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Friday, June 27, 2008

First Impressions of the 2008 NBA Draft

I am not a big "draftnik"--I much prefer to watch and analyze the players who are already in the NBA--but this year I filled out a mock draft at Yardbarker. Frankly, for someone who does not obsess over the draft I think that I did pretty well, particularly in comparison to some people who spend so much more time researching this subject than I do. I got six of the first eight picks exactly correct and I transposed picks four and seven; I correctly identified nine of the 10 players who would be top 10 selections. In comparison, USA TODAY's Chris Colston only got four of the first eight picks exactly correct, ESPN's Chad Ford got six of the first eight picks exactly correct and Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress got the first eight picks exactly correct. Colston, Ford and Givony each matched my feat of correctly identifying nine of the top ten players. I missed out on ninth pick D.J. Augustin, as did Ford and Givony, while Colston left out sixth pick Danilo Gallinari.

I can't speak for the other guys, but I made my choices based on what I expected the teams to do, not necessarily who I think the ten best players are. I only saw Mayo a few times, so maybe I caught him on bad nights or maybe he will improve a lot but I think that he is overrated; he has the requisite skill set to have a solid NBA career, but I don't get what all of the fuss is about and I certainly cannot comprehend why he was ever compared to LeBron James, who is several inches taller, at least 40 pounds heavier and just a much better player. Minnesota took Mayo with the third overall selection but will apparently ship him to Memphis along with several veterans (i.e., dead weight contracts) in exchange for several players, most notably Kevin Love and Mike Miller. Kevin McHale has been much criticized--and for good reason--but turning Mayo and some bad contracts into a solid big man and an excellent three point shooter looks like a good deal.

Everyone understood that Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley would be the top two picks; I think that all of the last minute stuff about Miami supposedly souring on Beasley was just a smokescreen from the Heat to see what kind of offers they might receive for the second pick. Rose looks like the right choice considering that Chicago needs a point guard and that the rules changes over the past few years have placed a premium on having players who can attack off of the dribble. I like Beasley's game and I think that he is much more NBA ready at this point than Kevin Durant was last year. Beasley may not average as many points as Durant did--he will have to share the ball with Dwyane Wade and Shawn Marion--but he will surely shoot a much better field goal percentage, grab more rebounds and have more of an impact on winning; Durant was just firing off shots left and right on a horrible team until the latter part of the season when his shot selection and field goal percentage improved.

ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy called Beasley a "Hall of Fame" talent. I respect Van Gundy a lot but I just can't go that far about a guy who has not played one minute yet in the NBA. Beasley is very talented but only the elite of the elite make it to the Hall of Fame, guys who deliver year after year. Jay Bilas said that Beasley has "great presence in traffic. This guy can operate in a crowd." I agree completely with that assessment and those two qualities are why I expect Beasley to be more efficient and effective than Durant has been so far.

Seattle's choice of Russell Westbrook with the number four pick surprised most people other than Givony; I had Westbrook going to the Clippers in the seventh spot and Seattle taking Gordon, flipping what actually transpired. I like Gordon's scoring ability, but going to the Clippers is like being sucked in by a black hole: we may never see Gordon again in this universe, let alone find out what he could have done with a different team. As for Seattle, Van Gundy said that the Sonics now face a "critical decision" regarding which positions Durant and Westbrook will play. Durant played shooting guard last year. Will Westbrook take over that spot, moving Durant to small forward, or will Westbrook play point guard? I'm not sure what Westbrook's best position is but I never agreed with putting Durant in the backcourt; he needs to bulk up a bit, toughen up on the boards and play small forward, because he does not belong on the outside chasing 6-5 shooting guards around screens.

Fran Fraschilla is ESPN's resident expert on international players. Most of his analysis sounded plausible, although it largely came from the same template: the foreign players who got drafted tend to be very young, under contract overseas and not quite ready to play in the NBA. Fraschilla offered a bit of unintentional comedy when he said that Alexis Ajinca was "unstoppable" in one on zero workouts. Hey, Fraschilla should check me out: I look like J.J. Redick at Duke in one on zero workouts, but there is a reason that Redick is riding the bench in Orlando and I am writing about other people being drafted instead of finishing out my last days as an NBA player, like my contemporaries Grant Hill and Shaquille O'Neal--in the NBA you have to be able to play one on one in the context of a five on five game, so "one on zero" skills have limited value.

The reason that I did not have Augustin in my top ten is that I expected teams to be wary of a guy who measured out at less than six feet tall. Yes, there have been some very nice players at that size but they are special guys, few and far between. Maybe Augustin will be one of them--the rules changing favoring perimeter players will help him of course--but I have my doubts. After Charlotte took Augustin with the ninth pick, the Nets chose Brook Lopez, prompting Bilas to declare, "New Jersey got an absolute steal. They ought to wear a mask for this one." I agree with Bilas; I had Charlotte taking Lopez as a nice complement to Emeka Okafor and unless Augustin turns out to be a very dynamic player I think that the Bobcats are going to really regret this.

Between the draft and some recent trades, the Nets added Lopez, Chris Douglas-Roberts (who claims to have never lost a one on one game in his life, a more useful--if harder to verify--trait than Ajinca's one on zero prowess), Ryan Anderson, Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons. Mark Jackson said that New Jersey has made a "tremendous upgrade." Van Gundy liked Milwaukee's moves, which include acquiring Richard Jefferson from New Jersey plus drafting Joe Alexander and Luc Mbah a Moute. Bilas praised the Heat, who added Beasley, Mario Chalmers and Darnell Jackson. Of course, the reality is that it is far too early to know who the real winners and losers are but I think that Jackson, Van Gundy and Bilas' choices are reasonable based on what we currently know about the players in question.

The best thing about ESPN's draft coverage this year is that Stephen A. Smith no longer sat at the main table spitting out overblown "analysis." ESPN relegated him to asking pro forma questions of players after they were drafted and the Worldwide Leader apparently put a strict clock on Smith's segments to make sure that he did not wander too far astray; at one point he said that he wanted to ask another question but that he was being directed to cut his interview short and toss it over to Doris Burke, who interviewed various players and their family members. If you watched the whole telecast then you noticed that Burke asked questions that specifically related to who she was speaking with, while for the most part Smith kept asking variations of "What can your new team expect you to contribute?" Granted, the players are young and nervous and Smith was hardly given a huge role, but he could have at least tried to ask something specific about each player rather than lobbing a generic, forgettable question that led automatically to a preprogrammed, generic and forgettable reply along the lines of "I will do whatever my new team asks me to do."

One of the most interesting things about this draft is that there is a decent chance that none of the most ballyhooed players will win Rookie of the Year; Greg Oden, last year's number one overall selection, could very well earn that honor if he puts up good rebounding and shot blocking numbers for a Portland team that should be able to contend for a playoff berth in the strong Western Conference.

Here is a capsule look at what I wrote about the three previous NBA Drafts:

First Impressions of the 2007 NBA Draft, Soon to be Renamed the "Paul Allen Buys Every Draft Pick Show"

What I said in 2007: "Nothing lends itself more to overanalysis and wild hyperbole than the draft (any draft, not just the NBA's). None of the draft picks has played one second of basketball at the NBA level, let alone 82 regular season games over a period of many months, so the dramatic, overblown statements and projections that are offered up by "experts" are just that: dramatic and overblown."

What I think now: Those two sentences should be the preamble to every single article that is written right after any draft.

Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2006)

What I said in 2006: "There were so many trades going on throughout the draft that I kept waiting for Monty Hall to come out of the audience and take the microphone away from Dan Patrick. Greg Anthony was so befuddled at one point that he said, 'No comment,' as if he were being deposed under oath. Stephen A. Smith completely ripped the Portland Trail Blazers but I don't understand why he did not ask a direct question of Blazers President Steve Patterson when Patterson appeared on the telecast via satellite. Portland has clearly made some questionable moves in the past, but they got rid of undersized point guard Sebastian Telfair and obtained LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, either of whom conceivably could turn out to be the best player in this year's draft. Portland also acquired Raef LaFrentz and Dan Dickau while shipping away Theo Ratliff and Victor Khryapa. It seems unfair and misguided for Smith to criticize these deals three seconds after they have transpired when there is a decent chance that these moves actually helped Portland. Ratliff is a quality shotblocker but Portland hardly gave up the house to get Aldridge and Roy. Smith's verbal broadsides against Portland came across as the proverbial 'shoot, ready, aim' style of analysis. Just because ESPN made a movie about Telfair does not mean that he will be a great NBA player."

What I think now: Portland fans are happy that Stephen A. Smith is not running their team; NBA fans are happy that Smith's role on ESPN's NBA Draft coverage was reduced from commentator to interviewer.

Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2005)

What I said in 2005: "Utah...acquired the third pick from Portland and selected Illinois' Deron Williams, a poor man's Jason Kidd who seems to be the perfect fit for Jerry Sloan's system. He won't make anyone forget John Stockton (who could?) but Utah expects him to man the point guard spot for the next 10 years or so."

What I think now: I was right to praise the Williams pick and to pan the Clippers' choice of Yaroslav Korolev with the 12th pick. On the other hand, I did not even mention Chris Paul and he has turned out to be the best player from that draft so far. Atlanta's choice of Marvin Williams over Paul and Deron Williams will only haunt the Hawks for the next decade or so.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Getting to Know Jerryd Bayless

I focus much more of my attention on the NBA game than the college game, so I hesitate to make sweeping proclamations about the NBA Draft because I realize that I don't have enough information about all of the prospects to analyze the draft in the same in depth manner that I evaluate players who are already in the league. I filled out a mock draft at Yardbarker just for fun--and on the off chance that I may actually get enough picks right to win the autographed Greg Oden jersey. Wouldn't it be funny if I do a better job projecting the draft than all of the "draftniks" who devote so much time to studying it? Of course, the key here is not even just pure talent evaluation but also trying to figure out what each team is thinking, so I did not necessarily list who I thought were the 14 best players but rather who I think/guess the teams might choose.

For me, the real evaluation process will begin during summer league play when I get to see some of these guys on the court playing under NBA rules against NBA players (or, at least, fringe NBA players); after I watched Kevin Durant struggle during summer league play last year I correctly said that people should stop expecting him to be some kind of instant superstar. Durant performed better toward the end of the regular season but by that point the so-called "experts" had figured out what I had been saying all along, namely that Durant must improve his all around game in order to live up to all of the hype that had been prematurely showered on him.

That does not mean that I don't care about the college game and the NBA Draft, just that I devote more of my viewing time and analysis to players who are already in the NBA. I certainly am interested to learn as much about college prospects as possible. Arizona guard Jerryd Bayless averaged 19.7 ppg and 4.0 apg last season. He is considered to be a top prospect in this year's draft and he may go as high as fourth overall. Paul Dalessio passed along this video about Bayless:

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:42 AM

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shaq Versus Kobe (Again)

Just when you thought the "Shaq-Kobe feud" was over...

I'm not going to link to Shaq's recent "rap" about Kobe Bryant, Patrick Ewing and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; I'm sure that you either have already seen it or can easily find it if you are so inclined. Isn't it interesting that Shaq dissed Hall of Fame centers Abdul-Jabbar and Ewing but that the media is more interested in reviving the played out "Shaq-Kobe feud" than highlighting Shaq's hypocrisy? This is a guy who repeatedly says that he respects the game's history and yet he never hesitates to trash some of the greatest big men ever. Remember how Shaq tried to manufacture a beef with David Robinson?

The two main reasons that Shaq and Kobe did not get along when they were teammates are: (1) Shaq was jealous of the attention that Kobe got right off of the bat because Shaq is an insecure person who wants to constantly hear people praising him for his greatness; (2) Kobe has a fanatical work ethic and he demands no less of his teammates, while Shaq has a much more laid back attitude, meaning that their approaches are fundamentally incompatible.

Here are a few other points to consider:

1) Neither Shaq nor Kobe was completely flawless during their "feud" when they were teammates but Shaq has consistently been the one who has publicly spoken out. What is the worst thing that Kobe has said about Shaq publicly? He said--after Shaq delayed his toe surgery and came back out of shape during a time when Kobe was stringing together 40 point games--that if Shaq wants to get the ball in the post then he needs to get in shape and run down court because Kobe was not going to slow down to wait for him; Shaq famously responded by saying that if the big dog is not "fed" (the ball) then he won't "guard the house" (play defense in the paint). Note the contrast: Kobe is frustrated at Shaq's lack of conditioning and wants him to--literally--get his butt in gear, while Shaq answers by threatening to not play hard if he does not get his way. Wonder if that sounds vaguely familiar to any Miami Heat fans?

2) Unless you were there or are really, really confident in taking certain Colorado law enforcement officials at their word, you have no idea what Kobe did or did not say about Shaq five years ago. However, in his "rap" Shaq basically brags about having extramarital affairs while saying that Kobe's alleged comments caused Shaq's divorce, which is an odd charge considering the time lag between the two events. Frankly, neither Shaq nor Kobe look like candidates for husband of the year but at least Kobe publicly apologized for his conduct and is not bragging about it.

3) Consider how many people Shaq has befriended to their faces only to later publicly ridicule: Penny Hardaway, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and, of course, Kobe Bryant.

4a) Shaq should be careful when he brings up the subject of who could "do without" whom. There have been just eight NBA Finals sweeps in six decades but O'Neal was victimized in one of them (1995) and would have suffered a second one in 2004 if Kobe had not hit a game-saving three pointer and then dominated the overtime session in game two. Shaq's teams have been swept out of the playoffs six times (1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2007), which certainly contradicts Shaq's self-serving "Most Dominant Ever" proclamations. The "Most Dominant Ever" can't get even one win in six different playoff series? Shaq has a 1-8 record in his last nine playoff games and, although I certainly don't think that he is primarily responsible for Phoenix' first round ouster this season, it is worth noting that the Suns went further in the playoffs without him the past several years than they did with him this year.

4b) If Shaq had not benefited from having two Hall of Fame coaches and two All-NBA guards then he would have zero rings instead of four. That's not a knock on Shaq per se--every great player needed help to win a championship--but just a reality check: instead of bragging about what a great teammate he is and saying who couldn't "do without" whom, Shaq should act as if he understands how much teamwork really goes into winning a championship and how fortunate he is that he was able to be in those situations during his career.

4c) We all know that Shaq won the Finals MVP each of the three times that Shaq and Kobe led the Lakers to championships. However, one player--no matter how great--cannot win a championship singlehandedly and Shaq could not have "done without" several great performances by Kobe during each of those title runs. For example:

*June 4, 2000: Kobe led the Lakers in scoring (25 points), rebounds (11), assists (7) and blocked shots (four) in their 89-84 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in game seven of the Western Conference Finals.

*June 14, 2000: Kobe scored 28 points in game four of the NBA Finals, including 14 points in the fourth quarter and eight points in overtime. Kobe had the game-winning offensive rebound/put back. Shaq had a big game but he fouled out and it fell upon Kobe to save the day. Afterwards, teammate Derek Fisher said of Kobe, "I was watching what he did tonight and I was thinking about those old NBA classic films, Magic and Kareem and others just taking over games in the Finals. Tonight, he took a chapter right out of their book."

*May 13, 2001: Kobe led the Lakers with game-high totals in points (48) and rebounds (16) in a 119-113 win over the Sacramento Kings in the clinching game of a 4-0 sweep.

*May 19, 2001: In their next game, Kobe led the Lakers with 45 points and had 10 rebounds (one fewer than Shaq) in a 104-90 game one win over the San Antonio Spurs.

*June 8, 2001: After losing game one of the Finals at home, the Lakers needed to win game two to avoid heading back to Philadelphia facing a huge uphill climb. Shaq certainly did his part (28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists, eight blocked shots) but would the Lakers have won a close game (98-89) without Kobe's 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists? The difference between the Lakers and Sixers was that the Lakers had two stars while the Sixers only had one (Allen Iverson).

*2002 NBA Finals: Kobe averaged 26.8 ppg on .514 field goal shooting plus 5.8 rpg and a team-high 5.3 apg. Yes, Shaq was dominant in the middle (36.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg) but do the Lakers win that series without having two stars playing well? The six times that Shaq has been swept show pretty conclusively that without enough help Shaq can't "do" much in terms of winning playoff series, let alone championships.

5) Many Asian Americans were deeply offended by Shaq's comments about Yao Ming in 2003.

6) While Shaq has backtracked and said that his rap was "all done in fun," the Maricopa County (Arizona) sheriff's office has asked that Shaq give back his special deputy's badge. Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, "I want his two badges back. Because if any one of my deputies did something like this, they're fired. I don't condone this type of racial conduct."

7) I will be very surprised if Kobe does anything other than take the high road and laugh this whole thing off.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:13 PM

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How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever

With the 2008 NBA Draft coming up on Thursday, it is interesting to recall some of the circumstances surrounding the 1984 Draft, which included four members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton.

Legends of Basketball has reprinted an interview that I did last year with Filip Bondy, the author of Tip-Off: How the 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever. Even if you read the interview when it was initially published here, the Legends version is worth checking out for some of the photos that they added, including a shot of a young Olajuwon next to brand new NBA Commissioner David Stern:

How The 1984 NBA Draft Changed Basketball Forever

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:56 AM

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Analyzing Team USA's 12 Man Roster

On Monday, USA Basketball announced the 12 man roster that will comprise the 2008 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Five of the 12 have participated in the Olympics previously (Carmelo Anthony, Carlos Boozer, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Dwyane Wade); the only U.S. team that had more Olympic veterans was the 1996 squad--that unit welcomed back six players from the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, the only group that truly deserved the "Dream Team" designation. Eight members of the 2008 team played in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, which Team USA won with a 10-0 record; here is a list of those eight players, along with some of their statistics from the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament.

Carmelo Anthony (21.2 ppg, .613 FG%, .578 3Pt FG%, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg in nine games)
LeBron James (18.1 ppg, .760 FG%, .622 3Pt FG%, 3.6 rpg, 4.7 apg in 10 games)
Kobe Bryant (15.3 ppg, .548 FG%, .459 3Pt FG%, 2.0 rpg, 2.9 apg in 10 games)
Michael Redd (14.4 ppg, .530 FG%, .453 3Pt FG%, 1.4 rpg, 1.5 apg in 10 games)
Dwight Howard (10.0 ppg, .814 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 18 blocked shots in 10 games)
Tayshaun Prince (7.3 ppg, .481 FG%, .357 3Pt FG%, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg in nine games)
Deron Williams (4.7 ppg, .613 FG%, 5-10 3Pt FG, 1.0 rpg, 4.6 apg in 10 games)
Jason Kidd (1.8 ppg, 6-10 FG, 5-8 3Pt FG, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg in 10 games)

Amare Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups played in 2007 but withdrew their names from the selection process this time around. Tyson Chandler played the fewest minutes on the 2007 team and Mike Miller had the second lowest field goal percentage on the 2007 team. Those four players have been replaced by Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade.

In addition to the Olympic and international experience listed above, the current roster has the 2008 NBA MVP (Bryant), four of the five members of the 2008 All-NBA First Team (Bryant, James, Howard and Paul) plus a 2008 All-NBA Second Team selection (Williams) and a 2008 All-NBA Third Team selection (Boozer).

Since the debacles for Team USA in 2002, 2004 and 2006, USA Basketball has emphasized that it wants a three year commitment from players so that the team can develop cohesion and chemistry. That is why the fifth member of the 2008 All-NBA First Team, Kevin Garnett, is not on the roster. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said of Garnett, "We never got any positive feedback of his interest. It was more about 'I've been there, I've done that and it's time for someone else to do it.' I had a number of conversations with his agent just to check the temperature of the water, and there was never any positive response. We would have loved to have had him...but obviously, it wasn't in the cards."

The key additions to the 2007 team were Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd; they quickly emerged as team leaders because of their professionalism, work ethic and defensive intensity, three qualities that had been noticeably missing on recent editions of Team USA. U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "Kobe is unbelievably committed to representing his country. Last summer playing for our team, the first time he saw his uniform, he got emotional...The first thing he did for us last summer, he was our best perimeter defender--and that's a role he wanted...I think we'll start out with the same thing because he knows he can play that way and expend the energy on defense because of the offensive talent of his teammates...We usually put him on the best perimeter player on the opposing team whether it be a point guard or a wing, and that's how we started the game. And that's how I want to start our practice sessions with that in mind." Bryant sacrificed some of his offensive game to concentrate on defense but still managed to finish third on the team in scoring and fourth in assists.

In a December 5, 2007 post, I mentioned some things that Suns General Manager Steve Kerr told me that then-Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni--a Team USA assistant coach--had said about Bryant's role on Team USA:

Prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, Bryant asked the coaching staff, "Who do you want me to take out?" In other words, Bryant wanted to know who was the toughest perimeter threat on each team so that he could study his tendencies on film and then completely neutralize him on the court. I said to Kerr, "That sounds like a sniper zeroing in on a target" and Kerr replied, "Yeah--and he was serious." Kerr went on to say that Bryant's "focus" and "bravado" added an essential missing element to the squad and elevated everyone else's play. Kerr noted that the previous Team USA squad had performed reasonably well other than the infamous loss to Greece but that it lacked a certain "swagger," as he termed it, and that Team USA did not have a "player who everyone feared." Kerr literally shook his head in wonderment as he described Bryant's impact on Team USA.

Kidd's leadership came in a much subtler form; there is virtually no statistical evidence of it, other than the fact that he ranked second on the team in assists--but make no mistake that he played a very key role on the team. He has never lost a game while wearing a Team USA jersey and he made it clear that he does not intend on ending that streak now.

The usual starting lineup of Bryant, Kidd, James, Anthony and Howard generally led the team to such big early leads that players like Redd, Stoudemire and Williams put up a lot of their numbers in de facto garbage time. Though casual fans probably assume that Chris Paul will be the starting point guard, I expect Coach Krzyzewski to use the same starting lineup during the Olympics that he employed during the FIBA Americas tournament; Kidd only ended up playing 15.9 mpg because Team USA won so many blowouts but I think that it is important to start the game with a group that has played together before in FIBA competition. This is not some All-Star exhibition in which Team USA can rotate who starts. Paul may end up playing more minutes than Kidd, particularly if Team USA builds big leads, but I would be surprised if Coach Krzyzewski changes his starting lineup.

The main early criticism of the 2008 roster is the supposed lack of big men but I disagree with that assessment. Chandler hardly played at all in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and although Stoudemire rebounded well he was not much of a defensive presence (six blocked shots in 10 games). Boozer and Bosh should be more than able to replace them, so this team is deeper and more versatile up front than the 2007 squad. Furthermore, the most effective style of play for Team USA in FIBA events is to go small, play pressure defense, force turnovers and score in the open court. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James can easily play power forward in such a lineup, so on this team they are essentially "bigs" also. As for the perimeter players, Billups and Miller were two of the least productive members of the 2007 team, so it is difficult to believe that there will be any drop off by replacing them with Paul and Wade.

Thus, the 2008 team should be even better than the 2007 squad, though it is also true that the competition at the Olympics will be much tougher than the competition at the FIBA Americas tournament.

Anthony will almost certainly be Team USA's leading scorer. He feeds off of the open court scoring opportunities provided by the pressure defense of Bryant, Kidd and James and he is also a tough cover in the half court for most FIBA forwards. If anything, Anthony plays even worse defense in FIBA competition than he does in the NBA but he is such an efficient scorer--and the other four starters defend so well--that his offensive output outweighs his defensive liabilities (which was not the case in the 2004 Olympics, when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team and James did not defend nearly as well as he does now).

Some quotes from Anthony and Wade give an indication of why they failed to lead the 2004 and 2006 teams to gold medals. Anthony said that he joined the 2004 team expecting to have "some of the best workouts in the summertime with the best players in the world" and he assumed "the USA is supposed to win everything." Wade candidly admitted that being an Olympian had never been a dream of his, adding, "I didn't have a clue what I was getting into...Now, we respect the game so much. We respect the team basketball that they play internationally so much." You don't have to read too far between the lines to understand that in 2004 Anthony and Wade underestimated the competition that they faced and did not realize how much hard work and intensity would be necessary to win the gold medal. Now, they know better and the team has a much better leadership structure--with Bryant and Kidd on board no one will be taking any shortcuts in practice or at the defensive end of the court (well, Anthony probably will still take some shortcuts there but the team can survive that as long as he keeps shooting over .600 from the field).

The prevailing myth about Team USA's failure to win gold medals in the 2002 FIBA World Championship, the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 FIBA World Championship is that a lack of outside shooters proved to be fatal. However, as I demonstrated in a September 4, 2007 post titled The Real Story Behind Team USA's Losses in Previous FIBA Events, what really killed those teams was poor defense, particularly regarding the short three point shot (20'6" as opposed to 23'9" in the NBA) that FIBA teams love to launch. It is absolutely vital that Team USA shut down the three point shooters on opposing teams and that they do so without leaving the lane open to cutters; shooting well from the three point line would certainly be a nice bonus but perimeter defense will be the linchpin of Team USA's success. Good perimeter defense will fuel transition offense that will result in open three pointers and fast break dunks; the gaudy field goal percentage posted by Team USA in 2007 was largely the result of great defense leading to high percentage scoring opportunities in transition.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:28 AM

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mark Price Shot, Passed and "Split" His Way Into the NBA's Elite

Here are the 12 year regular season NBA career statistics for two point guards. See if you can guess who they are:

Point Guard #1:

15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg, .472 FG%, .402 3Pt FG%, .904 FT%

Point Guard #2:

14.3 ppg, 7.9 apg, .485 FG%, .431 3Pt FG%, .897 FT%

If you are surprised to find out that point guard #1 is Mark Price and point guard #2 is Steve Nash, then you definitely should check out my CavsNews.com article about the very underrated Price, who developed the "split" move on the pick and roll play into a deadly weapon that many guards who followed him have copied. Johnny Bach, the de facto "defensive coordinator" for the Chicago Bulls during their first three-peat, says that the Mark Price-Brad Daugherty pick and roll play was "the best in the business" during that era (6/17/15 edit: the link to CavsNews.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below):


It is commonplace now for NBA point guards to split the two defenders on a pick and roll play, compromise the defense by penetrating the lane and then either shoot a runner or dish to a wide open teammate—but most people don’t realize that Cavaliers guard Mark Price brought this split technique to the forefront. Amazingly, the first time he pulled off the maneuver it was an accident.

“It’s a funny story,” Price says. “It actually just kind of happened once in a game. I remember vividly that we were playing Philadelphia. It was probably my second year in the league and I was trying to develop myself. I was being defended by Maurice Cheeks (a four-time All-Star and five time All-Defensive Team selection). I came off the pick and roll and it just seemed like it opened up like the Red Sea so I just kind of slid in there and scored. I remember running back down the floor and Cheeks said, ‘That was a sweet move.’ So I kind of locked that away and watched it (on film) and I started looking for it a little bit more and it became a mainstay in my repertoire.”

Johnny Bach, who was the de facto “defensive coordinator” for the Chicago Bulls during their first three-peat, says that the Mark Price-Brad Daugherty pick and roll combination was “the best in the business” because of Price’s unique ability to split the trap and get the defense back on its heels. Daugherty breaks the play down from a technical standpoint: “Mark was obviously a tremendous ballhandler and in order to get through the double-team you just have to have a great angle and a great pick. Your big guy has to set the pick and hold the screen and give the guy time to get through. A lot of times when you run the pick and roll, your forward or your center is looking to roll immediately because after you set the screen you are wide open. It’s hard sometimes to go over to that point guard and really hold on to that screen because you know that as soon as you roll that you have a chance for a shot. I think that the number one key is making sure that the guard doesn’t move until the big guy sets the screen and once the screen is set in place that the big guy does not move until the guard comes off of his hip. It is easy to split it that way because as the big guy sets the screen the big guy guarding him--the other center or forward--has to pick up the point guard. Usually that big guy will drop off because he knows that the point guard is quicker than he is. That creates a gap and Mark was just really good at cutting through that gap.”

Defenders did not dare to go under Daugherty’s screens because Price was a great three point shooter, nor was fouling Price a good answer because to this day he is still the leading free throw shooter in NBA history (.904). In 1988-89, just his third pro season, Price shot .441 from three point range (third in the league), .901 from the free throw line (fourth in the league) and .526 from the field (16th in the league). Larry Bird, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are the only other players who have ever shot at least .400 from three point range, .900 on free throws and .500 from the field in the same season. Price earned four All-Star selections (1989, 92-94) and he also made the All-NBA Team in each of those years, including a First Team nod in 1993.

Steve Kerr was Price’s teammate on the Cavaliers from 1989-93. Kerr led the NBA in three point field goal percentage in 1990 (.507) and he says that playing against Price in practice really honed his skills: “I had to guard him every day in practice, which was impossible. But that was the best thing that I could have done--it made me a better defender. I played with him a lot, which was awesome because he was so quick and drew so much attention that he got me open for a lot of shots. I learned a lot from Mark and I loved playing with him and guarding him in practice every day was just a lesson.”

Kerr agrees with Bach’s praise of the Price-Daugherty pick and roll tandem, adding, “Mark really revolutionized the way that people attack the screen and roll. To me, he was the first guy in the NBA who really split the screen and roll. A lot of teams started blitzing the pick and roll and jumping two guys at it to take the ball out of the hands of the point guard. He’d duck right between them and shoot that little runner in the lane. Nobody was doing that at that time. You watch an NBA game now and almost everybody does that. Mark was a pioneer in that regard. He gave people fits with that little split. I think that during his era he was one of the top few point guards in the NBA and if you look at the history of the league you have to include him among the upper echelon of all the point guards who have ever played.”

Although Bach believes that Price took some extra physical punishment from bigger defenders who felt embarrassed when Price split them in the open court, Price does not completely agree with that assessment: “I did take punishment, no question about it, but I don’t think that move in particular is what led to a lot of the punishment. The rules were different back then and there was a lot more hand checking and bumping. The rules changes have made it a little bit less physical than it used to be and I think that in that era the game was just more physical in general.”

Price led the league in free throw shooting three times, ranked in the top ten in assists on five occasions and won the All-Star Three Point Shootout in 1993 and 1994. His shooting and playmaking skills earned him a spot on Team USA in 1994, the last time that the United States won the FIBA World Championship. Price led Team USA in steals (12 in eight games) and ranked second in three pointers made (19), second in assists (29) and sixth in scoring (9.6 ppg). Shaquille O’Neal (18.0 ppg, .713 field goal percentage) and Reggie Miller (17.1 ppg, 30 three pointers made) were the team’s top two scorers.  

Price averaged 17.4 ppg and 7.0 apg in seven playoff appearances with the Cavs. He had a particularly outstanding postseason in 1991-92, averaging 19.2 ppg and 7.5 apg while shooting .496 from the field, .362 from three point range and .904 from the free throw line in 17 games. The Cavs made it to the Eastern Conference Finals but lost 4-2 to the Chicago Bulls, who eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs five times during Price’s career. Magic Johnson once predicted that the Cavs would be the team of the 90s but the Bulls went on to claim that distinction, winning six titles, including two in seasons during which they eliminated the Cavs.

Price averaged 15.2 ppg and 6.7 apg in 722 regular season games during his 12 year career but during the eight years that he was Cleveland’s starting point guard he averaged 17.6 ppg and 7.8 apg, including 19.6 ppg and 9.1 apg in 1989-90; those numbers would earn a player MVP consideration today but Price did not even make the All-Star team that year (the East backcourt consisted of Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Reggie Miller). In comparison, Steve Nash’s career averages after 12 seasons are 14.3 ppg and 7.9 apg; Nash’s career high scoring average is 18.8 ppg (2005-06) and his career high assists average is 11.6 apg (2006-07). Keep in mind that during the 1980s and 1990s, Robert Horry’s hip check on Nash would have looked like a love tap compared to the Rick Mahorn body blow that slammed Price into a basket stanchion. What kind of numbers would Price have put up in today’s game, when perimeter defenders are not allowed to even touch offensive players?

“I tell people all the time that the rules changes helped to make Steve Nash an MVP in this league,” Price says. “Steve’s a great player but just the ability to be able to go where you want to and not have guys hold you and grab you just opens up so many options for you. Steve obviously has great court vision, probably a little bit better of a passer than I was. I felt like I was a good passer. I was probably a little bit more of a pure shooter than Steve, although he is a very good shooter.”

A true point guard has a feel for what all of the players on the court are doing. “I think that you can improve your court awareness but I think that at some level you just have guys who have the instincts for that and it is a gift,” Price explains. “You can either see things happening or you can’t. I think that is the difference between guys who are point guards and guys who aren’t. You can’t just take a guy and put him at the point guard position because it takes that little bit of extra vision and court sense to really make that work.”

Price faced many outstanding point guards but he says that Kevin Johnson was probably the toughest one for him to defend. Of course, Price and Johnson were teammates in 1987-88 before the Cavs shipped Johnson to Phoenix in exchange for All-Star forward Larry Nance. Imagine what the Cavs would look like now if they had even one future All-Star point guard, let alone two of them!

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM

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