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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Memorable Moments and Milestones in Sonics' History

As a Cleveland Browns fan who lost his team in 1995 and had to endure three years in NFL exile followed by nearly a decade of on field ineptitude, I have great empathy for Seattle SuperSonics' fans. Here is a look back at some key moments from each of the 41 seasons of Sonics' basketball:

1967-68: The Sonics posted a 23-59 record in their first season, finishing fifth in the six team Western Division; the San Diego Rockets, also an expansion team, went 15-67. Walt Hazzard--a 6-2 guard who later converted to Islam and changed his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman--ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring (1894 points, 24.0 ppg) and fifth in assists (493, 6.2 apg). Hazzard became the first All-Star in Sonics' history, scoring nine points in the midseason classic.

1968-69: The Sonics traded Hazzard for Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens, who ranked ninth in the NBA in scoring (1835 points, 22.4 ppg) and second in assists (674, 8.2 apg). Wilkens made the All-Star team. Second year center Bob Rule emerged as a big time player, ranking fourth in the NBA in scoring (1965 points, 24.0 ppg). The Sonics improved to 30-52.

1969-70: Rule and Wilkens both make the All-Star team as the Sonics finished 36-46 and missed qualifying for the playoffs by just three wins. Wilkens not only served as player-head coach but he also became the first Sonic to lead the NBA in a major statistical category (9.1 apg).

1970-71: The Sonics again missed the playoffs by just three wins (38-44). After prevailing in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and paved the way for underclassmen and high school players to sign with NBA teams, Spencer Haywood jumped from the ABA to the Sonics and averaged 20.6 ppg and 12.0 rpg in 33 games. Wilkens won the All-Star Game MVP and ranked second in the NBA in assists (9.2 apg).

1971-72: Haywood became the first Sonic to make the All-NBA Team, earning a First Team selection after ranking fourth in the NBA in scoring (26.2 ppg). The Sonics went 47-35 but again narrowly missed making the playoffs, this time by four wins. Wilkens ranked second in the NBA in assists (9.6 apg) in his final season as Seattle's player-head coach; the Sonics traded him to Cleveland after the season.

1972-73: The Sonics took a big step backwards without Wilkens, plummeting to 26-56 despite Haywood setting a franchise single season scoring record (29.2 ppg, third in the NBA) and earning a second straight All-NBA First Team selection.

1973-74: Hall of Famer Bill Russell became Seattle's coach and led the Sonics to a 36-46 record as Haywood ranked among the league leaders in scoring (23.5 ppg, eighth) and rebounding (13.4 rpg, seventh). Haywood made the All-NBA Second Team.

1974-75: Russell guided the Sonics to a 43-39 record and the franchise's first playoff berth; they fell 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals to eventual champion Golden State. Haywood ranked ninth in the NBA in scoring (22.4 ppg) and made the All-NBA Second Team.

1975-76: Fred Brown emerged as the team's best player after the Sonics traded Haywood to the Knicks. Brown ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring (23.1 ppg). His backcourt partner Donald "Slick" Watts led the NBA in assists (8.1 apg) and steals (3.2 spg). The Sonics again went 43-39 and lost 4-2 in the Western Conference semifinals, this time to the Suns.

1976-77: Bill Russell resigned after the Sonics slipped to 40-42 and missed the playoffs.

1977-78: The Sonics fired Coach Bob Hopkins after a 5-17 start, paving the way for the triumphant return of Lenny Wilkens. Three years removed from his playing days and fresh off of a two year run as Portland's coach, Wilkens led the Sonics to a 42-18 record down the stretch. The Sonics made their first trip to the NBA Finals but lost 4-3 to the Washington Bullets.

1978-79: The Sonics finished with the best record in the Western Conference (52-30) and defeated the Bullets 4-1 in a Finals rematch, claiming the first and only championship in Sonics history. Dennis Johnson won the Finals MVP. Second year center Jack Sikma ranked fifth in the NBA in rebounding (12.4 rpg) and made the first of seven straight All-Star Game appearances.

1979-80: The Sonics won 56 games, setting a franchise record that stood until 1993-94, but the L.A. Lakers beat the Sonics 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals to end Seattle's quest to make a third straight trip to the Finals. Sikma again ranked fifth in the NBA in rebounding (11.1 rpg), while Dennis Johnson and his backcourt partner Gus Williams each made the All-NBA Second Team.

1980-81: The Sonics traded Dennis Johnson to Phoenix for Paul Westphal and Gus Williams sat out the entire season because of a contract dispute. The Sonics fell to 34-48, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1977. The always consistent Sikma ranked fifth in the NBA in rebounding (10.4 rpg).

1981-82: Gus Williams returned to action and made the All-NBA First Team, averaging 23.4 ppg (seventh in the NBA) and 2.2 spg (seventh in the NBA). Sikma ranked second in the NBA in rebounding (12.7 rpg) and the Sonics finished second in the West with a 52-30 record but lost 4-1 to San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.

1982-83: The Sonics won their first 12 games of the season but limped to a 48-34 record and a 2-0 loss to Portland in a first round miniseries. Sikma ranked sixth in the NBA in rebounding (11.4 rpg).

1983-84: Sikma ranked sixth in the NBA in rebounding (11.1 rpg) as the Sonics posted a great home record (32-9) and a lousy road record (10-31). The season ended with a 105-104 overtime loss to Dallas in the fifth game of a first round playoff series.

1984-85: The Sonics slipped to 31-51, missing the playoffs. After the season, Wilkens resigned as coach and accepted a front office position with the team. Bernie Bickerstaff became the new head coach.

1985-86: After another 31-51 season, Sikma requested to be traded to a contender and was shipped to the Milwaukee Bucks, who had gone 57-25 and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Rookie Xavier McDaniel provided hope for the future, averaging 17.1 ppg to finish second on the team behind Tom Chambers (18.5 ppg).

1986-87: Dale Ellis (24.9 ppg, eighth in the NBA), Tom Chambers (23.3 ppg, 13th in the NBA) and Xavier McDaniel (23.0 ppg, 14th in the NBA) each averaged at least 23 ppg as the Sonics posted a 39-43 record but got hot at the right time and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being swept by the Lakers. Chambers, a late addition to the All-Star team, won MVP honors after scoring a game-high 34 points in a 154-149 overtime victory for the West.

1987-88: The trip to the Western Conference Finals raised expectations but the Sonics won just five more games than they did in the previous season and fell to Denver 3-2 in the first round of the playoffs. Ellis (25.8 ppg, seventh in the NBA), McDaniel (21.4 ppg, 14th in the NBA) and Chambers (20.4 ppg, 18th in the NBA) each averaged at least 20 ppg.

1988-89: Chambers left to sign with Phoenix as a free agent but the Sonics added some muscle by acquiring 1988 rebounding champion Michael Cage. Ellis ranked third in the NBA in scoring (27.5 ppg) as the Sonics went 47-35 and beat Houston in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by the Lakers.

1989-90: The Sonics went 41-41 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1985-86 as injuries limited Ellis to 55 games. Shawn Kemp, a 20 year old rookie forward who did not play major college basketball, averaged 6.5 ppg and 4.3 rpg and ranked second on the team with 70 blocked shots despite playing just 1120 minutes. After the season, the Sonics fired Bickerstaff, replacing him with Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, who coached the Celtics to championships in 1984 and 1986.

1990-91: The Sonics again went 41-41 but this time that was good enough to make the playoffs, where they lost 3-2 in the first round to number one seeded Portland. Early in the season the Sonics traded McDaniel to Phoenix for Eddie Johnson and then in February the Sonics sent Ellis to Milwaukee for Ricky Pierce. Kemp's playing time more than doubled and he averaged 15.0 ppg and 8.4 rpg. Rookie point guard Gary Payton averaged 7.2 ppg and led the team in assists (6.4 apg).

1991-92: The Sonics fired Jones after an 18-18 start. Interim Coach Bob Kloppenburg went 2-2 before George Karl took over and led the Sonics to a 27-15 mark in the second half of the season. The Sonics beat Golden State 3-1 in the first round before losing 4-1 to Utah. Pierce led the team in scoring (21.7 ppg). Kemp averaged 15.5 ppg and 10.4 rpg, increasing those numbers to 17.4 ppg and 12.2 rpg in the playoffs.

1992-93: The Sonics tied Houston for the second best record in the West (55-27), earned the second seed based on a 3-1 head to head record and beat the Rockets in overtime in game seven of the Western Conference semifinals. Number one seeded Phoenix defeated Seattle in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Pierce again led the team in scoring (18.2 ppg) but the Sonics increasingly were becoming Kemp and Payton's team. Kemp averaged 17.8 ppg and 10.7 rpg to earn his first All-Star selection, while Payton averaged 13.5 ppg and 4.9 apg while ranking ninth in the NBA in steals (2.2 spg). Nate McMillan ranked fourth in the NBA in steals (2.4 spg) and was a steadying influence at both ends of the court.

1993-94: The best regular season yet in Sonics' history (63-19, best record in the NBA) came to a shocking ending with a 3-2 first round loss to eighth seeded Denver. Kemp led the team in scoring (18.1 ppg) and rebounding (10.8 rpg), while Payton ranked second in scoring (16.5 ppg) and led the Sonics in assists (6.0 apg). Both players made the All-Star team; Kemp also made the All-NBA Second Team and finished seventh in MVP voting, while Payton made the All-NBA Third Team and the All-Defensive First Team, the first of nine straight selections to that squad. Payton finished sixth in MVP voting. McMillan led the NBA in steals (2.97 spg), while Payton ranked seventh (2.3 spg). Newly acquired Detlef Schrempf and Kendall Gill provided depth.

1994-95: Another strong regular season (57-25) ended in first round failure, this time a 3-1 loss to the Lakers. Kemp (18.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg) and Payton (20.6 ppg, 7.1 apg) both made the All-Star team again. Kemp joined Payton on the All-NBA Second Team. Payton ranked third in the NBA in steals (2.5 spg), while McMillan slipped to fifth (2.1 spg).

1995-96: Seattle posted the best record in the West (64-18) and survived a tough seven game Western Conference Finals versus Utah to advance to the NBA Finals, where the 72-10 Chicago Bulls won the first three games en route to a 4-2 victory. Kemp (19.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg) and Payton (19.3 ppg, 7.5 apg, league-best 2.9 spg) both made the All-NBA Second Team. Payton also won the Defensive Player of the Year award and finished sixth in MVP voting.

1996-97: The Sonics tied for the second best record in the West (57-25) but this time the head to head tiebreaker favored the Rockets, who beat Seattle in seven games in the Western Conference semifinals. Payton finished sixth in MVP voting and made the All-NBA Second Team after ranking 10th in the NBA in scoring (21.8 ppg) and third in steals (2.4 spg). After the season the Sonics traded Kemp in a three way deal that brought Vin Baker to Seattle.

1997-98: The Sonics again tied for the second best record in the West (61-21) but suffered another second round playoff loss, this time a 4-1 thumping by the Lakers. Payton averaged 19.2 ppg, ranked seventh in the NBA in assists (8.3 apg) and finished fourth in steals (2.3 spg) to earn his first All-NBA First Team selection and claim third place in MVP voting. Baker averaged 19.2 ppg and 8.0 rpg, making the All-NBA Second Team and finishing eighth in MVP voting. After the season, George Karl left to become Milwaukee's head coach and was replaced by Paul Westphal.

1998-99: The Sonics missed the playoffs after posting a 25-25 record in the lockout shortened season. Payton ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring (21.7 ppg), fourth in assists (8.7 apg) and seventh in steals (2.2 spg). He made the All-NBA Second Team but Baker's numbers dropped precipitously (13.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg).

1999-2000: The Sonics improved to 45-37 but lost 3-2 to Utah in the first round of the playoffs. Payton returned to the All-NBA First Team after having the best all-around season of his career, ranking seventh in the NBA in scoring (career-high 24.2 ppg), fourth in assists (8.9 apg) and eighth in steals (1.9 spg).

2000-01: The Sonics posted a solid 44-38 record but missed the playoffs. Westphal was fired early in the season and replaced by Nate McMillan. Payton made the All-NBA Third Team after averaging 23.1 ppg (13th in the NBA) and 8.1 apg (fifth in the NBA). Third year forward Rashard Lewis finished second on the team in scoring (14.8 ppg).

2001-02: The Sonics squeaked into the playoffs with a 45-37 record but pushed San Antonio the distance in the first round before being blown out 101-78 in game five. Payton made the All-NBA Second Team after ranking 11th in the NBA in scoring (22.1 ppg) and third in assists (9.0 apg).

2002-03: Payton feuded with management during the first half of the season before being dealt to Milwaukee with Desmond Mason for Ray Allen, Kevin Ollie, Ronald Murray and a draft pick. The Sonics finished 40-42 and did not make the playoffs.

2003-04: Allen averaged 23.0 ppg but missed 26 games. The Sonics went 37-45 and did not qualify for the playoffs. Lewis averaged 17.8 ppg and scored a career-high 50 points in the second game of the season, a 124-105 victory over the Clippers in Tokyo, Japan.

2004-05: The Sonics won the newly formed Northwest Division with a 52-30 record and beat Sacramento 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in six games. Allen ranked 10th in the NBA in scoring (23.9 ppg) and made the All-NBA Second Team, while Lewis averaged 20.5 ppg (20th in the NBA) to earn his first and only All-Star selection. After the season, McMillan resigned and became Portland's coach. The Sonics replaced him with Bob Weiss.

2005-06: Weiss lasted just 30 games (13-17) before being fired and replaced by Bob Hill, who was not able to turn things around (22-30). The Sonics missed the playoffs despite another strong season from Allen (25.1 ppg, 10th in the NBA) and Lewis (20.1 ppg). An Oklahoma City based group bought the Sonics, prompting concerns that the team might relocate.

2006-07: The Sonics slipped to 31-51 and missed the playoffs but the bigger concern for Seattle fans was the declaration by majority owner Clay Bennett that he would move the team unless the city helped to finance construction of a new arena. Allen averaged a career-high 26.4 ppg but played in just 55 games. After the season, the Sonics replaced Hill with P.J. Carlesimo and traded Allen to the Celtics for fifth overall pick Jeff Green, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West. The Sonics also drafted Kevin Durant with the second overall pick.

2007-08: The Sonics posted the worst record in the West (20-62). Durant struggled with his shot for most of the season but finished strongly and won the Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.3 ppg. After the season, the team reached a settlement with the city of Seattle and finalized plans to move to Oklahoma City. NBA Commissioner David Stern--reversing his previous stance--left open the possibility that the city would get another NBA team to continue the Sonics' legacy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:47 AM

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Where Do Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis Rank Among Elite NBA Point Guards?

Baron Davis led the Golden State Warriors to one playoff appearance in three seasons and he has been injury-prone for most of his career, so the Warriors understandably declined to offer him a long term contract extension--but they inexplicably are reportedly willing to pay more than $100 million to pry Gilbert Arenas away from the Washington Wizards. Fortunately for Golden State fans, the Warriors apparently will not have a chance to overpay Arenas because the Wizards and Arenas have reached a verbal agreement for $111 million over six years (contracts cannot be signed until July 9 when the precise amount of next season's salary cap is calculated). If that deal goes through it will be the sixth largest NBA contract signed since the implementation of the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the L.A. Lakers--who signed Kobe Bryant for $136.4 million in 2004--and the San Antonio Spurs--who signed Tim Duncan for $122 million in 2003--are undoubtedly pleased with the return they have received on their sizable investments, the Indiana Pacers (Jermaine O'Neal, $126.6 million in 2003) and Sacramento Kings (Chris Webber, $122.7 million in 2001) surely have experienced serious buyers' remorse. It remains to be seen what the Orlando Magic will think of the $126 million investment they made in Rashard Lewis in 2007 but that seems to be an awfully steep price for a player who has made one All-Star appearance in 10 NBA seasons.

Arenas missed 69 games due to injury last season, was a shell of his former self during the playoffs and missed the entire 2007 postseason due to injury. He has led the Wizards past the first round of the playoffs once in five seasons. The word "elite" is poorly defined in reference to NBA players and it is thrown around far too casually. Bottom line: if you are not on one of the three All-NBA Teams--or a player who deserved to be there but clearly got snubbed--then you are not an elite player. An All-Star is not an elite player; every year there are 24 All-Stars plus another 5-10 players who could just as easily have made the cut. An elite player must be no worse than one of the top five players at his position and one of the top 15 players in the NBA. Even when fully healthy, Davis and Arenas operate at the fringes of elite territory: Arenas made the All-NBA Second Team in 2007 and the All-NBA Third Team in 2005 and 2006, while Davis made the All-NBA Third Team in 2004. Of course, the most relevant issue is the likelihood that they will be elite players in the future. Let's compare Arenas and Davis to the truly elite NBA point guards.

1) Chris Paul is the gold standard for current NBA point guards. He scores, passes, rebounds and defends. His main weakness is that because he is only 6-0, 175 he can be posted up by bigger point guards and in certain situations he can be taken advantage of defensively when switching pick and roll plays. His shooting touch was a bit suspect prior to this season but Paul largely put those concerns to rest by putting up career high numbers in field goal percentage (.488), three point field goal percentage (.369) and free throw percentage (.851); however, in the playoffs he shot poorly from three point range (.238).

Key 2007-08 numbers: 21.1 ppg, 11.6 apg (first in the NBA), 4.0 rpg, 2.7 spg (first in the NBA), .488 FG%, .369 3FG%, .851 FT% in the regular season; 24.1 ppg, 11.3 apg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 spg, .502 FG%, .238 3FG%, .785 FT% in the playoffs while leading Hornets to the second round.

Finished second in MVP voting, made the All-NBA First Team.

2) Steve Nash won the 2005 and 2006 MVPs. It should be obvious that he was not in fact the best all-around player in the NBA during those seasons but it is equally obvious that he was the best point guard in the league during that time and that is all that is relevant in this discussion. Nash finished second to Dirk Nowitzki in the 2007 MVP voting but was still the best point guard in the NBA. Last season, Paul ended Nash's three year reign as the assist champion and Paul also took the crown as the best point guard. Nash is the best pure shooter among NBA point guards and he is a tremendous passer, particularly in pick and roll situations. Nash is a poor one on one defender and his weakness in that area has really hurt Phoenix during the playoffs.

Key 2007-08 numbers: 16.9 ppg, 11.1 apg (second in the NBA), 3.5 rpg, .7 spg, .504 FG%, .470 3FG% (second in the NBA), .906 FT% (fifth in the NBA) in the regular season; 16.2 ppg, 7.8 apg, 2.8 rpg, .4 spg, .457 FG%, .300 3FG%, .917 FT% in the playoffs during a 4-1 first round loss.

Finished ninth in MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team.

3) Deron Williams will likely be battling with Paul for many years to earn recognition as the NBA's best point guard. The 6-3, 210 Williams is significantly bigger and more physically powerful than Paul but he is not as explosively quick and is a surprisingly poor rebounder considering his size and strength. I'd give Nash a slight edge over Williams in 2008 based on Nash's shooting prowess and his greater amount of experience but I expect Williams to be the superior player starting next season.

Key 2007-08 numbers: 18.8 ppg, 10.5 apg (third in the NBA), 3.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, .507 FG%, .395 3FG%, .803 FT% in the regular season; 21.6 ppg, 10.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, .6 spg, .492 FG%, .500 3FG%, .773 FT% in the playoffs while leading the Jazz to the second round.

Finished 12th in the MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team.

4) Tony Parker has yet to make the All-NBA Team even once but he is worthy of being considered an elite point guard in light of his 2007 Finals MVP performance and the fact that he has been a vital contributor to three championship teams as the starting point guard. Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili divide the scoring load pretty evenly and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich limits their regular season minutes to preserve them for the playoffs, which means that none of the Spurs' "Big Three" put up huge regular season statistics. Parker is not as good of a pure shooter as Paul, Nash or Williams, nor is Parker quite as adept as those guys in terms of playmaking, but Parker's blazing quickness and ability to finish strongly at the rim make him very difficult to contain. Parker has wisely slashed his three point attempts from a career-high 243 in 2002-03 (his second season) to 36, 38 and 66 the past three seasons. Nash had better regular season numbers than Parker but Parker completely outplayed Nash in the Spurs' win over the Suns in the first round.

Key 2007-08 numbers: 18.8 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.2 rpg, .8 spg, .494 FG%, .258 3FG%, .715 FT% in the regular season; 22.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 3.7 rpg, .9 spg, .497 FG%, .350 3FG%, .753 FT% while leading the Spurs to a 4-1 loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Paul, Nash and Williams were the only point guards on this year's three All-NBA Teams. The other guards (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Manu Ginobili) are shooting guards, as is Denver's Allen Iverson, who received the most points (116) in the voting of any player who did not make the team. Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis received slight consideration, amassing 38 and 32 points respectively; Ginobili, the last guard on the All-NBA Third Team, received 123 points, while Williams--who had the lowest total of the three point guards who made the cut--had 228 points.

Billups could perhaps be granted "elite emeritus" status based on his 2004 Finals MVP, his fifth place finish in the 2006 MVP voting and a pair of selections to the All-NBA Team (Second Team in 2006, Third Team in 2007), but he is a level below Paul, Nash, Williams and Parker now. In the 2007-08 regular season, Billups put up these numbers: 17.0 ppg, 6.8 apg, 2.7 rpg, 1.3 spg, .448 FG%, .401 3FG%, .918 FT%. His performance declined across the board in the playoffs.

Davis had an excellent season, perhaps the best all-around campaign of his career when you consider both production and durability, but I would not take him over Paul, Nash, Williams or Parker. Davis averaged 21.8 ppg, 7.6 apg (sixth in the NBA), 4.7 rpg, 2.3 spg (third in the NBA), .426 FG%, .330 3FG% and .750 FT% in 2007-08. Davis settles for jumpers and three pointers far too frequently, a flaw that he shares with Arenas, who played in just 13 regular season games and four playoff games in 2007-08.

At his best, Davis is an explosive talent who can physically dominate bigger players but his shot selection, subpar shooting ability and inconsistent defense render him a less reliable player than the truly elite point guards. Similarly, Arenas is a streak shooting talent who can be dazzling when he is hitting his shots but his shot selection is poor, his defense is worse than Davis' and he often seems to be more concerned about being the center of attention than winning games.

Davis and Arenas are not better than Paul, Nash, Williams or Parker and thus it is very difficult to objectively justify awarding a maximum contract to either of them. I say "objectively" because there are many other considerations that come into play: marketing, ticket sales, the reaction of the fan base of their respective teams, etc. However, purely on the basis of their individual skill sets and their ability to lead a championship contending team, neither Arenas nor Davis are worthy of receiving maximum contracts. Arenas is being lauded now for "giving back" $16 million instead of insisting on receiving the absolute maximum deal from the Wizards--I put "giving back" in quotation marks because you cannot really give something back that you never had in the first place; Arenas said, "You see players take max deals and they financially bind their teams. I don't wanna be one of those players and three years down the road your team is strapped and can't do anything about it." That is a laudable sentiment but even at this supposedly "discounted" rate Arenas is still vastly overpaid and it is questionable how much the Wizards will be able to do with that $16 million, an amount that could do a lot of good in the real world but does not necessarily give the team that much ability to significantly upgrade the roster. I commend Arenas for making that gesture but I still maintain that with him as the featured--and highest paid--player the Wizards will not get past the second round of the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Baron Davis Leaves the Warriors for the Clippers--And Both Teams Are Happy

It has been reported by multiple sources that Baron Davis will sign a five year, $65 million contract with the L.A. Clippers as soon as the NBA's annual moratorium on signings and trades ends on July 9; the moratorium is necessary because the next season's salary cap--which is based on the league's overall revenues--must be precisely determined in order to calculate bookkeeping issues such as whether or not certain deals are permissible and if these moves will force some teams to make "luxury tax" payments (any team that exceeds the salary cap must pay a dollar for dollar "tax" that goes into a fund that is divided among the teams that did not exceed the cap).

On Monday, Davis surprised many people by opting out of the final year of his contract with the Golden State Warriors, giving up a guaranteed $17.8 million to explore his options in free agency. Davis played in all 82 games last season, the first time he has done that since 2001-02, and he had thought of the 2007-08 season as something of an audition to validate that he is not only talented enough but also durable enough to justify receiving a big dollar extension from the Warriors. When it became apparent that the Warriors were not going to offer him that extension--essentially making the 2008-09 season another contract year for Davis--he decided getting $65 million over five years is a better move than getting $17.8 million for one year and hoping to receive a long term deal next offseason. Considering his age (29) and injury history that is very sound reasoning on his part. It is not likely that as a 30 year old guard in 2009 he would be able to negotiate a better deal than the one he is getting now and he would be running the risk that an injury plagued season could cause his value to plummet, potentially costing him tens of millions of dollars.

So this is a no-brainer for Davis and anyone who considers him a "traitor" for leaving the Warriors is missing the point and does not understand business. NBA players have a finite number of high earning years and--depending on various factors--they may only get one or two chances to be a free agent and have a certain degree of leverage. Davis took the best deal he could reasonably expect to receive and anyone who has any sense would have done the same thing given his choices.

Although the Warriors may have been playing a bit of high stakes poker--gambling that Davis would play next season for $17.8 million and take his chances about the future--they are far from heartbroken about the way things have turned out. Granted, if they had known Davis' intentions they may have elected to use their $10 million trade exception before it expired on Monday but, as one source in the Warriors' organization told the Sporting News' Sean Deveney, with Davis' contract off of the books, "It means there's lots of cap room for us now. It's a chance to remake this team with our young guys a year earlier."

In three seasons with the Warriors, Davis led them to one playoff appearance. While it was no doubt exciting for Golden State fans to knock off the number one seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007, it should be obvious that the current nucleus of players was not going to lead the Warriors to the Western Conference Finals, let alone win a championship. It makes perfect sense for the Warriors to reload--they will still contend for a playoff berth next year and as their young players develop perhaps they can make a run at a title in a few years after adding one or two more pieces.

Does that mean that the Clippers are wrong to sign Davis? No, not at all. The Clippers desperately need a top notch point guard, whether or not Shaun Livingston completely recovers from his devastating injury. It appears that they will renounce their rights to Corey Maggette and then re-sign power forward Elton Brand. Assuming that Brand and Davis stay healthy, the Clippers now have an All-Star caliber low post scoring threat and an All-Star caliber point guard. Their potential starting lineup of Chris Kaman, Brand, second year forward Al Thornton--a beast in training--Davis and Cuttino Mobley is quite potent. The main questions for the Clippers are their health, their dedication at the defensive end of the court and the lack of depth on their bench. Still, on paper this looks like a team that could certainly be in the Western Conference playoff mix if those three concerns are properly addressed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:46 AM

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

LeBron James Teams Up With Nickelodeon’s "The Big Green Help”"Campaign

LeBron James has won two All-Star Game MVPs, dropped 48 points on the Pistons in game five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals and carried the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals but now he is taking on his biggest challenge yet: educating kids about the importance of living "green." James is teaming up with Nickelodeon to produce a brand new online mini-game called LeBron James: Worldwide Big Green Bike-a-thon!. You can find the game here.

"Our goal is to make learning about the environment appealing to kids so they can take the lead on this issue," said Marva Smalls, Nickelodeon’s Executive Vice President of Public Affairs. "We’ve already seen that kids are responding to the campaign on our digital platforms, and having positive role models like LeBron James participate will only help to forward The Big Green Help mission."

"We all need to be aware of how to take care of the environment," said James. "I’m glad that I can show kids what they can do to help."

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:28 PM

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Monday, June 30, 2008

Julius Erving on the Art of Knowing When to Dunk--And When Not to Dunk

Although Julius "Dr. J" Erving is one of the most flamboyant and exciting basketball players ever, his game was very fundamentally sound. As he often put it, he dunked primarily for the "result, not the effect"; for Erving, the dunk was the highest percentage shot available. On page 120 of the excellent book Stuff Good Players Should Know, Dick DeVenzio wrote (emphasis in the original):

It may surprise you to learn that good players don't strive for great plays. Great plays come to them occasionally, but only in the process of concentrating on their job, trying to do all the little things right. Take Dr. J for example. He makes a lot of great plays. But his value, even more important to his team than all those spectacular dunks, is that he doesn't miss many dunks. He is consistent. On the plays where a spectacular dunk has a good chance of missing, Dr. J "happens" not to try it at all. "Ah," say the fans, "he should've dunked that one." But he doesn't dunk every chance he gets. He dunks the ones he can dunk, and he doesn't attempt the ones he can not. If it's 50-50, he doesn't try it. Good players don't like those odds. Good players are not gamblers, they are performers. That is why great plays are not what makes an outstanding player. It is knowing limitations. A good player knows that he doesn't need a slam dunk in the final seconds to be credited with winning the big game. If he can stop his man from scoring and go down the other end and get a good shot, he can win the game just as well--and more often.

When I interviewed Erving a few years ago, I told him about that passage and asked him what he thought about it. Here is his reply:

Erving: "My thoughts are, if you haven’t perfected it, then you shouldn’t be trying it in a game. Good defense forces an offensive player to maybe go outside of their capability a little bit and experiment, but a one-on-none breakaway, trying to do a blindfold or go between the legs—you’ve got to get the two points. You have to go down and get the two points. You have to understand what the priority is. Trying to make the highlight films--that gets into guys like Rodman diving eight rows into the stands just to get on the highlights. That became sort of his thing. There is an identity issue and players are doing more things to try to get recognition outside of sticking with the game plan and sticking with the abilities they are blessed with and the skill training that they put a lot of hours into perfecting. Coaches have their hands tied in terms of what to do. Do I take the guy, bring him over and sit him down or just let him play through it? Do I talk to him in private after the game? I remember Billy Cunningham—you know, Steve Smith used to have this thing, bouncing the ball off the backboard and dunking it. So they’re up like 30 points in a game and he bounces the ball off the backboard and catches it and dunks it on a one-on-none fast break. You know, guys in my generation used to think that was just trying to embarrass the other team and that there shouldn’t be a place for that in professional basketball."

Friedman: "Is that when Smith was with the Miami Heat?"

Erving: "Yes and Billy was in the front office. And right after he (Cunningham) told him (not to do it), he (Smith) did it in the next game."

Friedman: "Sometimes they don’t listen. You tell them, but they don’t listen, right?"

Erving: “He was like, ‘Well, we’re a different generation. In this generation, this is what we do.’ And I guess maybe to a degree you have to accept some of that. There are certain things in the game that do need to be preserved. Putting your second team in when you’re up a lot of points is really what you should do. I mean, those guys want to play, too. To just run it up to 125 so the crowd can get hamburgers or whatever, that’s not good."

Friedman: "That leads me right into my next question when you’re talking about just playing for a stat--"

Erving: "Yeah, putting a guy back in the game so he can get an assist for a triple double or whatever, that’s crass. It’s just crass."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hall of Famer Red Auerbach and some of the biggest NBA stars filmed a number of instructional features that aired during NBA telecasts. These classic "Red on Roundball" videos are still fun and educational decades after they were first made. Here is a "Round on Roundball" segment during which Erving talks about the slam dunk:

Red on Roundball: Slam Dunk

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 PM

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

To Repeat or Not Repeat--That is the Question

There have been three distinct eras in NBA history in terms of teams winning repeat championships. From 1947-69, this was the rule rather than the exception, as Minneapolis won titles in 1949-50 and 1952-54 followed by Boston claiming championships in 1959-66 and 1968-69 (the Celtics also won a title in 1957 before losing in the Finals in 1958). Then, from 1970-1986 no NBA team won repeat titles, though several squads won two championships in three years (Boston, 1974 and 1976; L.A. Lakers, 1980 and 1982; Boston, 1984 and 1986). After the Lakers won the 1987 championship, Coach Pat Riley made a bold declaration that they would repeat in 1988. It took three brutal seven game series but the Lakers fulfilled Riley’s promise—and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playfully stuck a towel in Riley’s mouth so that Riley would not guarantee a third consecutive championship. Riley actually trademarked the phrase "three-peat," but the Lakers came up short in the 1989 Finals after starting guards Magic Johnson and Byron Scott succumbed to leg injuries.

The Lakers' repeat titles seemed like an amazing accomplishment in that era but some of the shine has come off of that achievement because repeating has become almost de rigeur in the NBA. The Pistons did it in 1989-90, the Bulls notched a pair of three-peats (1991-93, 1996-98) sandwiched around Michael Jordan’s minor league baseball career, the Rockets won two championships in a row during Jordan’s absence and the Lakers won three in a row (2000-2002) shortly after the breakup of the Bulls. The only champions who have not repeated since 1987 are the 2006 Heat, the 2004 Pistons and four different Spurs’ squads, though San Antonio did win three titles in five years (2003, 2005, 2007).

The template for winning a repeat title generally includes having a Hall of Fame coach, earning the top ranking in point differential, having a player who finished in the top five in MVP voting and having at least two players who made the All-NBA First or Second Teams.

The NBA did not begin selecting an MVP until the 1955-56 season but it is safe to say that George Mikan would have easily finished in the top five in each of the years that his Lakers won championships. The Lakers ranked first in point differential four times during their reign and ranked second in 1954. They were coached by Hall of Famer John Kundla. Mikan made the All-NBA First Team all five years; he was joined by Jim Pollard in 1949 and 1950. Pollard made the All-NBA Second Team in 1952 and 1954, while Vern Mikkelson made the All-NBA Second Team in 1952 and 1953.

Bill Russell finished no worse than fourth in the MVP voting from 1959-66, wining the award four times during those years. In every one of those seasons at least one other Celtic finished in the top ten in MVP voting. At that time, the players voted for the MVP while the media selected the All-NBA teams. Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were easily that era’s most dominant players; Chamberlain won three MVPs during those eight years but he was voted to the All-NBA First Team five times, which relegated Russell to Second Team status. Still, the Celtics hardly lacked representation on the All-NBA teams: every year from 1959-66 they had at least two players chosen and in six of those seasons at least three Celtics made the cut. The Celtics ranked first in point differential all eight years--usually by wide margins—and they were coached by Hall of Famer Red Auerbach.

Russell replaced Auerbach as coach after the 1966 season. The Celtics were longer in the tooth and not quite as dominant, while Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers had emerged as a powerhouse. The 76ers smoked the Celtics 4-1 in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals en route to winning the championship but the Celtics bounced back to win titles in 1968 and 1969. The Celtics ranked third in point differential in 1968 and first in 1969. They did not have a top five MVP candidate or an All-NBA First Teamer in 1968, though Russell and John Havlicek made the All-NBA Second Team. In 1969, Russell finished fourth in MVP voting but did not make the All-NBA Team because two of the three players who finished ahead of him in MVP voting (winner Wes Unseld and runner-up Willis Reed) were centers. Havlicek again made the All-NBA Second Team that season.

The 1987 Lakers ranked first in point differential and their floor general Magic Johnson made the All-NBA First Team and won his first MVP. No other Lakers made the All-NBA teams or received MVP votes but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy made the All-Star team. Each of those three were later selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List, so the Lakers certainly did not lack for talent that year. The 1988 Lakers ranked third in point differential. Magic finished third in MVP voting and again made the All-NBA First Team. No other Lakers joined him on that squad, though Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar both made the All-Star team. Hall of Famer Pat Riley coached the Lakers to those two championships in addition to leading them to two titles earlier in the decade.

The Pistons ranked fourth in point differential in 1989 and 1990. No Piston made the All-NBA First or Second Team during those years, nor did any Pistons receive serious MVP consideration but that is a little bit deceptive: they had a pair of Hall of Fame guards (Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars) who each won a Finals MVP, Dennis Rodman was a fabulous rebounder and defender (1990 and 1991 Defensive Player of the Year, eight-time All-Defensive Team selection) who had a Hall of Fame caliber career and key contributors Mark Aguirre and Bill Laimbeer had been All-Stars multiple times earlier in their careers. The Pistons sacrificed individual statistics and honors to build a winning team. Hall of Famer Chuck Daly called the shots on the sidelines.

The Bulls ranked first in point differential four times during their two three-peats and they never placed lower than fourth in that category. Michael Jordan won four MVPs and he finished second and third in the balloting the other two years; Jordan made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive First Team in all six of those seasons. Scottie Pippen finished in the top 10 in MVP voting three times, earned three All-NBA selections and made four All-Star teams during those years; he also made the All-Defensive Team during each of the six championship seasons, including five First Team selections (he received eight First Team and one Second Team selection overall during his career). Hall of Famer Phil Jackson coached the Bulls throughout that era.

The Houston Rockets are the most unusual of the repeat champions statistically. They ranked sixth in point differential in 1994 and 11th in 1995. Rudy Tomjanovich was a players’ coach who certainly did a lot to inspire and motivate his team but it is doubtful that he will be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Hakeem Olajuwon won the 1994 MVP and placed fifth in the 1995 MVP voting but no other Rocket made the All-NBA First or Second Team during those years; midseason acquisition Clyde Drexler joined Olajuwon on the All-NBA Third Team in 1995 and he obviously played a crucial role for the Rockets during the playoffs.

Phil Jackson departed Chicago after the 1998 championship run and it is no coincidence that he promptly embarked on yet another three-peat, this time with the Lakers from 2000-02. The 1998 Lakers were the first team since the 1983 World Champion 76ers to have four All-Stars, they had a better point differential than the Bulls, won just one fewer regular season game and had an All-NBA First Teamer who finished fourth in the MVP voting (Shaquille O’Neal) yet they were swept out of the playoffs by the Utah Jazz. The highly talented Lakers were again swept out of the playoffs in 1999, this time by the San Antonio Spurs, but with Jackson calling the shots the Lakers became a dominant team in 2000, winning a league-best 67 games and ranking first in point differential. O’Neal won his first and only MVP, again made the All-NBA First Team and he made the All-Defensive Second Team, while Kobe Bryant earned an All-NBA Second Team selection and an All-Defensive First Team nod. The Lakers slipped to eighth in point differential in 2001 but that O’Neal-Bryant combination proved to be too tough during the playoffs. O’Neal finished third in MVP voting and once again made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team, while Bryant placed ninth in MVP voting and earned All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive Second Team honors. The Lakers improved to second in point differential in 2001 and O’Neal and Bryant made the All-NBA First Team and placed third and fifth respectively in MVP voting. Bryant also made the All-Defensive Second Team.

Will the Boston Celtics win a repeat championship, will they contend but fall short like the Pistons and Spurs did in recent seasons or will they implode like the Heat did? An implosion is the least likely scenario for the Celtics, because it took a perfect storm of injuries, age and apathy to wipe out the Heat. The Celtics ranked first in point differential in 2008 and Kevin Garnett ranked third in MVP voting, made the All-NBA First Team and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. No other Celtic made the All-NBA First or Second Team but Paul Pierce made the All-NBA Third Team and he had a great playoff run that he capped off by winning the Finals MVP. At this point, Doc Rivers seems more like a Rudy Tomjanovich than a future Hall of Famer; Rivers is a players’ coach who inspires and motivates. The Celtics certainly have a lot of the necessary pieces to repeat—great defense as indicated by their point differential, a Hall of Fame trio (Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen) and a coach who has the respect of everyone in the locker room. The most important keys for the Celtics will be to keep their main players healthy and to continue to play with the hunger and desire that they displayed throughout the 2007-08 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:24 PM

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