Granted, Shaquille O'Neal did not finish the season with the Heat but the reason that he was traded away was that the season had already fallen apart and the franchise decided to move in a different direction--and the Heat did get All-Star Shawn Marion in return for O'Neal.
Top Ten Scorers (and a few other notables) ------------------
1) LeBron James, CLE 30.0 ppg 2) Kobe Bryant, LAL 28.3 ppg 3) Allen Iverson, DEN 26.4 ppg 4) Carmelo Anthony, DEN 25.7 ppg 5) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 25.2 ppg 6) Kevin Martin, SAC 23.7 ppg 7) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 23.6 ppg 8) Michael Redd, MIL 22.7 ppg 9) Richard Jefferson, NJN 22.6 ppg 10) Chris Bosh, TOR 22.3 ppg
15) Tracy McGrady, HOU 21.6 ppg
19) Chris Paul, NOH 21.1 ppg
24) Kevin Durant, SEA 20.3 ppg
30) Paul Pierce, BOS 19.6 ppg
38) Kevin Garnett, BOS 18.8 ppg
42) Ray Allen, BOS 17.4 ppg
LeBron James won his first scoring title with the second highest average of his career; he scored 31.4 ppg in 2005-06 but that was only good for third place behind Kobe Bryant (35.4 ppg) and Allen Iverson (33.0 ppg). Bryant's Lakers will face off against the Nuggets' Iverson-Anthony duo in the first round of the playoffs in a series that will likely feature higher point totals than usual for the postseason. Seven of the top ten scorers play for playoff teams; Kevin Martin is the highest scoring player whose team did not make the playoffs.
Kevin Durant closed the season very strongly, averaging 21.8 ppg on .518 field goal shooting in March and 24.3 ppg on .461 field goal shooting in April. In the last game of the season, Durant set new career-highs in scoring (42 points) and rebounds (13) as his Sonics beat the Warriors 126-121. Durant shot 18-25 from the field in that game. He finished the season with a .430 field goal percentage after hovering around the .400 mark for a substantial period of time.
What happens when three career 20 ppg scorers join forces? Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen each failed to average 20 ppg, sacrificing individual glory for the good of the team. Of course, the real story in Boston is not what those guys did on offense but rather how quickly the Celtics emerged as a dominant defensive team.
Top Ten Rebounders (and a few other notables) ----------------------
1) Dwight Howard, ORL 14.2 rpg 2) Marcus Camby, DEN 13.1 rpg 3) Tyson Chandler, NOH 11.7 rpg 4) Tim Duncan, SAS 11.3 rpg 5) Al Jefferson, MIN 11.1 rpg 6) Emeka Okafor, CHA 10.7 rpg 7) Lamar Odom, LAL 10.6 rpg 8) Carlos Boozer, UTA 10.4 rpg 9) Sam Dalembert, PHI 10.4 rpg 10) Antawn Jamison, WAS 10.2 rpg
13) Al Horford, ATL 9.7 rpg
18) Amare Stoudemire, PHX 9.1 rpg
22) Dirk Nowitzki, DAL 8.6 rpg
25) Ben Wallace, CLE/CHI 8.4 rpg
27) LeBron James, CLE 7.9 rpg
31) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 7.5 rpg
Dwight Howard won his first rebounding title after second half declines prevented him from doing so the past couple years.
Tim Duncan's numbers have gradually eroded in several categories over the past few years but he just posted his best rpg average since 2003-04.
Lamar Odom turned into a rebounding machine this season, easily setting a career-high with his 10.7 rpg average. His scoring average dipped to its lowest level since his third season but he shot .525 from the field, by far the best mark in his career. What do all of these numbers mean? Odom is perfectly suited to be the third best player on the Lakers, behind Kobe Bryant and either Andrew Bynum (early in the season) or Pau Gasol (late in the season). Some people call Odom the best third option in the NBA, apparently forgetting about Tony Parker, Monta Ellis, Ray Allen and Antawn Jamison (when Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler are healthy), but even though that is an exaggeration there is no question that Odom and the Lakers both benefit when Odom is not expected to be Bryant's sidekick. All comparisons of Lamar Odom to Scottie Pippen should be permanently banned; Odom's role now is much more like that of Horace Grant (Odom's 14.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.5 apg and .525 field goal shooting this season are remarkably similar to Grant's 14.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.7 apg and .578 field goal shooting in 1991-92, the Bulls' second championship season).
Top Ten Playmakers ----------------------
1) Chris Paul, NOH 11.6 apg 2) Steve Nash, PHX 11.1 apg 3) Deron Williams, UTA 10.5 apg 4) Jason Kidd, DAL/NJN 10.1 apg 5) Jose Calderon, TOR 8.3 apg 6) Baron Davis, GSW 7.6 apg 7) Raymond Felton, CHA 7.4 apg 8) LeBron James, CLE 7.2 apg 8) Allen Iverson, DEN 7.1 apg 10) Andre Miller, PHI 6.9 apg
Chris Paul zoomed past three-time defending assists champion Steve Nash down the stretch to easily claim his first playmaking title. The top ten did not change much throughout the season but a new/old name joined the final leaderboard: Andre Miller, the 2002 assists leader, supplanted Chauncey Billups, whose numbers dipped a bit as the Pistons rested their key guys in several late season games. LeBron James and Allen Iverson are the only players who ranked in the top ten in scoring and assists this season but Iverson's accomplishment has received a lot less publicity. His coach, George Karl, knows the deal, calling Iverson the team's MVP, a title that most people would assume belongs to Carmelo Anthony.
The Washington Wizards have three All-Stars in their rotation now that Gilbert Arenas has returned to action. They will face Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row, this time in a fourth seed versus fifth seed matchup with the Cavaliers enjoying homecourt advantage. The headliners in this series are LeBron James and Gilbert Arenas, though they will only guard each other sporadically. The teams split the head to head season series and have virtually identical records but the perception in some quarters is that Washington will beat Cleveland because the Wizards are peaking while the Cavs have not looked particularly powerful since their big midseason trade. Here is my take on how this series will unfold:
Mission Accomplished: Pistons, Cavs Avoid Injuries in Season Finale
Detroit beat Cleveland 84-74 at Quicken Loans Arena in the season finale for both teams. The outcome of this game had no possible effect on playoff positioning for either team and after the game Detroit Coach Flip Saunders succinctly summarized the objective in such contests: "I think both teams accomplished what they needed to accomplish--they came out pretty healthy." Toward that end, LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas did not play at all and most of the key rotation players for both teams played significantly fewer minutes than usual. The Pistons' starting five played for the entire first quarter but then took the rest of the night off; they did not exactly seem fully committed in their efforts, as each player made just one field goal and they combined to shoot 5-20 from the field as the Cavaliers took a 21-13 lead. The Cavaliers started two regular starters (Ben Wallace and Delonte West) alongside three players who usually come off of the bench: Anderson Varejao, Wally Szczerbiak and Damon Jones. Szczerbiak finished with a game-high 18 points, Varejao had four points and eight rebounds in just under 20 minutes of action and Jones shot 1-12 from the field, scoring four points. The Cavaliers led for most of the game but the Pistons outscored them 28-15 in the fourth quarter as the final stanza turned into the Walter Herrmann show, as the Argentine forward scored eight points on 3-3 field goal shooting. He finished with 11 points. Arron Afflalo led Detroit with 15 points, adding eight rebounds and four assists. The Detroit bench outscored the Cleveland bench 71-32; part of that had to do with Cleveland using three bench players as starters but this also reflects how much overall depth the Pistons have. That depth could be very useful in the playoffs but it should be remembered that in crucial postseason games starters tend to play more than 40 minutes unless they are injured or get in foul trouble.
Although one game is obviously a very small sample size, one thing that stands out in the boxscore is Jones' shooting performance; not only did he miss 11 of 12 shots but he also missed all four of his three point field goal attempts. For the season he shot .407 from three point range, ranking among the league leaders. There is a very good reason that he shot so poorly in this game and this reason illustrates why basketball can never be completely understood by simply crunching numbers blindly without actually watching games and understanding the interactions between various players. During the MVP discussion we hear a lot of talk about the relative strengths of the supporting casts of the various contenders. A distinction should be made between good players who benefit from playing alongside MVP-level players versus role players who are heavily dependent on an MVP-level player to create open shots for them. For instance, Ilgauskas has been an All-Star center in previous years, so whether or not he plays alongside James he would be productive, though obviously James' passing skills and ability to draw double-teams help Ilgauskas out. On the other hand, Damon Jones simply cannot consistently create a good open shot for himself at the NBA level; most of his misses versus Detroit came after he tried to free himself using off the dribble moves. Jones' high three point field goal percentage during the course of the season is a credit to his skill at making open jumpers but without James to draw the defense Jones would not be a very productive player. It should be obvious how this reasoning applies to the MVP discussion: when people speak of the strength of various supporting casts based purely on the statistics those players produced it is important to know which players are capable of creating their own shots and which players put up good numbers precisely because they played alongside an MVP-level player. To cite an obvious example, Andrew Bynum certainly deserves credit for improving his skills and he played a role in the Lakers' 25-11 start--but a substantial portion of his offense consisted of diving to the hoop and catching passes for easy dunks, taking advantage of openings in the defense that were created because the opposing team was trapping Kobe Bryant. Bynum has only just begun to develop a back to the basket post game. In contrast, Pau Gasol is a good player who benefits from the defensive coverage that Bryant receives but Gasol is also capable of creating his own shot and on occasion he draws extra defensive coverage as well. New Orleans has a similar big man duo with David West and Tyson Chandler; West is an All-Star who benefits from playing with Chris Paul but he also can create his own offense, while Chandler is very dependent on receiving lob passes and taking advantage of openings created when the defense is forced to cover Paul, West or the sharpshooting Peja Stojakovic. Of course, a big difference between West/Chandler and Bynum/Gasol is that West/Chandler have not only played together longer but they have been healthy for the vast majority of the season, while Bynum and Gasol have yet to take the court together and probably will not do so until next season.
Anyone who just crunches numbers without understanding the context in which they were produced will be apt to reach false conclusions about how well certain players will perform in various situations. A given player may score and shoot at one level while playing alongside Bryant, James or Paul but not be able to replicate those performances in other situations. In other words, such a player's numbers say more about Bryant, James or Paul than they do about the true strength of a given supporting cast--unless of course one is comparing a supporting cast of players who are able to be productive while playing alongside superstars to a supporting cast that is not even able to be productive in such a favorable circumstance (the names Kwame Brown and Smush Parker should come readily to mind here).
***************************** Notes From Courtside:
Last year, the Cavs designated the home finale "Fan Appreciation Night" and gave away more than $500,000 worth of prizes to the fans while also providing free massages and a large cake for the writers and photographers. The Cavs did the same thing on Wednesday--and they increased the total value of the prizes awarded to over $1,000,000, including a 2008 Kia Spectra 5, an hhgregg home entertainment system and a free year of Time Warner HDTV cable. The shoes and jerseys worn by the Cavaliers versus the Pistons were also given away to fans. The fans clearly appreciate what they are seeing from the Cavaliers throughout the season, because Cleveland set franchise records for sellouts (33) and average attendance (20,465).
LeBron James won his first scoring title, averaging exactly 30.0 ppg, scoring 2250 points in 75 games. James has averaged at least 27 ppg, six apg and six rpg for four straight seasons, a feat only accomplished by Oscar Robertson, who achieved those levels in the first eight seasons of his career.
I previously mentioned that the Cavs keep track of "hockey assists." A "hockey assist" is a pass that leads to a pass that is counted in the boxscore as an assist. Prior to the Detroit game, James led the team with 175 hockey assists, Ilgauskas ranked second with 97 and Daniel Gibson ranked third with 75. On a per minute basis, West leads the team with .06 hockey assists per minute, with James and Gibson just behind him. West, who joined the team after a midseason trade, has notched 46 hockey assists as a Cavalier.
During Cleveland Coach Mike Brown's pregame standup I asked him this question: "This season you are scoring about the same number of points that you did last year but you are giving up about three more points per game defensively. What do you think are the main reasons that the defense is not quite where it was last season?"
Coach Brown replied, "We spent a little bit more time on the offensive end of the floor, trying to tweak some things. We didn't pay as much attention to the defensive end of the floor. In a nutshell that is probably it. I could continue to tell you that our weakside (defense) was not as good, our pick and roll defense was not as good, we gave up too many middle drives this year--some technical things that we did not do as well."
The extra attention devoted to offense could explain why the defense slipped a little bit but one natural followup would be to ask why there was not a corresponding increase in offensive efficiency. However, I think that the obvious answer to that one is the roster instability caused by injuries and the big midseason trade, so instead I asked this followup question: "Going into the playoffs, is that emphasis going to switch because there will be fewer possessions each game?"
Coach Brown answered, "If you look at where we started defensively in the first couple months of the season and where we are now, I think that in the past couple months we have been emphasizing defense more and I think that we have gone from 20-something in both categories to around 10th in both categories now, in terms of opponents' field goal percentage and points allowed. So that is something that we have emphasized for a while but not at the beginning of the season."
Cleveland finished the season ranked ninth in ppg allowed and 11th in opponents' field goal percentage.
If the MVP race will truly be decided by which team wins the tough race for the top seed in the Western Conference then there will be a trophy ceremony for Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center in a few weeks. Of course, the real prize that Bryant and the rest of the L.A. Lakers are seeking is the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy and they took one step toward accomplishing that goal by beating the Sacramento Kings 124-101 to clinch the regular season Western Conference title. Bryant made only three of his 13 field goal attempts but he shot 13-14 from the free throw line, finishing with 20 points and five assists in just under 29 minutes. Pau Gasol had 22 points and seven rebounds, while Lamar Odom added 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Six Lakers scored in double figures and no Laker played more than 29 minutes. The Kings' three top scorers (Kevin Martin, Ron Artest and Brad Miller) did not play; Quincy Douby led Sacramento with a career-high 32 points.
The Lakers will face either Dallas or Denver in the first round; they posted a 3-1 record against the Mavericks this season and they went 3-0 versus the Nuggets. The Lakers completed their march to the top of the West by winning eight of their last nine games, including victories over West rivals New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas. Bryant averaged 26.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 6.3 apg in those nine games while shooting .436 from the field (including an excellent .429 from three point range) and .839 from the free throw line. Chris Paul is widely considered to be Bryant's main rival for MVP honors; his Hornets went 6-3 in their last nine games, including a loss in their head to head encounter with the Lakers, a game in which Bryant clearly outperformed Paul.
Prior to the conclusion of the Lakers-Kings game, the ESPN NBA Coast to Coast crew announced their 2007-08 NBA awards winners. Kevin Durant was the consensus Rookie of the Year choice, Kevin Garnett was the unanimous Defensive Player of the Year winner, Manu Ginobili swept all of the Sixth Man of the Year votes, Doc Rivers earned a 3-2 split over Byron Scott for Coach of the Year and Hedo Turkoglu won a close race for Most Improved Player, which the Coast to Coast crew agreed is perhaps the closest race this year (Marc Stein said that he considered no less than a dozen candidates). Several of the panelists actually will be voting in the official balloting, so it is interesting that all five of them--Greg Anthony, Chris Broussard, Ric Bucher, Tim Legler and Marc Stein--selected Bryant as this year's MVP. Bucher not only has the same top four that I do (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett) but he also ranked them in the same order. Bucher ranked Tim Duncan fifth, while I put Dwight Howard fifth. Bucher, who is an MVP voter, said that he thinks that a lot of the MVP voters have been swayed by what has transpired in the past couple weeks as Bryant's Lakers overtook Paul's Hornets. I think that kind of reasoning is silly (as I explained here) but at this point I'm on board with anything that will actually lead to the correct outcome in MVP voting for the first time in several years. Anthony placed Garnett second, Paul third, Amare Stoudemire fourth and James fifth. Broussard's ballot reads Bryant, Paul, James, Garnett and Howard, Legler opted for Bryant, Paul, Garnett, Howard and James and Stein went with Bryant, Paul, Garnett, James and Manu Ginobili. I would not have Ginobili in my top 15 (he just misses the cut on my three All-NBA Teams), but in general there seems to be a consensus about who the top four guys are this year. After listening to and reading various commentators' selections I have concluded that LeBron James is rapidly becoming an underrated player (and Howard seems to be underrated in some quarters as well). I have James, not Paul, as the MVP runner up. Does anyone seriously believe that the Hornets would not be even better if they had James instead of Paul? Paul has had a great season but if James played alongside a scorer like David West, a rebounder/shot blocker like Tyson Chandler and a deadeye shooter like Peja Stojakovic his team would easily win 60-plus games; no disrespect to James' current and former teammates, but look at the team that James took to 50 wins and and a trip to the NBA Finals last year. That group played well together defensively and worked hard but do you think that James would not trade rosters with Paul in a heartbeat? I will never understand how or why the MVP race has become a contest between various supporting casts and I also don't understand the inconsistent standards that are applied: Steve Nash won two MVPs for making good players better but earlier this season some people expressed the sentiment that Bryant should not win the MVP because he has so much help this season, as if having one one-time All-Star for a fourth of a season is the same thing as having the amazing supporting cast that Nash has enjoyed for several seasons. I will always stick to my guns with the MVP race: the MVP should go to the best all-around player in the game, period. I don't agree with downgrading James to third, fourth or fifth this year any more than I agreed with Bryant not winning the award the previous two seasons. I assume that Bryant is going to finish first now but it will be interesting to see how the final, official MVP vote goes in terms of who rounds out the top five and how close the race ends up. I also would love to visit an alternate universe in which the Hornets beat the Lakers by one game and see if I am right that in that case Paul would have won by a much greater margin than the one that Bryant will probably win by in this reality.
The MVP race has obviously dominated discussions of this year's awards but there are also some tough choices to be made regarding other honors, including the three All-NBA Teams. Several prominent commentators have already weighed in with their choices. It should be noted that not every commentator announced a selection for every award:
MVP: Mark Jackson (ESPN/ABC), Chris Mannix (Sports Illustrated), Reggie Miller (TNT) and Kenny Smith (TNT) chose Kobe Bryant. Mike Wilbon (ESPN/ABC) said that he is "leaning toward" Bryant but will not decide for sure until the last game is played. Charles Barkley (TNT), Jon Barry (TNT), Hubie Brown (ESPN/ABC) and Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN/ABC) chose Chris Paul.
I doubt that anyone is surprised to hear that my choice is Kobe Bryant. I have explained my reasoning in several posts and articles: Bryant is the league's best and most complete player, he has led his team successfully through three seasons in one in 2007-08 and the main thing that "disqualified" him in previous years--his team's record--is no longer an issue. The San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins concisely makes the case for Bryant in an article titled No Kidding--Kobe is Obvious MVP Choice. First he quotes Kirk Snyder, who says, "Guarding Kobe Bryant is kind of disturbing sometimes because guys aren't supposed to be perfect." Jenkins concludes:
On the court, Bryant is the best thing we've seen since Michael Jordan--and right now, he's every bit as valuable. You can have your Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett or LeBron James, each a tremendously worthy MVP candidate. I'll take perfection.
This is a man, the first since Jordan, who has a reliable shot anywhere up to 30 feet, can create any shot for himself at any time, has a sweet little mid-range bank shot (the mark of a truly great scorer), competes with an almost vicious resolve, plays hurt without a single complaint, throws down life-changing dunks and can improvise himself past any obstacle, with touch and finesse, when driving to the hoop.
Jenkins dismisses the idea of waiting to see how the Lakers and Hornets finish the season before deciding between Bryant and Chris Paul, declaring, "What, Paul's Hornets finish one game behind the Lakers and suddenly he's not the best candidate? Would such a finish cost Byron Scott his shot at Coach of the Year? Nonsense. The Western Conference will be so competitive as to make an immediate joke out of records and seedings. All of the necessary evidence is in for individual awards, and the MVP is an easy call from here."
My top five NBA candidates, in order, are Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard. James is threatening Bryant's status as the game's best all-around player but he still needs to improve his defense, outside shooting and free throw shooting to claim that title. Paul has emerged as the best point guard in the NBA. Garnett has sacrificed his individual statistics this season but his impact on the Celtics has been very significant. Howard is the most dominant back to the basket post player in the league, as demonstrated by his scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and high field goal percentage.
Rookie of the Year: Charles Barkley, Hubie Brown, Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller chose Al Horford. Ernie Johnson (TNT), Chris Mannix and Kenny Smith chose Kevin Durant. Jeff Van Gundy chose Luis Scola.
This race is very interesting. Durant has gaudier scoring numbers than any rookie, mainly because he has the green light to shoot all the time for a bad team. Horford is almost averaging a double double for a playoff team. Scola is a very productive player for a strong Western Conference team. I really respect what Horford and Scola have done but neither of them has been asked to shoulder as big of a burden as Durant has. I have been critical of Durant's field goal percentage and if it had sunk much lower I would have chosen Horford but in the last month of the season Durant has made a lot of progress, so I give him the nod in this category.
I would vote Horford second and Scola third.
Defensive Player of the Year: Hubie Brown, Ernie Johnson, Chris Mannix and Kenny Smith chose Kevin Garnett. Charles Barkley chose Bruce Bowen and Doug Collins (TNT) chose Shane Battier.
I would vote for Garnett, who I expect to win in a landslide. Garnett is not only an outstanding individual defender but he has played a major role in transforming the mindset of the Celtics and making that team the best defensive squad in the league. I would vote Tim Duncan second and Battier third. Duncan is the anchor for a Spurs' defense that has ranked among the league's best for a decade, while Battier is a fantastic wing defender who guards Bryant about as well as anyone in the NBA.
Sixth Man of the Year: Charles Barkley, Hubie Brown and Kenny Smith chose Manu Ginobili.
Ginobili is my selection and I expect there to be a landslide in this category, too. Ginobili is mentioned in some quarters as an MVP contender; I think that's a bit much, but he definitely is the best bench player in the NBA. I would vote Leandro Barbosa second and J.R. Smith third. Barbosa's speed and shooting ability are a deadly combination. Smith is a high flying dunker who can also shoot three pointers and that versatility makes him a potent scorer.
Most Improved Player: Jeff Van Gundy, Ernie Johnson and Chris Mannix chose Hedo Turkoglu. Mark Jackson chose Rajon Rondo. Charles Barkley chose David West. Kenny Smith chose the entire Portland Trailblazers team.
I think that Turkoglu will probably win. Turkoglu has said that he does not really believe that he has improved but rather he has simply been given more responsibilities. When he plays for the Turkish national team he displays a multi-faceted game instead of just being a spot up shooter, so he makes a valid point. The big question in this category always revolves around how much a player improved versus how much a player's statistical increases are simply due to receiving more playing time and/or a bigger overall role on his team.
Chris Paul is my choice; prior to this season he was not even definitively considered the best young point guard in the NBA and now many people believe that he is the MVP. I don't think that he is the MVP but I do think that he has improved tremendously. I would vote Rudy Gay second and Danny Granger third. The Grizzlies got more attention for giving away Pau Gasol than for anything else they did this season but Gay's scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage all increased dramatically. Granger emerged as the best player on a Pacers team that narrowly missed the playoffs. Rondo and West are also good choices and Kenny Smith is correct that the Blazers collectively demonstrated a lot of growth. Andrew Bynum would be worthy of consideration had he played in more games.
Coach of the Year: Jon Barry, Charles Barkley, Mark Jackson, Chris Mannix and Kenny Smith chose Byron Scott. Hubie Brown, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Wilbon chose Doc Rivers. Reggie Miller chose Jerry Sloan.
I would vote for Doc Rivers. He has kept his three All-Stars productive and happy, developed a solid bench and got his whole team to buy into a defense first mentality. Rick Adelman would be my second choice. His Rockets established the second longest winning streak in NBA history and they accomplished a substantial portion of it without Yao Ming. Adelman has been stereotyped as an offensive oriented coach but he has tailored his game plan to the talents of his personnel, retaining some of the defensive principles that his predecessor Jeff Van Gundy used and tweaking his offense to accommodate what his players do best. Byron Scott would be my third choice. A lot of the Hornets' improvement can be traced to Paul's development and the fact that the key players on the team are finally healthy but Scott is an underrated coach who has turned New Orleans into a good defensive team.
Executive of the Year: Mannix chose Danny Ainge.
Ainge has to win this award; he put together a team that just executed the best one season turnaround in NBA history. A cynic could say that he also put together the previous team that had to be turned around but that is not a fair statement; if Ainge had not accumulated young talent and draft picks then he would not have had the necessary assets to make the deals to acquire Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Ainge has also assembled an excellent bench and he hired the right coach to run things. My second choice would be Mitch Kupchak, who traded for Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza and has put together a team that should be a contender for the next few seasons. I would vote Kevin Pritchard third; Portland made a run at a playoff berth in the tough West and the Blazers are loaded with young talent.
Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley each offered up some "special" awards. Smith gave the "My team is wack but I'm not" award to Rudy Gay, Jason Richardson and Al Thornton. Barkley gave some love to Maurice Cheeks, who he feels is vastly underappreciated; Barkley could not even say the convoluted name of his award, so I won't try, either, but he is right that Cheeks is a good coach and a good guy who deserves to be praised for the job that he has done with a young 76ers team.
None of the commentators offered up their choices for the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive Teams, perhaps because these selections would not fit conveniently into a sound bite. Here are my choices in these categories:
All-NBA First Team G Kobe Bryant G Chris Paul C Dwight Howard F LeBron James F Kevin Garnett
All-NBA Second Team G Steve Nash G Tracy McGrady C Amare Stoudemire F Tim Duncan F Dirk Nowitzki
All-NBA Third Team G Deron Williams G Allen Iverson C Marcus Camby F Carlos Boozer F Paul Pierce
There should not be any question or controversy regarding the First Team. Stoudemire has spent most of the season at center and Howard put up more dominant statistics playing that position; Stoudemire's numbers went up when he shifted to power forward but he did not play enough games at that position to make the team as a forward. The voters do funny things with positional designations sometimes, so it would not surprise me to see Stoudemire voted on to the First Team somehow but I would disagree with that; he was the second best center this year and if he plays power forward for most or all of next season then he can make the team at that position. I left out Yao because he missed too many games.
I suppose that the most controversial aspect of my three All-NBA Teams would be the omission of Manu Ginobili. I've got him as the easy winner of the Sixth Man Award but there is no way that he can make the first two All-NBA Teams over Bryant, Paul, Nash or McGrady. I think that the first three names are pretty obvious and I agree with something that Van Gundy said earlier in the season: Houston would not have won 22 games in a row if you replaced McGrady with Ginobili. So it all comes down to the two Third Team slots. Williams is an underrated player who has a bigger role on his team than Ginobili has on his: Williams starts, he plays more minutes and he scores almost as much as Ginobili while dishing out more than twice as many assists. Williams has been more durable and more consistent (Ginobili has had several awful games). Iverson is the only player other than James who ranks in the top ten in scoring and assists; he simply is more productive than Ginobili. I realize that this sentiment may make steam come out of the ears of some stat hounds but Iverson has a much bigger role on a team that does not have a dominant post player like Tim Duncan but is only six games worse in the standings than the Spurs.
All-Defensive First Team G Kobe Bryant G Raja Bell C Marcus Camby F Kevin Garnett F Tim Duncan
All-Defensive Second Team G Jason Kidd G Chris Paul C Rasheed Wallace F Shane Battier F Bruce Bowen
Unlike the other awards, this one will be voted on by the coaches, so it will be interesting to see how closely my ballot matches theirs (I would guess that Dwight Howard might outpoll Wallace). Writers, fans and stat hounds all have their own perceptions about who the best defensive players are. I just saw some articles that critiqued Paul's defense but from the games I've seen I think that he is one of the best defensive point guards in the league. The Hornets are a good defensive team and good defense usually starts with the point guard position.
All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position) Kevin Durant Al Horford Luis Scola Al Thornton Jamario Moon
All-Rookie Second Team Juan Carlos Navarro Jeff Green Carl Landry Yi Jianlian Thaddeus Young
The first three choices will probably be the same on most ballots. After that, a lot of these players have had fairly similar overall impacts. I put Thornton on the First Team because of his great athleticism, energy and scoring ability. Moon made the cut because he is a very solid contributor to a playoff team. Landry might have moved up had he played in more games. All of these guys have had their good moments and their bad moments and none of them has put together an all-time great rookie season.
The April 9 edition of USA Today contained an interesting article by Chris Colston titled "NBA Legends Pay Dues Again." According to Colston's research, out of 148 assistant coaches in the NBA there are 55 who played in the NBA and/or ABA, 13 of whom made the All-Star team at least once. Six of those players are Hall of Famers (counting Adrian Dantley, who will be enshrined with this year's class) and three of them were selected to the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List.
Looking at Colston's list, I realized that I have interviewed two of the three Top 50 players, four of the six Hall of Famers and nine of the 13 All-Stars. Here are links to some of the stories that I have done that feature quotes from All-Stars who have become coaches:
Lakers Dominate Spurs, Move Closer to Clinching Top Seed in the West
Playing without the injured Manu Ginobili, the Spurs stayed competitive for the first half before the Lakers pulled away to claim a 106-85 win against the defending champions. If the Lakers win their last game of the season against the Kings and the Rockets lose one of their final three games then L.A. will earn the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets conclude their season with tough road games in Denver and Utah before they have a home contest against the Clippers. Kobe Bryant led the way for the Lakers against the Spurs, finishing with 20 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals, shooting 6-14 from the field. Bryant received a lot of help from Lamar Odom (17 points, 14 rebounds, four assists), Pau Gasol (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Derek Fisher (14 points, four assists). Tony Parker had 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists but was a complete non-factor in the second half (two points, two rebounds, no assists). Tim Duncan added 16 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 6-19 from the field and did not block a shot.
The Spurs took a 7-0 lead barely two minutes into the game and the Lakers struggled defensively throughout the first half as Parker repeatedly got into the paint. The Lakers were not rattled by their slow start and Coach Phil Jackson stayed true to his normal strategy of not calling quick timeouts even if his team does not look sharp. He expects his players to figure things out on their own based on how they have previously been coached and, sure enough, the Lakers soon rallied to tie the score. Neither team led by more than six points for the rest of the first half and the score was tied at 53 at halftime. In his halftime interview with ABC's Michele Tafoya, Bryant--who had called this a "statement game" prior to tipoff--provided a good summary (and second half preview), saying that the Lakers had missed too many easy shots in the paint and committed too many turnovers. Defensively, Bryant said that the Lakers needed to not give up so many open looks to the Spurs on jump shots from the corners.
Bryant had a team-high 13 points on 4-8 field goal shooting in the first half but in the third quarter he shined first as a playmaker--accumulating three assists--before scoring seven points in the final 2:31 of the quarter. His buzzer beating three pointer capped off that run and gave the Lakers their largest lead yet, 79-67. Bryant received his customary rest to start the fourth quarter and the bench players did such an excellent job of extending the lead that he did not return to action. With his team trailing 89-71 at the 6:40 mark, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich essentially waved a white flag, benching Duncan, Parker and Michael Finley.
The final seeding at the top of the West may not be decided until the last game of the season is played but if people are going to seriously base their MVP votes mostly or entirely on that factor then why isn't Tracy McGrady's name in play in this conversation? If the Rockets win out and get the number one seed after having the second longest winning streak in NBA history earlier in the season despite losing Yao Ming then shouldn't McGrady be the MVP if the tiebreaker is how each candidate's team finishes? Of course, the reason that McGrady is not being seriously considered as the MVP is that he was not the best player in the league for the entire season and the MVP is (or should be) a season-long award. TNT's Kenny Smith made an interesting point on Thursday when he said that Boston's Kevin Garnett was the MVP of the first half of the season and that Chris Paul was the MVP of the second half of the season--but Kobe Bryant was the second best player in each half and thus deserves to win the MVP based on his season-long consistency.
I keep hearing advocates for Paul saying that he has taken a team out of nowhere to 50-plus wins and that the Hornets would be no good without him. Well, how good do you suppose the Lakers would be without Bryant? The Hornets were a mystery team prior to this season because their nucleus of Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic only played seven games together last season--and Paul did not take that injury-riddled team to the playoffs, while Bryant absolutely carried his injury-depleted team to the 2007 playoffs by posting the highest post-All-Star Game scoring average in four decades; that accomplishment included a 50 point outburst in a 111-105 win over Paul's Hornets during which Paul, West and Chandler played while the Lakers started Kwame Brown and Smush Parker, with Shammond Williams--who is not even in the league now--getting the most minutes off of the bench. In 2006, Bryant carried another sad sack outfit to the playoffs by averaging 35.4 ppg, the ninth best scoring average of all-time and the best mark since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. It is simply amazing that not only did Bryant not win the MVP in either of those years but he did not finish second on either occasion and was even left completely off of some voters' ballots.
This season, West, Chandler and Stojakovic all have been healthy and productive. Meanwhile, the Lakers have endured injuries to several key players and still have yet to put Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the floor together at the same time. Bryant has been productive individually while at the same time leading his team to the top of the Western Conference. Despite having all of his key players together for the entire season, Paul and his Hornets have been faltering right at the moment when they could have put a stranglehold on the top seed, losing three of their last four games, including one to Bryant's Lakers on Friday night, a game in which Bryant clearly outplayed Paul. Paul shot 16-48 from the field in those four games. How can anyone possibly say that those are MVP caliber numbers? If Bryant had shot that poorly in recent games then you can be sure that everyone would be saying that he should not win the MVP. The fact that this is still considered to be a debatable issue is actually quite remarkable. Bryant's critics said that these late season games would decide the MVP and yet now it seems like people are acting like these games did not happen; you know that if the Hornets had won on Friday that everyone on ESPN would be declaring the MVP race to be a landslide decision in Paul's favor. I don't think that the MVP race should be decided just by these games but it is ridiculous to first elevate the importance of these games and then to disregard them when the "right" player and the "right" team did not shine.
Prior to the start of the season, Bryant demanded that management provide him enough help to get the job done--and he has more than held up his part of the bargain as Bynum and others improved and the Lakers pulled off the heist of the season by acquiring Gasol. It has gotten pretty old to hear normally intelligent people acknowledge that Bryant is the best player in the NBA and yet continue to search for excuses to not vote for him as the MVP; this year, the search is over and the excuses ring more hollow than ever.
The Score, the Key Stat, the Bottom Line: Playoff Positioning
Saturday's action featured several games that affected playoff positioning for one or both teams. When the smoke cleared, the Wizards, Jazz and Warriors helped themselves, the Hawks moved one step closer to backing into the playoffs and the Sixers, Nuggets and Hornets all suffered setbacks.
The Key Stat: Gilbert Arenas produced 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 25 minutes off of the bench, his best performance since coming back from knee surgery. He shot 7-14 from the field--including 4-9 from three point range--and had a game-high +21 plus/minus rating.
The Bottom Line: The Sixers could have moved up to fifth place in the East but instead they slid to seventh and the Wizards are now in fifth place. Washington controlled this game on both the inside and the outside, outrebounding Philadelphia 48-36 and shooting a blistering 12-22 (.545) from three point range. Antawn Jamison had an excellent game, posting game-high totals in points (25) and rebounds (13) to help the Wizards make up for the absence of injured All-Star Caron Butler. Arenas got off to a slow start, shooting just 2-8 from the field, but he owned the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points on 5-6 shooting while also contributing as a rebounder and playmaker. This is the Arenas that Wizards' fans have been waiting all season to see and if they get a steady diet of this Arenas then of course the Wizards could be a formidable team. Some people think that I "hate" Arenas but that is not the case at all; I just don't see him as an MVP caliber player. His performance against the 76ers was great, all the more so considering not only the significance of the game but the fact that he is still probably not 100% physically. Where I disagree with Arenas lovers/Wizards fans is whether or not this type of game is typical for Arenas. His field goal percentage, three point percentage and rebounds against the Sixers were all better than his career averages. I interpret that to mean that he is an All-Star player who had a very good game and an outstanding fourth quarter. Others will no doubt counter that once Arenas is fully healthy he will play like this on a nightly basis and the Wizards will win 50-plus games. I'll believe that when I see it; I think that it is just as likely that over the long haul he will have a lot of games in which he takes the same shots but finishes 4-14 from the field and 1-9 from three point range.
The Key Stat: Utah shot .575 from the field and outrebounded Denver 44-36. Allen Iverson (28 points) and Carmelo Anthony (22 points) were the two highest scoring players in the game--and also posted the two worst plus/minus numbers (-25 for Anthony, -24 for Iverson). The Jazz enjoyed remarkable offensive balance and efficiency, as three players scored 20 points each (Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer) while combining to shoot 25-38 from the field; Deron Williams ran the show (19 points, 11 assists, 7-11 field goal shooting).
The Bottom Line: Call them the "enver" Nuggets because there is no "D" in Denver this year. The Nuggets are engaged in a death match with Golden State for the eighth playoff berth in the West, so naturally they gave up 40 points to Utah in the first quarter. Then, relying on their explosive offense, the Nuggets surged back from a 16 point deficit to briefly take the lead before getting outscored 34-18 in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets own the tiebreaker over Golden State, so they still control their own destiny but now they have no margin for error with just two games remaining. This contest was also very important for the Jazz, who own perhaps the best homecourt advantage in the league and are still in contention to host a first round playoff series.
The Key Stat: Stephen Jackson (28 points on 8-17 shooting) and Baron Davis (25 points on 10-21 shooting) broke out of their recent shooting slumps as the Warriors took a 42-26 first quarter lead and held on for dear life. Fortunately for them, they were playing the Clippers at home, not the Jazz on the road.
The Bottom Line: Either Denver or Golden State will probably set a record for most wins without making the playoffs but are these teams really so great? They both run hot and cold, depend far too much on their offense and thus cannot hang their hats on fundamentals like defense and rebounding to help them to win on nights when their shots are not falling. The Warriors benefited in last year's playoffs by getting a favorable matchup with Dallas but--contrary to the hype in some quarters--I don't believe that either of these teams will pull off that kind of an upset this season.
The Key Stat: The Celtics' "Big Three" played fewer minutes than usual but Sam Cassell produced 20 points off of the bench--including 15 points in the fourth quarter--as the Celtics' reserves outplayed the Hawks' starters down the stretch.
The Bottom Line: Despite the loss, the Hawks moved one step closer to clinching a playoff berth--and a first round matchup with the Celtics--because the Indiana Pacers lost 107-103 to the Charlotte Bobcats. All the Hawks need now is one more win or one more Indiana loss. The Hawks are a young, upcoming team but they don't have the experience, the mental focus or the defense that will be necessary to challenge the Celtics in the playoffs. Considering that as many as three of the East playoff teams may have losing records it is somewhat appropriate that the battle for the last spot may be decided more by other teams' losses than by Atlanta's wins; the Hawks are 2-3 in their last five games, including a 112-98 loss to Indiana.
The Key Stat: Chris Paul shot 4-13 from the field for the second game in a row, though he did produce 14 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and six steals.
The Bottom Line: The Hornets entered this game controlling their destiny in terms of claiming the top seed in the West but now the Lakers can seize that position by winning their last two games. This was a huge loss for the Hornets because it is possible now that they will not even have homecourt advantage in the first round.
I don't buy the idea that the winner of the regular season MVP award should be largely decided by what happens in a handful of games at the end of the season; the MVP should honor a body of work produced in an entire year. However, all the Chris Paul advocates who have been saying for the past month that if the Hornets get the number one seed in the West then he should win the MVP should now admit that Bryant deserves to receive this year's MVP. Bryant has successfully steered the Lakers through "three" seasons, overcoming not only injuries to his team's two best centers but also his own finger injury that will require offseason surgery. Bryant is a 28-6-5 player who is also one of the league's top defenders. Paul has had a breakout season but Bryant is widely acknowledged to be the best player in the league; the past couple years we have heard different excuses for why Bryant was "disqualified" from winning the MVP but this season he has met every conceivable benchmark: his individual numbers are great, his team is highly successful and no one can deny the leadership that he has demonstrated with his young teammates and in helping Pau Gasol quickly become acclimated after joining the team in midseason.
"A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."--Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Nobel Lecture)
"The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--Edgar Allan Poe
"In chess what counts is what you know, not whom you know. It's the way life is supposed to be, democratic and just."--Grandmaster Larry Evans
"It's not nuclear physics. You always remember that. But if you write about sports long enough, you're constantly coming back to the point that something buoys people; something makes you feel better for having been there. Something of value is at work there...Something is hallowed here. I think that something is excellence."--Tom Callahan