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Friday, July 18, 2008

Yao Ming Scores 11 Points as China Routs Serbia, 96-72

Yao Ming had 11 points and four rebounds in 12 minutes of action as China defeated Serbia 96-72 in the opening game of the four team Stankovic Cup tournament in Hangzhou, China. Ex-Dallas Maverick Wang Zhizhi led China with 18 points, while New Jersey Net Yi Jianlian scored 14 points. The annual event, first played in 2005, is always hosted by China and is named in honor of Borislav Stankovic, who for many years was in charge of FIBA, the International Basketball Federation. Russia and Angola are the other two participating teams this year.

Yao has been out of action for nearly five months because of a stress fracture in his foot; he had 12 points and six rebounds in his last game, a 110-97 win by the Houston Rockets over the Chicago Bulls on February 24, 2008.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:41 PM

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Camby Deal Signals The Beginning of the End of the Iverson Era in Denver

Any Denver fans who entertained notions that Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson would ever lead the Nuggets to playoff glory received a very rude awakening when Nuggets management "traded" starting center Marcus Camby to the L.A. Clippers for the right to swap second round draft picks in 2010. Camby is 34 years old but he is still a highly productive player: he won the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Award and he has led the NBA in blocked shots the past three seasons and four times overall during his 12 year career. Last season, Camby averaged a career-high 13.1 rpg to rank second in the league. He has been selected to the All-Defensive Team for four straight seasons, including First Team nods in 2007 and 2008.

Contending teams do not simply give away a valuable asset like Camby--and that is precisely the point: the Nuggets are not a contending team and their management is painfully aware of that fact. Much like the Memphis Grizzlies got rid of Pau Gasol to clear salary cap space and essentially hit the "reboot" button, getting rid of Camby was the first step in what will soon be a total makeover of Denver's roster. Iverson will either be traded this season or allowed to walk in 2009 when his contract ends, thus freeing up even more salary cap space. The Nuggets are deep into luxury tax territory--paying a dollar for dollar penalty for exceeding the salary cap--and that is the last place a team wants to be when it cannot even get out of the first round, let alone meaningfully contend for a title.

From an intellectual/economic standpoint it is very easy to figure out what the Nuggets are doing--but this still has to be hard for Denver fans to accept, particularly those who have spent a lot of money on season tickets. Without Camby anchoring the paint there is a good chance that the Nuggets won't even make the playoffs in 2008-09 and even though Denver will soon have money to spend there is no guarantee that when the dust settles the new look roster will be substantially better than the recent Denver teams have been.

It seems like half of the teams in the NBA are clinging to the pipe dream that if they clear enough salary cap space that they will be able to sign LeBron James or Dwyane Wade in a couple years; meanwhile, these teams are intent on spending as little as they can until that time, essentially writing off this season. There is not much that the league can do about this now but an economic system that encourages teams to not spend money--and thus field a mediocre or worse product--while hoping to hit the "jackpot" and sign a big-time player is not good or efficient. Moreover, these teams are going to have a lot of explaining to do if they subject their fans to 82 games of bad basketball and then fail to sign a franchise player with all of the money that they have sitting around.

As for the Clippers, adding Camby and free agent Baron Davis goes a long way toward making up for the loss of Elton Brand. In fact, since Brand only played eight games last year, the Clippers could significantly improve on their 23-59 record if Camby and Davis both stay healthy.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kevin Love Notches a Double Double in his Summer League Debut

Kevin Love had 18 points and a Vegas Summer League high 13 rebounds in his summer league debut as his Minnesota Timberwolves lost to the Dallas Mavericks 88-74 on Monday. Love shot 7-13 from the field and committed six fouls and five turnovers. Although they play different positions and have completely different games, Love and O.J. Mayo will always be linked because they were traded for each other in a big, eight player Draft Day deal.

Love received the ball in the high post on Minnesota's first possession. He looked to make a pass to a backdoor cutter but that option was not open, so he swung the ball to Pooh Jeter, who missed a long jumper. Love crashed the boards aggressively and got his hands on the ball and even though he was not able to control it Minnesota managed to retain possession. Bryce Taylor then hit a midrange jumper. Dallas' first possession ended with Love ripping down a defensive rebound in traffic but Minnesota promptly turned the ball over, fueling a Dallas fastbreak. Love tried to take a charge but arrived late and was whistled for a blocking foul.

Love and Jeter ran a screen/roll play that resulted in Love receiving a pass just outside the three point line. Love faced up James Singleton and then drove right past him and got all the way to the hoop, scoring a layup (his shot was goaltended by Pape Sow) and drawing a foul. Love is supposedly not athletic but he showed good footwork on that play, not to mention aggressiveness and body control. Love missed the free throw.

Sow tried to drive past Love but Love slid his feet adequately and stayed in front of him. Sow made a gorgeous behind the back pass to Singleton, who converted an uncontested dunk. On the next possession, Love caught the ball at the three point line, used a jab step to force Singleton to retreat and then shot a three pointer that bounced off of the rim. NBA TV analyst Steve Jones pointed out that although Love shot well from the collegiate three point line the NBA three point line is further out and that will be one of many adjustments that Love will have to get used to during his rookie season; Love missed both of his three pointers in this game.

As many people have noted, Love has a laborious running style that "looks" slow but Love is able to get up and down the floor, though he candidly admitted after the game that even after one summer league contest he can already tell that you have to be in much better shape to play in the NBA than you do to play in college--and if he is saying that now, just wait until he plays four games in five nights in the middle of a long 82 game season!

Regardless of the superficial impression that Love's movement creates, he knows how to play the game. He sets screens, makes the correct passes and goes to the glass aggressively at both ends of the court. Love seems to intuitively understand where he is supposed to go, like in one sequence when Jeter drove, drew the defense and Love faded to the perimeter a la Bill Laimbeer, catching a pass and without hesitation drilling a jumper from just behind the college three point line.

Love committed his second foul by jumping out too aggressively when defending a screen/roll play. After being whistled for the block he immediately clapped his hands in frustration and pointed to himself as if he knew exactly what he had done wrong. After a timeout, Dallas inbounded the ball and Love committed another foul, grabbing Sow when Sow fooled Love by slipping a screen and diving to the hoop; Love wrapped his arms around Sow to prevent him from catching a pass and scoring an uncontested layup. What Love demonstrated on the three plays that he committed fouls is not so much a lack of foot speed but rather a lack of understanding exactly how the NBA game is played and officiated. In other words, those are "rookie" mistakes that can be eliminated as he gets used to playing in the NBA, as opposed to fundamental problems that will prevent him from being effective in the long run; of course, if he is still making those same mistakes during the regular season then that is a different story.

Love committed his fourth foul going for a help side defensive block when Reyshawn Terry got loose and drove to the hoop attempting to throw down a monster dunk. That is an example of how a big guy can get saddled with fouls because of poor defensive play by his teammates, as opposed to the earlier fouls which were entirely Love's own doing. Love went to the bench with four fouls in the first 6:54 and Dallas leading 17-10. He sat out the rest of the quarter and Dallas led 21-14 after the first 10 minutes (summer league quarters are 10 minutes, not 12). Terry topped Dallas with five points, while Love and Corey Brewer paced Minnesota with four points each. Brewer shot 2-9 from the field, missing his last seven attempts, most of them jump shots.

Prior to many of the commercial breaks during the summer league, NBA TV's Rick Kamla enthusiastically says, "You are watching future NBA stars." Maybe he is contractually obligated to make that declaration but the reality is that in most of these games we are watching a handful of future NBA players and a bunch of future D-League stars.

Love returned to action at the 8:49 mark of the second quarter with Dallas in front, 26-14. Love did not really have much of an opportunity to do anything offensively in the next few minutes, as Minnesota committed numerous turnovers, violations and offensive fouls, falling behind 42-18. Love finally got a touch by cutting to the hoop, receiving a pass from Brewer and drawing a foul. Love split the resulting pair of free throws to make the score 44-23. On Minnesota's next possession, Brewer drove coast to coast but missed the layup. Love gathered in the rebound, missed the putback, grabbed his miss and drew another foul. He again made one of two free throws. The Timberwolves finally figured out that it might be a good idea to pass the ball to Love in the post and he drew yet another foul after making a catch deep in the paint. This time Love made both free throws. Dallas led 48-30 at halftime. Terry scored 12 points, while Love and Brewer had eight points each.

The Timberwolves started the third quarter with a screen/roll play involving Love and Brewer. Love received a pass from Brewer and made a nice bounce pass to Chris Richard, who was fouled. Love only had one assist in the game but he displayed his passing skills on several plays. Minnesota inbounded the ball after the foul and Love corralled yet another offensive rebound and converted the putback. On the next possession, Brewer broke down the defense and fed Love for an easy layup. Then Love caught the ball on the block with good post position but he rushed his move a bit and committed a traveling violation. A bit later, Love drew a foul on Singleton by establishing good post position and making a deep catch.

Love committed his fifth foul by once again being too aggressive in his screen/roll defense. As Jones explained, "They want the big men to jump out. A lot of times the big men don't know when to relent, so they keep going and get a piece of the guard." Not long after that, Love drove to the hoop and was whistled for a charge while trying to dish the ball to Richard (it takes 10 fouls, not the usual six, to be disqualified in a summer league game). Then, Love caught the ball on the right block and made a nice jump hook off of the glass. Love showed good balance and a delicate touch by flying in to tip in a Richard miss. Despite Love's work in the paint, Minnesota could not gain much ground and Dallas led 66-49 at the end of the third quarter. Love sat out the first 3:45 of the fourth quarter and Minnesota trailed 74-56 when he checked back in to the game. Drew Neitzel dropped in 10 fourth quarter points for the Timberwolves but that proved to be too little, too late.

In his first NBA action, Love displayed better than advertised mobility, willingness to attack the glass at both ends of the court and a good understanding of how to play offensively in terms of setting screens, making passes and operating in the paint. He made some "rookie mistakes," particularly defensively, but most of the things that he did wrong are correctable errors as opposed to fundamental problems with his game/skill set.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 PM

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Monday, July 14, 2008

O.J. Mayo: Early Scouting Report

The L.A. Lakers improved to 1-1 in Vegas Summer League play with an 85-76 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. The Grizzlies are now 2-1. Of course, team records are meaningless during the summer: what counts are the player development and player evaluations that are going on as teams get a first look at some of this year's draft picks and decide which players will fill out their rosters once the regular season begins.

Rookie O.J. Mayo has been taking the shots and calling the shots for Memphis during the Vegas Summer League, leading the Grizzlies in scoring (18.7 ppg), field goal attempts (42) and turnovers (18). He is shooting well from all three ranges (.476 FG%, .615 3FG%, .889 FT%) but he has just six assists in three games, ranking third on the team behind Javaris Crittenton and Mike Conley. Only so much can be read into summer league statistics; after all, there is a no foul out rule and games last for just 40 minutes. The level of competition is what I would call "D-Leagueish," featuring a large number of players who will not be playing regularly in the NBA this season. In other words, dominating the summer league statistically does not necessarily translate into dominating the NBA come November--nor does struggling in the summer league automatically spell doom, because the young players are adjusting to playing under NBA coaching and officiating for the first time.

With those caveats out of the way, here is a breakdown of the Memphis-L.A. game, focusing primarily on what Mayo did and did not do, since he may be the only player on the court who will get substantial NBA minutes this season. Mayo finished with 15 points on 6-13 field goal shooting (including 3-5 from three point range), two rebounds, zero assists and six turnovers. He also committed six fouls in 24:46.

Mayo's first field goal attempt was a right corner three pointer over the tight defense of Coby Karl, who played limited minutes for the Lakers last year. Mayo launched that contested shot with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock and it bounced hard off of the front of the rim. The Grizzlies controlled the offensive rebound, Crittenton collapsed the defense with dribble penetration and kicked to Mayo, who fired again from almost exactly the same spot. This time, though, he was more open as Karl arrived too late and the shot nestled through the twine for Memphis' first points. NBA TV analyst Steve Jones noted, "Mayo is not deterred by misses. He really believes that he has the complete package and he will continue to attack."

On the next possession, Mayo took a bad angle when closing out on Karl and was unable to avoid fouling him. The two players slapped hands and exchanged what seemed to be, as NBA TV's Rick Kamla put it, "pleasant words." After a Lakers' basket, Mayo pushed the ball up the court, fed fellow rookie Darrell Arthur in the post and cut through the lane so that Arthur could go one on one. Arthur read the defense, then took a dribble and nailed a turnaround jumper. Since Mayo had no assists he obviously did not get one on that play--nor should he have gotten one--but during playoff games that I charted last year Chris Paul regularly was awarded assists on similar shots by David West.

Mayo seems to be an attentive defender and he displayed some aggressiveness on the glass when he pulled down a defensive rebound, pushed the ball up the court and then passed ahead to Malik Badiane, whose weak layup attempt was swatted away, denying Mayo a potential assist.

However, Mayo--despite his protestations to the contrary--does not seem to be a point guard. He has a scorer's mentality. When he caught the ball in a top of the key isolation versus Karl he held the ball for three seconds and the team's off of the ball movement slowed to a crawl. Then Mayo took one dribble and fired a low percentage jumper with 13 seconds left on the shot clock. Karl easily blocked the shot, the Lakers controlled the ball and after a bit of a misadventure Karl got the ball back and lobbed a nice pass to Cedric Bozeman for a layup.

When Mayo passed the ball, the results were mixed, though some of the problems were clearly not his fault, such as when players bobbled the ball or missed shots. Towards the end of the first quarter, Mayo dribbled the ball up court in transition and forced a lookaway bullet pass to Badiane. Karl easily anticipated the play and stole the ball. Later, Mayo made a nice pass to P.J. Tucker after Tucker slipped a screen and both defenders trapped Mayo but Tucker fumbled the ball and eventually double dribbled.

Mostly, though, Mayo looked for his own shot and that is not entirely a bad thing because he is a good shooter. With just over a minute left in the first quarter, Mayo pushed the ball up the court, veered over to the left wing and shot a midrange jumper in a four on four fast break. The ball danced around the rim softly and then went through the net. A point guard would probably have either gone all the way to the hoop or else ran some screen/roll action to create a shot for a teammate but Mayo saw an opportunity to score and took advantage of it. Mayo came off of a screen/roll play with 36 seconds left looking for his shot all the way but a lane violation erased the midrange jumper that he stuck from the left wing. On the last possession of the quarter, the Grizzlies cleared out for Mayo but then sent David Simon to the top of the key to set a screen. Mayo went toward the screen at first but then quickly reversed direction, dribbled the ball between his legs and missed a long two point jumper. Although Mayo is shooting a good percentage from the field, he settles for a lot of jumpers instead of using his athletic ability to drive to the hoop and create shots and free throw opportunities for himself and his teammates. The Lakers led 21-20 after the first quarter. Mayo and Conley topped Memphis with five points each.

On the first possession of the second quarter, Memphis ran a left wing clear out for Mayo and he made a strong drive to the basket but lost the ball out of bounds. On the next possession, Mayo missed an open three pointer when the ball was reversed to him as the trailer in transition. Later, P.J. Tucker slipped a screen for Mayo and was open when he cut to the hoop, but Mayo missed him and instead drove into the lane, made a jump stop and lost control of the ball before he could take a shot. At the 3:22 mark, Mayo claimed a defensive rebound, pushed the ball up the court and fed Badiane, who was fouled as he attempted to dunk the ball. That was probably Mayo's best pass of the game.

Kamla rightly noted that Mayo was "quiet" for most of the first half. From what I've seen of Mayo, he obviously "looks" like an NBA player--he has decent size (listed at 6-5, 200, though Jones called him a bit undersized for a shooting guard, saying that he seems to be closer to 6-3) plus good quickness and jumping ability and he carries himself with an air of confidence. However, I don't see him as some kind of superstar in the making--I still cannot fathom why anyone at any time ever compared him to LeBron James--but rather potentially a very solid NBA shooting guard who will be a productive scorer and will be capable of being a decent defender if he so chooses.

The Lakers closed the first half with more determination and aggressiveness than the Grizzlies and L.A. enjoyed a 40-30 halftime lead. "The Grizzlies have not responded," Jones said, adding that Conley should have pushed the ball more to create easier scoring opportunities because the Grizzlies are a young team that struggles a bit with precise execution in the half court set. Conley led Memphis with six first half points, while Mayo had five and Crittenton added four.

"When you come into the NBA with as much fanfare as O.J. Mayo, people expect great performances all the time. He's still learning and that's what you have to remember," Jones noted as the second half began. Mayo drained a three pointer off of a feed from Crittenton to cut the Lakers' lead to 42-36. Then, he took his eyes off of the ball and fumbled a pass out of bounds. After Badiane set a screen for Mayo, both defenders went to Mayo, who missed Badiane cutting to the hoop, pump faked and misfired on a wild jumper. Mayo's first thought coming off of a screen/roll set is definitely to look for his own shot--usually a midrange jumper--and not to pass to the roller or reverse the ball to the other side of the court. I understand that guys like Badiane and Tucker may not even be in the NBA this season and that Mayo wants to show what he can do offensively but it will be interesting to see if he becomes more apt to pass the ball during the regular season. The next time Memphis ran a screen/roll for Mayo he passed to Conley, who missed a long jumper.

Mayo caught the ball on the left wing isolated against Karl, blew right past him after an excellent fake and scored a sweet reverse layup, his best move of the night. Kamla went completely overboard, declaring, "You can't do that move unless you are a superstar-type player." That is so wrong--there are plenty of guys who are athletic enough to make one very nice reverse layup in summer league play; a superstar is a guy who is extremely productive on a nightly basis. NBA TV replayed the shot about a million times. Hey, it was a great shot and it was fun to watch but there is much more to becoming a great player than simply having the ability to make one great summer league shot. Kamla about had a heart attack waxing poetic about this play yet he never said one word during the game about how poorly suited Mayo seems to be to play point guard or about Mayo's questionable shot selection. Even though Mayo's shots went in at a decent rate in this particular summer league game that does not mean that they were (1) good shots or (2) shots that he will consistently make at that rate in the regular season.

Mayo has the tools to be a good NBA scorer but it remains to be seen if he will be an impact player overall--let alone a superstar--or if he will primarily be a guy who, as the saying goes, "gets buckets." Karl responded on the next possession by taking the ball right at Mayo and drawing a foul--less spectacular but no less effective, as Karl made both free throws. Mayo answered by coming off of a screen/roll action and again eschewing the pass to launch an off balance jumper over two defenders. Summer league is one thing but veteran big men are not going to much fancy setting screens for Mayo if the end result is almost always Mayo jacking up a shot regardless of how the play is defended.

Mayo seemed to focus more and more on his own offense as the game went on, at one point dribbling between his legs multiple times while everyone else stood around. He eventually made a jumper over Karl's outstretched arm. Keep in mind that Karl is not even a rotation player in the NBA, so proving your one on one chops versus him has nothing to do with establishing yourself as a superstar in the making. Mayo then wasted most of a possession with fancy dribbling but was unable to free himself for a shot--he never looked to create anything for a teammate--and he finally simply handed the ball to Conley, who eventually took a long jumper. "That's a lot of East-West dribbling by Conley and Mayo when you need to be going North-South...It's great to dance with the ball but if you don't go anywhere you've accomplished nothing," Jones observed. Ball movement again stopped when Mayo received the ball in the right corner, looked Karl in the eye and then made a three pointer right over him. That basket pulled Memphis to within nine points (54-45) but Mayo did not score the rest of the way. The Lakers led 62-51 at the end of the third quarter.

Mayo sat out the first couple minutes of the fourth quarter and Memphis trailed 66-52 when he returned to action. He pushed the ball up the court in transition and made a nice feed to Arthur, who tried to throw down a monster dunk but was rejected. Crittenton grabbed the rebound, made a layup and completed a three point play by making a free throw after he was fouled. The Grizzlies never really threatened down the stretch, though. A few possessions later, Mayo drove by Karl from the right baseline but missed a wild left handed shot in the lane. Talking about the difficult transition to the NBA for last year's Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant and for Mayo, Jones said, "There is a difference between being the stud in college and being the man in the NBA." Jones foresees Durant being a multiple-time All-Star and Hall of Fame level performer eventually but--despite the marked progress that Durant made in the second half of last season--I think that it is way too soon to make such pronouncements.

I don't know what the Grizzlies intend to do with their point guard situation but I'd put Mayo at shooting guard and let someone else run the offense, which is actually a look that Memphis used at times during this game: they started the game with a three guard front with Conley, Crittenton and Mayo, so Mayo was nominally the small forward even though he did a lot of ballhandling. I like Conley's passing ability but he is small, not a great shooter and perhaps a bit injury prone. Crittenton is raw but has good size (6-5, 200) and is talented. Conley and Crittenton should fight it out for the starting point guard spot.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 PM

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Julius Erving's All-Time Starting Five

Julius Erving told USA TODAY's Chris Colston that his all-time starting five "was, is, and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."

Erving's choices are interesting for several reasons, though I'm sure that the first thing that will grab the attention of most people is that Erving did not include Michael Jordan. In my newest article for ProBasketballNews.com I discuss Erving's list and offer my thoughts about the challenges involved with selecting an all-time starting five (2/25/09 Edit: the link to my PBN story has been disabled, so I have simply pasted the text of that article into this post):

USA TODAY's Chris Colston asked Erving to select an all-time starting five and Erving replied, "My starting five was, is and always will be Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center."

Erving's list is interesting for several reasons: (1) he omitted Michael Jordan, who many people consider to be the greatest player of all-time; (2) Hawkins is a Hall of Famer but does not appear on most lists of the five or 10 greatest players of all-time; (3) he never played a regular season game with or against any of those players (Erving faced Chamberlain, Hawkins and Robertson in 1972 in the second NBA-ABA All-Star Game). Erving has said on several occasions that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--winner of a record six NBA MVPs—is the greatest player he ever played against. Speaking of Abdul-Jabbar, he responded to Colston's question by saying that it is "impossible for me to narrow it down to five."

At various times I have considered several different basketball players to be the greatest of all-time but in recent years I concluded that in a team sport like basketball it is virtually impossible to single out one player for that honor. In my five part "Pantheon" series, I profiled 10 retired players who have at one time or another at least briefly been considered for that title. These are players whose accomplishments have stood the test of time (listed in alphabetical order): Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Earvin Johnson, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Jerry West. In the final article of the series, I mentioned four active players who have played at a Pantheon-worthy level: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal.

There are several reasons that it is difficult to cut that Pantheon list down to a starting five, let alone choose one player for the top spot:

1) Various eras had different rules, different styles of play and different challenges: The three point shot, the restricted area and the defensive three seconds rule are just three examples of how much the NBA game has changed over the years. Also, in the "old" days the league consisted of a much smaller number of teams who played each other over and over; virtually all of the players were born in the United States and long after the league was officially integrated there were (unofficial) quotas restricting how many black players each team had. Now, there are 30 teams and there has been an influx of talent from outside the United States. Expansion usually means that talent is diluted but the NBA is also drawing from a wider pool of players, so it is hard to say definitively whether or not the "old school" players faced tougher or easier competition than the current players do—but there is no question that today’s game is vastly different from yesterday’s game in many ways and that makes it very difficult to compare the statistics and accomplishments of players from different eras.

2) A player's statistics are influenced by the position he plays and his role on his team: Chamberlain set numerous all-time scoring records before completely changing his game to focus primarily on defense and passing (he was a great rebounder during both phases of his career). In the ABA, Erving's teams needed him to be a big-time scorer but when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers the team's management explicitly told him that they preferred to have three 20 ppg scorers as opposed to having one 30 ppg scorer. Johnson became a more prolific scorer to pick up the slack during the latter stages of Abdul-Jabbar's long career. There are similar examples in the bios of every one of these great players, which makes direct comparisons of their statistics very misleading unless one provides the context in which those players produced their numbers.

3) Greatness can be defined in various ways: When evaluating performers in individual sports like boxing or tennis, winning is the ultimate barometer, though even in those sports there can be arguments about levels of competition and other contextual issues. However, in a team sport like basketball, greatness can be manifested in many different ways. Is the greatest player of all-time defined by his ability to lead his team to championships, is he the player who was the most difficult to stop or is he the player who had the most complete overall skill set? Depending on how you answer that question, you could choose Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Oscar Robertson as the greatest player. Although Michael Jordan did not win as many championships as Russell, average as many points in a season as Chamberlain or average a triple double for an entire season like Robertson, he embodied a little bit of each of their traits: he certainly demonstrated the ability to lead his team to championships, he was the most difficult player to guard during his era and his skill set did not have any serious weaknesses during his prime.

Julius Erving’s all-time starting five (plus sixth man Connie Hawkins) is certainly formidable but one could select another starting five from the Pantheon—Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Erving, Jordan, Johnson—that could give them quite a game: a battle between a young Chamberlain and a young Abdul-Jabbar would be epic, Bird was roughly the same size as Russell and usually guarded whichever frontcourt player was the least dangerous offensively, a Baylor-Erving matchup would be classic, the West-Jordan duel would feature two guards who were equally deadly at both ends of the court and the Big O versus Magic confrontation would pit the father of the triple double versus the man who made the term a regular part of the basketball lexicon.

Perhaps the best thing about Erving’s choices is that by selecting those players Erving paid homage to five legends who helped to build the NBA—and by mentioning Hawkins he reminded people of the feats of a player who would have put up much bigger numbers were it not for being wrongly banned by the NBA during his prime years. I think that Erving meant no disrespect to contemporaries of his such as Abdul-Jabbar, Bird, Johnson and Jordan but rather he wanted to acknowledge the greatness of the players who dominated the game during his childhood, adolescence and young adult years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 PM

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